Mar 22 2022
By Dave Thompson.
In early Fall 1967, the BBC studio complexes in London played host to one of the greatest ensembles of rock ‘n’ roll talent ever assembled under their respective roofs: The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Procol Harum, Denny Laine, Pink Floyd, The Idle Rice, The Move, The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, Traffic, The Nice, Tomorrow, Tim Rose, The Bee Gees, and The Incredible String Band.
It was a roll call that read like the greatest festival ever, as though every underground happening that had stirred London’s psychedelic imaginings that year was being recreated once again, but this wasn’t a concert, and it wasn’t a dream. It was simply the line-up for the first three installments of a new weekly BBC radio show, Top Gear, and a new era in the history of British broadcasting.
The BBC archives were once described as the last great untapped resource in rock ‘n’ roll history. No matter that the 1990s and early 2000s saw a vast amount of previously unreleased music exhumed from the vault; the 200-plus “At The Beeb,” “Radio One In Concert” and “Peel Sessions” collections that have hit the streets so far represent only the tip of the iceberg.
In 1992, it was estimated that since September 1967, the BBC’s Radio One archive had grown to contain more than 8,000 largely unreleased performances, by some 1,500 different acts. In the years since then, perhaps another thousand more performers have filed into the BBC studios in London, to record an average of four songs each, for broadcast on one or another of the radio programs that cater to such recordings.
And this only takes into account the sessions that have survived: for over 60 years, the BBC has been broadcasting exclusive “in session” performances by rock ‘n’ roll acts, and not all of them have survived. Indeed, some were not even taped, just broadcast live, and if they do exist today, it is only because somebody, somewhere, was crouched by their radio, tape recorder in hand.
The concept of exclusive radio sessions is a relic of British radio’s earliest years. Forever looking to preserve the integrity of its members, most of whom were concert rather than studio musicians, the all-powerful Musicians’ Union viewed radio as a serious threat to its well-being. If people could listen to music on the radio, after all, why would they bother going out to shows?
The answer to that question was supplied by “Needle time,” a draconian piece of legislation that regulated the amount of time that could be devoted to broadcasting gramophone records. And the BBC, a state-run organization that held the monopoly on British broadcasting until the early 1970s, had no alternative but to comply.
Even at its most lenient, “Needle time” was harsh. Little more than 12 hours of pre-recorded music was allowed per week throughout the BBC’s entire operation [domestic and abroad], with even top music shows restricted to just half an hour of discspinning per three or four hours of broadcast. The rest of the program would thus be devoted to live performances.
By the early 1960s, and the dawn of Britain’s rock ‘n’ roll era, the Union had relaxed its regulations a little, but still the demands were harsh. The legendary Saturday Club show, the source for many of the now famous [and oft bootlegged) early Beatles, Rolling Stones, and Yardbirds performances, was allocated just 45 minutes of “Needle time” per two-hour show.
Things weren’t much better when the BBC launched its pop music station, Radio One, in 1967. DJ John Peel’s name today is synonymous with BBC radio sessions, but that is because he, too, had three hours of show [the aforementioned Top Gear] to fill, and barely half of that could be plugged with records. New sessions would be taped, old ones would be repeated-anything to comply with the regulations. And by the time “Needle time” was finally abolished in 1988, the sessions had become so entrenched within the Peel Show’s make-up that nobody even dreamed of abandoning them.
Until his passing in 2004, eager new bands still mailed their demos to Peel, hoping that he will call them in and set them on the road to fame. Top established bands still consider a BBC session the ideal showcase for a new album’s worth of songs.
Perhaps the most difficult thing to understand about the whole business is that it was never intended to create a unique archive of sound. Live sessions were regarded as a necessary evil, a way of airing the top hits of the day whilst staying within the MU’s guidelines. If a band was available to play, it would be invited into the studio, freeing up two or three valuable minutes for a record whose makers were not around. The tapes would be preserved for subsequent repeats; again, there was no sense of cataloging history. As far as the BBC was concerned, “Needle time” was an irritant. It created an institution despite itself.
