Stowaway Heroes – Delia Derbyshire

Time for another of our Stowaway Heroes now. This week, one of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s most important and influential musicians. Delia Derbyshire is the person who brought Ron Grainer‘s Doctor Who theme music to life in a quite extraordinary way.

Derbyshire joined the BBC in 1960, and stayed for thirteen years, working on numerous well-known and loved series and one-off shows, one of which was The Last Caravans, an episode of The World About Us, for which she composed the brilliant Blue Veils and Golden Sands:

Little is known of her work after leaving the BBC, although following her untimely death in 2001 an extensive collection of tapes were found in her attic and digitised. Perhaps her most famous non-BBC work was as a member of the group White Noise, who released the early electronic album An Electric Storm in 1969.

Delia Derbyshire‘s musical career was a lot shorter than it really should have been – somebody this influential should definitely have a back catalogue of albums to their name. Maybe one day she will. But for now, with a career shrouded in mystery, she is one of the most important of our Stowaway Heroes.

Orbital – The Altogether

Celebrating its fifteenth anniversary this week is Orbital‘s sixth album The Altogether. In commercial terms, they were somewhat on the decline by this point, having peaked five years earlier with the singles Satan Live and The Saint, but they were still very much in the public consciousness after devising Beached with Angelo Badalamenti the previous year for the film The Beach.

The Altogether opens with a bang, with the appropriately titled industrial instrumental Tension, before it passes on to the much softer, pleasantly rhythmic Funny Break (One is Enough). Personally, I think I probably know this track best from Orbital‘s subsequent compilation Work 1989-2002, where it blends in so well with the early 90s material that I’d actually assumed that’s when it was released. Listening to it now, I think that’s probably forgiveable.

Then comes Oi!, which mixes mid-80s sounds with acid bass, and ends up sounding something like a collaboration between Erasure and Yello. It’s good, but perhaps just a little iffy, but the timeless quality seems to permeate the whole album – next comes Pay Per View, a soft and pleasant, almost jazz-like piece with 808 drums and sampled wailing.

Without reading more about this album, it’s difficult to work out exactly what’s meant to be going on, and the artwork doesn’t give many clues either. But that’s just Orbital‘s approach to music – they seem to do what makes them happy, and don’t listen too much to what anybody else wants.

So it continues. Tootled could almost be an early 1990s rave track – there’s a bit of 2001 energy behind it, but a more lo-fi version recorded on 8-track would belong very firmly a decade earlier. Same for the charming Last Thing, which seems to channel some of their own back catalogue.

This feeling of timelessness continues with a modern rendition of the Doctor Who theme, originally released in 1963, and here extended and updated with some new sounds. It’s exquisite – every bit as good as Delia Derbyshire‘s original, but with a very refreshing twist. For the next track, the Doctor Who references continue. Is that really Tom Baker that they’ve persuaded to turn up and deliver a guest vocal? The Tom Baker? Well, not quite – apparently it’s sampled from an interview. Even so, this is a monumental moment in the history of music. Tom Baker.

If you can find her, Kirsty Hawkshaw is apparently a guest vocalist on the lively Waving Not Drowning, which bounces its way merrily along for a couple of minutes until David Gray turns up to deliver the vocal on the lovely Illuminate, the second single from the album after Funny Break. This is a great song – even if you had found most of the rest of the album a bit silly for your tastes, you would have to appreciate this one, in which Gray seems to show rather more emotion than he ever did on his solo singles.

Right at the end, the ten minute instrumental Meltdown takes things in rather different directions again – at the beginning it sounds as though it could be one of their early 90s hits, but then it all goes rather noisy. A couple of minutes later, it’s another epic industrial piece – in fact, it goes through so many changes over its duration that you have to wonder exactly what they thought they were doing. Yet again, Orbital just stuck to what they wanted to do.

In a similar way, I normally try not to take too much notice of other people’s opinions when I write these reviews, as I prefer to see where the music takes me. But when I reviewed the follow-up Blue Album a couple of years ago, I learnt from the comments that The Altogether is apparently “usually regarded as Orbital’s worst album”. Either the standard of their albums is particularly high, or the people who “usually regard” things are just plain wrong, because The Altogether is clearly very good indeed.

