16 March 2006


The Tomorrow People

Any UK readers around the same age as me (35-40?) might recall a kids' Sci-Fi series produced by Thames Television in the 70's called "The Tomorrow People". I was an avid fan. I watched the series every week and I even followed the comic strip version in Look-In magazine. I won't go into the whole concept behind the series, anyone vaguely interested can read all about it at the above links. But what concerns us here is the sonic aspect of the series - the incidental music and sound effects that littered each episode. As I tried to explain in my 'Hauntology' post back in January, the utterly alien(ating) electronic sounds beamed into our living rooms on a regular basis back then represent possibly the most insidious, psychologically devastating deployment of left-field electronica in the history of recorded sound. There was a time when I might've thought I dreamt all that up, but when the Sci-Fi Channel on cable television started repeating the Tomorrow People series in the mid-90s, I realised it was all true - the sounds really had been that extreme!

There's a unique pathos about vintage analogue electronics - a combination of the impure, solid-state architecture of the machines themselves, and perhaps the recording conditions, with endless tape-bounces and edits, producing a warped, muffled and intrinsically depressing sound. For television work, the 'music' was usually recorded in mono (most TV sets only had a single built-in speaker back then) adding further lo-fi dirt to the proceedings. Watching the Tomorrow People series again on Sci-Fi channel I was struck by a couple of things: As an adult ( now used to the slickness of modern TV) from a visual angle the series had dated terribly. The acting was awful, the dialogue deplorable, the special effects totally unconvincing, the plots utterly ridiculous (all part of the appeal in a funny sort of way) yet the incidental electronic audio totally blew me away. It was the only part that gave the series any kind of production values and the only part that really conjured a sense of drama and suspense. Interestingly, I watched some old episodes again in preparation for this post (sad case that I am, I have them on DVD now!) whilst my kids were in the room making a nuisance of themselves. But after a while I noticed they'd gone quiet. When I looked around, I saw that the nine-year old had become totally transfixed by the programme and remained so until the DVD ended. Even more interesting, the two-year old (too young to understand the daft storyline) would become transfixed only during the weird, atmospheric sections, when the electronic music was most prevalent. He's only lose interest when the music stopped. If there's any proof needed of this incredible music's ability to attract and seduce young minds, then there you have it.

But back to the mid-'90s. One of my first thoughts after watching those Sci-Fi channel repeats was "damn, someone should release all those sounds on CD". Funnily enough, someone else was thinking exactly the same thing. His name was/is Johnny Trunk. He runs a delightful little record label called Trunk Records, responsible for releasing music from other '70s kids' shows like The Clangers and Bod, among many other weird and wonderful things. He actually made some inquiries about releasing the Tomorrow People music back then, but came up against a brick wall. His only lead was Dudley Simpson (who wrote the awesome theme tune) but he was uncontactable on the other side of the world in Australia. The project was put on hold until a chance conversation last year, which gave Johnny a fresh angle...

When I heard about the imminent release of the Tomorrow People music on the grapevine, I immediately contacted Johnny and used all my 'famous blogger' leverage to convince him to send me an advance copy of the album, which duly appeared on my doorstep a couple of weeks later. I was initially a little disappointed to find that it wasn't a definitive collection of sounds from the series - there were quite a few nice bits that aren't included, such as the 'slow' version of the theme tune and the drum machine-propelled synth dirge that featured heavily in the earliest episodes. It would've been nice to collect up some of the distinctive fx, such as the 'jaunting' sound, as well. Opportunities missed, perhaps, but (despite opening and closing with Simpson's theme) the whole Tomorrow People thing is really just window-dressing for the true focus of this release: Standard Library album ESL 104.

What's that, you ask? It's another one of those Library Records - atmospheric/experimental electronic music recorded for general media use way back in 1969. ESL 104 was used extensively throughout the making of Tomorrow People, as a source of readymade sonic mood-manipulators, and this new CD/album from Trunk is basically a reissue of that record, even down to the original running order. But what is even more significant is that the creators of the music on ESL 104 were Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson. For anyone who doesn't know who they are, check my Dr.Who/Radiophonic Workshop post from October 2004. During the period that ESL 104 was recorded, Derbyshire and Hodgson were both still employees of the BBC, but these pieces were recorded at their independent studio Kaleidophon in Camden, with protege David Vorhaus, and presumably to avoid contractual wrangles the music on ESL 104 is credited to Li De La Russe (Derbyshire) and Nikki St. George (Hodgson). It was also during this period at Kaleidphon that they worked on the classic electro-psychedelic album "An Electric Storm" (as The White Noise) , released on Island Records.

With Derbyshire and Hodgson at the controls, its no wonder that the tracks contained on this disc are prime examples of the darker side of vintage electronic soundtrack music. Hodgson's work in particular always had a tinge of terror about it; melodies were either non-existent or very understated - his main focus being the creation of cavernous, unearthly textures and drones that still send a cold shudder down my spine. "Whirring Menace" is classic Hodgson, with translucent, dimly-lit arcs of unclassifiable soundmatter swirling around a central, ominous bass note. Or the perfectly-named "Wet Asteroid", where gloopy trickles of oscillator-slime undulate against a background of pure intergalactic vacuum (hey, I know there's no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it would sound like!).

Derbyshire was no slouch when it came to dark atmospherics either, although most of her solo contributions here focus on quirky, melodic musique-concrete compositions, like "Way Out", which features a clip-clop tapeloop riddim similar to that used on her famous Radiophonic piece "Pot au Feu". Then there's the all-too-brief arpeggiated droplets of utter beauty that is "Fresh Aire" or the stunning, delicate echo-notes of "Delia's Dream". Derbyshire's was an astonishing talent, one that has only really been acknowledged in the years since her tragic death in 2001. Vorhaus also makes a couple of worthy contributions. In particular, "Build Up To" is one minute and twenty seconds of almost unbearable mounting tension, as though an immense, terrifying, malevolent force is surging towards you. Quite simply, they don't make 'em like this anymore.

So forget about the Tommorrow People angle - you don't need to be a misty-eyed old bastard like me, pining for his lost childhood, to appreciate this music. This is an historically significant document of some of the most talented, resourceful (and quite possibly unhinged) musicians in the history of British electronic music. I'm pleased to note that there has been the minimum of remastering for this release - the music retains its grainy, mono, tape-hiss encrusted aura, so crucial to capturing the conditions of its original inception (doesn't anyone realise that when you remaster old recordings you steal their fucking souls??!!) and I'm absolutely thrilled with it.

Release date for this album is 21st March. I'm not sure how widely available it'll be, but anyone interested in obtaining a copy should keep an eye on Ye Olde Trunkshoppe (and check out the soundclips while you're there).

Trunk Records press release here.