INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Shindig! SEPTEMBER 2016 - by Mark Brend
OUT OF THE ORDINARY
The last twenty years have seen a surge in the popularity of vintage electronic music. Whether it be the pioneering studio experimentation of Joe Meek and The BBC Radiophonic Workshop or the adoption of the modular synthesiser by both the avant-garde and rock worlds in the '60s and '70s, interest in primitive tape manipulation has rarely been more feted than it is in 2016. Mark Brend investigates the phenomenon and digs deeper to reveal some of its less heralded practitioners.
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Almost from the moment it launched on April Fool's Day 1958, The BBC Radiophonic Workshop has been the subject of intrigued documentaries, broadcasts, and articles that continue to this day. To the casual observer the Workshop and its inhabitants, especially Delia Derbyshire, are synonymous with British electronic music of the '50s and '60s. In recent years, however, the widening sweep of history's radar has located other key figures. Workshop co-founder and subsequent solo operator Daphne Oram in particular has emerged from unwarranted obscurity, with a 2007 compilation reissue, a Science Museum exhibition and, just this summer, a first ever performance of her 1949 work, Still Point, for orchestra and live electronics. Meanwhile the work of computer music pioneer Peter Zinovieff, home-build guru FC (Fred) Judd, UFO-believer and Spitfire pilot Desmond Leslie and Tristram Cary - who partnered Zinovieff and David Cockerell to launch EMS synthesizers in '69 - have all been reissued.
Ian Helliwell's new book, Tape Leaders: A Compendium Of Early British Electronic Music Composers, goes further. It reveals that these figures collectively represent the tip of a hitherto unimaginably vast iceberg submerged for decades. Profiling dozens of composers, amateur and professional, and augmented by a fifteen-track CD of electronic music you have - believe me - almost certainly never heard before, it truly is a portal into a lost world.
The book ranges over roughly two decades from the early '50s to the early '70s. Within that it divides down into two distinct eras: the first, the tape recorder and oscillator, cut and splice age; the second, the early days of the synthesiser, and particularly the home-build synth kits popular through the '70s. The tape recorder era is the subject of this article. As ever with this sort of thing, it's impossible to be precise with dates. There were tape experimenters in the late '40s, and others continued well into the '70s and beyond until even now, but the essential period was roughly between '55 and '72.
Most observers acknowledge that the single key event in the emergence of electronic music was the invention of the tape recorder. Though electronic instruments, including the Theremin and Ondes Martenot, had been around since the '20s, it was the realisation that tape recorders could be used as a means of not only capturing sound, but also manipulating ind reconstituting it, which lit the fuse. The significance of this was twofold. First, here was the chance to fashion sound that had, quite literally, never been heard before. Second, music composition, performance and recording was at a stroke grabbed from the clutches of specialists - composers, performing musicians, sound engineers - and placed in the hands of anyone who could get hold of a tape recorder. It didn't matter if you couldn't play, or couldn't write music. It didn't matter if you weren't a trained technician. If you had a tape recorder and a microphone you could sit at home and compose and realise a piece of music, just as you could sit at home and write poem or paint a picture.
Commercial tape recorders became available : in Britain in the late '40s, but for the most part they were big, expensive units, the preserve of high-end recording studios and the BBC. By the early '50s smaller, cheaper domestic models were coming on the market and by the middle of the decade they were cheap enough to be affordable to most. For a decade or so thereafter tape recording became something of a craze, with clubs forming across the country, their interests catered for by specialist publications including Tape Recording Magazine and Amateur Tape Recording. For the most part, tape enthusiasts concentrated their energies on actuality recording - school concerts, church choirs and so on - and "tapesponding" - the exchange of recorded messages by post with other clubs. There was also, though, an interest in making electronic music with tape, and societies and magazines ran competitions that provided a limited opportunity for amateur enthusiasts to get their creative efforts heard.
The multiple mini-biographies in Tape Leaders confirm that early British electronic music took a curious and unique route quite separate from developments elsewhere. In the late '40s and very early '50s there were two distinct schools of electronic music. Pierre Schaeffer pioneered musique concrète in Paris - considering all sound, including the traditionally non-musical, to have a potential musical use. Schaeffer and composer Pierre Henry founded the Group de Recherche de Musique Concrète (GRMC) and in '51 opened a new studio, which included a tape recorder (having previously worked with turntables). Meanwhile, Werner Meyer-Eppler, Karlheinz Stockhausen and others were developing their own elektronische musik, favouring the use of pure electronic tones as compositional building blocks.
