by John Cavanagh
Scanned images of the original: 1 2 3
The 'phone rang a few times, then "Hello" in a light tone. I said "Is that Delia?" and she replied immediately "Oh golly, you must be John". My first exchange with Delia Derbyshire is memorable for many reasons, not least because it introduced me to one of those unusual aspects of her lore: that she could tell before answering the 'phone if the call was something good or something bad. I spoke to her for nearly an hour until I had to read a news bulletin at the BBC. Once that was over, I called again, as there seemed to be so much to discuss with this remarkable person. Drew Mulholland of Mount Vernon Arts Lab had put us in touch and, as this happened during that acutely unpleasant period in the BBC's history when John Birt was Director General of the Corporation, Delia and I immediately spent much time comparing the climate when she left in the early '70s to the way it was in the mid '90s.
Soon I arranged to have Delia on one of my BBC radio music shows as a special guest. This was recorded "up the line", which means that she sat alone in one studio discussing work she hadn't heard for more than a quarter of a century whilst I was at the other end of this remote connection, hundreds of miles away. She was very, very nervous, but once the feature was edited, her natural ability in telling a story, her exquisite feel for language and, above all, her vivacious personality shone through.
Drew and I were Delia's 'phone friends. Later I would discover that most of her friendships in the latter years of her life were conducted this way: very few people ever saw the inside of her home, replete with unpacked teachests and boxes from previous moves. She once told me she couldn't be bothered with housework, so when living conditions became unbearable then that was a sign of time to move on! Even in the early '60s when she had a small flat above a flower shop in Maida Vale, near the home of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, she was already used to living with... chaos!
Delia's closest friend and collaborator at the Workshop was Brian Hodgson.
Both made key contributions to the sound of the Doctor Who tv series: Delia in realising Ron Grainer's theme tune; Brian in creating the sound of the Doctor's interstellar police box, the TARDIS. Delia summed up their working balance by saying that she "worked analytically, Brian worked intuitively and it's so nice we meet in the middle". The BBC Radiophonic Workshop has become an icon to those interested in creative recording and composition, but unlike the European studios where Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Henri practised their art, the raison d'être of the Workshop within the BBC was to provide sound effects and music for television and radio as a "below the line" expense - it emphatically did not exist to nurture composers. With these constraints in mind, the likes of Derbyshire and Hodgson found outlets for their talents beyond the walls of Maida Vale: the worlds of theatre, fashion shows and '60s pop stars were eager to welcome them... not to mention the lucrative realm of library music.
For Delia and Brian, a pivotal moment was working with Anthony Newley, a highly versatile songwriter and stage star who would influence the likes of Syd Barrett and David Bowie. Brian Hodgson recalls: "We did a thing with Tony Newley [Moogies Bloogies] and he introduced us to David Platz at Essex Music.
I remember the day we went to see David. We went on the top [deck] of the bus from Maida Vale, along Oxford Street, and I can remember this strange smell.
When I turned round, Delia, who was wearing a most beautifully tailored black trouser suit and a big black floppy hat, passed me a bag of olives while she munched a piece of brie, which was what I could smell, and said "have an olive, dear", which she then proceeded to offer David Platz as well".
There was an obstacle to be overcome, thanks to their staff positions with the BBC, and so were born the somewhat heroic names Li De La Russe and Nikki St. George. Brian recalls that "[David Platz] said "oh, do me a mood music album" and we said we can't use our names, 'cause we're at the BBC.
We went to the cocktail bar at the Cumberland Hotel, which is rather swish, deep midnight blue with tiny pinlights and a white alabaster bar, and we stocked ourselves up with some large vodkas and tonics and black Russian cigarettes and mulled over a few names and that's what came up.
They were jokey names. Somebody said is there a great significance? Li De La Russe is an anagram, and I said no, there isn't, they were just fun names thought up in a slightly pissed moment! People love to find motives and significance in things which are very often just frivolous".
Russe and St. George could work in great harmony, but by the time they came to record Electrosonic, a third element caused an awkward shift to this balance: Don Harper.
