Beyond Doctor Who: Delia Derbyshire's Pioneering Electronic Music

These days, Delia Derbyshire is rightly lionized for her realization of Ron Grainer's Doctor Who theme. But there was so much more to her career than that. Over an extraordinarily productive decade or so from the early '60s, she produced a huge volume of music at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. And that's not all.

During those years, she and her Workshop colleague Brian Hodgson formed Unit Delta Plus with Peter Zinovieff, the founder of EMS, to create and promote electronic music. A little later there was the Kaleidophon studio, built in Camden, north London by Derbyshire, Hodgson, and David Vorhaus. And there were multiple one-off projects, collaborations, and commissions. The 267 reel-to-reel tapes found in her attic after her death contained music for stage, screens big and small, radio, '60s happenings, and art installations. Here we have space to explore just a tiny fragment of Derbyshire's work beyond Doctor Who.

Delia Derbyshire - Pot Au Feu (1968)

Delia Derbyshire was born in Coventry, England in 1937. Academically and musically gifted, she won a scholarship to study maths at Cambridge, but after one year she switched to music. She graduated in 1959 and then spent a peripatetic year, mainly teaching and working in music publishing.

In November 1960, she joined the BBC as a trainee assistant studio manager, and in April '62, she was assigned to the Radiophonic Workshop, where our story begins. Brian Hodgson, who would become a close friend, joined the same year, followed by John Baker in 1963. These three were at the heart of a golden age of electronic music experimentation at the BBC.

From the late '40s, two distinct schools of thought about electronic music emerged in Europe—musique concrète, from Paris, and elektronische musik, from Cologne. Musique concrète used manipulated recordings of "real" sound as its raw material, whereas elektronische musik chose electronically generated and filtered sine waves. The pioneer British electronic composers tended to avoid what often became a pedantic, doctrinaire distinction. This was the world that Derbyshire entered, and she demonstrated an unusual facility for combining both approaches.

In 1963, she created her arrangement of the Doctor Who theme, assisted by Dick Mills. At the time, it was just one in a steady stream of internal commissions that came her way for BBC television and radio. They required her to perform frequent leaps of creative imagination, from cerebral cultural experiments to lightweight novelty fragments and all points between.

In 1964, she commenced work on four Inventions For Radio, created with the actor and dramatist Barry Bermange. These combined Derbyshire's electronic music with collages of interviews with members of the public discussing the dream state, the existence of God, the afterlife, and old age.

Delia Derbyshire / Barry Bermange - Inventions For Radio, "No. 1 - The Dreams"

That same year there was Know Your Car, a musique concrète arrangement of Billy Murray's 1914 hit "He'd Have To Get Under—Get Out And Get Under (To Fix Up His Automobile)." Speaking of this in The BBC Radiophonic Workshop: The First 25 Years (1983) by Desmond Briscoe and Roy Curtis-Bramwell, Derbyshire said: "I always immensely enjoyed doing funny programmes … I made it on simulated car horns and cut it together very carefully … [and] it was turned down because one particular car had been used for the series and the manufacturers didn't really want my efforts to be associated with their product."

That rejection of a composition is an example of a tendency that eventually drove Derbyshire away from the BBC. In August 1965, while working on the final Invention, she was also composing for the children's educational programmes Primary School Mathematics Programme 2 (TV) and A Game of Chess (a dance drama for schools radio).

The following year, the extra-curricular activity began in earnest. Derbyshire, Hodgson, and Zinovieff founded Unit Delta Plus. Neither a band nor an organization, but something in between, it operated out of Zinovieff's home studio in Putney, south London. The idea was both to create and promote electronic music.

Zinovieff's studio was lavishly equipped. Independently wealthy, he had built a semi-subterranean base in his garden, which ran down to the River Thames. It housed his Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) PDP-8 computer that cost about £4,000—more than the average house price at the time.

Unit Delta Plus embodied a culture clash, which explains why the project lasted little more than a year. Zinovieff was an innovative theorist, dismissive of tape techniques in electronic music and envisioning a world where computers told sound generators what to play. Derbyshire and Hodgson, meanwhile, came from a world of short-notice commissions, laborious tape splicing, and making it up as you went along. Zinovieff in particular would later dismiss the trio's musical output. Even so, they played a central role in two intriguing cultural moments.

On September 10, 1966, at the Watermill Theatre near Newbury in southern England, Unit Delta Plus hosted a concert of electronic music. It was the first ever in the UK, depending on how you define a concert. It featured seven pieces composed and realized by several combinations of the three members, along with light projections.

