Interview: Mick Harris and Shane Embury recall Napalm Death’s debut Peel Session

How did Napalm Death get its first Peel Session?
Shane Embury:
“I joined Napalm in July ’87, so the first thing I ever did with Napalm Death was a Peel Session—even before we had played live or anything, strangely enough. At that time, the BBC would have contacted Earache and this guy Martin Nesbitt was working alongside Digby Pearson, and Martin was also manager of Carcass a little bit later. Martin was a really close friend of ours and [the offer] came through him as far as I can recall. We were obviously aware that Peel was into the band because he was always playing Napalm Death. We knew he was fully behind Napalm.”
Mick Harris: “I remember coming home one day and my Mum said, ‘You’d had a telephone call from the BBC’, and I said, ‘From who? Who?’ And she was never good at messages, she still isn’t. Haha! She’s like, ‘Somebody called for you.’ I’ve had this for so long, ‘Somebody called for you’, and then she’d forgotten the name and hadn’t taken the number—but she actually got this one. It was John Waters, Peel’s producer, and he left a message saying I was to call back. I did, got no joy and left a message, and he got back the following day and said, ‘John wants you to do a Peel Session. How does this date sound?’ I can’t remember when it was, August ’87, something like that, and I said, ‘We don’t have any equipment.’ He said, ‘That’s not a problem. Here is a number, John Henry’s equipment hire, give them a call and tell them what you need, be here at so-and-so, Maida Vale Studios, and good luck. John’s really looking forward to having you.’ I remember calling Shane, calling Lee and Bill: ‘Look, we’ve just been offered a Peel Session.’ That was it. There were no rehearsals—Napalm didn’t rehearse.”

Did you not rehearse at all before the session?
MH: “Bill came up on the morning of the Peel Session. I am pretty sure he came up on the morning of the session; he would have got a train up [to Birmingham]. That was it. We went down in the van, we had probably already discussed what songs we were going to do. We were well aware that the Peel Sessions were four slots, four tracks, 20 minutes. “We arrive, we got all the gear. I just remember, y’know, London is so fucking built-up, going doing a residential street then stopped and there was this building, it was the right address, there were the four of us, our driver, and we knocked on the door and they opened these gates to this courtyard and there was this huge warehouse set out at the back of these houses, with everything; drums, keyboards, amps, cabs, percussion … It was all there. I think they had already been given a list. I think I had gotten in touch with Earache, told them what our requirements were and Earache had forwarded that on. I hadn’t booked the equipment; Earache had done that. We got there and it was already in cases. Shane had his bass and his distortion pedal. I had my drumsticks and my famous bass drum pedal that I always used, this Premier thing that I always said that I couldn’t do a proper blast-beat without this Premier-bloody-pedal that had been repaired, I dunno, so many times! It was just one of those things, you get attached to them and that was my pedal. So I took that and my drumsticks, Bill would have taken his guitar the Russian Big Muff pedal that he was using at the time and that was it. We loaded up and went to Maida Vale Studios and unloaded.”

So here you were, Napalm Death in the BBC’s flagship music studio; what was it like getting down to business?
MH: “We just thought that were were going to go in there and just smash it; we are going to grind! Dale Griffin was the engineer who pretty much did all the Peel Sessions there at that point; he approached me and said, ‘Right, do you wanna write down titles, composers, blah blah blah.’ And we were like, ‘Yeah, we’re gonna do 12 tracks.’ And he’s like, ‘No, I don’t think you understand, there’s no time for 12 tracks.’ He was really conservative was Mr Dale Griffin and hated the Peel Session music. And here he was, just about to record, and I’m telling him we are going to do 12 songs. He said, ‘No no no, you obviously don’t understand, we’ve got 20 minutes, four slots.’ And I said, ‘Well, we’re doing 12 songs in five-and-a-half minutes.’ ‘Don’t be ridiculous!’ That’s what he said to me. I will never forget it. We just blasted through the tracks. There’s no overdubs. It was done live. That is what it caught; the perfect Napalm Death live recording. And the vocals, we shared the mic, me and Lee, and that’s quite a story in itself. We started to do the first vocal and then we’re interrupted. They’re all laughing; they can’t believe this growl and screaming business. They’d only heard about 30 seconds. But next thing you know, there’s someone else peering through the control room window in the studio; it was only Danielle Dax, who was doing a session for the Annie Nightingale show. And they were like, ‘Okay, lads—do you wanna have a go at that again?’ Me and Lee get the track done and then all of a sudden through the headphones we get told by Danielle Dax’s producer, ‘Oh, you want to be careful with your vocals, singing like that boys, you’ll ruin your vocal cords.’ You can imagine! We just nailed it. We did the session so quick; Dale just had no idea. I think I just blew him away with 12 songs in five minutes. He was a character, though, in those sessions. He mixed it quick. There was no messing about. It was in and out and I think we were back down the M1 stopping at the services to piss about as we usually did, playing the silly trick of trying to get a half-pence of petrol in and pissing off the person at the till for a receipt. Half-a-pence of petrol; that’ll get us back to Birmingham. That was Peel Session number one, as I remember it.”
SE: “It was a tall recording studio, tall ceilings, traditional separation with mics everywhere, pretty hi-tech gear from what I can remember, with a big desk. The engineer or the main producer was a guy called Dale Griffin, who was the drummer from Mott the Hoople, and their recording techniques were very much rooted in the ‘70s. So he said, ‘Yeah, we’re going to set you up, you’re gonna record live.’ I think we did the vocals afterwards. To us, that wasn’t a big deal. We just went for it. They were tripping-out on the fact that Peel Sessions were like four songs but at that point, for the first Peel Session, we had very short songs, so we did four songs for each song for that particular recording session. That freaked them out but I remember it being pretty easy going. Then Micky was fucking around as usual making loads of noise . . .”

