Sunday, October 5, 2008

director's cut, The Guardian Saturday Review, September 20th 2008

By Simon Reynolds

This year marks the 50th Anniversary of the Radiophonic Workshop, the BBC's experimental unit for electronic sound. This year also marks the tenth anniversary of its death. It came after a long period of decline during which the Workshop's output and public profile gradually withered away. But almost as soon as through the outfit finally whimpered out of existence in March 1998, the early stirrings of a cult resurgence were detectable.

A Radiophonic ghost began to stalk the peripheries of pop culture, audible initially as an influence on "retrofuturist" groups like Boards of Canada, Broadcast and Add N To X. In the past five years especially, interest in the Workshop has escalated. There's been a steady flow of Radiophonic-related reissues from labels like Mute, Rephlex, Glo-Spot and Trunk; a BBC 4 documentary, Alchemists of Sound; events such as the South Bank symposium organized by Saint Etienne's Bob Stanley. There's even been two plays about the Workshop, focused on the life of its most celebrated and outlandish member, the late Delia Derbyshire: Standing Wave, staged at Glasgow's Tron Theatre, and the BBC radio play Blue Veils and Golden Sands. In 2005, the Workshop's most famous client, Doctor Who, was relaunched, which inevitably encouraged unfavorable comparisons between the Radiophonic team's electronic incidental music and signature tune and the orchestrated flatus of Murray Gold's updated version. 2007 saw the release of Oramics, an anthology of work by Radiophonic founder Daphne Oram and the reissue of 1969's An Electric Storm by Derbyshire's "psychedelic pop" project White Noise. And still the wave of interest has yet to crest: 2008 kicked off with January's Radiophonia Event in Newcastle and this summer there's been an Oram symposium-cum-concert at the South Bank Centre, news stories about the discovery of a massive cache of unreleased Derbyshire material, and reissues of two CDs of archival treasure by her Radiophonic colleague John Baker. In November Mute caps it all off with a 50th Anniverary Retrospective double CD including a host of of hitherto unreleased material.

Outside its cult following, the Workshop is still largely known for Doctor Who--not just the hair-raising theme tune but the array of sound effects that made the show so creepy, from spooky winds evoking the poisonous atmospheres of alien planets to the grotesque squelchy sounds of a glowing- green slime monster crawling up Sarah Jane Smith's leg. But Doctor Who represented just a fraction of the outfit's output, which included effects and ambiences for radio plays, TV series and educational programming, countless jingles and theme tunes, and a large number of large-scale productions initiated by the Radiophonic Workshop itself.

Especially through its contributions to schools programmes, the Radiophonic Workshop filtered into the collective unconscious of young Britons during the Sixties and Seventies. "We were part of your life," agrees Brian Hodgson, who created "special sound" for Doctor Who for its first eleven years--including "classics" such as the Tardis taking off and the voice of the Daleks--and later took over as manager of the Workshop after its original co-founder Desmond Briscoe retired. "It probably opened the ears of a whole generation of youngsters, exciting their imaginations and making them want to do the sort of things we were doing. " Indeed the Workshop's subliminal influence could well be one reason why the U.K. has played such a vanguard role in the rise of electronic music from Eighties synthpop to Nineties techno-rave.


Located in a couple of rooms in the BBC's Maida Vale complex, The Workshop opened for business on April 1st 1958. For several years previously, Daphne Oram had been pushing for the BBC to start its own equivalent to French national radio's audio research unit GRM, where founder Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry pioneered the tape-editing techniques of musique concrete. Unlike their Paris counterpart, the Workshop began with a miniscule budget and meagre equipment. "It was mainly second hand, stuff that the BBC had thrown out, peculiar devices that were useless until the Workshop's original engineer Dickie Bird managed to get them working again," says Hodgson. Although the project was Oram's brainchild, she soon left, the victim of BBC bureaucratic regulations. Concerned that working with experimental sound could result in brain disturbances or madness, the powers that be decreed that people could only work there for three months. "It was pure superstition," says Hodgson. The rules were soon changed, but too late for Oram, who resigned from the BBC and built her own independent studio to pursue her pipe dream of an "Oramics" system that could enable the composer to "draw" sound.

