To celebrate 60 years of THE RADIOPHONIC WORKSHOP, the pioneering collective held a pair of events within the plush confines of The British Library.
The first comprised of a panel discussion chaired by Louise Gray of The Wire, while the second was a surround sound concert with striking visuals directed by Obsrvtry, a collaboration between THE RADIOPHONIC WORKSHOP, Michael Faulkner and Ben Sheppee.
Gathered for the panel discussion were Paddy Kingsland, Roger Limb, Peter Howell and archivist Mark Ayers with special guest Martyn Ware who performed on their new album ‘Burials In Several Earths’; original member Dr Dick Mills joined the chat later on after being held up in London’s Friday rush hour.
Founded in 1958 by Desmond Briscoe and Daphne Oram, THE RADIOPHONIC WORKSHOP at the BBC was set up to provide “special sound” for radio and TV programmes, inspired by studios set up by Karlheinz Stockhausen in Cologne for pure electronic sound exploration and Pierre Henry in Paris which had a more of a musique concrète remit.
So if a programme required a door opening or a car crash, a sound effects library could be used, but as Mark Ayres put it: “if you wanted a sound effect for a nervous breakdown, where would you go for that?”. Considered to be distinct from the corporation’s musicians and initially working with virtually zero budget, THE RADIOPHONIC WORKSHOP tended to rescue obsolete equipment that had been dumped by other departments.
Using and abusing technology to create new sounds, its members like the late Delia Derbyshire would be tasked with two hour programmes each week and had to work to deadlines, something which she often had trouble with and referred to as her “variable reluctance”.
Of course, working with early electronics was not straightforward. The tape machines of the day were very unreliable and Roger Limb talked of when THE RADIOPHONIC WORKSHOP started performing as a live act and using digital equipment, discovering “how surprisingly varied the tape machine output was”. He concluded that “what we like about analogue things is to do with the variance, stuff that you don’t immediately hear but is adding to the interest”.
Paddy Kingsland described how Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson (who created the sound of the TARDIS by running a key along a bass string of a gutted piano before electronically treating it) were “into their happy accidents”. It was something that Roger Limb summarised as “something that’s actually wrong that suddenly becomes right”, like the BBC fire extinguisher that was found to be approximately in D# when struck!
The panel discussion also included a fascinating demonstration by Mark Ayres of Delia Derbyshire’s component parts for the theme of ‘Dr Who’. While the music was written by Ron Grainer, it was Derbyshire who orchestrated the arrangement, painstakingly recording short bursts of manually manipulated oscillator onto tape, cutting them up and splicing them together to form longer and more recognisably musical sections.
The bass was actually a plucked string, recorded and copied via tape loops onto another machine until a series of different pitches were made, with Ayres explained that “every one of those notes was a piece of tape cut together with a razor”. Roger Limb pointed out that the bassline which Derbyshire had constructed was even cleverer because “the attack only happens on the front of the phrase”.
The music had a profound impact when it was first aired in 1963 with Dr Dick Mills remembering people were intrigued and asking “WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT?” because they couldn’t work out the instrumentation or how it was realised. As Martyn Ware put it, “it promised you were going to be visiting worlds that you couldn’t possibly comprehend” while Peter Howell added “You were genuinely hearing things you had never heard before”.
Adventurous manipulators of sound who came up with instruments like the Wobbulator, Peter Howell had the view that “the equipment can either be our servant or our partner”.
While discussing these two approaches, he casually mentioned how an old BBC schools film he had made demonstrating the Fairlight CMI to children had been re-edited into a hilarious spoof YouTube video entitled ‘How Drum ‘N’ Bass Is Made’.
With the panel discussion over, THE RADIOPHONIC WORKSHOP moved over to the Entrance Hall for their two-part live performance.
With hardware such as an Arturia Matrixbrute, Korg MS20, Roland JX3P and Yamaha DX7 clearly in view, along with various laptops and controllers, the first section comprised of more progressive and lengthy ambient experimental pieces.
The impressionistic colours of ‘Picasso’ began the evening before the band settled into performing selections from ‘Burial In Several Earths’. Inspired by Sir Francis Bacon’s incomplete novel ‘New Atlantis’, Daphne Oram used a section of it as an electronic avant-garde manifesto for the workshop.
Her spirit could be heard within these watery overtures recalling Virgin era TANGERINE DREAM while in between these lengthy improvised soundscapes, Martyn Ware joined the band on a Roland Jupiter 8 for a rendition of the comparitively bite size interlude ‘Not Come To Light’. During the interval, DJ Tom Middleton treated attendees to the spacey sounds of JEAN-MICHEL JARRE, TOMITA and VANGELIS.
So it was fitting that when THE RADIOPHONIC WORKSHOP returned to the stage, it was with ‘The Astronauts’, a pacey tune reminiscent of Evangelos Odysseas Papathanassiou. ‘Ziwzih Ziwzih 00-00-00’ from ‘Out of the Unknown’ was the first of the more Sci-Fi related compositions, a theme which continued with some music from ‘Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy’.
Meanwhile ‘Magenta Court’ from ‘Through A Glass Darkly’ explored more proggy territory. The multi-instrumental capabilities of the ensemble were astounding with the main players moving between synths, guitars, wind controllers and taking turns to address the audience.
One thing that has been lost since the advent of 24 hour television in the UK since 1997 is Test Card F. So when the iconic image of Carole Hersee playing noughts and crosses with Bubbles the Clown was projected, it saw the band to wig out in a Floydian style with a sample of its accompanying music.
A rendition of ‘Vespucci’ from ‘Fourth Dimension’ also ventured into cosmic territory while ‘Vortex’ kept the Sci-Fi fans happy,
But it was the brilliant new composition ‘eShock’ that was the revelation of the evening. With Roger Limb taking to the microphone to warn the audience that they were in a “high risk area” and vulnerable to electronic shock, what proceeded was a vibrant electronic piece aided by a live rhythmic backbone from Kieron Pepper. With a cacophony of blips and beats that would make ORBITAL proud, an intense frenzy of psychedelic guitar and Theremin from Paddy Kingland was the icing on the cake.
