Friday, 5 August 2011

A Record of British Eccentricity

Four LPs which have come into the Exeter Oxfam Music shop and gone online form a fine sample of British oddball invention and dedicated eccentricity. Firstly, there’s the second Radiophonic Workshop LP from 1975 (the third if you include the 1973 release Fourth Dimension really a Paddy Kingsland album), following on from the 1968 'Pink' album. This sees the Workshop leaving the tape-reel strewn labs and the eyestraining splicing and looping mechanisms and entering the brave new world of synthesisers. Dick Mills' Major Bloodnok's Stomach stands out as a throwback to the old days of intensive, painstakingly detailed labour which would go into the production of 9 seconds of zany sound. The music was mostly specifically recorded for the LP, as opposed to the previous collection, which gathered Workshop pieces used in various radio and TV programmes. Roger Limb’s pieces, such as Geraldine, certainly conjure up programmes which never were, however – you can almost see the title sequences. Malcolm Clarke, composer of the radical score for the Doctor Who story The Sea Devils, gets to grips once more with the room-sized EMS Synthi 100, affectionately (or otherwise) known as the Delaware (after the location of the Workshop studios in Delaware Road, Maida Vale). His track with Glynis Johns, Nenuphar, is an eerie piece of science fiction atmospherics which is reminiscent of some of Delia Derbyshire’s evocative ambiences, but with synth arpeggiations layered on top. Old Workshop hands Dick Mills and John Baker (no Delia though, sadly) are joined by a new generation: Clarke, Roger Limb, Glynis Jones, Paddy Kingsland and Richard Yeoman-Clark. As well as the Delaware, they also use the slightly more easily manageable EMS VCS3 and the ARP Odyssesy synths. It all makes for analog electronic heaven.

The LP The Sly Cormorant also has Radiophonic Workshop connections. This mixture of spoken word and music finds Liverpool poet Brian Patten reading his own poetic renderings of Aesop's fables alongside Cleo Laine. The musicak side is particularly interesting, featuring as it does David Vorhaus and Brian Gascoigne, both of whom play an array of synthesisers and electronic instrumentation, as well as producing the record. Vorhaus was one third of White Noise alongside Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson, both stalwarts of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. The album they made together, An Electric Storm, is considered a classic of electronic music, and extracts of the ominous track The Black Mass: An Electric Storm in Hell (and you can’t say you don’t know what’s coming at you with a title like that) were used in the unfeasible groovy 70s Hammer movie Dracula AD1972 (soundtracking a black mass, naturally). Gascoigne worked on the soundtrack for the science fiction film Phase IV (a fine film about ant intelligence, directed by Hitchcock title sequence maestro and possible creator of the Psycho shower scene Saul Bass), which again used prominent electronic elements. He has also acted as arranger on Scott Walker's last three albums, no mean achievement given the existential crooner’s eccentric and very specific demands (meat percussion and hurdy gurdy stridulation). The LP also features John Williams on guitar. An intriguing combination all round.

Dour and wizened Scottish bard Ivor Cutler pumps his wheezing harmonium into action once more for the 1974 LP Dandruff, also essaying a few half-hearted plinks on a mbira thumb piano. There are more randomly numbered episodes from Life In A Scotch Sitting Room, and Ivor also offers nutritional advice on gooseberries and bilberries, meets a chatty sparrow called Fremsley, declares I Believe In Bugs (which raises the interesting question as to whether insects have tonsils), tells what he would do For Sixpence, explains why fur coats are useless for birds (but feathers…) and generally offers an absurd yet strangely insightful view of the world. I’m Walking to a Farm is a simple yet vivid, primary coloured depiction of a farmer in a landscape. Ivor specifies the woods from which the plough is made, and the simplified colours of the natural world and its inhabitants: ‘I’m walking to a farm to grow wheat/The sky is blue, the sun is yellow’, and ‘the duck is white, the pond is grey’. It always creates a very clear picture in my head.

Dandruff has 45 small songs, vignettes and poems. The LP Miniatures on Pipe Records betters this by six tracks, one of which is by Ivor himself. It is, as it declares on the cover, 'a sequence of fifty-one tiny masterpieces'. These brief tracks encapsulate the whole spectrum of British eccentrics, characters, poets, alternative and experimental musicians and oddballs. Artists include The Residents, Roger McGough, John Otway, Robert Wyatt, David Bedford, Fred Frith, Neil Innes, Lol Coxhill, Norman Lovett, George Melly, Robert Fripp, Andy Partridge, Ron Geesin, Quentin Crisp, Ralph Steadman, R.D.Laing, Trevor Wishart, Dave Vanian, Gavin Bryars, Simon Jeffes, Michael Nyman, and Kevin Coyne. Most implausibly, Ken Campbell reduces his 22 hour science fiction theatre epic The Warp (the 9 hour Illuminatus plays were simply not long enough for our Ken) to one minute. The whole thing ends with Pete Seeger's banjo version of the chorus from Beethoven's 9th. This record also includes a large fold out b&w poster with artwork provided by many of the artists, and an 'incomplete discography' written out in characteristically ink-spattered style by Ralph Steadman. An amusing, perplexing and occasionally slightly crazed finger buffet of tiny delights.

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