Jim Jupp, Intermission and Ghost Box Records

Sometimes, we all just need a break.

Amid the trauma of the global pandemic, collectively hemmed into an ongoing international lockdown, it’s become increasingly important to find distraction, relief and respite. So kudos to Ghost Box Records, who – seemingly out of nowhere – have conjured the appropriately-titled Intermission, a timely and soothing compilation of original material. Comprising brand new tracks from pretty much the entirety of the label’s current roster, and the unexpected but sensational return of one old favourite, it appeared without fanfare on Friday 8th May; not referencing the current crisis as such, but – to paraphrase label co-founder Jim Jupp – “responding” to it.

From Jim’s own Belbury Poly to co-founder Julian House’s Focus Group; from new recruits Plone to steely trouper Jon Brooks and his trusty Advisory Circle, the mood evoked by all is one of calm reassurance. The gentle beats of Pye Corner Audio are present and correct, as are exotic transmissions from the continent: Germany’s ToiToiToi and Portugal’s Beautify Junkyards. Clay Pipe founder Frances Castle offers analogue solidarity in her guise as The Hardy Tree, chanteuse Sharron Kraus brings a wistful folk sensibility, and her regular collaborator Justin Hopper unifies this blissful musical panacea with thoughtful and touching narration.

And then, yes… there’s the return of that old favourite. We’ll come back to him.

Digital copies of the album ordered through the Ghost Box website have temptingly different artwork to the regular edition, and also benefit Médecins Sans Frontières, the international humanitarian and medical organisation. The ever-genial Jim Jupp joined me to discuss Intermission, and other recent Ghost Box releases – as well as offering a few tantalising glimpses into the label’s future.

Bob: The last time we spoke properly was back in January when Paul Weller’s EP, In Another Room, was just about to be released on Ghost Box. Was that rather a frantic time?

Jim: It was, and we had a few technical hitches – I think even you had tweets about it, from people asking where they could get it! But I think we got there. We covered the audience as best as we could, and we did an extra batch that went to Japan only, because we’ve got a sub-distributor in Japan, and they were desperate. Fans of anything in Japan are Super Fans, they really wanted it! So we did an extra batch for them, approved by Paul’s people. But it’s still there on digital, rolling away, and we’re very happy with it.

And Paul’s forthcoming album features a song called ‘Earth Beat’… which is reworking of your song ‘The Willows’. That’s quite an honour…

It is! While we were talking about the EP, and while he was putting down the first ideas for that in the studio, he was listening to more of our back catalogue. And he texted me and said “I’ve been listening to a tune of yours and singing along to it, and I think I can work it up into a song – would that be alright?”

And I said (Laughs – and in a squeaky, schoolboy voice) “Yes! Course it would!”

So he did a rough demo, pretty much over the original recording, and it worked. It fitted straight away. Luckily, I still had the separate elements of the recording, the stems. With a lot of projects from that long ago, I wasn’t so organised and I didn’t keep them… I didn’t know what I was doing so much. But for some reason – thank God – I had all the parts for that tune, so I was able to get them to his studio, and they were able to rework them into a new tune.

So is that a Weller/Jupp composition, then?

It is, I get an album credit! It’s split between me, Paul and the guy who sings backing vocals, Col3trane – he wrote a middle eight for it.

And then a couple of weeks ago you released Plone’s album, Puzzlewood, which seems to be an album that everybody really loves. And it’s their first official album since 1999! Had you been aware that they were making new stuff? When I spoke to them, I think they said that it was them that approached Ghost Box, rather than the other way around…

They did. I was aware that they were up to stuff, but I think they’d got to a stage with Plone material where they thought: “Oh, nobody’s interested any more.” Then about two years ago, Billy had some side projects that he was working on – with somebody else, not Mike – and he said “Would Ghost Box be interested in these?” And I said “Yeah… it might be something we could look at for a single or something.” He said “OK, leave it with me and we’ll bat it about…”

But then, a few mails later, I mentioned that – years ago, early 2000s – somebody had sent me a CD bootleg of the “missing” Plone album. And I said: “Are you still doing Plone material? What happened to that album?” And he said “Yeah, we’ve got absolutely loads of stuff.” And he sent me links to, actually, about three albums’ worth. Some of which you can hear on Puzzlewood, and some of which dated from just after the missing album.

I said “There’s loads of great stuff here, Billy… can I cherry pick, work them into an album and sequence it, and you can polish those tracks up?” He said “Yeah, absolutely.” They’re very humble fellows. I think… I didn’t appreciate, and they didn’t appreciate, the amount of love in the room for Plone. They generate this sort of warm, fuzzy feeling, and there were a lot of fans that were really pleased and excited.

It’s nice… Boards of Canada were my first inroad into “this” stuff, in around 1999, but I was aware of Plone around that time as well – I probably heard them on John Peel’s show. This kind of music really seems to make a profound impact on people, but the artists themselves can be completely unaware that they’re held in much regard at all.

Yes, Boards of Canada, and Plone as well, were almost the first wave of that hauntological thing: “Oh yeah, the kind of music that I heard on the telly when I was ill! Other people know about this!”. They were the first people to connect with that, really. And Broadcast, of course.

Was the beginning of lockdown a worrying time for Ghost Box? It looked for a little while as though you might not be able to give Puzzlewood a physical release.

Yeah, the first few weeks of lockdown were scary. For everyone, of course, but in terms of the business and the label it was a worrying time. The Plone record was due; it was being manufactured and it was all paid for, and it was one of the biggest projects that we’d done in terms of outlay and capital. We did a lot of units, we did the special coloured vinyl… we knew it would be popular. And a lot of our money was tied up in it! We didn’t even know if it would arrive… and then our distributor, The State 51 Conspiracy, closed their doors. But luckily we were able to co-ordinate with them, and they’re kind of up and running again with a skeleton crew. Just part-time, so they’re struggling with the backlog of orders for retail, and for our shop and for the other labels they handle. So it’s not ideal, but they’re heroically forging ahead.

