Archive: brian-hodgson

One of the Radiophonic Workshop’s most famous composers, Delia Derbyshire, left in the early 1970s partly in dismay at the increasing popularity of synthesisers. Disillusioned with the state of electronic music, she soon stopped composing music altogether, only returning to the scene briefly for a couple of years just before her death in 2001.

In recent times, Delia Derbyshire has probably attracted more attention than any other Radiophonic Workshop composer. But during her life it can’t have felt like that. One story often told is that of her application to work as an engineer at Decca, only to be rejected because Decca did not employ women in their studios.

Meanwhile, she received no official credit for realising perhaps the most famous piece of electronic music in the world, the Doctor Who theme tune. It was her job to convert Ron Grainer’s ideas into an electronic composition, and the result stunned Grainer so much that he insisted that Derbyshire share the credit. The BBC wouldn’t allow it.

But while recognition of her talent largely deserted her during her life, today people are well aware of her important contributions to the development of electronic music. There is a near obsessive clamour for any Delia Derbyshire material that can be unearthed.

Earlier this year a library record called Electrosonic was reissued on CD. Along with Li De la Russe (the pseudonym sometimes used by Delia Derbyshire outside of her BBC work), music on the record was also composed Nikki St. George (fellow Radiophonic Workshop composer Brian Hodgson) and Don Harper — not that you’d know it from most references to the album that I have come across. All retailers are listing it as being by Delia Derbyshire. Quibble aside though, there are some real gems on this album, with my favourite track being the delightfully eccentric ‘The Wizard’s Laboratory’.

Tantalisingly, it was revealed this year that 267 tapes from Delia Derbyshire’s attic have been unearthed. There is a promise to “make the archive available to everyone who wants to hear it”.

Appetites have been whetted by the publication on the BBC website of some of the unearthed recordings. Among them is a spellbinding piece of music that sounds quite like a contemporary experimental techno track. Orbital’s Paul Hartnoll noted, “That could be coming out next week on Warp Records.” Amazing for a recording that is almost certainly around forty years old. Nonetheless, Delia Derbyshire comes across as dismissive on the recording itself, saying, “forget about this — it’s for interest only.”

Doctor Who at the Radiophonic Workshop Volume 1 Meanwhile, a couple of CDs of music from Doctor Who were re-released this year. Delia Derbyshire, of course, provided the theme tune(s), though little in the way of effects or incidental music. Most of that was provided by Brian Hodgson, whose works make up the bulk of Doctor Who at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop: Volume 1: The Early Years 1963-1969. For the most part, this disc is less musical, though no less enjoyable for it.

On Volume 2: New Beginnings 1970-1980, the centrepiece is the series of music created by Malcolm Clarke on the “Delaware” synthesiser in which he specialised. This was the first time the Radiophonic Workshop “officially” created music for the series. The result is quite extraordinary — a set of stabbing, piercing, esoteric electronics that sound like the output of someone working in an extra dimension. It’s all the more amazing considering how weedy the Delaware version of the Doctor Who theme sounds.

Doctor Who at the Radiophonic Workshop Volume 2 The sleevenotes describe it as “undoubtedly some of the most uncompromising electronic music ever to feature in mainstream popular entertainment.” It is certainly hard to imagine today’s Doctor Who featuring such adventurous music.

The album is completed by the inclusion of Peter Howell’s 1980 version of the Doctor Who theme — a nod to a new era that is more fully examined in volumes 3 and 4 (not yet re-released). Of all the tweaks and alternate versions of the legendary theme, Howell’s is probably the most successful with the exception of Delia Derbyshire’s original.

Also re-released this year were old compilations The Radiophonic Workshop and BBC Radiophonic Music, the legendary “pink album”.

The John Baker Tapes Volume 1 But among my favourite Radiophonic Workshop-related treats released this year were two CDs comprised of music by John Baker. His brother, the broadcaster Richard Anthony Baker, owned several reels of tapes containing rare John Baker music going back as far as the 1960s. Fearing that these historical tapes would otherwise have been consigned to the dustbin, Richard Baker passed the tapes on so that they could be painstakingly restored. The two volumes of The John Baker Tapes were released on Trunk Records this year.

John Baker was in fact trained as a jazz musician, but ended up in the BBC Radiophonic Workshop as a result of his interest in tape effects. In the words of Radiophonic Workshop archivist Mark Ayres, he could “make musique concrète swing”. A couple of common themes to his music is the twanging sound of a ruler being transformed into some exotic kind of guitar, and inventive uses of glass bottles.

