As promised, following last week’s report for BBC World Service, here is the first of four interviews with the veterans of the Radiophonic Workshop, the ‘Godfathers of British Electronic Music’, now reformed and touring their collection of vintage analogue equipment and classic radiophonic works to rapturous reception. They’ll be featured in the order I interviewed them two weeks ago at the University of Chichester, so we’re starting with synthesiser legend Paddy Kingsland; the man who definitely put the ‘funk’ into radiophonics. Best known for The Fourth Dimension LP (essentially a Kingsland solo album), he has a string of classic BBC themes to his name, as well as providing incidental music for such classics as Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Dr. Who and many more. Paddy has also recorded solo albums, made library music and jingles for KPM and worked alongside composers such as Michael Nyman. His signature sound is melodic synthesiser workouts with a strong rhythmic back-bone and the track ‘Vespucci’ is a highlight of their revived set-list. This interview, slightly truncated here, took place in the artist’s green room at Chichester University; with moderate interruptions from the air conditioning…
PK: I worked at the Radiophonic Workshop for the BBC between 1970 and 1981, which is quite a long time ago now. Of course I’ve done quite a lot of other things since then, but more recently I was approached by some other friends who worked at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and was asked if I‘d be interested in doing some gigs with them – some live events. And so that’s what we’ve been doing. We started, actually, getting on for five years ago at The Roundhouse with a live show which went down very well. There were roughly two thousand people who went to that and they seemed to enjoy it. And we thought, ‘well, is that the two thousand people who might be interested in a show of that sort? Because if it is then that’s it, we’ve done it’! And so we didn’t do very much apart from make enquiries until quite recently, in fact a year ago, when we did a festival at Port Merion – Festival No. 6. It seemed to go down pretty well there, so we’re now doing a series of festivals this year.
We were asked to come [to Chichester University] because they have an event which is dedicated to the Radiophonic Workshop, which of course hasn’t been running for several years now. And so there’s all sorts of interest in that, so it’s a big honour to be asked to be involved. We’re doing a number of chats with the various people like Roger Limb, Mark Ayres, Peter Howell, also Dick Mills and myself. We’re doing some chats with people who are interested and asking questions of us and then after that we’re going to do our show which we do at festivals and so on. So I hope people enjoy that performance.
RTF: I’d heard a rumour there’s a new Radiophonic Workshop album?
Yes, there’s a new album we’re making as well alongside all of this, we’ve been working with one or two other people who are interested and quite eminent some of them, in electronic music and pop music. We’re trying to do some new stuff rather than just producing hits from the past. We’re not sure when it’s going to be finished, but we’re working quite hard on it. We have a marvellous addition to the group who is Kieron Pepper, a percussionist, a drummer and also a multi-instrumentalist – and a lot younger than we are with far more energy! He’s joining us on this and we’re preparing some tracks now and some of them we’ll be using in our performance later on tonight. We’re working with a few different people – I’m not going to say who yet, because we don’t know how it’s all going. But people from the electronic music world, the contemporary music [scene] and commercial music as well. And that’s really exciting, working with those people. So we hope to have some material to release later on in the year.
Will you be using some of the old radiophonic equipment?
We always have that on hand. One of the things about what we do is that we’re interested in trying to make our own sounds rather than having sounds that are already made for us. So quite a lot of the things we do are made by bashing things or by putting things through a treatment rather than just pushing a preset on a synth. Having said that a lot of the live stuff we do have to use presets from time to time – [though] we have actually made the sounds up ourselves in those cases, we try to make sure they’re sounds we’ve made ourselves.
It’s so much easier nowadays to make electronic music – using an app on a smartphone for instance. How does the Workshop define itself in this modern era when it’s much easier for everyone to dabble? How do you stand out?
It’s a good thing. I think the answer is that it’s always about the music. A lot of these methods of making stuff on a smart phone or an iPad – and I’ve got some lovely apps which you can play with and they’re absolutely beautiful. You can make lovely sounds on them. But I think if you look back at some of the great things that Delia for instance – and everyone’s got one or two things – [it is] quite distinctively them making a piece of music. It doesn’t really matter what they made it on, it was an expression of themselves musically. And I think that’s what we try to do. Maybe somebody will say ‘oh no, that’s not very good, the thing that that guy has just done in his bedroom is much better’. That’s fine, that’s the way things are with music generally anyway. But I think that’s the [correct] approach – to think about the music first and how you make it afterwards.
