Scarred For Life, Kev Oyston and Memories of 1970s TV

All hail Stephen Brotherstone and Dave Lawrence… the square-eyed Liverpudlian duo who, staggered that nobody had yet written a book about the welter of disturbing TV shows, films and – ahem – ice lollies that traumatised our collective 1970s childhoods, set out to fill the gap. The resulting doorstep-sized tome, Scarred For Life, has become a sales sensation, and a follow-up volume, detailing the Cold War-infused minutiae of their 1980s adolescence, is due in 2020.

And the book has now inspired a compilation album of original music, all inspired by those lingering memories of childhood disquiet. It includes new tracks by the likes of Vic Mars, The Home Current, Pulselovers, The Heartwood Institute and Polypores, and has been compiled by musician Kev Oyston, who – in his guise as The Soulless Party – also contributes the title track. It’s the start of a busy period for Kev, whose multi-media Black Meadow collaboration with writer Chris Lambert, detailing the dark folk stories of the North York Moors, also sparks back into life in early 2020.

But the Scarred For Life album, released this week by Castles In Space, comes first, with all proceeds heading to Cancer Research UK. It’s a beautiful collection of evocative music, and I asked Kev about the inspiration behind it…

Bob: Where did the idea for the Scarred For Life album come from? I assume you bought the book, and enjoyed it?

Kev: Yeah, I bought the book. It appealed massively to me straight away. Although I was born in 1975, a lot of the early to mid 1970s Public Information Films, schools programmes and children’s programmes were still being re-shown throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s, so a lot of the content of the book rang a big bell with me. I’ve always been fascinated with the dark, weird and ambiguous output of 1970s TV.

Which TV programmes or films from the era really scared you?

My earliest memories are basically from Doctor Who and those Public Information films. Being rather mesmerised by Tom Baker, who himself was pretty scary. I actually remember the reveal of Scaroth at the end of the first episode of City of Death – that absolutely terrified me. I was four! The other Doctor Who cliffhanger that traumatised me was the end of the first episode of Logopolis, where the Master shrunk Aunt Vanessa and the policeman, and left them like lifeless dolls in the car.

The Public information Films that got to me were the ones with the drivers’ faces being smashed through the car windscreen in very weird slow motion. There was also one with a mother and her little boy, where he runs out into the road and she drops her eggs as he gets run over. I used the think the eggs were the contents of the boy’s head!

And the infamous Apaches, which warned of the dangers of playing on a farm, absolutely gave me nightmares… especially the shot of the boy sinking and drowning in the slurry pit. It was just so lifelike! But that was the idea wasn’t it? To scare you away from doing daft and silly things on roads, or swanning around near farming equipment.

Did other things get to you as well? I found it hilarious that the book’s writers, Stephen and Dave, were scared by “Dracula” ice lollies and “Horror Bags” crisps… 

I can remember this quite vividly, and it still gives me chills now… my parents used to threaten me with the rag and bone man, saying he was going to take me away if I didn’t behave. Honestly, that worked a treat because every time I heard him at the bottom of our street shouting, “RAGBONE!!” I’d be off like a shot! In fact I’d hide under my bed!

I think it was his voice, the way he shouted. It was quite snarly and bellowing. I really do still shudder thinking about it.

When, and how, did it strike you to make an accompanying album?

I hit it off with Stephen a long time ago, over our love of the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and we talked on and off for a while about different things. It wasn’t until we actually met, at their first Scarred For Life show in Eaglescliffe about a year ago, that we talked quite excitedly about the idea of doing a compilation album. I found the subject of the book to be really evocative, and thought it would carry the weight of a concept album quite well.   

At first we toyed with the idea of doing covers of old 1970s and 80s TV themes, fitting in with the Scarred For Life ethos. But after much pondering and research, I discovered that it would end up being a huge copyright headache, so we parked the idea for a bit. 

It wasn’t until I heard that the lads were working on a sequel to the original Scarred for Life book, this time covering the 1980s, that my interest in doing something was piqued again. So I spoke with Stephen and asked what he thought about a compilation album of music “inspired” by the TV and film output of the Scarred for Life era. He loved the idea, so I went away and rallied some artists.

Did you draw up a hit list of you wanted to approach? Are a lot of these artists people that you’ve known for a long time?

It all seems a bit of a blur now, but I think it was quite organic. The first person I approached, more for advice, was Colin Morrison from the Castles in Space label. I already had something on the boil with him, and thought it would be good to run this idea past him too. Before we knew it, he’d signed up to the whole thing, lock stock and barrel, and wanted to promote and push it all! I was absolutely bowled over.