Support for the creation of the Workshop had not come from the BBC's Music Department, which was suspicious verging on hostile, on the grounds that "we've got three hundred musicians on staff already, why do we need this newfangled nonsense?". The push came from the Drama Department. The Workshop "was much more part of the Fifties "theater revolution than the music revolution," says Hodgson, who'd had trained as an actor prior to joining the BBC. "Other people called my stuff 'music' but I didn't--I saw it as part of the 'theatre of sound'. " The very term "Workshop' came from the radical end of British theater, he says. "It was a trendy term in the late Fifties, but if the unit had been started a decade later, during the era of arts labs, it'd probably have been called the Radiophonic Laboratory."

All through the Fifties and into the Sixties, the BBC Drama Department encouraged new writers and formal experiments of all kinds. Part of this entailed mood-enhancing incidental sounds and special effects. Producers started to mess around with the newly available reel-to-reel tape machines that were gradually replacing the 78 rpm platters onto which studio managers had hitherto recorded sound effects. "If you accidentally left the fader open on a tape machine, you'd get this dreadful howl-round sound," recalls Dick Mills, chief engineer at the Workshop and the longest running effects creator for Doctor Who. "But if you could control it, you got peculiar echo effects that created a kind of disembodied voice, which could be used to portray a character in a radio drama thinking aloud, or undergoing mental distress." In an increasingly chaotic environment of studio managers borrowing tape machines and forgetting to return them, the decision was made to create a special unit dedicated to providing incidental music and sounds for anybody within the BBC who required them.

One of the unearthed gems on The John Baker Tapes CDs is when Baker appeared on an early Sixties edition of Woman's Hour to explain how he made the whimsically futuristic jingle for the BBC radio show's "Reading Your Letters" segment. In an earnest, quavery-with-nerves voice, Baker describes how he recorded the source sounds: a single glug from water poured out of a cider bottle supplied the timbre for the main melody, the dry pop of a cork being pulled out another bottle served as percussion. Altering the speed of the tape varied the pitch and created a couple of octaves' worth of notes; each individual note, equivalent to roughly one quarter of an inch of tape, was then sliced and spliced into a sequence. Hours and hours of migraine-inducingly intricate work resulted in a eight-second jingle arresting enough to get readers writing intrigued letters about the tune . Unlike Hodgson, who describes his musical background as "zilch", Baker was an accomplished jazz pianist; he got so skilled at tape-editing he could create the feel of swing and syncopation. "He cut the tape slightly off the beat, so his music had a very good fluid feel," says Mills.

On the Continent, state-run radio stations like Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française, Westdeutscher Rundfunk, and Radio Italia funded their own sound laboratories dedicated to exploring the new tape-editing techniques and grappling with primitive devices for generating pure electronic sound like ring oscillators. But whereas Bernard Parmegiani in Paris or Karlheinz Stockhausen in Cologne were allowed to engage in pure research and embark on ambitious artistic creations (grandiose musique concrete symphonies about the cosmos or Time), the Radiophonic Workshop's activities were always tethered to the practical. They had to earn their keep with Space-Age-but-sprightly jingles and wacky noises.

"We weren't composers flying our own kites," says Mills. "We were never brought into action until somebody within one of the BBC departments wanted our services. There was no time when Desmond would say 'here's three months, lock yourself in a room, see what you can come up'. Any experimenting we did was always within the context of someone's program." Although the term 'Workshop' actually drifted across from the theatre world, it does convey nonetheless something of the craft-not-art vibe of Radiophonic output, an aura redolent of the amateur inventor cobbling together Heath Robinson-like contraptions in the garden shed. According to Mills, the Workshop's kindly, indulgent manager Desmond Briscoe often recited his pet maxim: "because we're not experts, we don't know what we shouldn't be able to do".

Alongside its bodged-together quality, early Radiophonic output is often suffused with that peculiarly gentle brand of English surrealist humour. There was a comedy connection: the Goons Show was one of the Workshop's early clients, with Mills creating such famous effects as "Major Bloodnok's Stomach", an absurdist eruption of gastric turbulence that signaled the entrance of "an Indian officer gentleman with a passion for hot curries and loose women". According to Workshop composer Paddy Kingland, "Spike Milligan virtually wanted to take the place over. Desmond Briscoe used to talk about having to fight him off!."