That’s one of the things I loved about the workshop, the emphasis wasn’t on how the music was made, it simply had to be made, it had a function to fulfil.
It’s all mixed up together isn’t it? It’s all part of it. If you just make a sound with the latest box, that’s fine. But really the luck in it for us was that we had, unlike a lot of other experimenters at the time, who were doing music to please themselves or to make an album at some later date; we had a deadline and work to do. It was a play or a documentary or something of that kind. Never a concert! But it was something which we had to fit in with. If you’re doing incidental music for a play it has to work for that play. The director’s not interested in your doing some outlandish thing that doesn’t [fit] the work, so we had a set of really good guidelines before we started. And that cuts everything down so you can actually relax a bit more and make something that’s suitable. And you can blame it on the project if it’s not something you like!
So you were working to a strict brief, it wasn’t a research body unlike the experimental electronic studio of the times. I had always thought that the members of the workshop would perhaps consider that limiting and yet what you’re saying is that you actually found that very liberating?
Well, it is because it makes it much easier for you. When you’re doing music to order, if somebody says ‘I’ve got this pay, it’s very, very sinister, uneasy atmosphere, something awful is just about to happen’; you can almost hear the music before you start. If somebody says ‘I’ve got this wonderful project, we’re asking five musicians to make any kind of music they like, you can do anything you want, you can hire an orchestra you can do it on a banjo, you can do it on synthesisers, electronics, lampshades, anything you like and we’re going to pay you for it’; what usually happens is you just kind of go into a daze and you find yourself unable to produce anything. Whereas if somebody says ‘I need this and I need it by Thursday, that’s something that allows you to work and it makes you work.
Do you have of your own work a particular favourite?
From the electronic era, I must say I do like some of the things from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, some of the Dr Who shows I quite like now, and one or two of my theme tunes were quite fun: ‘Rugby Special’ and a few things like that, which I’m still quite fond of. But then when you listen to those things you remember where you were at the time and how it was and all of those things. Like listening to any piece of music, it brings back the memories surrounding where you were when you did it.
I remember doing a documentary called ‘In Tune When I Bought It’ and it was a documentary about guitars and guitar players, that sort of thing and it featured Hank Marvin and Pete Townsend and various people like that. And it was lovely to read a review where the reviewer – I think it was Gillian Reynolds – said ‘it brought back teatime on Saturday’. And it was lovely because that was the real intention behind making the show. It’s nice if you can put something in which is very difficult to describe and fairly abstract, but it comes across. That’s something that’s lovely about music, you can put things into music which say it better than words.
Any thoughts on what modern generation of artists have done with what you and the Radiophonic Workshop began, or at least bought to a much wider audience?
I hear things on the TV all the time, which is marvellous. Electronic music [that] I know John Baker and Delia and people would have really admired, because it’s so beautifully done and often very sparing and very underplayed and evokes feelings, particularly in some of the dramas now. And also the appreciation of just pure electronic sound is much more now by all sorts of people. Because I think generally people are less prejudiced now in all sorts of areas. They don’t restrict themselves in the way that I suppose we used to in our day, you know, ‘I don’t like that sort of music, I only like this’, or ‘I don’t like jazz or anything like that’ People are much more broad-minded now about al sorts of things, including music.
So you’ve been impressed by what the modern generation have been making?
Definitely, yes. The modern stuff definitely impresses me and it impresses me more since I’ve been working with people like Kieron Pepper, who’s our percussionist and a highly accomplished musician. And seeing how he approaches things and how it works – it’s just amazing how that generation are able to do it equally as well as we did. But they’re doing it at home, maybe with less facilities than we had by comparison.
Thanks to Paddy Kingsland for being such interesting and affable company and stay tuned for further interviews with Roger Limb, Dick Mills and Mark Ayres that I’ll be posting up over the next week or so. In the meantime, why not check out the ‘BBC Records Special‘ I made for Jonny Trunk’s OST Show back in 2012? Plenty of rare Radiophonic cues to be found amongst all the whistles and bells…