The best version of The Altogether is the US import, as you get a second disc of b-sides, and if you want that at a reasonable price you’re best to import it yourself – available here.

The Doctor Who chart

Here are the official (according to me, at least) top ten versions of the Doctor Who theme music:

  1. Delia Derbyshire – Doctor Who Theme (Third Version*, 1971)
  2. Peter Howell – Doctor Who Theme (1980)
  3. Orbital – Doctor? (2001)
  4. Delia Derbyshire – Doctor Who Theme (Original Version, 1963)
  5. Murray Gold – Doctor Who Theme (Tenth Doctor Versions, 2005)
  6. Murray Gold – Doctor Who Theme (Eleventh Doctor Versions, 2010)
  7. Dominic Glynn – Doctor Who Theme (1986)
  8. Keff McCulloch – Doctor Who Theme (1987)
  9. Delia Derbyshire – Doctor Who Theme (Delaware Version, 1972)
  10. David Arnold – Doctor Who Theme (2001)

* technically, the 1967 and 1970 versions should probably be near the top of this list too, but since they’re so similar to the 1971 version I’ve omitted them from this list.

Notably absent from this list are the bloody awful 1996 version by John DebneyThe Timelords (The KLF‘s) Doctorin’ the TARDIS, and a good number of other failures…

Delia Derbyshire – Doctor Who Theme

Normally on Fridays I like to drop in a music video, and at the moment the mini-series is looking at animated ones, but since this is the week of Doctor Who, I thought we should do things very slightly differently.

Let’s step back no less than fifty years for the original theme, recorded by the legendary Delia Derbyshire. The video and remastering was completed in 2009 by Mark Ayres and the Doctor Who Restoration Team.

Various Artists – Music from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop

This is the week of Doctor Who, and the TV series is inexorably linked with the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, the sound magicians who helped bring the alien worlds and environments of the series to life. But their work wasn’t limited to Doctor Who, as this lovely box set of four 10″ singles demonstrates. It’s experimental, and often extremely silly, but you’re also very aware that you are listening to the very beginnings of electronic music.

Disc 1 is performed by Delia Derbyshire, whom you will of course know better from the Doctor Who Theme. Side A, track 1 is a charming track called Mattachin. Then in a couple of her battier moments, Derbyshire covers Happy Birthday in jaunty fashion and Bach‘s Air.

But the first moment of absolute genius comes with the wonderfully titled Ziwzih Ziwzih OO-OO-OO, a piece of alien psychedelia which is somehow both badly dated and intriguingly contemporary.

The next track that really grabs you is Time to Go, in which Delia turns the pips briefly into a daft melody, and then explodes the whole thing in a medley of sound effects, which lead us to the end of Side A.

Side B contains just three tracks, starting with the excellent Blue Veils and Golden Sands. So atmospheric is this piece that it appeared in Doctor Who as well, although that’s not where it originally appeared. The Delian Mode follows, even more avant garde and atmospheric, and is followed by Towards Tomorrow to bring Delia Derbyshire‘s selection to a close.

Disc 2 is dedicated to John Baker‘s slightly less innovative sounds (this can be both a good and bad thing), starting with his lovely Radio Nottingham jingle. The sounds of the 1960s are considerably more audible in Baker’s works, with tracks such as Factors sounding like electronic rock ‘n’ roll.

Most of Baker’s tracks are very short, which leaves room for over twenty of them in total, including rearranged traditional pieces Boys and Girls (as in, “come out to play,”) and The Frogs Wooing, which I’d never heard of before either. Side D opens with a very chirpy track entitled Fresh Start, before launching into a series of short jingles and longer pieces. Some, such as Brio, grab you briefly, but nothing else on this disc really grabs you in the way the first one did.

The last two discs are split between other members of the Radiophonic Workshop, starting with the rather odd sounds of David Cain. The highlights are the horrific War of the Worlds and his Radio Sheffield jingle. Finally, the last track on Side E is Richard Yeoman-Clark‘s decidedly odd Waltz Antipathy.

Dick Mills then kicks off Side F with Crazy Dazy, a bizarre cover version of Daisy Daisy complete with bird and motorway sound effects, which isn’t entirely listenable. Paddy Kingsland‘s two brief tracks, The World of Science and The Panel Beaters, are considerably more pleasant, as are Roger Limb‘s pair Kitten’s Lullaby and Geraldine.

