“Ladies and gentlemen, Mogwai.” The first sound on Mogwai’s Government Commissions: BBC Sessions 1996-2003
is the voice of John Peel, the British radio legend who died of a heart attack last year at the age of 65. A smattering of applause, and we’re off.
While the idiosyncratic disc jockey was a cult figure in the U.S., he enjoys superstar status in his native country, where for the last 37 years his voice graced the airwaves for BBC’s Radio 1. Peel would often invite artists to perform on his show, with the recorded material invariably being released (not always officially) to the public under the moniker “Peel Sessions.”
It seems self-explanatory that Mogwai’s record is dedicated to Peel, as it is from these sessions, along with appearances on fellow BBC DJ Steve Lamacq’s program, that the ten tracks found on Government Commissions are culled.
While Government Commissions is technically a collection of live recordings, it manages to steer away from the pitfalls of so many live albums—incoherent and/or rambling stage banter, poor recording quality, annoying fans interacting—due to the setting in which these songs were recorded. Ultimately, it’s more like sitting in on a practice session than it is going to a show. The sparse radio studio turns out to be an excellent venue for the band, allowing their lazy, tumbling compositions plenty of room to breathe.
Government Commission’s true strength lies in its impeccable sequencing. The album’s spans Mogwai’s four albums, as well as two tracks from Ten Rapid, a collection of early singles predating the band’s classic 1997 debut, Young Team. But rather than coming off like a hodge-podge of oddities, it has a straight and organic flow, peaking with a ballooned-out version of the schizophrenic epic “Like Herod” and coming to rest with a fittingly shoegaze whimper on the fuzzed-out “Stop Coming To My House.”
As is true of Mogwai’s entire discography, vocals are scarce. Other than the ghostly intonations of the opener “Hunted By A Freak” and the passive pleas floating along on “Cody,” the songs here are made up entirely of the interplay between swelling guitars and keyboards, with the percussion in the backseat.
The intermittent presence of vocals only serves to further stir the strange brew of shimmers and undulations that is the band’s signature sound. Their ascetic abstention from such a historically fundamental element of rock is somewhat surprising but goes a ways in illuminating the reason these four Scots aren’t better known.
The fact that a group like Mogwai can even find an audience for its strangely mutated sonic constructions says something about John Peel and his ilk’s influence on popular music over the last three decades. Peel was committed to playing music that he liked, simple as that—damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead! This revolutionary attitude put his broadcasts head and shoulders above afraid-to-fail approach that plagues most other radio. Peel is credited with assisting the launch of the careers of such divergent acts as Captain Beefheart, the Buzzcocks, the Smiths, Pulp, and the White Stripes.
Peel’s tombstone features the words “Teenage dreams / so hard to beat,” the opening line of his favorite song, The Undertones’ “Teenage Kicks,” a testament to his lifelong (and beyond) dedication to underappreciated music. So the next time you’re knocking a few back and trying to understand who hands over hard-earned cash for Maroon 5 records, realize that if it wasn’t for people dedicated to exposing quality music, you might be spinning bullshit like “This Love” too—and then tip out your forty for every indie lover’s dead homey, John Peel.