Tom Dunne: Peel, Fanning and the thrill of young bands' radio sessions 

After listening for years to sessions recorded by everyone from The Kinks to REM, it was a real pleasure to do a few on my own show, including one standout gem 
Tom Dunne: Peel, Fanning and the thrill of young bands' radio sessions 

The late John Peel recorded many great sessions in the BBC studios. (Photo by Len Trievnor/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

A question: has the golden age of the radio session silently passed? In the UK it was legendary sessions on the John Peel Show. When RTÉ 2FM launched it was the Dave Fanning show. These sessions made bands. Other shows scurried to play them. But is it over?

The idea of the session seems to have been subsumed into mainstream radio. They are still recorded but they are mostly for key daytime shows and as a result feature key daytime acts, the Ed Sheeran’s of this world. Bands you know already, that are unlikely to surprise you.

It wasn’t always thus. John Peel in particular, and the BBC in general paved the way. Their facilities and, crucially, engineers were often superior to ones used by the bands to record their albums. The Kinks’ BBC sessions were often better-sounding than their album releases.

Peel had an A&R’s man ear for new talent. He championed bands for years before the mainstream but more importantly he also stuck with them. He had Thin Lizzy in 11 times! Would they have persevered to Jailbreak without this? Equally, his belief in Bowie never wavered throughout Bowie’s years in the ‘one hit wonder’ wilderness.

The bands that featured most frequently in his sessions are a tribute to his idiosyncrasies and loyalty. Peel had The Undertones in seven times, Billy Bragg 11 times, Half Man Half Biscuit 12 times and, unsurprisingly, The Fall a record 24 times.

Conversely, there is no John Peel session for U2, or for that matter The Police, and just one session each for REM and Nick Cave. If he just wasn’t that into it you, that is just the way it way. This was not a problem for The Stars of Heaven or Cork’s mighty Stump, both in studio an impressive four times.

2FM, when It launched, soon made ‘getting a Fanning Session’ into one of the most sought-after things that any young band could do. A Fanning Session was a precursor to better gigs, larger audiences and in some cases a record deal. Plus you got access to the type of studio you could normally only dream about.

Dave Fanning's sessions were an important vehicle for emerging Irish bands. 
Dave Fanning's sessions were an important vehicle for emerging Irish bands. 

As soon as I was able to record sessions for my own radio show, I dived in enthusiastically. From a completely selfish perspective to be able to sit opposite talents like Christy Moore, Thom Moore (no relation) or Frank Black as they recorded solo and unaccompanied was a heaven-sent joy.

The sessions were soon flooding in. Notables included: Glen Hansard with Frank Black, one of Richard Hawley’s very first, The Waterboys, Teenage Fanclub, Gomez, Evan Dando, Ryan Adams, Elbow, Damien Rice, The Finn Brothers, Jenny Lewis and later The Zutons doing an as yet unreleased Valerie.

But one session stood out. This week, as the world found itself reminded of Kate Bush’s brilliance I thought of a session we did in the early 2000s. Sadly, while I kept CD copies of everything, I didn’t keep dates, so it’s all a bit vague.

The artist was Albert Niland. He had just released an album called Dirty Day. It mainly showcased his amazing guitar skills and he was duly invited in. I was in the next room as he was recording but my producer at the time, Jedda Downey, was soon looking for me.

I still remember her expression, ablaze with joy. “You have to hear this,” she said. I ran in to hear Albert performing an acoustic version of Bush’s Wuthering Heights. It was jaw dropping: the passion in the vocal, the understated but perfect guitar. It was brooding, angry, intense. Dare I say, almost better than…… In the following nights it became an example of what I once heard Bono say: “One song will manage you, it will get you gigs, open doors, get you on the radio.” For Albert this did exactly that. Over the following nights, it ignited his career.

In the light of the new interest in Kate I played it again this week. It had the same instant impact on audiences. “Jaysus!” said one listener, “not since I heard Jeff Buckley doing Hallelujah in Whelan’s have I been so impressed.” It remains the best session recording I’ve ever had in over two decades of recording sessions. From over 800 recorded tracks, that’s some achievement. I keep all of them. I had hoped they might one day make a multiple compilation CD for charity, but steaming ended that hope. That said, should you ever be at my gaff……

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