Most BBC sessions are recorded in one day, and from the modern listener’s point of view, that in itself is fascinating. The Cure’s Robert Smith spoke of recording the group’s Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, “and taking three weeks to get the snare sound right.” At the BBC, he would have had three minutes. It is a fast-paced and furious atmosphere, and the results – generally broadcast within a week of the recording – can be fascinating, performances caught almost midway between the live environment and the studio. Working with tough, no-nonsense BBC producers who know exactly what needs to be done—and how long it takes—even the greatest perfectionist musician must simply buckle down and get the job done.
Former Nice guitarist Davey O’List, a member of Roxy Music when they recorded their first John Peel session in 1971, remembers, “We just went and did it. We’d start out playing the song through live, taping everything, and then there’d be a little time left over for overdubbing and mixing. But what you hear is pretty much what we did the first time.”
It was once was estimated that since September
1967, the BBC Radio One archive had grown to
contain more than 8,000 largely unreleased
performances, by some 1,500 different acts.
A pair of popular BBC session style releases from the late 90s highlight this. Neither Yes nor Led Zeppelin, after all, are known as “bang it down and get it out” merchants. Indeed, not until the days of punk rock and new wave did bands start priding themselves on how quickly they could record. But Yes’ Something’s Coming BBC album and both The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s and Led Zeppelin’s BBC Sessions albums have been unanimously ranked amongst the most exciting, not to mention spontaneous, recordings in each of these band’s catalog, and they are not alone in that. Well known from bootleg, early sessions by such progressive rock idealists as Genesis, Pink Floyd, and Gentle Giant have an excitement and energy that was rarely recaptured on their regular albums.
That said, not every session by every band is available for release. For starters, it is sometimes necessary to obtain the approval of every musician involved in the session beforehand, a process that is snarled both by inter-band politics [early attempts to chronicle David Bowie’s BBC sessions were constantly foundered on this rock, delaying such release until 2000] and the players’ own memories of the sessions.
“I remember the session being very hurried, and musically we would have preferred to have spent more time getting it right,” Genesis keyboard player Tony Banks once reflected. “We weren’t that happy with the end result, but we look back with affection.”
Brett Anderson, vocalist with modern rock superstars London Suede, also acknowledges that when his band is approached on the subject, “It’s very much a case-by-case basis. Some performances were better than others.” Those groups who do simply give the BBC carte blanche to release entire blocks of sessions are indeed a minority. Even the Led Zeppelin album does not include everything the group taped for the New York.
It is a fast-paced and furious atmosphere, and the
results – generally broadcast within a week of the
recording – can be fascinating, performances
caught almost midway between the live
environment and the studio.
Other artists, however, believe they reached a peak of sorts at the BBC. Eccentric British singer Robyn Hitchcock describes his band’s final BBC session as “the best stuff we ever did. It was live, it was mixed by our soundman who’s Finnish, and there were about 20 people in the other room drinking wine and coffee, and they’d just hold their glasses still for three minutes while we did a take, then we’d do another one. That last session, I think, is the real heart of the Egyptians.”
Other acts, too, believe the BBC brought out the best in them. In 1968, the young Dave Edmunds-led Love Sculpture, for example, were so blown away by their sixminute single take version of the classical piece “Sabre Dance” that even after it was re-recorded for the first hit, the BBC version remained their favorite.
And from a year before that, the memory of Pink Floyd’s earliest BBC appearances remains so powerful that when British record collectors were asked which sessions they would most like to see released, the Floyd came out well on top. And that despite their first broadcasts having been wiped many years before. In 2016, several early BBC recordings for Pink Floyd finally made their way to market in official releases as part of The Early Years compilation series and box.
Historically, the BBC sessions that exist today can be divided into four “golden” eras, each corresponding with a similarly golden era in the history of rock. The first dates back to before the creation of Radio One, to a time when television barely acknowledged the existence of pop music.
Back then, shows like Easy Beat, an earlier show called Top Gear, and most important of all, Saturday Club (hosted by the effervescent conversationalist, Brian Matthews], were many listeners’ sole contact with “live” pop music. If these programs by necessity reflected the popularity of some bands, they also played a major part in introducing others.
