The Pioneers: Radiophonic Workshop Talk

Radiophonic Workshop return with their first new music in 30 odd years- we discuss their history as pioneers of British electronica.

The Pioneers: Radiophonic Workshop Talk

Radiophonic Workshop return with their first new music in 30 odd years- we discuss their history as pioneers of British electronica.

Back in the late 1950s the composer and engineer Desmond Briscoe - with little fanfare and to widespread indifference- laid the foundations for electronic music in England. Alongside pioneering musician Daphne Oram, Briscoe had utilised embryonic pre-synth technology to provide the first electronic sound effects for a trio of BBC radio dramas: Samuel Beckett’s All That Fall, Giles Cooper's The Disagreeable Oyster, and Frederick Bradnum's Private Dreams and Public Nightmares, all broadcast throughout 1957. His work had caught the ear of a number of BBC producers eager to capitalise on the otherworldly soundscapes Brisco and Oram were crafting, and in 1958 the BBC Radiophonic Workshop was created; a place where sonic explorers could create a new language of sound. The Workshop rapidly expanded in size and ambition.

By the ‘60s they had started to infiltrate TV, soundtracking sci-fi and fantasy shows, branching out into creating full theme tunes as well as sound effects (most famously the masterpiece of electronic music that is the Dr Who theme). Crucially, they also ended up providing the music for a huge amount of state sponsored educational TV. Through this trick of fate, a whole generation of kids were fed a diet of sprawling ambient drones and alien, electronic glitch effects every time they’d watch a tax-payer funded educational program. It doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to suggest that this constant exposure to avan garde electronic composition normalised some of it’s wilder elements, and quite probably had a hand in the explosion of electronic music that took hold of Britain in the early 80s and has really relinquished it’s grip since. It’s worth taking in all this context when talking about the release of a new record from the Radiophonic Workshop (and they have got a new record out)- where once they produced music that spoke in a language barely anyone understood, now they speak to a generation they raised.

Paddy Kingsland first joined the Workshop in 1970. He worked on everything from Dr Who to Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy before eventually leaving to release further music with highly regarding library music label KPM. Now he has re-joined the Workshop in its new sporadic incarnation as occasional live band – and he was on hand today to talk about their new album Burials in Seven Earths (a reference to Francis Bacon’s unfinished utopian poem New Atlantis), the Workshop’s first album of new music to be released in over 30 years. It led us to talk about where the Workshop is now, and just how it got there…        

Who from Radiophonic is on the new record?

Well it’s got me on it, Mark Ayers and then Steve ‘Dub’ Jones, who works with the Chemical Brothers quite a bit, and the famous Martin Ware.

How do you become an official part of the Radiophonic Workshop nowadays?

Well, there are two versions, there was the old set up which was the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, then there’s the new set up which is the new band we’ve put together. In that band there’s also people who weren’t at the workshop. Mark Ayers wasn’t actually at the workshop, but he did write Dr Who scores alongside us, so he’s kind of an honoury member.

What kit do you use now? Do you make any concessions to modernity?

It depends on the project. This latest album was a fairly vintage thing - There’s a studio down in South London where Steve Dub works. We went in there for a day, set up the kit that we’d taken with us – I had a Jupiter 8, Martin had a Jupiter 8 as well, I had my theremin, which is recently made, but a fairly old fashioned piece of kit, and I had my autoharp, a sort of miniature harp thing that I use quite a bit. I also had a guitar with an e-bow. I can’t remember exactly what Steve had, various strange bits of gear for making analogue sounds. More or less anything can go into a project, that’s been the tradition… Mark also plays piano, and there was a nice grand piano in the studio, so he played a bit of that.

There was a variety of stuff on there – I don’t think I got my harmonica out which I’m known to do sometimes heheh – that’s really the basic stuff. Because it was only a day, we didn’t have time to go out and find different sounds to put in there – but the thing that took a bit of time was Mark putting it all together in his studio afterwards. We recorded it all live, someone would come up with an idea and we’d just improvise around each other, there was no big plan, it wasn’t like a regular rock n roll way of working where someone comes in with a chord sequence or a lyric, we just launched in and reacted to each other. The nature of the thing is a bit more floaty than a tune based thing so it’s possible to do that. The nearest analogy I suppose is jazz players just playing round chords, but instead of chords we had sounds. Although chords and melody crept in from time to time.

I think of the ‘Workshop’ aspect of Radiophonic as you having esoteric techniques for squeezing sound out of equipment – but it sounds like there was less room for that on this project?

Mark did some treatment and messed around with the sounds quite a bit, but in general I think he was fairly faithful to what we put down in the studio. The set-up we have now, through doing gigs, has become a sort of live version of what we used to do, when you’re playing live you can’t ask people to wait while you make a tape loop and run it round the room! You have to do stuff that works instantly. I still like working the old way, recording things, looping them up, playing them backwards, all that kind of stuff because it’s quite satisfying to do.

Have you got set roles in the band

I suppose it’s dictated by the gear we take around with us – we do a few of the old numbers that are rehearsed so we know exactly what we’re going to do at any given time. Mark Ayers is very technically accomplished- well he’s very musically accomplished as well – but he’s very good at sorting out MIDI and live mixing things, so he handles that.