"Don was an Australian mood music composer", says Brian. "He'd done a Doctor Who or so. I'd done something for KPM some years earlier and there was an opportunity to do some work, so we did [Electrosonic]. I felt uncomfortable working with Don. At our first meeting he was pleasant enough, but I just felt he was using Delia and I to do something he couldn't do himself. He was pernickety. Delia had that capacity for dealing with his perfectionist thing. I think perfectionism is fine, but I'm more interested in broad brush strokes. Harper got up my nose a lot, so I really kept out of it as much as I could. Sometimes if Delia and I were working with Mark Wilkinson at the National Theatre, Delia couldn't stand Mark, but I got on with him fine, so I tended to do most of the work on that and Delia tended to do most of the work on Electrosonic. There were some of my things which I just said to Don "have this" and gave him tracks, but I would say my contribution to it was much less than either Delia or Don's".
Electrosonic was number 1104 in the KPM 1000 series of library music albums, issued in 1972, and fortunately the result bears Delia's hallmarks all over it. Brian Hodgson: "It was recorded all over the place: sometimes at Kaleidophon and sometimes we used to creep in the back of the Workshop at night and do it there! We virtually used it like a private studio at night. Kaleidophon was David Vorhaus and Delia and me. David Vorhaus picked us up at a lecture we did with [Peter] Zinovieff at Goldsmith's College and he and Delia took one look at each other and decided they were madly in love [they both played double bass, incidentally], so we set up Kaleidophon in Camden Town. David was a complete rogue - still is - and a charming one. We had a company car, a little battered mini, and he used to put beer bottle things as license discs. It probably ended up costing us three times what the license would've been if we'd paid it in fines!
[Delia and David] had this wonderful idea of doing the floor in papermaker's felt, with this special dye, because she wanted it blue, only to discover that papermaker's felt doesn't take ordinary dye: it has to be this really special dye that has to be heat-cured. They put all this stuff down and we were going over it with electric fires and there were scorch marks and it was just hysterical! One wall we actually papered with kitchen foil. The staircase was done in stripy brown wrapping paper. Delia's room had a parachute hanging from the ceiling. It was all mad and wonderful".
Of all the creative figures who passed through the Radiophonic Workshop, Delia is the one whose stature has become somewhat mythical. She used to say that no one would remember her music after she died. Drew and I used to assure her this would not be the case, but those who proselytised her work then were very few in number. Delia Derbyshire died in July 2001 and there was an immediate upsurge of interest in her work. Since then, there have been re-issues of her recordings, a BBC Radio Four play and a stage play, where two actresses, Abigail Davies and Luisa Prosser, played Delia with passion and uncanny accuracy. Large tracts of the script to the play were lifted from an interview I'd conducted for a friend's fanzine some years before (I only became aware of this fact on the opening night, but I digress...) and that, in itself, shows the exponential rise in public interest.
If you visualize this recollection from Brian Hodgson, I'm sure you'll understand why she's become so attractive to dramatists: "We dressed the part as well - real '60s kids - most bizarre clothes. The night we went to Paul McCartney's birthday party at the Swiss Centre, I was wearing my black barrathea three quarter length flared jump suit with a pink frilled shirt and a Cardin three quarter length jacket and Delia was wearing a magenta pink jump suit and her hair was all done up - she looked stunning". However Hodgson also adds: "probably the great fantasy is about 75% true. There's no doubting her talent, but a lot of the fantasies that have started to build around her... that is all a bit odd. Delia was just an amazing talent: exactly the right person at the right time".
I'm very proud to have known Delia Derbyshire, to have been told by her that we were "on the same wavelength" and to be able to make this album available on vinyl again. Special thanks are due to Drew Mulholland (without whom...), Gayle Brogan and her Boa fanzine, Brian Hodgson for his time and highly enjoyable conversation, Val Windsor (who put me in touch with Brian), Tony Currie for introducing me to the original KPM 1104, Rob Scillitoe at KPM for making this lp issue possible, Cécile Schott, Iker Spozio for his outstanding artwork and, of course, to the much loved and missed DD... wish you were here.
John Cavanagh, Autumn 2006.