I don't know. You wait for one BBC Radiophonic Workshop album and then loads come along at once. And a special treat for John Baker fans. Double plus good to Mute for three CD re-releases this November and to Trunk Records for their 2 CD tribute to John Baker earlier in the summer. OK, shall we dive in!
THE RADIOPHONIC WORKSHOP
(Mute Bank PHONIC2CD - Released 3rd November 2008)
A 1975 compilation of a wide range of compositions from the talented composers that passed through the doors of the much missed institution. This was remastered by Mark Ayres in 2002 and re-released with two additional tracks from John Baker. The majority of the tracks were composed especially for this release rather than being specifically commissioned for television or radio programmes. This is a self-indulgent voyage in knob-twiddling on the huge Delaware synthesiser then taking up residence in Maida Vale, mixed with a wide variety of manipulated sound effects as well as a chance to record and mix pieces in stereo. The utterly absurd jostles with genuinely atmospheric music and soundscapes in a gloriously anarchic and resolutely British manner. There's the wonderful 'boinging' rhythms and jittery jazz sound clash of Baker's Brio, Accentric and Chino, Dick Mills proving there's more to him than just the special sound effects he provided on countless shows (including the Major Bloodnock's Stomach effect included here) with an eerie work called Adagio, a menacing wash of wind-like sound punctuated by atonal synthetic trills and bleeps and the poppy lounge cheese of Roger Limb's Geraldine.
Mad as a box of frogs...Is Malcolm Clarke mad ? His opener is daft enough but then it's Bath Time with its water sound effects, gurgling babies and farty synthesisers that suddenly recall the outrageous stuff he did with the music for Doctor Who's The Sea Devils. It's charming. His Romanescan Rout is all warbling and squelchy electronics that must have inspired The Human League and countless other 1980s bands. It's the trumpet salute and the exploding cannons that really throw you off guard here. Amongst my personal faves are the contributions from Glynis Jones. Nénuphar, a co-composition with Clarke, has a wonderful atmosphere. Wind chimes and bird like noises conjure up a virtual beach populated with digital birds which then bleed into a rhythmic pulsing and fluttering, and then the anxious and creepy soundscapes of Veils And Mirrors, the distorted and disturbing electro-bird song and lullabies of Schlum Rooli. Paddy Kingsland's The Panel Beaters, Kitten Lullaby and World Of Science are thorough synthesiser cheese, and have echoes of Wendy Carlos, whereas Mills goes for testing the full stereo effect of bicycle bells, birdsong and car crashes on Crazy Dazy. Richard Yeoman Clark's Waltz Antipathy sounds like something electronically off-kilter from Doctor Who as it self destructs and reconstructs itself rhythmically. Mad as a box of frogs, I love this album to bits. Comes with a set of liner notes from Mark Ayres and a CD label complete with the old BBC records logo. Ahhhh.
BBC RADIOPHONIC WORKSHOP - A Retrospective
(Mute Bank PHONIC3CD - Released 3rd November 2008)
Long, long overdue retrospective. This features two earlier albums from the Workshop, BBC Radiophonic Workshop - 21 a 21st Anniversary compilation in 1979. It was compiled as a showcase of their work from 1958 to 1971, covering the early work of Desmond Briscoe, Delia Derbyshire, Daphne Oram and Maddalena Fagadini. The second album The Soundhouse was a 1983 compilation of music and reflected the many advances had been made in the use of computer technology to produce electronic music and this was reflected on the compilation with much of the material having been performed using the Fairlight CMI, the first digital sampling synthesiser. Mute and Mark Ayres have brought the two albums together with some previously unreleased material, extended cues and odd bits and pieces for this 2 CD retrospective. 68 tracks on Disc1 and 39 tracks on Disc2 would mean a review as big as a telephone directory so I'm going to pick some highlights. The ethereal Amphitryon 38 by Oram sounds like something from Forbidden Planet, there are the still disturbing, rather petrifying sound collages made by Briscoe for the BBC version of Quatermass And The Pit, and a trio of tracks from Phil Young that are fine examples of the music concrete of the Workshop's early days. Fagadini's work includes the mesmeric Interval Signal and Time Beat. Some pre-Who Delia Derbyshire is here with the frankly bizarre Arabic Science And Industry, the ubiquitous Who theme and TARDIS sound effect, the hilarious Know Your Car. All of it determined by mathematical structures, tape loops and cut ups and not a synthesiser in sight. They're constructed works, composed sound collages. Her Science And Health has a pulsing rhythm that wouldn't be out of place in a trip-hop track. Brian Hodgson and Bridget Marrow's opening for The Slide is rather shuddery. Two lovely tracks come from John Baker, Bobby Shaftoe and The Lambton Worm which are jaunty, happy little tunes. As we hurtle towards 1970, you can hear the techniques being refined and adjusted and there's a finesse to the material like Chronicle and Great Zoos Of The World.