I feel like Radiophonic were real pioneers of collapsing the space between performer, composer and engineer-

That’s right – neither fish nor fowl was how Desmond Briscoe described it, hehe – he was the one who started the workshop. He did all the experiments for Radio 3 back in the 50s. I can remember being in the office with him at some sort of crisis point, saying, ‘well I don’t know what I’m doing here’. And he said, ‘yes it’s like that, you’re neither one thing nor another, but hopefully you can come up with something’ – and time to time you managed to.

I can’t imagine the impact of the music you were making when you first started, as there was so little precedent for it. For me, I’ve grown up with this music soundtracking my youth, watching Dr Who and the like, I feel like it’s embedded in my DNA

You’re not alone in that – we were making loads of stuff for schools TV, which was shown in lots of schools at the time, in all sorts of lessons. They might be science things describing how biological things worked, or they might be English things, like a drama. There were other things that were like dramas demonstrating how people ought to be nice to one another or whatever – general lessons – and we were doing soundtracks to those. So inevitably young people were exposed to all this sort of stuff in a very big way – and then you’ve got something like Dr Who or James and the Giant Peach, which we did a lot fo the sound for. There was quite a lot of stuff that people of about 7, 8, 9, 10 would have got through TV or radio.

There’s been something of a lazy comparison between the Radiophonic Workshop and Kraftwerk – this missed something I think of as very definitive about the workshop, in that you were creating explicitly functional music – the compositions were written to a brief that required you to impart a particular idea, it wasn’t like you were trying to make a pop song. 

Well that’s right, and that made it easier in some ways – we were working to a deadline, and we had a brief. We’d be told, ‘we need this’ – it had to be accessible and hopefully original, and they might say, we need the effects in there for, say a cartoon title character jumping about in the opening credits, and you’re already halfway there. If you’re sitting down to right Don’t You Want Me Baby, you can write anything! You don’t have a brief. And we had a deadline - I would hang around all day if I didn’t have to get a piece in at a particular time.

What you were doing was still very far out – what was driving the commissioning editors to use you? Was it because they thought children would respond well to it? Or was it just because it was cheaper than getting an orchestra in?

That’s part of it – the cheapness thing, because educational radio and TV is on a very tight budget – it’s not like drama which has a big budget to get an orchestra in. But even the big programs didn’t have the same amount of money - Dr Who was a mainstream program but they didn’t have all the money in the world to spend on a conventional orchestra. The budgets weren’t very good on anything, but they were particular low on the educational stuff. There was also a big change on accounting methods at that time. Accountants took over a bit and said TV had this thing called total costing, which meant that producers had to pay for every single thing that was outside the BBC – at that time we were part of the BBC, so producers would save cash by using us.

Alongside that there were quite imaginative producers. There was one named Arthur Viles – he’d worked in radio and he absolutely loved using abstract sound alongside teaching – he felt it didn’t detract from the message he was trying to get across – say something about how blood flow works-  by having something conventional which might make you focus on it. There were quite a lot of talented people around who, in those days, had a lot of control over the programs. Nowadays there’s a huge committee of people bunging in what they want to be said and how it’s to be said – in those days it was very much a one man band in producing a program. I’m not saying one way was better than the other –

You kind of are..

Haha well, I do love American shows like Frasier which have an enormous committee behind them to make them work, but yes, I suppose in the right hands it’s good to have a single person.

I’d not considered that through the combination of a couple of open minded people, and basic budgetary constraints, this whole very strange, unique form of sound was kind of ‘Trojan Horsed’ into the minds of an entire generation of British children –

It’s a bit like rock n roll in the early days, it invaded everything

But rock n roll wasn’t being smuggled in in programs about the flow of blood!

Ha! No, no you’re quite right. In fact rock n roll was frowned on by conventional society

But your music ended up inspiring this amazing counter cultural moving and informing the music of artists like Aphex Twin, who has gone on to win a Grammy..

It’s really fascinating to hear what did follow on from us, because we were sort of admiring the rock n rollers back then, and thinking oh wouldn’t it be nice to be them, whereas we were in a little room making pieces that at that time no one was really taking notice of. But there were only three TV stations at that time – BBC 1 and 2 and ITV, which meant that early on we had a vast audience for the things we were making – even if it didn’t seem like it at the time.

I think it might have helped quick start a big cultural trend of Britain embracing electronica – you certainly didn’t get the same open armed embracing of synthetic sound in America

They were very keen on conventional set ups with orchestras – the theme tunes for Hawaii 5-0 and all those kinds of things would have big bands on them, they may have chucked in a synthesier or two on top of all the rest, but it sounded like an orchestra.

So in the end the fact they had more money ended up making them more conservative. While the sonic language you were creating ended up reshaping the mainstream

 It’s an interesting thought that we were Trojan horses..! I often thought that we’ve benefitted now – we go along to play at festival and people seem to love it, because it reminds them of a time when they were 10 or 12 – we prepared the ground accidentally for something that is very nice to do now.


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