Yep, it that’s time of the year once again where the world’s greatest radio station asks its listeners and supporters to dip hands into pockets and donate towards keeping them on air for another year. But it’s by no means a one-way street as there’s a whole pile of special broadcasts taking place all this week and an online auction with plenty of fantastic objects, artifacts and experiences you can win in exchange for your cash: Record bags, festival tickets, a psychedelic tour of London in a Rolls Royce – the full list can be found on the bespoke Resonance Fundraising website here. I’m currently bidding on brunch for two at the Oxo Tower. There are a couple of Howlround items up for grabs as well:
First off, the final remaining copy of the Torridon Gate LP, number 100/100, hand-numbered and stamped, screen-printed cover by Hannah Brown and printed translucent sleevenotes. A one-off pressing of 100 copies only, the entire stock sold out in a single afternoon back in April 2015, but we’ve been holding this one back especially. Click on the above image to bid!
Secondly, an even-rarer test pressing of latest album Tales From The Black Tangle. Hand-written label, numbered 2/6, in full-colour LP sleeve. This album is also now completely out-of-print and despite lots of harrumphing from the populace in general, there will be no re-presses. Sorry, all, but a promise is a promise! This is your last chance to own a slice of Howlround history! Click on the above image to bid!
Next up, and forgive me for banging on about this again, but I really am super-excited about this coming Friday (19th), when we’ll be rocking the Book and Record Bar in West Norwood, with all proceeds going to the fundraiser. Lucky Cat Zoe, Hannah Brown, Michael the Landlord and myself along with very special guest DJ Food will be manning the decks from 8pm and there’s a raffle with fabulous prizes and a bar (please don’t spill any on the vinyl). Rumours that DJ Food will be giving away a large chunk of the records he plays remain unconfirmed, but persistent. Part two of his guest appearance on mine and Hannah’s new Resonance show ‘Near Mint’ is repeated this Friday at 10am, but you can also now listen to both parts on my Mixcloud page here.
The following afternoon, I shall be heading to the studio to present a marathon fundraising special of The OST Show in regular host Jonny Trunk’s absence. I’ll be joined by Radiophonic expert and Buried Treasure Recordings commander-in-chief Alan Gubby, who in a message probably unintended for publication has assured me he’s cooking up a stew of everything from “gritty 7″ rock n rollers to groovy radiophonic funk with lots of abstract tape experiments and early synth minimalism in-between – a couple of unreleased [insert names of legendary Radiophonic Workshop figures] bits, plus a competition prize package of Buried Treasure releases including the last vinyl copy of The Vendetta Tapes” – that last being, of course, the vinyl LP of unreleased John Baker cues, released last year and leaving Radiophonicists the world over in a state of complete frenzy. If you missed it the first time around, here’s one final chance to get your hands on a copy. Tune in, 15.30 on Saturday…
Speaking of Radiophonics and proof if any were needed of just how important Resonance FM is as an alternative broadcaster, have a listen to Rebecca Gaskell’s documentary on Delia Derbyshire Day that was broadcast last week as part of the station’s regular ‘Clear Spot’ feature. You might recall my BBC report on the event from a few weeks ago, but this goes into far more detail than can be achieved in four minutes and really lifts the lid on just what a remarkable composer she was, featuring lesser known extracts from her archive plus extended interviews with festival curator Caro C, archivist Dr. David Butler and musician Mandy Wigby – plus I’m proud to say I had a small consultancy role and sourced some of the music. It’s always nice to be useful!
And lastly, another superb Clear Spot from a couple of weeks ago was ‘Beauty and the Bleak’, produced by Art Assembly’s Julia Dempsey and mixed and edited by myself in a frantic scrabble to meet the Tx deadline – but it was more than worth it! The second of Art Assembly’s in the series of Saisonscape: Decay programmes, this edition features extended interviews with poet and musician Autumn Richardson and sound artist Lauren Bon discussing their work. Their locations and subject matter differ greatly, but their approaches to the subject of decay, isolation and, yes, bleakness, compliment each other beautifully. A real pleasure to work on, this one, event if it was a bit of a narrow squeak to get it finished!