Greenwich Chorus sounds like it escaped from A Clockwork Orange...Derbyshire's Dance With Noah is one of the first instances where a synthesiser makes its presence felt. And god bless her, it's still full of her trademark unearthliness. Paddy Kingsland enters the fray with Sequence, a light, atmospheric piece, and then we get a four minute suite from The Changes, a children's fantasy series that I clearly remember this wonderful music from. Kingsland mixes his synthesisers with effects and non European instruments including sitars and tablas. Gorgeous stuff. Along with Kingsland, we get familiar names such as Peter Howell, Malcolm Clarke and Roger Limb who primarily usher in the use of synthesisers, multi-track stereo recording and early forms of sampling mixed in with traditional instrumentation. Clarke's BBC2 Serial music is a short but dense layering of electronics and what sounds like brass and Limb's The Plunderers is a rather harsh piece that sets the teeth on edge and his best piece here is For Love Or Money with its harpsichord dramatics. There are a number of pieces by Howell that are beautifully considered, The Secret War has a warmth to it that takes away the bluntness of some of the Workshops doodlings with synthesisers and this is exemplified in the stunning 5 minute suite The Astronauts which must be, along with his theme from The Body In Question, some of the finest electronic music to come from the Workshop at the time. Many of the composers have specific signatures in their work and you can hear the use of melody, rhythm and structure that would eventually end up in scores for Doctor Who episodes from 1980 onwards. A Whisper From Space sounds like it should be playing over Logopolis. Greenwich Chorus sounds like it escaped from A Clockwork Orange and I don't mean that disparagingly. Disc 1 ends with a few salvos from maverick Malcolm Clarke - the bizarre Hurdy Gurdy, the menacing The Unseeing Eye and The Milonga which also showed up much later in Doctor Who's Enlightenment. These, the sweetly minimal Seascape from Dick Mills and atmospheric Yellow Moon by Roger Limb, demonstrate the Worskshop in full creative flow by 1980.
...the real discovery here is Dick MillsDisc 2 continues the story. The stand outs here are the Paddy Kingsland music for The Hitch Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy, Peter Howell's stunning Lascaux and the frankly barmy The Comet Is Coming that shows just how experimental Malcolm Clarke was continuing to be with its rampant brass stabs, whooshing and rumbling effects and washes of electronics. There is also some very understated work from Dick Mills on Macrocosm and Liz Parker's superb compositions for The Living Planet. Again, the real discovery here is Dick Mills with the ethereal Catch The Wind which is pretty much an electronic version of the Skye Boat Song. Mills and Howell team up on the frankly barmy Fancy Fish and Jonathan Gibbs enters the fray with Houdini's Musical Box which does exactly what is says on the tin. His cheesy electro-pop Computers In The Real World is what you would call the epitome of the mid-1980s output of the Workshop, electronica with a particularly British eccentricity thrown in which also sums up Clarke's Believe It Or Not, with its farty brass and warbly electronics all akimbo. Dawn by Gibbs is a lilting Japanese influenced piece, almost akin to Bowie's Moss Garden from "Heroes". Quite lovely and devoid of the rather rambunctious quality of the 1980s material. As we proceed into the later 1980s and 1990s pieces it is clear that the cheesiness of the electronics is giving way to serious, considered composition. The combo of synthetic washes and cello on Ghost In The Water, a superb composition by Roger Limb, leaves the plinky plonky quality of Radiophonic Rock trailing behind, even though that track does have its moments.
