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• • • Being a journal by artist and designer John Coulthart, cataloguing interests, obsessions and passing enthusiasms.


 

White Noise: Electric Storms, Radiophonics and the Delian Mode

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Many sounds have never been heard—by humans: some sound waves you don’t hear—but they reach you. “Storm-stereo” techniques combine singers, instrumentalists and complex electronic sound. The emotional intensity is at a maximum. Sleeve note for An Electric Storm, Island Records, 1969.

An Electric Storm by White Noise is reissued in a remastered edition this week. It’s a work of musical genius and I’m going to tell you why.

Hanging around with metalheads and bikers in the late Seventies meant mostly sitting in smoke-filled bedrooms listening to music while getting stoned. Among the Zeppelin and Sabbath albums in friends’ vinyl collections you’d often find a small selection of records intended to be played when drug-saturation had reached critical mass. These were usually something by Pink Floyd or Virgin-era Tangerine Dream but there were occasionally diamonds hiding in the rough. I first heard The Faust Tapes under these circumstances, introduced facetiously as “the weirdest record ever made” and still a good contender for that description thirty-four years after it was created. One evening someone put on the White Noise album.

It should be noted that I was no stranger to electronic music at this time, I’d been a Kraftwerk fan since I heard the first strains of Autobahn in 1974 and regarded the work of Wendy Carlos, Tangerine Dream, Brian Eno and Isao Tomita as perfectly natural and encouraging musical developments. But An Electric Storm was altogether different. It was strange, very strange; it was weird and creepy and sexy and funny and utterly frightening; in places it could be many of these things all at once. Electronic music in the Seventies was for the most part made by long-hairs with banks of equipment, photographed on their album sleeves preening among stacks of keyboards, Moog modules and Roland systems. You pretty much knew what they were doing and, if you listened to enough records, you eventually began to spot which instruments they were using. There were no pictures on the White Noise sleeve apart from the aggressive lightning flashes on the front. There was no information about the creators beyond their names and that curious line about “the emotional intensity is at a maximum”. And the sounds these people were making was like nothing on earth.

I recall sitting up and struggling through THC-delirium thinking (aptly) “what the fuck?!” when the orgy sounds first appeared in My Game Of Loving, a multi-tracked multiplicity of orgasmic groans which make Jane Birkin’s expirations on Je t’aime… moi non plus seem like the limpest Gallic ennui. (I must have missed the middle eight of Love Without Sound which quite possibly depicts an unwelcome erotic encounter between a woman and some ratcheted robotic contraption.) These were weird songs; the melodies were weird, the ideas were weird and the sounds were very weird.

After the Jean-Jacques Perrey-inspired hilarity of Here Come The Fleas and some druggy (and weird) psychedelia, we were into side two and The Visitation, a lengthy song/audio drama concerning a dead biker who returns to see his weeping girlfriend for the last time. The middle section is an electronic road journey that predates Kraftwerk’s similar sequence in Autobahn by five years. The simple musical theme was sublimely creepy, the sound effects literally out of this world. To my drug-addled brain this mysterious group had actually managed to create in sound the experience of being dead. This was exhilarating and deeply unnerving. Artist Mati Klarwein once related how it felt hearing Bitches Brew for the first time after Miles Davis had made him snort a line of coke beforehand: “When I heard the tapes I couldn’t believe the music. At first I thought it was the cocaine. Then I realised it was just incredible.” I know how he felt; the emotional intensity was at a maximum.

The final track was the icing on the cake. Of all the musical attempts to depict some kind of Satanic netherworld this is easily the most chilling and convincing. I don’t care what gaggle of blood-drinking, face-painted diabolists you want to bring to the virgin sacrifice, Ozzy and co. included; all must prostrate themselves before a polite bunch of English technicians. Electric Storm In Hell sounds exactly like its title and achieves its ferocity without guitars although the group did rely on a thundering phased drum kit to hold together those sounds of screaming souls being struck by lightning in a godless void.

After this first exposure I quickly acquired a copy of the album myself and played it to death, eventually gaining a reputation for foisting the horrors of side two on people when they were tripping. (To be honest I only did that once…)

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Electronic music the hard way: the Unit Delta Plus studio, 1966.

So why was it so good, why does it still sound like nothing else in the history of music? Two words: Radiophonic Workshop. White Noise was a chance grouping of music and electronics student David Vorhaus together with Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson of the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop who’d been indulging in some extra-curricula activity under the name Unit Delta Plus, a short-lived experimental music project. The Radiophonic Workshop was a special department of musicians and engineers who provided jingles, theme tunes and sound effects for BBC radio and television. Delia’s most famous production was (and still is) her arrangement of Ron Grainer’s Doctor Who theme which she created using tape collage and very primitive oscillator equipment. Despite being reworked many times that original version still sounds unearthly. Not only was this the world’s first electronic TV theme but in 1963 it would have been the first electronic music most people heard at all.