Working there from 1963 until 1974, John Baker became one of the Workshop’s most prolific composers. But in addition to his work for the BBC, he earned about three times as much making music for commercials and suchlike. All the while he was using complex tape manipulation techniques, the main avenue of electronic music exploration prior to the widespread availability of the synthesiser.

The workload began to take its toll, and John Baker became dependent on alcohol. The BBC persevered with him for a few years, but he was eventually dismissed in 1974, partly because his music had also become weirder and less popular. Like Delia Derbyshire, he made very little music after leaving the Radiophonic Workshop.

The John Baker Tapes Volume 2 Volume 1 of The John Baker Tapes focuses on his work for the Radiophonic Workshop, while volume 2 contains his other work. In addition to his delightful music, there are some wonderful behind-the-scenes gems. You hear John Baker describing the process behind how he made two of his pieces. Volume 2 is peppered with strange electronic experiments that were done at home, along with some wonderful recordings of his jazz piano playing.

The disc concludes with his obituary as broadcast by Richard Anthony Baker on BBC Radio 5 Live’s Brief Lives. More touching, though, is the obituary he wrote for the sleevenotes, which you can also read online. The CDs also come with rare photographs of John Baker and notes for each track. The CDs are both exquisitely packaged, with a beautiful 1960s-influenced design.

One CD I’m waiting to get my hands on is Oramics, a collection of music by the pioneering co-founder of the Radiophonic Workshop, Daphne Oram. I can hardly wait to hear it.

Radiophonic Workshop resources

I also got a lot of the information contained in these two posts from an edition of the Stuart Maconie’s Freak Zone podcast, ‘FreakZone: 26/10/08 The Radiophonic Workshop Special’. It’s not available from the BBC any more, but if you can find it elsewhere I highly recommend it.

Regular readers may know that I have an interest in electronic music. 2008 has been a bit of a treat for fans of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. This year marked 50 years since the establishment of the hugely influential sound effects and music department of the BBC. That, combined with a coincidental discovery of new tapes, has brought a feast of Radiophonic Workshop-related CD releases during the year.

I love the work of the composers of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. For anyone with even a passing interest in electronic music, some of these CDs are an absolute must. Over the years, the Radiophonic Workshop produced some of the world’s most famous electronic music.

It is probably most famous for providing music to Doctor Who. The Radiophonic Workshop was, however, originally set up to meet the growing demand for music and effects to be used in experimental plays and “radiophonic poems” on the Third Programme for which suitable library music could not always be found.

But eventually, the Radiophonic Workshop’s music and effects were in fact used by programmes in every single department of the BBC, meaning that few people in Britain can have been untouched by this magical music. Low-budget education programmes made particularly frequent use of the Workshop’s output. An early exposure to experimental electronic music inspired many to become electronic musicians themselves.

Of course, almost all music produced today is electronic in some form. What we take for granted was largely pioneered by a rather unexotic bunch working away painstakingly in a Maida Vale studio. Initially, the equipment they worked on was old and unreliable even by contemporary standards, having been recovered from the BBC’s “redundancy plant”.

At first no-one could work at the Radiophonic Workshop for longer than six months, as the BBC had a fear that prolonged exposure to electronic music could cause mental illness! Meanwhile, the time-consuming musique concrète techniques largely employed in the 1960s would have many of today’s musicians, who practically have electronic music on tap, running for the hills. Brian Hodgson says he once stayed up for three successive days and nights in order to meet his deadline.

“Radiophonic” music was made possible by the increasing availability of tape recorders which allowed inquiring minds to manipulate sounds in interesting ways. The majority of early electronic music was made by cutting and splicing tapes, changing their speed in order to create the right notes and sounds. Delia Derbyshire always carried with her a book of logarithms so that she could make the calculations required to do her work.

BBC Radiophonic Workshop -- A Retrospective artwork One CD released this year, BBC Radiophonic Workshop — A Retrospective, provides an excellent overview of the output of the Workshop over its forty year life. It showcases the extraordinary diversity of the Radiophonic Workshop. It ranges from a comedy belch produced in 1959 for The Goon Show, to the 1997 theme tune for Michael Palin’s Full Circle, via local radio station jingles and news stings.

The double disc compilation is arranged in chronological order, allowing the listener to track the development of electronic music-making techniques over time. The earlier tracks are, oddly enough, the ones that have stood the test of time much better.