A lot of the artists I approached, I’d known forever… Vic Mars, Monroeville Music Center, Pete Hackett – aka Cult of Wedge – Keith Seatman and Swimming Lesson. They all jumped at the chance to be on the album. I’d always admired the other acts too… The Twelve Hour Foundation, the achingly lovely Jonathan Sharp from The Heartwood Institute, Listening Centre, Rob from Handspan… in fact I admire everyone we have on there!

It was nice, because I proposed the idea to each of these artists, and immediately there was a mutual understanding of the premise, and the important cause that the album was for. Not only that, each individual who took part was just massively likeable, and easy to get along with. I had everyone in a Scarred for Life private group and we all just clicked. Honestly, it was really lovely. Most of the artists were already aware of Stephen and Dave’s wonderful book and were really keen to take part.

What was the remit you gave them all as a starting point for their tracks?

Because the Scarred For Life books are about to hit the 1980s, I gave them the remit of creating music that reminded them of that kind of “off kilter”, not quite right, TV shows or movies that they’d watched as kids in the 1970s and 80s. But not just the TV shows… other things besides.

Can you give us a little rundown the tracks themelves, and the inspirations behind them?

Well, I thought I’d let the artists speak for themselves! I managed to coax this out of them all the other day… here’s what some of them have to say on each of their pieces:

Vic Mars: The Time Menders

Vic Mars: The Time Menders was an early title for Sapphire and Steel, and I was aiming for a psychic paranormal investigator theme.

The Heartwood Institute: Women Against The Wire

Jonathan Sharp: The Heartwood Institute track is a direct reference to the women’s peace camp at Greenham Common, and that’s also where the sample is from:  “We are women, we are strong…”

The Twelve Hour Foundation: Belmont

Jez Butler: Our track is named after the TV transmitter near my old home town in Linconshire. Rather than being based on a specific theme tune, it’s a more generic radiophonic-inspired thing, with the focus on the sudden start – in the style of a scary 70s kids’ drama intro – and the the cliff-hanger at the end. If that makes sense!

Keith Seatman: Words From The Wireless

Keith Seatman: Words From The Wireless was inspired by the 1972 series Escape Into Night, and the book that inspired it, Marianne Dreams.  “Not the light!” 

Swimming Lesson: Superhighways

Darryl Wakelin: Mine was inspired by the excitement and dread – in equal measure – of what computing in the future would be like. A mix of Tomorrow’s World, and the machines that would destroy us, control us or be used for war. Think 2001: A Space Odyssey, Demon Seed, UFO, Space 1999, etc…  

The Home Current: Summer In Marstrand

Martin Jensen: Summer in Marstrand is inspired by growing up with the Moomins on Danish TV. I was part fascinated, and part scared senseless, every time an episode aired. Some of my childhood summer holidays were spent on the Swedish island of Marstrand, and apart from it being where I saw my very fist White-Tailed Eagle, I also remember thinking the Moomins could easily have come from there.

Handspan: Fear Follows Shortly

Rob Colling: Mine came mainly from the fact that I’d been listening to Clannad’s Legend, the soundtrack album from Robin of Sherwood, quite a lot in the weeks running up to this project. That’s why so many of the modular synth noises sound a bit like Celtic harps. It actually ended up in more of a Look And Read kind of place, somewhere between Dark Towers and The Boy From Space, hence the track title, but my initial idea was much more about forests and mist and standing stones. And terrifying early digital video effects.

Cult of Wedge: The Gamma Children

Pete Hackett: Originally I’d written an actual song, words and all, but I couldn’t sing it due to the stupid key, and time was running out, and everyone else’s tracks were instrumental… so I recorded a theme tune! It’s pretty much on a theme of The Tomorrow People, but has time travel / indigo / psychic children ideas going on. Hence the kid at the start seeing dead people…

Pulselovers: Nice View From Up Here

Mat Handley: Nice View From Up Here is my take on the theme tune for a sitcom starring Joe and Petunia from the Public Information Film series made between 1968 and 1973. I imagined a particularly un-PC studio comedy in the style of George and Mildred, but with a theme more inspired by the brilliant Ronnie Corbett vehicle, Sorry!

Monroeville Music Center: Hack and Slash

Craig Storm: I sat down trying to make an homage to Knightmare, and instead ended up with what seems like the end credit music to an educational programme’s Halloween episode, if it had spliced in eight-bit voice actor samples from a third-rate medieval adventure game. It’s no Knightmare, but it’s a show I’d like to watch.