And lastly, while it doesn’t really have anything to with Resonance, there’s another chance to hear Howlround’s sound installation ‘Mansion House Clocks’ produced for Vespertine York last September, at St. Mary’s in the city’s Castlegate area. From 17th-20th, Vespertine York are kicking off the year by exhibiting some of the bespoke works they’ve commissioned over the past year along with a programme of workshops and other delights. Further details here. That was a jolly fine installation, even if I do say so myself…
I know I’ve been harping on about the Denman Exponential Horn installation at the Science Museum quite a bit here and on the social networking of late, but the fact is it’s just an amazing object that has to be both seen and heard in-situ to be believed. However, with this report produced for BBC World Service and broadcast last week, I’m hoping I’ve finally got the whole thing out of my system. You’ll hear Aleksander Kolkowski, the audio historian responsible for restoring Roderick Denman’s magnificent creation explaining both the past and present of the horn, accompanied by a selection of sound effects from the BBC archive, selected and mixed by my Foggy self. Those of you who heard my OST Horn Special a month or so ago will find many of these sounds familiar, including the fabulous historical recording of Tutankhamun’s Horn that opens the piece; but given the response I’ve had so far, I can’t imagine repeating this ‘glorious cacophony’ will cause too much upset. And just to clarify, that recording of Tutankhamun’s horn actually dates from 1939, as no original 13th Century BC recordings are thought to exist. I do hope this revelation will not impair your enjoyment too greatly.
The exhibition runs until 27th July and I urge you to pay a visit before the horn falls silent again!
PS In hindsight I could probably have chosen a more dignified title for this blog post. Doesn’t really chime with the usual shroud of mystique in which I smother my work…
As today marks the release of two classic Radiophonic Workshop LPs that have received the heavyweight vinyl treatment thanks to deluxe reissue label Music On Vinyl, it seems only right and proper that I should finish off publishing the transcripts of my interviews with the various luminaries of the reformed and touring quintet of original workshop members, recorded at the University of Chichester for my BBC World Service report back in April. Our final subject is Mark Ayres, who joined the workshop late in it’s career and worked as a composer for Doctor Who during the ‘controversial’ Sylvester McCoy era. But it’s the extensive and exacting archiving, documenting and remastering of the Workshop’s historical recordings for which he is best known, particularly important within a broadcasting corporation that hasn’t always taken the greatest care of preserving it’s own legacy. Mark is also the brains and the galvanising force behind the workshop’s latest incarnation, which is touring the festival circuit this summer. Down-playing his contribution as ‘the archivist and general hanger-on’, he nonetheless remains the person most responsible for preserving the Workshop’s past and ensuring it’s future – a composer, an expert and a fan rolled into one. I started by asking him what he thought the Workshop’s greatest legacy was?
MA: It’s very difficult for me to say what the legacy of the Radiophonic Workshop is, I think that’s more for other people to express and [have an] opinion on. I know from my experience it’s something that I grew up with its very much part of my consciousness. I can see its influence in the world around me musically, aesthetically, artistically, in television and film, and I know what it has done to influence me. I wouldn’t be sitting here if it wasn’t for the Radiophonic Workshop. I went into music and sound largely because of being influence by the Workshop when I was a kid in the sixties. I was at primary school and we had programmes like ‘Music and Movement’ which was a kid’s programme where [they] were encouraged to do mimes and acting and movement and dance and whatever and all the sound was Radiophonic. So we were exposed to it every day at school and then we went home and watched Blue Peter and there it was on there with ‘Bleep and Booster’. And weekends we would watch Doctor Who. So it’s very much part of our consciousness, really. It’s what we grew up with, it’s part of the DNA of many people of my generation and I think part of the DNA of British culture.
RTF: How does the Radiophonic Workshop assert itself in the modern age, where electronic music has now become such a part of everyday culture and can be easily made on someone’s smartphone, for instance?
