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How Joy Division’s Peel Sessions Debut Took Them To The Next Level
Warner Music
In Depth

How Joy Division’s Peel Sessions Debut Took Them To The Next Level

Recorded prior to the release of ‘Unknown Pleasures’, Joy Division’s Peel Sessions debut showed how rapidly the group were evolving.

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John Peel’s key role in the story of the UK’s underground music scene has been widely documented – and rightly so. However, while his patronage helped literally thousands of bands, there are a few seismic performers who remain especially synonymous with the influential BBC Radio 1 broadcaster. This elite shortlist includes David Bowie, Marc Bolan’s T. Rex, The Undertones, The Fall, PJ Harvey and, certainly, Joy Division, who recorded the first of an eventual two Peel Sessions on 31 January 1979.

Listen to the best of Joy Division here.

The backstory: “They were a band whose work I was enjoying at that time”

Peel’s invitation to the band came via his producer John Walters, and it arrived at a crucial time in Joy Division’s development. Due to solid gigging during the latter half of 1978, the group had made a name for themselves in Manchester and the North of England, while the superior 12” pressing of their debut EP, An Ideal For Living, had helped spread the word further afield.

Digital and Glass, the two Joy Division tracks included on Factory Records’ debut EP, A Factory Sample, had also come to Peel’s attention, when the record was officially released early in January 1979, though he wasn’t yet aware of just how seismic a proposition Joy Division were becoming.

“They weren’t initially, of course, all that gloomy,” Peel recalled of Joy Division’s songs, in an interview with Walters for the BBC’s 1987 retrospective Peeling Back The Years. “Their early things… weren’t by any means punky…

“I didn’t at the time think that Joy Division were a band that I was going to prefer above any other,” he added. “They were just one of a whole handful of bands whose work I was quite enjoying at that time.”

Nonetheless, the DJ was intrigued enough to invite Joy Division to make their mark on Peel Sessions history early in 1979. Walters relayed the offer via the band’s manager, Rob Gretton, who accepted and then rang the individual members to give them the good news. Initially, they could hardly take it in.

“We were totally in awe of John Peel and his programme, he’d already played tracks off the EP,” bassist Peter Hook recalled in his book Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division. “Somewhere, I’ve still got the tape with the places marked in Biro where John introduces our tracks, can still remember listening to it in the car, freezing, taping off the car radio on one of those portable cassette players.”

The recording: “We weren’t as green as we used to be. We were a bit more hands-on”

As with most such radio appearances, the recording of Joy Division’s first Peel Session required the band to head down to London, to the BBC’s Maida Vale Studios. True to form, the group completed the session in just a matter of hours, with help from producer Bob Sargeant, who had recently overseen The Fall’s debut album, Live At The Witch Trials. Hook remembers it as a day full of positivity.

“We weren’t as green as we used to be in terms of being in the studio,” he later reflected. “So instead of just sitting around watching other people get on with it, we were a bit more hands-on, happy that we were getting to use this great studio and being treated well with a trip to the subsidised canteen. I loved that session. I love working for the BBC, actually.”

Listening to it now, the first of Joy Division’s Peel Sessions is a captivating snapshot of a band really hitting their stride. Kicking off with a brooding take of Exercise One, the four-track setlist also includes muscular versions of two of the best Joy Division songs, Insight and She’s Lost Control, plus a suitably cathartic reading of the band’s classic debut single, Transmission. Energy and dynamism is at a premium, and while the music misses the refinement of Martin Hannett’s future production, it’s still one hell of a statement of intent on its own terms.

The broadcast: “That was like getting a chart placing back then, only better”

John Peel certainly thought so, for he first broadcast the session on 14 February, and then repeated it due to popular demand in April. Despite that, he also voiced his opinion that Joy Division still weren’t attracting enough attention outside of Manchester and the North West: a situation which soon changed after the band released their feted debut album, Unknown Pleasures, in June 1979. Peel again regularly aired selections from the record, and invited Joy Division back for a second well-received session, in November 1979.

Both BBC-endorsed recordings were later afforded individual vinyl releases through Peel and Clive Selwood’s Strange Fruit imprint in 1986, and they were also gathered together for issue on CD in 1990. That release – simply titled The Peel Sessions – came housed in a sleeve featuring Anton Corbijn’s famous photograph of Joy Division standing with their backs to the camera in London’s Lancaster Gate tube station, and the music it contains remains a vital sister piece to their official studio albums, Unknown Pleasures and Closer.

Scoring the first of their Peel Sessions was a “mind-blowing” experience, Peter Hook recalled. “Because John Peel was a true musical hero. His was the only show on radio for people like us to listen to, so to be offered a session, well, that was like getting a chart placing back then, only better… Right then success for us was about playing the music we wanted to play.”

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