Dr Dick Mills joined his colleagues on stage to announce the final number which was naturally ‘Doctor Who’; he even took time to joke and thank the crew for not only helping with the equipment, but also several of the band up The British Library’s many stairs.
Beginning with the familiar Delia Derbyshire take, there was a building improv before a Schaffel flavoured rock out with Kieron Pepper respectfully adding percussive power without swamping his colleagues.
Pepper has also played for THE PRODIGY and he is an example to stickmen like Christian Eigner as to how to properly mix live drums into electronic music.
Despite THE RADIOPHONIC WORKSHOP members now pushing 70 years of age or more, they possessed more vigour than many acts half their age.
They didn’t start play live together in a concert setting until 2009 and having been cooped up in Room 13 all those years ago, they are now relishing playing to appreciative audiences.
Call it ‘Maida Vale Social Club’ or ‘Last of The Summer Synths’, this whole evening was a moment to savour with electronic music’s elder statesmen giving a lesson to youngsters with their laptops as to how it’s all done.
THE RADIOPHONIC WORKSHOP was the legendary group of musicians / engineers that were set up in a BBC department ‘Room 13’ to provide music and sonic effects for the Corporation’s radio and television programmes.
Most famous for Delia Derbyshire’s iconic interpretation of Ron Grainer’s ‘Dr Who Theme’, the collective also scored the music for ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ and ‘The Living Planet’.
Due to financial constraints, the Workshop was wound down in 1998, but in 2009 several ex-members including Peter Howell, Roger Limb, Dr Dick Mills and Paddy Kingsland, along with “long-time associate composer” Mark Ayres reunited for some live shows including an appearance at the annual ‘Dr Who’ event at The Royal Albert Hall.
‘Burial In Several Earths’ sees the first official studio release since 1985 with the music being inspired by an unfinished poem by Sir Francis Bacon. The spirit of Workshop co-founder Daphne Oram lives on within the album as she once treated a section of the Bacon work as a manifesto for the operation and its commitment to producing innovative electronic avant-garde sound.
The reunited collective’s manifesto for ‘Burials In Several Earths’ was to “…see what happened if we allowed people to react together with their machines in a very unplanned and spontaneous way” with “the computers and sequencers switched off” leading to a “very human interaction between all of us”.
The album also features guest appearances from Martyn Ware and Grammy-award winning mixing engineer for THE CHEMICAL BROTHERS, UNKLE, and NEW ORDER, Steve ‘Dub’ Jones.
Ware discussed the making of the album with The Electricity Club recently and the very improvised nature of most of the compositions featured, saying “No words were spoken as to what we were going to do, it was completely spontaneous. At first, it felt incredibly awkward and childish in a strange sort of way, but as things loosened up a bit and we played off each other in a classic ‘jazz’ style, what emerged was spasmodically transcendental.”
With the opening eponymous track clocking in at close to nineteen minutes and a subsequent pair of twenty plus minute tracks, you know that this album isn’t going to be one that requires a cursory listening. The epic piece seamlessly moves through several sections from peaceful piano through to howling EMS synth freakouts.
Cyclical piano starts ‘Things Buried in Water’ with background siren-like synths, and an echoed guitar texture adding to the atmosphere. At this point, this appears to be the most melodic track so far until a huge blast of white noise materialises at around the four minute mark to disturb the peace. Halfway through, an octave / filtered arpeggiator riff comes in with an ever-increasing tempo, but drops out of the mix pretty much as quickly as it appears.
‘Some Hope of Land’ is another challenging piece, constantly evolving with a mix of JOHN CAGE inspired ambience and blippy sequencer parts. The ending of the track is almost an electro-blues section, with the kind of guitar riff that Martin Gore would be more than happy to rock out.
In comparison, the short four minute ‘Not Come To Light’ is more concise and is split between full-on analogue distortion, through to a beautifully pristine synthetic aesthetic.
‘The Stranger’s House’ starts with an echoed Virgin-era TANGERINE DREAM-style sequencer pattern; short fragments of electronic sound punctuate before a deep JOHN CARPENTER-esque bass joins the mix. Three minutes in and a thinly EQ’d guitar helps to give the track a Krautrock feel, whilst the bass reveals itself as a sequencer pattern itself when other notes are additionally triggered. The additional of more real piano really evokes the playing of Edgar Froese and the mixture of live instrumentation and synthetics works brilliantly here.
With acts like Tim Gane’s CAVERN OF ANTI-MATTER perpetuating the influence and sound of THE RADIOPHONIC WORKSHOP in recent releases, it’s undeniably brilliant to still have several original members creating vibrant and challenging electronic work.
In places this is not an easy listen, but with repeated revisits ‘Burials In Several Earths’ is a rewarding album and one can imagine the makers of the album having a huge amount of fun making it.
THE RADIOPHONIC WORKSHOP are to release ‘Burials In Several Earths’, a brand new work which will be their first commercial available product since 1985.
The veteran sonic architects behind the soundtracks of classic BBC TV shows such as ‘Doctor Who’ and ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ recently gave a mind-blowing live performance as part of the ‘Picasso By Night’ evening curated by Martyn Ware of HEAVEN 17.
So it is fitting that he features on the album along with Steve ‘Dub’ Jones, best known for his engineering work for THE CHEMICAL BORTHERS and UNKLE.
Martyn Ware kindly chatted with The Electricity Club about his contribution to ‘Burials In Several Earths’ and about what is happening with the new, long awaited HEAVEN 17 long player ‘Not For Public Broadcast’.