I don’t think the Radiophonic Workshop really needs to assert itself these days, the workshop is and the history and the back-catalogue is there. People can listen it, people can hear it, and people can be influenced by it. The fact that we are doing concerts now and people are coming along proves that people are interested in it and in seeing what the surviving members can still do. What I was very keen on was ….these guys are my friends and my mentors for many years I was very keen to give them a platform. To show that they’re still creative and that they’ve still got something to say. And I certainly think they have and certainly the audiences that are coming to see us now, the response is amazing.
How would you describe Radiophonics to the uninitiated?
Well, the Radiophonic Workshop came about when in the 1950s BBC Radio 3 in particular was starting to do a lot of very experimental drama and couldn’t find the appropriate sound and music in the library or in the sound effects archives to illustrate this. And a lot of producers became very aware, with what was happening on the continent in French and German radio in particular. Where they set up electronic music studios to explore [for example] in Paris, musique concrete – that‘s found sound. Here, I’ve got a drinks glass [picks it up, taps on it] I’m just flicking that with my finger, and that makes a sound. If I record that and vary the pitch of the tape I can make it ‘sing’. So that was what musique concrete was. Not just wine glasses, any found object, even the table or my glasses; anything can make a sound and you can make music out of that sound. In Cologne they were more interested in computers and in what sounds came out of electronic circuits. This was being watched at the BBC and they thought ‘we can use these techniques to illustrate our dramas’. So, they weren’t making ‘art music’ the way they were doing on the continent, they wanted it as a very practical contribution to making high-brow drama. But of course they didn’t put any money into it, so we had two people in particular Desmond Briscoe and Daphne Oram who started doing this work after hours when everyone else had gone home, they’d go down to the studios, nick all the gear, wheel it down the corridors put it all together, do the work and then try and put all the studios back together for the next morning. And eventually after that it was realised that they had to set up a department to do it.
So, what is Radiophonics? Well, Radiophonics is new sound, unknown sound. In its purest form it is using sound to illustrate the unknowable, I suppose. In the early days it was all plays about people having nervous breakdowns or someone sitting in his bath or something like ‘The Dreams’ which was one of four inventions o radio created by Barry Bermange. He did vox-pops, interviewing people about their dreams and later on about their views of God or the afterlife and he cut these comments together in a sort-of poetic fashion, rhythmic fashion, using a lot of repetition and making sure that the voices had a rhythm to them. He would make a script of what he’d recorded, cut these together and then give it to Delia Derbyshire who would then create background [music] to illustrate these.
And again [the question] was ‘how do you illustrate a dream state in a way that is purely subjective?’ You could cover it with Sibelius and Debussy if you want, it will probably work very well’ but it will immediately have its own associations. We don’t want to do that, we want the audience to make their own associations. So you have to give them something fairly neutral. And that’s where the Radiophonic Workshop [comes in], and of course in doing so it creates its own beauty, its own ethos, its own place in the world. And particularly The Dreams [became] this out of body experience if you listen to it, close your eyes and just let it wash over you, it is very dream-like in its own way. It’s a dream-like programme about people’s dreams. So that was a very early sort-of ‘pure’ radiophonic programme. And of course later on it became obvious that, say, if you were making ‘Quatermass and the Pit’, electronic sound was a very nice way without having to use the same kinds of sounds as everybody has heard before to illustrate the ‘Id Monster’ coming alive […] or the Martian consciousness re-awakening in the pit. So that was where it really excelled. Later on the Workshop became much more of a music factory, as television particularly just wanted more cheap theme tunes. As radio budgets decreased there was no longer the budget to allow the Workshop six weeks to experiment and see if they could come up with something. Which is what the BBC was about in the 1960s, [but] it certainly by the 80’s was not about that at all – it as about ‘we have a budget, you will make a programme, can we have it by Tuesday week’. So it became much more of a music factory. That eventually led to its demise, because it couldn’t compete with freelancers from outside who by that time had very similar equipment and could do a very similar job. Again, what we’re trying to do now is to allow ourselves to be purely experimental. A lot of our music is still very visual, we’re still using a lot of video, it’s still applied music and it is still music which is trying to evoke a mood or tell a story. But we’re now allowed, as in the 1960s, we’ve got the time to produce what we want and to experiment in the way we want and to combine all the techniques that were developed over the last fifty years to do something hopefully new.
