Steve Goble

Choose life. (Deuteronomy 30:19)

What if there were a publicly-funded body dedicated to creating new sounds?

These 107 tracks, across two CDs, tell the 40-year journey of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and its unearthly music, presenting key tracks chronologically from its conception in 1958, right up to its eventual demise in 1997.

The first track Amphitryon 38 (by Daphne Oram) is a short excerpt from the first TV music ever produced by the Workshop – even before its official opening. Although it was composed for a Googie Withers comedy, the clanging metallic echoes sound much more like a science-fiction, specifically the sort that the BBC would be making rather a lot of throughout the coming 1960s.

In other words, it sets the tone extremely well for that opening era. Musique croncrète (creating music by manipulating tape-recordings of everyday sounds) was the order of the decade, and these metallic clanging bongs sound far more scary than they perhaps should.

Not that all the department's output is scary. Pitch-shifted bells ringing, elastic bands twanging, and bottle-necks blooping, when assembled in order to create a tune, can sound extremely cheerful.

To demonstrate, one of the more upbeat marvels on here is Radio Stoke-On-Trent's jingles from 1968, constructed by David Cain entirely from sounds made by Royal Doulton pottery.

In the 1970s section, actual electronic-synthesisers come into play, but of course initially they all sound like electronic-synthesisers. As CD1 progresses however, you can hear the improvement in technology develop, as the concrète element recedes.

By 1977 we get Peter Howell's exciting The Astronauts, a track I used to listen to 25 years ago when I found it on the B side of his arrangement of the Doctor Who theme. Listening to it again after so long, this track refilled my head with impressions of my teenage years – school, my father, and the crazy stories that I used to write, which were often inspired by music just such as this. For me, the only thing this track lacks is a catchy melody.

Perhaps the Workshop's most prolific composition is the Greenwich Chorus from 1978. Composed (again by Howell) as merely incidental music for the TV documentary The Body In Question, it was formed principally from the ticking of a clock at the Greenwich Observatory, but with human voices beautifully shaped in to craft a song. The resulting piece sounds neither human, nor animal, nor electronic, so it's no wonder that upon transmission the Workshop was inundated with phone calls asking who, or perhaps what, was performing those vocals?!

By now the CD is entering the lonely and/or optimistic era of the 1980s, when the next generation of synthesisers were taking over. There are still some real instruments in there too, but fused-together in a way that's often tricky to tell apart.

My favourite composer Paddy Kingsland seems to take centre-stage for a bit as we reach what I can only describe as the department's "Hitchhiker phase". Brighton Pier was an awesome nightmare of a track in 1980, and still is today, as so many of these are.

With the Fairlight in strong evidence, loads of these tracks are now rereleases from the contemporary LP The Soundhouse, and the chance to hear these sunny, fun and downright mad tracks again is so welcome.

1982's bubbly Fancy Fish ("Aquarium") (by Howell again with Dick Mills) is still bonkers, as is Radiophonic Rock, which was their 6-way collaboration with Roger Limb, Jonathan Gibbs, Malcolm Clarke and Elizabeth Parker to celebrate the Workshop's 25th anniversary in 1983.

Wow - I consider this track to be the climax of the department's output. I remember how it felt to listen to this music at the time, with no idea what the futuristic-sounding 1990s held. What incredible new audio horizons could be waiting to envelope us in the future?

Irony intended. Not due to any lack of creativity, Radiophonic Rock unexpectedly gave-way to the beginning of the end.

For with the mid-1980s came the death of the BBC's interest in science-fiction, and with it, far less enthusiasm for anything that sounded weird. Earthsearch, The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, The Tripods, Doctor Who... One-by-one spacey series were discontinued, not to be replaced with much else of the same genre. Away with them went any wish for similar-sounding music to accompany more mundane, down-to-Earth shows.

Consequently, the second half of disc 2 becomes increasingly dull, as throughout the actual 1990s traditional instruments were mixed more and more to the fore, with artificially-made sounds becoming a little too subtle underneath.

Finally, the Workshop's last ever composition is included here from 1997. Assignment (Kofi Annan) by Elizabeth Parker, composed for a current affairs series, is something of a tragedy. You see, although it seems it was produced entirely on an electric keyboard, every electronic note is simulating the sound of an ordinary musical instrument. So why not just record the actual instruments? What a living-death.

From those far-off metallic clanging bongs of the 1960s that opened this release, what an oppressive, unvalued way to be put to sleep.

What a waste of time and money the BBC of the day apparently considered the last 40 years had been.

And what an awesome legacy it is now...


Available here.

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2 comment(s):

At 3:46 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't care what you have to say just post a link to where i can download it. And I don't understand you wont go on a date but you get on the internet which is A MILLION times more hazardous to your mortal soul then a date to the olive garden but I know you just make try to make it look like you don't want to date but you just spent all your time (when you're not trying to to bottle your nature human feelings of god knows what) scratching the bible in soul leaving a raw mass of you being kinda (not kinda, very) insane. So if you would do what jesus would and forgive my rant and post a link. God Bless

At 4:12 pm, Blogger Steve Goble said...

Hey Patrick, thanks for reading.

No idea where you might download it for free, but I've added a link to the album's Amazon page, where there are samples you can listen to. Enjoy!



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