Your musical history with THE RADIOPHONIC WORKSHOP goes back performing the ‘Dr Who Theme’ in with Ian Craig Marsh?
Yes, we did in the earliest band we ever formed! It was in D-K & THE STUDS, Glenn was D-K, the singer and it was a supergroup with various members of CABARET VOLTAIRE, CLOCK DVA and 2.3 before we started THE HUMAN LEAGUE or anything. We only played it once and it was terrible.
What kind of influence were they on you during your phase in THE HUMAN LEAGUE and how did they exploits fuel your zest for experimentation?
It was in the zeitgeist really. David Vorhaus, who I’ve just done some work with recently, was perhaps more of an influence. He created WHITE NOISE with Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson from THE RADIOPHONIC WORKSHOP.
I met them through Clifford Jones who was their manager. I’ve always been a fan of their work, so having a chance to meet them and do something with them was too good a chance to miss. I did a lecture with Peter Howell on the South Bank in 2013.
You and Peter Howell made a good double act in your ‘A Journey In 20 Synths’ presentation…
Ha ha! It was like a synth version of ‘Grumpy Old Men’… or ‘Last Of The Midsummer Synths’! ‘
I thought it was interesting that you both differed slightly in your views on the Yamaha DX7?
I don’t like the sound of digital synths, when things started moving into the FM world, I wasn’t so happy. I had the DX7, Roland D50, Korg M1, an SP12 drum machine, that period I went through loads of stuff.
Funnily enough, I’ve gone back to samples from the Emulator II OMI Universe of Sounds package and I prefer those to anything I’ve just mentioned.
I’ve now got all the virtual packages but there’s something about the sonic philosophy that’s too far down that Japanese clean path, it’s all shiny and lacking in warmth.
There’s a narrative arc that leads through the inception of domestic level synthesizers from the mid-70s to the birth of digital synthesis right through to the current day, it’s not ever really reversed, and this over-digitalisation of sound is a problem. That’s why there’s so many plug-ins and filters designed to counter that and reintroduce the artificial sound of tape or vinyl.
So how did the collaboration come about?
Although we were all busy with other projects and playing live, Mark Ayres called and suggested we go into a studio he’d booked in South London on this date at ten in the morning. It was a bit ad hoc, but I’m a great believer in just doing stuff rather than theorising about it, so I thought I’d better walk the walk.
I turned up with no instruments and there was nobody there apart from the engineer who opened up and let me in. About an hour later, people started drifting in and various synths started arriving including a Moog Modular, a Jupiter 8, a Korg MS20, pedals and a Teenage Engineering OP-1.
So I suggested we started improvising, which is so unlike me and right outside my comfort zone… I haven’t done that since the mid-70s. The one instrument there which I really knew inside out was the Jupiter 8 so I played that, Mark played the Moog Modular, Steve ‘Dub’ Jones played piano and the OP-1 while Paddy Kingsland played treated guitars and pedals.
No words were spoken as to what we were going to do, it was completely spontaneous. At first, it felt incredibly awkward and childish in a strange sort of way, but as things loosened up a bit and we played off each other in a classic ‘jazz’ style, what emerged was spasmodically transcendental. We did about 2-3 hours onto Pro-Tools and at the end, I had no idea if very much of it was any good.
We went from the live room into the studio and started listening to it… even without any mixing, we were astonished how interesting and unique it sounded. I have never done an improvised album ever, it was a four way jam with a genuine equal split.
The title ‘Burials In Several Earths’ is Mark Ayres’ idea and he was leading on the whole thing, doing the editing and mixing.
Meanwhile, HEAVEN 17’s ‘Not For Public Broadcast’ became available to Bowers & Wilkins Society of Sound members as a work-in-progress. What was your strategy with regards this approach to launch the album?
I’ve been sponsored in kind with products by Bowers & Wilkins for over a decade and they started this online Society of Sound. I was asked to be an ambassador for it and Danny Wilkins from Bowers & Wilkins asked if I’d release some new HEAVEN 17 material on it via this subscription.
We’re not really sure about the digital world at all as you know, but the idea that it was only available for a month with the rights reverting back to us, and we’d get paid, appealed to us… so it was like a sonic Snapchat release.
We didn’t want to do the whole album but to get people off our backs, we thought it would be good to release a half-finished album as a kind of study into where we are heading and to expose the process via social media, as well as to discuss our theory of ‘Not For Public Broadcast’ on how to release stuff to people who actually care about music, as opposed to just giving it away for free.
Hopefully people liked it, I know to gain access one had to fully subscribe, but I do genuinely believe that it’s an amazing thing to subscribe to. It’s all looked after by Real World Records, Peter Gabriel’s label and there are some amazing recordings there. It was up to people if they wanted to do it or not… it’s all going to be on the forthcoming album anyway, so it’s not like we’re denying people anything.
So is the album going to be ready for the forthcoming tour with BLANCMANGE?
In reality, we’ll have more tracks ready for the Autumns show but the album will be finished Spring next year. The problem we have is time because Glenn is out on tour with HOLY HOLY, he’s writing the music for an upcoming ITV series while there’s all the summer festival stuff too.
HEAVEN 17 are touring with BLANCMANGE again?
Yes, we really like each other’s company and music, so I think it’s a good match, but it was the promoter’s idea to do it. It went so well in 2014, they wanted to do it again. So that’s what we’re doing.
The Electricity Club gives its grateful thanks to Martyn Ware
THE RADIOPHONIC WORKSHOP ‘Burials In Several Earths’ is released by Room 13 Records on 19th May 2017 as a double CD, 4 x 10” vinyl boxset and download
Synth trailblazers HEAVEN 17 recently won the title of ‘Sheffield’s Greatest Band of All Time’ following a public online poll conducted by local newspaper The Star.