This is the new album you’re referring to?
Well, this is the new album and what we’re doing on stage now. It’s taking all these techniques and learning from them and combining them and building on them. I can’t tell you that much about the new album because we’re still very much in the stage of throwing things up in the air and seeing what happens. We do have a working title which is Electricity and we’ve all been writing tracks which explore the theme of electricity. So Peter’s got a track which is called ‘Electricity’ which maybe the title track, I’ve got a track called ‘Galvani’, we’ve got one called ‘Wireless’ which Paddy Kingsland has written; another Peter Howell track ‘Til the lights go out’. So it’s all explorations on the theme of electricity and what it means to us in our lives. It’s almost like a ‘Horizon’ programme in the way we’ve approached it, in terms of finding a subject to illustrate; but we have the total free time to go and explore that theme individually and then all bring ideas back to the group and put it together. That’s what’s fascinating about this whole process. We’ve all been individual composes working in our own studios and now we do that as a starting point, but then we take it to the band and we see what everybody else can contribute to it. And there’s an ideology, a definite theme and content to what we’re doing.
The way electronic music is made now, you could literally press play and a computer could make a nice pretty tune for you, but I think sometimes modern electronic music loses that sense of having to say something, of having an idea to communicate.
Electronic music, certainly from the 1980s onwards – and this is part of what killed the workshop, it suffered from ‘pre-set-itis’. Because digital synthesisers came out which all came with fantastic pre-sets and pop music did those pre-sets to death! Also, when you were doing television music and you had literally 24 hours to put a theme tune together, it was very easy to use a pre-set. And it’s no good saying to the client ‘I want to do something really original, it’ll take me a week’, they’ll say ‘well, somebody else can do it by the morning’. [You could argue that that somebody else is] just going to use all the pre-sets, [but] nobody cares. So there was a slightly let-go attitude for a while. I know people who will buy a new synth and completely wipe memories before they even listen to the pre-sets. I won’t go that far, but I do make, as much as possible, all my own sounds. Because to me that’s what the fun of electronic music is about.
The aspect of digging to find the new sounds inside the machine, I suppose?
If I want to write for a combo, I can write for a rock band or I can write for an orchestra. The whole fascinating thing about electronic music for me is creating the orchestra and then writing for it! So everything should be new, it’s new combinations of sound, new combinations of techniques. Trying to surprise yourself, really. Exploring the happy accidents and allowing yourself the freedom to make mistakes and learn from them and have accidents which actually will lead you down a new pathway. You have to take the mistakes seriously.
Could you tell us a little about taking classics Radiophonic works and transferring them into the live arena? How did you go about it?
Doing this live is interesting because again by its nature, we’d slave away in the studio for many long hours putting piece of music together and by its very nature it is not performable live and yet here we are performing it live! So there is an element of ‘we prepared this earlier’, but also in every track we’re trying to find something which we can do live, that we can do differently that will surprise the audiences, which makes it interesting for us. We’re doing ‘Greenwich Chorus’, for instance, which is one of Peters’ famous pieces. There’s a couple of surprising elements in that which we’re doing live which makes it different, because it’s got to be different, it is presented live. And something like Dr Who, again, just to go on, it took Delia Derbyshire six weeks to do the original theme, it took Peter Howell six weeks to do his revised theme in 1980. We can’t expect the audience to sit there for three months while we do that, so we’ve got to find a short-cut. So we’ve found a way of de-constructing it, pulling to bits, building it back up again and then doing something entirely new with it, which we can present live. So that’s the fun for us [when] doing the concerts – finding ways of tearing this stuff apart and rebuilding it so that it retains its essence but is also a live experience as well.
