BY Bob Stanley in Culture Digest | 01 OCT 08
Featured in
Issue 118

The John Baker Tapes: Volumes 1 and 2

John Baker (Trunk Records, 2008)

BY Bob Stanley in Culture Digest | 01 OCT 08

John Baker at work c.1965
It is 50 years since the master switch was turned on at the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop in Maida Vale, London. A single storey Victorian building that had once been an ice rink, it housed the studios that would produce the John Peel sessions, but Room 13 was something unique in Britain, loaded with electronic equipment initially designed to create background music and effects for BBC radio and television. A cheeky blonde who looked barely out of school uniform, John Baker was responsible for some of the Workshop’s most playful pieces; he created the music and sounds for dozens of plays, dramas, game shows, news bulletins, schools’ and children’s programmes. For those who grew up in 1970s and ‘80s Britain, the most immediately familiar music on the two discs issued on Trunk Records – pretty much all of which has never been released previously – is the six-note tag that followed John Craven’s regular quirky news story at the end of children’s current affairs programme Newsround. Before joining the BBC, Baker was a jazz pianist and his sense of rhythm was an asset in a set-up more used to creating pure sound effects or avant-garde, non-melodic material. His relationship with Delia Derbyshire, the composer people associate most closely with the Workshop thanks to her 1963 theme for British sci-fi series Dr Who, was cool; he considered her more a mathematician than a musician. Baker’s work was bubblegum by comparison to Derbyshire’s – you’d consider moving to Merthyr Tydfil just to wake up to the super-perky ‘Good Morning Wales’ – but he could use a darker sonic pallete when he needed to. ‘The Ice Cream Man’ is a mix of improv and Joe Meek’s ‘I Hear A New World’ (1959) squeezed into one minute 18 seconds; ‘Diary Of A Madman’ is squalling feedback; ‘Heavy Plant Crossing’ places sparse piano over pops and drones created by Baker pouring liquid, pulling corks and blowing over half-empty bottles. This all seems rather poignant when you consider his growing alcoholism, which started innocently enough with champagne every Sunday but eventually led to his forced retirement from the Workshop, after 11 years service, in 1974. There’s a gleeful sense of inventing the future with double-sided sticky tape and squeegee bottles in Baker’s work that you don’t find on a lot of his contemporaries’ output. Which is where these compilations do stir up a yearning for a sense of newness, of where pop might be heading. Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver, Ne Yo: none of today’s revivalists open up avenues of possibility the way these strange, short, four-decades-old snippets do.

Bob Stanley is a member of the group Saint Etienne. His book Do You Believe in Magic: The Story of Pop is due to be published by Faber & Faber next year.