||"The thing is that you get a lot of credit for putting these bands on the radio, but the fact is that it's like being the editor of a newspaper - you don't claim credit for the news. It's my job to listen to bands and listen for musicians from around the world and put them on the radio, and this is not something that I would wish to be applauded for really, because I'm just doing what I'm paid to do. They discover themselves, it's not up to me to discover them, bands discover themselves - they make the records, the records arrive; I think, 'let's play it on the radio,' and when they come over here I think, 'let's book them for a session.' That's how the process works. It's very little to do with me to be honest."
- John Peel (talking at One Live in Nottingham 29/10/02)
During the early years of BBC Radio 1 (1967-), the broadcasting of music in the UK was governed by an arcane Musicians' Union rule, 'needletime', which prescribed the amount of recorded music that radio stations were allowed to transmit. Only able to play a limited number of records per day, the Corporation's new pop station was desperately in need of live music to fill its airtime, so many of its programmes, including Peel's, had to include some kind of 'live' performance recorded by the BBC.
'Needletime' has since been abolished, but the tradition of live sessions on Radio 1 is still going strong; most famous of these were the Peel sessions. Bands were invited to spend a day recording at the BBC's Maida Vale studios with a BBC producer/engineer. The resulting session would be broadcast a few weeks later on John Peel's Radio 1 programme.
Many of the bands invited to record sessions for Peel have gone on to become rich, bloated and famous, but a far greater number haven't. Peel's keen ear for originality meant that a Peel session often gave exposure to unique bands just starting out, and radio airtime to bands and musicians who otherwise would not get to be heard.
John Peel talking to b92 about the origin of the Peel Session
"First of all we were very limited in the amount of time that we could devote to the playing of records. They had this system that was called the needletime system - it sounds like some kind of drug abuse program - but it was stylus time, if you like. It was very limited, so they had to have a lot of live music in the programmes - not a bad thing at all, except that the bulk of it wasn't live, people used to get round it.
"They would record records onto tape and then pay the musicians as though they'd come into the BBC studio and recorded the stuff, and also, which was often unintentionally hilarious, they would have bands like the Northern Dance Orchestra or more memorably the Radio Dance Orchestra of Baden Baden in Germany, play versions of the hits of the day which were often quite funny. I heard the Northern Dance Orchestra do a version of Jimmy Hendrix's "Purple Haze", which I should love to have a copy of, I mean it was just unbelievable really. And then they'd have live lunchtime programmes with Joe Loss and his orchestra, it was probably called something like "Twelve O’Clock Club" 'cause everything, you know, had that sort of name. "Lunchtime With Loss" or something like that. Again they would play big band versions of the hits of the day and band singers would come on and do very straight kinda ballroom versions of the hits of the day. So a lot of it was quite funny, unintentionally so.
"And in the programme that I was doing, which was called Top Gear - I told you they all had terrible names - we were obliged to have in every programme two or three performers who'd recorded live in BBC studios. Now we saw this as an advantage, 'cause it meant that we could get people in to record for the programme who might not even have recording contracts. Or we could put together different combinations of musicians and use them. We didn't have to do cover versions of the singles and tracks from the LP, bands could play things that they'd wanted to play, but had not played publicly before. It was an opportunity to actually advance the music a little bit, which is what we did.
"These days what I do is essentially the same, really ... we still have in every programme a recording that has been made especially for the programme. Sometimes, like tonight, we'll have a live performance with two bands, in the Maida Vale studio where the sessions are recorded, and that's quite good fun sometimes, a bit nerve-wracking ...
"... Over the years we've had almost everybody, except the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, of the kind of big bands of the past. More recently Oasis, I never really thought Oasis were much good to be honest, so they didn't do one. Whereas Blur did a couple of times. My favourites would be fairly obscure things - the two sessions the Slits did during the punk era which were just magical, I thought, were just terrific. Oh, there have been so many. There have been so few that have been bad, it’s amazing, really, when you consider how many have been done. Many thousands now. Very few of them have been disappointing. The Clash did half one, and then amazingly said that the equipment in the studio wasn't up to the standards that they'd expected so they couldn't complete the session. Which seemed to me to be unbearably pretentious of them [laughs]. It'd be very difficult to pick out an absolute favourite from them. There was one by the reggae band Culture that out of all of the sessions that were released on record is the one that I listen to the most, I think."
Read the entire interview here.
Ken Garner succinctly describes 'needletime' in his book In Session Tonight:
"There is a simple explanation of why there were so many [sessions] in the first ten years of Radio 1: needletime.
Until it was eventually abandoned in 1988, needletime was the number of hours of music on record that the BBC and other broadcasters were allowed to play per day. It was allocated by a rights-negotiating company called Phonographic Performance Ltd (PPL), representing the record companies, who had an agreement with the Musicians' Union (MU) over how many hours broadcasters could have. (PPL still sets the rate broadcasters have to pay per hour of recorded music broadcast, but the MU is not involved, there is no longer any limit on the total amount, and stations simply pay per play.)
So limited was the amount granted in 1967 that the new Radios 1 and 2 went on air with only seven hours' total needletime a day. Radio 1 had just three hours of this for its own peak-time programmes: at breakfast, midday and early evening. For the rest of the day it shared programmes with Radio 2, which consisted mostly, if not entirely, of BBC-originated music sessions."
Ken Garner, In Session Tonight (BBC Books 1993), p19.
Ken Garner's new book The Peel Sessions: A Story of Teenage Dreams and One Man's Love of New Music contains an updated sessionography and tells the story of the full 37 years of the Peel sessions.
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