BBC Radio institution John Peel, who passed away in 2004, was the most respected DJ in the UK. From 1967 until the DJ’s death, Peel’s programming presented the music he was passionate about, and as rock evolved from psychedelia to punk and beyond, the tastemaker displayed an uncanny ability to stay attuned to the zeitgeist, always zeroing in on the gems of each generation and frequently finding them before almost everyone else. Through the decades, the Peel Sessions recorded live at the BBC by an astonishing array of artists — and occasionally released on record — provided an ongoing document of rock’s constant state of flux. This week, the first phase in the online archiving of Peel’s legendary record collection began allowing the world to wander interactively through the expert aesthetician’s record shelves (for now, only the A’s to begin with). To celebrate the sharing of this important cultural cache, we’re serving up a strategic sampling of some of the coolest cuts from the storied Peel Sessions.
1. Joy Division, “Love Will Tear Us Apart”
This version of the post-punk pioneers’ signature song exemplifies a particular Peel Sessions phenomenon — even though every nuance of the “official” version is forever ingrained in fan’s heads, an abundance of hardcore aficionados prefer the less polished sound achieved under the aegis of BBC Radio. The most tuneful track to emerge from the Manchester masters of melancholy, this evanescent cry of unease gains urgency from the feeling that one could almost reach out and touch the makers of this music as though they were flesh-and-blood humans who existed outside of Factory Records producer Martin Hannett’s sonic dream factory.
2. The Smiths,“Back to the Old House”
While we’re in Manchester — a city whose musical rep Peel helped put on the map in the post-punk era – let’s look in on the Smiths. Peel was a staunch Smiths supporter from the very beginning, well before the rest of the world — or even the rest of England — caught on. Hatful of Holow, still one of the most striking collections of Smiths songs, consisted mostly of the band’s BBC recordings, like this tune from the band’s earliest phase. As poignantly textured as the studio version (the b-side of “What Difference Does It Make?”) may be, this gorgeous acoustic take on the tune shows that even in 1983, the Smiths already boasted an impressive degree of maturity.
3. Nirvana, “About a Girl”
Like most other musical movements that emerged during Peel’s long BBC tenure, grunge found an early adopter in the legendary DJ, who had Nirvana on his show in 1989, shortly after their debut album, Bleach, failed to set the world on fire. With world domination still a couple of years off, Nirvana sank their teeth into what would one day become Bleach’s best-known song. More garagey than the album cut, the Peel version proves that the balance of the tough and the tuneful the band would perfect on Nevermind was already within their grasp.
4. Soft Machine, “Moon In June”
Let it never be forgotten that pop professor Peel came up in the head-swirling heyday of the London psychedelic underground, starting at a pirate station before bringing his gifts to the BBC. Soft Machine were ‘60s psychedelic soldiers in the trenches alongside the likes of Pink Floyd and Traffic, and when they were invited to Peel’s Top Gear program, they rewrote the lyrics to their 13-minute epic “Moon in June” for the occasion. Revamped as a paean to playing at the Beeb in such an unfettered atmosphere, the occasion-specific version of the lyric included such lines as “Tell me how would you feel in the place of John Peel?”
5. Belle and Sebastian, “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto”
John Peel was an enabler in the best sense of the word. If not for the sense of artistic largesse established by the anything-goes aesthetic he created on the radio throughout his career, it’s unlikely that Scottish indie-pop heroes Belle and Sebastian would have had the stones to waltz into the BBC studios for their special 2002 Christmas session and hurl themselves heartily into a version of this festively funky James Brown yuletide tune. By the way, we couldn’t help noticing that this holiday hip-shaker does not appear on the band’s two-CD BBC Sessions collection. Just sayin’…