Another huge difference between the Radiophonic milieu and their peers in Europe was the prominent role of women, from co-founder Oram, through early composers like Derbyshire and Maddalena Fagandini, to later figures like Glynis Jones and Elizabeth Parker. Derbyshire had originally sought employment at Decca Records only to be rebuffed with "we don’t women in engineering or technical roles, thank you." By contrast, the BBC had a remarkably progressive policy in terms of equal employment opportunities that went back at least as far as the Second World War, says Hodgson, when "the BBC was virtually run by women, because the men were off fighting."

Derbyshire is easily the most famous alumni of the Workshop. Her striking looks ("tall, with beautiful auburn hair", recalls her close friend Hodgson) and erratic life arc (heavy drinking, bouts of depression, eccentricity) certainly contribute to the mystique. Mostly, though, it's about the remarkable music. A gifted mathematician, she plotted out her pieces in advance with a scientist's precision. "Blue Veils and Golden Sands", music for a documentary about the Tuaregs of the Sahara and her most celebrated piece after the Doctor Who theme (actually written by Ron Grainer but drastically transformed by Derbyshire's electronic realization) involved analyzing a real-world sound-source into "all of its partials and frequencies", then reconstructing it using the Workshop's battery of oscillators. But the original sound was almost comically prosaic: a standard-issue," tatty green BBC lampshade", she recalled in one interview, which gave off a sublimely ethereal bell-like sound when struck. The piece also involved Derbyshire's treated and chopped up voice and "slowed-down camel groans that were looped and filtered," says Workshop archivist Mark Ayres, who has listened to the original tape-reel which includes not just the finished piece but all its constituent elements.

Ayres has been slowly cataloguing and digitizing the 4000 reels (which contain approximately 3000 hours and eight thousand separate projects) in the Workshop's chaotically disorganised library, which once occupied three rooms but was shunted into a single room in Maida Vale during the unit's twilight years. Unreleased nuggets are included on the Mute 50th Anniversary set he compiled. Only a diehard fan would take on the Herculean labor of love of curating the Workshop's legacy, which involves painstakingly restoring tapes that have dried up or gone sticky because of their myriad edits. Ayres is that fanboy: he was a regular visitor to the Workshop as a music student, applied for a job but didn't get it, then later got to contribute to Doctor Who as a freelance composer.

Thanks to Doctor Who's popularity from the early Sixties onwards, the Radiophonic crew started to get a reputation and a certain mystique. Intrigued pop musicians started to pay visits to the Maida Vale studio: Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones from the Rolling Stones. "Delia really liked Brian enormously, he was a very sweet guy," recalls Hodgson. Paul McCartney approached Derbyshire with a view to her providing electronic backing for "Yesterday". It never happened, but later she did the music for one of Yoko Ono's experimental movies, Wrapping Piece. By this time the prim-voiced and "impeccably dressed" Derbyshire of the early Radiophonic days had thrown herself fully into the Swinging Sixties, adopting what Hodgson fondly calls her "gypsy grandmother mode" of clothing and going through a period of "funny colored tobacco, and snuff, and cider", says Dick Mills. She and Hodgson formed an electronic research-and-performance entity called Unit Delta Plus, in collaboration with the wealthy, blue-blooded Peter Zinovieff, who set up a studio that was far better equipped than the Workshop. After working all day at the Beeb they'd head down to Putney to work all evening there.

Unit Delta Plus organized a pioneering multimedia festival at a watermill in Newbury, featuring electronic music, psychedelic lightshows, and electromagnetic sculptures by Paul Takis. They also participated in a chaotic psychedelic happening at the Roundhouse, the Million Volt Light and Sound Rave, where McCartney's legendary but never-released electronic opus "Carnival of Light" was debuted. During this exciting period Hodgson and Derbyshire met a young American music student and technology fiend called David Vorhaus and formed the pop group White Noise, whose An Electric Storm, released on Island in 1969, became a cult classic of synth-daubed and musique concrete-laced psychedelia.