The Central Office of Information: Puzzled

Alex Cargill: Puzzled is loosely based on the 1970s and 1980s BBC kids TV show Jigsaw, which featured the infamous character of Noseybonk. Genuinely disturbing for a young child. I tried to imitate the generally upbeat feel of the original, along with the childish sound effects. The laughter snippet is actually a sample of my late Grandad – it seemed to fit nicely and I thought it’d be nice to have him immortalised on a CD. It’s what he would’ve wanted. However, as is often the case, I couldn’t help myself from adding a little bit of acid squelch to the proceedings.

Quimper: The Runner

Johnny Vertigan: I think I was gleefully ripping off the slightly sinister library themes that would sometimes find their way onto Pages from CEEFAX. Or the kind of thing that would be used for either a forgotten, warped 1970s BBC drama, or perhaps a schools’ programme about maths. Same difference back then, I suppose.

Listening Center: Nowhere, Nowhere, We Should Have Known

David Mason: My offering is inspired by the multiple layers of uncanny-ness and the fractured parallel realities reflected in Sapphire and Steel. The title is borrowed from the final episode of the series, where (Spoiler Alert!) Sapphire and Steel find themselves trapped in a cafe, in the void, for eternity. 

Panamint Manse: Leadfield Intoxicants
 
WP Ulmer: I was channelling Harry Forbes watching The Finishing Line

The Bentley Emerald Learning Resource: Programmes For Sick Days

Benjamin Green: Programmes for Sick Days takes inspiration from “Programmes for Schools”, generally the only television available to watch for children who were too poorly to go to school that day. Quite dry programmes that perhaps seemed dead boring in a classroom would become extraordinarily fascinating and eerie in the cosy setting of the living room. My track tries to evoke the images and sounds of a morning of school programming, through the woozy haze of feeling unwell. Dosed up on children’s medicine, and safely bundled up within blankets and quilts to make a bed on the settee.

To temper the cosiness, I will add that while experiencing a proper bout of influenza for the first time as a child, I had a morbid thought during an episode of Zig Zag that I might end my days on the sofa, and these would be the last visuals and sounds I’d ever experience. And I’ve since often wondered if, for some poor souls, that may have been the case….

Polypores: Memorabilia

Stephen J Buckley: My track, as with most of my music, wasn’t really planned or thought out as such. It’s not really up to me what I write on any given day. I simply made myself available, open to suggestion, and coaxed it from the strange ether from which music comes. Basically, I was led down a Scarred for Life ether vortex, and the track just came out!

And Kev, your own theme music, the opening track to the album?

Yes, it was the main Scarred for Life theme that I tasked myself with, and I just wanted to encompass sounds and layers that echoed the likes of Denton and Cooke, and Peter Howell… with a cheeky nod to John Carpenter, too.

What’s your own background as a musician? Can you give us a little potted history, please?

I was massively into music from a very young age. I used to spend a lot of time round at my cousins’ house, and they were quite big into electronica, post-punk and ska. I was basically a sponge, and I loved everything they listened to. They had a loft conversion with lots of old synths in it, and wrote their own material as well as doing cover versions for a college band they were in. Again, I was hooked. By the age of 12 I had my first synthesizer, a Korg Poly 800. I also had a four-track tape recorder to lay down any ideas I had. I got a few more synths in my twenties, and chucked out a few demos of instrumental tracks to various people. One of whom told me that I’d be good for TV adverts or soundtrack work… however, being very young, idealistic and quite naive, I was quite put out by this! I went off to form a synth-pop band with my cousin, Rob.

I wrote all the tracks and did some of the vocals and we set out round London gigging on the – then – underground electronic music circuit for a few years. We had a nice little following, and released an album… which maybe ten people might have in their collection.

As the years progressed, I started getting into Ghost Box Records. Their output totally blew my mind and took me back to my childhood in very strange ways… to the classroom, or to a cornfield or a forest on a warm, hazy day. I just loved what I was hearing. That inspired me to go down a similar instrumental route, trying to come up with something that reminded people of the past. New music that sounded like vintage music. I think I achieved that with the Black Meadow project.

I was going to ask about the Black Meadow project. Can you tell us a little bit about this?

While I was trying to find that sound of the past, I wrote a track which I just randomly called Beyond the Moor. It ended up on the Tales from the Black Meadow album, but at the time I wrote it, I had no idea what it could be for… why did I call it Beyond the Moor? But the more tracks I wrote with a similar vibe, the more it organically fell into place. The concept came to me.

As a child, we used to drive regularly over the North York Moors to Pickering, to see relatives. We’d always pass the three huge, golf ball-like radomes that belonged to RAF Fylingdales, and – being a kid with his head in the clouds – I always imagined strange alien craft being housed there. Or something akin to Quatermass, that kind of thing. My imagination ran wild. I recalled all that as I wrote the music for the first Black Meadow album and it just gave me the impetus to keep going. I had an idea of a story, or of strange folklore, attached to this place called The Black Meadow, which was slap bang right next to RAF Fylingdales. It was to be a place of mysterious fog, creatures and a Brigadoon-type village that appeared only under certain atmospheric conditions. The village is full of weird monsters and people, and is just downright creepy.

