John Peel was the king of the live session. The legendary new music man broadcast more than 4000 instalments of the John Peel Sessions on his beloved BBC radio show, showcasing everyone from The Cure and The Smiths to Blur and David Bowie.
If you’ve never listened to any of the sessions before – lockdown is the ideal time to dig in, and thankfully it’s never been easier. Nearly 1000 classic John Peel Session performances have been alphabetised by a fan, with the list providing links to each of the sessions on YouTube. It’s super easy to search for a particular artist, but with hundreds to choose from, you may need a starting point – so here are some of the best John Peel Sessions.
Sonic Youth (1988)
It’s the Youth! Covering The Fall! Covering The Kinks! What more could you ask for? Taken from the band’s session in 1988, this spine-tingling performance features wild chanted vocals and jangling guitars. In other words: three raucous minutes of euphoria.
David Bowie and The Spiders From Mars (1972)
John Peel was a long time supporter of David Bowie, with the legendary performer often joining him in the studio for a session. This performance was recorded six months before Bowie’s rock opera epic ‘The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars’ dropped, and features both unreleased songs from Bowie’s upcoming album as well as some back catalogue favourites.
Pulp were only teenagers in 1981, and it would be another 18 months until they stuck out their debut studio album; they wouldn’t make it big until the mid-’90s. Yet Peel saw something in the band and invited them in for a session. This session is brilliantly raucous, brimming with fearless energy, agitated guitars and a cantering rhythm section – and an intriguing glimpse into the band’s earliest steps.
Happy Mondays (1989)
One of the absolute best Mondays’ rarities, ‘Tart Tart’ is 100% Mancunian insecurity, wrapped up in a brutal funk workout. The Peel version of it throws in a load of weird, jet-taking-off noises for good measure.
The Only Ones (1978)
The belter is mainly included for John Perry’s masterful guitar work on the classic ‘Another Girl, Another Planet’ , which seems even more elasticised here than on the released version.
Queen made their radio debut with John Peel in early 1973, playing songs from their then-unreleased self-titled debut album, which would come out later in the years. This session, however, happened 10 months later – as the band were working on its follow-up, 1974’s ‘Queen II’. Filled with confidence, it’s 20 breakneck minutes of Queen’s prog-tinted glam rock.
Nirvana may have recorded the better-known Peel sessions, but this one from Courtney and co is just as good. Released six months after their debut album ‘Pretty on the Inside’, it’s a blistering four-song set, which also features the first known studio version of ‘Violet’.
The Cure (1978)
This was the first time The Cure joined Peel for a session, and it’s utterly brilliant. The Cure had only just formed, and Peel was an early champion. Opening with a ‘Boys Don’t Cry’, it’s a jubilant trip back to the very beginnings of the now-legendary band.
The Smiths (1983)
The impact of John Peel can be summed up neatly by this session. After The Smiths signed their record deal with Rough Trade they managed to bag a spot on Peel’s radio show, only to realise they needed more songs to play. So one evening Johnny Marr set about writing some new tunes especially for the occasion. One of them ended up being ‘This Charming Man’. Not bad, eh?