Many thanks to Mark for being such informative and entertaining company, and the equally-stimulating interviews with his ‘friends and mentors’ Dick Mills, Roger Limb and Paddy Kingsland are all still available for your perusal; as is the original report which can be found here. The 180g vinyl reissues of Peter Howell’s Through A Glass Darkly and Paddy Kingsland’s The Fourth Dimension are both out today and available from musiconvinyl.com. The reformed Radiophonic Workshop band are touring the festival circuit throughout the summer. And they rock. Trust me on this.
Continuing with the publication of extended interviews gathered for my recent BBC World Service report on the revival of the Radiophonic Workshop, we come to a figure who perhaps more than anyone else embodies the spirit and the ethos of this most enigmatic of organisations. But where on earth (or, more appropriately ‘off’ it) to even begin with Dick Mills? The only surviving member of the Workshop’s original line-up and its longest resident, he joined in its inaugural year of 1958 and remained for the next three and a half decades. Originally joining as a technical assistant, he may have few full-length compositions to his name, but his innumerable uncredited contributions and practical assistance to the works of others; plus the sheer number of sound effects he is responsible for are almost beyond estimation. Such technical and engineering expertise may well account for the matter-of-fact and rather self-effacing way he talks about his work, despite remaining a stalwart of the workshop for significantly longer than anyone else.
Chatting briefly with him before our interview, he revealed that the Workshop’s cancelling of a number of tour dates prior to the Chichester University symposium last month had been on the orders of his doctor; something he clearly still felt bad about. And yet his band-mate’s reticence to go on without him is entirely understandable. The Workshop simply wouldn’t have been the same without him, then as well as now. Thankfully in better health, our interview took place in the green room during a short interval before Mills was whisked off for another panel discussion; and while we were pressed for time this most genial and chatty individual still managed to lift the lid on his contribution to the most famous TV theme tune of all time and the genesis of a forty-year-old radiophonic classic entirely his own:
DM: [Examining the copy of the 1975 LP The Radiophonic Workshop I’ve just asked him to sign] Which one is this? […] Ah, yes. We come up against all sorts of people, you know. We went on [insert title of well-known ‘Blue Peter-for-adults’-style TV programme] to talk about the workshop. And [The Producer] says ‘Oh, it’s lovely to meet you, I was ever so interested in that record!’ [Indicates the photograph on the sleeve] ‘Is that the Radiophonic Workshop? I said no, that’s our boss’s shed, because he’s got an outboard motor there from his boat, [and] there’s a model yacht up there and an anchor there, that’s not the [workshop]! She really thought it was, she had no idea what we actually did there!
If I may say so, I think your track ‘Adagio’ from this album is one of my all-time favourite pieces of music.
My wife can’t stand in the same room as it. I took it home ‘cause I was so pleased with it. And she came out white as a sheet! She said ‘I actually hate it!’ She said ‘I would take that cassette out and cheerfully jump on it!’ I said ‘Why?!’ I think I’ve worked out that my wife, poor unfortunate; she hasn’t got the ability to suspend her belief. She would probably tolerate science fiction but she knows it could never happen. I said ‘well you’re approaching it from the wrong [angle]. Why can’t you… this could happen!’ And she says ‘But I know it couldn’t!’ It’s though her imagination can’t comprehend an open space or a space that she can’t see the limitations to.
What was your brief when you were creating Adagio?
There wasn’t any. This record, I don’t think contains anything [produced by commission]. [They] said ‘Oh, have a dabble and if we get enough we’ll put it together and put it out on a disc.’
That must have been quite unusual for the workshop?