My old partner in crime Chris Lambert took an interest in this project and my ideas, and basically wanted to put them all into proper folklore-style stories, and have them published along with the album. I got carried away with the idea, and pushed for something else to go alongside the music and the book, and that was… why don’t we “dig up” an old BBC Radio 4 documentary from 1978, all about the Black Meadow, and add it to the album? So we did.

The original Tales from the Black Meadow CD – with the music and the documentary – was released in 2013, along with the book. The book still sells well today, and sometimes I  re-release the album and it always seems to do OK. 

And there’s some new material coming in January 2020?

It’s taken a long time, but we’ve just completed the second Black Meadow project, The Black Meadow Archive: Vol 1. Again, it’s an album of music, this time on vinyl, again on the lovely Castles in Space label. And there’s also a new, jam-packed book too. We’re quite excited to release it to the world. We just hope everyone likes it! 

In the meantime, Scarred For Life is out this week, and all proceeds are going to Cancer Research UK… is it a cause that’s dear to your heart?

Absolutely. Sadly, someone very close to me was diagnosed with cancer in May and it’s been a very tough few months. Happily things are looking positive, as the treatment has done the job, and we’re hoping everything will be clear come the New Year.

Its funny how you can appreciate, yet still take for granted, some of the work these charities do. It’s not really until something affects you close to home that you start to really appreciate their work. Cancer Research UK are a hugely proactive concern… they’re a positive power for good in the search for a cure to cancer, and they provide fantastic support to those who may be suffering. They were the first charity I thought of when we were putting this album together, and it’s been brilliant to see people buying the album also getting behind the charity too.

Thanks to Kev for his time, and thoughtful replies… and to everyone else on the album for contributing, too. The Scarred For Life album is available here…

https://scarredforlife.bandcamp.com

…and it concludes on a poignant note; the closing track, Be Like A Child by Carl Matthews, is a genuine piece of beautifully melancholy 1984 electronica from an artist whose own life was cut tragically short by cancer. It’s a fitting conclusion to a wonderful collection of music.


I asked Jonathan Sharp, of The Heartwood Institute, about his memories of Carl. He replied…

“Carl is one of the great lost voices of UK synth. He started releasing cassettes from 1980 via the Mirage label – all very DIY – and continued up to 1991. You can find a big list of his output on Discogs. He was incredibly well-respected, but largely unknown. I got to know Carl around 2001 when he started making music again, and we became good friends. I encouraged him into making library, music at which he became very successful. More recently, there’d been a real interest in his old music, and he’d had Call For World Saviours released on CD and vinyl, and had appeared on several high-profile compilations too. He’d also started releasing new music via bandcamp. Sadly he died a few months ago, just as the Scarred For Life compilation was coming together. As soon as I knew it was raising money for Cancer Research UK, it seemed natural to have a track of his on the album. His family agreed, and it’s so lovely to have that track on there.”

David Cain, The Seasons and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop

I was extremely saddened in October this year to hear that David Cain had died. A stalwart of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop from the mid 1960s to the early 1970s, he worked on music and sounds for high-profile BBC radio dramas – including famous adaptations of The Hobbit and The War of the Worlds – as well as creating a plethora of gloriously inventive radio stings, stabs and jingles. When the BBC rolled out its exciting network of local radio stations, from 1967 onwards, each was provided with a radiophonic theme intended to reflect the area’s identity, culture and landscape. David’s music for BBC Sheffield was arguably the pick of the crop; its rolling metallic rhythms effortlessly evoking the heritage and history of the city’s steel industry.

But it’s almost certainly for The Seasons that he will be remembered most fondly. This extraordinary 1969 marrying of David’s harsh electronic music with the unsettling poetry of one-time Benjamin Britten libretto-writer Ronald Duncan, all narrated by BBC Schools Radio regular Derek Bowskill, makes for an overpoweringly evocative reminder of a very particular era of British schooling. A period when educational influences collided; when post-war austerity – all boiled cabbage and morning hymns – met a new breed of Guardian-reading, corduroy-sporting teacher, and cold, parquet floors and breezeblock school halls began to echo with the sound of post-hippy singalongs and, indeed, the experimental avant-garde of albums like this.

