23 November 2008


"The '60s "were an incredibly fertile period in American (electronic) music", but the music of the times was not documented because publishers wouldn't produce books about it and record companies wouldn't release recordings. The true music history of that era, Bob claimed, only exists in composer's file cabinets like mine, all over the United States."
Thom Holmes, speaking to composer Robert Ashley in the introduction to his book Electronic And Experimental Music (Routledge, 2nd edition, 2002)

I've long suspected the same might apply here in the UK, albeit on a much smaller scale. The established history of British '60s culture and musical innovation generally ignores anything that doesn't fit within the framework of Rock and other more accessible genres. Ask anyone about British electronic music of the period and maybe they'll mention the Dr.Who theme and other worthy examples of the Radiophonic Workshop's output, perhaps they'll discuss Joe Meek's extraordinary methods of recording space-age pop, or cite the later psychedelic improvisations of the Pink Floyd and their offspring. And some extremely boring people would probably talk about The Beatles.

I've taken issue with Paul McCartney's attempts to boost his cutting-edge credentials before, but here he is once again trying to make us all believe that he was the most avant-garde member of the Fab Four. Recorded evidence of this is non-existent. All the most sonically innovative Beatles tunes were John Lennon things like "Tomorrow Never Knows", "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Revolution 9", not to mention solo outings like "Two Virgins". Even George Harrison, who Macca reckons "disparaged sonic experimentation" managed to make a solo album of experimental electronics. But apparently we should all be getting down on our knees and worshipping Sir-bloody-Paul just because he managed to coax his colleagues to "just wander round all of the stuff and bang it, shout, play it" for 10 minutes. Big deal. AMM were doing that long before he was.

But of course the legion of fans are dying to hear this racket, and I suppose its only right and proper that they should have the opportunity to do so. But I personally would be much more curious to hear some more recordings by the true electronic pioneers at that legendary festival - Unit Delta Plus, and specifically the work of Peter Zinovieff, who at that time was developing one of the most advanced privately-owned electronic studios in the world: EMS in Putney.

Whilst other British luminaries of the era (Daphne Oram, Tristram Cary, John Baker...) have had significant portions of their work anthologised over the years, I'm unaware of any major Zinovieff retrospective. The only things I've found are a vinyl album of his electronic realisation for Harrison Birtwhistle's "Chronometer" (1971), and "Agnus Die" cropped-up on a Space Age Recordings compilation a while back. Oh, and a couple of very short excerpts on an EMS promotional flexidisc (which you can listen to here). Presumably the guy must've built-up quite a large body of work during the decade or so that he was active, but where's it all gone?

Did you know that Zinovieff once tried to donate his studio to The Nation? Apparently, The Nation didn't want it and it ended up literally rotting away in storage in the dungeon basement of the National Theatre. But I digress...

"Unit Delta Plus once shared a bill with Paul McCartney at a "Million Volt Light and Sound RAVE - Dancing to Mystic Rock Groups" held in early 1967 at one of London's most hip venues, the Roundhouse. At the time, McCartney was deeply involved with electronic music (Stockhausen is one of the figures on the cover of Sergeant Pepper) and was a regular visitor to Peter's studio. As the swinging sixties started to unfold around Peter, he displayed an almost studied indifference to the rock musicians who became interested in electronic music. The world of rock stars, drugs, and counterculture was not really Peter's world. He was bemused by the EMS secretaries swooning over the famous musicians who came to visit, but for Peter it was business as usual."
Trevor Pinch, from the book Analog Days (Harvard, 2002)

I love that image of the slightly remote, aristocratic mad genius, completely unimpressed by the attentions of all those rock star 'hangers-on', stubbornly refusing to 'get hip' or creatively interact with popular musicians. But by remaining aloof in the world of classical composition and research, Zinovieff ultimately doomed himself to obscurity. His legacy lives on in the classic synths he helped design - EMS VCS3, Synthi AKS, etc - but for now I guess his own work must languish in another damned filing cabinet somewhere, along with early work by Dave Vorhaus' Kaleidophon Studio and other mysterious figures like Fred Judd.

But back to Macca. If he really was so 'deeply involved' in electronic music back then, why did he never put his enthusiasm to good use? And if he did, where's the proof? A bunch of hairy Liverpudlians banging a few rocks and sticks together with a bit of echo added doesn't really cut the mustard as far as I'm concerned...


  1. Anonymous9:16 PM

    You are right to be suspicious. By all accounts (or at least Ian McDonald's), "Carnival of Light" is a pretty pathetic effort electronic music-wise and its use by Sir Spiggy in a disengenuously vague (but really fairly shameless) way to bolster his avant-garde credentials is typically self-serving and reveals that he has never gotten over the dilettantism that has dogged his career. However, to give him his due, he was experimenting with tape loops as early as '66; Lennon apparently urged Macca, inevitably without success, to release these bits and bobs under the title "Paul McCartney Goes To Far". And anyway, the loops in "Tomorrow Never Knows" are Paul's, so there's your "good use."

    Prince Asbo

  2. i had a feeling this one might elicit a response from you, Asbo. so you reckon there's a filing cabinet in a bank vault somewhere full of all Macca's '60s experimental 'bits and bobs'? i'd like to believe it, really i would.

    what do you think about his Fireman stuff?

  3. Anonymous5:19 PM

    Whether or not these loops still exist is the question. Given Paul's desire to prove his experimental side (out of a desire to balance regular lambasts for being the "cute" one, p'raps), you would have thought he'd release them in some form.

    Surprisingly, I do not own and have not heard the Fireman rekkids. I might get the new one when it's out. I did get the Liverpool Sound Collage collaboration with Super Furry Animals, however. It's shit and all.

    Years ago when a friend was working at a local (Columbus, Ohio) newspaper as music writer, he was sent some Fireman promo stuff (CD, press, etc.). I hinted broadly that, you know, I collect that sort of thing; alas, hint not taken and I have never persued that aspect of our Paul's cannon.

    Prince Asbo

  4. Completely forgot about that George Harrison LP... will have to dig out my copy - though I haven't seen it in years.

    RE: Macca What about 'Simply having a wonderful Christmas time?' its hardly experimental, but it is a very strange slice of pop synthtronica.

  5. Anonymous9:10 PM

    Well spotted droid; I've really come around to that song, it's catchy and subversive (I think he was on pot when he wrote/recorded it [which was surely at one and the same time]).

    I don't remember Electronic Sounds being any great shakes.

  6. Electronic Sounds wasn't very good, it's true. but, if we look at the Beatles' history purely on the basis of the recordings they released, it makes Harrison look somewhat more avant garde than Macca. Elegidly, half of that record was actually made by Bernie Krauss in the States and Harrison merely 'appropriated' it.

    Nice phat synth sound on Macca'a Xmas tune, its true. I have no problem with that record.

  7. yeah - I was watching some shit '50 best xmas songs on some shit music channel and it came on - it immediately occurred to me that the intro was highly sampleable (I could easily see a xmas grime version), the drums were very Bontempi and the whole arrangement was bizarrely minimal...


  8. Anonymous8:05 PM

    In the current Guardian Guide, Paul says it did have these tapes of his experryments, but, uh, he lost them. And if anyone has them, could they return them to him.

    Prince Asbo