And it sounded awesome. Was this the ideal environment to record a grind record?
SE: “We just did what we did at the time and I don’t think we were trying to make a point or anything. We just did what we did and it was recorded in a certain way that makes it sound even more ferocious. I think the techniques they had definitely amplified our sound, and I think the bass sound we had on that first Peel Session is still the best bass sound I’ve ever had. I don’t know what they hell he fucking did but there was something about it. And it’s got a lot of energy to it. We were tripping-out that it was the BBC. We were just having a lot of fun; we were very young, just kids. I say kids, but late teens, and to us it was just one big funny experience. It was just this big studio with long corridors and had that look of an old ‘70s Doctor Who episode. The décor looked like it was built in the ‘60s or ‘70s and no one had given it a fucking drop of paint since. Dale Griffin and the rest of the guys who were recording us were obviously tripping out, like ‘Who the fuck’s this? But I did later hear that he thought we were one of his favourite sessions that he recorded, which was cool considering that what he does and what Napalm Death does is like poles apart.”
MH: “That sound in there, I dunno—people say that it is one of their favourite Napalm recordings and I guess for me, the reason why is that you’re doing it live bar the vocals, so it does capture that band. You are not playing to a click; I’ve never played to a click. The drum sound is cavernous. That was so good about Maida Vale; it was just this big room, and half of it was carpeted, or let’s say soundproofed, some was wooden, and it just had this special sound that resonated and continued to resonate. Shane had a killer grind bass, as I always called it. He almost had the Membrane’s Death to Trad Rock bass sound, almost had it! I remember what bass pedal Shane was using but can’t remember what amp he used that day. I certainly remember the pedal, the Frontline Super Distortion. Find one of them? You’ll be lucky. It’s not like they were sought-after. It was not like they were a big company. It was just the pedal that I brought for Shane the day that he came prior to joining, prior to F.E.T.O.

What was the session’s impact?

MH: “Peel, I think, played it a week later, and repeated it not once but twice, and it was like, ‘Wow, he’s really into this—which we knew he was after Scum. Major respect to Peel, because as I’ve always said: no Peel, no Earache, the whole thing wouldn’t have worked, full stop. It would never have happened. I owe everything to John Peel, personally, as far as the music that he played; took me on a huge journey. And giving us that chance, giving us that coverage; you can imagine, still being a kid and him pulling you in to do a Peel Session. He just exposed you to such fantastic music. Peel was the music teacher, full-stop, end of story. My cousin introduced me to punk and as he was moving on to university he told me, ‘You should check out John Peel’s radio show.’ And that was ’79, I remember, just before going to school and starting my first year of senior school, comprehensive. He said, ‘I’m off to uni. You should check Peel out ‘cos there’s some good music on there.’ And he knew that punk was what I wanted, he said, ‘I can’t help you anymore; I’m off to uni, so check in check it out.’ It was the original show, which was the Monday to Thursday, which used to run 10pm ‘til 12 and I used to always be there with my twin-deck and then I’d probably edit those tapes the following day, saving up pocket money—you’d go to Rocker’s Records, which was really the only record shop in Birmingham where you could get good independent label stuff. They’d make an effort to go out there and source these records. Today they are one of if not the only record shop remaining in Birmingham city center. Being approached by Peel … what can I say? It was ace.”

**Order Grind Madness at the BBC here