With 21st century hindsight, The Seasons seems staggeringly inappropriate for the primary school-age children for whom it was intended. It boasts seventeen short tracks; twelve of them dedicated to the months of the year, plus one for each season, and then a concluding instrumental piece entitled The Year. It is darkly macabre, and oddly sensual. Strength is drawn “from the earth’s thighs”, and May “teases with all the orchards of her eyes, and leans with apple, tempts with peach”. There are gaunt elms shuddering “within the groin of grief”, and those of us who had previously associated October with merely the advent of the conker season and the occasional dodgem were startled to be presented with somewhat darker imagery: “Like severed hands, the wet leaves lie flat on the deserted avenue”.

All of this was intended to inspire children as young as five to express themselves via the medium of interpretative dance, almost certainly in a freezing dinner hall, with the whiff of oncoming spam fritters wafting aimlessly amidst the musty smell of unwashed C&A vests. When Trunk Records reissued The Seasons in 2012, I contacted Jonny Trunk to ask if David might be available to be interviewed on my BBC Tees show. I was naturally delighted when David agreed to do this, and we had a fascinating chat over the phone from his new home in central Poland. He was charming, funny, and eccentric… a genuinely warm and welcoming man who was clearly incredibly proud of his groundbreaking work with the Radiophonic Workshop.

This is how the conversation went…

So David, you’re living in Poland these days! Whereabouts?

I’m near Łódź and nobody ever knows where it is… or can actually pronounce it properly! Or can even get there actually, because communication is desperate. But it’s right in the middle. It’s sort of what Manchester would have been like if they hadn’t sorted it out…

Is it good to have The Seasons back out there, and to be “official” again?


Well, I don’t know about “official”… I’m not sure it was official in the first place, really! The programme was official, of course; it was a schools programme, and I was given some lovely poetry. Brilliant poetry, I thought. Beautiful. Not easy, and not the first thing you’d choose for eleven-year-olds, but I was asked to do the music for it. And that was my job, so I did it.

And now it’s quite amazing that I’ve suddenly come into contact with… one or two slightly strange people, and I mean that in a very positive way, actually! When people start saying “Your cult music”, I say… “Pardon?”

“People are asking for this…”

“Are they?”

And then I saw that somebody was asking £260 for it on eBay!

Yes, the original vinyl became a very collectable album…

Well, mine’s not collectable. The first two tracks, January and February, disappear under a rash of scratches. But now I’m OK, because I’ve got a beautiful CD, and the beautiful white vinyl that Jonny Trunk has done. It’s absolutely fabulous.

How did you get involved with making these recordings, back in 1969? Obviously you were working at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop… did the commission just come in, and get passed onto you?

Yeah. With the Workshop… you sort of sat and waited for people to come and ask you to do things. And I hadn’t been there very long, actually. I’d done some stuff – some radio drama – and some BBC Schools, which was a big department in those days, they did a lot of stuff. And there was one producer, David Little, who I did a few things with.

David came and said “Listen… I’ve got these poems about the seasons, there are twelve for the months, and four for the seasons, and I’d like you to do some music.” For a drama workshop… it wasn’t Music, Movement and Mime, that was something else.

And I said fine. OK. And we talked about it, and what he wanted… and he wanted something to get kids to move about and do things, to respond to the poetry and also to the sound. So that was it, really.

I’d worked with David before. I had great respect for him, I thought he was a super producer. One or two other people didn’t like him very much, because he knew what he wanted. Ha! Which meant that if you thought that you knew what he wanted, and it wasn’t what he wanted, you were in trouble. Ha ha!

But no, super… that was it. I was asked to do it, and I did it. There you go. And maybe a year or so later they said “Well, we’d like to produce a record because quite a lot of schools have asked to have a copy.” Because in those days you couldn’t copy stuff… well, you could I suppose, but you did it on all sorts of funny little tape machines with reels of tape. I don’t think there were even cassettes in those days, were there?

Not the mini cassettes, no… I started school in 1977, and it we still had the big, reel-to-reel tape machines.

Well there you go, goodness me! So in 1969 people just had to turn on the radio, and wait for it to happen.

So the poetry was written by Ronald Duncan, and voiced up by Derek Bowskill. Were the recordings of the actual poetry just given to you as a fait accompli?

Yeah. I got the poetry, and then was asked to do it. If you haven’t got an enormous amount of time, it’s probably the best way to do it, I would think. Because the poetry stands by itself. And the idea was that what I did would not only stand by itself too, but – together with the poetry – would maybe offer some kind of stimulus to the kids.

Did you have any contact with Ronald or Derek?

Ronnie Duncan, no – never. Derek Bowskill, yes. I knew Derek… not that well, but I knew him because I was more widely involved with drama in schools, and educational drama, and Derek was also very heavily involved with this. He was then down in Devon, but he was linked up with people that I knew in London. I met him, and we talked about it… but he’d done it, you know. He didn’t do it with me there, doing any kind of production. I just got the tapes.