Despite competition from DEF LEPPARD, THE HUMAN LEAGUE, ABC and ARCTIC MONKEYS, the combo founded by Martyn Ware, Ian Craig Marsh and Glenn Gregory hung on to come out victorious.
Although Marsh left the fold in 2007, HEAVEN 17 are still going strong 35 years on from the release of their debut album ‘Penthouse & Pavement’. Ware and Gregory will commemorate the occasion this October with a concert tour featuring a new electronic version of the acclaimed long player.
HEAVEN 17 initially began as a pop subsidiary of BEF, the production umbrella of Martyn Ware; he would go on to release an ambitious three volume series of technologically enhanced covers albums with guest vocalists.
Entitled ‘Music Of Quality & Distinction’, each featured assorted favourites from Ware’s own record collection with the 1981 ‘Volume 1’ reinterpretation of ‘Ball Of Confusion’ sung by Tina Turner effectively reviving the career of The Soul Queen.
As a special treat for this 2016 tour, there will be a BEF live set in the second half of the show. Among the guest singers will be ‘Miss Beehive’ Mari Wilson, SEX PISTOLS’ Glen Matlock and Peter Hooton from THE FARM, while Glenn Gregory will also indulge in a cover or two.
In the middle of rehearsals for assorted HEAVEN 17 and BEF shows in the lead-up to the tour, Martyn Ware kindly took time out for an enlightening chat with TEC about a variety of topics including new HEAVEN 17 material, DAVID BOWIE, the pros and cons of crowdfunding plus how the major record labels are still up to their old tricks, despite (or because of) changes in the marketplace…
You’ve promised a new electronic version of ‘Penthouse & Pavement’ for this tour. What style are you going for?
We’ve been doing new versions of stuff from ‘Penthouse & Pavement’ for a while. The last time we did it in 2010 was with a full band, so as much for economic reasons as anything, we are doing it with a more stripped down electronic format.
So we’ve tried to reapproach a few of the songs in the style of the new stuff we’re writing and it will be a unique insight into where we are at the moment, kinda retro-futurist…
You said 2013 was the last BEF show, but the brand was revived and you came back at Rewind in 2015. What prompted the change of heart?
Rewind approached me and I said “over my dead body” because it was a pain in the neck organising it all. With all the artists that would be involved, I didn’t think we could make it work financially. But Rewind very kindly said “we’ll make it worth your while” so I had a change of heart. The last BEF shows in 2011 and 2013 made no money and whilst I love contributing toward the cultural health of the country, I’m not so keen on doing it at my own expense. So the change of heart was down to economics really. The production values of Rewind are very high and I like them, so if I was going to do it, it had to be at the highest level and they delivered.
Having M’s Robin Scott perform alongside his daughter Berenice, who is in the HEAVEN 17 / BEF live band, must have been a special moment?
It was amazing, what a lovely man! It was a very strange thing because it was the first time he’d performed ‘Pop Muzik’ since the 80s and its one of our all-time favourite pop songs, it’s almost the perfect pop song to be honest; we were very honoured to have Robin doing it. In the latest BEF show, Glenn is singing it.
So how did BEF end up being part of this upcoming tour?
Our agent Jack Gray, who is also our manager, asked if we’d like to do a BEF element to this year’s tour and I said I’d rather just do a HEAVEN 17 tour. He said the promoter was very keen to do it, but I wondered how we could make it work. Jack asked some people, did the sums and this is where we’re at.
Will there any BEF guests that will be specific to each night on the tour?
The nature of the tour is a specific production and won’t really mix with a support act, the BEF element will be provided by Glen Matlock, Peter Hooton and Mari Wilson. But there’s a little bit of flexibility, so we can potentially have an additional guest singer at some of the venues.
‘Pray’ has been an extremely well-received new HEAVEN 17 track. Can you tell me about its genesis?
We started off with doing something that was reminiscent of early HUMAN LEAGUE and wanted the beginning to sound like it could conceivably come off ‘Reproduction’ or ‘Travelogue’ instrumentally. Meanwhile, the lyrical content emerged from what was on our minds… like with ‘Five Minutes To Midnight’ on ‘How Men Are’, we were obsessed with cruise missiles and us all getting blown to smithereens.
So with ‘Pray’, conceptually it was about politics in the broadest sense of the word, but specifically feeling lost and hoping that something better is going to come along.
The second half of ‘Pray’ reminds me of ‘Young Americans’ era Bowie, particularly ‘Fascination’…
Yes, that was deliberate…
Recent events must have brought to mind when DAVID BOWIE came to see THE HUMAN LEAGUE play at The Nashville and chatted to you afterwards?
Yes, he’s been like a spirit that’s guided me.
In the wake of his demise, I put together an idea for a Bowie exhibition which I’ve since presented to The V&A and The Barbican.
It seems to have stalled a bit, but the idea is to have an exhibition based around the meaning of Bowie’s lyrics and his work in general called ‘Bowie Decoded’. The one failing as far as I could tell about the V&A show ‘David Bowie Is…’ was it was a bit shallow in some respects. It didn’t go into what I regard to be the conceptual depth of Bowie at all, it was all about the artefacts.
So I thought somebody, somewhere should do one about what Bowie means to people and how deep that connection is. Everyone has their own personal journey because Bowie left so much room for interpretation. His ideas, philosophy and artistic intention were so strong that he has been a constant presence in my life and I thought that could be articulated. So I put together a team of people who do interaction and physical exhibition work.
One of the key ideas was to create an online presence both on an app and the web where we could create a database of crowdsourced meaning for his lyrics, so making people empowered to contribute their interpretation of his songs. I don’t think it’s been done before. It would be combined together with a traditional exhibition that would tour, but there would be mechanisms for people to leave their thoughts. These things take time… The Barbican for example plans 2-3 years in advance anyway, but I’m hoping to restart this again.
