A Peel listener with archival tendencies, I was always going to be a sucker for The Peel sessions, Ken Garner’s updated version of his earlier book In session tonight. The story of how the sessions developed within the BBC is fascinating, and producers like Peel’s first at Radio One, Bernie Andrews, emerge from the background as stubborn, innovative heroes without whom Peel could not have had the impact he did. It also makes you fully understand why, despite the protection afforded him by Andrews and John Walters, Peel always feared for his airtime at Radio One, his standing balanced against any new controller’s desire to make their mark by tinkering with schedules in which Peel stood out like a sore thumb.
It takes a little over a hundred pages to list the 4,400-odd sessions, personnel and track listing and all. Your eye alights at every turn on great ones. Laugh’s two very different sessions recorded less than eighteen months apart, before and after their Sensation number one reinvention. The second Last Party, the one with ‘The full English breakfast’ and ‘Purple Hazel’. The first P.J. Harvey. Sudden Sway’s inventive non-musical interventions. You cannot put a price on the oddities that Peel presented to formative minds.
Then there are those I might have heard but cannot recollect, like the second Autechre, for which the entry states that Peel, presented with an untitled session sheet, made up the titles himself: ‘Gelk’, ‘Blifil’, ‘Gaekwad’ and ‘19 headaches’.
Of particular interest are the mythic times before I became a Peel listener. What are the sessions recorded by the Kinks in 1967, ’68, ’72 and ’74 like? Also in 1968, the first of a succession of Bridget St. John sessions went before the fearsomely crusty and anachronistic institution of the BBC’s audition panel, who commented that it was ‘pretentious rubbish… her guitar playing is inaccurate and uninspired and her voice dull.’ Despite this, Bridget got a ‘borderline pass’ and so her session was broadcast. From the early eighties, the first James session, and a subsequent and evidently much less well-known Fire Engines session in contrast to the much lauded and traded first. ‘Young tongues need taste’, ‘Qualitamatic’, ‘Produced to seduce to’ and ‘The big wrong time’ were first broadcast on 23 November 1981. On titles alone, it ought to be as renowned as the first, but interviewed by Innes Reekie in 2005 for a great but never formally published article, Davy Henderson said, ‘Around the time of the second John Peel session, we were shit… Our compass was a fake… We should have trusted our internal magnets… We should have trusted our inability.’
So is Davy right, or does the music deliver on the promise of the titles?