Yeah. Actually, I tell a lie. Because this ‘Adagio’ I actually did compose for [pauses to remember]… well, no, I used it for a show that I was involved on called… What was it, Captain Zep or was it Duke Diamond? [NB It was Zep, although Mills worked on them both] Kids television about an academy for space cadets, a detective series. The students were shown a crime being committed and they had to deduce who did it. But because it took place in this big academy and the students are in an auditorium, before it started they wanted some ‘muzak’ to go over this auditorium [scene], so I did that. And they just played it over and over again in the auditorium and I got extra PRS because the students and the characters in the play could hear it and it was wonderful! Then I did a… I’m not sure if I did a similar piece… no, it’s not on here… called ‘Come and Go’* because what I did I did a bit of like Adagio and made a long length of it, turned it round the other way and joined it up [gestures handling tape] so it went like that and went away again! I just spent an afternoon meandering with a synthesiser and put some twinkles on it.
For me, personally, it’s one of the Workshop’s most haunting works.
Yes! It’s funny, a lot of record reviewers when they [wrote about] the workshop, the came out and said ‘the most surprising thing on this record is Dick Mills, we didn’t know he did music! Well I wouldn’t class that as music, that’s the trouble! It’s not written as music, it’s just… extemporised, I suppose.
You wouldn’t call it music, though?
Well, I would, you know, tonal-wise. Yes, rather than a sound effect. Or you could call it ”the music of the spheres” or whatever. You know, it’s just… [trails off, shrugs]
Your background was more in the creation of the sound effects, particularly for Doctor Who. And you also helped produce the iconic theme tune?
Oh, yeah! I did [the Doctor Who theme] with Delia and we stuck it all together. Actually, at last year’s fiftieth anniversary party at the Excel Centre, I did a presentation on how we put the signature tune together. I managed to get the components – three separate components – and I played them on the computer and I actually photographed the screen so that you could see the traces going along and then I put all the traces up and showed how they all went relative to each other. And then I described what happened when we [encountered] a bum note and couldn’t find it. We had to unwind all the tapes down the corridor and count the joins. That was the only way of [finding] it.
The Doctor Who theme is an enigma, if you like, to most people, because they can’t actually latch on to any known instrument that they think might have been used to make it because there wasn’t any musical instruments. It consists of three basic music lines, a bass track that goes all the way through then you‘ve got the melody that goes most of the way through, then the twiddle-y bits on the top and the whoosh noises that makes the graphics behind it. So Delia and I would have constructed those on thee separate tapes that had to be played together. No synthesisers, no multitrack, nothing. So the bass note was a twanged wire, which then had to be speeded up or slowed down to give you the right pitch, then then had to be cut together to the right length. Then everyone of those bass note phrases had a little grace note stuck ion the front which was an extra ‘whurrp’ from an oscillator. Then Delia did the melody ‘OOO-EE-OO’ with an oscillator she just waggled the knob until she got the phrasing correct; then she had to copy those how many times she wanted it and cut them all together. Then the white noise was whoosh-y noise, [we] played it backwards and looped it, speed-changed it, mixed it all together. Then we played the three tapes together… and there was a mistake! Now, nobody can watch three different reels of tape being played and spot where the mistake is, particularly as each of these tapes were full of splices. So what we had to do was to unroll these three rolls of tape, right down the corridor at Maida Vale, and walk along looking at the visual pattern of the splices. And when one of the splices was out of [the] visual pattern that’s got to be where the wrong note is.
As someone who makes music with tape, I do know how unpredictable it can be.
Yes! And you’ve only got to store it too long [for] the joints to dry out! But usually we didn’t have too much problem. Sometimes the backing on the tape was of a funny composition and sometimes the editing sticky[tape] was of a different make and it just wouldn’t stick on, but we didn’t have too much malfunctions, as they say. There was a trick that you’re supposed to wind a tape on inside out because if there [were] any loud passages in the tape it tended to print through magnetically to the next layer of tape on the spool. And if you wound it backwards or perhaps inside out, it would print after itself, so you wouldn’t get a pre-echo or a loud noise and so know what was coming! It was silly and nobody ever went through and tried to prove it!