‘Life On Mars’ occasionally is part of a HEAVEN 17 encore. You’re no stranger to Bowie related covers. Any more you’d like to attempt, either as HEAVEN 17 or BEF?
That’s a good question. At the recent BEF performances at Rewind, we’ve done ‘Ashes To Ashes’ with Peter Coyle from THE LOTUS EATERS singing. I’m so proud of it, it’s the best cover version we’ve ever arranged.
I honestly think if Bowie had been in the audience, he’d have loved it. We love it so much, I think we’ll do it as part of the BEF show on this tour.
With Glenn busy with HOLY HOLY and you working on the 3D commissions etc, it must be a challenge to get any new HEAVEN 17 material recorded?
Yeah, to put it bluntly! We’re never in the same place at the same time. Ideas and creativity are not an issue. We’ve recorded the next single after this one that we’re going sell on the tour. This new single is a AA side 12 inch, one side is called ‘Captured’ and the other side is ‘Unseen’.
They’re coming from the same vein as ‘Pray’, similar kind of sound and vocal palette. It sounds like HEAVEN 17! We’re happy to put our names to them, and there’s a certain kind style emerging, which wasn’t planned. It’s high production values, but incorporating the System 100 sounds together with contemporary stuff. It’s a hybrid of stuff and back to intellectually rigorous lyrics.
Are you going down towards the traditional album route?
This album is just going to be a compilation of all these AA sided 12 inchers essentially, although it might have a bonus track or something.
We like the idea of keeping it to about the same length as a traditional album so it will be around 40 minutes, which means probably 10 tracks.
Both myself and Glenn have gone right off packing out a 70 minute CD for the sake of it. The quality is much more important than quantity. So we’ve got 6 tracks done, we’ve just got another 4 to write… easier said than done though. The ironic thing is though, when we do manage to write and record together, it’s quite quick because we know each other so well and trust each other’s judgement; we just get on with it.
The working title is ‘Not For Public Broadcast’, an ironic take on us not wanting to release it digitally. Actually, Glenn wants to go one step further and ban it from the radio as well, but I don’t think we’re gonna let him do that! *laughs*
Have you considered crowdfunding as an option for the new album?
We looked into this… There’s something about crowdfunding that makes both me and Glenn feel uneasy. The existing companies that do it, it’s not an immoral thing but there’s a fine line between giving fans special stuff, and milking them… if we could do the mechanism ourselves where fans support making the record in return for getting their name on the album, that simple thing could probably work for us.
But it’s this thing about “with this package, you’ll also get a piece of pubic hair and with another one, you get to sleep with the artist!”! I’m not having it… if money ties in a passion for a subject, I don’t really like it! But it’s horses for courses, people can do what they want.
I mean, we are selling VIP tickets on this tour, people get to meet us and have photos… we’d always done that for free in the past, but everybody was saying we were stupid. Because to make ends meet, we need to do this stuff, and that I’m afraid is what we have to do now to cover the cost and expense thing of a tour. That makes me feel a little bit uneasy but if people want to pay it, there’s nothing wrong with that. What I don’t like is getting people on a hook and milking it ‘til they’re dry, it’s not right!
The public generally aren’t aware of the financial traumas artists go through…
I got stung a little bit by the third BEF album… that was a big wake-up call! I put a year of my life on-and-off into doing that and then in the end, there was no money in it at all.
I don’t think I wasted my time because I’m proud of the album, but there’s no money in that stuff anymore. We just have to find another way of releasing stuff from a financial point of view.
As you know, Universal Music now own our back catalogue and I’m not a big fan of them, because of this five album compilation that’s come out. It has the first three albums but also ‘Pleasure One’ and ‘Teddy Bear, Duke & Psycho’ which have been out of print for a few years; so it has some commercial value, albeit limited. We had suggested about doing a proper boxed set including all the later albums as well for a definitive HEAVEN 17 career boxed set, but Universal turned it down saying they couldn’t make any money!
But, they then sent us an email notification, not asking what we thought, but telling us about this five album compilation and actually saying in the email “this is for your information only”, ie this is happening whether you like it or not! And it’s been put out at a price of £12 for FIVE albums! Basically, if something is released as a reduced price compilation or something, under the terms of our old contract, we get paid only 60% of the royalties that are due!
So not only are they charging too low a price for our legacy, we also don’t even get paid the right amount for it! I’m not happy at all! That’s why me or Glenn haven’t been mentioning or publicising this compilation through any of the official channels!
How do you think HEAVEN 17 / BEF are covered by the mainstream and independent media now?
I think people are generally very kind to us, but there’s two sides to this. We don’t have a record company so we don’t have any access to resources like press officers.
So everything we do has to come through me and Glenn. We don’t even have anybody working on our social media, me and Glenn don’t have time to service it properly but we do our best. We can’t afford to be spending money on getting lots of mainstream press. We have some very kind people who are willing to do radio promo for virtually nothing, but we feel guilty about not paying them.
So it’s difficult to get stuff in the mainstream press but what we do get is complimentary, as is our coverage online. So I’m very happy with it in general. What’s more important to us is credibility than spreading the word. It’s all about artistic freedom and control over how you’re presented to the public, we are willing to trade large scale commercial success for that.
The Electricity Club gives its warmest thanks to MARTYN WARE
HEAVEN 17 + BEF October 2016 tour includes: Liverpool O2 Academy (20th October), Birmingham Town Hall (21st October), Glasgow O2 ABC (23rd October), Gateshead Sage (24th October), Sheffield City Hall (25th October), Manchester O2 Ritz (26th October), Bury St Edmunds Apex (28th October), Basingstoke Anvil (29th October), London Shepherd’s Bush Empire (30th October)
Although electronic pop only forms a part of MARC ALMOND’s repertoire, he is forever associated with SOFT CELL’s recording of ‘Tainted Love’, possibly the first true crossover record from the Synth Britannia era.