The introduction of the synthesiser may have enabled composers to create electronic music much more easily and quickly. But it also brought with it a set of identikit sounds that were mostly devoid of the charm of the earlier compositions. In my personal view, even though the mastery of the composers remains fairly high throughout, the quality of the sound diminishes as the CD goes on, particularly from the mid-1980s onwards.

By that time, Radiophonic Workshop was struggling to set itself apart. While in the 1960s and 1970s the Workshop had unrivalled access to excellent electronic music making equipment, the 1980s brought about the more widespread availability of such equipment, along with a quality that today sounds rather naff. Soon enough the Radiophonic Workshop found itself being undercut by freelance musicians.

With the BBC’s cost-cutting era under John Birt well under way, the Radiophonic Workshop struggled to justify its existence. It was finally wound up in 1997, just short of its fortieth birthday, by which time just one composer, Elizabeth Parker, was working for it.

Although it is easy to let romance get the better of you, listening to the CD makes me think that the Radiophonic Workshop had ceased to be relevant by then. Fifty years ago, electronic music was a largely unexplored area, ripe for experimentation. By the 1990s, any musician could make music from his home that sounded just as good as what the Radiophonic Workshop could produce.

Nonetheless, there are some real gems to be found on this album. Maddalena Fagandini’s ‘Interval Signal’ is hypnotic and magical. Along with Delia Derbyshire’s ‘Dance from “Noah”‘, it sounds decades ahead of its time. Meanwhile, Peter Howell’s ‘Greenwich Chorus’ sounds so fantastic that it reportedly jammed the BBC’s switchboards when it was broadcast.

This excellent retrospective CD was just one of many Radiophonic wonders that we were brought this year. My next post will look at some of the other Radiophonic Workshop-related gems that have been unearthed.

An Electric Storm cover art Despite my interest in electronic music, my collection — shamefully — doesn’t contain very much from before the 1990s. The only ones that I can think of from the top of my head are an album of music from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, some Brian Eno and Steve Reich. A recent purchase makes me wonder if I should be buying more old electronic music.

White Noise was the idea of David Vorhaus, a classical double bassist with an interest in electronics. After attending a lecture, he approached members of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop — Delia Derbyshire (creator of the famous Doctor Who theme tune) and Brian Hodgson (who created the sounds of the Tardis and the Daleks). Together, they worked for a year on An Electric Storm, perhaps one of the most seminal electronic music albums there has ever been.

Incidentally, Delia Derbyshire was a genius in her own right. On an album showcasing Music from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Derbyshire’s work stands out. ‘Time to Go’ takes the famous pips of the Greenwich Time Signal and turns it into a cacophony of blips and bleeps before descending into farts, burps and squirts. I wonder if it inspired David Lowe?

‘Ziwzih Ziwzih OO-OO-OO’ is my favourite though. An utterly mad piece of music centring around a mad robotic chant. It sounds like it could have been created by a trippy early 1970s rock band, but it was made by a geek in a lab. There is a clip about this particular piece on this page about the BBC documentary ‘Alchemists of Sound’.

Back to An Electric Storm though. Listening to it, you can tell that it is not a recent work. It contains the sort of tricks used by the Radiophonic Workshop. But in a way this is what amazes me the most about it. This album is almost forty years old, yet it sounds more amazing than a great deal of the electronic music made today.

It’s all the more impressive when you consider the multiple hurdles the group had to clear. Having signed a contract with Island Records, they realised that they didn’t know how they were going to record the album. The first works were made by sneaking into the studios of the Radiophonic Workshop. But making an entire album this way would have been too risky. They had to build their own studio and using home-made equipment.

The album was made in an era before the widespread availability of synthesisers. Most of the noises were made by tape manipulation, a laborious task. The technique sounds a bit like an audio version of stop-motion animation. An original sound (from, for instance, Vorhaus’s bass) would have to be sped up or slowed down for each and every note. Even echo effects were achieved by rather crude means — playing two identical tapes out of phase.

A particularly ambitious song, ‘The Visitation’, took three months to make. Recording was taking so long that they faced legal action from Island and had to finish the album overnight. That the track in question — ‘Black Mass: An Electric Storm in Hell’ — doesn’t sound as though it was particularly rushed boggles my mind.

And what did White Noise receive for their toil? The album sold a paltry 200 copies in its first year, and the group made just £280. Luckily for us, and for electronic music as a whole, it gained traction in subsequent years and became an underground classic. This year it was remastered and re-released.