The neophiliac mania that had buoyed the Sixties was crashing hard by 1970, and the creative core of the Radiophonic Workshop weren't immune to the bummer vibe. Derbyshire's chronic perfectionism--what Hodgson calls "reverse adrenalin, she'd slow down as the deadline approached"--reduced her productivity to zero. She'd also begun to hit the bottle, as had John Baker, who eventually "had to leave the BBC under a bit of a cloud", says Mills. Hodgson says one reason he quit the Workshop in the early Seventies was to avoid becoming an alcoholic: "Delia was drinking quite a lot and I was joining her. I had to cut it out, get my head together."

By the end of the Sixties, the Workshop was also entering its second phase: the new synthesizers, including models developed by Peter Zinovieff, had superceded tape-editing. The balance within the Workshop had also shifted from "soundsmiths" (people like Hodgson and Mills) to "tunesmiths", such new or recent recruits as Paddy Kingsland and David Cain who had played in rock, folk or jazz bands. The Workshop' services were more in demand than ever. "Local radio stations were starting up all over the country and they all needed jingles." Mills recalls David Cain doing one for Radio Sheffield using the sounds of stainless steel cutlery, "because every regional station liked to reflect the local industry". Television's hours and channels were also expanding: Kingsland did the music and weird noises for the chilling children's TV series The Changes, set in a Luddite near-future when people turn against technology, and later scored both the radio and TV versions of The Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

A third phase came in the Eighties when the Radiophonic Workshop embraced the new digital technology of sequencers, samplers and MIDI (the machine that enables musicians to synch up all kinds of electronic devices). When Hodgson returned to the Workshop to take over from Briscoe, his first priority was to modernize and re-equip. By the mid-Eighties, the Workshop had "become, as Yamaha put it, the most sophisticated MIDI environment in Europe. We had a lot of contact with the manufacturers and we were very much at this hard edge of MIDI and computerization. It became a powerhouse of research as well as production." In addition to the huge demand from television, the Workshop was initiating large-scale productions of its own, like Peter Howell's Inferno Revisited, a reinterpretation of Dante.

Yet while the Eighties was in many ways a triumphant period for the Workshop, the music that Radiophonic cultists cherish tends to be from the early, makeshift days, when people like Derbyshire and Baker achieved magical results with the most rudimentary means: tape, razor blades, found sounds. By the mid-Eighties synthesized tonalities permeated pop culture, while electronic music gear, as Mills puts it, "could be found in any Dixons". The function and future of the Radiophonic Workshop had become cloudy. "In a way, our success created the seeds of our destruction," says Hodgson. "We'd got people used to electronic music and we'd pushed the technology that made the whole do-it-yourself thing possible. Nowadays a kid in his bedroom has more technological resources than we ever had for the entire first 25 years of the Workshop. It's the democratization of music. A great deal of what has resulted from that is crap---but does that matter? A great deal of everything is crap."

The fourth and final phase of the Radiophonic Workshop came in the Nineties, when John Birt introduced reforms of the BBC designed to create a kind of internal market. "Producer choice" was the slogan of the day. "Up until then, the Workshop was free to anybody in the BBC who wanted to use it," explains Hodgson. "There was an internal costing system, but our contributions were put down as a below-the-line cost. That meant if somebody in the regions was doing a little program for kids on an almost non-existent budget, she could ring us up and we would give her the same attention and care that we would have given Horizon or a similar prestige program. She'd get a really fabulous music job which would give a wonderful gloss to a seemingly unimportant programme. That didn't happen anymore because the small programmes didn't have the money to pay us, while 'producer choice' meant the big programmes, the Horizons, could hire anybody they liked from outside. " There was also a swarm of freelance composers with home-studios and no overheads offering their sound-wares for cheap or free, in order get credits to put on their CVs. As a result of all these changes, the Workshop "sort of collapsed--we had people sitting around doing nothing, when they could have been working on Schools and Further Education programmes. "

In its diminuendo phase, the once bustling Maida Vale studio became a depressing place. The original Doctor Who had reached its end and Dick Mills, proud owner of the longest surviving credit on that show, had been given a dreary new job at the Workshop: digitally removing sonic blemishes from archival recordings. "My life had gone in a complete circle. In the late Fifties I'd joined the Workshop to produce noises and here I was 35 years later being employed to eliminate them!"


