Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Inside the Music Library

The world of library music, explored in Johnny Trunk’s radio 4 documentary Into the Music Library last week, is a rather hermetic and arcane domain, closed off to ordinary everyday folk, accessible only to industry insiders and those with the secret password, or to those obsessives dedicated enough to track down its faint tracks and traces. This obscurity goes towards explaining why such utilitarian productions have become so popular with record collectors of late. Library records were never meant to be available to the public. They were specially crafted functional cues intended for commercial use, provided upon request. Titles and subsequent descriptions were indicators of intended mood or suggestions for generic scene-setting or action accompaniments. Ex-Specials front man Jerry Dammers, a surprising library enthusiast, later boils down the prevailing moods to ‘activity and apprehension’, which he suggests largely encompasses people’s everyday experience of the modern world. Examples offered by the programme include Barbara Moore’s Hot Heels, from the Vocal Shades and Tones LP on KPM (considered an absolute classic by aficionados), which has the sonic description ‘bright, driving movement’, which would give commercial film, tv or ad producers an idea of the context within which it could be used. Steam Heat from the same LP has the rather more nebulous description ‘exotic, tropical, sinister overtones’, which, as Johnny Trunk pithily comments, could simply be reduced to one word: porn. Barbara Moore, who appears on the programme, sounds like great company and responds to Mr Trunk’s observation that she’s clearly holding nothing back on this track with a dismissive ‘listen, darling, I’ve been holding everything back for the last 30 years’, before going on to give a remarkably sensuous description of an Amazon canoe trip which the music might accompany. Titles and descriptions (or ‘remarks’ in this case) from Ron Geesin’s Electrosound LP (KPM 1102) include: Glass Dance (fast flowing complex rhythmic tinkling sound), Industrial Jungle (industrial sound, suggesting heavy machining, with deep tonal interjections), Enzymes in your Ear (harsh discordant notes in a random form over a repetitive riff), Electric Barbed Wire (metallic rhythmic drumming over a high-pitched modulating background), Car Crusher (grating dischordant metallic rasps with random high-pitched electronic background), and Spirograph A (slow wistful clarion in random time with fuzz chord interjections). All of which sounds like it could be instructions from an improvisatory John Cage score, or the soundtrack to an imaginary JG Ballard adaptation.

LP covers from the major libraries were largely unadorned with anything other than the company name and catalogue number, presented in clear graphic style. Covers from smaller libraries sometimes have striking, if cheaply produced graphics, which often have more in common with contemporaneous paperback designs, and which have exerted a strong influence on the likes of Julian House, with his work for the Ghost Box label and others. You can look at a sampling of some of the more interesting examples over at the Trunk Records site here. Despite the non-descript packaging, however, there are some real nuggets of characterful, atmospheric, quirky and brassily funky music to be found within. Mr Trunk’s half hour documentary provided the ideal introduction for the curious and uninitiated, as well as providing an opportunity for seasoned enthusiasts to hear from some of the legends of the scene who have at last emerged from the obscure shadow of years of dedicated, anonymous toil: the likes of Barbara Moore, Keith Mansfield and John Cameron. Johnny is, of course, responsible for bringing this heretofore neglected music to a wider public through various compilations on his Trunk Records label; Collections such as G-Spots (thrillingly subtitled, in true all-encompassing descriptive library style ‘The Spacey Folk Electro-Horror Sounds of the Studio G Library’), the Bosworth Archive, the wonderful Fuzzy Felt Folk, and single composer discs by Sven Libaek (Inner Space) and Basil Kirchin (whose Abstractions of the Industrial North, which has a rather marvellous graphic landscape cover, is mentioned in glowing terms in the programme). Here, he reveals his own passion for the music, invoking the sacred names of the major labels from the late 60s and early 70s: KPM, Chappell, Bosworth and de Wolfe (the latter a long-running family business which has been providing music since the days of the silent movies). He talks of a formative experience of trying to track down the beautifully simple music from 70s children’s programme Mary, Mungo and Midge, eventually discovering that it was written by Johnny Pearson and included on the KPM record 1045. The tracks taken from that LP and used to accompany Mungo and Midge’s descent from their top-floor high-rise flat in the lift and subsequent amblings around a bright and modern urban landscape were included on the anthology Girl In A Suitcase, compiled by Steven Wills for Winchester Hospital Radio, which almost instantly sold out. And what a great hospital radio station that must be. They are rather charmingly entitled Mini Walking, Mini Clarinet and Mini Movement, and Mini Link. The compilation is a real individual labour of love and offers a great general cross-section of the music, much of it nagging at the memory of those who grew up (or were grown up) in the 60s and 70s.

