For the average Briton, radio personality John Peel needs no introduction. A fixture on BBC Radio One from 1967 until his death in 2004, Peel made a career out of championing new music as well as up-and-coming artists. Ever curious and never willing to marry himself to any one genre or fixed notion of pop music orthodoxy, his very restlessness, combined with his affable and avuncular on-air manner, is what endeared him to so many listeners, especially the young. His enthusiasm for lesser-known groups such as the Fall and the Wedding Present played no minor role in fueling these groups’ increasingly rabid cult followings for years on end, and entire pop music genres that would eventually shake the windows of Great Britain and beyond—such as punk and reggae—were to flourish first on Peel’s programs.
For the average American, the Peel phenomenon requires some explanation. This is not only because his legend is so rooted in British pop music, but also because Americans have no real equivalent to understand him by. Quirks in British radio policy at the time Peel joined Radio One are partly responsible. The BBC was required by the Musicians’ Union and Phonographic Performances Limited (the UK’s RIAA) to supplement “needle time”—or the amount of records being played—with live bands or orchestras.
This created the happy situation for Peel, then, whereby he could bring promising bands into the BBC studios to record a handful of tracks which were usually recorded and mixed in no more than 24 hours’ time, and which were aired on his program in short order. Although Peel himself was almost never present during the actual tapings, these recordings are nonetheless commonly known as the “Peel Sessions”, hence that listing so many anglophiles have grown accustomed to seeing attached to deeper catalog entries of some of their favorite groups.
So although these were all tracked in-studio and not done strictly “live”, as you perhaps may have assumed, the Peel Sessions nonetheless have a reliably edgy quality thanks to: 1) The rush-rush nature of the event, and 2) the fact that many of the bands who recorded their sessions were either diamonds in the rough and/or very young and very hungry. Artists like the Smiths, the Cure, and Dave Edmunds, to name a few, go on record in Ken Garner’s new book, The Peel Sessions, declaring their own session results as true representations of what they were all about. (Judging from the self-contained mania that Peel Sessions collecting has become, many fans feel the same way.) The Peel imprimatur could change the fortunes of a lowly band with a mere demo cassette to its name overnight, and although the opportunity to record a session was hardly a guarantee for success (Go Hole, Mono Mono, or That Dog, anyone?), it was no less a badge of honor.
The Peel Sessions, then, by all means deserve their own treatment in book form, and UK radio historian Ken Garner has done a more than adequate job. It was Garner, after all, who wrote In Session Tonight, a 1992 history of all live music on Radio One. With The Peel Sessions, he’s able to zero in even closer on a man he has obvious affection for, and takes full advantage of his opportunity to make right any of the inevitable Peel-related mistakes or omissions he may have let slide in that previous Herculean effort. As for the text, it’s rife with wonderful anecdotes and sidebars regarding “classic” sessions, famous songs that were first heard in “session” form on Peel’s program (the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen” and Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” are among these), listener reminiscences, and “One-Session Wonders”—memorable sessions by some of the many acts who barely made it past their big BBC moment.
Adding to the book’s formidable flip-through qualities are the incredible appendices, which provide a full sessionography including dates, musicians, instruments played, and songs recorded. If this sounds like something relatively easy for Garner to have thrown together, think again. During his Radio One tenure Peel presented over 2,000 artists who came in for over 4,000 sessions. If the BBC archives happened to be maintained carefully and consistently for 37 years and the “programmes-as-broadcast” sheets were not only accurate but also readily available, Garner’s task may have been nothing more than a migraine-inducing roundup. Because those idyllic conditions were certainly not at Garner’s disposal, the enormity of his accomplishment is all the more stunning. These appendices alone, in fact, which also include the complete “Festive Fifties”, Peel’s year-end tallies of tracks most popular with listeners, along with other features like the “Peelenium” (his yearly favorites of the entire 1900s), qualify The Peel Sessions as an instant inductee into the Rock Book Hall of Fame.
That being said, you may want to know one thing about this book before getting started: its subtitle, which reads “A Story of Teenage Dreams and One Man’s Love of New Music”, should actually be the decidedly less promo-friendly “A Story of Endless Boardroom Negotiations that Enabled One Man to Keep the Fall on the Radio”. It’s true that Peel presented many a teenage hopeful on air, had teenage dreams of his own, and loved the Undertones’ 1978 track “Teenage Kicks” (which was even played at his funeral). But you’d probably do better with Peel’s posthumous memoir, Margrave of the Marshes, if you happen to be looking for any straight up stories about teenage dreams.
This needs to be said because The Peel Sessions’ narrative concerns itself almost entirely with what Americans call “inside baseball”. It’s essentially a backroom overview of the sessions, examining Peel’s relationship with key producers such as Bernie Andrews and John Walters, the varying time slots, and the continuous battles that were necessary to keep even a popular show like Peel’s afloat. You’ll love this approach if you’re fascinated with radio history. Your eyes are guaranteed to glaze over, if not. But if you’re part of that latter category, don’t be dissuaded because you’ve always got those fabulous appendices in the back. And even Peel himself would agree that in the end, it’s the music that matters most.