If you took a job as a radio DJ at the BBC prior to 1988, you had to labor under something called “needle time,” a law promoted by the Musicians’ Union and Phonographic Performance Limited (and ultimately the major record labels) that put a cap on the amount of recorded music transmissible over the airwaves. Before 1967, the BBC could legally drop the needles of their turntables onto record albums for a mere five hours per day. This may sound positively draconian in our time when music flows freely from all directions, but it did create jobs for in-house radio-station musicians who could cover the hits of the day — and, more importantly, gave rise to DJ John Peel’s legendary Peel Sessions.
“A lot of the things that I listened to and that had a big influence on me I first heard on John Peel,” said artist and music producer Brian Eno, who describes Peel’s first playing of a Velvet Underground record nearly fifty years ago as “like a lightning bolt for me.” In an interview we featured a few years back, Eno named the “two things that really make for good records: deadlines and small budgets,” one of his many eloquent statements on not just the importance but the necessity of limitations to art. The limitation of needle time made Peel get creative as well, overcoming his inability to spin all the records he wanted by inviting the musicians he’d discovered into the radio station to lay down tracks right there in its studios.
The fruits of these Peel Sessions often came out with an energy altogether different than that of the original album, and during Peel’s 37 years on BBC Radio 1, he oversaw the recording of over 4000 of them. They and other efforts at the innovative edges of popular music made Peel a cultural force, and indeed one of British music’s most influential figures, whose broadcasts gave thousands of listeners their first taste of the likes of David Bowie, Joy Division, Bob Marley, and Nirvana. Peel died in 2004, but his legacy has lived on in several forms, including the John Peel Center for Creative Arts and the annual John Peel Lecture, delivered last year by Eno himself.
London-based online radio station NTS, in its own way very much a continuation of Peel’s project, has put together a tribute to Britain’s most astute DJ in the form of a nine-hour broadcast of some of the best Peel Sessions. Broken into four parts, it gathers performances captured at the BBC from artists like Gang of Four, The Fall, My Bloody Valentine, The Pixies, Aphex Twin, Cabaret Voltaire, and many others. “Blimey, he was really at the center of everything,” says Eno. “He was putting so many things together. He was the first person who realized pop music was serious, and that it was a place people could really meet and talk to each other. It became the center of a conversation.” A dozen years after Peel’s passing, the conversation continues.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.