It’s been difficult, because they’re in a fairly central London location, and people have to get into work. That’s one of their biggest problems, aside from social distancing in the warehouse.

So was your vinyl essentially trapped in the warehouse where that amazing Midsummer Night’s Happening was held last June?

That’s their office and venue space, but the warehouse is just down the road from there. And yes, it was trapped there! It was a hairy few weeks, because we didn’t know what would happen. But we decided to stick to the release date, and if there’d been no physical product, we’d have taken pre-orders and done what we could when we could.

Mainly because, when I talked to the guys, we decided it was a timely record. It’s a cheerful, feelgood record, simple as that. And, as it’s turned out, I think that’s been quite timely, and people have loved it because of that. And things just came together at the last minute, so we could get physical product out there to the shops.

Which is important, as I think the physical object is a huge part of the Ghost Box aesthetic. I remember you saying to me at the time that you were having to be a digital-only label for a while, and you didn’t sound hugely enthusiastic…

Absolutely. But yeah, that was the prognosis at the time!

Let’s talk about Intermission… was the idea of a compilation of new material from your roster of artists something you’d been thinking about anyway? Or did it suddenly strike you that said artists might suddenly have a bit more time on their hands?

It was partly that… and no, I hadn’t previously considered it. It wasn’t on our release schedule, or in our plans at all, until lockdown began. And it was during the period that I’ve just been talking about when I thought: “We could be out of pocket, we could have serious problems, we have to do whatever we can on the digital side to keep the label rolling, and to keep a trickle of income coming for the artists.” It was something. So I got in touch with everybody, and said “How quickly can you give me a track, or a couple of tracks?” And everybody was up for it.

So the first impulse was survival, and a bit of income. But… as State 51 came back online, and we got a bit of physical product back online, and the Plone release went ahead successfully – against all odds! – I thought “We’ll keep doing this, but we probably ought to give something back as well.” So we did the charity version, too. You can choose just to buy it the normal way, and it’s a few quid for the artists and musicians, or you can give all the money to charity by buying it from our own shop.

And did you walk a fine line with your approach to it? Ghost Box kind of operates in its own unique, parallel world, and I wondered if you made a conscious decision as to how much of the “real” world you wanted to intrude? Justin Hopper’s narration on the album, while not specifically mentioning the Coronavirus, certainly alludes to recent events.

The brief that I gave to everyone was that it was a response to the situation, perhaps, but in no way was it about the situation. So, you know… what are you feeling, creatively? Where’s your head at? Just do that. And I spoke to Justin about how we might frame it, because we had the idea straight away that he would almost be the presenter or narrator of this thing, tying it together. And it was his idea to do a kind of Twilight Zone Intro and Outro…

Yes! That’s exactly what it is!

He’s a big fan of old Twilight Zone, as am I, and Rod Serling lived in Justin’s home town, Binghamton. And there are a couple of old Twilight Zone episodes where Justin knows the exact location… there’s one [the episode ‘Walking Distance’] that he talks about, where a guy goes back to his old picket-fence home town, and his mother and father are still alive, and he sees himself playing with the kids in the street. And Justin grew up round there, and knows those roads and streets really well.

So it was something that had been knocking around in his head. And the impulse at the moment… well, everybody seems to be scurrying to nostalgia, and their safe place, and perhaps their childhood memories. The impulse is to watch lots of old TV and listen to old music, and do the hobbies that made you happy when you were younger.

So I had the title “Intermission” – which is a very broadcast-y, TV, cinematic take on things, very much the Ghost Box world. It’s a break in normal services. Normal services will resume shortly! “Intermission” sounds aloof and high-handed, but kind of reassuring. So Justin took that word and thought of the idea of memory being a safe place; the little pauses and quiet times of the past that you remember. So his Intro and Outro allude to that, in this Rod Serling kind of way. And his longer piece in the middle, ‘Recreation Park’, about a park near his house that he remembered from being a kid, is a similar thing. Harking back to a particular childhood memory, simple as that.

And generally, the message I put out to everyone was sort of… tread a middle ground. Which I think they did anyway, I didn’t need to ask. I said we didn’t want any dark, dystopian drones here, and neither did we want relentlessly upbeat happy stuff. As it happens, we’ve got both on there, a bit! (Laughs) But generally, I think it all hangs together. There’s a theme of calm, of waiting, of “What’s going to happen next? It’ll be nice when this is over…”

It’s a very soothing album. And I like how Justin, who is a fairly recent recruit to the Ghost Box world, has quickly become such an integral part of it. Is it nice to have a “voice” that you can use on recordings – literally, a spokesperson?

It is! It’s entirely accidental, but he’s perfect for us. For a few reasons. He’s kind of become the “anchorman” of Ghost Box. Conceptually, it’s a bit like an old TV channel, and he’s the voice of the broadcasts. And it was good for us the way it played out… the obvious route would be to have a plummy English voice, but the fact that Justin – because he’s American – is a slight outsider to this world kind of makes a weird sense. He’s got a great performing and reading voice and a way with words, and he gets what we’re trying to do with Ghost Box. He understood straight away what this compilation was, and what the mood should be. And when he suggested the Rod Serling thing, he said “I won’t make it too much like that…”

I said “No, no! That’s brilliant, do Rod Serling! Make it sound like you’re standing in front of a weird backdrop smoking a cigarette!” And that’s what he did, and it was perfect.  

Just looking through the album here… after Justin’s introduction, you’re straight into a new Advisory Circle track. Jon Brooks is on a rich run of form at the moment, isn’t he?

He really is at the moment, he’s doing really well.

And blimey – Roj is on it as well! The first new recordings for eleven years, since his Transactional Dharma of Roj album? That was a lovely surprise!