A fan of T-REX and DAVID BOWIE, Southport-born Almond started attending Leeds Polytechnic in 1979 to study Fine Art. One fellow student there in the year above was Frank Tovey, soon to become FAD GADGET. Specialising in performance art, Almond met Dave Ball, a seasoned clubber who explored his artistic musings through the new medium of affordable synthesizers from Japan. Together, they formed SOFT CELL.
Their first product was the self-released ‘Mutant Moments’ EP in 1980. It came to the attention of DJ Stevo Pearce, who had been compiling futurist charts for the music papers Record Mirror and Sounds, which covered the new wave of home grown electronic music that had emerged after the success of GARY NUMAN.
Stevo gathered a number of these acts for the independently produced ‘Some Bizzare Album’ compilation in 1981. SOFT CELL appeared alongside young hopefuls such as DEPECHE MODE, BLANCMANGE, B-MOVIE and THE THE. With DEPECHE MODE opting for Mute and BLANCMANGE eventually heading for London, Stevo signed B-MOVIE, THE THE and SOFT CELL to his Some Bizzare label and began courting the major record companies for a licencing arrangement.
Phonogram had been particularly desperate to sign B-MOVIE in order to compete and SPANDAU BALLET and DURAN DURAN. Legend has it that Stevo sent his demands to their A&R chief Roger Ames on a cassette carried by a teddy bear dressed as Robin Hood; it stipulated that SOFT CELL had to be part of the deal!
Produced by Daniel Miller, SOFT CELL’s first recording for Phonogram was ‘Memorabilia’. While not a hit, it was critically acclaimed and become a cult club favourite. However, the encore of their live set was the one to capture the public’s imagination. A cover of ‘Tainted Love’, it reached No1 in the UK, Germany, Australia and Canada while also eventually entering the US Top 10.
Written by Ed Cobb, ‘Tainted Love’ was originally recorded by Gloria Jones and became a Wigan Casino favourite on the Northern Soul scene. As a fan of that scene, David Ball knew the song and took it into haunting electronic torch territory.
Segued with a Motown cover ‘Where Did Our Love Go?’ on the extended version, it was to become one of Sire Records’ biggest selling 12 inch singles in America. But it was to be a double edged sword as the coupling of two covers made SOFT CELL minimal money, despite the record selling millions.
The follow-up ‘Bedsitter’ proved SOFT CELL could have a hit single with their own material. Amusingly after the release of the ‘Some Bizarre Album’, a disgruntled rival musician had poked fun at Almond and told him: “You couldn’t make a decent dance record if you tried”. However, the disgruntled rival musician faded into obscurity and gig no-shows with his deluded combo, while ‘Bedsitter’ made it three decent dance records in a row for SOFT CELL following the club popularity of both ‘Memorabilia’ and ‘Tainted Love’. Thus began a run of hit singles that ensured Almond and Ball would be Top 40 chart fixtures for the next three years.
Almond though was looking at a life outside of SOFT CELL, having already been involved in THE IMMACULATE CONSUMPTIVE with Jim Foetus, Lydia Lunch and Nick Cave. So he formed MARC & THE MAMBAS, a loose collective that at various times included Matt Johnson, Anni Hogan, Martin McCarrick, Billy McGee, Audrey Riley, Anne Stephenson, Lee Jenkinson and Dave Ball’s wife Gini.
It set the tone for the artist that he would eventually become. Almond was certainly channelling his venom with aplomb, especially on delightful ditties like ‘Catch A Fallen Star’. However, it was an indication that Almond’s drug fuelled paranoia was getting to him… he later threatened a Record Mirror journalist Jim Reid while brandishing a whip, for the scribe’s slating of his Mambas opus and temporarily retired!
The pressure and criticism that came from the success of SOFT CELL was proving too much for Almond, as he went into a well-documented public meltdown. The duo turned into SUICIDE and strove to drive away what was left of their pop oriented audience. Those that remained would become The Gutter Hearts, Almond’s fan club who Boy George had generally described as “people who wear black and hate their parents”. The duo disbanded in Spring 1984 just as the third album ‘This Last Night in Sodom’ hit the shelves.
Almond’s first solo album ‘Vermin in Ermine’ released in late 1984 and embraced a classic European cabaret style with almost exclusively traditional instrumentation, often with dynamic orchestral arrangements.
There was a one-off collaboration with BRONSKI BEAT in 1985 but continuing in the orchestrated vein, Almond unexpectedly hit No1 again in 1989 with ‘Something’s Gotten Hold Of My Heart’, a spirited cover with the late Gene Pitney. But despite the recognition as an artist in his own right, the spectre of SOFT CELL continued to haunt Almond.
“Synthesizers and the bands or artists that used them weren’t taken seriously at first especially by so-called serious music critics. They were ridiculed…” he remembered in a recent interview with Advocate. But with the success of Acid House and the rave scene, electronic music was now being re-evaluated.
So in 1991, Almond re-voiced a number of SOFT CELL’s best loved numbers for the ‘Memorabilia – The Singles’ collection. He also began collaborating again with Dave Ball, who was now having success with his new musical partner Richard Norris in the dance oriented combo THE GRID. The results ended up on 1991’s ‘Tenement Symphony’, possibly the most mainstream recording of Almond’s career.
The follow-up ‘Fantastic Star’ should have been the record to consolidate Almond’s position as a pop artiste. But instead, it got lost in record company politics; while Almond remains dissatisfied with the overall album, it did lead to him working with guitarist Neal X of SIGUE SIGUE SPUTNIK fame, who today continues to be his right hand man.
Looking back, SOFT CELL were probably ahead of their time. Between 1981 and 1982, they were actually a much stronger proposition than the fledgling DEPECHE MODE. Ultimately, the duo set the blueprint as the proto-PET SHOP BOYS. And although far grittier both musically and lyrically, they also smoothed the path for acts like ERASURE. Almond once said that for an artist to be “truly subversive”, they had to have “access to the mainstream” and subvert he did. So when Almond and Ball came back in 2001 for a full SOFT CELL reunion, there was a welcome acknowledgement of their ground breaking legacy.
