It's difficult to overstate John Peel's influence on music. His various BBC Shows acted as the first bit of national press for countless bands from 1967 to 2004. However, his biggest contribution is undoubtedly his in-studio series The Peel Sessions.
The Peel Sessions typically consisted of an upcoming band performing four tracks, often, unheard ones. Due to the hasty nature of how they were mixed, many of the sessions have a unique demo found in a garage feel to them, a trademark of sorts when compared to other studio sessions of the era. Some of rock's most popular songs ever were first heard via the sessions, like Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart."
From 1967 to 2004, Peel was a gatekeeper in the music community, introducing the world to the bands that would prove to be pioneers in genres like psychedelic rock, post-punk, grindcore, noise, and more. This is especially true of UK artists, for which Peel's show was the first time their work hit the ears of foreign listeners. The Cure, Joy Division, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Napalm Death, you name it, and Peel probably promoted it before anyone else.
Noticing the success of the Peel Sessions, Peel and Clive Selwood created Strange Fruit in 1986 and turned it into the primary distributor of BBC recordings, including the Peel Sessions. By the time of the label's closure just six months before Peel's sudden death of a heart attack at the age of 56, hundreds of Peel Sessions were released.
Peel's background in pirate radio made him the perfect champion for alternative music in the second half of the 20th century, something that set him apart from his peers at BBC. Without him, who knows how many great acts would have never left the local bar circuit. In celebration of what would be Peel's 80th birthday, we've compiled a shortlist of seven essential Peel Sessions.
Peel is arguably as important to the popularization of post-punk as Joy Division. Throughout two sessions recorded several months apart in 1979, the band debuted some of their most famous material to the masses via his show. Before the Peel Sessions, none of the songs on either of the Joy Division sessions were heard outside of concerts, including "Love Will Tear Us Apart" and "She's Lost Control." The first session also features a rare version of "Transmission," where both Curtis and Bernard Sumner play guitar at the same time.
After the Joy Division sessions, Peel's show became a hotbed for post-punk acts. Bands like The Damned, Echo & The Bunnymen, and Public Image LTD were all invited to come record sessions, blasting post-punk to the rest of the world. Unfortunately, Joy Division never returned for a third session due to frontman Ian Curtis' suicide in 1980. Ten years later, Strange Fruit released a compilation of the sessions, a haunting snapshot of one of music's most iconic groups.
No artist is as closely linked to the Peel Sessions as The Fall's sole consistent member Mark E. Smith. Between 1978–2004, The Fall recorded 24 Peel Sessions, more than any other band or artist. Peel has been adamant in his support for the group, calling them his favorite group—huge praise from someone who has jump-started the careers of so many household names.
Shortly after Peel's death, The Complete Peel Sessions, 1978–2004 was released, which is arguably the best career-spanning collection of the post-punk outfit's prolific body of work, though any of the many Peel Sessions by The Fall are incredible. The complete compilation paints a wonderful portrait of the band in all its dynamic forms and phases. It highlights three constants: Mark E. Smith's brilliance, Peel's dedication as a fan, and their friendship.
The Bolt Thrower sessions double as a great primer for the band and a rare snapshot of the group in the middle of line-up changes and the release of their first full-length. The first session came in 1988, shortly before the group's debut record In Battle There Is No Law, and features one of the few live recordings of the band's first vocalist Alan West. The second sessions, recorded two years later, came out shortly after second album Realm of Chaos.
The British death metal/grindcore band's sessions feature thundering toms, rapid-fire double bass, crunchy guitar riffs from the beginning of "Forgotten Existence"—recorded in 1988—to the last note of "Lost Souls Remain"—recorded two years later as part of the second in-studio performance. The Bolt Thrower sessions, along with Peel's sessions with Napalm Death marked the first major surge of public interest in grindcore, and surely inspired plenty of future musicians in the process.
The Peel Sessions proved to be a playground for Nirvana. In their first of three sessions, recorded in 1989, the grunge pioneers played covers of Devo's "Whip It" B-side, "Turn Around," The Wipers' "D-7" and two tracks by The Vaselines. And their final session in 1991 features an alternative version of "Endless, Nameless" and a groovier take on "Drain."
The Nirvana sessions are also a testament to the notoriety Peel's show was gaining at the time. Despite being located on the other side of the Atlantic, Peel's reputation got him added to several US record mailing lists, back when it was more difficult and costly to send out demos around the globe.
Throughout the sessions, Peel befriended the band. At the group's second time playing the Reading Festival, Cobain told the DJ's children that they could sit behind the band for the duration of their headlining set. After the frontman's untimely death in 1994, Peel compared his loss to that of losing a family member, and said his daughter stepped off the school bus that day with tears in her eyes.
Several New Order Peel Session recordings have been put out over the years, including a comprehensive compilation of the band's complete Peel Sessions called In Session—released only a few months before Peel's death—and an EP of the band's first session, which doubles as Strange Fruit's first release. However, the 1990 release The Peel Sessions (New Order) offers a special look into the early stages of the band attempting to gain their footing in the wake of Ian Curtis' death and the dissolution of their previous group Joy Division.
The record is made up of recordings from two sessions, one in 1981 and the other in '82. For the band's second Peel session, the group paid tribute to Curtis by playing on of his favorite songs, Keith Hudson's "Turn the Heater On." They also knocked out versions of "5-8-6" and "We All Stand," which would later appear on the group's second album Power, Corruption & Lies.
Even as his career neared its end, Peel upheld his status as a hungry music listener, constantly on the prowl for new acts. In the 2000s, few artists who passed through Peel's studio caught his ear like The White Stripes. After his death, a box that Peel stored some of his most heartfelt records in was recovered, and it was revealed to have 11 records by The White Stripes, more than any other group in the box.
The Detroit garage-rockers hit Peel's studio twice, each time in support of their 2001 album White Blood Cells. Both sessions were compiled and released in 2016 via Jack White's Third Man Records in celebration of Record Store Day. However, bootlegs have been passed around since the initial recordings aired.
Over the course of their unusually lengthy sessions, the duo ripped through now-classics like "Hotel Yorba," "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground," and "I'm Finding It Harder to Be a Gentleman," as well as covers of Loretta Lynn's "Rated X," Blind Willie McTell's "Lord, Send Me an Angel," and the group's version of Dolly Parton's "Jolene,", which appeared on the Japanese version of White Blood Cells and as the B-side of the "Hello Operator" single.