The fourth and final disc is shared between Malcolm Clarke and Glynis Jones, starting with Clarke’s Bath Time, and working through the brilliantly named La Grande Piece de la Foire de la Rue Delaware towards the final side of music. Jones’s three tracks are more experimental again, more atmospheric than melodic, but generally very pleasant pieces to close with.

Released in 2004, this box set brings together tracks which were mainly released between 1968 and 1975, and makes for a charming collection of early electronic music. Highly recommended.

You’ll need a bit of luck and a lot of judgement to find a copy of this box set – here it is on if that helps track it down.

Playlist for stowaways – Who

This week everybody who cares is celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Doctor Who, and this blog is no exception. It’s also an ideal occasion to put together a Who-themed Playlist for stowaways.

Some of the music and sounds are from the series directly. Others are from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop; tributes to the series; or other things that are generally related and seemed to fit.

You can hear it here.

The tracks included are as follows:

  1. Brian Hodgson – TARDIS Takeoff
  2. Delia Derbyshire – Doctor Who Theme (1963 Version)
  3. Brian Hodgson – Dalek Control Room
  4. Soft Cell – Tainted Love (2XS Remix)
  5. Brian Hodgson – Quarks Chuckle
  6. Jack Dorsey and Orchestra – Dance of the Daleks
  7. David Darlington – Excelis Dawns
  8. Delia Derbyshire – Blue Veils and Golden Sands
  9. Jon Pertwee – Who is the Doctor
  10. Delia Derbyshire – Ziwzih Ziwzih OO-OO-OO
  11. Peter Howell – “She’s Seen Too Much!”
  12. Dick Mills – TARDIS Doors
  13. Frazer Hines – Time Traveller
  14. Paddy Kingsland – Summons to Gallifrey
  15. Brian Hodgson – Dalek Spaceship Lands
  16. Roberta Tovey – Who’s Who
  17. Brian Hodgson – The Master’s Theme
  18. Delia Derbyshire – Doctor Who Theme (Delaware Version)
  19. Rotersand – Exterminate Annihilate Destroy
  20. Brian Hodgson – Chumblie Constant Run
  21. Dick Mills – Nova Device Countdown and Explosion
  22. The Human League – Tom Baker
  23. Joy Division – Love Will Tear Us Apart
  24. Brian Hodgson – TARDIS Lands
  25. Mark Ayres – The Storm Breaks
  26. Lynda Baron and Tom McCall – With Rings on Their Fingers
  27. Glenn Miller – Moonlight Serenade
  28. Delia Derbyshire – Liquid Energy
  29. Martin Slavin – Space Adventure
  30. Pet Shop Boys – Radiophonic
  31. Brian Hodgson – Chumblie at Rest
  32. Orbital – Doctor?
  33. Delia Derbyshire – Time to Go
  34. Dick Mills – TARDIS Landing Bleep

Various Artists – Who is Dr. Who?

Over its fifty year history, the British television series Doctor Who has spawned a huge amount of music, including hit singles, music videos, and entire albums. Some of them were, like the original theme – and even like the series itself – excellent and well worth hearing. Others not so much. In 2000, the compilation Who is Dr. Who? brought a selection of them together on CD for the first time.

The original release contains comprehensive sleeve notes, which unfortunately I don’t have to hand, so hopefully I’m not making things up here…

The first track is the 1963 original version of the Doctor Who theme tune, recorded by Delia Derbyshire. Do you need me to wax lyrical about the ethereal other-worldly qualities of the theme? Or to stand agog explaining how it was recorded by splicing together tiny little pieces of tape? I’m sure you don’t. It’s a breathtaking composition, and we’ll leave it at that.

Next up is Dr. Who, performed by Eric Winstone and His Orchestra and released as a single in early 1964. It’s not a great version, but it’s just about listenable, with its ever-so-slightly jazz stylings, and apparently it made it onto a huge number of vinyl releases through the 1960s and 1970s.

I’m Gonna Spend My Christmas with a Dalek by The Go Go’s, on the other hand, is a bit of a travesty. There’s something decidedly creepy about the children’s pronunciation of “mewwy Chwismas,” as a lo-fi Dalek declares “I love you,” rendering the entire recording somewhat indefensible.