And with that, he was ushered away to join the imminent panel discussion occurring in the main hall. What an absolute treat it was to spend some time with him. And as an added treat of my own, I’ve found some footage of the aforementioned children’s science fiction quiz show ‘Captain Zep’ on youtube and have included it below for your edification. Sadly, this slightly poor edit was the only clip of the programme I could find, but gratifyingly it does include the auditorium scene with an extract from ‘Adagio’ playing in the background, just as Dick described it. It’s interesting to note that, despite being quite a bit older, his music has aged far better in the ensuing decades than the ‘Captain Zep’ programme itself – It’s hard to believe that puffy yellow ‘space-clown’ uniforms, copious amounts of hair-gel and extended scenes pertaining to the distribution of badges to schoolchildren could ever be considered essential televisual ingredients, though respect is due to lead actor Paul Greenword for keeping straight-faced throughout:
For those of you hungry for more, a complete overview of Dick Mills’ credited and uncredited work would be far beyond my capabilities here, though any fans of classic Doctor Who will recognise much of his work – he was the principle ‘special sound’ creator for the series’ original run from 1972 onwards, the best part of two decades. The BBC Records Special I produced in 2012 for Jonny Trunk’s OST show is a good place to start, though I say so myself, featuring as it does a number of his original compositions, including several from the ‘Hi Tech FX’ LP, which should be considered an essential purchase for fans of the Doctor, sound effects and electronic music alike! And anyone who can offer me some information regarding the track ‘Come and Go’ that Dick mentions is encouraged to get in touch. I can’t find the slightest reference to it anywhere!
Finally, on a more whimsical note and as a bonus for you synth obsessives, here’s a rare chance to see the classic EMS Synthi that features on the ‘boss’s shed’ cover of The Radiophonic Workshop LP (and was one of the most important tools in the creation of sound effects for Doctor Who) in a far, far less illustrious setting – half-hidden in the background of a minisculely-budgeted CBBC atrocity from the 1980s that must count as one of the most genuinely disturbing pieces of television you’ll ever have to sit through. I’m quite sure I won’t be alone in stating that if I happened to be in possession of such classic hardware, I could think of 1000 better things to do than dangle nasty wobbling puppets all over it – typical BBC squandering of resources! That said, this clip remains my staple riposte to anyone who dares to tell me things aren’t as good as they used to be. And there’s bonus points if you survive long enough to catch a flash of Edd The Duck at the very end, no stranger himself to appalling pond-dwelling pop.
The sublime to the ridiculous writ large. I think I might need a bath now…
Continuing with my interviews from the alumni of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, we move on to genius composer Roger Limb. Part of what I suppose we could call the department’s ‘second wave’, he joined the workshop at the dawn of it’s synthesiser era in 1973 and worked as one of its principal producers and composers for over two decades, creating a huge body of signature tunes for television and radio drama that will almost certainly be familiar to anyone growing up in the UK over the past thirty years. Perhaps best known for his substantial contributions to Doctor Who during the eighties, he also recorded and produced many of the songs for the cult BBC Schools programme Look And Read, including the famous ‘Magic E’ song that became the subject of much rather tiresome postmodern chuckling in subsequent years:
A respected pop and jazz musician outside of the workshop, Limb has now rejoined his friends and former colleagues as part of a revamped Radiophonic Workshop band and will be touring the festival circuit with them over the summer. This interview took place during a rather brief interval in a long day of discussions and performances at Chichester University. Despite being pushed for time, however, Roger’s additional years as a voiceover artist and continuity announcer for the BBC meant that he had no trouble putting his points across quickly and succinctly!
RL: I think the Radiophonic Workshop has a sort of legacy, [because] even though it closed down 15 years ago, there’s a whole generation of people for whom the phrase ‘Radiophonic Workshop’ has some sort of mystical quality. When they were kids, perhaps they saw the name on the screen. Or they heard the back announcement on radio [and thought] “… Radiophonic Workshop – what does it mean, who are these radiophonic workmen, what do they do , where do these strange uncanny sounds and strange music come from, what is going on there?” So I think a lot of people remember that rather mysterious atmosphere, and [had] questions about it that were never properly answered, questions that are still hanging in the air today.
