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Happy Birthday, John Peel: Our 10 Favorite Sessions

Happy Birthday, John Peel: Our 10 Favorite Sessions

Today would have been the 73rd birthday of John Peel, one of the planet's most legendary, eclectic and flat-out best radio disc jockeys of all time. He died in 2004, but the nearly 40 years of outrageously good music that he helped bring to the masses at BBC Radio 1 beginning in 1967 form a pretty damn impressive legacy.

Peel actually got his start in radio in Texas, first as an unpaid presented on WRR AM in Dallas and then as the "official Beatles correspondent" for KLIF-FM during the height of Beatlemania.

In 1967, he returned to his native England, where he worked as a DJ for the offshore pirate radio station Radio London, breaking new music from LA and San Francisco among other tasty morsels. After Radio London folded, he was hired by the BBC's new pop music station, Radio 1, where he'd remain for the rest of his life.

Peel took great pleasure in sharing radical new sounds with his audience, and he introduced a huge number of artists into the mainstream consciousness who would go on to worldwide fame. He was among the first (and only) DJs anywhere to broadcast reggae, punk, hardcore, grindcore, grime and dubstep music over the radio, and his shows became mandatory listening for musical explorers anywhere that BBC Radio 1 was broadcast.

A long-running feature of his shows were the famed John Peel Sessions, showcasing acts' exclusive in-studio recordings that often turned out better than the originals. Over Peel's 37 years at the station, more than 4,000 sessions were recorded by more than 2,000 artists. That's... a whole hell of a lot!

As a little birthday tribute, Rocks Off has compiled 10 of the best Peel Sessions (that we could find on YouTube) for your listening pleasure. Though the names are now familiar, they didn't used to be. For many listeners, these recordings served as the first taste of far-out styles.

10. The White Stripes

According to the excellent John Peel Wiki, the DJ first happened across the White Stripes' music at a record shop in the Netherlands, where he found a U.S. import of their debut album. Based on a hunch, he bought it, and soon became one of the band's biggest boosters when they were still relative unknowns in the pop music scene.

Peel was old enough to remember the original tunes that inspired the band's rootsy sound, and he took to the pair immediately. The Stripes would eventually record three Peel Sessions and become close to the man who helped break them to a mass audience very far away from their homebase of Detroit.

9. Joy Division

Joy Division emerged from the post-punk scene in Manchester in the late '70s that caught the attention of Peel and many other British tastemakers of the day. The band managed to record two Peel Sessions at the BBC in 1979 before singer Ian Curtis committed suicide. That violent act ended the group before they ever made it across the Atlantic to tour, adding an additional layer of gloom to the band's moody sound. The surviving band members carried on as New Order.

 

8. Napalm Death

Peel was always on the lookout for something new and different, and in 1987, Napalm Death certainly fit the bill. The grindcore godfathers' music was exposed to an audience many times larger than they'd ever dreamed when Peel began playing tracks from their notorious debut album, Scum, in July of that year. The group was invited to record two Peel Sessions, the first of which crammed 12 songs into a little over five minutes. Notably, the sessions' recording quality was about ten trillion times better than the band's studio output at the time.

7. Digital Mystikz

In the early years of the new millennium, the new sound in UK clubs was dubstep, and Peel's was pretty much the only mainstream radio show in the world where it could be heard. He began (ahem) dropping the new style into his broadcasts in 2003 and kept it up until he died.

The DMZ production duo Mala and Coki--Digital Mystikz--never got the chance to record a Peel Session before the DJ's demise. That would have been weird but interesting. Peel did include their track "B" on his final "Festive 50" end-of-year best-of list in 2004, though.

6. The Fall

"They are always different; they are always the same." That's what John Peel said about his favorite band, the Fall. For a great lover of the new and different, it's easy to see the Fall's appeal: after emerging from the late-'70s punk scene, the group put out dozens of albums that saw bandleader Mark E. Smith experiment with a multitude of sounds and lineups over the years. Peel jumped on their bandwagon very early on and stayed there. The Fall would eventually record a grand total of 24 Peel Sessions between 1978 and 2004.

 

5. Captain Beefheart

If there was any artist that Peel revered more than Mark E. Smith, it was Captain Beefheart. After discovering the Captain's first single in the rejection pile while working for KMEN in California in 1966, he successfully lobbied to have it added to the station's playlist and pretty much never stopped playing the Captain over the air at every opportunity for the rest of his life. The DJ was such a fan that he even served as the weird combo's driver during its first UK tour.

Beefheart recorded two Peel Sessions, both in 1968. Sadly, those original recordings have since been lost.

4. The Damned

Though he preferred to think of it as "new wave rock," John Peel was drawn to punk from the very start. By mid-1976, the Ramones' first LP was making regular appearances on his show, and that December saw the recording of the Damned's first Peel Session. By February, half of each show was dedicated to the new rock genre.

It's no exaggeration to say that without Peel's interest and support, punk bands might have found no radio outlet at all in those days, greatly limiting the movement's visibility and influence outside the tabloids. The energy of those early punk days comes through loud and clear on the Damned's first of six Peel Sessions.

 

3. David Bowie

It seems like a no-brainer that John Peel would be into David Bowie. After all, the songwriter always seemed to be two steps ahead of everybody else when it came to new sounds and new styles. In the early days of Bowie's career, though, Peel was practically the only radio DJ willing to play his music as the singer tried out different directions.

The most fondly remembered of Bowie's four Peel Sessions was his last in 1972, featuring the debut of a quartet of songs from the upcoming Ziggy Stardust album. Somebody needs to get that one on YouTube, STAT.

2. Bob Marley and the Wailers

When Bob Marley and the Wailers recorded their two Peel Sessions in 1973, they were hardly the global icons that we know them as today. Their debut major-label record, Catch a Fire had only just been released. As usual, Peel was hip to the new sound that would be sweeping the globe in a matter of a few short years before any other DJ in the world outside Jamaica.

He never tired of the Rastaman, either. Marley's music was featured in Peel's broadcasts all the way up to 2004--the year he passed away.

 

1. Nirvana

Unless you were on Sub Pop's mailing list in the late '80s, chances are that you weren't listening to Nirvana at the time. Their big breakthrough was still to come. Well, it just so happened that John Peel was on Sub Pop's mailing list, and he was listening to Nirvana a couple of years before you saw the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" video on MTV and stopped cutting your hair for five months.

The band recorded the first of its three Peel Sessions on Oct. 26, 1989. The setlist for that initial session included "Love Buzz," "About a Girl," "Polly" and "Spanx Thru." The recording sounded great, but the group hadn't quite perfected the sound that would launch one billion mosh pits in '91 yet. Of course, it wouldn't have sounded like anything if John Peel hadn't caught on to Nirvana immediately, because no recordings of the kind would even exist from that period of the band's history.


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