Delia Derbyshire - "Moogies Bloogies"

Derbyshire created or co-created four of these, including a 15-minute section of "Amor Dei," one of the Radio Inventions. Another was "Moogies Bloogies," which the programme notes called an "electronic pop song" for the singer and actor Anthony Newley. The notes went on to explain that the song contained traditional musical elements—melody, harmony, and rhythm—but that it was built up entirely of sine waves. The apparent reference to Moog in the title is probably coincidental. Newley pronounces the word as "mooj." Playful and odd, it was a one-off, a glimpse of an alternative future never explored. Derbyshire and Newley did not work together again.

Another event, the 1967 Million Volt Light–Sound Rave at London's Roundhouse in north-west London featured a more famous one-off. The Rave took place over two nights (January 28 and February 4) and included tape music by Unit Delta Plus and the sole playback of Carnival of Light, Paul McCartney's 14-minute sound collage.

The previous year, McCartney had visited Unit Delta Plus at the Putney studio. Decades later, he recalled this as a visit to the Radiophonic Workshop, saying he'd found Derbyshire's phone number and called her cold to arrange the visit. But a reference to going to a hut in the garden places him in Putney, which Derbyshire, Hodgson, and Zinovieff later confirmed.

Nothing much came of this meeting, apart from a tantalizing but unsubstantiated rumor that McCartney wanted Derbyshire to create an electronic version of "Yesterday." Symbolically, however, it's significant in two ways. McCartney, in meeting Unit Delta Plus, was following a trend in rock music—casting around for a new direction, including the exploration of electronic and tape music. And it was Derbyshire he settled on as the person to send him off on this journey, thus underlining her stature in British electronic music in the '60s.

The start of Derbyshire and Hodgson's next venture overlapped with the dying days of Unit Delta Plus. The American-born classical bass player David Vorhaus chanced upon a Unit Delta Plus lecture about electronic music. Within a week, he had teamed up with Hodgson and Derbyshire, and the three fashioned two tape compositions with added vocals, which caught the ear of Chris Blackwell at Island Records. He offered them a deal, and an album was pieced together through 1968 at their Kaleidophon studio.

The album was released the following year as An Electric Storm, credited to White Noise. With its squalls of electronic sound, mixed male and female harmony vocals, and a jazz drummer (Paul Lytton), all delivering a blend of progressive, folky, psychedelic rock, it sounded like nothing else in the UK.

White Noise - "Love Without Sound"

It did, though, sound a little like the United States of America's sole album, released in 1968. The resemblance was superficial. Whereas the US band used a one-off electronic instrument as its sound source, White Noise deployed tape editing (and a rumor that the band used a prototype EMS VCS3 synth is incorrect). As Vorhaus explained in an interview for 2019's Delia Derbyshire Day, it was Derbyshire who led on the tape work: "… the splicing and things, Delia has this down to a fine art. She'd chop stuff up really fast."

An Electric Storm was melodically rich and had a firm grasp of song craft, but it was just too strange to break through on first release. Over the years it has sold well, however, the fullest ever expression of tape-editing technique on a rock record.

Derbyshire continued working at the Radiophonic Workshop into the '70s. She left in 1973, frustrated by deadline pressures and the rejection of some of her output. Briefly, she teamed up with Hodgson, who left the Workshop that same year to set up the Electrophon studio. She collaborated with him on the score to the horror movie The Legend of Hell House, but left soon after. From then on, little was heard of her musically, though she occasionally composed for art films.

By the '90s, a generation of British musicians, writers, and Doctor Who fans—whose childhoods had been soundtracked by Derbyshire's music—began to seek her out. She was interviewed for radio and several fanzines. Pete Kember, a.k.a. Sonic Boom of Spacemen 3, coaxed her into a tentative re-engagement with music. Their Synchrondipity Machine (An Unfinished Dream) was recorded in 2000, using then current computer technology. It sounded oddly similar to the sort of tape and oscillator soundscapes Derbyshire had turned out every week for the BBC, 35 years earlier.

Delia Derbyshire died in 2001. Her archive now resides at the University of Manchester in England. The work of researching, cataloguing, and reissuing her extraordinary musical output continues.


About the author: Mark Brend is an author and a musician. His books The Sound Of Tomorrow (Bloomsbury 2012) and Strange Sounds (Backbeat 2005) explore early electronic music and musical instruments. He lives in Devon, England. More info at www.minutebook.co.uk.

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