That is the surprise! And it was a surprise to us all. I included him in the request, as I always do when we’re saying “What’s next? What’s everybody doing?” and Roj said “Ah yeah, I’ll get on that…”

And bless him, he’s absolutely brilliant, his work is always good, but he’s so particular about his sound. Strangely, this track has a sort of Joe Meek vibe to it, it’s slightly in that world, and I think he has the slight mania about his work that Joe Meek had. He’s never quite there, and he’s never happy! He’s almost delivered two completed albums to me in the last six to eight years, but it’s never quite been right. He says “Give me a few more months…” and then he starts again. [Laughs]. But for this, I said “Come on Roj, just do it…” and he put this together. I don’t know if it was something he was already working on, but I know he’s got loads and loads of great material, so we’re hoping this kind of inspires him to get cracking on the album.

Anything other tracks that you’d like to pick out yourself?

Oh, it’s very difficult for me to do that! I mean, mine is obviously the best track… [laughs]. No, it’s very interesting – some of the tracks came together during lockdown, but mine was already in the can, because that’s a track taken from my album – which will hopefully be out in a couple of months. We’re working on the artwork now. The Beautify Junkyards track was what they’d managed to do in the studio, because they’re working on their album… but, sadly, because that’s very much a studio album with lots of people involved, that’s had to stop. They don’t record at home.

Sharron Kraus’ track… that was interesting. I mixed that one, because she’s got a good recording set-up, but her stuff is very often finished in a studio environment. So I said “Record as best you can, get contributions from other musicians as best you can, and I’ll produce it at home.” So we managed to turn that around quite quickly, and do it remotely like that. But yeah, everybody did really well. As you can imagine, getting musicians to do something for a deadline is… [laughs] never easy! But everybody did wonderfully, and turned in tracks on time. I moved the deadline a couple of times, because I wasn’t ready…

But everybody delivered really good work. The other part of the brief was: even though we’re in lockdown, and we’re doing this quickly, keep up to your usual standards. They’re all very talented people. And they all did, they all did something that they’d be pleased to put on one of their own albums. It was great.

Good to see Frances Castle on there, recording as The Hardy Tree. I always think there’s a nice symbiotic relationship between Ghost Box and Clay Pipe.

Absolutely, and yes – that’s a lovely piece of music. I’d been talking to Frances just generally, about logistics and how she was coping during lockdown, and it’s just nice to exchange ideas with other labels and like-minded people. So yeah, it was lovely to have her on board for this.

And you’re literally dropping the album from nowhere, on Friday 8th May?

We are. We’re not having the usual pre-orders and promotions period. I’ve told people like yourself, and other radio people and journalists, but I’m not making any official announcements. We’ll do it live on the day. It’s just a different way of doing things, and we thought – “Why not?” Let’s get it together, get it ready, and get it out there with no fanfare. And see how it goes. Making it easy for ourselves, really.

Can you see it transferring to a physical format at some point, when all this madness is over?

Definitely. And if the madness drags on, we’ll try and do it anyway. We’ve got the Belbury Poly album next, but because the Beautify Junkyards album might take a little longer than anticipated, we might get onto a physical version of Intermission after that. Late summer, autumn sort of time.

And how’s the Belbury Poly album sounding?

I’m very happy with it. Jon Brooks has just mastered it, so it’s good to go. All finished. The hardest thing for me was… I’d finished the recordings, and gone back to the mixes a thousand times and got them ready, but I always have problems titling everything. Because there’s this conceptual baggage that Ghost Box records tend to have, and I wanted to get that right! The mood, and the feel of it. But I think I have, and I’m just starting to talk to Julian about artwork, and get the first rough ideas of what it might look like.

And I always do this to you… give me a track title.

Erm… let me think of one that captures the mood… [long pause, with the occasional sound of tormented anguish]. Well the album title is The Gone Away.

That’s a bit John Wyndham!

There’s a track called ‘The Gone Away’ as well. Given the circumstances, I had a bit of a wobble about that, but then I thought; “No, it’s nothing to do with it…”

It would never have struck me as having a connection to the current situation.

No… and some of the material is slightly dark for Belbury Poly, but I thought “No… I’m going to stick to my ideas and concepts.” There’s another track called ‘Magpie Lane’, which is very much inspired by the Advisory Circle track ‘Escape Lane’, and it steals a bit of Jon’s melody and builds it into a sort of… semi-acoustic folk thing.

Long before the lockdown, didn’t the album have a working title of The Parson’s Illness, or something similar?

The Parson’s Malady! That was the working title. And I don’t mean to be flippant about things, but you’ve got to laugh sometimes – that’s the only way to survive. So when the lockdown started and the situation was ongoing, that was generally how I was coping – by referring to it all as “The Parson’s Malady”…  

Thanks so much to Jim for his time, and splendid company, as ever. Intermission is available now, and can be bought here:

https://ghostbox.greedbag.com/buy/intermission-35/

Musty Books: “Nobody’s House” by Martin Hall (1976)

Sure, the victims of hauntings get scared. But won’t somebody think of the poor, lonely ghost?

It’s a theme perhaps under-explored in children’s literature, and Nobody’s House goes a little way towards redressing that balance. The ghost in question is indeed called “Nobody”, thus flinging open the portals for an unearthly infestation of groanworthy puns (“Nobody’s perfect!”), but also reinforcing the tragic backstory of this melancholy spook. He is the mischievous spirit of a Victorian orphan who died, alone and unnamed, in the basement of a rural, 19th century workhouse. The subterranean site of his deathbed still remains, complete with Nobody’s “mark” on the wall, but the rest of the building has long since burned down and been rebuilt as “Cornerstones”, a now rather ramshackle shop unit with accompanying family home that proves predictably difficult to sell.