From the outset, British electronic musicians - both amateur and professional - cheerfully and wisely ignored such petty dogmatism and drew on manipulated concrete sound and electronic tones equally.
The typical amateur electronic music studio of the time would include one or two tape recorders, a little mixing desk, a microphone, a tone generator and maybe some kind of rudimentary filters or reverb units. Bigger, better-resourced studios were much the same, though maybe with multiple tape recorders and a few more filters and tone generators. Sound sources were divided into three categories - recordings of real instruments, recordings of "concrete" sounds (dripping water being a favourite) and electronic tones from test oscillators. These were then subject to a limited selection of processes - including reversing and vari-speeding tapes, and cutting and splicing.
As everyone, amateur and professional, pop musician and serious composer, worked with the same limited palette of equipment, raw sounds and techniques there was a tendency for much of the music generated to sound as if came from the same place. That's not to say that it all sounded the same Far from it Rather that music made for the concert hall, for a TV show or just for fun often sounded like it was all part of the same genre. This gave rise to a curious phenomenon whereby children Watching a science fiction programme could be thrilled by music that most would consider indistinguishable in type from something played in a programme of experimental new music on the South Bank, or in a demonstration in a church hall. The only exception to this came when people used electronic techniques to ape pop styles of the era (cue Joe Meek, for example, or a little later, John Baker of the Workshop).
For a few years it seemed like a brave new world of possibility was opening up for anyone who cared to explore it. At its heart was inventor, engineer, writer, editor, proselytizer, composer and musician FC (Fred) Judd. Operating out of a modest terrace in Woodford, north-east London, he devoted his considerable energy to promoting electronic music, touring the country giving demonstrations of techniques in church halls and technical colleges. His first book on the subject, Electronic Music And Musique Concrète, appeared as early as '61. Judd's musical output divides into two broad categories: freeform, eerie atmospherics, and more structured, rhythmic electro-pop that bears some resemblance to the slightly earlier work of Kid Baltan and Tom Dissevelt. It was the first, more abstract style that Judd employed for his one big public musical statement.
Space Patrol, a science fiction puppet series created by Roberta Leigh, was first broadcast on ITV in April '63, seven months before the launch of Dr Who. Leigh had previously worked with Gerry Anderson, to whom her jerky puppetry betrays an obvious debt. Sufficiently popular to run into a second series and to be shown around the world, Space Patrol's credits attribute "electronics" to FC Judd. It was the first British television series to feature an entirely electronic soundtrack. Judd's Space Patrol compositions were abstract and challenging - in any setting, let alone a children's drama - so it's a shame that this pioneering soundtrack has never been released (though you can see the whole series now on YouTube). A 2012 compilation, Electronics Without Tears, illuminated with informative liner notes by Helliwell, tends toward Judd's op material and is something of a revelation.
Judd is featured on the CD accompanying Helliwell's book, alongside other composers active at the hobbyist/amateur enthusiast level. Take Ralph O Broome, a technician at a radio repair shop and member of The Doncaster & District Tape Recording Club. His composition Nuclear Madness was put forward for The Ninth International Tape Recording Competition, held in autumn '60. Subsequently it was issued on a Telefunken promotional seven-inch, which featured a selection of tracks from the competition.
For an amateur composer actually making it onto record was unusual. For the most part the natural outlet for this homespun experimentation was a church hall demonstration, accompanied by a talk. Among the pleasures of Helliwell's book are the fragments of information he retrieves that give tantalisingly brief glimpses into this vanished culture. John Ross, for example, giving a demonstration of electronic music at a Catford Tape Recording Club meeting in the autumn of '63. Was Derek C. Harker in the audience on that far off night? Probably. As club secretary in December '59 he had entered his piece, Martians In My Piano, for a club competition for new sounds. It was, we are told, a "very noisy tape indeed".
If Judd is the figurehead of one wing of early British electronic music - the autodidact hobbyist - Tristram Cary represents another. In many other European countries - France and Germany in particular - early electronic music was the preserve of state sponsored avant-garde theorists and composers operating in radio and academic institutions. In Britain the serious music establishment was slow on the uptake, and it wasn't until the late '60s that university music departments began to embrace the new music, and then very tentatively. Despite this, there were trained "serious" musicians interested in electronic sound, Cary leading the vanguard. He began assembling the "machine", the first electronic music studio in Britain, in the late '40s.
