Unsung electronic composers: John Baker of the Radiophonic Workshop

John Baker was one of the first pioneers at the BBC radiophonic workshop, he was very different from the others in that he came from a strictly musical background rather than a technical one, but he could and did apply himself to get some very good results from the primitive technology available at the time. Born in Leigh on sea, Essex, and obvious prodigal musical talent emerged when in his early teens, he took the then conventional route to serious music, studying piano and composition and the Royal Academy of Music, became GRSM (graduate of Royal School of music) and that working as a Jazz pianist, as Desmond Briscoe put it “Very elegant pianist at both the light end and the serious end”¹ Johns love was Jazz, and he had various live gigs in Southend on Sea. Then in 1960 he joined the BBC at Bush House as a studio manager from there he moved to the Radiophonic Workshop in 1963.

Early Days

Johns initial approach was very different from the others: he shared his time at the workshop with the other legendary pioneer Delia Derbyshire, and musically the two were like chalk and cheese, and I can easily imagine how John would therefore be a huge asset to the department because he could easily cover the ground the others weren’t interested in doing- catchy tunes, jazzy grooves, cheery signature melodies. Significantly he mastered the primitive technology and the very painstaking task of editing tape into tiny sections and looping them, speeding up and slowing down to change the note. In days before samplers became affordable (the early 80s) this practice was still used, and I have done it myself, and its a messy business if you get it wrong! Accuracy of measurement at the key to being able to do anything useful and John grasped it and became very effective with it, being able to cut up the most minuscule slices of tape and then splice them into a loop²

Heres an example of a soundtrack he created for a tv series “Vendetta”

This opens with some great hard bass drones (most likely a string of some form plucked and pitched down) and immediately cuts into a tight swinging number, with various concrete sounds used to make the rhythm section, as well as chunks of live percussion. I’m tempted to think there’s a Jews Harp being used in there somewhere, almost certainly there is a plucked ruler, but also there’s also some great live Saxophone, which has clearly been recorded over the top of it. This is one area John was rather keen on, the mixing of live instruments and tape, commonplace nowadays, but in the 1960s this was very new territory outside of Paris or Cologne. Another notable piece for this approach is this was commissioned for the COI technology corp for a trade fair in Brussels.

 

This is a much longer piece at 10 mins, and a much more serious composition and freed from the short jingle format imposed by BBC, John is able to have developments of ideas, and more than one subject. This is a serious complex piece which demands much more attention. Here also is an example of tape music being used alongside live instruments. There is a clip used in the BBC documentary on the radiophonic workshop “Alchemists of Sound”  which features acrobats on stilts acting to this piece, but Ive no idea as to if this was actual footage at trade fair or something else, more intriguing still, I dont know if the piece was diffused as fixed media over speakers or performed with a live jazz band.  I assume this to be a commission outside of the BBC- as its far longer than anything normally within the range of the RW output.

Cut and Splice

John got his swing into tape rhythms by measuring the tape for a length of the note then cutting the note short to anticipate the beat or the same measure long by same amount to swing the emphasis the other way; this way he could get complex syncopations and you can imagine how time consuming this was to realise! This made him a very unique member as the others at this time were cutting strictly on the beat, if there was a beat at all. John explains his technique below in a short interview

 

Success

Sometime in the mid sixties John had hit a level of acceptance that saw him working for both BBC and the new ITV; Johnnie Johnson had spotted his jingle ability and realising the importance of advertising on the new independent channel, was keen to use his abilities. According to the excellent short biography written by his brother, which can be found here  (scroll down the page) he was now earning 3 times more from outside sources than he was at the BBC, how he made this music outside of the RW, I’ve no idea, I dont know if he had a private studio somewhere, or if he used facilities at ITV, but studio equipment like this was not commonplace then, so if he had a private studio, it would have meant a sizeable investment then. Intriguingly a VCS3 synthesizer came on ebay a few years ago which was apparently sold from his estate, so he may have had his own facilities somewhere.

Also in this period he did some of his most accomplished artistic work, this one in particular

“Structures” was accompaniment to a tv documentary on the architect Ove Arup– and this to my mind is the pinnacle of his compositions. There is a liner note from a compilation album which states the music was generated entirely with oscillators, something Im not entirely convinced about since several of the pad sounds are far too complex for the equipment of the time, and I suspect are treated recorded sounds, nonetheless this is a complex piece which swings from gorgeous, complex arpeggios to lush pads. This is also a landmark piece in that there is no jazz rhythms at all on this, nor catchy,slightly cheesy melodies. What is also interesting here is 45-50 years later this is quite hard to work out precisely how he put this together- there are the obvious delay and reverb effects, but the convoluted arpeggios, which are beautifully smooth sounding, are much more difficult to analyse- the echo has a lovely flattering effect, but there is no evidence of edits that immediately spring to the ear nor what the sound source actually was in the first place (if indeed it was purely electronic as claimed), and those arpeggios are different each time, so they had to be put together individually. This is a short piece of 3 mins which to my ears, promised much better things in terms of both composition and execution, and really should have paved the way into more serious music, as opposed to jingle material (by the way Im not implying jazz is not serious!!!)

Burnout.

The early seventies were not kind to John, he had developed a serious drink problem which had him cycle between alcoholism, depression, nursing home, and back again. According to his brothers short biography he changed from loving the job to openly weeping on a Sunday evening before starting a new week at the workshop. On top of this his Mother died suddenly in 1971, adding more upset to his already shattered nerves; he start working nights only at the workshop (it is suggested that this was to enable him to drink all night, but I suspect there were other reasons, notably not getting on with Desmond Briscoe), and finally the BBC sacked him in 1974, after which he produced no more music. Delia Derbyshire also left the workshop a couple of years earlier and she too, refused to write anything more until her final years when Peter Kember (Sonic Boom) got in contact with her.

I would suspect that underneath all this was the fact he had worked too hard for too long and had simply burned out; he output in 11 years must have been considerable, if he was not only working for the BBC but also engaging in private commissions too and this would be working very painstakingly slowly and patiently, which needs huge amounts of energy and concentration. I also suspect success outside of the radiophonic workshop would have annoyed certain people in BBC management at the time which would not have made life easy there.

Although his brother says in his short biography that the BBC radiophonic workshop was the sole employer for his skill, he could clearly have started out independently if he wanted to; after all he had worked successfully outside of the BBC before, and he still had his piano skills, but I would guess he had just simply done too much. Fortunately the success of the previous decade had made him financially stable enough not to have to work again so he could survive happily, but next years saw him struggle with alcoholism, culminating with cirrocis of the liver, after which, he claims he never drank again. In his final years he lived quietly in Freshwater, Isle of Wight, where he died of Liver Cancer in 1997.

 

 

¹ Desmond Briscoe interviewed in BBC Documentary “Alchemists of Sound”
² David Cain interviewed in BBC Documentary “Alchemists of Sound”

 

 

 

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About stuartrussellcomposer

Composer/ sound artist. Electronic musician. Modern classical composer
This entry was posted in Appreciation and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Unsung electronic composers: John Baker of the Radiophonic Workshop

  1. nantan1 says:

    Great article! I produced The John Baker Tapes Vol. 1 & 2 on Trunk Records, working closely with John’s brother and digitising his personal recordings in 2008. I am releasing a new John Baker album “The Vendetta Tapes” in 2015 on Buried Treasure Records.

  2. nantan1 says:

    New John Baker cd / lp out soon in 2015 – “The Vendetta Tapes” on Buried Treasure Records

  3. Pingback: Musical Thingarium 06.01.17 – The Musical Thingarium

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