The Radiophonic composers were tasked with creating music and sound effects the hard way, pre-syntheziser, using tape edits, varispeed and whatever rudimentary electronic devices they could lay their hands on. This was all they did, each day and every day, with the BBC footing the bill. So when a producer called asking for something unusual they had a formidable range of techniques that could be applied. Brian Hodgson’s TARDIS sound effects for Doctor Who are still in use today, and all that time spent producing theme tunes meant that Derbyshire and Hodgson were used to applying tape effects and audio collage in the context of popular music, rather than the more usual contemporary classical setting of electro-acoustic composition. David Vorhaus gave the pair the impetus to re-brand themselves and try something new, which is how An Electric Storm came about, with a proposal to Island Records for a vaguely psychedelic single, Love Without Sound. Chris Blackwell was enthused by the idea, gave them some money and told them to come back with an album.

Producing a novelty single was often as far as most electronic musicians got at this time especially given the huge amount of effort required to produce enough music to fill forty minutes. What’s extraordinary about the Electric Storm album is that all of it works, all the songs are great, strange songs. The only thing comparable is the equally wonderful album by Joseph Byrd‘s United States of America released the year before which featured similarly great songs with outré arrangements, mostly the product of ring modulators and other crude equipment. Yet that album sounds dated now, albeit in a good way. Many of the songs, despite their lyrical perversity, aren’t so far removed from Jefferson Airplane and the album as a whole owes much to the structural ambition of Sgt Pepper. A few of the White Noise songs sound of their time—Love Without Sound, Firebird (which would have been the single B-side) and Your Hidden Dreams especially so—but the otherworldliness of the arrangements lift them completely out of their era. So many of the tape sounds are completely unprecedented that it didn’t matter that synthesizers were coming along to replace all that laborious cutting and pasting and re-recording. Minimoogs were surprising and new in the early Seventies but now sound like…..Minimoogs; they’re as dated as wah-wah pedals. An Electric Storm still sounds like nothing else ever made. I place much of the originality and the sonic darkness at Delia’s door, she had a genius for the sinister that was evident as far back as the sucking reverse envelope that runs through the Doctor Who theme and the fluttering, purring noise that comes in at its very end. This unique quality has become more evident with the posthumous reissues of her library music and other TV and radio themes and it’s sad that she didn’t live to see the real influence and appreciation of her work that’s blossomed in recent years. In a field usually dominated by male nerds she was brilliant and dedicated and fiercely original.

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Delia Derbyshire.

David Vorhaus continued with White Noise after An Electric Storm but his second album lacks the magic and quality of the first; it lacks, I’d suggest, the Delian Mode, to borrow a title from one of Derbyshire’s solo compositions. More crucially it also lacks the song elements that make An Electric Storm such a success. Those original recordings had a curious afterlife, however, turning up in remixed form when Derbyshire and Hodgson worked on another children’s TV series, The Tomorrow People, with Dudley Simpson, and parts of Electric Storm in Hell are played during the invocation scene in Dracula AD 1972, the music there being far more chilling than anything in the rest of the film. Derbyshire and Hodgson also provided a suitable spooky and minimal score to The Legend of Hell House in 1973, a clone of The Haunting which makes me wish that Delia had produced the score for Robert Wise’s original film in place of Humphrey Searle’s orchestral bombast.

Two decades later groups such as Pram and The Orb were sampling from An Electric Storm (listen to Outland on The Orb’s Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld for a repetitive trill swiped from Love Without Sound) while Peter Kember of Spacemen 3 did much to bring Delia back to the attention of the music world before her untimely death in 2001. The work of the Radiophonic people has had a lasting influence on a new generation of British musicians, cited by Aphex Twin, Add N to (X), Broadcast, Pet Shop Boys (who had a track, Radiophonic, on their Nightlife album), Saint Etienne and many others. Most recent of these inspirations come from the Ghost Box collective who combine the jauntiness of Seventies’ library music and TV themes with a particular strain of English spookiness to brilliant effect.

This new CD reissue will be a welcome replacement for the poorly-produced edition from 1992 with its error-ridden insert notes. For more about the history of the Radiophonic Workshop, including an interview with Brian Hodgson and footage of Delia Derbyshire at work, the great BBC documentary, Alchemists of Sound, is on YouTube.