The sounds of Winchester Hospital Radio
There is a definite waft of nostalgia which adds much to the appeal of library music. The fact that it was used in such a functional, unobtrusive way, and was so casually ubiquitous lends it a greater claim to be the true soundtrack to the age, as opposed to the usual pop and rock which is more commonly used to evoke the period. Rock music might best convey the more dramatic upheavals of the time, and pop its fashions and youthful desires, but this music sums up the everyday experience – the glazed glide around a gleaming new supermarket or a water ski thrill-ride around a newtown lake. Music for work, leisure, holiday and the everyday – filled with an optimism and sense that life is there to be enjoyed in a land of, if not plenty, then at least sufficiency and certainty. This can’t help but give them a retrospective sense of being the soundtrack to a paradise lost, offering a memory of a world seemingly gone for good, its last foundations currently being demolished. Some pieces are now indelibly associated with particular tv programmes, whose repeated use of them as theme tunes or incidental music now trigger a Pavlovian connection of sound and image. Keith Mansfield talks about how an old piece of his from KPM was chosen to be the new theme for Grandstand, in preference to the one he had specifically composed for the purpose. John Cameron wistfully observes that library compositions are like children; you don’t know where they’re going to get to once you’ve introduced them into the world. His swooning Half Forgotten Daydreams has turned up on the Emmanuel soundtrack and in a George Clooney coffee ad. Other pieces of library music which became better known under different guises include: Neil Richardson’s Approaching Menace on KPM (Mastermind), Pop Looks Bach by Sam Fonteyn on Boosey and Hawkes (Ski Sunday), Johnny Hawksworth’s music for Roobarb and Custard from the de Wolfe library, Laurie Johnson’s Animal Magic theme from KPM, the Prima Ballerina by the Swing Bach Ensemble (Watch – scat and jazz Bach was very popular at the time), A Fuguey Day by the Ron Grainer Harpsichord Group (The World Around Us – surely an inspiration for Look Around You), Alan Parker’s lovely The Free Life b (Moody and Pegg), Alan Parker’s new wave-ish Motivation (nursing drama Angels), the fabulous Fruity Flute by the Reg Wale Group (Farmhouse Kitchen), and Gala Performance by Laurie Johnson on KPM (used for countless years as the This Is Your Life theme).

Generic covers - surprising content
Sometimes a piece was picked up for different programmes, creating a confusion of themes tunes, as happened with Alan Hawkshaw’s Chicken Talk, which you’ll remember as the theme tune from Grange Hill or Give Us a Clue, depending on whether you were a BBC or ITV person. Perhaps the best-loved of all library pieces is Left Bank Two by Wayne Hill, produced for the de Wolfe label. It’s better known for its use as the Gallery theme from Vision On, all shuffling brush drums, foursquare guitar strums and the famous floating vibraphone melody. It’s surprising to discover, then, that it was in fact knocked out in some spare time left over at the end of a session. The recording of library music was always undertaken with an eye on economy and efficiency, with musicians operating at a high level of technical skill. Tunes were laid down live in the studio, one after another, with brass, rhythm and string sections and soloists all playing together. No studio time was allowed to go to waste. Hence the off-the-cuff creation of a piece of music which instantly brings hazy childhood memories back into focus.

Histoire de Melody Nelson by Serge Gainsbourg - and Alan Hawkshaw & Alan Parker
The professionalism and instrumental accomplishment of library musicians meant that they were much in demand for session work in general. KPM composers and arrangers Alan Hawkshaw and Alan Parker are the unsung heroes behind Serge Gainsbourg’s celebrated Histoire de Melody Nelson LP, giving it a hard rock edge which offsets the yearning romanticism of Jean-Claude Vannier’s orchestration. The two would go on to work again with Gainsbourg on L’Homme a Tete de Chou, perhaps his last great album, by which time Hawkshaw had added the synthesiser to his musical palette. Barbara Moore and her singers can be seen backing Dusty Springfield on some of her BBC tv specials.