Nevertheless, the none-more-nuclear Sinclair family move into this desirable, deceptively haunted residence, with grumbling children Tom and Gilly (and equally unenthusiastic Mum) dragged in the wake of their stolid accountant father, a man determined to quit the London rat-race and establish Cornerstones as the hub of a family antiques business. Nobody, understandably, is uncertain about having “his” home invaded. “This is my house,” he fumes, stamping down an insubstantial foot at the end of the opening chapter. “And nobody, just nobody, lives here unless I say so! And I ain’t sure about you lot one little bit!” And predictable spooky high-jinks ensue: Nobody has boundless fun swapping afternoon cuppas for opened paint pots in a vain attempt to prevent the sale. But, once the family are settled, he begins to forge an unlikely alliance with the children, a friendship initiated when Nobody assumes corporeal form to alert the sleeping children to a fire started by Mr Sinclair’s unattended soldering iron.

The book’s format belies its status as a TV tie-in. Developed by former Z-Cars writer Hall and one-time Doctor Who producer Derrick Sherwin for (swoon) Tyne Tees Television, the screen version of Nobody’s House ran for seven episodes in late 1976. So the novel is essentially episodic too, without a strong connecting narrative, but what does bind the stories together is the relationship between the two children and their adopted, spectral housemate. Establishing that only one ghost can occupy a property at any given time, Nobody feels a duty to stay attached to Cornerstones to protect Tom and Gilly, fearing that – if he moves on – a more malevolent spirit may sweep into the house in his stead.

But he also feels a need to be accepted by the children, and – ultimately – their parents. Tom and Gilly are the first residents of Cornerstones not to be terrified by Nobody’s antics, and as such offer him the prospect of genuine friendship and the semblance of a family life, something he has never experienced before, not even in his own earthly lifetime. And so when Mr Sinclair’s antiques business struggles to establish itself, Nobody steps in – fearful that, if the shop fails, then the family will be replaced by a less receptive and welcoming bunch. If only every nascent antiques business could be aided by a silent spook who, suspecting a dubious costumer is offering the proprietor a forged painting, zips invisibly across to the local stately home to confirm that the genuine article is indeed still hanging, undisturbed, on the wall.

It’s this relationship that really gives the book its heart and soul, and it maybe could have been explored in a little more depth to add extra layers to stories that are essentially rather fun and frothy. But fun and frothy was clearly the intention, in a book intended for younger readers, so perhaps I’m expecting too much. And certainly there are giggles to be had, the most fun chapter involving the manifestation of the wonderfully-named Jack Treadful. This outlandish spook was Nobody’s Victorian rapscallion mentor, the Fagin to his Artful Dodger, a “friend to them who has no friends, and burglar extraordinary!”. Jack is a large, loud, bluff and breezy braggart, and there are no prizes for guessing which former Z-Cars regular was drafted into the TV version to bring him to life.

Point of Order: The entire series of Nobody’s House (complete with Tyne Tees TV idents that make my heart melt) was released on DVD by Network in 2016. The rather wonderful William Gaunt plays Mr Sinclair, and Nobody is played by Kevin Moreton who, having achieved a spooky 1970s double whammy by also appearing in The Ghosts of Motley Hall, appears to have given up acting completely by the time of his eighteenth birthday. Which is a shame, as he’s really rather good. Last of the Summer Wine fans note: there are also guest appearances from Joe Gladwin and Brian Wilde.

It’s available here:

https://networkonair.com/all-products/2450-nobody-s-house-the-complete-series

Mustiness Report: A light and frothy 5/10. No more than the vaguest waft of olfactory must, but my original 1976 edition has pages the colour of a workhouse ceiling.

Felt Trips: “Daleks Are Great” by Nick Setchfield

“Give me the child for the first seven years and I will give you the man.” So states the famous Jesuit proverb, commonly attributed to Saint Ignatius of Loyola. And this sentiment has never been more appropriate than in the case of Nick Setchfield, who – at the age of seven, in 1975 – was drawing self-aggrandising Daleks in his Cardiff home, and – in his adulthood – is now a prolific entertainment journalist, editor-at-large of SFX magazine, and the author of two acclaimed novels, The War in the Dark and The Spider Dance, both of which combine Cold War-era espionage with folkloric and magical elements.

Anyway…

As Nick himself says:

“This is either a Dalek propaganda poster found in the ruins of Britain circa space year 2150 AD – or it’s me expressing my deep obsession with all things Skaro at the age of seven. I think the covers of the 1960s Dalek annuals must have been an inspiration, given the way I’ve drawn the midriff. I found The Dalek World at a local jumble sale for 2p and devoured every page, memorising all the survival tips in case of an imminent invasion of suburban Cardiff.

I was certainly building Daleks out of upturned Ski yogurt pots and cocktail sticks around this time. The red polka dot starfield possibly represents an unspoken fear of measles – and are those twin Saturns in the sky?

I still stand by the sentiment.”

Yes, Nick. Daleks are great. And thanks for sharing.

Felt Trips is a collaborative effort. If anyone wants to contribute their own childhood drawings from the era, I would be utterly delighted – please drop me a line using the “Contact” link at the top of the page. A good quality scan would be perfect, but – if not – then a clear photo of your artwork, lying flat, is fine. And maybe a few words of explanation, too: when the drawings were done, how old you were, what inspired you to tackle those particular subjects? Thanks so much.

Felt Trips: “The Glade of the Willowmen” by Bob Fischer

In dusty cardboard boxes, shoved to the back of cobweb-strewn attics; so many of us seem to have held on proudly to the artwork of our childhoods. Completely unfettered by either ambition or inhibition, drawn or painted purely for pleasure, these crumpled sheets and exercise books almost comprise a record of the national childhood psyche of the era. Favourite books, comics, films and TV shows were enthusiastically aped, and brand new creations were pulled straight from our teeming imaginations.

