Way back in time, before the BBC pilfered the charts for its incidental music, before The Lightning Seeds became the soundtrack to Goal of the Month on ‘Match of the Day’, and Sigur Ros soundtracked every other emotional experience pouring out of our screens, there was the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Set up to provide idents and atmospheric pieces for the radio, the assembled group were often called upon to create sounds that simply weren’t existent using traditional instruments. A burgeoning interest in tape manipulation, electronics and the ideas of musique concrete drew together some like minded individuals, including the likes of Delia Derbyshire, Daphne Oram, David Cain, Bryan Hodgson and John Baker. Existing at a time where the UK and the world were simultaneously cautious about the outside world, and looking to the stars in both the space race and for entertainment, the strange, echoing, unearthly sounds coming out of the Radiophonic Workshop were perfect for the mood of the time. Although it is perhaps Derbyshire’s composition using a plucked string, 12 oscillators and a whole heap of tape manipulation that became the Workshop’s most recognised piece in the form of the Doctor Who theme, it often serves to belittle the important and innovative work coming out of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop at the time. The influence of their experiments in sound continues to echo through much of the electronic music we hear today. These two volumes of John Baker’s work represent the first major retrospective of a BBC Radiophonic artist.
Unlike some of the other members of the Radiophonic Workshop, John Baker was a classically trained musician, graduating from the Royal College of Music in 1960. A jazz pianist and composer, his background and interests made his productions some of the most melodic output of the workshop. In fact, he was privately critical of Derbyshire’s more academic approach, believing her to be more a mathematician than a musician. Volume One of this extensive collection focuses on Baker’s work with the Radiophonic Workshop between 1963 and 1969. Including a multitude of idents and themes from ‘Barnacle Bill’ (or, to many viewers ‘the theme from Blue Peter’) to the magnificently eerie ‘Dial M for Murder’, the fantastically named ‘Vendetta: The Ice Cream Man’ to ‘Women’s Hour (Reading Your Letters)’, which features the theme and Baker himself explaining how it was made using a sample of water being poured from a cider bottle, then cut and spliced together.
The explanations are fascinating, and only lead you to marvel at the ingenuity of the man, and the experiments in sound he was conducting. It is easy to forget, listening back 45 years later, that at the time this was THE cutting edge of music technology. In fact, many of the sounds and techniques pioneered here by Baker can be seen in the works of Aphex Twin, Fortet and the like, while Broadcast and Stereolab also clearly took a keen interest in his output. Although due to the short nature of jingles and idents this can make a slightly disjointed listen, it is a fascinating artifact, and essential listening for anyone remotely interested in electronic music.
Volume 2 collects Baker’s Soundtrack, Library and Home recordings between 1963 and 1975, as well as a collection of his Ad work. Less oppressive than the often brooding pieces in Volume 1, Volume 2 is a more personal affair, allowing Baker free reign to let loose his experiments, without a specific goal. Where Volume One shows techniques developing but often with naive, jaunty melodies, as befitted Radio programming at the time, the series of ‘Electro-’ are far more experimental and allowed to go for longer. With acid attacks, intricate loops and found sounds, as well as dub grooves and feedback experiments, in this collection Baker more or less runs through the entire experimental scene, just 40 years earlier.
Once again the likes of Squarepusher, Venetian Snares and Aphex would kill for some of the beats and squelches here. It is almost frustrating at times that such sounds are still treated to such ‘twee’ melodies occasionally, but the innovation behind the melody is clear. The experimental dubs are just dying for someone to sample for a killer hip hop jam. While Volume 1 was interesting as a collectors piece, Volume 2 works better as an album, with its longer periods of experimentation placed alongside Baker’s piano and jazz workouts, and the occasional frippery of an advert for ‘Omo’ Washing powder or the neo-classical take on ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’, which comes across like the Morecombe and Wise ‘Andre Preview’ sketch. That is not to take away from the quality of Baker’s jazz work however, as it is clearly accomplished. The fact that it is his jazz work that has been chosen to close the collection reflects Baker’s love for the genre. Also included here is an interesting obituary from Radio 4’s brief lives, which gives an insight into the man himself, the highlight being the revelation that in protest over the commercialisation of Christmas he made a recording of ‘Oh Come all Ye Faithful’ using only a sample of a cash register (although why this recording isn’t included in this collection is a mystery, and a frustrating one at that).
These collections show a visionary composer, years ahead of his time, as well as serving as a fascinating audio insight into the visions of the future of a bygone age. For anyone with a passing interest in experimental or electronic music these are essential purchases. On this evidence we can only hope their is more material to come.
Volume One: 88%
Volume Two: 90%