Recording a radio session for John Peel was a feather in the cap for many an artist or band, and to be invited back more than once was one of the greatest stamps of approval possible from the tastemaking radio DJ. The Chills, the New Zealand pop band led by Martin Phillipps, were one of the lucky ones, recording three sessions for Peel during the ‘80s.
Like the many Peel Session collections that have come before it, this disc provides an interesting glimpse into how The Chills operated, with songs getting stripped down or beefed up for live performance, as well as early versions of tunes that had yet to be recorded. On the earliest session, recorded in 1985, Phillipps both reined in the band’s jagged attack with the previously galloping “Brave Words” becoming a more straightforward pop song, and cut looser by ramping up the tempo of “Rolling Moon” and putting the emphasis on its perfect organ hook.
By the time of their next BBC appearance two years later, the lineup of The Chills had shifted with the arrival of bassist Justin Harwood, keyboardist Andrew Todd and drummer Caroline Easther. Those versatile players allowed Phillipps to go further out with his songwriting as heard on the high wire spin of “Living In a Jungle” and strangely intoxicating instrumental “Moonlight on Flesh.”
The same quartet returned to the UK a year later and recorded what I think will be most interesting to Chills fans who haven’t already heard these sessions (everything on this disc was previously released in the sprawling 2001 set Secret Box). Three tracks are early versions of songs that would wind up on the band’s 1990 major label debut Submarine Bells, and you can hear that Phillipps was still working the kinks out of the tunes. The lyrics for “Part Past Part Fiction” had yet to reach the same dream-like quality of the music, and a wandering bridge section was not yet axed from the otherwise punchy “Dead Web.”
Even in their nascent form though, the songs provide ample evidence of Phillipps’ growing strength as a songwriter. The case is made even further when listening to this disc in one sitting. He had yet to hit his peak and yet to fall into the drug-fueled decline that kept him and The Chills off the scene for much of the ‘90s.
This collection comes along amid a flurry of activity by Phillipps on behalf of the group, including a live recording released last year and a brand new track that arrived this summer. There may be more chapters in The Chills story yet to be told, but while we wait, this disc offers up some great background material to prime us for their hopeful return.