29 January 2009

G SPOTS

"The Spacey Folk Electro-Horror Sounds Of The Studio G Library" proclaims the handsome sleeve of Trunk Records' latest rummage through the dusty vaults of vintage library music, focusing this time on one of the most intriguing, highly collectible British labels of all - John Gale's Studio G. Prized for their striking colour sleeve designs as much as their distinctive brand of ready-made moods, cues and jingles, the relatively small output of Studio G remains an elusive quarry for collectors. Which makes this new 26 track collection, spanning the label's two decades of active service, very welcome and indeed necessary, but at the same time frustratingly brief as it skims merrily across the surface of Studio G's considerable catalogue of audio treasures.

Library music is everywhere and nowhere. Practically everyone is exposed to it every day, via TV, radio, film and advertising, yet most never even notice it's there, remaining unaware of it's subtle powers of mood-manipulation. It's not generally available to buy outside specialised distribution networks, but filters down to the public domain when it becomes out-of-date. Collectors prize the early vinyl-only editions, particularly from the '60s and '70s, for various reasons. For some it's the ultimate in elitist/esoteric music collecting, for others a source of unusual samples, and then there are those, like me, who believe it is the great hidden soundtrack to the late-20th Century, and that by discovering these records we can learn something about the world we grew-up in. Most popular music of the past is constantly regurgitated, becoming merely cheap nostalgia or worse stripped of all it's resonance. As K-Punk so wisely wrote in a great blog post entitled "The Past Is An Alien Planet", "hearing T-Rex now doesn't remind you of 73, it reminds you of nostalgia progs about 1973". By contrast, once library records have fulfilled their initial purpose, they quickly become abandoned, locked away in a dusty store cupboard for years, and when they eventually appear on the second-hand market, the essence of their era remains locked within them, waiting to be released into the cold vacuum of our world today. To hear a really great library record for the first time can be a strange experience: at once fresh to the ear yet also hauntingly familiar. Sometimes you'll hear something that you can specifically remember, like an advertising jingle on heavy rotation in the winter of 1978, which can trigger a shuddering flash of memory (what I call a 'direct hit'), yet generally the feeling will be less specific, more like a tint of faded colour or a strong flava that you hadn't tasted for many years. By contrast, some library records turn out to be useless, overpriced piles of shite, which is why well-crafted compilations like this make for excellent, cost-effective navigational aids.

If it's 'direct hits' you're after, then listen to Cliff Johns' "Goofy", or Harry Pitch's "Elephants Dance", both quirky little cues that featured regularly in cult kids' TV show "Vision On" (and whilst I'm on the subject, a heartfelt R.I.P. to the late, eternally great Tony Hart). But for more indescribable sensations, check the minimalist synth-folk melodies of Douglas Wood, the melancholic woodwind and vibraphone of Paul Lewis' "Waiting For Nina", or the smokey Bontempi organ flourishes of Ivor Raymond's "Wild Cat Walk", a perfect soundtrack to the Testcard of the inner mind.

For me, the highlights of "G-Spots" are the really early electronic treatments, from that deliciously weird period in the late '60s through to early '70s, when the fine arts of tape-manipulation and electro-acoustic processing were rubbing shoulders with the early, unstable monophonic synths like the VCS3 - that's the kind of stuff I particularly covet when shopping around for library records. Hearing James Harpham's "Visions Of 2000AD 4" and "Voodoo Tronics", combining solo flute with jarring Musique Concrete, lashings of tape delay and vaguely psychotic laughter, you can almost believe it was 'Life On Mars' back then. Then there's Frederick Judd's "Sprockets" (from the legendary and frightfully rare "Electronic Age" album) a pure electronic realisation of ghostly mechanical rhythm that is as great as it is tantalisingly brief. I can only assume (and pray) that the reason for such a meagre example of Mr. Judd's music is that Trunk are holding the rest back for a proper anthology of this forgotten pioneer's work.

I subscribe to the theory that the 'Golden Age' of electronic library/soundtrack music ended when the technology started to get too good. As the synths became more stable, polyphonic and full of rich, 'credible' sounds (as opposed to incredible sounds) so the music gradually lost it's unclassifiably alien qualities and became orchestral muzak on the cheap. For hard proof of that you only need to listen to the recent two-disc Radiophonic Workshop Retrospective, where the strict chronological sequencing clearly illustrates this phenomenon of decline. There's evidence of it on "G Spots" too. Eric Peter's "Deformed Theme" is a mournfully atonal, almost crippled sliver of monophonia from the bowels of the early '70s, but by the time he wrote "Planet Travel" the sound had taken on an assured, grandiose richness of texture which, whilst perfectly pleasant, lacks that eerie spark of the arcane that I always crave. Or to put it another way, a bit too much Peter Howell and not enough Brian Hodgson.

But that's just my personal fetishes getting in the way. Trunk Records have set out to tell us a story from another time, long past, forgotten to all except those 'in the know'. And they have done so with considerable skill. I only hope this is just the first chapter.

"G Spots" will be released on vinyl and CD formats very soon. Check the Trunk Records website for further info and updates.

2 comments:

  1. Jannik1:20 PM

    Do you know Claude Larson? The guy made SO MUCH! And he was actually able to make good use of the eighties digital equipment, there's such a great plastic charm to his sounds.
    http://www.discogs.com/artist/claude+larson

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  2. thanks for the comment. i've heard one or two bits by larson. naturally there were a few guys making interesting library records right thru to the 80s, like Dave Vorhaus. i just have a particular interest in the earlier period.

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