The music has a very earthy, rustic, almost Pagan feel to it. Was that something you were aiming for?

[Laughs] I dunno! Remember, this was the 1960s… everyone was being Pagan then! 

There was a lot of it about, then?

We were all wandering around in wonderful Afghan coats. I had one of those! It was brilliant. Pagan? I dunno… maybe sort of earthy. Different. Slightly disturbing. That was definitely there. I think David Little wanted that, because if you’ve got kids wandering around in shorts in very cold gymnasiums in schools, then you need to get them stirred up a bit, otherwise they’ll sit down and do nothing!

I’m glad you brought that up, as I’m intrigued to ask… a lot of books and music and TV for kids in the late 1960s and 1970s have a kind of creepy quality. There’s a darkness that I find incredibly evocative now. I’ve often wondered if that was something you were aware of at the time, making this stuff?

I was. I was aware of that, because there were one or two writers… the obvious one being Roald Dahl. You can’t call Roald Dahl a laugh-a-minute man! I mean he was, but in a slightly creepy way. There was Doctor Seuss, and then there was a Polish guy whose name I can’t remember now… doesn’t matter, not important, we mustn’t go into all that! And then there was The Wicker Man… I’ve jumped to films all of a sudden now.

It’s all part of the same feel, though…

It was, and maybe these kinds of things go together with the sort of music that was very upfront and… “WAFFF!” You know, if you’ve got The Rolling Stones and The Beatles going on at the same time, maybe also there was this feeling that kids can cope with a little bit more than Enid Blyton. Remember Enid Blyton?

Of course!

They were a bit creepy actually, but in a slightly different way. But yeah! It was meant to provide something that was not “Oh yeah, we know music like this, we can dance about…”

Did you ever take into account the age of your audience, and what might be appropriate for them? Or did you just make the music that you thought worked?

I did the second one. I didn’t actually think, “I must write this to appeal to…” No, I didn’t. Absolutely not. I have enough trust in them, especially now that I’ve been involved in education… I can trust kids like that. If it works, it’s gonna work. You don’t write down to them, you write up to them.

How was the music for The Seasons created? Were you using exciting things like wave generators?

Exciting things? Hahahahah!  

They are to me! But OK, maybe not to someone who had to work with them every day…

Ha! I know what you mean! Exciting… what was exciting…? We had a lot of ex-MOD stuff like oscillators, things like that. They were just basic things, they’d got “WOOWEEEWOO” That was all it was, you got different frequencies.

And then we had all these things that we pinged and panged, and banged and binged, to provide sound sources. And those gave you notes, which you then played… it was a fairly primitive system, really. We didn’t have any multi-track machines, we didn’t have any synthesizers, so it was all basically… you made a note, stuck it on a piece of tape, and then you sped it up and slowed it down.

We did have a machine that changed the speed, and that was it, really. You filtered it, played it backwards, forwards, upside down, whatever… and then you did the mathematics, which was OK for me, because that’s actually my first subject. It was 15 inches per second, so a lot of things had “Crotchet=120” because that made the maths easier! If you had “Crotchet=77” you were in real trouble…

And therefore you knew that that note was going to have one and a half inches of tape.

So you’re literally sitting with bits of tape, cutting them up to specific measurements, and piecing them back together?

Yeah! Stupid really, isn’t it?

No, it’s fabulous!

Haha!

How did you first come to join the Radiophonic Workshop in the first place, were you recruited?

No, they didn’t recruit. That was MI6.

There wasn’t a press gang, then?


Oh no! I worked as a studio manager, a sound engineer at first… in 196… oh, God… 1963 it was. Bloody hell, it’s nearly 50 years ago. Right, OK! And I very quickly got into radio drama, which was really where I wanted to work. Doing sound and all those things, and working in the studios with actors. And from radio drama, it was possible to apply for a sort of three-month attachment to the Workshop, to see how it was. And I’d been in touch with bits of it, because I’d done some plays where there was Workshop material.

So I went there for three months… maybe longer in the end. This was about 1965, 1966, and it was great. I really, really loved it, because there was time to do what you wanted to do, and to talk to producers and directors and create sounds that they couldn’t create… for dramas and plays that you couldn’t direct. So you had mutual respect for each other. I loved it, and I went back to radio drama as a studio manager, and then a job came up… so I applied, and I got it.

It just seems like the most extraordinarily creative place to be working. Cards on the table here, I’m a Doctor Who fan, so for me hearing things like the work that Delia Derbyshire did in those very early days… and Dick Mills, and Brian Hodgson… they seemed to be just left to make the music that they made without any kind of outside interference. Was the culture really as nice as the picture I have in my mind?

