Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Gallifreyan Staser Gun (3 Blasts)

If anyone ever did actually watch Doctor Who from behind the 'sofa', then it's a fair bet that the second track of Music From BBC Children's Programmes would have similarly sent them diving for upholstered cover. For as the upbeat tones of the Play Away cast getting down home and funky about opening umbrellas indoors fades out, in comes the all-too-familiar electronic sting that had followed countless instances of Tom Baker doing his 'alarmed' face while a booming voice announced that there was nothing he could do to stop their plans now.

Yes, the second track began with the original version of the Doctor Who theme music. Although not quite the original; over the course of the programme's ten year history, The BBC Radiophonic Workshop's original arrangement had been regularly electronically rejigged as an when successive production teams opted to wield the trusty 'new broom'. It had been bolstered by new-fangled electronic 'spangles' (as the fans insist on calling them, which is especially confusing when you're in the middle of an already all-over-the-place narrative that has already made several mentions of the over-mythologised boiled sweets of the same name) and indeed the aforementioned cliffhanger-enhancing sting, it had been remixed into stereo (and, surprisingly for its vintage, real proper bona fide stereo too), and the full-length Tardis take-off effect had been pasted in halfway through. And even that's just the obvious rememberable-off-the-top-of-your-head stuff. Suffice it to say that although the same basic original recording was still there somewhere underneath it all, in many ways it was actually a different version to the simpler, sparser one that had heralded the show's black and white era. Oh yes, Patrick Troughton had to go "oh my gobby gobstoppers!" while a hissing voice announced that there was nothing he could do to stop their plans now without the aid of a fancy electronic sting, you know.

Handily, that subtle but crucial difference marked it out as hailing from the era that you're doubtless tired of hearing about Music From BBC Children's Programmes hopefully invoking (though that will become more relevant later on, honest). By the early eighties, one of said 'new brooms' had ditched the original theme altogether in favour of a new recording; something that happened twice more before the 'classic' series ended and indeed before I managed to get hold of Music From BBC Children's Programmes, with yet another reworking not too far in the distance (though where was that sixty-piece orchestra?). As a result, this slightly older arrangement positively reeked of slit-scan title sequences, seemingly endless multicoloured scarves, dodgy CSO sequences, Target Books, The Giant Robot, and hazy ancestral memories of Jon Pertwee and The Brigadier. This was, doubtless to the relief of anyone who had sat through The Trial Of A Time Lord, the sound of Doctor Who How It Used To Be.

And yet, for all that certain 'fans' might have liked to grumble about how it was better in their day when it was all photographic blow-ups of fields around here and you could get to the Blackpool Exhibition and back and still have change from half a shilling, there was a sense in which Doctor Who How It Used To Be had never really gone away. Yes, alright, so there were about three old stories out on video and you needed to take out a second mortgage to buy any of them, but outside of that there was a whole industry founded on exploiting Doctor Who's archival adventures, from books and magazines to scale model Ice Warriors and the iconically ridiculous Build The Tardis ("Your own time machine... without scissors or glue!"), and if you threw a Dapol Tetrap hard enough chances are it would hit an album that had this theme arrangement somewhere on it. Though not the original original, which got a single release back in 1964 but had since all but vanished... but that's another story.

And that's why, as fantastic a piece of music as it might be, and Music From BBC Children's Programmes wouldn't live up to its title without it, the original-but-not-the-original version of the Doctor Who theme is something of an interruption to proceedings. There's plenty that it does evoke, yes, but rather fittingly that's all for another time and another place. Of course, this isn't quite the whole story as it segues into its more nostalgia-nirvana satisfying companion piece The World Of Doctor Who, though that and indeed its place in the quest for the pop-cultural Key To Time of Music From BBC Children's Programmes has already been covered a couple of chapters back. Instead, it's time to move on to another long-running show that has enjoyed something of a close relationship with Doctor Who...

Friday, 4 March 2011

Captain Kipper's Clipper (Hypnotone Brain Machine Mix)

Play Away, the first track on Music From BBC Children's Programmes, was sadly not subtitled A Dub Symphony In Two Parts. Instead, the tracklisting revealed, it was built up in true 12" version of Tainted Love style from two shorter tracks known as 'Theme' and Superstition. The first of these, it was not unreasonable to presume, must surely have been the Play Away theme song itself; a song by then so well-known, and indeed so utterly chronologically distanced from its original intended purpose, that it had transcended its small-scale small-screen origins to become almost an alternative National Anthem of sorts. Or at least it would be in a world where Andy Pandy's Coming To Play (Tra La La La La La) had supplanted Land Of Hope And Glory.

For the benefit of those who only know the song from the strangely uniform repertoire of parents trying to sing their offspring into submission, the Play Away theme song was invariably heard at the close of the show with Jonathan Cohen pounding out a few nifty jazz piano chord rolls, and the cast struggling with oversized comedy props bearing their names. Usually Brian Cant took the vocal lead - only fitting as he was the main driving force behind the show - which is why it came as something of a surprise to discover that this earliest known reading was sung, and indeed originally written, by Lionel Morton. And that's not all - in place of the more familiar arrangement there was a looser, more improvised setting based around stand-up bass, percussion, and what appeared to be somebody twanging a ruler on the underside of a desk.

The version presented here, I would later discover, was actually rather bluntly hacked down from a much longer recording on the Bang On A Drum album, omitting numerous jazzy melodic touches and an entire middle eight; in its truncated form, however, it did have the advantage of sounding uncannily like the sort of song Oasis would start droning out a year or so later (from the point of view of this narrative rather than from when Play Away started... come on, keep up!), only with slightly more verbose lyrics and slightly more imaginative instrumentation. More significantly, it was 'retro' in a sense that the aggressively backward-looking Gallagher brothers could never hope to replicate or even appreciate... but we're getting a bit ahead of ourselves there. There's a whole second half of the track to get through first.

So, with the Play Away theme over, the stand-up bass deftly folded back on itself like the way The Stone Roses used to segue between Where Angels Play and Shoot You Down in their live shows, and led straight into Superstition, sung as a duet between Lionel and Toni Arthur, though written by Cohen cohort Peter Gosling and strangely absent presenter Carole Ward. You're probably already way ahead here and formulating your own joke about it not being a cover of Stevie Wonder's identically-titled homage to the Sportsnight theme music, but believe it or not that wouldn't actually be quite as much a joke as you might think. For this musical namesake is similarly swathed in wah wah-heavy jazz-funk inflections, and similarly lyrically concerned with debunking folklore nonsense that "may or may not happen", though Mr. Wonder's failure to include Brian Cant and Chloe Ashcroft doing some inter-verse spoken word ridiculing of never-walk-under-ladders hokum is his loss, frankly.

Due in no small part to its lack of gaudy hallucinogenic puppets, Play Away isn't quite the first show that you'd think of when attempting to break through to a pop-cultural elevated dimensional plane of seventies pre-school television esoterica, and yet just one track in to Music From BBC Children's Programmes we'd reached somewhere that, while not yet quite drifting in a space free of time (nor indeed rollerskating around a lake) somewhere between Diamonds & Pearls and Screamadelica, had succeeded in evoking it both musically and visually (after all, what are those spoken comic exchanges if not a reflection of the show itself?) in unexpectedly funk-inflected fashion. Then an all-too-familiar electronic sting blasted the whole experience into space.