On the surface, British Radio 1 DJ John Peel and Mark E. Smith, for nearly three decades the leader of English art-punks the Fall, had very little in common. Peel was avuncularity personified, the witty, chatty, married-with-kids uncle emeritus of pop radio who always seemed to be more up on things than anyone else. Smith, since 1977 the leader and sole continuing member of the Fall, has never exuded comfort; he's left behind one fired musician after another, as well as a live reputation veering on a dime between brilliance and shambolic collapse.
But the two were and are associated closely for a reason. "I've run out of superlatives for this band," Peel said in 1993 of Smith's group; the same year, he front- announced a track with the words, "On your knees—it's the Fall." But despite Peel's avowed fandom, the two men kept their relationship at arm's length, meeting briefly a mere handful of times; when Peel died last October, Smith chose not to attend the funeral. "I don't think he would have liked me to get on that bandwagon," Smith said a few months later—a typically defiant comment that exemplified everything Peel loved about him and his band.
Over nearly 30 studio albums and at least twice as many compilations and semiofficial releases, the Fall have refined an off-kilter approach to rock and roll—at any given time, Smith and his minions might be recording sharp-edged '50s rockabilly done up as rambling '70s Krautrock, or interpolating techno riffs into Sister Sledge covers, or following Smith's id (and his inimitable vocal style, a contempt-dripping northern English drawl) as he conjured alternately hilarious and harrowing imagery of a British society rotting under a slight veneer of modern life. In that sense, he and Peel had plenty in common, seeking to upturn the obvious in favor of something more adventurous, and refusing to rest on their laurels.
It's hardly surprising, then, that Smith and the Fall recorded an astonishing 24 "sessions" for Peel's radio show—going into the BBC studios and cutting four songs in three hours to be played on Peel's programs—more than any other performer. Sanctuary's new six-CD box, The Complete Peel Sessions 1978–2004, is a simultaneous tribute to the group and the DJ, made all the more poignant for having been compiled and readied for release shortly before Peel's unexpected passing. What might have been only a first installment is now an unintentional testimonial.
This is appropriate: Smith has always viewed the Fall as a work in progress, and none of these sessions was intended for formal release. Inside simple, sturdy cardboard packaging, Daryl Easlea's liner notes thoroughly discuss both the sessions and the Smith/Peel dynamic, including several quotes from Smith after Peel's death, many of them flashes of anger at his premature demise.
The music itself has the quality of Smith and company thinking out loud. The hopped-up rockabilly kick of "Container Drivers" (disc one, session three, recorded September 1980) is topped with a nonstop vocal; the synth-pop-and-video-game-baiting "The Man Whose Head Expanded" (disc three, session nine, September 1985) stays crisp despite a frenetic pace. The Fall are infamously abrasive, but hearing them stretch out into an extended groove on "New Puritan" (disc one, session three)—a seemingly endless descending riff set against a constantly building rhythm— is a revelation, as are the spare, hypnotic flow of "Winter" (disc two, session five, August 1981) and the 10-minute sway through "Garden" (disc two, session six, March 1983). Then there's the majestic "Hip Priest" (disc one, session four, March 1981), in which Smith's chants—"Hip! Hip! Hip!"—seem to will the band into frenzy.
John Peel often spoke of his duty to bring otherwise unheard music to wider attention—the DJ as a combination of government functionary and moral obligation. With this box, he gets his wish.