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The Smiths’ Peel Sessions: A Guide To Every Legendary Radio Appearance
In Depth

The Smiths’ Peel Sessions: A Guide To Every Legendary Radio Appearance

Crucial to building their fanbase, The Smiths’ Peel Sessions were always events, sometimes yielding definitive versions of their best songs.

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It’s impossible to overstate the importance John Peel’s patronage had on furthering The Smiths’ career. The influential BBC Radio 1 DJ quickly latched onto the band, and they became an almost constant presence on his show during their five years of active service. The group regularly polled highly in Peel’s annual “Festive 50” Christmas round-up, while each of The Smiths’ Peel Sessions performances are rightly regarded as classics. This guide to all four of their appearances on John Peel’s show reveals how they either marked and/or presaged an important milestone in The Smiths’ history.

Listen to the best of The Smiths here, and check out The Smiths’ Peel Sessions history, below.

The Smiths’ Peel Session 1

Recorded: 18 May 1983

First broadcast: 1 June 1983

Repeated: 21 June 1983, 24 August 1983, 29 December 1983, 28 May 1984, 27 May 1985, 03 November 1986

Songs recorded: What Difference Does It Make?, Handsome Devil, Miserable Lie, Reel Around The Fountain

The story

John Peel’s producer John Walters brokered The Smiths’ first BBC radio session. Walters saw The Smiths play at the University Of London on 6 May 1983 – only their second-ever London gig, after debuting in the city at Covert Garden’s Rock Garden – and he was mightily impressed with their potential. Peel himself later confessed that Walters’ glowing report galvanised him into offering The Smiths’ their first Peel Session.

“I think you actually deserve some credit, because it was you that went out and heard The Smiths,” Peel told Walters during an instalment of the 1987 retrospective Peeling Back The Years. “It was one of the very few times that you’ve come back very enthusiastic about a band and said, ‘We really must get these people in at the earliest opportunity.’”

Reflecting on Morrissey’s originality as a frontman, Peel added, “I mean, he wasn’t trying to be Marc Bolan or he wasn’t trying to be [The Doors’ frontman] Jim Morrison again. And they were as Manchester bands – so many of these bands do seem to be from Manchester – just another band that arrived from nowhere with a very clear and strong identity, you know. And that is always attractive.”

Accordingly, Morrissey and co arrived at the BBC’s Maida Vale Studios to record The Smiths’ first Peel Session less than two weeks after the ULU show. And it was an absolute belter, with The Smiths laying down storming versions of three songs from their (still yet to be recorded) self-titled debut album, along with an exhilarating take of the Hand In Glove B-side, Handsome Devil. Three of the four songs performed during The Smiths’ first Peel Session (minus Miserable Lie) would later enjoy official release on the group’s 1984 compilation, Hatful Of Hollow, and all four were issued in 1988 as the standalone EP The Peel Sessions, through the Strange Fruit label.

Must hear: What Difference Does It Make?

The Smiths’ Peel Session 2

Recorded: 14 September 1983

First broadcast: 21 September 1983

Repeated: 10 October 1983, 9 November 1983, 8 December 1983, 28 May 1984

Songs recorded: This Charming Man, Back To The Old House, Still Ill, This Night Has Opened My Eyes

The story

The Smiths’ first Peel Session proved so popular with listeners that the DJ replayed it twice on air before he could arrange for the band to return to Maida Vale to record another appearance. This ensured that The Smiths’ second Peel Session was one of the most hotly-anticipated in years, and the group rose to the occasion, performing a four-song session of depth and power which was later included in full on Hatful Of Hollow.

For The Smith’s second Peel Session, Morrissey and guitarist Johnny Marr chose to record a stripped-down acoustic take of the future What Difference Does It Make? B-side Back To The Old House, while – remarkably – the gloriously wistful, Shelagh Delaney-inspired This Night Has Opened My Eyes was only ever officially recorded for John Peel.

Elsewhere, the band steamed through a powerful version of Still Ill (Johnny Marr’s Dylan-esque harmonica part would later be dropped for the version that appeared on The Smiths’ debut album), though the session highlight is arguably the first studio recording of their future hit, This Charming Man, which Marr had only just completed.

“I wrote This Charming Man for a John Peel Session,” the guitarist told The Guardian in 2011, recalling how one of the best Smiths songs came together. “It was the culmination of trying to find a way of playing that was non-rock but still expressed my personality. I felt we needed something more upbeat in a different key and was miffed that Aztec Camera’s Roddy Frame was getting on the radio and we weren’t. That’s why it’s got that sunny disposition; my usual default setting was Manchester in the rain. When we were recording it, Rough Trade’s Geoff Travis came in and said: ‘That’s got to be the single.’”

Must hear: This Charming Man

The Smiths’ Peel Session 3

Recorded: 1 August 1984

First broadcast: 9 August 1984

Repeated: 27 September 1984, 26 December 1984, 12 August 1985

Songs recorded: Nowhere Fast, How Soon Is Now?, William, It Was Really Nothing, Rusholme Ruffians

The story

If The Smiths’ second Peel Session caught them on the cusp of mainstream stardom, their third found them returning as conquering heroes. At this point, the group’s self-titled debut album had peaked at No.2 in the UK, and their latest single, William, It Was Really Nothing, was about to follow What Difference Does It Make? and Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now into the Top 20.

The Smiths’ third Peel session, however, showed that they were still hungry and keen to prove their versatility. Indeed, apart from a sprightly version of William, It Was Really Nothing, this session also featured a powerful alternate version of the band’s towering future hit How Soon Is Now?, in addition to exhilarating debuts for the rockabilly-inclined Meat Is Murder songs Nowhere Fast and Rusholme Ruffians, the latter pivoting around one of Andy Rourke’s best basslines.

Minus How Soon Is Now?, The Smiths’ third Peel Session later appeared on the CD edition of 1987’s single release of the Strangeways, Here We Come highlight Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me.

Must hear: Rusholme Ruffians

The Smiths’ Peel Session 4

Recorded: 2 December 1986

First broadcast: 17 December 1986

Repeated: 5 January 1987, 20 January 1987, 17 February 1987, 25 March 1987

Songs recorded: Is It Really So Strange?, London, Half A Person, Sweet And Tender Hooligan

The story

They didn’t know it at the time, but The Smiths ended up recording their last Peel Session just ten days before performing their final full-scale concert, at London’s Brixton Academy, on 12 December 1986.

In retrospect, there’s little here to suggest the band are approaching their end point, as they’re on viciously good form, weighing in with the rockiest and most uptempo of their four appearances on John Peel’s radio show.

Indeed, all the songs recorded at The Smiths’ fourth Peel Session would shortly see official release, with Half A Person and the fiery, feedback-framed London appearing on the flip of Shoplifters Of The World Unite, and Is It Really So Strange? and the anthemic Sweet And Tender Hooligan doing the honours on the reverse of Sheila Take A Bow. All of these excellent songs would also be released across the group’s two singles and rarities compilations, The World Won’t Listen and/or Louder Than Bombs.

Must hear: London

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