The latest of Silva Screen’s series of reissues of BBC Radiophonic Workshop albums shows the collective in their 80s pomp, having long since abandoned tape loops and slide rules for then state of the art synthesisers. The Soundhouse, from 1983 showcases their love affair with the Fairlight CMI, the first digital sampling synthesiser, over 22 tracks spanning 1979-83. This revolutionary machine opened up doors to a new kind of impressionistic pop music in the hands of Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush. In the hands of the workshop it’s put to perhaps slightly more conventional melodic use, but the results are still pleasingly weird.
The Soundhouse features tracks by house composers Peter Howell, Jonathan Gibbs, Roger Limb, Elizabeth Parker, Paddy Kingsland, Malcolm Clarke, and veteran effects and ideas man Dick Mills.
The opening Radiophonic Rock is a group effort, with only Kingsland and Clarke sitting it out, whilst the other five go mad in Maida Vale. Everyone gets their own distinct part, and it's quite, quite bonkers. It’s fairly typical of the Workshop’s output of the time, its four minutes are pretty much a CV for the group, and sets the tone for the album pretty well. One minute it evokes Jean-Michel Jarre, the next minute we’re into a jaunty ditty like Gibbs’ Computers in the Real World or Limb’s Rallyman, which is part glacial New Wave Synthpop and part current-affairs programme theme. Dick Mills’ contributions like Seascape and Catch The Wind are all ambient atmosphere, swirling flanged drones that could almost be Brian Eno outtakes, and his anarchic Armagiddean War Games is the sound of a man surrounded by machines having a bit of a party. Liz Parker’s work is under-represented here, but her serene, spacey Planet Earth is a highlight.
Howell and Limb, meanwhile, experiment on a couple of tracks with putting the synths in the background and putting more traditional instruments to the fore, like in Howell’s Lascaux, and Limb’s haunting Ghost in the Water, which is one of the best tracks here.
There’s more of the typical 80s workshop sound courtesy of Kingsland and Howell, all languid pads and familiar plinks and plonks - but the real ‘stars’ of the collection are some very familiar tracks by Kingsland from The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, including the unmistakable strains of the synth-sailor’s hornpipe, The Whale.
The album ends on Malcolm Clarke’s The Milonga, the baroque ball music familiar from its use in Doctor Who, in the ‘pirate ball’ scene from Enlightenment - once heard, never forgotten, even if you’re not the kind of fan who can identify a Who cue from 50 yards.
The Soundhouse doesn’t have the mystique of the trail-blazing days of Delia Derbyshire's oscillators and found sounds, but it’s still crammed with quirky innovation and invention. The sounds that the second generation Workshop sculpted may have come from Synthesisers rather than being coaxed from household objects and coaxed into something unearthly, but they’re just as pioneering in their own way.