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John Baker

The John Baker Tapes Volume 1

BBC Radiophonic 1963 to 1974

(Trunk; US: 28 Jul 2008; UK: 25 Jul 2008)

The BBC Radiophonic Workshop, a publicly subsidized sound laboratory, engineered unique solutions and accommodated a diverse array of clientele throughout its 40 years of existence. If that sounds too clinical a description for your tastes, you obviously haven’t heard the result.

Then again, perhaps you have and don’t even know it. The BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s legacy carries a subliminal type of influence. One that scraped its way inside young minds, who stared blankly at their television sets, as warped electronic sounds infected their consciousness. Recently, it has been asserted in the blogosphere, not unfoundedly, that the group’s work in scoring and sound innovation for the BBC has had more of an impact on British music than any band ever, including the Beatles. Its sound’s resonance has manifested itself not only in the birth pangs of rave-up through the present fervor for all things hauntological, but in the influence the group had over other non-profit groups, like the National Film Board of Canada and the Children’s Television Workshop, to take risks in soundtracking their programming.

The John Baker Tapes Volume 1 encompasses a rare spectrum of individual sounds from the atonal to the genteel to the goofball. “Tros Y Gareg (Main Theme)” condenses its percussion to skitters and glitches, preceding chiptune and Kid606 by decades. “Spin Off” predates David Lynch’s Red Room by 25 years or so with a voice recorded backwards to sound like it was saying “spin off” forwards. In the Caretaker-Esque “Diary of a Madman”, knocks on a door lead to entry into a land of mystical and deranged atmospheres that float, fade and drone on in accordance with no conventional rules for television-score composition circa the 1960s.

The Radiophonic Workshop was steeped in many of the same preoccupations of the academic experimentalists of the time. Several short interview segments featured on the disc showcase Baker’s penchant for concrète methods of sampling everyday household materials like soda bottles, running water, corks and the like. Unexamined but readily noticeable is his addiction to unprecedented amounts of Joe Meek/King Tubby echo, which imbue his work with an other-worldliness that often comes off sounding like sci-fi calliope filtered through dense mists of nitrous oxide.

What sets Baker apart from his associates, though, is his jazz background. “Vendetta: The Ice Cream Man” marries early cartoon jazz Raymond Scott with late-era circuitry-obsessed Raymond Scott, while “COI Technology Pavillion” is as strange and obscure as anything Ennio Morricone cooked up. These pieces serve as welcome contrasts to the present portrait of this music as white Anglophile antiquarian noir.


Timothy Gabriele is a writer who studied English and Film at the University of Massachussetts at Amherst. He currently lives in the New Haven, CT region with his fmaily. His column, The Difference Engine, appears regularly at PopMatters. He can be found twittering @Wildcorrective and blogging at 555 Enterprises.

Alchemists of Sound- (BBC documentary on the Radiphonic Workshop- Part One)
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