The Chills – The BBC Sessions

The Chills - The BBC Sessions_hi

I’m a total sucker for live-in-the-studio radio performances. For a lot of the music I love, these sessions provide a new perspective on artists and their work. Sometimes the recordings yield results that are sonically “better” than the “official” versions of familiar material, as musicians that otherwise rely on self-recording or tiny studio budgets, or who have suffered under heavy-handed or unsympathetic producers, frequently shine in these situations. Or, conversely, the sessions offer a glimpse of the ragged live style of a band that might otherwise seem fussy on record, bashing away without access to endless takes, overdubs, or click tracks. A lot of artists have used these opportunities to give sneak peeks of works in progress, or even offer exclusive tracks. And for the trainspotting pop archaeologist-types, being able to compare the well-known version of a song to one recorded live in a tightly-controlled environment can be very rewarding and informative, providing insight into artistic growth, individual song evolution, the effects of line-up changes, etc.

The twelve tracks on The ChillsBBC Sessions (on Fire Records) provide examples of all of the above. These recordings, all for the legendary John Peel program on BBC Radio 1, were previously only available on the very rare (and expensive) 2001 CD-only Secret Box. The Chills recorded three sessions for Peel’s show, in November 1985, April 1987, and December 1988, and all the finished output from those sessions is included here and presented chronologically.

Peel Sessions weren’t quite “live” performances. They were more like condensed studio recording sessions, with strict limitations imposed. Artists would spend most of an entire day in a very state-of-the-art BBC recording studio, possibly doing several takes for each song , and occasionally adding minimal overdubs. The tracks would then be mixed, without band input, by BBC recording engineers.

The Chills have a long and complicated history, filled with countless lineup changes, periods of inactivity, and controversial (to the band and their fans) record production decisions. Their recorded output ranges in sonic quality from low-fi and garagey to slick and expensive-sounding. This makes them, perhaps more than most bands, ideally suited for an album of radio sessions.

The first Peel session on BBC Sessions was recorded about a year and a half before The Chills recorded their first album, Brave Words (with a completely different lineup, aside from leader Martin Phillipps) .

Up first is “Rolling Moon”, the band’s first single, originally released in 1982. It’s The Chills at their most exultant and ecstatic,  describing (and musically recreating) the exhilaration and sensory overload of a group of friends on an all-night psychedelic trip in the great outdoors, “quite far away”. The choruses are sung in unison by the band, gang-style, culminating in the repeated plea “Please oh God don’t take us home!”. It perfectly encapsulates Phillipps’ rock-and-roll-Peter-Pan escapist pop song mode. The version here sounds like a band having a lark with a song they’d played hundreds of times, with Martin Phillipps playfully rolling his “r”s, interjecting a “whooo!”,  and making his voice swoop, before the song wraps up with a whistling coda.

The other three tracks from the 1985 session are songs that would later be recorded for Brave Words. Phillipps is backed by Terry Moore, Alan Haig, and Peter Allison, who would all be out of the band by the time that album was made. Brave Words, one of my favorite albums, is notorious for its gauzy Mayo Thompson production. Martin Phillipps practically disowned it, and many fans regard it as a misfire, though the material itself is rarely criticized; just the sound. Interestingly, these radio recordings sound very much like the final versions, their arrangements cemented long before they were recorded (by a different lineup yet), a testament to Phillipps’ vision and control over the Chills’ sound.

“Brave Words” (the song) is a sort of statement of purpose, raging (in a very polite way) against the dying of the idealistic, wild spirit of youth, and lamenting the fates of those poor souls who have “chosen to settle down”. I used to roll my eyes at the constant Peter Pan comparisons in Chills reviews, but in retrospect it’s hard to deny that Neverland was Martin Phillipps’ home base for much of the band’s early period. One slightly odd thing about “Brave Words” is that it sounds relatively grown up, even as it describes the personal philosophy of the songwriter responsible for “Kaleidoscope World”, “Hidden Bay”, “The Great Escape”, and “This Is The Way” (with its advice to “fill your head with alcohol, comic books, and drugs/this is the way”). He seems to be maturing without realizing it.

“Wet Blanket”, later a single, is one of The Chills’ rare, relatively straightforward pop songs about (unrequited) love. The Brave Words and single versions of this song feature different vocal performances. On this Peel take and the Brave Words version, Martin Phillipps sings in a spirited near-yell, pushing his voice hard; for me, they’re both vastly preferable to the single version, on which his singing sounds subdued and pinched, like he had a head cold at the time.

“Night Of Chill Blue” is a gloomy, two-chord dirge that fades in like dusk, featuring the same sort of epic-outdoors lyrical imagery as “Rolling Moon”, but imbued with darkness and foreboding, as Phillipps describes a sudden sense of inarticulacy-ness [see what I did there?] brought on by the vast, mysterious night. It’s a marvel of artistic economy, using just a few words and notes to create a unique, enveloping mood not dissimilar to that of Nick Drake‘s Pink Moon albumThe Clientele would explore very similar territory over a decade later.

The 1987 Peel session features the Brave Words band: Martin Phillipps backed up by bassist Justin Harwood, keyboardist Andrew Todd, and drummer Caroline Easther. It predates the recording of the album by about three months, but the songs from this session were clearly finished by this point, featuring arrangements identical to the final ones, and a band who knew them well. This lineup brought a muscularity and new complexity to The Chills sound. Organ was always an important ingredient, but Todd’s comparatively virtuosic style added something unique to the band’s sonic arsenal. Martin Phillipps clearly recognized this, and made keyboards the dominant instrument for many of The Chills’ future songs.

