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/

4 thoughts on “David Cain, The Seasons and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop

  1. ds November 26, 2019 / 2:52 pm

    Lord, I remember that interview going out. And you playing the album track by track. It does still stand up as a piece of work, as it’s beautifully shaded and off-kilter. And, as he said, it’s a marriage of form and technique. It’a not an album that would be possible to make now, because it’s the mechanical, analogue reclamation of sound that gives it it’s very peculiar patina

    And, like you, I remember standing in a “gym” (in my case, the infants hall in Easterside Primary school) in a vest and shorts, wobbling around unconvincingly to music like like this, emanating from those primary school speakers that looked a bit like a wooden box having a porthole with a hessian sack stretched over it.

    Like

  2. bobfischer November 26, 2019 / 5:00 pm

    Could there even be a modern-day equivalent of the Radiophonic Workshop now, artists whose creative ambition is outstripping the technology available, and they’re having to improvise? Or has technology made everything TOO attainable?

    Like

  3. bluejohnbenjamin November 26, 2019 / 6:13 pm

    I think you’ve excelled yourself here, Bob. Both the introduction and your transcript are very funny but also touching.

    Some highlights: your use of the word ‘startled’; “You can’t call Roald Dahl a laugh-a-minute man!”; “Sinking into the twilight of my days, really.”

    Like

    • bobfischer November 26, 2019 / 7:16 pm

      Ah, cheers Mr BJB. That’s very kind. He was a lovely chap, and when I launched this blog, I always had it in mind to drop him a line and see if he was up for a longer interview about his work. Bugger, eh?

      Like

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