In our new column, VIDEODRONE, one of our favorite artists shares five videos that they've been watching lately. Our second guest is Nick Edwards, the Bristol-based producer behind the Ekoplekz moniker and one of the music writers who helped break dubstep during the last decade. Recently, his first solo electronic album under his own name, Plekzationz, was released on Editions Mego, and takes as much inspiration from the golden age of synth music as it does from the present. So, for this second installation of VIDEODRONE, Nick has prepared a video tour through mid-70s British television's experimental soundtracks entitled "Where Were U In '72?"
1972 might not immediately spring to mind as an important year in the development of electronic music in Great Britain, but it was the year that synthesizers first made their mark on the British pop charts via novelty imports Hot Butter, with their reworking of Gershan Kingsley's instrumental ditty "Pop Corn," and proto-synth poppers Chicory Tip, with their Giorgio Moroder-produced smash "Son Of My Father." In the field of rock, synthesizers were steadily creeping into the sonic armouries of many of the era's biggest acts, like The Who, Pink Floyd, ELP, and Yes. More significantly, Brian Eno's emergence as a talismanic anti-musician on Roxy Music's "Virginia Plain" showed the way forward for home-grown developments. But the most profound and influential use of synthesized sound in mainstream British culture was not taking place in the field of rock or pop, but via the incidental moods and sound effects emanating from the Cathode Ray Tube residing in every modern home in the country.
Much of the most celebrated work from that great British institution, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, was created in the previous decade. The early 1970s were characterised by a steady move away from the often stunning, yet invariably time-consuming, methods of tape composition in favor of the relatively immediate interplay between Man and the voltage-controlled monophonic analogue synthesizer, in combination with primitive artificial forms of spacial enhancement (spring reverberation, tape echo, etc). At the BBC, this entailed working with the British-built EMS VCS3 and, shortly after, it's big brother, the prototype Synthi-100 (a.k.a “The Delaware”). When confronted by the Delaware several years later, workshop composer Elizabeth Parker felt that its intimidating wall of knobs and dials were totally alien to creating music. Little wonder that the music many of her cohorts coaxed from this beast was often also of a totally alienating.
The bleak, detuned emissions from the VCS3 and the Delaware characterised much of the Radiophonic Workshop's output in the early '70s, reaching a peak of intensity in 1972, when self-confessed maverick composer Malcolm Clarke notoriously created the incidental music for the Doctor Who adventure "The Sea Devils" entirely on the Delaware. As Radiophonic archivist Mark Ayres astutely observed, Clarke's “Sea Devils” soundtrack is “undoubtedly some of the most uncompromising electronic music ever to feature in mainstream popular entertainment".
Also in 1972, the BBC hired veteran electronic innovator Tristram Cary to provide a similarly unsettling soundtrack for the Doctor Who series "The Mutants". Working from his private studio with several VCS3s (a model which he had helped design), Cary displayed a more refined, but no less coldly uncompromising vision of what was permissible as "mainstream entertainment."
Clearly there was a mood in the air, a subtle shift towards the weird and the uncanny, perfectly illustrated by the cult BBC play "The Stone Tapes," written by Nigel Neale and also transmitted in 1972. Neale's bizarre tale combined the inherently arcane nature of experimental recording technology with horror and supernatural elements. The Workshop's chief-of-staff Desmond Briscoe provided an appropriately eerie soundtrack.
The experimental impulse also extended to the readymade moods of library music. One of the largest library labels in Britain, KPM Music, chose 1972 as the year to release the Electro mini series: a triad of long-playing records that employed the skills of some of Britain's most imaginative electronic artists. First came Electrosound, (KPM 1102), composed by maverick experimenter and occasional Pink Floyd collaborator Ron Geeson at his most daring and extreme. This was followed by Eric Peters' Electromusic (KPM 1103). An even more obscure figure than Geeson, Peters was nevertheless a veteran library composer, and Electromusic features some of his most chilling work, much of which would be utilized in early episodes of the children's sci-fi series The Tomorrow People the following year.
Last but by no means least, Electrosonic (KPM 1104) features the Radiophonic Workshop's Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson moonlighting under pseudonyms in collaboration with the Australian composer Don Harper. Shortly to retire from music-making, "Electrosonic" proved to be Derbyshire's swansong on vinyl, but the album's severe synthetic tones were sharply at odds with the organic sounds associated with her more acclaimed tape music of the previous decade.
The combined effect of this “cold wave” soundtrack on the television viewers of 1972 (and the years immediately preceding it) has never been seriously researched. In truth, its lasting influence on the majority of the populace is probably negligible-- a brief historical curio before technological improvements (polyphonic keyboards, stable oscillators, preset memory banks, etc.) ushered in a smoother, more humanised period for mainstream electronic muzak. If anything, its legacy lies in the unnatural electronic chirps and squalls rendered impermeably in the collective memory of a million inquiring young minds.
For the majority of those children, who somehow managed to grow into fairly well-adjusted adults, this collective sonic memory probably only manifests itself as the soundtrack to their darkest private nightmares. But for a very small minority of musically inclined individuals, it is a source of inspiration or even, in some extreme cases, a creative starting point for their own musical journeys...
Nick Edwards' Plekzationz is out now on Editions Mego.