Cary had served as a radar operator in The Royal Navy during WW2 and on leaving the navy in '46 studied music at Trinity College, London, while assembling the equipment that would make up his studio. Initially this included a disc-cutting lathe he bought with his de-mob pay, later expanding to include tape recorders and military surplus electronics gear with which the country was awash in the '50s. Using this very equipment Cary created what is generally accepted as the first publicly broadcast British electronic music, a score to a BBC radio play, The Japanese Fishermen, about a fishing boat caught up in the Pacific H-bomb tests of '54.
It was broadcast in '55, the year Cary also made a breakthrough into movies, with (non-electronic) music for the Ealing comedy classic, The Ladykillers. From that point on he moved between electronic and conventional composition, often combining the two, for concert hall, cinema, television and radio. His films included Quatermass And The Pit ('67). That same year he created the electronic music studio at The Royal College Of Music. Later he moved to Australia to work in academia, and continued composing until his death in 2008.
A good entry point into the Cary oeuvre is the 2010 compilation, It's Time For Tristram Cary. It provides evidence that in the absence of state funding Cary had to make his own way, frequently taking commercial commissions and consequently building up an eclectic catalogue of work. Visible Manifestations is an example, a collection of brief soundtrack cues for a Shell animated industrial film. This mix and match approach - combining commercial and serious work, maybe with some teaching and writing too - was the norm for serious professional composers of electronic music in Britain in the '50s and '60s. Roberto Gerhard is another example.
Born in Spain in 1896, Gerhard became a devotee of new music and for a while a pupil of Arnold Schoenberg in Vienna, having initially studied piano and composition. Forced to decamp to England in 1939 after supporting the Republican side in The Spanish Civil War, by the early '50s he was one of the earliest established composers in the country to work with tape. Though never a member of the Radiophonic Workshop he was granted access to it on account of several BBC commissions, though most of his work was done in his home tape studio in Cambridge. A selection of Gerhard's electronic music appeared on a '64 Southern library music seven-inch, and he contributed incidental music to early Dr Who episodes. In '63 Gerhard wrote the score for Lindsay Anderson's This Sporting Life, while he also produced a cantata, a chamber piece and two electronic compositions. One of these, DNA In Refection, soundtracked an experimental short film made by two students at The Cambridge Laboratory Of Molecular Biology and was later performed at The Royal Festival Hall in London.
Ernest Berk (1909-93) followed a similarly eclectic if more eccentric career path. Described irresistibly by Helliwell as "dancer, choreographer, teacher, composer and nudist", Berk was born in Germany but held a British passport so was able to escape the rise of Hitler and move to London in the '30s. He established his first electronic music studio in Camden in '55, primarily to make sound for experimental dance projects. He continued making electronic music into the '80s, including a '70s privately pressed album with two side long electronic tracks, Initiation and Gemini (both ballet scores); music for films, including David Gladwell's An Untitled Film ('64); and pieces for library labels, including Conroy, Rediffusion, Morgan and the CBS EZ Cue library. Two Berk pieces appear on the Tape Leaders compilation. The first, Chigger Sound 1, is one of five atypical pop tracks Berk made for Morgan. Combining a spacey melody with rock drumming, cheesy organ and a cacophonous background of electronic effects, it sits somewhere between Joe Meek and The United States Of America.
When Helliwell embarked on research for what is an informative and richly entertaining book he hoped to make a definitive, comprehensive record of everyone involved in making electronic music in Britain in the '50s and '60s. He concedes now that almost certainly there must be more music, other composers out there awaiting discovery. This begs a question. Given that Helliwell profiles over a hundred composers plus a number of bands/ensembles, and acknowledging that there almost certainly are more, why is it that most have been - until now - forgotten. Where did all that music go?
The answer is that most of it went onto shelves or in boxes in attics, and then in some cases into the bin. There were very few records, and most that were pressed were limited circulation library releases. One reason why The BBC Radiophonic Workshop has retained such a high profile is that compilation albums of its work were available from the '60s onwards, and subsequently reissued in the '80s CD boom. By comparison, much other electronic music was made either by hobbyists, whose highest achievement might be winning a competition, or by professionals as soundtracks to TV and radio programmes or short films. This might have been widely heard at the time, but in the pre-digital age before omni-availability and on-demand repeats, it was broadcast once and then forgotten.
Take Space Patrol, with its all-electronic soundtrack by Judd. Its first episode predated the first Dr Who by seven months, yet it was unseen for decades, thought lost. A discovery of a set of sixteen millimetre prints in Roberta Leigh's attic prompted a 2003 DVD reissue of all thirty-nine episodes.
