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New book surveys the early electronic music explorers of the UK

Tape Leaders chronicles the pioneering work of unknown tape club enthusiasts and para-academics alongside established rock groups and composers

Brighton sound researcher, writer and inventor Ian Helliwell has published a new survey of early electronic music from the UK. Tape Leaders, a project that's been gestating for over five years based on numerous original interviews, is an encyclopedic look at the figures who revolutionised electronic sound in the UK, from canonical names such as The Beatles and Hawkwind through to lone explorers such as Roy Cooper and Donald Henshilwood who have been little documented in the past.

The history of electronic music in the UK, Helliwell explains, is in large part the history of tape. “Tape was used for a variety of applications, while being the essential medium that made electronic music composition possible from the start of the 1950s,” he says. “As tape recorders became cheaper and more accessible, this opened up the potential for experimentation to a great many people.”

Electronic music thrived in many countries in the postwar period, but the UK was in many ways particularly suited to tinkering in electronic sound. “Electronic music in Britain, despite being largely unsung and forgotten, was relatively widespread during the 1950s and 60s,” Helliwell says. “With a strong engineering tradition and a sizeable amount of military surplus equipment left over from the War, British experimenters kitted out their own basic studios and would often build or adapt devices for electronic music making.”

Tape Leaders is set out in A–Z form, with entries spanning early Soft Machine and Gong member Daevid Allen through to Peter Zinovieff, with Helliwell grading each player on their Commitment Factor and Obscurity Quotient (from 0–10) and an overview of their work and career. Helliwell has written extensively about unknown pioneers in UK electronic music in recent years, including pieces for The Wire on Early DIY Synthesists and Stuart Wynn Jones. As he explains, many of the book’s entries cover sound makers who were operating well outside of traditional music industries and scenes. “Many worked in isolation perhaps unaware of those operating in similar circumstances, while some, such as Tristram Cary and Daphne Oram, were points of contact and proselytisers for electronic music. Others such as FC Judd gave lectures up and down the British Isles, galvanising amateur tape club members, and wrote dozens of articles for a range of hobbyist magazines catering for tape and electronics. Publications including Amateur Tape Recording and Practical Electronics would regularly include projects or features on electronic music, though rarely mentioned the work of British composers.

“Like painting or writing poetry,” he reflects, “composing music is generally a solo activity, and the majority of studios in Britain were established in private homes or work spaces, geared towards the requirements of the individual user. The electronic music maker would most often be the composer, recording engineer and sometimes instrument builder, in a period before mass produced synthesizers were invented.”

David Piper, who helped found a tape studio at the University of Manchester in the late 1960s, and who later became Deirdre Piper, also contributes a short account of memories of the era to the book. Alongside the solo composers, there are accounts of obscure UK groups working with electronic sound such as Light/Sound Workshop and Intermodulation.

The volume comes with a 15 track CD of largely unreleased music from practitioners including Tristam Cary, FC Judd, Peter Zinovieff, Ralph Broome, Ernest Berk and many more. The book is also illustrated with numerous photos, posters, pamphlets, scans and diagrams. Tape Leaders: A Compendium Of Early British Electronic Music Composers is published by Sound And Sound on 1 June. More information about the book can be found at Ian Helliwell’s website.