The Zombies, whose BBC repertoire was released as part of a band boxed set; Episode Six, whose line-up included several future members of Deep Purple; and so many others can all point to their radio work for whatever early success they had, while even The Beatles might have moved much slower were it not for the support of the BBC. Saturday Club, after all, was the source for many of the cuts included on 1994’s The Beatles Live At The BBC compilation. The Yardbirds collection, Where The Action Is, and countless The Who and Stones bootlegs pay further testament to this show’s massive influence.
The second great era was the 1967-68 period, following the creation of Radio One, and a time when the BBC was actively campaigning for high profile acts to appear, to help establish the station as Britain’s No. 1.
The third, in terms of the sheer number of legends who continued pouring into the BBC studios, ran through the early 1970s, when you could turn on the radio any time of the evening and catch groups like Stackridge, the Sensational Alex Harvey Band, the Heavy Metal Kids, and Dr. Feelgood in session-acts who never stood a chance of cracking the daytime radio shows.
And the fourth, of course, was the punk rock era, which John Peel—almost alone of the BBC staff—did much to popularize. Many bands landed record deals only after appearing on his show, while Siouxsie & The Banshees almost joined the BBC’s own record label, so great was Peel’s belief in them. Later still, The Smiths count their first Peel session amongst the biggest breaks they ever got, while New Order recorded some of their most haunting music ever for the show.
Over the years, the BBC’s support for recording live sessions played a major role in the explosion of new British talent, with London Suede, Oasis, Sleeper, and Blur only the bestknown of the bands whose careers have been inestimably assisted by their relationship with the Beeb. In years to come, the each time period with inevitably come to be regarded as another golden age for BBC rock ‘n’ roll.
And yet it is only within the couple of decades that the BBC seems even to have comprehended just what a vast resource it had at its disposal. For several years before that, the corporation had been periodically producing one-off specials highlighting some band’s BBC recordings, knowing that such exercises in unabashed nostalgia attracted huge audiences. The Beatles and The Stones, David Bowie and T.Rex, were amongst early broadcasts, but it was only when these shows started reappearing on bootleg that the commercial—and historical—possibilities of the vault become apparent.
Few bootleggers, for example, appeared to know exactly what they had, which is why radio sessions are frequently described as either studio outtakes or live recordings, when, as we have already seen, they are neither. [For some reason, The Rolling Stones catalog is particularly encumbered by this.] Finally, then, a record label (Strange Fruit) was set up to begin marketing the sessions.
Although the emphasis was on punk and early ’80s era material, Strange Fruit’s series of “Peel Sessions” EPs was a success from the start, so much so that a second label, catering to live recordings from the “In Concert” and “Old Grey Whistle Test” series, was inaugurated, followed by a third, covering World Music recordings.
The response was staggering. Soon, artists and fans alike were deluging the offices with offers and suggestions. Performances that were officially presumed lost began turning up as fans volunteered recordings they had made at home years before. [Several BBC cuts on 1997’s King Crimson collection Epitaph were restored from such sources]. A vintage 1964 Rolling Stones recording reappeared years after it was said to have been wiped, apparently when a recording engineer announced he’d hung onto it for technical reference purposes.
Other bands approved the release of old sessions because they highlighted a side to the group that might otherwise have been lost forever, as they experimented with their own songs, or tried out those belonging to other musicians. (Jimmy Page’s willingness to release Led Zeppelin’s sessions stems from this belief.)
Fairport Convention used their BBC sessions to play material they would never include on their own albums, as their Heyday BBC collection proves. Yes, might never have released their epochal 16-minute version of Paul Simon’s “America” if they hadn’t first tried it out on John Peel. And Billy Bragg fans still rave about the near-impromptu rendition of “Route 66” that he performed for Peel in 1983, replacing the traditional words with a roadmap between two eastern English towns.
Yet the major appeal of the BBC sessions remains its exclusivity. More than anything else, it preserves a moment in time in a band’s history with a quality and a veracity that nothing else, neither live recordings nor studio outtakes, can emulate. They show a band simultaneously on its best behavior, and at its most crazily vulnerable, working simply for that moment, with nothing else on its mind. And that honesty remains the sessions’ greatest asset. That, and the almost illicit thrill of knowing that the music you are listening to was never recorded with posterity in mind.
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