I’ve decided to expand the blog a little with a collaborative gallery of childhood artwork from the era, and would love to receive submissions. But I’ll start off with one of my own:

Drawn towards the end of 1984, this was my attempt to create the cover of a Fighting Fantasy role-playing book, and one that I full intended to write. Except, of course, I never any got further than the illustration that you see above. I was approaching my twelfth birthday, and the influence of Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson’s best-selling books had seeped into my creative pores. In addition, there was the seismic impact that The Weirdstone Of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath, Alan Garner’s barnstorming brace of folklore-influenced childrens’ books, had made on me: I’d read both books earlier in the year, following a priceless, life-changing school library tip-off from the softly-spoken and impressively moustachioed Mr Millward.

So I’d become entranced by the imagery and the atmosphere of British folklore; of wraith-like spirits darting between trees, and horned (pronounced, obviously, as two syllables) Old Gods rising from the mists. The illustration above clearly owes a lot to the depiction of Herne the Hunter in HTV’s Robin of Sherwood, also broadcast earlier in 1984:

But, oddly enough, I’d also been captivated by this TV advertisement for “Shell Grip” road surfacing, with a silent role for North-Eastern legend Tim Healy, and a typically chilling voiceover from John Hurt:

So the idea of terrifying folkloric figures teeming from the woodland glades of 1984, on a wet country lane potentially somewhere near my house, was too much to resist. I distinctly remember sitting in my bedroom one autumnal evening, filled with a sensation that there was “magic in the air” (I actually had this phrase in my head) and fired with a burning determination that the book simply had to be written.

Which, obviously, it never was. Not a word of it. But drawing the cover with felt-tip pens is further progress than I’ve made on virtually any other book since.

I would love Felt Trips to become a collaborative effort. If anyone wants to contribute their own childhood drawings from the era, I would be utterly delighted – please drop me a line using the “Contact” link at the top of the page. A good quality scan would be perfect, but – if not – then a clear photo of your artwork, lying flat, is fine. And maybe a few words of explanation, too: when the drawings were done, how old you were, what inspired you to tackle those particular subjects? Thanks so much.

Plone, Puzzlewood and Ghost Box Records

In trying times, a little optimism can go a long way. And a fun, upbeat and nostalgic slice of music can be delightfully transportative: especially when it comes from a band who, for long periods of the last two decades, seemed like they might never work together again.

Plone‘s 1999’s debut album For Beginner Piano was among the first wave of deliriously retro-futurist electronica to herald the dawning of a new and fascinating movement, and their friendship with fellow Birmingham-based pioneers Broadcast and Pram placed them at the centre of what felt like a very West Midlands-centric scene. But a mooted (and at least partially-recorded) 2001 follow-up never saw the light of day, and then everything went disappointingly quiet. Mike Johnston worked with the ZX Spectrum Orchestra and the Modified Toy Orchestra; Billy Bainbridge was a co-founder of the rather wonderful Seeland. And, according to Wikipedia, third member Mark Cancellara is now working as a “DJ and magician’s assistant”.

However, in 2020, Ghost Box Records casually announced that Johnston and Bainbridge were returning with a surprise, but utterly welcome, third instalment of the Plone saga. Or is it, officially, the second? It doesn’t really matter. What’s important is that the new album, Puzzlewood, is glorious. An utterly life-affirming collection of grin-inducing instrumentals that evoke delicious memories of vintage library music, of Test Card F on rainy Tuesday afternoons, of long-forgotten Childrens’ Film Foundation flicks and grainy teatime dramas about bird sanctuaries. I defy anyone to listen to the whole giddy confection without imagining exploding chemistry sets and pokey, street-corner sweetshops alike. It’s wonderful, and it comes – appropriately enough – in the kind of luridly colourful packaging only previously associated with Lolly Gobble Choc Bombs or Bazooka Joe’s Bubble Gum.

In late March 2020, I spoke with Mike and Billy live on my BBC Radio Tees show. It was a Wednesday night, and the plan had been to link up with them both live from their regular midweek meeting, but – two days into Coronavirus lockdown – that clearly wasn’t possible. Nevertheless, they were charming company and great fun. Here’s how the conversation went…

Bob: I thought it was really sweet that you said normally get together on a Wednesday night. But obviously you can’t right now! Is it a while since you’ve seen each other?

Mike: A couple of weeks now, I think?

Billy: Yeah, Mike was due to come round this evening, but we thought it was best if he stayed away…

The album is lovely. And I know you couldn’t have planned it this way, but it’s a very heartwarming, fun and upbeat album – just what we need at the moment. Was it always your plan to make such a positive-sounding album?

Mike: Yeah, it was. I think that’s at the heart of the Plone sound really, that optimism. And you know, circumstances have come around to a point where optimism can be quite useful!

It’s been twenty years since the last official Plone album. Had you always intended to reconvene at some point, or has this come slightly out of the blue?

Mike:  I think the release feels like it’s come out of the blue, but we’ve been working on the album for quite a while. There was a patch after the second album when we didn’t work together for a while – for quite a while – and then we started working on this one in about 2011, something like that. Maybe even a bit earlier. And then we kind of slowed down… but then, a few years ago, we started up again, and started meeting up regularly on our Wednesday nights.

Billy: I think the Wednesday nights were a success really, weren’t they?

Mike: Yeah, we found the right day of the week, that’s what it was! The midweek hump is what we needed.

It breaks the week up, I guess! So some of these tracks do actually go back to 2011, then?

Mike: I think so, yeah. Actually, there are a couple from earlier that were left over at the end of the second album, from around 2001. A couple of tracks hanging around from then that we picked up again, and started working on.

You mentioned that second album, which has become something of a great “lost” album. So it was 1999 that your debut album For Beginner Piano came out..?

(Pause…)

Mike: Yeah…

Billy: Yeah, 1999. I remember… (laughs)

It’s nice that you had to think about that for a while!

Billy: It’s a long time ago! In the last century…

Then there were rumours of that second album, but it’s never actually had an official release. Do you want to tell us the story in your own words of what happened?

