The Roundhouse, Camden, London - 17th May 2009, 7.00pm
They say nostalgia isn't what it used to be. Last night at The Roundhouse, nostalgia was back with a vengeance as the former members of the BBC's Radiophonic Workshop, which closed its doors in March 1998 (apparently Liz Parker did actually switch the lights off!), took to the stage and embraced an appreciative audience in a warm, fuzzy back catalogue musical wallow of seismic proportions. Emerging as a collective group of white coated, Quatermass-boffin-like music group pioneers, Messrs Paddy Kingsland, Roger Limb, Peter Howell, Dick Mills and Mark Ayres plugged in their instruments, fired up their pro-tools and turned the Roundhouse into a time machine. It was not only a heart-warming paean to electronic music pioneers, name checking and showcasing legendary names Delia Derbyshire, Brian Hodgson, Madalene Fagandini, Desmond Briscoe, Daphne Oram and John Baker along the way, but also, by heavens, it made you extremely proud to be eccentric and British!
...tape reels, bizarre animations and classic title sequences
Kicking off with a lab coated Dick Mills twiddling his knobs on a VCS3 and firing up the time warp into which the audience were plunged, all manner of smashing visual treats were relayed to us on the three screens hanging above the ensemble. Starfields, colour and black and white images of the Radiophonic staff, tape reels, bizarre animations and classic title sequences (BBC Micro Live, Towards Tomorrow!) and extracts from the BBC archive. A wonderful musical suite of material from founder Desmond Briscoe got the ball rolling featuring work from Quatermass And The Pit (including the chilling sound effects of the Martian id released from the buried ship) and Dick Mills effects for The Goon Show set to clips and stills. Peter Howell then introduced us to the Vocoder and serenaded the audience with a delightful version of Greenwich Chorus which has always reminded me of the Wendy Carlos work on A Clockwork Orange.
Peter, Roger, Paddy, Dick and Mark all took turns to introduce the works and were more than ably supported by...sharp intake of breath...a real brass section, real percussionists and drummer and a sax player. Roger provided us with his musical calling card and there was a collective cheer as the ensemble launched into that wonderful Kingsland composition 'Reg', which all Who fans will recall was the B side to the original 45rpm of the Doctor Who theme. Paddy noted that the tune was used for a programme about Africa but am I mistaken in recalling it was often used on cricket and tennis coverage in the late 1970s.
After this the nostalgia floodgates were wide open, with two further tributes; one to Delia Derbyshire with a suite of work (introduced by Dick Mills wielding that sacred object of Delia devotion, the green metal lampshade) and including the 'of course they couldn't leave those out' recordings of Blue Veils And Golden Sands and Ziwzih Ziwzih 00-00-00 from the Out Of The Unknown episode 'The Prophet'. The other tribute was to the lovely John Baker and the Radiophonic lads did him proud with a storming version of New Worlds, the sting of which is instantly familiar to those of us who grew up with John Craven and Newsround in the 1970s.
...whilst the majority of them are near pensionable age they haven't lost it!Paddy introduced a suite of music for schools programmes including the irresistably catchy theme from Words And Pictures, Roger spoke about the continuity music Swirly (which according to Roger was actually Shirley in homage to the woman who commisioned it) and Peter discussed the music for Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy and how often the labour undertaken by the musicians at the Workshop often got buried beneath all the other stuff going on in programmes (actors and sound effects were mentioned). To this end the boys recreated the Brighton Pier (erroneously titled because the sequence in Hitchhiker mentions South End Pier) music from the programme overlaid onto the sequence where Ford and Arthur are rescued by the Heart Of Gold. If anything, this simply demonstrated how creative this group of musicians were (and are) and how all their efforts often go unrecognised. Roger confirmed as much when he described how hard he often found it to describe to people at dinner parties just what it was he did at the BBC! However, it wasn't all archive material. Those BBC electronic music boffins have recently been writing together and presented a wonderful new piece called Dancing In The Waves, full of funky electronic noodling and a jazzy sound demonstrating that whilst the majority of them are near pensionable age, they haven't lost it!
Move over Murray, let the old fellas have a bash again.
And so to Doctor Who. A whole section took us from a pant-wettingly quadrophonic version of the Delia Derbyshire realisation of the theme, electronic swoops, loops and swirls leaping across the Roundhouse venue, to Brian Hodgson's booming and resonant ambiences for The Wheel In Space, via Malcolm Clarke's still revolutionary electronic score for The Sea Devils (accompanied by much hilarity at the footage of the Sea Devil attack on the naval base) and finally onto a fully accompanied suite from Keeper Of Traken and Logopolis, focusing on Kingsland's gorgeous music for the regeneration of Tom into Peter (timely considering we'll be seeing David turn into Matt this Christmas). Mark Ayres' scores for The Greatest Show In The Galaxy, Ghost Light and The Curse Of Fenric rounded off a very fitting tribute to the classic series. Howell then topped this off by leading his fellow reprobates into a 'hairs up the back of the neck' version of his own 1980 realisation of the theme that then became a full on, prog/synth rock wig out which quite frankly would not look out place over the programme's current title sequence. Move over Murray, let the old fellas have a bash again.
...voice cracking with emotion Mills paid tribute to his erstwhile colleaguesThe evening concluded with a selection of music from Sea Trek, a suite that provided evidence for one of the Radiophonic's old dictats, that music and sound effects were often woven together and that the seam between them was largely undetectable. Howell finally introduced another Who 45rpm B side, The Astronauts, a composite piece for a programme about space and a documentary about ancient astronauts (we were still intrigued by that von Daniken stuff when I were a lad) and he offered us a word of warning that what he might have been able to create in the studio with multiple takes wasn't going to be that easy to handle in a live situation. It's a fantastic slab of Jean Michel Jarre inspired BBC synth rock music and Howell did initially have a bit of trouble playing what Slartibartfast might well have described 'the fiddly bits'. But he ploughed on and ended the suite with much relief and some triumph. Dick Mills took to the stage once again, and voice cracking with emotion (and enough to get me teary eyed too) paid tribute to his erstwhile colleagues and brought them back out for a rousing encore of Radiophonic Rock.
Peter Howell plays Greenwich Chorus. Video courtesy of metaltax on You Tube.
A simply marvellous night of nostalgia, analogue synthesisers, Vocoders, music concrete, tape cut ups and anecdotes, both a feast for the ears and the eyes, that formed a suitably eccentric and surreal tribute to the 50 years of the Workshop, to a long lost BBC that used to pay people for mucking about with sound and to a great tradition in experimental electronic music 'made in Britain'. Long may their influence be felt, and judging by the age range in the audience their music and compositions do seem to be inspiring not just the nostalgia junkies but young musicians alike, and let's appreciate that at least for one night the doors to Maida Vale were flung open once again and everyone was made welcome.
Reviews of the recently released John Baker albums from Trunk Records, and the Radiophonic Workshop reissues are here. A review of Trunk Records' The Tomorrow People album is here and a short essay on the work composed by Delia and Brian (Electrosounds and White Heat) outside of the Workshop is here.
Thanks to 'rainycat' for the marvellous photos. Flickr stream is here.
Cathode Ray Tube Radiophonic Workshop Roundhouse British electronic music