Next come two tracks by The Earthlings, taken from the 1965 Peter Cushing film Dr. Who and the DaleksLanding of the Daleks was the A-side, with March of the Robots on side B, and both are fun 1960s instrumentals with relatively little audible connection to the original television series.

Jack Dorsey and Orchestra then turn up from summer 1965 with the decidedly dated Dance of the Daleks, not related to either the film or the TV series – apparently it was simply a cash-in, which failed to see any sort of commercial success.

Christmas 1965 brought the utterly dreadful Roberta Tovey single Who’s Who, backed with Not So Old. Maybe you enjoy listening to the child star who played Susan in the spin-off film from the TV series. I don’t.

More offshoots from the film follow, with Malcolm Lockyer Orchestra‘s re-recorded The Eccentric Dr. Who (a bit of a mess) backed with Daleks and Thals (rather more listenable). The latter has a bit of a James Bond flavour to it, and rather less annoying brass band fanfares.

Bill McGuffie‘s Fugue for Thought is the only track here to represent the sequel film Daleks Invasion Earth 2150 A.D., and isn’t great either – it’s largely a slightly manic piano piece with a bit of jazz-inspired percussion. As with much of this release, it’s perhaps best enjoyed with a bit of a kitsch retro vibe in mind.

Inexplicably companion Frazer Hines (Jamie to you and me) decided to release a single called Who’s Dr Who? in 1968 as part of his own little cash-in. The A-side is based vaguely on the original theme, and is appalling – not only because of Hines’s inability to sing in tune, or the dreadfully cheesy lyrics, or… this list could go on forever actually. Side B, Punch and Judy Man is pointless and unnecessary, but is also a lot less bad.

The compilation then jumps five years forward in time for an almost identical release – this time Jon Pertwee‘s 1972 single Who is the Doctor, in which The Doctor (in character) talks over a slightly naff version of the theme. For all of its failings, it’s a fun track, and is well worth hearing once every decade or so. Released on Deep Purple‘s own record label, it’s a bit of a curiosity. Side B is the largely dreadful Pure Mystery, and should probably be forgotten about.

The last track on the main album is Don Harper’s Homo Electronicus, performing the original TV theme as Dr. Who. The 1973 cover version of the theme is an interesting one, as a minute or so in he pulls the whole thing apart and turns it into something very different and also vaguely satisfying.

There are then a couple of extra bonus tracks – a version of Landing of the Daleks from earlier, this time with some morse code in the middle for no particularly obvious version, and another Frazer Hines track – the decent but previously unreleased Time Traveller. All told, it’s an enjoyable CD, even if a good chunk of it is pretty awful.

The CD was compiled by Mark Ayres, and you can read his original notes about the release here. The album is still available through Amazon.

Week of Doctor Who

This coming Saturday, a British institution celebrates its fiftieth anniversary. The television series Doctor Who is 50 years old this week. Why is that relevant, when this is a blog about electronic music? Well, surprising though it may seem, Doctor Who has had a significant influence on the sort of music we write about on this blog, whether directly (many musicians including Kylie Minogue and Pet Shop Boys have taken design influences from the series) or indirectly (Delia Derbyshire was one of the earliest electronic musicians in history).

So this week we’ll celebrate the anniversary with reviews, a chart, a playlist, videos, and more, all with a Doctor Who theme. Just not necessarily the Doctor Who Theme.

Various Artists – Electrospective

The basic way this blog works is that when I’m reviewing an album, I listen to it in full, and while doing so write what I feel about what I’m hearing. How, then, do I tackle a two-and-a-half hour long compilation? I feel the skip button may be seeing some usage on this occasion.

Electrospective is the centrepiece of a recent record company campaign to get us buying mid-price synth-based albums of which I heartily approve. The compilation is a fascinating and wonderful journey, encompassing maybe ten tracks from each of the primary decades of electronic music. But its omissions are also fascinating. Perversely, almost, it contains none of the pioneering sound of Jean Michel Jarre or Kraftwerk. The early 1980s focus rightly on OMD and The Human League, but there’s no sign of Soft Cell or Frankie Goes to Hollywood. The late 1980s largely forego the “indie dance” and trip hop movements in favour of pop and soul. But then, if you were faced with the task of compiling a forty-track journey through the history of electronic music, how would you tackle it?