Mike: (Laughs) Do we have to? Go on, Billy…

Billy: It was around 2001 that we delivered the album, and it kind of got rejected by Warp Records. And that was kind of when the band split up. So we didn’t really want to look at it, or listen to it, for some time, I think. It is a bit of a tragic story in that respect. But I think enough time has elapsed for us to feel that we could maybe put it out there.

I think the odd bootleg has emerged here and there, but really? There is now a possibility that it might get an official release?

Billy: We’ve remixed it and remastered it. There’s still a bit of work to do to pick the right mixes, that sort of stuff, but there is a general intention to do something with it.

You weren’t tempted to carry any of it over onto Puzzlewood at all?

Billy: Mmmm… no.

Mike: No! (Laughs). No, it was good working on something relatively new, I think. And not being in the shadow of an album that had been unreleased for so long. Which we kind of think of as an artifact rather than an album, because – when we handed it in – it wasn’t really finished. We just had to hand something in at the time. So what was actually going to go on the album hadn’t really been finalised. There were more tracks than were going to be released. So, as Billy says, we’ve spent a bit of time remastering it, bringing it all up to speed. And obviously technology has moved on a bit, and it’s possible to rework it into something that’s more like what we wanted at the time.

Honestly, I’d be intrigued and thrilled to hear it. As for Puzzlewood itself… I was going to ask about the the title, which is a famous area of woodland in Gloucestershire. Was it a location that particularly spoke to the pair of you?  

Mike: I don’t think I’ve ever actually been to it! Not that I can remember. 

Billy: As the name of a wood, it’s brilliant…

Mike: Yeah, but I’ve never been there. So it’s got an air of mystery…

I’ve never been there either, but I’m a huge Doctor Who fan, and I know it’s been used as a location!

Billy: Yeah, we didn’t find out about all this until after we’d come up with the title… (laughs)

So was it just a place name that you knew and thought was particularly appropriate for the album?

Mike: Yeah, it was more like that, really. I mean, we’d gone through a list of interesting place names that either one of us had been to. Also, we were just looking at… kind of rambling names. Interesting woods, or obscure bits of the countryside.

Can tell us what else was on the shortlist?

Mike: (Laughs) No!

Billy: Go on, Mike…

Mike: I can’t remember off the top of my head, but I’ve still got the list somewhere!

A list with a load of names crossed out, apart from – presumably – Puzzlewood at the bottom?

Mike: You can probably find out the list of names that I came up with by looking at a map of the West Midlands, and trying to find the most ridiculous or most interesting names. They’ll be on the list!

I’m always intrigued by track titles on instrumental albums, and I usually think there’s a story behind them. So there’s ‘Watson’s Telescope’ on Puzzlewood, and I’ve spent my afternoon googling around this! Watson & Sons were indeed British telescope manufacturers from the mid-19th century until the 1940s. Is that track a tip of the hat to them?

Mike: It’d be good to say yes at this point, wouldn’t it?

Billy: (Laughs) Yes! Just say yes!

Aw… I had this glorious mental image of one you both owning old Watson & Sons telescopes when you were kids. So is that just a random title again?

Mike: Yeah. But I’ll go with your story, Bob.

Billy: Yeah, we’ll start using that… (laughs)

Can I ask a little bit about the early days of Plone? You came out of Birmingham in the 1990s, and it was a time when other Midlands artists like Broadcast and Pram were experimenting with similarly retro-sounding electronica. Did it feel like you were part of a scene at the time?

Mike: I think we felt like we were amongst friends, which was kind of great. There were lots of gigs happening, and some good venues where local bands could play. So yeah, it did feel like a bit of a scene, and you know…  Birmingham isn’t a huge place, so it’s kind of easy enough to bump into other bands.

Did you all know each other from the start, or did you start making this kind of music independently before realising that other artists at least had similar inspirations?  

Mike: I would say that we started making music straight after moving to Birmingham, and then – through the music – met other people, at gigs and also at DJ nights. And gradually we met the other bands. I think, very quickly, we met Pram, and then Broadcast a bit later.

It felt like a really exciting time. I keep talking about this, but I remember the first time that I heard Boards of Canada – a track on called ‘Roygbiv’ on a free CD sellotaped to the front of the NME. About 1999. And it was a real watershed moment for me: “My God, other people have these feelings about my childhood! Those feelings of watching Programmes for Schools and Colleges on a rainy Tuesday afternoon with a slight temperature. It was revelatory moment to realise that other people were not just remembering these feelings, but actually taking inspiration from them…

Mike: Yeah, I’ve always had that rosy nostalgia for that kind of Schools Programming. I remember at school when the teacher would wheel out the television, or maybe even the VHS, and show us some programme or other, and I’d think: “Oh, thank God! We don’t have to listen to the teacher any more. We can watch telly, we’re good at that!

For bonus points, a television in a wooden cabinet…

Mike: Yes, exactly – probably locked.

Did all of that come with a love of library music as well, then? That really comes over in your work. I could never understand as a kid why the music that we heard on TV, with the test card for example, didn’t seem to be thought of as “proper” music…

Mike: Yeah, it was really good! It was kind of there without us thinking about it, or finding out about it… it was being put into our brains. But there was some pretty good stuff, and I suppose the Radiophonic Workshop kind of epitomises that sort of sound. But, as you say, there were also all those library records as well.

The Radiophonic Workshop weren’t even credited as individual musicians for a while! It must have made them all the more intriguing.

Mike: Yeah, it made it sound like the music was being made in a laboratory. Very mysterious.

Was it easy to get hold of the gear when you started out, then? All those analogue synths are worth a fortune now, but were people actually chucking them away in the mid-1990s?