The word is trust. It doesn’t exist much any more, does it?

I don’t think it does unfortunately, no.

I think Mr Birt has a lot to answer for that one. Basically, we were employed to do what we had to do, and there was a trust that we were going to do it. And if we hadn’t done it, they would have thrown us out, it was very simple! But they didn’t check what we were doing by being there all the time, looking over our shoulders. And obviously if the producers kept coming, and wanting more and more and more, then it seems to me that we were doing what we should be doing.

And that’s what happened. It was only later that it turned the other way around, and well, you know… the problem was that razors, sticky tape and so on are a bit extreme in terms of primitive systems. But I think what happened later was – of course – that the synthesizers came, the keyboards came, the multi-track machines came, and suddenly it was a completely different situation.

And my theory is very simple. When we were there in the 1960s, the creative impulses and ideas were far ahead of the theoretical technical possibilities. But what happened later was that it turned the other way around, and the technology started to drive the system. You only had to press a button and you’ve got… “dumdumdoodledoodledumdum”. You’ve got it! If you don’t like it, you can change it a bit. But what it means is, before you do anything, you don’t have to think very much about what you’re going to do. Whereas with what we were doing… if you didn’t plan very carefully before you started, you were in real trouble!

That’s my deep theory, that there was a moment when the technology went past the creativity.

Are you still making music at the moment?

Nope!

Nothing at all?

Well no, that’s not true, actually. What I’ve done for the last few years is one kind of music-making, at mathematical conferences. Ha ha! Which means that I write some bits of music, do an arrangement of some kind, and then I write parts out for all the people who say they’re going to bring an instrument. And then for an hour and a half I send them off with bits of music, and then they all come together and play it. So it’s not really a great composition job, but it’s good because some people say… “I’m going to bring a wind-up torch.” You know what that is? They’re brilliant, there’s no batteries, you turn the handle very fast…

Like a clockwork torch?

Yeah! The point is, this is the Radiophonic Workshop… because if you turn the handle slowly, it goes “zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz”, if you turn it fast it goes “ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ”, and if you turn it really fast it goes “ZZZWWWWEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE”! This is the Radiophonic Workshop, isn’t it?

This is fabulous! You have to compose a symphony for wind-up torch!

The woman who brought it was chuffed to bits, because I wrote her a part! So that’s what I’m doing… but it’s not composing, I did that! If you are a down-the-line, 100%, super-duper composer, then you can keep going until the end of time. But you know… I did that. I composed, I composed for kids later, I kept writing stuff for the BBC, and then I thought “Well, I’m into maths now.”

So I got really heavily, heavily into mathematics as a teacher. And I still am, so I’m now lecturing at a teacher training college in Poland, to young students. It’s a joy. I’ve got ten hours tomorrow, and it’s going to be really good! So I’m doing that, and I’m digging the garden, walking the dog, and I go occasionally here, there and everywhere, travelling about. Sinking into the twilight of my days, really.

It sounds like a lovely life…

It is, actually. The weather’s a bit dodgy, but other than that…!

You do it, and then you’ve done it. I think it’s actually quite important, once you reach a point, to say yeah… you stop. The dangerous thing is to try and hang onto it. I didn’t do that. But I’ve still got these reels and reels of tapes sitting here, some of which I’ve transferred, and Jonny Trunk has played one or two.

But I’m delighted to sit here and hold this vinyl disc [of The Seasons], Mark 2, and think that it’s very nice to know that somewhere there’s a small group of people who enjoy listening to it.

I’ve played the whole album on the radio now, night by night, and had some lovely comments from listeners.

I think that’s amazing, I really do. I’m really chuffed to bits. There’s only one thing I can say… most of my music, because it was written as instrumental music for radio drama, and I’ve got about 60 hours of it, I suppose – you can’t play it because it was done for one programme. And if you want to play it again, you’re going to have to pay lots of money.

This is the BBC here, you know what it’s like…

In that sense it hasn’t changed!

Honestly David, thanks so much for doing this.

It’s been a real pleasure. In my life, you sit down and you think – “I can ‘blah blah blah’ for ten minutes about what I’ve done, and that’s really very nice, and somebody might be interested.”

So thank you very much for asking me.

Heartfelt condolences to all who knew David; we swapped the odd e-mail back and forth for a little while after our conversation, and he was always incredibly friendly and flattered that I was so interested in his work. And The Seasons will stay with me forever as a wonderfully inventive and stirring encapsulation of everything that was strange and beautiful about the 1970s childhood experience.