Can you tell us something about the equipment and techniques used by the workshop?
When the Radiophonic Workshop first began producing music there was a lot of very strange and rudimentary techniques [involved]. The whole idea of tape manipulation – you get a piece of sound on a tape and you can do strange things to it: play it slower, play it backwards, damage the tape slightly, put unearthly echo on it… And [so] a lot of the early radiophonic music that came from the workshop was tape that had been manipulated. Later on there was quite a big change in the early 1970s when synthesisers became more and more used and the old tape cutting techniques went out of fashion. So for the last thirty years the signature sound of the workshop has been the synthesiser. But that doesn’t mean to say it’s [become] limited because the whole world of synthesisers, the whole world of sequencing and sampling has meant an enormous change and development in the techniques available for people who were doing electronic, radiophonic music.
With that in mind, I’m wondering what your thoughts are on modern electronic music, about how your influence has permeated down to the current generation?
I think there’s no doubt at all that the radiophonic workshop cast a very long shadow. Techniques have changed drastically in the last ten, twenty years and now it’s possible for people at home with home studios, even on their cell-phones, to create and play radiophonic music through wonderful speaker arrays and things such as that. There’s a huge market and a huge output of Radiophonic electronic music now. I don’t know how on earth [to keep track of it], it’s like the old question of loads and loads of people talking but nobody listening! I listen to as much of it as I can and from time to time I hear something that’s quite arresting, something that obviously a person ha put a lot of thought and ingenuity into. And that’s really quite interesting, but the problem is there is so much to listen to that it’s quite often just a happy chance if you happen to hear something [significant]. But I keep listening!
As a member of twenty years standing, you must have seen quite a lot of change at the workshop?
When I arrived there were about five or six studios in which each individual member of the workshop would set up their own little studio according to the way they wanted things, whether it was tape machines, synthesisers, or mixing desks. As time went on the techniques became more and more advanced and we had a little more money to spend on for example multi-track tape machines. And then another big change happened in the 1980s and that was the arrival of sequencing programmes on computers. Quite rudimentary to start with but developing in such a way that it was a joy to use, particularly for incidental music for drama when you could measure the action that was given to you on the tape or the film and express it exactly onto a sequence on a computer and [then] write the music around it. It was a wonderful tool to use.
Talking to you and to Paddy Kingsland earlier, the impression that I get is that there is a lot of excitement in the current line-up about modern developments in music technology, rather than simply using the tried and tested methods you would have used in the workshop at the time.
I think there is, but [out of all of us] I’m probably the most of an old curmudgeon, because quite apart form doing these gigs with the RW -we’re performing live quite regularly- I go out and do a lot of live jazz gigs, playing piano or double bass, playing conventional music and trying to do it in an unconventional or original sort of way. So when I hear about these [modern] techniques they talk about, recording and finding good samples from the recordings they do with the people who want to come and work with us, I was a little bit wary at first , I thought ‘hmm, this doesn’t sound like much fun to me’. But I’ve had a couple of goes at it and I must say that it’s growing on me and I’m getting more and more involved in using the techniques that have been prescribed. And I think a lot of positive stuff is coming out of it.
And finally, can you tell us anything about the new album?
There is an album due out and it’s going to be out in a matter of months, perhaps. We’re putting some final touches to it next month, in May. It will be called ‘Electricity’, rather appropriately. And there will be a lot of new stuff on it, but perhaps we will revisit one or two old tracks as well.
Many thanks to Roger Limb, and you can catch the reformed Radiophonic Workshop on tour over the coming months with further details to follow. In the meantime my Radiophonic Workshop reunion package for BBC World Service and Paddy Kingsland interview are both still available on this website for your perusal. Dick Mills will be up next, but for now let’s give the last word to Roger Limb, and another collaboration with the great Derrick Griffiths that will not only be instantly familiar to many generations of former children (indeed I can recall my entire primary school class singing it), but is quite likely to stick in your head all day. Stick. Stick-ing. Build yourself a word!