Mike: Well, we used to go down to the music shops in Birmingham, and they would have all the latest 1990s gear set out. But in the corner of the room  – or in a separate smaller room, shoved in the corner – were the analogue synths. Probably not the classic ones, but analogue nevertheless. And they were reasonably priced at the time. They hadn’t become cult items or anything like that. But of course… a lot of these synths didn’t have MIDI, which was the big watershed, really. It made them seem like they were useless, but they were far from that. They were very beautiful-sounding instruments.

Is there something really inspiring about working from a limited musical palette like that? You’ve been part of the ZX Spectrum Orchestra and the Modified Toy Orchestra, both making music using very simple computer chips and bits of old toys. Is there something about those limitations that can inspire a bit of creativity?

Mike: Yeah, definitely. I was more heavily involved with the ZX Spectrum Orchestra… with the Modified Toy Orchestra I was just playing live, really. But the ZX Spectrum Orchestra… that was a kind of deliberate attempt to eke as much as possible out of a very limited palette, yeah. I agreed to work on that project because I’d always really wanted to learn Machine Code programming! I have strange ambitions, and that was one of them…

There’s nothing wrong with a bit of Z80 Assembly Code. Let’s not be embarrassed about these things.

Mike: It’s on my CV… and has no real world application at all!

And how did the link with Ghost Box Records come about? It feels like a natural fit for you. Were Jim Jupp and Julian House people that you’d known for a long time?

Billy: I didn’t really know Jim until I sent the tracks off, really. But I was aware of the label, and a fan of the label, so I always thought they would be ideal if we were to release anything again. So we sent quite a few tracks off to them, and it was fairly straightforward, really. They loved the stuff.

The album has beautiful artwork by Julian House, too. 

Billy: That’s right, he’s done a fantastic job with that.

I believe it’s based on the Jonny Trunk’s book Wrappers Delight, I think he took that as a bit of inspiration!

Mike: I love the colours on it…

And with that, we drifted into a conversation about the potential unavailability of the Puzzlewood vinyl during an ongoing lockdown situation, but – a month on – it’s a relief to report that the album is now available in physical and digital formats from:

https://ghostbox.greedbag.com/buy/puzzlewood-black-vinyl/

And thanks to both Mike and Billy for a fun conversation, and – indeed – indulging my crackpot theories about the origins of their track titles. And I felt a little guilty about not getting around to discussing Seeland with Billy, so let me offer up this wonderful 2009 single as belated recompense:

The Haunted Generation in the Fortean Times – Issue 391

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 391, dated April 2020.

THE HAUNTED GENERATION

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


“It’s that ‘end of summer’ thing,” says Keith Seatman. “All the holiday-makers have gone, and you can see the grassy bits on the beach again. It can be eerie, and it can be wonderful. As soon as dusk falls, anything at the funfair looks weird…” 

There is something deliciously otherworldly about the nature of the British seaside resort: the clanging fairground rides, the gaudy lights of the amusement arcades, the legacy of “Kiss Me Quick” sauciness and mystical, end-of-the-pier soothsaying. These memories are distilled almost overwhelmingly on Keith’s new album Time To Dream But Never Seen, an extraordinary, hallucinatory evocation of a childhood spent in Southsea, Hampshire. 

“The summer holidays would kick in, and for the first few weeks you’d be on the beach, down the fair, and on the pier,” he remembers. “Then you’d hit the middle… and the last few weeks had this weird feeling of impending doom.”

The album is structured to reflect this progression of the school holidays: from fizzy, sun-fuelled excitement, to mid-August ennui, to the chilling, autumnal melancholy that the adult Keith now finds so affecting. It’s swathed in tootling fairground organs, psychedelic sound collage and the feel of vintage BBC Radiophonic Workshop experimentation: perhaps appropriately, given that one of Keith’s childhood playgrounds was the now-derelict Fraser Gunnery Range, the imposing naval establishment used as a location for the 1972 Doctor Who story, The Sea Devils.

Elsewhere, regular collaborator Douglas E Powell (whose own splendid folk album, Overnight Low, is out in April) provides a hypnotic spoken word interlude entitled ‘Speak Your Piece’, seemingly a list of arcane, rural aphorisms: “Never toil on Sunday, the Good Lord tells us so / Save your back ’til Monday, and I’ll give you seeds to sow.” It all coalesces to form an utterly intoxicating concoction, and it’s available now from the Castles in Space label.

Keith’s album comes complete with glowing sleeve notes from Jim Jupp, co-founder of the legendary Ghost Box Records, and there are exciting developments on the Ghost Box front, too. April sees the release of Puzzlewood, the long-awaited new album from Plone. This Birmingham-based outfit were exploring retro-futurist sounds as early as the 1990s, and even their own history has a delightfully appropriate fuzziness: although Puzzlewood is described as their third album, the second has never officially materialised, despite countless nebulous rumours and bootlegs.

Regardless, Puzzlewood is a terrific comeback. A gloriously melodic homage to a golden age of library music (I defy anyone to hear ‘Years and Elements’ without imagining the BBC’s iconic Test Card F, bridging the gap between Open University modules), it’s refreshingly joyous and upbeat. Vintage synth sounds leap around playfully, and there are nods to the earliest days of computer gaming too: ‘Sunvale Run’ sounds for all the world like the theme music to some jolly 1980s arcade game; perhaps not surprisingly given that core member Mike Johnston was also a founder of the ZX Spectrum Orchestra. As ever with Ghost Box releases, Julian House’s accompanying artwork is perfect; and its lurid sweetshop qualities were apparently inspired by the vast collection of vintage ephemera amassed by Stockport man John Townsend, as immortalised in the new book Wrappers Delight (see FT389:66 and FT390:36-39).

Also attracting my attention recently: Parapsychedelia, a trans-Atlantic collaboration between Cumbria’s Heartwood Institute and California’s Panamint Manse. Taking the spirit of 1970s psychic research as its inspiration (track titles include ‘Zenner Cards’ and ‘Precognition’) this new album effortlessly weaves woozy analogue electronica and skittering beats around evocative soundbite samples. “Only now are we beginning to understand the strange and mysterious powers that exist in all of us…” crackles opening track ‘Clairvoyeurism’, instantly transporting me back to unsettling Tuesday evenings in front of Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World.

And I can also recommend After Lights Out by Capac, a collaboration with Northampton poet Tom Harding, and a wonderfully atmospheric ambient/spoken word exploration of the strangeness and disquiet of the night-time. “The room, the moonlight, the chair by the window, waiting as if for a ghost…” deadpans Harding, on ‘Night Noises’. Magnificently, the physical release comes in the form of an MP3 player embedded within a matchbox, complete with accompanying candle… which we are invited to light in a darkened room for the ultimate nocturnal listening experience. The perfect album for anyone who has lain awake at 3.30am, desperately attempting not to over-think the mysterious creaking coming from the airing cupboard.

The new edition of the Fortean Times, Issue 392 (dated May 2020) is out now, and looks like this:

Musty Books: “The Diddakoi” by Rumer Godden (1972)

Identity is at the heart of The Diddakoi. Is there an intrinsic aspect of all of our personalities, forged by a combination of background, upbringing and cultural heritage, that is essentially non-negotiable? A core part of our beings so immutable, even from a tender age, that no degree of outside influence can alter it – and neither should it try? The plight of six-year-old Kizzy Lovell, a troubled gypsy girl marooned in a snooty, resolutely middle-class English village, suggests so.

And the touching irony at the centre of Kizzy’s plight is that the Romany heritage so integral to her identity is not enough to win the full acceptance of her own community. As a “Diddakoi”, she’s actually a half-gypsy, the daughter of a traveller father and an Irish mother; and as such finds herself an outcast from both her own extended family and from the population of the village that she is reluctantly forced to call home. Living in a traditional gypsy wagon, and spending the winter in the orchard belonging to kindly local toff Admiral Sir Archibald Cunningham-Twiss, she is effectively marooned in this rural bolthole when her guardian, actually her 100-year-old great-great grandmother, suddenly dies. In accordance with gypsy tradition, the wagon is burned to the ground by a small legion of unfeeling cousins that arrive to oversee the matter, and Kizzy’s only other companion – her beloved elderly horse, Joe – is decreed ready for the knacker’s yard, where “they’ll sell him for the hounds… he’ll be torn up.”

Understandably terrified, Kizzy takes Joe and attempts to escape, making it as far as Admiral Twiss’ ancestral home, Amberhurst House. Struck down with pneumonia after a freezing, sobbing night on the doorstep, she is slowly and touchingly nursed back to health by the Admiral himself, assisted by his old Navy batman Peters, and Nat, the “bow-legged groom” who runs the Amberhurst stables. The latter gleefully providing Joe with a loving and secure home, too. For a time, being cared for by three unlikely adopted guardians who never attempt to question or compromise her gypsy heritage, Kizzy finds blissful happiness. But once her recovery is complete, she finds the weight of village opinion – fuelled by racism, bureaucracy and occasional outbreaks of sheer brutality – to be heartbreakingly overwhelming.

And the book is brutal. When Kizzy is forced to attend the village primary school, typically cruel childhood teasings – instigated by Prudence, the stuck-up daughter of vile local busybody Mrs Cuthbert – escalate into a truly shocking scene in which she is ambushed by fourteen of her classmates and beaten to unconsciousness in a deserted alleyway. This is after a local magistrates court, with Mrs Cuthbert sniping from the sidelines, has decreed that Admiral Twiss, Peters and Nat (despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary) are unsuitable candidates to look after a small girl, and that an alternate foster family – or, indeed a children’s home – must be found.

Luckily for Kizzy, she finds herself living with one of the more tolerant villagers, Oliva Brooke: a vaguely bohemian singleton with a possibly romanticized view of the traveller lifestyle, but nevertheless a woman with boundless reserves of the patience and understanding required to look after a child who is understandably traumatised by grief, culture shock and her appalling treatment by the village at large. And she’s more understanding than most of Kizzy’s offbeat behaviour – as she pragmatically points out to the court hearing, “You can’t expect to have table manners when you haven’t a table.”

For as long as children’s literature has existed, what so few books have successfully captured is the sheer anger of being a child. Even those of us lucky enough to have enjoyed stable home lives have experienced it: the frustrating powerlessness of childhood – fuelled by the rigid boundaries of both family and school life – can easily spill over into blind, incoherent fury. Rumer Godden captures brilliantly those heart-thumping, head-swimming moments when the red mist descends, while tempering them touchingly with every child’s longing for the comfortably familiar. In Kizzy’s case, the waft of woodsmoke, the feel of her old clothes and – most moving of all – the touch and smell of her beloved horse, Joe. This noble, elderly beast is effectively her comfort blanket, and is the subject of a scene that unexpectedly reduced me to tears. It’s always the animals that get me right there.

I’m utterly unqualified to comment on the depiction of 1970s traveller communities in the book, but it felt – to this outsider – like it walked a commendable line between respecting the culture while steadfastly refusing to sentimentalize. But the depiction of Kizzy – her pride, her longing to be independent, and indeed her loyalty to that non-negotiable Romany identity, all that she has left of the life she once loved – is universal, and brilliant. And while the book’s conclusion is perhaps a little too pat and perfect, it would be hard to deprive such a vividly-drawn character of the happiness she deserves.

Point of Order: 33 years before writing The Diddakoi, Rumer Godden penned Black Narcissus, the inspiration behind Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s controversial 1947 film of the same title. And, in early 1976, The Diddakoi was adapted by the BBC into a six-part children’s serial, retitled as Kizzy. It’s a fine and faithful dramatisation, with a young Miriam Margolyes as a member of Kizzy’s extended family:

Mustiness Report: 8/10. Perfect. My copy has ripe, yellowed pages that smell reassuringly of woodsmoke and horses.