When it comes to assessing the legacy of the Radiophonic Workshop, two words are key: "service" and "public". Service applies first in the sense that the bulk of the unit's output was designed for a functional, ancillary, essentially subservient role in other people's creations. For the soundsmiths Hodgson and Mills, this means that it doesn't work outside its original commissioned context: they simply don't understand how the Radiophonic cultists of today can sit happily listening to albums full of atmospheric interludes and 15 second effects. But this very functionalism, with all its constraints and limitations, also meant that the Workshop's music reached a much bigger audience than the "pure", unshackled electronic experimentalists of Europe, who operated within the high culture realm of concert halls and art spaces, and even then appealed only to a minority within that minority.

"Public" relates to ideas of "the public interest" and specifically the Reithian conception of what a publically owned national broadcaster should be about: expanding the cultural horizons of the general public. Among the many contemporary outfits influenced by the Radiophonic Workshop, the London-based Ghost Box label is particularly interesting in this regard. Julian House, who co-founded the label and records under the name The Focus Group, is equally inspired by the eldritch atmospheres of Doctor Who episodes like The Sea Devils and by the brightly optimistic technocratic utopianism of tunes like "Towards Tomorrow". He sees the Workshop as aligned with the postwar spirit of planning and building for a better future that encompassed the modernist vanguard of architecture and urban planning, polytechnics and the Open University, and Penguin and Pelican paperbacks with their stark design and ethos of edifying the common man. "The Radiophonic Workshop belongs to a period of British cultural activity which I caught growing up, when strange things existed on their own terms, outside the dictates of marketing, " House argues. "It's now unthinkable that a public body could produce for the masses such avant garde, forward thinking, sometimes difficult music. And that it was well received." For Ghost Box and other Workshop fans, the Radiophonic project has a particular resonance as we approach the thirtieth year of post-socialist politics in Britain: the romance, pathos and honour of a lost future.

Speaking down the phone from his home in Norfolk, where he nowadays runs a restaurant, Brian Hodgson thinks the most important public service the Workshop provided was "its schools work " for radio and television. He cites a program that taught geography by using the idea of whizzing across the globe on a magic carpet. "If you're a kid and you're hearing the sound of a magic carpet taking off, your imagination is being stimulated. It's all part of the development of the brain--growing up and expanding your mind and making new connections." He pauses to apologise for the disconcerting "special sound" that's thrumming in the background: his dog's snoring. "Yes, that's probably the biggest thing the Workshop ever did--the childrens' work."


My review of White Noise's An Electric Storm

my review of the Mute reissues and compilation A Retrospective


Delia Derbyshire website with music clips

Peter Howell's Inferno Revisited online

The John Baker Tapes at Trunk Records

A Pebble Mill spot on Radiophonic Workshop from 1979


Kemper Norton said...

should have guessed the wonderful " An Electric Storm" by White Noise was covered in your full piece....a superb piece of terrified , terrifying , sexy and amusing British psychedelia , isn't it ? best wishes

kemper norton

Robin Carmody said...

One point you've missed in the full version (otherwise far, far better than the rather bland Guardian edit) is what I see as the real reason for the Radiophonic revival: the Bush Doctrine, and the realisation in its wake that rock music (whose birth and evolution, of course, ran parallel with the Radiophonic Workshop and largely outside the BBC, with much of it being defined by quasi-American businesses which Wilson closed down but which were key models for Blair) is a key part of What We Liberated Iraq For, is now little more than a vital cog in the War Machine, a pawn in the new elite's game, every bit as insular and stultifyingly self-absorbed as the music of Eric Coates seemed in 1958 ("Little Anglosphere" rather than "Little England" - not much difference, really).

That for me is the true cause. I doubt whether this rediscovery of the post-war public sphere would have happened under two terms of President Gore. Marvellous stuff, otherwise.