What better way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop than a two-volume set of rare and unreleased tracks by electronic music pioneer John Baker? A two-volume set of rare and unreleased tracks by Delia Derbyshire, you shout? Well, okay, you’re not wrong, but you’re going to have to make do with John Baker instead. So stop whinging now.
For those of you not obsessed with Doctor Who theme tracks and those odd bleeps that warned you the TV signal was about to shut off for the night, Baker was, along with Delia Derbyshire and David Cain, part of the BBC’s in-house special effects workshop that during the 1950s and ’60s laid the groundwork on which much of today’s electronic music was built, from The Orb to Aphex Twin to Four Tet and far beyond.
Working with what would by today’s standards be unimaginably primitive equipment (tape recorders, essentially. And more tape recorders), Baker and his contemporaries used everything from popping corks to changing tape speeds to create aural landscapes that were at times strange and alien, at times oddly comforting, sometimes haunting and often dreamy but never, never dull. They held your attention over opening credits, through otherwise silent demonstrations or while you waited for the news in the days when channel hopping simply wasn’t an option.
Baker joined the BBC in 1960 and the Workshop in 1963, five years after it came into being. At the time, it was one of the only outlets for composers capable of the weird and wonderful experimentation at which he excelled. It was of course much more a commercial venture than an output for musical creativity as we might think of one today, but when you listen to the odd vocal samples that intersperse his sounds on, for example, track 22, it’s hard not to see where today’s experimenters such as Lemon Jelly or, on track 25 and 33’s odd percussion Kieran Hebden, might have gained their inspiration. Listened to out of context, his music works better than you might expect.
Volume 1 (Volume 2 is out in August) contains 49 tracks in all, ranging in length from just ten seconds – Radiophonic FX C – to the enigmatically titled Building the Bomb’s 6:24. No context is given to the track titles and while some are easy to imagine, such as Good Morning Wales and Radio Nottingham Idents, others are more esoteric and some vaguely insane. Vendetta: The Ice Cream Man (track 5), Heavy Plant Crossing (track 20) and Square Two (track 39) just invite you to listen, don’t they?
As a package, the album works well as a genuine listening experience rather than just an odd historical curio. At times ambient, at times chilled, at time fantastically post-rock before rock even existed, it’s a history lesson that soars ahead of its time. See, life was bearable before Sigur Rós after all.