In 1993, Almond toured Russia at the invitation of the British Consul and began of his love affair with the nation’s folk songs which continues to this day. But in October 2004, Almond was seriously injured in a motorbike accident near St Paul’s Cathedral, London.
He began a slow recovery but remained determined to get back on stage and into the studio. 2007 saw Almond return with ‘Stardom Road’, a covers album including songs made famous by Dusty, Sinatra and Bowie. The concept had largely been prompted by him being unable to write new material since his accident.
But in 2010, Almond released ‘Varieté’ his first studio album of self-written material since 2001. It was a move towards more vintage theatrics and paved the way for his future projects like ‘Pop’pea’ and ‘Ten Plagues – A Song Cycle’. Immersing himself in a variety of work since then, Almond recently re-entered the pop sphere with ‘The Velvet Trail’. Meanwhile his current crowd-funded venture is an interpretation of Joris-Karl Huysman’s ‘À Rebours’, scored by Othon with lyrics by poet Jeremy Reed and set for release later this year.
So with such a vast and diverse career, what would a Beginner’s Guide to MARC ALMOND look like? Primarily focussing on his electronic, or at least, technologically assisted work and with a restriction of one song per album or project, here are The Electricity Club’s twenty choices…
SOFT CELL The Girl With The Patent Leather Face (1981)
With Almond credited with “vocals/ effects / energetics”, ‘The Girl With The Patent Leather Face’ was one of the stand-outs from the ‘Some Bizzare Album’ showcase. Creepy and unsettling, Almond told the JG Ballard inspired story of a ”two-faced baby” who “tampers with machinery so other beauties crash their cars”. Ball’s gloriously out of tune Korg synths were a fine example of how electronics were maintaining Punk’s ethics of do-it-yourself minimalism.
SOFT CELL’s fine debut album was recorded and mixed in the more liberal setting of New York. It captured the edginess of minimal synth arrangements while married to an actual tune. With a magnificent arrangement by Ball that allowed Almond to indulge in his Scott Walker aspirations, ‘Say Hello, Wave Goodbye’ is possibly SOFT CELL’s crowning achievement. Certainly, the line “We’re strangers meeting for the first time, OK?” has become one of the most memorable of the era…
Punctuated by John Gatchell’s flugelhorn, ‘Torch’ came in the middle of SOFT CELL’s imperial pop phase and the eight minute version was a piece de resistance. By now, Almond and Ball had got heavily into MDMA while partying on the New York club scene. They were introduced to the drug by the singing dealer Cindy Ecstasy, who soon featured on several SOFT CELL recordings! In an amusing spoken middle section, her nonchalant off-key vocal counterpointed Almond’s fabulously forlorn romanticism.
The MARC & THE MAMBAS project had begun with a limited edition mail order only 12 inch release featuring ‘Sleaze’ and ‘Fun City’. With a revolving door cast of collaborators away from a traditional band format, it was rare that all the members of the collective would perform on the same recording. ‘Untitled’ was a co-write with THE THE’s Matt Johnson that had distinct European overtones. With its Roland TR808 backbone and melodic chorus, ‘Untitled’ could have easily been mistaken for a SOFT CELL song.
Available on the MARC & THE MAMBAS album ‘Untitled’ via Phonogram Records
SOFT CELL Forever The Same (1983)
John Gatchell returned, this time with his trumpet on ‘Forever The Same’ from the appropriately titled difficult second album ‘The Art Of Falling Apart’. However, Phonogram’s proposal for it to be a single release was vetoed for the less immediate ‘Numbers’. Not becoming the hit the label was hoping for, in a bid to hype it up the charts, the 12 inch was twinned with a free copy of ‘Tainted Love’. Dismayed, this incident set off an already edgy Almond and Stevo to trash the record company’s offices in a destructive rage!
Co-written with SIOUXSIE & THE BANSHEES’ Steve Severin, the precise digital drum machine and eerie organ stabs of ‘Torment’ were offset by the gorgeous Bohemian string arrangements and the chromatic allure of Almond’s dramatic refrains. Co-produced by a young Flood, ‘Torment & Toreros’ had been an adventurous double album indulgence, but the tracklisting could have easily been streamlined into a more cohesive single long player.
If ‘The Art Of Falling Apart’ was SOFT CELL’s difficult second long player, ‘This Last Night In Sodom’ was an even more challenging proposition; the duo’s final hit in their first phase was this thundering percussive cover of ‘Down In The Subway’, an obscure Northern Soul song by Jack Hammer was, undoubtedly a metaphor for Almond’s mental breakdown.
Adopting a back-to-basics approach as a reaction to SOFT CELL, Almond produced many fine songs in his trilogy of albums with THE WILLING SINGERS comprising of musicians who had been involved in ‘Torment & Toreros’. Free of the mechanical limitations of SOFT CELL, he was more melodramatic than ever before. Produced by Mike Hedges who worked with ASSOCIATES and SIOUXSIE & THE BANSHEES, ‘Tenderness Is A Weakness’ was a remarkably passionate song, regardless of genre.
While Almond was continuing on his path of orchestrated European cabaret torch songs, an electronic element was starting to creep back in, particularly in the club remixes of ‘Tears Run Rings’ and ‘Bittersweet’. A pulsating electronic bassline formed the backbone of the emotive ‘These My Dreams Are Yours’, a song which owed its existence to ‘No Regrets’, made famous by Scott Walker in 1976. Featuring the vocals of Victoria Wilson-James, this string laden drama showed Almond was opening up to technology again.
