In session tonight

I can tell you exactly where I was at ten o’clock in the evening on 17th February 1986: in a small downstairs room in a rented cottage in Suffolk which was built into the walls of the vegetable and fruit garden belonging to a Georgian mansion. Formerly a pantry, it was now my bedroom. The shelves were intact, but instead of preserves and condiments, they now supported my burgeoning collections of books, records and tapes.

I was seventeen years old and it was the time of day when I, along with many other members of a not-so-secret cabal up and down the land, habitually tuned into the John Peel show. Thanks to a farmboy’s wages, I had a Technics tuner, and – my right index finger poised over the pause button – a tape deck with a cassette cued up to record any song or session track which piqued my interest. I would have known what was coming, because John assiduously let you know in previous programmes what was airing in the next. That Monday night, it was the turn of the Jasmine Minks to be granted the honour of a Peel session – surprisingly their first, given that they already had a mini-LP and three singles to their name, the most recent of which being the garage-punk rush of What’s Happening, which Peel had given plenty of airtime the previous year.

And now, thirty-five years later, the tracks Peel played that night have been excavated from the BBC archives, thanks to the first of two gorgeously presented double-pack singles from Precious Recordings of London. The songs capture the Minks on the cusp of releasing their first full-length LP, adding more ambitious arrangements and increasingly sophisticated playing to the youthful roar of their early singles.

The Ballad of Johnny Eye, written and sung by Adam Sanderson, is sixties-infused bedsit blues for eighties loners, lifted by its plangent lead guitar, and by its beautiful incantation of a chorus – ‘I wish I was the air, so you would breathe me in, and hold me there’ – the kind of words which lodge in a seventeen year old’s head, and stay there for the rest of his or her life.

The first of three Jim Shepherd tunes, Cry For a Man is a rugged sort of ballad, propelled by Tom Reid’s wonderful drumming and brightened by the trumpet the Minks had now added to their sound.

I don’t think any recording of You Take My Freedom quite matched how the song took flight when the Jasmines played live – it was always a highlight of their set, with Jim summoning a full-throttle vocal rasp and marrying it to the Minks’ ever-faster musical ducking and diving – but this version is a vast and filled-out improvement on the rather thin-sounding version on the first album.

It’s hard to convey now, when anyone can immediately hear anything from any time past or present, just how important the evening hours on Radio One were for music obsessives thirsting for sounds beyond those which made the Top 40. Peel in particular aired music which simply could not be heard anywhere else, certainly in my part of the country. Through his own obsession and a kind of public service duty to what was otherwise likely to remain marginalised, he fostered the creation of independent music networks, and allowed far-flung like-minded individuals to connect with each other.

Eight months on from the Peel session, I finally found myself in the same room as the Minks – the delightfully-named New Merlin’s Cave in King’s Cross. I was selling my first fanzine, Lemon Meringue Pantry, for the first time that night, and the Cave was soon full of splashes of yellow, an indicator if ever there was one that there were more like-minded souls here than could be found in the whole of Suffolk. Sadly by this time, Adam Sanderson had left the group – a story in itself – so I had missed my chance to see the Minks in their original line-up. But Jim Shepherd was clearly still on a mission and I drank in both the positivity and the joyful cellarful of noise.

A month after that, the Minks were back at the Beeb, this time for Janice Long, which brings us to the second of Precious’s double-packs. Jim’s songwriting had become more reflective; you might even say mature, as if Adam’s departure had revealed the essential fragility of any creative enterprise, and led him to wrestle lyrically with the past as much as the present. Notably the crack in the ranks would also gave rise to Living Out Your Dreams on the Another Age LP, but here are three songs which match it for everything that was great about the Jasmines, and show how quickly the group were developing.

Follow Me Away is an early example of the seventies-influenced singer-songwriting which came to dominate Scratch the Surface, the hugely underrated follow-up to Another Age. It’s looser, softer, more mature, but just as gorgeous melodically as Jim’s earlier tunes. There’s even some harmonica, in what I imagine is a nod to Dylan.

And here is a first pass at Cut Me Deep; not yet quite the magnificent epic that appears on Another Age, but well on its way to becoming so, even in this shorter version, on which Derek Christie’s trumpet does some of the lifting of the lead guitar on the later take. The song was about Adam; through leaving he had managed to motivate Jim to new heights, and write what has become one of Minks’ best-known songs.

Best of all, though, is a sparse, stately, five and a half minute version of Ballad (aka Soul Station), the kind of song you could play on endless repeat, following the ever-changing path of its weaving melodies without ever getting tired of them.

I still have the tapes on which I recorded those BBC sessions. I suspect if I tried to play them, my old cassette deck would chew up the tape irretrievably. I’ll hazard a guess that one day the whole of the Peel (and evening show) session archives will be digitised and made publicly available in perpetuity, ideally in a freely accessible rather than monetised way. You can imagine music historians of the future having a lot of fun as they unearth and listen its forgotten treasures. But in the meantime, let’s tip our hats to the likes of Gideon Coe on 6 Music and concerns like Precious for giving us glimpses of the gold within.

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