Electrospective opens, as all definitive electronic compilations should, with Delia Derbyshire‘s 1963 version of Ron Grainer‘s essential Doctor Who theme. Fifty years on, in an age where literally anybody can make music with their portable telecommunications devices, it’s difficult to picture the boffins of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop slaving away generating tape samples and cutting them into exactly the right length to sync and make quite astonishing music. In a sense it’s unsurprising that they didn’t really succeed with the syncing (Derbyshire also revisited the theme in 1967 to create a rather more orderly but definitely less charming version).

Some of the other early tracks are a little odder. Roxy Music‘s Virginia Plain is, I can only assume, here to show some of the early electronic experimentation in which popular acts of the early 1970s were indulging, and it has a few nice Moog sounds in it, but frankly it’s largely tolerable at best. Even Brian Eno, introducing this album to its first taste of ambience, fails to impress particularly with Here Come the Warm Jets (1974).

The 1970s start to look a lot stronger after this, with Tangerine Dream‘s Rubycon and Can‘s brilliant I Want More before launching into another unmissable moment with The Normal‘s Warm Leatherette. The final trio of Cabaret VoltaireTelex and Simple Minds round of 1979 in less compelling fashion, and you should be clear by now that electronics is firmly planted in the world of music.

We then enter the 1980s in typically variable fashion. OMD‘s excellent Messages carries into Ultravox‘s more questionable SleepwalkThe Human League‘s astonishing The Things That Dreams are Made Of is followed by rather more questionable choices from Duran Duran and Heaven 17, and then a distinctly dodgy choice of remix for Yazoo‘s Don’t Go.

The mid-1980s are, as you might expect, rather stronger. Together in Electric Dreams is perhaps a little unnecessary, coming as it does only five tracks after the previous Human League moment, but then West End Girls mixes into Who Needs Live (Like That), and you’re definitely reminded that the eighties weren’t nearly as bad as everyone seems to suggest.

All this is not to say that this album is without its surprises. Nitzer Ebb‘s Control I’m Here is an unexpected pleasure, as is Soul II Soul‘s Back to Life (However Do You Want Me), which ends the 1980s a couple of tracks into the second disc.

The 1990s are, of course, where electronic music comes of age. A whole slew of enormous, exceptional, and very well chosen hits follow from Depeche ModeMobyThe Future Sound of LondonDaft Punk and Adam FMassive Attack turn up, as indeed they should, but here they are represented by the slightly disappointing choice of Inertia Creeps, by no means bad, but a track which surely belongs in the middle of Mezzanine rather than here?

Air‘s wonderful Kelly Watch the Stars and St. Germain‘s Rose Rouge are here to represent the rest of the late 90s French invasion, which is inevitably followed by the experimental indie of Radiohead and The Chemical Brothers.

Finally, our potted history of electronic music has brought us into the 2000s, by which time “electronic” had definitely ceased to be a label for weird experimental noises or extravagant expressionism. It had, in every imaginable way, gone mainstream. In a good way.

Goldfrapp hammer this home beautifully with the essential Strict Machine, and then Dare by Gorillaz leads us through to a string of 21st century floor fillers. Eric Prydz‘s probably Bo Selecta-inspired Proper Education with its Pink Floyd elements leads us into some less interesting tracks from David GuettaDeadmau5, and finally a total abomination by Swedish House Mafia. Not a great ending, admittedly, but a fair assessment of the journey of electronic music over the past half century.

Make no mistake – in terms of meeting its remit of compiling a handful of tracks from every decade of electronic music, this is a great release. But it’s difficult to ignore the many omissions – you can’t help but feel that perhaps a themed or era-specific compilation might tick the boxes a lot more convincingly. In the end, all you get is fleeting glimpses of particular acts and eras. All told though, for all its failings it’s a great listen, and I can’t help but recommend it.

There’s also a companion remix album, which we’ll touch on in a future week. If you’re in the US you can find Electrospective here; if you’re in the UK try here; and if you’re anywhere else then you’ll have to fend for yourself.