Presented for your approval, my latest broadcast work produced for the BBC World Service regarding the subject of Chichester University’s one-day symposium on the Radiophonic Workshop, the Godfathers (and Godmothers) of British electronic music, a quintet of whom have reformed and are touring their classic works to a whole new generation of admirers. With the prospect of a summer spent gingerly moving vintage analogue hardware round a succession of festivals now confirmed, Chichester University had organised a day of talks and discussions about the Workshop’s rich history and enduring legacy; followed by an evening’s live performance of some of their classic Radiophonic works.
And what classics they are. The impact of the Workshop on the history of electronic music simply cannot be understated, and its influence spreads throughout all strands of British culture, from Quatermass and the Pitt to Captain Ganja and the Space Patrol. Yet despite it’s long and distinguished career supplying four decades-worth of radio and TV programmes with sound effects, theme tunes and incidental music (plus getting sampled by rare and bonkers British reggae albums), there was never a moment of doubt as to how the day’s audience and invited experts – musicians, DJs, producers and sci-fi nerds – came first to hear of the workshop and, frequently, of electronic music in general. It was, of course, Doctor Who and the strange, enthralling and decidedly avant-garde sounds that it introduced to generations of children at Saturday tea-time.
Full disclosure – Despite appearing in Iain Wilson’s excellent documentary That Dr. Who Sound! for Australia’s ABC Radio last year, I’m not actually much of an authority on the good Doctor. You can tell this because I have a nagging fondness for the Sylvester McCoy era, even if it does mostly seem to consist Bonnie Langford screaming her way round a succession of interstellar leisure centres. But in both it’s iconic theme tune (and there’s a good argument for the case that it’s the most famous television ‘sig’ of all time) and the incidental music and sound effects; the influence this programme alone has had on the past half-century of music-making is so mind-boggling it makes my hair stand on end. Particularly those hairs on the back of my neck that still tingle every single time I hear the TARDIS engines roaring into life. The original brief for this sound effect, we’re told, was ‘the very fabric of time and space being torn apart’. The solution was Brian Hodgson’s Mother’s front door key scraped along the wire of a broken-down piano. You will doubtless have heard this story many times already, yet somehow the knowledge of such prosaic origins does absolutely nothing to diminish its magic. Bless you, Mother Hodgson…
I’m not going to linger too much on a review of the day, fellow Radiophoniphile Nick Joy has written an excellent account for Scifibulletin.com, which manages to say pretty much everything I would have done, only better (he also let me steal a number of his photos). For my part, I was most privileged to interview Paddy Kingsland, Roger Limb, Dick Mills and Mark Ayres for the World Service report (although sadly the rigours of the day’s programme of discussions, lectures and the endless sound-checking of delicate analogue equipment left no time to fit in the great Peter Howell and complete the set). However, each of these most interesting and amiable gentlemen gave me so much fascinating material that I’ve decided to publish the full transcripts EXCLUSIVELY on these pages over the next couple of weeks. Forgive me for boasting, but THAT is what I call a coup! Besides, if the legendary Dick Mills starts telling you about his wife’s stated desire to stamp on one of his newly-completed works, you’re hardly going to leave it on the cutting room floor, are you?
Sadly I can’t bring you any recordings of the performance itself, due to copyright issues being strictly enforced. But I can tell you it was a beautifully nuanced audio-visual tour of the Workshop’s past, present and future, with classic tracks rubbing shoulders with newer works in progress. Particularly worthy of note was their cover version of Joe Meek’s classic ‘Telstar’, Delia Derbyshire’s ‘Zizwih Zizwih OO-OO-OO-OO’ transformed into pounding techno, and Peter Howell leading a performance of vocoder classic ‘Greenwich Chimes’ while silhouetted against archive footage of himself recording the same lines decades earlier. A curiously moving spectacle.
Both in person and as part of the various panel discussions that made up the course of the day, the one thing that struck me about these veterans of the Workshop was their keen-ness to create new music rather than simply rest on their considerable laurels; and of how excited they were by the latest developments in technology. All of this bodes very well for their forthcoming album of new and original material, provisionally titled Electricity, several tracks from which were intermingled with the crowd-pleasing classics in the evening’s performance. But, of course, it goes without saying, there was only ever going to be one piece of music that they could end with. And as the quintet romped through the home stretch of Ron Grainer and Delia Derbyshire’s greatest work, backed by the thundering percussion of latest recruit Kieron Pepper, I’m sure I wasn’t the only person to feel those hairs on the back of my neck rising up once again. Certainly not if the standing ovation they received was anything to judge by.
I’m really looking forward to sharing these interview with you all in full. If you haven’t already done so, you might like to consider subscribing to this blog to avoid missing anything – the button is on the right of this page. You might have to bear with me for a few days, however, Howlround are playing Winchester this Saturday and we’re completely unprepared as usual. All will be revealed. In the meantime, thanks to Dr. Adam Locks, James Haigh and the University of Chichester for organising such an amazing event and to Mark Ayres, Peter Howell, Dick Mills, Paddy Kingsland and Roger Limb for being each so affable and so very entertaining. Oh, and to Nick Joy for the photographs. I must also thank Paddy, Roger and Dick for for defacing one of my most treasured possessions!:
It’s not every day you meet your heroes, you know… 🙂