THE RADIOPHONIC WORKSHOP
Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank Centre, London, Fri 16th April
I loved the music of the BBC's Radiophonic Workshop before I knew their name, or even particularly conceived that music had to be made by somebody in order to exist. There is, I would suspect, a whole subset of my generation for whom that statement speaks, and which has led to the boys coming out of retirement for gigs such as this.
Back then, my limited knowledge of music led my young brain to divide it into two distinct types. There was chart music, advert jingles and TV themes, and I didn't differentiate much between them. (And still don't, now I come to think of it.) Then there was the 'space music', unearthly and scarce, primarily to be found on the few science fiction shows of the few channels we had then. Of which, of course, 'Doctor Who' was spaciest of all.
But I wasn't sure how all this would work in the modern world, or in a live setting. It wasn't just that this was music made to go with something. 'Workshop' was the right name for the enterprise, boffins who lucked into a day job which let them make and tinker with equipment, leaving them to their own devices provided they fulfilled their production quotas. They did it, you could imagine, just to see what was out there. An important feature was the wide-ranging nature of their remit, where they were asked to provide sound effects as often as anything resembling music. Their products were more akin to music concrete, electro-acoustic sound collage and tape manipulation, left-field stuff normally associated with formal experimentation inexplicably grafted onto the popular media of radio and television. (Another example, as if we needed one, of how commerce is a dampener not a driver of innovation. Imagine something like that getting past the sponsors and focus groups of today.)
And, once in a concert hall, the workshop does indeed transform into something of a band. Things revert to more conventional instrumentation, incorporating a live drummer who tends to have a standardising - even (if there is such a word) normalising effect. They largely play themes recognisable to their audience, and they play them in a recognisable form. All the strangeness, the unpredictability was smoothed out. This was more musicians making more music. I was reminded of something Mark Fisher wrote after JG Ballard's death, on the base banality of most of his press obits:
“So here they come again — all the familiar profiles, all the old routines. All that over-rehearsed musing about the supposed contrast between Ballard’s writing and his lifestyle and persona. All that central London cognoscenti condescension: he lived in Shepperton, he wore a tie and drank gin and yet he could come up with this — imagine that. As if it isn’t obvious that English suburbs are seething with surrealism. As if you could think for a minute that 'The Drowned World' or 'The Atrocity Exhibition' were written by anyone wearing jeans.”
For too often this gig felt like the pressed flares of the Workshop crammed into straightleg jeans.
Granted, most people are here to rekindle a few youthful memories. But ironically our view of the Workshop is probably a limited one. The workshop was created back in 1958, and was not particularly confined to 'Doctor Who' or even science fiction. Expected to be productive and earn their keep, they worked on many a production we'd not automatically associate with them. (The gig opens with a sound effect of Colonel Bloodnok's stomach from 'The Goon Show'.) It's not that they did a few totemic things, which the rest of the world has now caught up with. That's not even close. There are reservoirs of strangeness here as yet not dived into.
Alas, the opposite seems to have happened. Originally they may well have popularised some out-there music production techniques, inspiring the Beatles, Pink Floyd and others. But their history was effective rewritten in the Nineties, where they came to be seen as a prototype of a kind of dance music – the quasi-mystic New Agey type. And what they are doing now is confining their sound to conform to this conforming stereotype. (The drummer, I later discover, is Kieron Pepper who has played with the Prodigy.) Perhaps that's the fate of everything in our modern soundbite culture. Stars that rise precisely because they're something different can't be kept that way, gravitational fields come to pull on them and their distinct shapes reworked until they fit more easily into the neat constellations of our minds. In the words of that other great BBC institution 'Blue Peter', everything from the past just equates to something we have now, its just one that was made earlier.
Perhaps attending such an event is a little like watching one of those 'I Love the Seventies' chat/clip shows and expecting insight into what made the Seventies so unique. The actuality just gets in the way of the flow of nostalgia. Perhaps we should just make do with when the remaining strangeness still shone through. Generally their reworking of incidental music worked better than their rehashing of TV themes, less readily transformable into tracks. There were highlights, such as 'Electricity, Language and Me' where a spoken poem and music interbred, rather than one being set to the other. And despite my qualms about the drumming, introducing a second drummer seemed to tip things over into defamiliarity.
And what might seem the most predictable, most crowdpleasing moment of all – the 'Doctor Who' theme, inevitably saved for the finale – worked surprisingly well. The Delia Derbyshire version has a crystalline simplicity which belies its strangeness. Its effectively unimprovable, to add anything to it merely takes stuff away from it. (Check out, for example, the version currently being used by the show.) Yet if they just perform the original it's already familiar, and besides quite brief.
At first perform the original is what they do, and fairly faithfully, before launching into what's effective a live remix of their own work, taking up elements and playing with them, before dropping back to the original. And yet it's not the original original they come back to, but the later theme of the Tom Baker era, like the music itself had induced some kind of time travel. In short it stayed faithful to the original, while finding a way to rework it into a live number.
This isn't, I don't think, precisely the remix I saw but follows a similar trajectory. (I'd still prefer it without the drumming, mind.)
Brighton Dome, Tues 21st April
After not being overly impressed by the Tyburn Tree despite his contribution, I was keen to see Marc Almond performing in his own right. He's a classic example of a singer whose personality far outshines technical ability. He has a voice which is simultaneously histrionic and heartfelt, campishly theatrical and yet impassioned. When he sings, to quote Johnny Rotten, he “means it, man”.
Despite coming to everyone's attention via the synthpop era, which might seem one of the more transient moments even in the ephemeral world of pop music, even then it was already obvious he was part of a broader tradition. As a child he’d listen to his parents’ Eartha Kitt records, while since those days he’s recorded an album of Jacques Brel songs. The only other time I saw him, back in the late Eighties in the cabaret environment of the old Zap club, he was perched on a barstool as part of a duo. And tonight he appears on a behind-stage video in crooner garb, while a lyric name-checks Sinatra.
Not uncoincidentally he's described his new record, ‘The Velvet Trail’, as “one journey, one record you put on from beginning to end, linking tracks with musical interludes... I always see my records as a show running from beginning to end that takes you on a ride.” And he audaciously pushes the Eighties hits to crowd singalongs at the end, the better to concentrate on that ride.
Which would be all to the good... Except what little I'd heard of the new album I'd found uninspired so had been secretly hoping for something more oldies-centric. (Not necessarily synthpop, for there's a lot of material between then and now I've never really caught up with.) As it turns out, the album – and by extension the gig – isn’t weak so much as maddeningly uneven. True, the title track does sound a placeholder for grandiosity. But 'Minotaur', the gig opener, is as mighty as its monicker might suggest.
I suspect if I were to catch up properly with Almond’s oeuvre, I’d most take to the Marc and the Mambas era. One of the great things about the Eighties was the continual cross-traffic between the popular and the left-field. And indeed, simultaneously to his clocking up hits with Soft Cell, Almond was getting together with more experimental musicians to combine cabaret songs with sheer sonic strangeness. (He later disbanded the outfit when he feared they were becoming a regular band.) Perhaps unsurprisingly one of my favourite songs from the set, ‘Black Heart’, turns out to stem from that era.
And as for those Eighties hits, they've actually aged well. What then seemed contemporary has by now become evocative. A lyric like “standing in the doorway of the Pink Flamingo/ crying in the rain” brings the whole thing back - the cheesy cocktail bar with the neon palm tree in the window, the night's drizzle smearing itself across it...
'Live My Own Life', not from Brighton but the same tour. Shaky camera but not too bad sound...