And it’s still available to download from Trunk Records, here…

https://trunkrecords.greedbag.com/buy/the-seasons/

The Haunted Generation in the Fortean Times – Issue 385

As well as this regular blog, the Haunted Generation is also a bi-monthly column in the Fortean Times magazine, rounding up new releases and forthcoming events. This was the most recent feature, from issue 385, dated November 2019.

THE HAUNTED GENERATION

Bob Fischer rounds up the latest news from the parallel worlds of popular hauntology…


“In The Girl I Left Behind Me, the narrator tells her story from the grave,” says Alison Cotton, discussing Muriel Spark‘s 1957 short story, the inspiration for her new album of the same title. “The story is about a girl who works in a London office, her first job after a long illness. As she leaves work one evening, she is struck by a strong conviction that she has left something important at the office, but can’t work out what it can be…”

The opening side of this beautiful 10″ vinyl release was originally commissioned and recorded for Gideon Coe‘s BBC 6 Music Show in 2018, to accompany a Christmas reading of the story itself, by actress Bronwen Price. A single, thirteen-minute suite of melancholy viola captures perfectly the downbeat, rain-soaked ambience of austerity-era London, underpinned by a fluttering murmur of dread that escalates as the narrative speeds towards its chilling conclusion. “As I was playing, I imagined myself as the main character of the story,” continues Alison. “I composed an eerie melody, following the structure of the story, and building up the suspense with my wordless singing…”

The flipside is inspired by a later Spark tale, 1966’s The House of the Famous Poet, and Alison’s ethereal vocals feature even more prominently here, amidst a wash of drone-like omnichord, and an elegant, spiralling viola recital recorded – impressively – in a single, improvised take. Set in wartime London, the story is the surreal tale of an “abstract funeral” sold to the narrator by a mysterious soldier that she meets on a delayed night-train journey from Edinburgh: “An aspect which fascinated me,” admits Alison, going on to enthuse further about her recent discovery of some of Spark’s lesser-known stories. “I’d only read The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie, which I remember I enjoyed when I was younger,” she says. “But I bought her collection of Ghost Stories. I thought they were all so well-written and chilling… and I loved how they were mostly written from the ghost’s perspective.”

The Girl I Left Behind Me is released by Clay Pipe music on (of course) Halloween, the second of two releases in quick succession from this beautifully consistent label; the other being Vic MarsInner Roads and Outer Paths, an album influenced by the writing and photography of Herefordshire ley-line pioneer Alfred Watkins, and by Vic’s own childhood explorations of the same county’s various abandoned houses and factories. Gently-plucked guitars, shimmering strings and woozy, old-school synths evoke an emotional connection to the British countryside… think Ralph Vaughan Williams with a Korg Monopoly. Both albums are available, on vinyl and as downloads, from claypipemusic.co.uk.

Also taking inspiration from a classic spooky text is Neil Scrivin, whose album This House Is Haunted, released under his new nom-de-plume of The Night Monitor, provides an eerie radiophonic soundtrack to Guy Lyon Playfair‘s famous late 1970s account of his investigations into the notorious “Enfield Poltergeist“. The album is strong on verisimilitude: there are knockings, white noise and tantalisingly indecipherable hints of electronic voice phenomena, amidst slabs of atmospheric music concrète that Doctor Who fans will find deliciously reminiscent of Roger Limb‘s percussive, synth-drive compositions for the show. A limited edition cassette release on the Bibliotapes label will be followed by a digital download… head to bibliotapes.co.uk, soundcloud.com/thenightmonitor, or follow @TheNightMonitor on Twitter.

Meanwhile, irrepressible composer and “sound archaeologist” Drew Mulholland has used his 20-year-old field recordings, recorded onto old-school magnetic tape at locations used in the filming of The Wicker Man, as the basis for The Wicker Tapes, a delightfully left-field sound collage. “There was still about five foot of each leg, both set into a concrete base with ‘WM 73’ carved into it”, recalls Drew of his 2002 visit to Burrowhead, in Dumfries and Galloway. A very limited release in August saw each cassette coming with a sliver of wood from the remains of this legendary prop, which also played a major role in the sound manipulations that shaped the album. “I built a Heath Robinson device that allowed the tape essentially to be destroyed by an actual piece of the Wicker Man,” he continues. “After that I set the wood alight, and – when cooled – crushed it to ash and coated the near-destroyed tape with it.”

The results are an album of dark, disquieting ambience, peppered with fleeting, folky motifs that evoke disturbing images of the film’s own climactic and merciless procession. Although the original cassette immediately sold out, the album is available for digital download from drewmulholland.bandcamp.com/track/the-wicker-tapes.

The next printed Haunted Generation column will be in Issue 587 of the Fortean Times – the Christmas edition, no less. In the meantime, Issue 586 is on the shelves now, and looks like this…