“Dan Destiny And The Silver Dawn” kicks off this second session with a bang. By this time, there was still a very strong escapist element to Martin Phillipps’ songwriting, but it was tempered with a new focus on mortality. Brave Words is an album suffused with death, dread, and free-floating anxiety. Lyrical images include ghosts, a dead actress, a suicide, a doomed astronaut, a haunted carnival, and, umm, a “Necromansion”. For this Peel session, the band skip over the musically gloomy tracks, but perform a few deceptively upbeat pop songs with morbid subject matter. “Dan Destiny…”, based on a story by Ray Bradbury, is a perfect combination of the breathless excitement of “Rolling Moon” and this new obsession with impermanence and the loss of youth. The singer advises and commiserates with the titular adventurer, as he reckons with an imminent mission from which he knows he will never return (“and you’re still younger than you wanted to be”; “I do grieve for you Danny”). Phillipps gives an impassioned vocal performance, backed gently by Caroline Easther. I can’t imagine a Chills-ier song. It’s like a classic Marvel comic made into a perfect pop tune; Phillipps is the Silver Surfer as much as Peter Pan.

“Living In A Jungle”, originally a b-side, is an Andrew Todd organ showcase, with tumbling arpeggios and tricky rhythms. Phillipps sings in a peculiar, dizzying rhythm, every beat packed with words.

“Rain”, the final Brave Words track in the collection, is one of Phillipps’ most affecting songs, chronicling his reaction to the news of a friend’s suicide. The lyrics and vocal performance capture a complicated mix of shock, despair, guilt, empathy, rationalization, and even morbid curiosity (“but what’d I want to know?/Did you scream or fall?/I know it sounds so cold, but it’s not at all/What were you thinking?/Did you ever think of giving me a call?”). His singing voice shifts from a stunned, almost affectless delivery to a tender falsetto to a desperate, pleading tone.  All of that is backed by a sophisticated instrumental arrangement highlighted by an almost tidal rhythm pattern, surging then resting, over and over, while Andrew Todd provides sparkling piano flourishes. It’s one of the most devastating pop songs I’ve ever heard, and the performance and mix here rival the album version.

“Moonlight On Flesh”, clocking in at just over four minutes, is the longest track on BBC Sessions. It’s an otherwise-unreleased instrumental, droning and evocative and situated in the same sonic world as “Night Of Chill Blue”. It wouldn’t have sounded out of place on either Brave Words or Submarine Bells.

The third and final Peel session, from 1988, consists of three songs that would later end up on Submarine Bells, and another (“Christmas Chimes”) that is exclusive to the set. Justin Harwood and Andrew Todd were still in the band, but 17 year-old James Stephenson replaced Caroline Easther on drums.

By the time of Submarine Bells, the Chills had abandoned their classic garage-psych moves, and totally owned an idiosyncratic sound based around sly, florid band interplay and Phillipps’ unique songcraft. Attenuating his “Brave Words” idealism, Phillipps matured (possibly even settling down), but managed to retain just enough of his trademark youthful defiance to keep his songwriting unmistakably Chills-y. The album is generally regarded as the band’s masterpiece, and the song quality is undeniable.  But some fans, myself included, felt like The Chills were slightly neutered by the glossy, pristine production.

The Submarine Bells tracks on BBC Sessions have an appealing rawness, the rough edges not yet sanded down. “Part Past Part Fiction” is fully-developed instrumentally here, but the lyrics are almost entirely different than on the final version. “Effloresce And Deliquesce” is a percolating, pointillistic examination of a volatile romantic relationship. There’s an almost jazz-like quality to the crystalline tones and expressive instrumental performances of both songs.

“Christmas Chimes”, the second otherwise-unreleased track on BBC Sessions, is a great example of Martin Phillipps’ reliably peculiar songwriting viewpoint. Originally broadcast in early January, the song evokes a mood of not-unpleasant post-holiday melancholy, even during the choruses of “bom-ba-dom/bom-bom-bom”.
Peel sessions were perfect venues for songs like “Christmas Chimes” and “Moonlight On Flesh”, quality material certainly worthy of release but not necessarily fit for inclusion on proper albums.

BBC Sessions ends with “Dead Web”, another Submarine Bells song. In “I Love My Leather Jacket” and “Rain”, Martin Phillipps wrote tributes to fallen friends. In “Dead Web”, he recalibrates his attitude, allowing for the importance of mourning and remembrance but, in a lyrical echo of “Dan Destiny And The Silver Dawn”, warning against fatalistic wallowing: “And then I grieve for those/the world’s apprentice undertakers/Wasting life on funerals and wake arranging”. In typical Chills fashion, it’s a letter to an earlier version of himself.

The BBC Sessions capture a bit of all the things that made The Chills one of the most special bands of the 1980s. They showcase Martin Phillipps’ talent and ambition, and provide a fascinating glimpse into his emotional and creative evolution, with results that are in some cases arguably superior to the well-known studio versions. In general, the Brave Words songs sound less hazy and echo-ey than on that album, the Submarine Bells songs sound less fussed-over, and the unreleased tracks are welcome additions to any Chills fan’s collection. Highly recommended.