It is a genuinely pioneering record. Today an artist is labelled ‘experimental’ just for using a farty synth. But White Noise were actually pushing the boundaries and creating something truly amazing. It’s incredible to think that something so ambitious for its time should actually stand the test of time this well.

The album opens with the intriguing ‘Love Without Sound’. Vorhaus’s intention was to release this as a single to try and convert the population to electronic music. The result is a song that is equal parts accessible and impenetrable.

John Whitman’s vocals are other-worldly and detached. The music is a surreal, part-humorous, part-unsettling cacophony of clicks, clacks and warbles. This cleverly interacts with female laughs and moans. Despite the wide and unpredictable range of sounds, the resulting collage makes perfect sense, in its own surreal way. Think the “ho-ho, he-he, ha-ha” bit in ‘I Am the Walrus’, but lasting for an entire song.

This is followed by ‘My Game of Loving’. This track features a famous section of mad tumbling drums laid on top of a kaleidoscopic orgy which is comically followed by snoring. The sex-frenzy is sonically interesting, but make sure you don’t have your iPod too loud or you’ll get some funny looks on the train.

This track particularly reminds me of two more recent electronic acts. The spliced tabla-style drums remind me very much of Asa-Chang & Junray, while I would be amazed if the orgy section didn’t inspire some of Aphex Twin’s more humorous moments. This is not to mention Stereolab and Broadcast, who are influenced by White Noise as a whole.

The humour continues on the next track, ‘Here Come the Fleas’. While today’s electronic musicians are perceived as being serious, beard-stroking types, ‘Here Come the Fleas’ reminds you of the comedy potential of electronic music. The song lays into a lazy slob’s poor hygiene standards. The middle of the song is dominated by a brilliant section that would have made a cool guitar solo. It would have been so easy just to pick up a guitar and do it, but they had to go the hard way and make it with tapes, didn’t they?

That is on the “happy” side, known as ‘Phase-In’. People must have thought that this pioneering electronic music is a barrel of laughs. They were in for a shock when the turned the record over for the ‘Phase-Out’ side. The smiles and laughter are wiped away and the listener is treated to something that approaches the horror genre.

‘The Visitation’ — the track that took three months to make — is, for me, the highlight of the album. This stunning piece is about a couple of lovers who are torn apart by a motorcycle accident. As the girl screams, “please don’t go”, the motorcycle crashes. The spirit of the man who was killed tries to communicate with his weeping girlfriend, but is unable to.

It’s quite spine-chilling really. The music is genuinely haunting and really paints a picture of a dark, rainy night on a remote road where the motorcyclist is killed. It uses stereo to brilliant effect as well.

The singing and narration also creates the right mood. The spirit’s voice echoes spookily, while the singer is the coldly neutral bearer of bad news. When he sings, “Her lover’s not asleep, he’s DEEEAAAAD”, it makes the hairs on my neck stand up.

As I said, it could actually be a horror film. It would make a cracking piece of radio drama. This could be one of my favourite pieces of music. An eleven minute journey into a horrifying affair — it’s impossible not to feel sad listening to it.

Listening to An Electric Storm, there is no doubt that it is a unique product of 1969, the like of which could never be made again. Pitchfork’s review of the album says:

White Noise’s landmark 1969 album An Electric Storm might not the first thing most people think of when considering 1960s music, but there are few records anywhere tied more intrinsically to the moment of their creation. Recorded in the months immediately prior to the widespread availability of keyboard-based synthesizers, An Electric Storm might be one of the most painstakingly crafted electronic recordings of all time. Pieced together on improvised equipment via innumerable tape edits, this remarkable album is at once futuristic and unavoidably date-stamped, serving as a fascinating audio snapshot of a bygone era in sound generation and recording technology.

This was a time before the widespread use of synthesisers and computers, but at a time where there was a lot of enthusiasm and ambition for electronic music. I can’t help thinking that it’s just a little bit too easy to make electronic music today. It is impossible to imagine anyone except the bravest / maddest of souls dedicating a year of their lives laboriously fiddling about with tapes when they could just use their laptop to embark on a sonic adventure.

Given just how mind-bending this early electronic music is compared to a lot of today’s identikit techno, I can’t help but wonder if advances in technology have restricted musicians as much as liberated them.

If you are remotely interested in electronic music, I would recommend this almost as a must-buy. Not only is the music amazing, but it is also a real insight into the painstaking approaches of electronic musicians of the past (the sleeve notes are brilliantly educational in this regard). It really is true to say that they don’t make them like they used to.