“Love Without Sound” 2:57 (Derbyshire/Vorhaus)
“My Game Of Loving” 3:38 (Duncan/Vorhaus)
“Here Come The Fleas” 2:31 (McDonald/Vorhaus)
“Firebird” 2:43 (Derbyshire/Vorhaus)
“Your Hidden Dreams” 4:25 (McDonald/Vorhaus)
“The Visitations” 11:45 (McDonald/Vorhaus)
“The Black Mass: An Electric Storm In Hell” 7:04 (White Noise)

Credits:
Effects—David Vorhaus
Electronics—Brian Hodgson, Delia Derbyshire
Percussion—Paul Lytton
Producer (Co-ordinator)—David Vorhaus
Vocals—Annie Bird, John Whitman, Val Shaw

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Séance at Hobs Lane
Metabolist: Goatmanauts, Drömm-heads and the Zuehl Axis
New Delia Derbyshire
A playlist for Halloween
Ghost Box
The Photophonic Experiment

 


 

Posted in {drugs}, {electronica}, {horror}, {music}, {psychedelia}.

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9 comments or trackbacks

  1. #1 posted by Wiley

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    Further proof that “crazy, subversive” shit from back in the day puts modern day performance art that simply tries to be crazy or subversive to shame.

  2. #2 posted by John

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    I bought the CD today–it’s incredible, sounds a lot better than the earlier edition and makes the album seem even more of a masterpiece. Utterly essential for anyone interested in electronic music.

  3. #3 posted by Wiley

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    There’s a new version out, I really ought to pay more attention.

  4. #4 posted by Martin Jones

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    Likewise, I’ve purchased the reissue on the strength of this article. Have had ‘Black Mass’ knocking around on a compilation for a while but, as usual, it takes some enthusiastic prompting to explore further. Thanks for that, John. Funny how the United States of America sound ‘exotic’ or ‘psychedelic’ (in the counter-culture definition of the word) and yet White Noise appear to be far more ‘black and white’ in the sense that Beardsley or Clarke were ‘black and white’ artists: simple tools used to create something sinister and unique.

    And I never knew they were responsible for the music in that scene from Dracula A.D.1972… “Dig the music, kids!”

  5. #5 posted by David Parsons

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    This was an album that my older brother picked up on…… it was a 5th form favorite at many a school…….. not one for the younger kids of the school…… but a cool talking point for the older lads

    Now bearing in mind that my older brother also used to rave about ‘Bachman Turner Overdrive’ ………….. The White Noise album just about made him less of a figure of fun for me…….. We turned on and that would have been about 1975 …… a good few years after the event of the album being released…… but close enough.

    I talked my younger brothers girlfriend, at the time, into selling me her re-issue 70′s copy and at that point I thought I want it on cd.

    The White Noise … An Electric Storm…………………… do you know I regularly used to phone up ‘Island Records’ in the 90′s and asked them , no pleaded with them to re-issue the album on cd.

    The guy I used to talk to was as nice as pie every time I phoned.

    Then in the mid to late 90′s the album was re-released and not before time…. it’s a classic …………. everyone who has ever shown any interest in music in any form or just the people with eclectic tastes(?) should search this album out……. you real have to own a copy.

    Delia and everyone involved……. you were right and we are still listening to plus raving about what you did then.

  6. #6 posted by Stuart Tatlock

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    I don’t believe your drug intake in the 70s was as prodigious as you intimate, judging by the high standard of your writing. Some of my friends and acquaintances from that era really did overdo it, and are now struggling with the consequences.
    Anyway, great piece. I was similarly awed by this LP at the same time as you. Do you know if Delia was romantically involved with David Vorhaus? I read a review of a play about her life (‘Standing Wave’) which hinted as much, and that many of her problems in later life stemmed from this.

  7. #7 posted by John

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    Thanks, Stuart. No, the drugs were a youthful dalliance, I’ve never been a big partaker of anything, even alcohol.

    I don’t really know anything about Delia beyond the official sources which make little or no mention of her private life. I did wonder a bit about this when researching this piece. I’m fairly sure that she and Hodgson weren’t an item given the formal way he’s discussed her in the past. Who knows?

    I’ve wondered also about the relationship between Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind who were creating electronic music during the same period. The pair worked together for many years then seemed to have undergone some sort of separation in the 1980s. But Wendy Carlos is notoriously guarded (and litigious) when it comes to her private life so we’re unlikely to know anything soon.

  8. #8 posted by sharon

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    hey! i think this is cool … no drugs required! not even a sniff of alcohell … um … thinking … do you mind if I share the image you have upon this page? electrical storm … white noise? i like the some dialogue scripted as well … me … i love writing … and giving voice to long before that wants to be near and hear … anyways … please respond with your thoughts! … respect … of course i will add link back to where upon i shared from :)

  9. #9 posted by John

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    Hi Sharon. You’re welcome to share the images here not least because they were borrowed from other sources. The great photo of Delia was from delia-derbyshire.org.

 




 

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