Album Reviews

John Baker – The John Baker Tapes Vol 2

(Trunk) UK release date: 25 August 2008

Lazy TV producers. They have it so easy these days. Need some background music for Match Of The Day? Nick something off a U2 album. Theme tune for a pop show? Led Zeppelin can probably knock that out for you. Something for the beginning of air-headed reality drivel? Hey, it’s a slow month for Paul Oakenfold. Just ask him nicely.

Moby will sort you out for adverts, and for everything (and we do mean everything) else, there’s Sigur Ros. Go back in time 60 years, though, and things were much more difficult. Before the dawn of rock’n’roll, if TV producers needed music for their drama, documentary, sports coverage or adverts, they had to get someone to make it for them. Specially.

Enter musical innovator John Baker, who could sort you out with everything from a jingle for the listeners’ letters slot on Woman’s Hour to incidental music for The Beatles film Help! (because you couldn’t trust four scousers to do it all themselves, could you?) to advert soundtracks for Brylcreem and washing powder. No wonder he eventually went mad.

Along the way, though, Baker produced some wonderfully innovative electronic music and laid the foundations – both technical and aural – for the knob-twiddlers who would come after him. You can hear everyone from Aphex Twin to the Chemical Brothers to Steve Reid and Keiran Hebden in the music he has left behind. Sometimes you have to listen through jazz piano to get there, but you’ll find it.

His advert for Omo (now defunct washing powder, personal hygiene fans) for example: Lemon Jelly, eat your heart out. His mad drum-and-maracas combination on tracks such as opener Tempo Counter sounds like Bez let loose in a lounge club; on track six, the enticingly titled Electro-Slow MQ LP1/4, you can almost see the Cold War nuclear submarine coming to get you.

Much of the music presented here is visual, immediately bringing forth mental images of what it is meant to depict. This is not accidental: much of these sounds were composed for radio, intended to set the scene and paint a picture for families whose rooms and lives were yet to be dominated by television. On air, he soundtracked Ibsen and Shakespeare, while still finding time to compose and orchestrate a jazz mass for his local church.

Baker’s work was varied, eclectic and mostly commercial. Boy On A Bicycle, Brass Bandied and Brass Widowed were created for the soundtrack of the first short film by Ridley Scott; twenty years later, Vangelis had learned an awful amount from the kind of music he pioneered. He can be mournful one moment, uplifting the next, but always eminently listenable. For music that was mostly intended to fade into the background, that’s one hell of an achievement.

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More on John Baker
John Baker – The John Baker Tapes Vol 2
John Baker – The John Baker Tapes Vol 1