Review: Radiophonic Workshop in Concert and in Conversation

Radiophonic 3The University of Chichester, Department of Media – 11 April 2014

The electronic old guard offer insight into their influences, legacy and future plans before performing a full set of digital delights.

Those clever people at Chichester University are always creating or inventing things. Observe the new word for their now-to-be-annual electronic workshops/concerts – ‘Chitronics’ (see what they did there?) – and what a coup that their inaugural performers were members of the Radiophonic Workshop. Instead of this being just a gig, the day was structured around one-to-one interviews with former members of the BBC’s electronic ‘house band’ as well as lectures and discussions on their impact and import. Sounds a bit… ‘academic’? Well, yes and no. The casual follower might have temporarily left the conversation at ‘Roland VG99’ or ‘Moog Theremin’, but the insight and enthusiasm swept away any fears that this was going to be too ‘clever’ for the non-technical.

Popular radio and arts presenter Doctor Matthew Sweet set the tone with his introductory talk, recalling his experience at Longleat in 1983 where he recorded the Workshop’s talk on a secreted C90 cassette, and then how he had recently visited the Science Museum’s current ‘Oramics to Electronica exhibition (it’s free, and on until 31 July 2014). He picked on themes that were to resonate across every aspect of the day – nostalgia, joy, the desire to learn and innovate.

Described as ‘the super group who never were’ or ‘the electronic Buena Vista Social Club’, the current line-up includes Dick Mills, Pete Howell, Paddy Kingsland, Roger Limb, Mark Ayres and new recruit Kieron Pepper. You might have caught Howell and Ayres at the Doctor Who Prom last summer, the whole crew on The One Show in November last year, or planning to see them at this summer’s gigs, which include Glastonbury, Henley Festival and Camp Bestival.

The evening concert was performed in the University’s Showroom, as intimate a venue as you’d get, that also boasts the tech (and requisite number of plug sockets) to host such a power-hungry gig. Stood behind what in 1978 would easily have passed as the flight deck of The Liberator, Mark Ayres’ multiple keyboard rig flashed and resonated in the semi-darkness as an introductory short documentary film moved on to opening number ‘Til the Lights go out’. Any fears that this was going to be a fairly static performance were soon quashed by Howell strapping on his electric guitar, complemented by a dazzling light show, big screen visuals and canny use of the speakers’ surround sound capability.

Radiophonic 2For this reviewer, ‘The Astronauts’ was a welcome addition to the set list, being the B-Side of Howell’s 7-inch single release to the 1980 Doctor Who theme – an occasion where familiarity has not led to contempt but rather a wonderful inner glow. Workshop supremo Delia Derbyshire’s legacy was directly referenced in the wobbulatory ‘Ziwzih Ziwzih 00-00-00’ from ‘Out of the Unknown’, and the appearance of her metal lamp shade, which she used for her sonic creations. Paddy had some fun with the crowd, saying how valuable this ‘instrument’ was before ‘accidentally’ dropping it. Other Radiophonic Workshop classics to get an airing were ‘Vespucci’ from 1973’s ‘Fourth Dimension’, Peter Howell’s infectious ‘Greenwich Chorus’ from ‘The Body in Question’, and ‘Magenta Court’ (the B-side to ‘The Astronauts’ before that track itself became a B-Side. Do keep up!)

But it wasn’t all about the past, and two tracks from upcoming album ‘Electricity’ showed how the group can still produce music that has relevance to a modern audience. The titular track begins with Howell’s soft vocals before getting wired up to the mains and becoming something very different. ‘Wireless’ is also an earworm, slowly adding layers while Kieron Pepper’s drums provide a percussive backbone to the piece. Pepper plays drums for The Prodigy and brings to the Workshop a new dimension, both in the audio and the stage performance. No review would be complete without mentioning the Workshop’s cover of The Tornados’ Telstar – a beautiful rendition to showcase a simpler, purer sound.

Of course, no Radiophonic Workshop gig would be complete with a section on Paddy Kinglsand’s beloved ‘Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ incidental music and sound effects, and the ‘Doctor Who’ theme. For most of the audience, watching Dick Mills spinning the reels of his tape recorder is the closest we’ll get to experiencing how he assisted Delia Derbyshire in creating that legendary realisation of Ron Grainer’s theme, but then watching Peter Howell perform his equally ground-breaking version is surely a second highlight.

Understandably, the crowd loved it. This was never going to be a tough gig – there was too much love and affection in the room. But that in no way should suggest that the group took advantage of this positive predisposition of their audience – they delivered a varied and accomplished performance that straddled the past, present and yet-to-come. Kudos to Chichester University’s Dr Adam Locks and Thomas H Green for co-organising the event: I look forward to see what ‘Chitronic’ treat is lined up for next year.

Radiophonic 1For the latest gig news and album updates, follow the Workshop on Twitter @RadiophonicWork

Verdict: The original ‘Mad men with boxes’ deliver a knockout set in an intimate venue – previewing what this summer’s festival crowd can look forward to. 9/10

Nick Joy

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