PJ Harvey recorded their debut album, Dry, over the course of September – December 1991. It’s release, just three months later, was met with near universal critical acclaim, and rightly so.
In the middle of these recording sessions, the trio dropped into the BBC Maida Vale studios to record what would be a debut session for the John Peel Show. It comprised four tracks, all of which would subsequently appear on the debut album, including one that would be released as a single.
The session versions of the songs are quite different in sound and I am willing to make the case that they turned out superior to the album cuts. There’s a few reasons for my take on things, one being that the session versions have a rawness that a few months in the studio would eventually smooth out and in many ways what Peel gave to us was the energy and vibrancy of the live sets from that time.
Polly Jean Harvey’s vocals are also much more prominent and to the fore, especially on the version of Water in which she builds magnificently from quiet to loud, and in doing so provides a reminder of how much of an influence Pixies had on the sounds that she, Stephen Vaughan and Rob Ellis were making. There’s another band that springs to mind, particularly from the raw tightness of the band, and given that The Fall were so highly regarded by the veteran DJ, it is no surprise that he was one of the first to champion this new and emerging act.
Looking back over the timeline and it’s clear to see the importance and significance of this particular session. The trio’s debut gig in April 1991 to a local audience in the West Country hadn’t gone down well, with nobody quite prepared for the racket they were making. A relocation to London a few months later led to demos being recorded after which they were picked up the tiny indie label Too Pure. The debut 45 was Dress and it was made single of the week in Melody Maker, with the reviewer stating that he admired the way Polly Jean.. “seems crushed by the weight of her own songs and arrangements, as if the air is literally being sucked out of them … “
The reviewer was John Peel. Within days they were booked and on 29 October they delivered these:-
I can’t claim to have heard this session back in the day. My first inkling of it came the following year in May 1992 when Vox Magazine gave away a cassette called Radio Daze, featuring a fabulous mix of 15 tracks culled from various Peel Sessions over the years featuring The Cure, Madness, Happy Mondays, Babes in Toyland, Buzzcocks, Chicken Shack, The Undertones, Billy Bragg, Syd Barrett, The Only Ones, The Fall, PJ Harvey, Inspiral Carpets, The Birthday Party and The Damned.
It came out just a few weeks after Dry, an album that was giving me all sorts of aural pleasures, but I wasn’t prepared for the way I’d go nuts for the Peel Session version of Water. It took another 14 years before I got my hands on the other three tracks from the session. It was worth the wait.