Woman Of Paris, with its street organ charm, Dandelion Countdown, Heart Of The Matter are all marvellous compositions. The work of Richard Attree and Steve Marshall should also be noted, showing that the Workshop was still attracting great composers in its twilight years. Marshall brings a very sophisticated slice of Jean Michel Jarre to the proceedings. His title music for Kingdom Of The Thunder Dragon is really quite fantastic, embracing a repetitive motif akin to Nyman. He and Attree, with Elizabeth Parker and Peter Howell, really show what was achieved by composers as opposed to the equally brilliant achievements of sound designers like Mills, Derbyshire, Oram and Hodgson. It's a joy to hear Attree's music for The Demon Headmaster and Parker's music for the Lost Garden's Of Heligan but by the end of the second disc you do feel that the individuality of each composer has been subsumed by a Radiophonic Workshop house style where everything does start to sound slightly the same.
This is a superb summary of the output from Maida Vale and an essential purchase if you are even remotely interested in British electronic music.
THE JOHN BAKER TAPES - Volumes 1 & 2
(Trunk Records - JBH028CD, JBH029CD Released July/August 2008)
I've been meaning to review these two albums for a while but with one thing and another...
So, John Baker? A very talented, sensitive musician, classically trained at the Royal College Of Music whose name is most definitely amongst the roll call of honour at the now defunct BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Yep, he's up there with Delia, Brian, David Cain, Desmond Briscoe and Daphne Oram and thanks to Trunk Records we get two CDs full of his work to remind us just how clever, mercurial and prolific he was. Everything from local radio jingles, incidental music, adverts, jazz noodlings, sound experimentations and even the odd interview snippet. What strikes you about these compositions, especially on the less formal second volume, is that they stand in stark contrast to the work of Derbyshire, for example. He was often critical of Delia's work, seeing her more as a technician, a slave to mathematics, than a musician. It's debatable but it's the very playful, often warm, melodic qualities of his music that do leap off these recordings.
His knob-twiddling and tape slicing inspired much that came later...Long before television and radio producers would reach for the latest Moby or Sigur Ros to temp score or provide the soundtrack to their latest natural history series, John and his colleagues provided the soundtracks to the nation's televisual and audio pleasures. His knob-twiddling and tape slicing inspired much that came later and you can hear Aphex Twin and The Chemical Brothers stalking about in the background of these soundtracks. Volume 1 concentrates on a selection of work produced at the Radiophonic Workshop between 1963 and 1969. This is a selection of radio idents, incidentals from various television and radio programmes. Baker built these tracks up piece-by-piece via sound recordings of everyday objects like glass bottles, wooden rulers and dripping water, cutting together and looping magnetic tape and fiddling with oscillators and reverberation effects.
Volume 2 collects Baker’s soundtrack, library and home recordings between 1963 and 1975, as well as a collection of his music for adverts. This album is a very personal, far warmer recording, often catching Baker in an experimental mode, using dub, loops and feedback many decades before it became fashionable. The experimental electronics sit beside Baker's jazz noodlings at home on the piano as well as ads for Omo (that's a washing powder for you youngsters out there). These come complete with thorough liner notes and some very moving recollections from his brother that add a tinge of sadness to a tragic life.
Cathode Ray Tube BBC Radiophonic Workshop John Baker British Electronic Music