Meanwhile multiple series of Dr Who, with its endlessly regenerated electronic theme and incidental music had been broadcast, repeated, and released on video and DVD. A single, one of two versions of the Ron Grainer-composed theme realised by Delia Derbyshire was released shortly after the show began, while the other version continued to serve with various modifications until '80. By the time Space Patrol was reissued on DVD there were dozens of albums featuring either versions of the Dr Who theme, incidental music from the series, or both.
So by dint of the sheer volume of archive material available, it's The Radiophonic Workshop and Delia Derbyshire who are lionised and feted and remembered, while Fred Judd is all but forgotten. While it would be a grave injustice to do down the Workshop and Derbyshire's importance, equating that story with the whole history of early British electronic music is a distortion of the space-time continuum that would baffle the good Doctor himself.
If a lack of available archival material is the main reason why early British electronic music remains forgotten, another is that there was no continuing culture of live performance. Making tape-based electronic music was a laborious and painstaking process, involving multiple precision razor blade edits and bouncing from track to track. It was not music that could be "performed" live in any conventional sense. Concerts of electronic music in the '50s and '60s tended to be, in effect public listening sessions to pre-recorded tapes rather than performances. They were often rather didactic in tone, accompanied by explanatory lectures and demonstrations. An exception to this was when electronics were combined with traditional instruments, but even then electronic elements tended to be pre-prepared rather than played live. Once the novelty of hearing strange sound emanating from a new invention paled, electronic music demonstrations died out. It wasn't until the emergence of affordable and portable synthesisers that performing electronic music live became viable.
So, in the absence of records to reissue, with no culture of live performing, and superseded by new technology, the tape generation faded into history. Until now, and the intriguing prospect that Tape Leaders might prompt a wave of reissues, further discoveries in what Judd called, in '61, "this unexplored world of sound and music".
Jon 'Mojo' Mills chronicles six British records across twenty years, on which electronic music re-shaped pop
JOE MEEK I Hear A New World - If a long way from Pink Floyd or The Human league, it's here where electronic experimentation began in pop music. Meek's story is well-known, as are his home recording techniques, which utilised every noise-making object available including the kitchen sink. This EP from the turn of the decade recreated the sound of space, Meek style, with sped up voices, tape manipulation, and effected instruments galore.
THE ROLLING STONES Their Satanic Majesties Request - Yes, The Beatles had experimented with tape cut-ups on Revolver the year before, and Sgt. Pepper certainly used the recording studio as an instrument, but it was The Stones' Brian Jones, and his use of the Mellotron and numerous esoteric effects on 2000 Light Years From Home, that rightfully allows The Stones entrance into the annals of the psychedelic side of electronic music.
THE BBC RADIOPHONIC WORKSHOP BBC Radiophonic Music - This was "pop music" made to "entertain" rather than "inform", and it perfectly fitted the progressive climes of 1968 - which, indeed, was an ideal time to unleash an album of solely electronic music, created by the boffins in the Workshop. If a lot verges on novelty, entries like Delia Derbyshire's Por Au Fait hint at where this type of synthesised music would soon go.
WHITE NOISE An Electric Storm - Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson of The BBC Radiophonic Workshop joined up with American whizz kid David Vorhaus for an album of "futuristic pop" that runs parallel to what The United States Of America were doing across the pond. Using their tape cutting skills and the brand new EMS Synthi VCS3, White Noise's oddball pop paved the way for Stereolab, Broadcast and countless others.
PINK FLOYD Dark Side Of The Moon - yes, it was one of the biggest albums of its era - any era for that matter - and, even if every prog group was benefitting from the possibilities of the synthesiser, the Floyd took it furthest. On The Run features an eight-note sequence made on the one-of-a-kind EMS Synthi A, a rhythmic track concocted on a white noise generator, and mind-melting effected backward guitar creating the kind of rave-friendly techno that would really take hold in the late '80s.
THE HUMAN LEAGUE Reproduction - with Dare, Sheffield's Human League went seriously pop; their debut album was a far starker affair, taking the already eerie motorik of Kraftwerk into far gloomier territory. Empire State Human was one of the year's most unlikely hits, but in comparison to debut single Being Boiled (not on the album) it was decidedly joyous. Along with John Foxx, Ultravox and a whole new breed of serious synth-toting pessimists fuelled on Cold War paranoia and a crumbling country, the humble synth became the new voice of discontent.