John Peel is something of a patron saint of musicophiles. He DJed for Radio One from 1967 until his death in 2004, and in addition to using his platform to help promote otherwise obscure acts across many genres of music from his amazingly large record collection, a collection so massive that even I, who regularly carries five 64-gig SD cards loaded with music, am impressed by its scale, he also recorded over 4,000 Peel Sessions.
The Peel Sessions came about because of a little thing called Needle Time: With the more-or-less-simultaneous rise of radio and recorded music, there was a surprising amount of conflict between the two, since recorded music performed on the radio cut into the profits of the record companies. The Musicians Union and Phonographic Performance Limited managed to create a regulation that allowed a given station to only play records for a certain amount of time per day, the rest being taken up by studio bands and orchestras covering the hits. This was kind of a hassle for BBC Radio, especially as Rock music became popular. This was one of the major draws of pirate radio stations like Radio Caroline; they operated in international waters, and thus, were not subject to the regulations that Auntie Beeb had to deal with. By 1967, there was a limit of about 5 hours’ worth of Needle Time allotted to the BBC per day. Enter John Peel.
When John Peel was brought onto Radio One, one of the stations that had split from the BBC Home Service in 1967, he created a new way around the Needle Time rules: He’d book artists to come to the BBC Studios in Maida Vale, have them perform about four songs, and he’d record and mix them in about one day, and then he’d broadcast these sessions that were somewhere between demos and finished recordings that evidently created a good compromise between listeners who wanted more of the music they wanted to hear from Auntie Beeb and the EMI suits that imposed the Needle Time restrictions onto them. In late September 1967, he recorded his first sessions, with artists like The Move, Big Maybelle & the Senate, Tomorrow (featuring Keith West), Tim Rose, Traffic and Pink Floyd, and all would be broadcast on 1 October 1967. Here’s a video that consists of excerpts of three of those sessions with some off-air recorded songs that Peel and Pete Drummond commented on:
For the next 37 years, he recorded over 4000 of these sessions with over 2000 artists, even as the Needle Time regulations were abolished altogether in 1988, stopping only upon his death on 25 October 2004. The last session Peel supervised was with Skimmer four days prior. Three additional sessions by artists who had been booked before his passing, by Bloc Party, 65daysofstatic, and Sunn O))) would be recorded shortly afterward.
While several dozen artists’ Peel Sessions were released on Peel’s Strange Fruit label, including Madness, New Order, Joy Division, Syd Barrett (the only real record we have for what he’d have sounded like live), The Cure, The Jam, Jimi Hendrix, and Billy Bragg; the majority of the sessions had been left unreleased. Many circulated on bootlegs.
And now, music blogger Dave Strickson has collated as many Peel Sessions as he can find (with a total of 2974 tracks as I write this) on his blog for people to listen to during the pandemic. No serialisation, just this long list (which, full disclosure, might take a while to load properly.) Once you get it to work, just see if you can find any of your favourite artists’ sessions. Here’s Syd Barrett’s:
Two of his readers said of the endeavour: “Incredible work my friend” and “Blimey Charlie what a collection.” If there’s an artist you know had a session that isn’t there, just keep checking and he might find it and add it to the list. And, odds are, you’ll find hundreds of hours’ worth of music to listen to, and you might not even get through them all. Sort of like the many “Thank You Baked Potato” covers Matt Lucas has been uploading to his channel. Odds are, by the time this pandemic is over, I won’t have included all of them.
So, for this column, here’s a cover by string quartet Bowjangles: