In which everyone’s favourite fictional Italian disco producer provides a high-tempo soundtrack to… discounted British rail journeys for EU residents? The alter ego of Bristol-born, Berlin-based Anton Maiof, Maiovvi is a Dario Argento-obsessed playboy with a penchant for spooky film scores, but this is a joyously upbeat collection: the eminently danceable ‘Stable Mirror’, in particular, is a New Order-style banger that may yet have grizzled Haçienda veterans reaching for their dusty glow sticks.
Those of us marooned in the provinces during the late 1980s club explosion might find retro, beat-laden workouts like ‘Post Modern Morals’ evoking hazy memories of Sol lager and The Hit Man and Her rather than the Manchester superclubs, but – regardless of where your dancefloor mojo was honed – this is a giddy concoction, liable to make anyone whose teenage years involved the occasional smiley-faced T-shirt feel decidedly misty-eyed.
This Brighton singer-songwriter has peppered her delightfully downbeat vignettes of everyday melancholy with the occasional vintage synth, but here throws herself into full John Carpenter soundtrack mode, with an instrumental concept album whose premise – that of a worldwide sleeping sickness, and a dangerous cult seeking out the victims – sets the tone for an enjoyably dark and suitably woozy musical journey. ‘Run’ even hints at Mark Snow’s X-Files theme; perfect for a case that Mulder and Scully would surely relish.
Stephen Prince’s multi-media project A Year In The Country explores the links between folk, electronica and a rather otherworldly pastoralism, this new compilation tasking its contributors with creating musical explorations of abandoned roads and railway lines. The likes of Field Lines Cartographer and Grey Frequency evoke heartbreaking radiophonic dreams of overgrown sidings and crumbling platforms, and Pulselovers‘ ‘Woodford Halse To Fenny Compton in Five Minutes’ somehow contrives to make a hypnotic, Krautrock synth anthem the perfect celebration of pre-Beeching steam travel. Joyous.
The irrepressible Mulholland – whose 1999 Mount Vernon Arts Lab album The Séance at Hobs Lane helped define 21st century hauntology – is in prolific form, and his third album of 2019 soundtracks Anthony Burgess’ novel in suitably sinister style. Trademark sound manipulations expertly create ominous slabs of music concrète, the eight-minute ’84F’ perfectly evoking the draughty menace of chief Droog Alex’s teenage prison cell. A limited cassette release on this perfectly-formed micro-label, laudably dedicated to electronica with a literary inspiration.
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 393, dated June 2020.
THE HAUNTED GENERATION
Bob Fischer rounds up the latest news from the parallel worlds of popular hauntology
“I think it’s always a time of hope, and new growth,” says Jon Brooks, discussing his new album How to Get to Spring, a beautifully melodic and meditative evocation of his favourite season. “So this album is about that. It’s offering a kind of quiet hope, really.”
During the ongoing Coronavirus lockdown, many of us have found ourselves pining for our usual connections with the natural world, and landscapes that both soothe and exhilarate. How to Get to Spring offers blissful musical respite, inspired by Jon’s walks around the remote trails of his native Peak District and a life-affirming journey to the Isle of Skye. “I really just switch myself off, and open myself to what’s going on around me,” he says. “And I think that puts you into a different mental state. That’s where I get a lot of inspiration from, and certain things can bubble to the surface…”
The album is a gentle, elegant musical journey; deliberately structured to drift gracefully from the hard ground and clear skies of January to the pink blossom and bone-thawing sunshine of early May. Stately piano compositions like ‘Dreaming and Further Still’ are swathed in reassuring breaths of woozy electronica, and ‘Neist Point’ adds softly-strummed guitars and a subtle Celtic influence, appropriate for a piece inspired by this remote Hebridean outpost. “I just thought the atmosphere around it was amazing,” says Jon. “You look out to sea, and… that’s pretty much all you can see. Just water. You feel really small in that place.”
The album is the latest of Jon’s solo recordings to be released by Clay Pipe Music, and the label is also reissuing a vinyl edition of his haunting 2012 album, Shapwick[FT 354:34]. This latter collection – influenced by a night-time motorway detour through the titular Somerset village – melds elegiac piano with the sounds of wistful music boxes, vintage radiophonica and field recordings, and is utterly mesmeric. Meanwhile, Jon’s extensive recordings as The Advisory Circle are available from Ghost Box Records.
Taking similar inspiration from evocative landscape are an exciting quartet comprising best-selling writer Robert Macfarlane, artist Stanley Donwood, film-maker Adam Scovell and musician Drew Mulholland. Macfarlane and Donwood are the men behind Ness [published by Hamish Hamilton, 2019], a beautiful, delicately-illustrated prose poem set amidst the eerie topography of Orford Ness, the shingle-covered shard that clings to the Suffolk coastline. Commandeered by the MOD as a secret testing site throughout both world wars and the ensuing Cold War, this curious outpost also plays host to the “Black Beacon”, an experimental 1930s radio tower, and – in more recent years – has been protected by the National Trust as a fragile nature reserve.
It’s perhaps no surprise that such a psychogeographical goldmine has triggered a chain reaction of artistic responses. Hot on the heels of Ness’ publication came Adam Scovell’s similarly-titled film adaptation (visit celluloidwickerman.com), setting Macfarlane’s prose to artfully-shot and hugely atmospheric 8mm footage; its grainy glimpses of abandoned military facilities and windswept beaches feeling themselves like flickering transmissions, echoing through the decades. And Drew Mulholland’s soundtrack to the film, titled A Haunting Strip of Marshland, is scheduled for release by the Castles In Space label in August. Its throbbing, electronic soundscapes effortlessly evoke his lifelong love of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, and Mulholland is also a grand master of manipulated field recordings: parts of the album were even recorded on cassette tapes dotted with the remains of ground-up lichen, native to the Ness.
And, for further bucolic delight, I recommend Copsford, a new album by R.B. Russell. Released to celebrate the 100th anniversary of journalist Walter J.C. Murray‘s rejection of modernity, and the resulting year that he spent living in a run-down house in the Sussex countryside, it’s a minimalist but tunefully tender collection of atmospheric instrumental pieces. Murray’s written account of his year of isolation – also titled Copsford – was published in 1948, and bespoke hardback editions are available from Russell’s own Tartarus Press publishing house. The album, meanwhile, can be downloaded from rbrussell.bandcamp.com.
Kudos also to Brighton synth queen Hattie Cooke, whose album The Sleepers has previously graced these pages [FT 387:69]. Hattie has curated the rather wonderful Help Musicians Compilation, a collection of original material on her newly-forged Patch Bae Records label. Intended to raise funds – via the Help Musicians UK charity – for artists whose livelihoods have been threatened by the Coronavirus lockdown, the album is a splendid miscellany of atmospheric electronica and synth-pop from the likes of Polypores, Repeated Viewing and Rupert Lally. Head to patchbaerecords.bandcamp.com.
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 Mars‘ Inner 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…
My childhood aversion to the very idea of “horror” bordered on the phobic; the very word was laden with associations that made me feel uncomfortable: blood, death, gore, and the thought of some unspecified “monster” that may inexplicably take against me during the night. To actually watch a horror film, I believed, would leave me somehow tainted; marked out, even, for special attention by the dark forces depicted therein, who – alerted to my presence – would use me as a conduit to infiltrate and destroy the cosy certainties of my comfortable early life… home, Mum and Dad, Gran’s bungalow, dogs and cats… all swept away by a seething mass of demons, spirits and merciless beasties. Even Carry On Screaming was a risk I wasn’t entirely prepared to take.
Which may explain why I was such a latecomer to The Wicker Man. My phobia had subsided slightly during a BBC2 season of late-night Saturday horror films broadcast throughout 1986; the likes of Zoltan – Hound Of Dracula, To The Devil A Daughter and The Masque of the Red Death proving surprisingly amiable entertainment for my now thirteen-year-old self, reluctantly unplugging my ZX Spectrum to join my Dad, freshly returned from the Cross Keys or the Green Tree, in watching movies that proved to be genial – and arch – enough for me to blot out their more outré moments. Good grief, To The Devil A Daughter even found a cameo role for Last of the Summer Wine‘s inimitable Foggy Dewhurst.
Still, it took a mid-1990s VHS release for me to finally succumb to the allure of The Wicker Man. Although I was a cynical old hand at horror cinema by this stage (I’d even chortled my way drunkenly through a late-night arts centre screening of The Exorcist… unthinkable even five years earlier), Robin Hardy’s 1973 masterpiece came with ready-made, disturbing baggage… rumours abounded of the film being cut, re-edited, banned, or even lost altogether, its negatives surreally encased in the concrete struts of the M4. But there it was, bright and breezy in my local Our Price, and I gallantly took the plunge.
I don’t really need to add to the welter of copy that has been written about The Wicker Man in the last 45 years, but I can at least transcribe my mental processes during the final five moments of the film, of which I had no prior knowledge. They went…
– Bloody hell, this is creepy. – Oh blimey, yes… he’s a virgin. I get it now. – This is nasty, but he’ll get out of it. – Oh for crying out loud, please… not the chickens. Or the pigs. Or the goats. Come on, there’s a reason I’ve turned vegetarian. – This is really weird, I just can’t see how he is going to get out of this. But he must, he’s Edward Woodward. – Fuck me.
For this first time, I felt like I had been tainted by a horror film, and – ironically – a horror film with no tangible supernatural element at all. The horror of The Wicker Man is the horror of people, of people manipulated to be brutal. And that really hurt me. And shocked me. And disturbed me. And though I absolutely appreciated the beauty and the artistry of the film-making and the performances, I didn’t watch it again for a very long time.
And the legacy of The Wicker Man didn’t just stay with those of us who watched the film. It even made a profound impression on the production’s primary locations – found not on a remote, windswept Hebridean island, but in the gentle countryside of Dumfries and Galloway. Composer, musician, radiophonic experimentalist and proud ‘sound archaeologist’ Drew Mulholland travelled there in 2002, and discovered that substantial parts of the Wicker Man prop itself still stood, concreted into on a coastal path on the Isle of Whithorn. He took photos and made field recordings, and brought back wooden slivers as keepsakes.
Two decades later, he has turned those field recordings – via some surprisingly physical manipulation – into The Wicker Tapes, two suites of darkly beautiful ambience, peppered with fleeting, percussive, folky motifs that evoke disturbing images of the film’s own climactic and merciless procession. A limited cassette release on The Dark Outside – each supplied with “a tiny fragment of weathered wood taken from the leg stumps of the Wicker Man in Burrowhead” – predictably sold out quickly, but the album is now available for download here:
“That these recordings exist at all is remarkable,” admit the sleeve notes. “Although the original sounds are long gone, they have been preserved on magnetic tape and altered not least by saturation in the actual ashes of the Man, and near destruction by looping around the fragments of wickerwood I collected all those years ago…”
I asked Drew about his personal history of appreciating The Wicker Man, and the process of making the album…
Can you remember when you first saw The Wicker Man?
It was at a friends house, late 1977, I think. The BBC had a late night movie series that also included Lindsay Anderson’s If…
And why do you think it’s enjoyed such an enduring appeal, and cultural impact?
I think it’s the unheimlich popping up again… it happened a lot on UK telly in the 1970s. The seemingly everyday landscape and behaviour, but the gradual realisation that there is something wrong… very wrong.
Can you talk us through some of the locations that you visited in order to make these recordings?
The Ellangowan Hotel, Anwoth, Burrowhead, St. Ninian’s Cave… spookily, it all looked exactly as it did in the film.
And how much of the Wicker Man itself was still standing when you visited?
There was still about five foot of each leg, both set into a concrete base with “WM 73” carved into it. All the pieces I collected had already broken off due to natural erosion.
Is there something about being used as a film location that gives a place almost an alternate identity? I went to Aldbourne and East Hagbourne recently, locations for the Doctor Who stories The Daemons and The Android Invasion. I couldn’t look around either village without thinking of the terrible events that occurred there… but, of course, they didn’t. Do they almost become two places, one real and one fictional?
Absolutely! And the gossamer lines between them shimmer, I remember someone telling me that they had read a novel where the heroine hides a letter in a well-known statue… one day he visited the statue and couldn’t resist slipping his hand around the back of it to see if “the envelope” was there. To his joy he pulled an envelope out, opened it, and read the note… it said, “Great story wasn’t it!”
Can you describe the raw field recordings you made? How did they sound? Were they recorded onto physical magnetic tape?
The raw tapes were simply an audio document of the trip. I wasn’t making records at that time so I had no plans to do anything with them. And yes, magnetic tape…
The sleeve notes mention the tapes being “altered by saturation in the actual ashes of the Man”, and their “near destruction”. Good grief Drew, what did you do to them?
Once I had decided which sections to use, I built a Heath Robinson device that allowed the tape essentially to be destroyed by an actual piece of the Wicker Man. After that I set the wood alight, and – when cooled – crushed it to ash and coated the near-destroyed tape with it.
I like your phrase “sonic archaeology”… can you expand a little on that, and describe the ethos and practice behind it?
I love that term, it comes from when I was lecturing on Hauntology and Microgeography and working on a couple of projects with the Archaeology Department at Glasgow University. The idea that something doesn’t appear to have a material aspect doesn’t negate it from being investigated, like The Wicker Tapes.
On the other hand, going back to your earlier question… say, for instance, you started digging up the village green in Aldbourne and found a U.N.I.T. button, you would have a material object of events that didn’t actually happen. It is entirely possible that the actors and crew mislaid materials that have found their way into the warp and weft of the village.
The fact it’s been twenty years since you made these recordings adds to that archaeological aspect… was that long gestation period deliberate?
No, not at all I’m afraid, The Wicker Tapes came about very quickly simply because of a chance comment on the internet, and the fantastic job done by Stuart at The Dark Outside.
And your next project seems to be a project inspired by the work of Dr John Dee, the 16th century scientist, philosopher and occultist. Can you tell us a little about it?
I was invited to a do at the Royal College of Physicians that was arranged to celebrate the life and work of the good Dr Dee, and they were planning to exhibit his scrying mirror, wax tablets, crystal balls, etc. Then, about a week before the opening, I received a call from the British Museum. They held Dee’s equipment, and were about to send it over to the Royal College. “Would you like to have a closer look before we parcel it up and send it across London?”
Back of the net! So I went down and bounced 432Hz & 440Hz from a Tibetan singing bowl off John Dee’s 2000-year-old obsidian mirror. The one he used to converse with angels.
And I’m intrigued by the fact that you seem to have embraced cassette releases with some enthusiasm. Do cassettes have a special place in your heart?
Yes, a very special place. I started making cassette loops when I was 12… and by cracky, I’ll keep making ‘em until the I hit the leader tape.
Thanks to Drew for his time, and contributions, and I recommend further reading on John Dee’s conversation with angels (in the angelic language of Enochian) here. The Dee-themed album is called Angels Speak By The Power of the Holy Ghost, and is scheduled for release in October.
As well as this weekly 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 inaugural column, from issue 379, dated May 2019.
THE HAUNTED GENERATION
Bob Fischer rounds up the latest news from the parallel worlds of popular hauntology…
Are you craving the oddly warm reassurance of 1980s Cold War paranoia? Is it impossible for you to walk past an electrical substation without recalling crackly Public Information Films, and 16-year-old Jimmy’s stray frisbee wedged into a tower of humming transformers? Do you still feel mild disquiet at the sight of the faceless Edwardian children in the opening titles of Bagpuss? Chances are, you’re one of the ‘Haunted Generation’. The article that I wrote for the FT in 2017 (FT 354:30-37) resulted in an overwhelming reaction from readers keen to share their own recollections of growing up in the “creepy” era; that loose 1965-85 sprawl of inappropriate childrens’ television, radiophonic music, and the vague disquiet of an older, grottier Britain. So I’m delighted to have this opportunity to provide updates on the work of some of the artists, writers and musicians who contributed to that feature, and others whose creativity has been similarly fuelled by the potency of their childhood memories.
Frances Castle, whose evocative artwork adorns the covers of releases on her own Clay Pipe Music label, has just completed the first instalment of her debut graphic novel Stagdale. Set in 1975, it sees 12-year-old Kathy and her recently divorced mother beginning a new life in the titular village, where the discovery of a 1938 diary written by Max, a young Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, puts Kathy on the trail of long-lost Saxon treasure. “It’s a little bit inspired by programmes like Children of the Stones,” says Frances, doubtless striking a chord with many who recall this creepy 1977 HTV series, and Stagdale certainly boasts a similar ambience of muted, rustic disquiet. The novel can be ordered from claypipemusic.com, and is accompanied by a wistful EP from Frances’ musical alter ego, The Hardy Tree.
Fans of vintage electronica have cause to be excited too, as a new interpretation of a lost work by Delia Derbyshire sees the light of day, on the Buried Treasure label. Delia is rightly revered for her work with the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, including her pioneering 1963 arrangement of the Doctor Who theme. By the 1990s, she had become somewhat reclusive, but still befriended musician Drew Mulholland (aka Mount Vernon Arts Lab, whose 2001 album The Séance At Hobs Lane is a Quatermass-inspired riot of gothic radiophonica) and presented him with a late 1960s score of original, unrecorded music, giving her blessing to a new interpretation. The result, Three Antennas In A Quarry, is a 12-track collection of dark, ambient soundscapes. The album is available to download from https://buriedtreasure.bandcamp.com/album/three-antennas-in-a-quarry
And those keen to combine their retro electronica with a journey into one of the stranger corners of the English countryside should head to Wiltshire on 17th August, where Buried Treasure overlord Alan Gubby is staging Delaware Road: Ritual and Resistance… ten hours of music, theatre and film inside a secret military base, close to Stonehenge. He has previous form in this department: in 2017, I attended a similar shindig, held deep underground at the Kelvedon Hatch Secret Nuclear Bunker in Essex. Here, artists including Concretism and the Twelve Hour Foundation provided live soundtracks to a surreal evening of Cold War disquiet and rather intense mummery. This year’s celebration is headlined by the founder of Crass (and, indeed, the 1972 Stonehenge Free Festival) Penny Rimbaud, and tickets are available from www.thedelawareroad.com.
It could be quite a summer for mass, organised hauntedness, as I’m also hearing whispers of an exciting event to accompany the next release from Ghost Box Records. The Chanctonbury Rings album, out in June, sees writer Justin Hopper, folk musician Sharron Kraus and Ghost Box’s own Jim Jupp (aka Belbury Poly) teaming up to take musical inspiration from Justin’s excellent 2017 book The Old Weird Albion, a psychogeographical ramble through the South Downs. It’s a project that Jim tantalisingly promises will be “reminiscent of a 1960s or 1970s music and poetry for schools LP”, and the record will be launched at a Ghost Box event in Shoreditch. Details should be “available by the time you read this”, says Jim, wryly! www.ghostbox.co.uk is the place to keep checking.
(NB Since this article was published, the event has sold out… but look out for a full report on the blog at the end of June…)
To finish off, those intrigued by the recent news that one of artist Richard Littler’s spoof Scarfolk posters (“If you suspect your child has RABIES don’t hesitate SHOOT”) was mistakenly included in the Civil Service Quarterly alongside genuine Goverment posters from the last 100 years (FT 377:8), will be delighted to learn that a Scarfolk annual is on the way… and is available to pre-order now. Richard’s online evocation of a dystopian North-Western town, all pagan rituals and pylons, provides an immaculately distilled essence of 1970s childhood unsettlement, and encapsulates perfectly those vague, murky feelings of being warned about deadly contagions in your primary school hall.
Issue 380 of the Fortean Times is out now… the next Haunted Generation column will be in Issue 381, available from 20th June.
“The most striking thing about the whole programme was the music. Until then, as far as I know, there hadn’t been any pure electronic music. In the early sixties there was still a fair amount of the old 1950s rock and roll around, but then this music came out… no instruments… purely electronic… and I’d never heard anything like it before…”
It was only a matter of time before my Uncle Trevor made an appearance in this blog. Trevor is a lovely bloke, and with the benefit of adult hindsight, I can see what a important influence his tastes exerted on my 1970s childhood. He liked electronic music. He liked Doctor Who. And the above quote is his abiding memory of watching the first episode of the show as a 10-year-old, in November 1963. Yes, he remembers William Hartnell emerging from the TARDIS in a murky Shoreditch scrapyard, but it was the whooshing, swooping, radiophonic theme music that truly captured his imagination. To the ten-year-old 1960s child, the experience of hearing music without any discernable instrument was… well, unearthly.
Although Doctor Who‘s theme had been written by Australian musician Ron Grainer, whose title music for Maigret, Steptoe and Son and That Was The Week ThatWas had already built him a solid reputation in the TV industry, it was arranged and realised by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s Delia Derbyshire. Surrounded by piles of sliced analogue tape and test-tone oscillators, she painstakingly transformed Grainer’s notation into a resolutely avant-garde slice of musique concrète. Is it, alongside The Beatles’ Revolution #9, perhaps the most widely-heard piece of experimental music ever produced? Grainer himself was certainly taken aback. “Did I really write this?” he famously pondered, as Derbyshire played him the final mix. “Most of it,” she laconically replied. His subsequent noble attempts to secure her a co-writing credit were thwarted by grey-suited BBC beaurocrats, who preferred members of the Radiophonic Workshop to skulk in shadowy anonymity.
Nevertheless, Delia Derbyshire became a pivotal figure in the development of experimental, electronic music, firmly entrenched in that intoxicating middle-ground between art and technology, her life almost defined by the delicious power of contrasts: she was a working class Coventry girl who gained a scholarship to study mathematics at Cambridge University; a tweed-skirted former primary school teacher who found herself at the very farthest edge of the 1960s counter-culture. She exhibited music at The Million Volt Light and Sound Rave, the 1966 ‘happening’ at which The Beatles’ other experimental opus, the since resolutely-unheard Carnival Of Light, was aired. And – alongside fellow Radiophonic Workshop composer Brian Hodgson and US-born electronica enthusiast David Vorhaus – formed the band White Noise, whose 1969 album An Electric Storm is a captivating mix of psychedelia, occult-tinged folk-pop and eerie, disturbing soundscapes.
By the 1990s, Derbyshire had seemingly long-since stopped making music, however – towards the end of the decade – she befriended musicians Pete Kember and Drew Mulholland, collaborating with the former on a 2001 track entitled Sychrondipity Machine (Taken from an Unfinished Dream), and passing onto the latter the score for an unfinished piece of electronica, dating – as far as she remembered – from the late 1960s. I knew of Drew from his recordings as Mount Vernon Arts Lab, particularly his wonderfully atmospheric album The Séance at Hobs Lane, originally released in 2001, and then reiussed by Ghost Box Records in 2007. So I was intrigued to discover, earlier in 2019, that he had finally realised Delia Derbyshire’s “lost” score, transforming it into the album Three Antennas In A Quarry, now available from Buried Treasure records.
Drew’s interpretation is incredibly evocative of Deliba Derbyshire’s 1960s work for the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, and Doctor Who fans with a particular love of the William Hartnell era may find themselves drifting dreamily to a long-forgotten front room, or – indeed – to a gleaming corridor on a hostile alien planet. I might even buy a copy for my Uncle Trevor. I spoke to Drew Mulholland for my BBC Tees Evening Show, and this is how the conversation went…
Bob: I’m assuming that even before you got to know her personally, you admired Delia’s work a lot?
Drew: Yeah, even on my first records, on the run-out groove it said “Delia Derbyshire we salute you”! So she was always around. One of the things that I ‘fessed up to was that, when I was a 12-year-old, I did shoplift quite a bit… and one of the records I got was Out of This World by the Radiophonic Workshop. And I remember – because there were 100 tracks or something on it – writing down the ones that really stood out for me, and they were all by someone called “DD”. So I checked the index, and it was Delia, of course. And for me, as a 12-year-old, they were head and shoulders above everything else.
That is pretty esoteric music taste for a 12-year-old… like lots of us, did you come to the BBC Radiophonic Workshop through their work on Doctor Who?
Yeah, but also… I’m writing the story of how I got involved in music, and I had to – as Syd Barrett would have said – tread the backward path. So I was thinking about all of this, and it came from… not necessarily Doctor Who, but BBC Schools music. Those weird programme that we’d listen to, maybe on the World Service, that had all these sounds, rather than music. I think that sensibility was very quietly going on in the background, and I was soaking it up.
It’s odd, last week I watched Georgy Girl, the Lynn Redgrave film, and she’s a nursery school teacher, and in the opening five minutes she’s teaching kids to interpret what is clearly an experimental Radiophonic Workshop track! And you’re right, we did hear this stuff at school. Music, Movement and Mime…
That was one of them… I think that was a series of LPs. A lot of the stuff that Ghost Box have picked up on, that whole ethos, is very much based on that time. Now we’ve got so much distance from the 1970s, we can look back as adults and go “Actually, that was pretty weird…”. You know, the Public Information Films and all those hauntological tropes. It was a strange time.
It was a time when it wasn’t seen as particularly out of the ordinary to give really small kids some quite avant-garde things to listen to. It was seen as quite a healthy thing. I mean, the BBC produced this stuff for kids… the state broadcaster!
How times have changed!
So how did you get to know Delia? Did that happen in the 1990s?
Yeah, the late 1990s. It was Pete Kember from Spacemen 3, Spectrum and E.A.R… we were making a record together, and he phoned one day – very excited – and said “You’ll never guess who I’ve just been talking to…” and I said “Right, can you phone her back, and ask if it’s OK if this guy in Glasgow phones her?”
And I’ve told this story before, but I called her at seven o’clock, and she said “I’m really busy just now, can you call at twelve tomorrow?’ So right on twelve o’clock, I picked the receiver up and dialled the number… so her phone rang at about a minute past twelve. And she just picked the phone up and said “You’re late!'”
Ha! Rumour did have it that she was somewhat eccentric… and also quite reclusive by the 1990s. How did you find her as a person?
I’ll be diplomatic… it depended what time of day you spoke to her. If it was early on, she was sweetness and light and very helpful. She was great. Other times, not so.
I’ve seen you say that she was the only person you’ve ever encountered who could say “Oh Crumbs!” and not make it sound remotely contrived. Did she have that kind of sweet, old school quality to her?
Very much so. “Gosh and golly”, things like that! You didn’t even question it, it was just… that’s Delia. It was very natural, and hilarious of course.
So how did Three Antennas in a Quarry come into your posession? Was it something that you’d talked about working on together?
No, I think she was doing some recording with Pete Kember, it was around that time. We did a kind of mini-tour with E.A.R… Experimental Audio Research, one of Pete’s many groups. This would be summer or autumn 1998. And she’d phone up, and just say… without any pre-amble… “Do you use spices? I can get you some spices! My man works in a spice factory…”
And then she’d phone up and start talking about snuff… Oh, I’d seen that she was a very enthusiastic snuff user…
Yeah! She said to me once that she’d had a special mix made up at the Sheffield snuff mills.
We need to find that, someone could market it… branded Delia Derbyshire Snuff. I suspect the market for snuff is quite niche these days, but you know…
One of the things that really annoys me is that Pete gave me one of Delia’s snuff tins… and I’ve lost it. I’ve no idea what happened to it.
If your house is anything like mine, it’ll be down the back of a radiator or sofa. So in what form did Three Antennas in a Quarry come to you? From listening to the album, it doesn’t sound like it lends itself to traditional notation.
No, not at all… it was a graphic score, which can be anything – a drawing, a sketch, dots on a page, a graph… it was very much the classic “scribble on the back of an envelope”. It was a sheet of A4, and there was a lot of numerical notation, and references to reel-to-reel tape recorders and what speed they would go at. So it was quite intense tying to find a route into it, because apart from the tape recorders and speed there wasn’t any direction as to how the music should go, the tempo, that kind of thing… but I like that, because I’m a researcher!
Where did some of the titles come from? ‘Calder Woodward’, for example?
A mixture of Calderwood, where I lived briefly as a child, and… Edward Woodward. You’ve got to have fun when you’re making a record!
Any idea what Delia had intended to do with the score? She even seems to have been quite vague about when she’d written it… the late 1960s, but she wasn’t quite sure…
No, she wasn’t sure. I don’t even know if it was supposed to be for the Radiophonic Workshop, or if it was a theatre piece… because she did lot of stuff for television and theatre… or if it was even an idea that she pursued. It was just one of those things that was either abandoned, or drastically transformed into something else.
Did you speculate at one point that she might have intended it for Syd Barrett, or Pink Floyd?
I don’t know… obviously it can never be proven, but I know that she invited Pink Floyd to the Radiophonic Workshop. We got the calendars out, and it would have been October 1967. And Syd was still in the band then, so the idea of Syd and Delia in the same room together fires the imagination.
She seemed to have this connection with the biggest rock stars of the day, and they had a fascination with her as well… didn’t Paul McCartney and John Lennon visit her at one point?
Yeah, Paul McCartney had written Yesterday, so this was 1965. And he knew that he didn’t want the full band to play it: he didn’t want the normal bass, two guitars and drums. So he asked George Martin -“What do I do with this?” and he said ‘”There’s this woman at the Radiophonic Workshop, go and have a word with her…”
I’d literally just read about that in Barry Miles biography of Paul McCartney, and I called her straight away, and said “What’s all this about?” And she now famously said “Yes, he came to see me… with the other one… the one with the glasses”. I said “That’ll be John Lennon, then?” She said “Lennon, that’s it… golly!”
So she lived in a separate world to the pop music of the era, then?
I think so, yeah. I visited Girton College in Cambridge [where Delia studied in the late 1950s] to give a talk there, and I did some field recording, and stayed there for a couple of days… and really started to get a sense of separateness. From the world, basically.
Although she did seem to have a certain fascination with Brian Jones from the Rolling Stones…
Yeah, we spoke to her up here for a radio interview, and she said that when she heard the news that he’d died, she was doing he washing up, and she cried into it. She said he was really nice, and remembered his frilly cuffs! But the spooky coincidence is that they both died on the same day… July 3rd. Which was also the day that my Dad died… and Jim Morrison!
Don’t throw any more in, it’s getting spooky! She’s such an extraordinary figure, and an ahead-of-her-time figure… my Uncle Trevor, who is a big influence on me, saw the first episode of Doctor Who broadcast in 1963, when he was ten… and he said it wasn’t so much the programme itself that stuck in his mind, it was the music… he and his friends had never heard music before where you couldn’t discern any particular instrument. That must have been a mind-blowing thing for an early 1960s kid. Incredibly forward-thinking.
Oh, incredibly! It’s like a stun grenade going into a room… there were only two channels on TV at that point, and not only did you have the introductory music, but you also had those visuals as well. The video feedback… it was the first time that had been used. And this wasn’t some out-of-the-way arts programme, it was teatime on a Saturday. I was two then, so I don’t remember it, but we’ve all grown up with the Doctor Who theme, and more and more television channels, and CGI and all this… but at that time, it must have been a bit of a cultural shift. Suddenly… this is what’s possible. And perfectly timed, in the early 1960s.
Yes, psychedelia, just before actual psychedelia…
Well that’s why they called it psyche-Delia!
Twenty years in regional radio, and I’m still being beaten to solid-gold opportunities for brilliant puns. “Pyschedelia Derbyshire”! Good grief, I hang my head in shame. Thanks to Drew Mulholland, and to Alan Gubby from Buried Treasure Records. A limited vinyl edition of Three Antennas in a Quarry has now sold out, but the full album can be downloaded here…