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The man who wrote the official history of the first 25 years of the Peel Sessions writes for this website about doing the book and what's happened since: to the Sessions, the Book, the BBC, and himself...


In Session Tonight was commissioned and published in the early 1990s as part of then Radio 1 controller Johnny Beerling's admirable campaign to get greater recognition for Radio 1's history of more adventurous programming, especially in the light of the then forthcoming Government debates about the renewal of the BBC's charter (it was eventually renewed in 1996). The more worthy Radio 1 looked, the theory went, the better the chance of fighting off any possible "privatisation" of the station. Well, perhaps it worked.

By the time the book was published in Autumn 1993, Beerling had been replaced as controller by Matthew Bannister, who championed the book on many occasions (I lost count of the number of interviews I read with him in the papers in which he quoted from it liberally) and spoke at its launch party at Maida Vale, at which The Buzzcocks played live into Jackie Brambles' lunchtime show, and various Peel session veterans - Ivor Cutler, Viv Stanshall, Billy Bragg, David Gedge, plus me and Peel - posed for ridiculous photographs by Barry Plummer. I have some embarrassing prints somewhere...

The book's print-run was 7,000 and it sold quite well for a non-fiction trade paperback (the reviews were er, pretty glowing, though I say so myself), but was remaindered two years later in October 1995 (standard BBC Books policy), at which point the remaining 1,000 or so unsold copies went into the bargain books market, and have evidently disappeared. It was at this point that I bought some discounted copies knowing that one day somebody might come looking for it.

I have given new copies to trusted people in the BBC like Phil Lawton, the Radio 1 archivist, because his copy had fallen apart from over-use. I hope this doesn't sound too vain, but on the rare occasions these days when I do bump into new people from night-time Radio 1, I'm always surprised and flattered when they say "ooo, you wrote the book". The studios department even bought 6 copies from me a couple of years ago for reference at Maida Vale, because they couldn't remember what they themselves had done. On the down side, I was a little hurt that the book was used extensively for the script of BBC2's Peel Night in 1999 - whole chunks were quoted verbatim in fact - with many still shots of it appearing on screen, but no acknowledgment was made. I was not surprised that the first I heard about the evening was when I saw it listed in the Radio Times. That's today's BBC for you. Everything is just free source material in their eyes.

It is no secret, and obvious to devoted Peel listeners, that Radio 1 is actually now doing less centrally-controlled conventional pre-record sessions than it once was. Peel still has his two new ones a week, I think, in principle, but coupled with Kershaw's departure, the emphasis is now very much on special events - DJ sets, concerts, OBs, etc. On the other hand, the Evening Session in the Nations has "devolved" three new session recording sessions a week to Scotland, Wales and N Ireland respectively.

After the remarkably integrated years of Bannister's reign, 1992-1997, when Peel and the rest of night-time seemed to have much more influence over the daytime playlist and feel (the Britpop years, I suppose), we are now back to quite a clear divide. For example, does anyone else squirm at some of the stuff Mark and Lard have to play these days? There's also the relentless emphasis on pop-garage dance music at weekends. I think this is understandable given general youth music taste, but it does make the station not so much schizo, like it was in the 70s and 80s, as, er, trichzo, if there is such a concept (charts during the day; dance at weekends, Peel/Evening Session Mon-Thurs evenings).

Since 1995-1996 there have been occasional vague noises from people in the BBC about doing an updated edition of the book: from Matthew Bannister, from BBC Music, from Anita Kamath [former producer of the Peel show]. But I'm afraid there are several reasons why a new edition is a very remote possibility right now:

  • Everyone I worked with at a senior level at Radio 1 and at BBC Books at getting agreement to make the original project happen has long since left the Corporation, as did so many during the John Birt (director-general 1992-2000) years.
  • The Birt changes in how the BBC is financed, with archives and libraries having to charge for access, has made the kind of unlimited access and co-operation I received back in 1991-1992 economically impossible.
  • The modest success of the original book was not such that it would be easy to entice a new publisher, unless someone fairly senior in the BBC made it economically worth their while - ie, another radio tie-in series, extensive cross promotion, etc.
  • Frankly, the excellent work by those behind this website and the Un-Peeled fanzine means that those who really, really want to check what's happened since the book's cut-off date can find out relatively easily, and cheaply!
  • And my own working life has changed dramatically...

    When I did the book I was just a freelance journalist. I had all the time in the world to ferret about in the BBC Archives. But even before it came out, I had been offered a full-time lecturing job in the media department at Glasgow Caledonian University. Since 1993 I have been teaching students broadcasting and press history, public relations, and an honours level option in Music Media, all of which I've enjoyed enormously. And still do.

    I was also asked to become the radio critic of Scotland on Sunday (the Scotsman newspaper's Sunday title) in September 1993, a gig I held down until a new appointee of Andrew Neil, new editor-in-chief, axed my column late in 1997.

    But it was alright: in January 1998 an old mate in the features department in London invited me to become radio critic of the Sunday Express, a slot I still hold - though for how long under the new soft-porn proprietors, heaven only knows. I know it's a paper few Peel listeners would dream of buying, and - cripes, don't tell 'em I said so - a lot of it, especially the political coverage, is frankly deranged. But they've always paid me promptly and not messed around too much with my copy (there's not many papers of which I can say that), and parts of the paper are pretty good (Scottish Sport section, "Smart Money" personal finance section, Magazine is better than it was...). My brief is to write about all national radio, so I have to ration tactfully my gratuitous annual mentions of Peel, although I still listen at least once or twice a week, in amidst all the other professional listening my job obliges me to do.

    So all in all, I'd need my University to give me some serious time-off to attempt a second edition, and seeing as I've been put in charge of a new Journalism degree we hope to launch over the next year or two, that is a very unlikely prospect, I'm afraid. And anyway, to be honest, I feel you should always move on.

    But I'm still very happy to receive any e-mailed corrections to the book or its "Sessionography", though, just in case!

    All the best to "long-standing listeners" everywhere - and to those joining our ranks every year.

    Ken Garner
    December 2000

    A brief history of the Peel session


    Ken Garner's new book The Peel Sessions updates the sessionography and tells the story of the full 37 years of the Peel sessions.

    the peel sessions at amazon.co.uk


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