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New history of the Radiophonic Workshop published

An Electric Storm: Daphne, Delia And The BBC Radiophonic Workshop covers the group from its inception in 1958 through its 1990s dissolution up to its modern reincarnation under the guidance of Matthew Herbert

A new history of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and its key associates has been published by Obverse Books. Written by veteran music promoter and writer Ned Netherwood, whose Was Ist Das? blog is an important node in the the Yorkshire underground scene, An Electric Storm: Daphne, Delia And The BBC Radiophonic Workshop covers the group from its inception in 1958 through its 1990s dissolution up to its modern reincarnation under the guidance of Matthew Herbert. Netherwood gained access to the archives of key workshop members Daphne Oram and Delia Derbyshire, and interviewed surviving members Brian Hodgson and Elizabeth Parker, as well as notable Workshop archivists such as Pete Kember aka Sonic Boom, and Clive Graham of Paradigm Discs, who issued the landmark Oramics compilation in 2007.

The first half of the book provides a “story of the people” behind the Workshop, while in the second half Netherwood attempts an in depth disography of both the workshop and its members. “The most fascinating for me are the extremes”, he enthuses. “On one hand, their collaborations with avant garde poet Lily Greenham are the most exhilaratingly strange work they carried out and then at the other end of the spectrum there’s Paddy Kingsland’s disco based project Swag. A binge through their discography has plenty of variety.”

Material in the various Workshop-related archives provides several major themes in the book. “The most striking thing in Delia’s archives were the plans she made for her music. Vast intricate sheets of numbers and equations that looked more like advanced chemical formulae than music plans. Music and maths really were indivisible for her,” he explains. Even after numerous recent reissue projects, “the amount of unreleased Radiophonic Workshop music in the archive is mind-boggling. There just does not seem to be much of a will at the BBC to do anything with it.”

Obverse Books is primarily known for its sci-fi publishing. But there’s more to the Radiophonic Workshop connection than just kitsch memories of their Doctor Who theme tune. “I’ve been surprised by just how many leading luminaries of the British experimental music scene are hardcore Doctor Who fans,” notes Netherwood. “ Since I announced I was doing the book, I’ve found myself in chats with artists who regularly grace the pages of The Wire. Although my publisher is better known for science fiction, the guy who runs it is really into bands like Nurse With Wound and Can. I was asked to do it because he liked what I do with Was Ist Das?.”

The book attempts to pack both a history and a complete discography into a volume that’s a relatively short 272 pages. But for Netherwood this is an important addition to the relatively scant literature on the group. “The 1983 BBC book was very accessible but is long out of print and, for obvious reasons, does not cover as much of a timescale as I have,” he argues. “Also nobody has gone into such detail about the music commercially released.” For the members he talked to, revisiting work that is in some cases five decades old still conjours strong feelings. “[They] seem proud of their achievements, although pleasantly surprised by the enduring legacy of their work,” he reports of Hodgson and Parker. “Also as both of them were there when changes at the BBC meant the end of the Workshop, they both still carry a lot of very strong feelings about how they were treated.”

Ned Netherwood’s An Electric Storm: Daphne, Delia And The BBC Radiophonic Workshop is published by Obverse Books