Library composers and musicians also had considerable leeway for experimentation within their given remit. The requirement to create atmosphere as much as melody meant that they could push the boundaries of musical form to a far greater extent than would be considered acceptable in a pop or rock song, no matter how psychedelic. Jerry Dammers cites Ron Geesin’s piece Duet for Choir and Tunnel from his Electrosound LP (KPM1102), which bears the descriptive remarks ‘echoing empty sound in a repetitive sequence’. At the head of the record’s back cover, Geesin sets out his non-conformist, anything-goes stall: ‘I present some tunes, untunes, anti-tunes, delightful and undelightful sounds for all sorts of purposes and state that: The pieces herein displayed may be combined with themselves (as much out of sync as possible) to achieve thicker diffuse atmosphere, and playing things at different speeds would not be wrong!’ Geesin would tangentially connect with the rock world from time to time, most conspicuously with his arrangements for Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother. Johnny Trunk also mentions Georges Teperino’s Weird Sounds no.1, a self-explanatorily freaky track from a French TV Music LP shared with Roger Roger (aka Cecil Leuter), who provided the ‘Crazy Sounds’ on the b-side. Teperino’s track can be found on the compilation Barry 7’s Connectors, on which the former Add N to (X) member selects music from some of the odder and more experimental (and often electronic) corners of the library catalogues. Industrial Underscore from the Studio G label, meanwhile, indicates the world which was perhaps most open to such experimentation, destined as it was for ‘scientific application’.

The late 60s and early to mid 70s were definitely seen as the golden age for library music. Studios have now proliferated, mostly operating from home studios. Barbara Moore is not impressed with modern cues, which she characterises as being for the most part drones, an emotionally manipulative and simply created way of creating the tension and unease upon which so much tv thrives. Derivative orchestral music of the emotively sweeping string-based variety typified by the Planet Earth soundtrack now predominates, accompanying similarly overfamiliar, restlessly sweeping camera moves. This is music which grabs you by the lapels and demands ‘you will feel awe, goddamn you!’ The library music of the old school lives on, however, both in its use as samples, and in occasions such as the KPM Allstars concert given on the South Bank as part of Jarvis Cocker’s Meltdown Festival a few years back.

Jarvis himself spent his Sunday Service programme on Radio6 in the BBC grammophone library. Well, not literally, since it was a recorded show, but the programme was based around his explorations. It is a music library which does indeed contain some examples of library music. Johnny Trunk was on hand once more to help him dig out some treasures, and came ready prepared with a list of desirable items and a BBC plastic bag in which to stash any finds. He sounded a little taken aback to find his first item on the shelves, Peppino de Luca’s soundtrack to the 1971 Italian giallo The Man With the Icy Eyes, which he estimates to be worth somewhere between 500 to 1000 quid. Former Duke Ellington soloist Paul Gonsalves’ 1964 British LP Boom-Jackie-Boom-Chick is a piece of swinging jazz which could soundtrack any London based scenes of the time. It’s slightly disappointing to discover that the rhythmic title is merely named after Gonsalves’ heroin dealer. Mr Trunk values this at something in the region of £1500. Jarvis wryly observes that this is better than the Antiques Roadshow. They also come across a copy of Serge Gainsbourg’s 1st 10” LP, from which they play a hissily sibilant sounding Poinconneur des Lilas, an LP of French library music called Cops, Crooks and Spies, from which Eddie Wan’s Manipulated Code is a tune with a bouncy, springing electronic rhythm conjuring up images of some SF cop chase on futuristic pogo sticks (in my mind, at any rate), and Basil Kirchin’s library LP Mind On the Run. Jarvis is also allowed into the secure vault, which is opened with much exaggerated gothic clanking of chains. Here he comes across the world’s smallest record, a 1” 78rpm recording of God Save the Queen made for Queen Mary’s doll’s house. You can see pictures of their explorations at the Sunday Service site, and watch a short video here,.

1 comment:

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