Monday, May 18, 2009

The band that never existed

To the Roundhouse last night for a gig by the Radiophonic Workshop, formerly of the BBC. The tone of the night was set by the A5 flyer:
“To celebrate the 50th anniversary of this unique institution a few of the old inmates, now on day release, have put together a programme of music from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. There will be plenty of old favourites and some new material, played by the band that never actually existed… until tonight.”
It then lists the players and their 18 synthesizers.
“Apple’s Logic Audio provides surround playback, with MainStage allowing us to use the latest virtual synths alongside the vintage hardware.”
The audience was pretty much what you’d expect: scruffy, sweaty boys lashing through the lager. I saw plenty of chums there, though me and M. were too late for the Q&A. Expect we’d have known all the answers anyway.

I did glean a few top facts from the evening. The building in Maida Vale once used by the Radiophonic Workshop is now where Jonathan Ross records Film 2009; a little, hot room right at the end of a long, long corridor. And the Roundhouse itself was built for turning trains round. (There were boards up detailing its history, with Victorian railway magnates in tall top hats, and some groovy nudity when the place was home to Oh, Calcutta!)

After some gins and a plastic pint of Becks, we squeezed into the dark mosh pit to stand for a couple of hours listening to nostalgic strange noises. In the best traditions of rock and roll, the band appeared later than billed, just as the audience were getting restless. Then there they were: Mills, Limb, Kingsland, Howell and Ayres. And – hooray! – all wearing lab coats. (Rain Rabbit has photos from the gig on Flickr.)

The Radiophonic Workshop are, of course, responsible for the odder bits in the soundtrack of our lives. They created the Doctor Who theme tune and the noise of the TARDIS coming and going. But they also produced tunes and effects for schools’ programmes, documentaries and various dramas.

It was, to be honest, a mixed bag of music, covering the enormous range of the workshop’s output. Strange, alien stuff led into jaunty, light jazz. Tunes you could sing along to followed the sound of space. The barn-owl-tastic titles to 80s computer programming show Micro Live got a big cheer from the geeks.

Between the tunes there were good-natured if geeky intros from the band-members. Kingsland explained that the Radiophonic Workshop had closed in 1997, but – being British – were “blustering on anyway”.

A lot of their stuff was painstakingly hand-made in the days before the synth. These days, as Peter Howell admitted at one point in the evening, their entire output fits on one Mac. A lot of the workshop’s work was inventing pre-recorded sounds and editing them together – all done with tape and razor blades. The gig nicely mixed the recordings with live performance. There were live versions of the regeneration from Tom Baker into Peter Davison and the theme to John Craven’s Newsround (electric guitars and drums complimenting John Baker’s pre-recorded and played-with bottle tops). The enthusiasm of and for the old duffers was what made this such fun. An entirely bizarre line-up but a great night out.

It’s not just the tunes and noises the workshop produced themselves: they were hugely influential on the wilder ends of pop. Coincidentally, tape loops featured in Saturday’s St Etienne gig, as reported by Paul Cornell.

You’ve got three days left to listen again to Night Waves where Matthew Sweet chats to the Radiophonic Workshop prior to the gig. And, if that doesn't sate you, whizzo documentary The Alchemists of Sound is up on YouTube.


Le Mc said...

*immediately going to Nightwaves*

It was so envy-inducing to see all these Facebook statues of people I knew going to this ...

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the links, Simon. Will be checking those out.

It was a quality evening's entertainment that left us wanting more!

Shame you didn't make the Q&A, but would you really have known all the answers? Peter Howell's favourite band? Forthcoming CD releases? How close to the wire Hitch-Hikers' second radio series was - ("Do you think we can play it down the phone for you?") Mmm. Probably.

Anyway, it was lovely to see you there. (I can be Simon too if you want me to be.) :)

Alex Wilcock said...

I wish I'd gone, but was too ill to make it! Any hint on whether they'll be gigging again in the future?