Produced by Bob Kraushaar who had worked with PROPAGANDA, ACT and PET SHOP BOYS, the success of the ‘The Stars We Are’ meant its follow-up ‘Enchanted’ was allowed a bigger recording budget by EMI. The ethos behind pop production in this CD age was “bigger is better” and the epic album opener ‘Madame De La Luna’ was a fine example of the marvellous fusion between the Fairlight CMI programmed by co-producer Gary Maughan and the cinematic orchestrations of Billy McGee.
Available on the MARC ALMOND album ‘Enchanted’ via EMI Records
MARC ALMOND Meet Me In My Dream (1991)
While ‘Tenement Symphony’ is best remembered for the mighty Trevor Horn produced covers ‘Jacky’ and ‘The Days Of Pearly Spencer’, it also hosted a writing reunion with Dave Ball. The magnificent ‘My Hand Over My Heart’ was given an epic reworking by Mr Horn and closed the collection. But starting the album was the more minimal, but no less emotive ‘Meet Me In My Dream’. A classic SOFT CELL song in all but name, it was a reminder of the undeniable magic that Ball and Almond together possessed.
The original ‘Fantastic Star’ album sessions had seen Almond reunited with Mike Thorne who had produced SOFT CELL’s first two albums. But at Mercury Records behest, numerous other studio personnel were brought in. It also led to managerial strife which eventually ended his relationship with Stevo. Produced by Martyn Ware, who was fresh from steering ERASURE’s ‘I Say I Say I Say’ album, ‘Brilliant Creatures’ reflected the uptempo club friendly electronic pop of the times.
MARC ALMOND & SIOUXSIE SIOUX Threat Of Love (1999)
Under new manager Vicki Wickham who had looked after Dusty Springfield, Almond signed to Echo Records in 1998, but almost straight away, record company politics intervened. The eventual album ‘Open All Night’ was issued on Almond’s own Blue Star label and a more downbeat electronic based excursion than he had previously attempted. A feisty trip-hop electro fusion with the Queen of Goth, ‘Threat Of Love’ was orchestrated with an amorous, but sinister Middle Eastern tone.
SYSTEM F featuring MARC ALMOND Soul On Soul (2001)
Ferry Corsten had a huge international hit in 1999 with ‘Out Of The Blue’ under his SYSTEM F moniker. It highlighted the spiritual connection between synthpop and trance. So substantiating the link further, the Rotterdam based producer recruited Almond to guest on the blinding ‘Soul On Soul’. It was a spirited, club friendly workout, with Almond giving an exuberant performance over the frantic dance beats and swirling arpeggios.
Despite the parallel SOFT CELL reunion, Almond recorded another solo album ‘Stranger Things’. ‘Glorious’ was an appropriately titled electronic torch ballad that combined his unique vocal histrionics with a big sound production that had not been heard since his work with Trevor Horn for ‘Tenement Symphony’. Icelandic producer Jóhann Jóhannsson did a fine job with the song’s widescreen dynamics, adding some vintage ARP Odyssey textures along the way as well.
Available on the album ‘Stranger Things’ via Strike Force Entertainment / Cherry Red Records
SOFT CELL Desperate (2002)
Almond and Ball’s comeback album ‘Cruelty Without Beauty’ saw a return to the kitchen sink dramas that the pair were famous for. The launch single ‘Monoculture’ was an attack on modern society’s acceptance of the bland. And with ‘Desperate’, reality talent shows were where Almond chose to vent his spleen. Narrating the thoughts of a young hopeful seeking fame and fortune at whatever cost, with its Bond Theme styled brass inflections, ‘Desperate’ was a great example of the satirical social commentary.
T-TOTAL featuring MARC ALMOND Baby’s On Fire (2005)
A danced up cover of Brian Eno’s cult favourite from ‘Here Come The Warm Jets’, Almond always saw himself as a fan of the ROXY MUSIC synth dandy, rather than the more suave singer Bryan Ferry. He relished the opportunity to cover one of his favourite songs and saw the collaborative adventure as a good way to ease himself back into the recording process after his accident in 2004. This reworking still retains much of the mad swirling spirit of the original, while updating the song for a new audience.
Available on the T-TOTAL featuring MARC ALMOND single ‘Baby’s On Fire’ via Pure Mint
STARCLUSTER featuring MARC ALMOND Smoke & Mirrors (2008)
Following his ‘Stardom Road’ covers project, Almond continued with his one-off collaborations. Maintaining his varied portfolio and willingness to try different styles, ‘Smoke & Mirrors’ was a Hi-NRG octave shifting dance anthem in the vein of Giorgio Moroder. Produced under the auspices of Anglo-German duo Roland Faber and Kai Ludeling, there was even a sweeping VANGELIS rooted synth solo thrown in for good measure towards the conclusion.
With a buzzing cacophony of synths, ‘Worship Me Now’ was Almond’s most overtly electronic work in quite a while. Written by PULP’s Jarvis Cocker, it saw Almond having fun with interpreting the lyrics and sending himself up with the passion of his own classic torch songs. Apart from suggesting the female backing vocals, he had very little to do with the track other that sing, preferring to leave himself in the competent hands of producers Jason Buckle and Tris Penna.
Available on the MARC ALMOND album ‘The Dancing Marquis’ via Strike Force Entertainment / Cherry Red Records
MARC ALMOND Bad To Me (2015)
With the aftermath of his accident and acknowledged as a fine interpreter of other people’s songs, it was understandable that Almond was content with just being able to perform and record. But when producer Chris Braid heard Almond had say “the songwriting muse had all but left me”, he spun into action and sent Almond a number of songs that successfully re-inspired the tainted soul. ‘Bad To Me’ was a wonderfully glitzy, Schaffel stomper that announced Almond’s welcome return to the mainstream.
Available on the MARC ALMOND album ‘The Velvet Trail’ via Strike Force Entertainment / Cherry Red Records