Tom Sinclair – “Peeling in the Years” (1991)

July 22, 2009 at 12:37 am (Music, Reviews & Articles)

This article/review from Rolling Stone (issue #602 — April 18, 1991) by Tom Sinclair talks about the then-recent tidal wave of Peel Session comps that were being released in America, featuring groups like The Soft Machine, The Only Ones, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Cure, Happy Mondays, The Smiths, Syd Barrett, etc.
Hundreds of groups recorded for John Peel’s much-loved and admired Radio 1 program in England for close to five decades.
Sadly, John passed away a few years back, but the sessions recorded for his show, as well as the show itself, will live on for decades to come. One of the greatest radio DJs, bar none. His taste in music was simply impeccable…  


“What the hell is a ‘Peel Session’?” That question is likely to be on the lips of record buyers with increasing frequency as they are confronted in the upcoming months with unfamiliar albums, all identified as The Peel Sessions, by dozens of widely varied artists. In a nutshell, this puzzling cornucopia of CDs and cassettes is the first installment of an ongoing series of BBC sessions recorded expressly for broadcast on English disc jockey John Peel’s Radio 1 show, now released in the U.S. for the first time. These recordings are a tradition in which hundreds of artists, both famous and obscure, have taken part for nearly a quarter century. From Syd Barrett and Tim Buckley in the Sixties to Happy Mondays and Prong today, banging out a session for Peel – at fifty-one, certainly the hippest DJ extant – remains an honor few musicians would dream of passing up.

If Peel is unfamiliar to most Yanks, it may well be because he has no stateside counterpart. For Peel, the time-warped “classic rock” playlist adhered to by so many American jocks is anathema. Despite the flecks of gray that now dot his hair and beard, Peel’s still listening for the next manic pop thrill, and he has big ears for music that challenges conventions and breaks barriers. In England, Peel enjoys a well-earned rep as both a taste maker and a patron saint of Searchers After the Lost Chord. If a record rings his chimes, he’ll play it.

Though many of the Peel sessions have been available as imports for several years, Dutch East India, which has licensed the recordings, has opened the floodgate in America and is releasing assorted sessions at a breakneck pace. Some releases, like those for the Cure and the Smiths, feature only one session (typically, about four songs), while others, like those for Siouxsie and the Banshees and the Only Ones, compile up to four different performances, sometimes recorded years apart, on one CD or cassette. The series is far from chronological; judging from the offerings to date (Soft Machine, the Damned, the Ruts, Happy Mondays and Napalm Death, to name a few), they might well have been selected grab-bag fashion. No matter. All are of archival value, certainly, but what’s most appealing about the best Peel Sessions is their resonance in light of the changing face of rock. 

Like the proverbial fine wine that improves with age, lots of the Peel recordings are more intoxicating and vital today than they may have been ten or twenty years ago. The Gang of Four, a group lots of folks believe betrayed its original potential, sounds terrific on its compilation of three dates from 1979 to 1981. On charged versions of “At Home He’s a Tourist” and “Return the Gift,” the band hammers home its stirring blend of pointedly political lyrics, clattering rhythms and slashing guitar with a down-and-dirty fervor that may well make this the definitive Gang of Four album. Likewise, outings by the Cure and the Smiths, recorded in 1978 and 1983, respectively, before either group had released a legitimate album, crackle with the unbridled enthusiasm of young punks determined to make their mark and flaunt their gifts.

The avant jazz-rock experiments of Soft Machine sound as resolutely freewheeling today as they did in 1969, creating sometimes soothing, often grating, always gripping soundscapes utilizing saxes and Mellotron. (And Softs singer Robert Wyatt’s decision to retool “Moon in June” into a treastise on the joys of recording the session was a stroke of inspired lunacy.) Another Old Waver, the ill-fated Syd Barrett, who recorded his session in 1970 following the release of his first solo album after splitting from Pink Floyd, which he helped found, sounds like he was feeling his oats (and certainly his acid) on five acoustically addled tracks, including “Gigolo Aunt” and the seldom heard “Two of a Kind.” Barrett’s Peel mini-album is among the most poignant of the batch, presaging as it does his subsequent slide into paranoia and isolation.

Perhaps most revelatory of all the Peel Sessions are those by the Only Ones, the Chameleons UK and the Ruts – three groups that fell through the cracks in America and achieved only marginally more notoriety in their native England. Chief among those beautiful losers are the Only Ones, whose guitarist, John Perry, reckons the group’s work for Peel was far better than any of its studio albums. Indeed, Perry’s dexterous, cutting solos serve as an odd counterpoint to singer-songwriter Peter Perrett’s world-weary rasping voice and songs about addiction and despondency. “The Big Sleep,” probably the Only Ones’ finest moment, is a potent evocation of the regenerative powers of romance that Perrett delivers in the voice of a man trying to rouse himself from a narcoleptic stupor. The unvarnished pain and bitterness in Perrett’s lyrics (“Taking drugs is one thing we’ve got in common,” from “Language Problem”) probably go a long way toward explaining the Only Ones’ lack of commercial success; with luck, these sixteen songs will renew interest in the band’s legacy.

Back in the Seventies, the Ruts seemed like just another Brit-punk brigade. Their bracing Peel session – particularly “Babylon’s Burning” and “Staring at the Rude Boys” – now sounds like the missing link between the strident anthems of the early Clash and the subsequent hardcore-thrash-speed-metal axis that blossomed in the Eighties. The Chameleons UK also came and went with little fanfare, releasing three albums of better-than-average XTC-like guitar pop before internal bickering and public disinterest KO’d the group. The rich roughness and fresh tunefulness of songs like “Don’t Fall” and “Second Skin” argue strongly that this band undeservedly got short shrift in the cosmic deal.

Certainly, only rock obsessives will want every one of the Peel Sessions, but with scheduled releases by Joy Division, the Undertones, the Birthday Party and scads of others coming up, just about everyone will find something to his or her taste. In these days when even rock critics are reviving the tired lie that rock is dead or dying, The Peel Sessions will sustain those starving for true cutting-edge music, while serving as unarguable reminders of how nourishing great rock & roll can be. Feed your head. 

Tom Sinclair

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