Stream 15 Hours of the John Peel Sessions: 255 Tracks by Syd Barrett, David Bowie, Siouxsie and the Banshees & Other Artists

For fans of what came to be called “alter­na­tive music,” the dis­cov­ery of new artists and bands felt like a gen­uine adven­ture before the inter­net irrev­o­ca­bly changed music con­sump­tion. A few offi­cial venues act­ed as guides—magazines like Trouser Press and NMEshows like 120 Min­utes, MTV’s late-night show­case of post-punk, new wave, indus­tri­al, etc. Word of mouth, local zines, col­lege radio, mix­tape gifts, and the pur­loined con­tents of old­er broth­ers and sis­ters’ record col­lec­tions went a long way. Many of us had access to inde­pen­dent record stores that stocked all sorts of under­ground odd­i­ties, often run by obses­sive know-it-alls like High Fideli­ty’s Rob Gor­don.

Ven­tur­ing into that world could be an intim­i­dat­ing expe­ri­ence. But one depend­able mark­er of qual­i­ty hard­ly ever let young seek­ers down: the name of BBC DJ and cura­tor extra­or­di­naire John Peel. Peel’s influ­ence on the musi­cal trends of the last forty years is incal­cu­la­ble, and impos­si­ble to sum­ma­rize in brief. (Learn about his lega­cy at this BBC trib­ute page.) From 1967 to his death in 2004, he record­ed up and com­ing and under­ground bands in inti­mate ses­sions at BBC stu­dios, and many of these clas­sic record­ings came out on his Strange Fruit label.

No mat­ter the band, no mat­ter the genre, the mys­te­ri­ous gray cov­er of a Peel Ses­sions release always promised some­thing worth fork­ing over one’s hard-earned lawn­mow­ing mon­ey to hear. Peel broad­cast and record­ed Nir­vana before “Smells Like Teen Spir­it” hit the main­stream; intro­duced his lis­ten­ers to now-leg­ends like Joy Divi­sion, The Smiths, and The Spe­cials; gave Bowie his first break before his Zig­gy Star­dust fame; and played Bob Mar­ley before Catch a Fire made him world famous.

These ses­sions and many more have been lov­ing­ly com­piled in one Spo­ti­fy playlist by Sebastien Van­blaere. If you have nos­tal­gic mem­o­ries of putting on a Peel Ses­sions record or cas­sette and hav­ing your mind blown by music the likes of which you’d nev­er heard before, you may find your favorites here. My per­son­al touch­stone is Siouxsie and the Ban­shees’ Peel Ses­sion record­ings, which to this day I pre­fer to their still excel­lent stu­dio releas­es (hear “Love in a Void” at the top). Some­thing about the way those focused live ses­sions were record­ed, and the imme­di­a­cy of their raw, unclut­tered mix­es, make them feel very per­son­al, like a con­cert in your liv­ing room.

While I asso­ciate Peel’s name main­ly with the post-punk niche of my youth, his eclec­tic tastes spanned the gamut. Before he gave the Ramones, The Damned, and oth­er punk bands their first major play in the mid-sev­en­ties, Peel cham­pi­oned the psy­che­del­ic space­rock of Pink Floyd, the dron­ing krautrock of Neu!, and the uncat­e­go­riz­able weird­ness of Cap­tain Beef­heart; “he was among the first (and only) DJs any­where,” writes the Hous­ton Press, “to broad­cast reg­gae, punk, hard­core, grind­core, grime and dub­step music over the radio.”

Peel’s rel­e­vance nev­er waned because his inter­est in find­ing, broad­cast­ing, and record­ing new music nev­er did either, but the playlist here most­ly rep­re­sents his pre-1990 favs, and sticks close­ly to rock, punk, new wave, and folk. See this page for a full list­ing of every John Peel ses­sion, from 1967 to three posthu­mous releas­es in 2004. And for a sense of the incred­i­ble breadth and eclec­tic inclu­sive­ness of Peel’s musi­cal tastes, vis­it the John Peel Archive, an online project cat­a­logu­ing every sin­gle record in Peel’s col­lec­tion. They’re cur­rent­ly up to 2679 of over 100,000 records total.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The 120 Min­utes Archive Com­piles Clips & Playlists from 956 Episodes of MTV’s Alter­na­tive Music Show (1986–2013)

Revis­it the Radio Ses­sions and Record Col­lec­tion of Ground­break­ing BBC DJ John Peel

Prof. Iggy Pop Deliv­ers the BBC’s 2014 John Peel Lec­ture on “Free Music in a Cap­i­tal­ist Soci­ety”

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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