❉ A comprehensive overview of three BBC Radiophonic Workshop albums recently reissued by Silva Screen Records.
“We make sounds that no-one likes for plays no-one understands,” said Dick Mills, the longest serving member of the Radiophonic Workshop, of the Workshop’s output. For a long time this was how the Workshop was seen, but it’s fair to say that over the last few years, the Radiophonic Workshop’s output has had something of a critical renaissance.
Since the Workshop’s fiftieth anniversary in 2007, its pivotal role in the history of electronic sound has truly been recognised. Somewhat removed from the other pioneers of electronic music, the Workshop brought electronic sounds and music into everyone’s homes via radio and television, and made it part of everyday life. Radio jingles, theme tunes and special sounds for the likes of ‘Quatermass’, ‘Doctor Who’ and ‘Blake’s 7’ made the Radiophonic Workshop part of life in the UK from the 50s to the 90s. Indeed, while it’s probably still the work on ‘Doctor Who’ that everyone associates them with, that was only a small part of their total output and some recent reissues of their albums by Silva Screen showcase much of the non-Who work the Radiophonic Workshop produced for the BBC.
‘BBC Radiophonic Workshop 21’ was originally released in 1979 to celebrate the first 21 years of the Workshop. It takes a chronological look through the Workshop’s output over 45 tracks, from ‘The Goon Show’ through to tracks written for Jonathan Miller’s seminal documentary, ‘The Body in Question’ from 1978.
The collection shows the evolution of Radiophonic Workshop’s methods of creating electronic music. Its earliest composers had to rely on musique concrète techniques, the use of found sound via tape manipulation, while the later composers had a wider range of technology, making use of the first commercial synthesisers and the vocoder.
The first half of the album showcases what is often referred to as the golden age of the Radiophonic Workshop. Often discordant and weird, the music shows how creative the Workshop’s composers could be with very primitive equipment, using whatever was to hand from the frame of an old piano to metal lampshades and bottles. Of these early compositions, the work of Delia Derbyshire really shines. She had an instinctual genius for creating moods and atmosphere in her work, whether it be the quirky Great Zoos of the World theme created from the various squawks and roars of animals or her arrangement of Get Out and Under for ‘Know Your Car’ using the sounds of vehicles for a car maintenance programme, she could be relied upon to create something unique. Of course, her arrangement of the original ‘Doctor Who’ theme remains her most celebrated work. Despite its familiarity, it still stands head and shoulders over much of the other work the Workshop produced.
Delia’s early contributions are almost matched by those of John Baker. His love of jazz brought a more musical sensibility to the Workshop’s output. His use of complex time signatures, as heard on Choice, made him a frequent choice for radio and TV producers looking for a memorable signature tune for their shows. Maddalana Fagandini’s Time Beat was a popular piece used over the BBC Clock in the early 60s. It had a single release, when future Beatles’ producer, George Martin wrote an orchestral accompaniment for it.
The second half of the album covers the 1970s and the new composers who joined the Workshop. These composers, the likes of Paddy Kingsland, Peter Howell, Malcolm Clarke and Roger Limb made use of the new synthesisers available to them. The output generally becomes more melodic and tuneful at this point in the Workshop’s history, but perhaps loses some of the charm of the earlier compositions.
Peter Howell’s Greenwich Chorus is the outstanding track on this half of the album. This track caused a sensation at the time, with people ringing the BBC to ask how it was created. Beautifully atmospheric, the ticking clocks and vocoder bring an almost organic feel to the melody that is sometimes missing from purely synthesised music.
Four years later, another Radiophonic retrospective was released, ‘The Soundhouse’. This time, the album just took a look back over the last four years of its output, with tracks by Malcolm Clarke, Jonathan Gibbs, Peter Howell, Roger Limb, Dick Mills and Elizabeth Parker. The six of them collaborated for the first time on a special track Radiophonic Rock, which opens the album. There were also a couple of tracks from Paddy Kingsland who’d left in 1981. He was represented by two fantastic tracks from his score for the television series of ‘The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy’, one of which, The Whale, never fails to bring a smile to this reviewer’s face.
Again, the technology used by the Workshop had developed and tracks on this album were among the first to be realised by computer, using the new Fairlight synth beloved of such artists as Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel. This wasn’t the only innovation. Several of the tracks, such as the haunting Ghost in the Water by Roger Limb blended electronic sounds with conventional instruments to create new, richer textures to their music.
There was still evidence of old techniques in some tracks though, such as Jonathan Gibbs making great use of sound effects in Computers in the Real World where a jamming disc drive punctuates the music effectively or more vocoder from Peter Howell, in his arrangement of a piece written by Henry VIII for ‘Mainstream’. There are also effective updates of classical pieces, such as Howell and Mill’s Fancy Fish by Saint Saens or Malcolm Clarke’s arrangement of The Milonga, a traditional Argentinian dance, later used in the ‘Doctor Who’ story ‘Enlightenment’.
The last of the three Silva Screen re-releases is a solo album by Elizabeth Parker, her score for the David Attenborough series, ‘The Living Planet’. ‘Soundhouse’ had included a track called Planet Earth which contained work-in-progress glimpses of the incidental music before it was finished. A beautiful, soaring piece taking in many moods, it was a great taster for the series to come.
The album, originally released to accompany the show’s broadcast in 1984, showcases music from each of the show’s episodes creating sweeping soundscapes of sound effects blended with Parker’s evocative music. The music, as presented on the album is wonderfully ambient, presenting beautiful accompaniments to the epic photography used in the series. Parker used the Fairlight to great effect to sample natural sounds to fulfil, as she put it in the new notes for the CD release, “my dream of the music becoming part of the natural environment, rather than an obvious add-on.”
Listening to it divorced from the pictures, the album still manages to take the listener on a journey across our planet, with different soundscapes across the tracks conjuring up seascapes and waves, hot steamy rainforests, baking deserts and the breadth of the sky. A highlight is Worlds Apart where the ambience is broken up by African tribal rhythms.
Since their triumphant gig at the Roundhouse in 2009, which reunited Dick Mills, Peter Howell, Paddy Kingsland and Roger Limb with the Workshop’s archivist Mark Ayres, the Radiophonic Workshop has had a new lease of life. Now an on-going touring band, several of the pieces found on these collections have been brought to a whole new audience in Radiophonic Workshop gigs. The fact that certain pieces like The Greenwich Chorus and Brighton Pier get huge cheers as they are played show that the music of the Radiophonic Workshop has a life outside of television and radio. They have taken their rightful place as classic examples of electronic music.
These three re-releases by Silva Screen are all beautifully remastered by Radiophonic Workshop archivist Mark Ayres and sound better than ever before. The facsimiles of the original packaging are pretty splendid too and Silva Screen deserves great kudos for their ongoing dedication to the work of the Radiophonic Workshop. If you have even a vague interest in the history of electronic music, or in music produced for radio and television in the UK, then these releases are a must buy.
❉ Check out our playlist of BBC Radiophonic Workshop highlights on Spotify:
❉ ‘The Soundhouse’ was re-released on CD by Silva Screen Records on 7 October 2016, with a vinyl pressing to follow on 4 November 2016. All three albums can be ordered directly from Silva Screen Records.