John Peel was the very definition of a tastemaker. During his 35-year career in radio, few people rivalled him for the championing of emergent talents, and he did most of it operating during the undesirable slot of 10pm to midnight on BBC Radio One. However, he made this space a home for the demimonde, and in the process, espoused the glory of the likes of The Fall, David Bowie, Ramones and Joy Division, all of which would’ve suffered a dearth of acclaim if it wasn’t for the humble hero that Peel was.
In many ways, Joy Division’s sound was almost inadvertently nurtured by Peel and the opportunity of his sessions. In the 1987 radio show Peeling Back the Years, with John Walters and John Peel discussing the sessions, Peel revealed: “Well, they weren’t initially, of course, all that gloomy, their early things, some tracks on the Factory sampler and so forth…they had some tracks on a 10″ LP from Virgin…They weren’t by any means punky, and they’d moved away from that sort of thrashy.”
However, as they moved away from this style towards a more mystical realm of atmosphere he added: “I always think of them in a rather romantic way as being introspective and rather Russian.” In 1979, Joy Division brought that Fyodor Dostoyevsky-esque introspection into the studio and recorded two sessions for Peel’s program. The first was on Valentine’s Day, and the second was on December 10th.
Sitting in the middle of these two sessions was the seismically seminal Unknown Pleasures. And only a handful of months following their December outing came the tragic death of Ian Curtis. “Obviously, the death of Ian Curtis sort of mythologised them to a degree to which I think the surviving members of the band must have found very difficult to cope with,” Peel reflected. “A very melancholy thing to have to live with. I still get demo tapes from America and from Europe by bands which are quite clearly influenced by nothing as much as they’re influenced by Joy Division. You get a bit fed up with it, really,” he explained.
In truth, the mystique that surrounds Joy Division amid the (post) punk scene is a retrospective falsehood. They were one of the most working-class acts in music, full of the joie de vivre of creativity and an exuberance that shines through their songs even at its shrouded darkest. After all, you can’t conjure such ethereal hymns as ‘Atmosphere’ from a place of apathy or downcast misery. Even if the exultation is unmistakably cloaked and cast in late-Seventies urban decay, it is that sort of duality that makes these sessions, and indeed all of their output, soar.
These sessions are another valuable part of the legacy of the short-lived legends that Joy Division were sadly fated to become. They capture their rapid transition from the underground to illuminating lights of the post-punk future and find them at their all-encompassing best. All that is left to say before you recoil into the bottomless world of Joy Division is praise be to the crooks of this world for forbidden radio recording.
Joy Division John Peel session set list:
- Session one:
- Exercise One
- She’s Lost Control
- Session two:
- Love Will Tear Us Apart
- 24 Hours
- Sound of Music