The great John Peel sell-off

The BBC plans to offload its Maida Vale studios, home of the sessions made famous by the late DJ

Paul Bignell
Sunday 04 October 2009 00:00
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From deep inside a former ice rink, down a residential street in west London, the DJ John Peel gave the world some of music's most exciting moments. Bands ranging from Led Zeppelin to the White Stripes unleashed their groundbreaking sounds from the BBC's Maida Vale studios. Now, even as preparations get under way to mark the studio's 75th anniversary, it looks as though seven soundproofed rooms that have witnessed so much of British rock history will be sold off.

The property, one of the oldest the BBC owns, has seen everything from Elton John playing pub versions of "Knees Up Mother Brown" in the 1970s to the thrash metal band Napalm Death assaulting everyone's eardrums in the 1980s and the fledgling Nirvana in the 1990s.

To mark the anniversary, the BBC has planned a series of special musical programmes that will be broadcast from Maida Vale on 30 October. Sessions and live performances from artists such as Snow Patrol, Jamie Cullum and Dame Kiri Te Kanawa will air on all the major BBC radio stations. A source at the BBC hinted that there was also to be a "very special guest", but refused to be drawn further.

A BBC spokeswoman confirmed this weekend that though "there are no immediate plans" to get rid of the studios, the long-term intention is to "dispose of Maida Vale".

Andy Rogers, a senior producer of live music at Radio 1, said: "Everyone at Maida Vale would absolutely hate it if the studios were changed or sold. Property departments might see it differently, though. It would be very sad to lose all that history."

It was Peel, left, who, for nearly 40 years, put the studios on the music industry map with his Peel Sessions. The sessions later went on to become the pinnacle of many a band's career and the implied endorsement of such a respected DJ was, for many, the key to their success.

From 1967 to Peel's death in 2004, thousands of bands, spanning every genre of music, recorded sessions at the studio. Many recordings went on to be sold as albums in their own right.

"John had such a wide variety of tastes, often you weren't sure what you might get. He would play bands five or six years before anyone else cottoned on to them," Mr Rogers said.

For bands such as the Undertones, being offered a session was almost a "religious experience". "Listening to the session was a bit like those Ovaltine ads of days gone by: everybody clustered around the radio in somebody's front living room listening to this slightly religious experience of your session being broadcast on the John Peel show," said the band's former lead singer, Feargal Sharkey.

"It would be a shame to lose it."

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