In 1979, Joy Division’s seminal album Unknown Pleasures had seen them go from underground sensations to the beacon of alternative music in Britain. A fact that was greatly helped by John Peel’s adoration for the band, championing them wherever he could and giving them vast airtime on his late-night show on Radio 1. the mutual respect they shared has made the band’s session for him a thing of legend.
Champions of new music don’t come much bigger than John Peel. In the age before social media, he was the chief tastemaker for alternative music and if there was a band who wasn’t being played by Peel then they were a band not worth knowing.
As Joy Division readied the release of their new album they would appear on Peel’s show to perform a session in January which captivated an audience. The same audience who would later rush out to buy Unknown Pleasures that June and make it chart at number five. Making their Manchester-based label, Factory, Records very happy while doing so. The band would return in November to once again give Peel an exclusive performance.
Joy Division would of course, be forced to disband following the tragic death of frontman Ian Curtis less than twelve months after the release of their debut album with the remaining members going on to form New Order. In memory of those two Peel sessions, which captured the band at a magical moment in time whilst it seemed like they were going to become the voice of their generation, the sessions were released as two EP’s in 1986 and 1987 respectively.
In the first session, the band would perform a four-track set consisting of ‘Exercise One’, ‘Insight’, ‘She’s Lost Control’ and ‘Transmission’. When the band returned to the historic Maida Vale studios in November, Ian Curtis would lead Joy Division through rip-roaring versions of new song ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart‘, as well as ’24 Hours’, ‘Colony’ before finishing on ‘Sound of Music’.
Later, Peel spoke at length about how he first got into the band around the release of the second EP in 1987 with John Waters, with the DJ opening up about what attracted him towards the Manchester group: “I always think of them in a rather romantic way as being introspective and rather Russian, although I have no Russian ancestry at all that I’m aware of.”
“I read somewhere that that kind of introspection was classed as Russian…it always makes me feel at least slightly central European if I get into one of these what most people would describe as feeling sorry for myself.”
He also discussed the influence Joy Division would go on to have on the next wave of bans who tried and failed to replicate their unique sound: “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, it’s 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.”
Joy Division will be forever immortalised in those two iconic sessions which caught the band firing on all cylinders and will have been a life-affirming moment for many young listeners who were tuned in on their radios in their bedroom. They had never heard anything quite like it before.
Listen to both of the sessions, below.