Before he became the most influential music broadcaster of all time on the BBC, John Peel had to become John Peel. Born and raised in England, he spent a stretch of his early twenties in the United States, working for a cotton producer (his father’s industry), selling insurance, and writing punchcard computer programs before finding his way onto the airwaves. Hosting work in such locales as Dallas, Oklahoma City, and San Bernardino primed him to return to his homeland and take his radio career underground — or rather offshore, to the former minesweeper anchored in the North Sea from which Radio London broadcast in the mid-1960s. In those days, British “pirate radio” took place on actual ships, and it was on Radio London’s MV Galaxy that the returned son of Heswall, born John Robert Parker Ravenscroft, quite literally made his name.
Pirate radio existed because the BBC couldn’t, or wouldn’t, play the quantity and variety of pop and rock music younger audiences demanded — and over in the States, were already getting. After Radio London’s 1967 shutdown, Peel joined the Beeb’s newly launched pop station, Radio 1. But even there limitations continued to apply, and today they sound draconian: the Musicians’ Union and Phonographic Performance Limited, for instance, once limited the number of commercially released records that could be played on air.
The BBC’s solution was to cover popular songs with its in-house orchestra; Peel’s less square solution, as it evolved, was to bring the bands in to do it themselves. Over Peel’s 37-year career at the BBC, these “Peel Sessions” would number over 4,000, about a thousand of which you can enjoy on Youtube today.
Compiled by a fan named Dave Strickson, this list of Peel Sessions available on Youtube goes all the way from the Mancunian pop-punk of A Certain Ratio in 1979 and 1981 to the Glaswegian new wave of Zones in 1978. (Yes, the list technically begins with the numeral-featuring acts as 14 Iced Bears and 23 Skidoo.) In between, Peel’s guests include A Flock of Seagulls (1981), Billy Bragg (1983, 1991), Bob Marley and the Wailers (1973), Cocteau Twins (1982, 1983, 1984), David Bowie and the Spiders from Mars (1972), Elvis Costello & the Attractions (1977, 1978, 1978, 1980), Fairport Convention (1968, 1969, 1969, 1974), Joy Division (1979), Morrissey (2004), Roxy Music (1972, 1972), Shonen Knife (1992), Sonic Youth (1986, 1988, 1989), Tears for Fears (1982), The Jesus and Mary Chain (1984, 1985, 1985, 1988, 1989), and Yo La Tengo (1997).
And of course, Strickson’s list also includes no fewer than eight Peel Sessions by The Fall (1978, 1980, 1981, 1986, 1987, 1991, 2003, 2004), the legendary DJ’s favorite band — or at least the band that took up the most shelf space in his formidable record collection. But as Peel’s fans know, he only met The Fall’s mastermind Mark E. Smith (like Peel, an outspoken Northerner) two brief times in his life. One such fan, a Metafilter commenter by the name of Paul Slade, notes that “Peel used to make a point of staying away from session recordings, partly because he didn’t want to hear the new music till it went out live. That way, he knew he’d be able to react honestly on-air to anything in the session that surprised or delighted him.” His between-song comments do indeed constitute an unexpected charm of these vintage broadcasts, though surprisingly many have nothing to do with the session at hand. Peel undoubtedly loved music, but he seems to have loved Liverpool Football Club even more.
Hear a 9-Hour Tribute to John Peel: A Collection of His Best “Peel Sessions”
Radio Caroline, the Pirate Radio Ship That Rocked the British Music World (1965)
Stream 15 Hours of the John Peel Sessions: 255 Tracks by Syd Barrett, David Bowie, Siouxsie and the Banshees & Other Artists
Stream 935 Songs That Appeared in “The John Peel Festive 50” from 1976 to 2004: The Best Songs of the Year, as Selected by the Beloved DJ’s Listeners
Brian Eno on Why Do We Make Art & What’s It Good For?: Download His 2015 John Peel Lecture
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.