Saturday, 29 April 2017

Keff's Japes

This must sound a peculiar form of faint praise but I’ve got into the music of KEFF McCULLOCH through accidentally buying a CD which I thought was by someone else entirely.

I had seen ‘The Music of Doctor Who’ going cheap on eBay and snapped it up, thinking it was a reissue under a different name of an album called ‘Doctor Who: Evolution’. Which it IS. But what that album ISN’T is a reissue of ‘Doctor Who: The Music’, which I thought it was, but a reissue for the American market of ‘Doctor Who: 25th Anniversary Album’.

(confused? So was I)

And this latter album, far from being a Radiophonics-jammed survey of all (then) 25 years of Doctor Who sound design, was composed in fact mainly of incidental music by... Keff McCulloch.

Now, as Mark Ayres very politely phrases it in the ‘The Music of Doctor Who’ magazine special, “McCulloch’s music has come in for some criticisms from fans of the show”.  Up until very recently I was one of those fans. Wedded to the visuals of his six late-80s Dr Who stories his music is almost painful at times; not because of any atonality or texture, nor because of any unorthodox instrumentation; but mainly because of its relentless ‘activity’ (there’s rarely a quiet pause for breath in any of his scores) and often its sheer inappropriateness.  As Miles & Wood observed of ‘Delta and the Bannermen’ it’s only the music that is actually saying ‘This is an out and out Comedy’ underneath scenes which are, at least ostensibly, aiming for Drama.

Having bought the album however I thought I might as well listen to the thing. Not even JNT’s liner notes could put me off. And, bizarrely as it may seem, I now love Keff’s music. (there, I said it)
You’d think it would make even less sense as music in its own right than it did as the soundtrack to a Dr Who story, but listening to it in this way his production style really comes into its own. One of the things that got Keff the gig was the fact he had his own studio, complete with his much-vaunted 24-track mixer. The temptation to actually USE all or most of these 24 available layers of sound seems to have been impossible for him to resist, which is why Keff’s music is so ‘busy’ -  and why they are so constantly full of extra little ‘bits’ of noise. This means that where most composers would be content with a melody of some sort, Keff starts with a melody (trust me, they’re in there somewhere) then layers it with... well, let’s tick off his particular obsessions shall we?... rigid drum-beats, the handclap machine, synth tom toms, orchestral stabs, spangly effects, notes from the Who theme tune itself (should Ron Grainer have got half his royalties?) and the type of synth noises which, nowadays, sound far cheaper and more obviously synthetic than they did in 1987.

All a bit of a mess whilst watching a Sylvester McCoy story. But on their own...

Take ‘Gavrok’s Search’. Ethereal and haunting synth notes are suddenly pitch-bended, leading into a martial drum-machine beat, with jolts of fake strings over the top and extra beep-beep noises for effect (on TV, an echo of the Bannermen’s tracking devices). Add a Latina vocal and you’d have something that could have warmed up the crowd at the Danceataria. Add drugs and you’d have a cut-price Hacienda act. Or how about the fantastic ‘Future Pleasure’ from his first story ‘Time and the Rani’? Keff has exaggeratedly said it was made solely through manipulations of his own voice, but nonetheless at least three separate layers of sound on this ultra-chirpy, quasi- chillout piece are recognisably built from vocal samples. Indeed, all Keff’s scores are now music-historically resonant, choc full of the early drum machines, samplers and sequencers now so beloved of electro enthusiasts. Other tracks feature samples of his snoring (!) and even synth-banjo. You gotta love it.


When he appeared on ‘Corners’ to demonstrate (to Sophie Aldred!) how he made his version of the Who theme he said of his beloved Prophet 5 synthesiser “I can make it sound like anything.” This was over-optimistic and manifestly untrue. But Keff’s music doesn’t sound like anything (else), only itself. It’s probably too upbeat and cheerfully populist to ever be reclaimed as visionary by the same people who wet themselves over anything Malcolm Clarke ever made, but I think that’s what it is... the evident product of a person who had his own musical vision of what Dr Who music should be like, regardless of how wonky or unfashionable it may sound to some, and who made it weirdly listenable to boot. Keff, I salute you.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

The Chase is on!

I frequently have cause to complain about people deciding to do absolutely nothing other than sit in of an afternoon and watch apparently endless repeat episodes of The Chase, the ITV quiz show. This afternoon, I decided to do absolutely nothing other than sit in and watch my DVD of The Chase, the William Hartnell/Dalek story.

Can I claim moral superiority? Well yes but only just.

The interesting thing about The Chase as a television programme is that it’s hard at times to make out which parts are intentionally weird and which parts are just weird by accident (or, if you want to single out the infamously ‘it’ll do’ director Richard Martin, sheer laziness). The story is littered with obvious examples known and cherished by fandom but I want to focus on this story’s odd approach to the sound.

I’ve been researching and listening to old Radiophonic Workshop output recently, but hadn’t expected much in the way of this in The Chase. Remembering that it had an early Dudley Simpson score I was perfectly ready to sit back and watch the story on its own visual and scripted merits. But I’d forgotten several weird aspects of the story’s soundtrack which now stood out as curiously, and at times abrasively, as anything from The Sea Devils.

Let’s take the conventional music score first. It comprises of a couple of cheerful  rinkety-tink ditties played on piano. These mainly accompany shots of (a cardboard cut-out of) the Tardis being hotly (well slowly) pursued through the time vortex by the Dalek Ship (buggered if I’m going to call it the Dardis). For these linking shots a sense of urgency if not terror would be expected, so why on earth this jolly little piano tune? Dudley’s piano also dee-diddly-dees along with some ostensible ‘action’ scenes such as the Haunted House fight between the Daleks and the Universal Monsters, totally undercutting any suspense or danger that hasn’t already been ruined by the ham-fisted editing, or more accurately by the awkward positioning of the cameras. In fact the disjunction between the music and the visuals almost come across as if the director has raided the stock music library and grabbed a few tracks at random. If that had been the case (say for budget reasons) you could almost (almost!) forgive Richard Martin, but this was a specially composed score.

Also rubbing up against these sounds are some captivating, and completely electronic, sounds and noises provided by the Radiophonic Workshop. The Daleks’ time machine has its own materialisation sound-effect, a sort of reversed hypnotic pulse, and its interior has some extra sound effects on top of the familiar Control Room ‘throb’. Due to the repetition involved in this story, with the Daleks constantly appearing and disappearing one step behind the Tardis, these sound effects soon take on a pleasing familiarity, and more to the point they don’t intrude on the visuals the way the ‘proper’ music is.

Sound is also treated oddly in this story in terms of dialogue and the spoken word. On the ‘intentionally weird’ side of things we have the Mechanoids, whose utterly baffling computerised speech can only be fully comprehended with the benefit of the DVD subtitles but which at least sounds pleasingly strange and ‘alien’. On the ‘laziness’ side of things we have some dire dubbing-on of pre-recorded dialogue whenever the naff ‘duplicate Doctor’ (“completely indistinguishable from the original” my arse!) appears. This is further compounded by the director’s inability to decide when to show Edmund Warwick or Hartnell in close-ups.

But as I say the effect as a whole is interesting. If the sound, to say nothing of the visuals, comes across as a weird patchwork, it could perhaps be seen as intentional. It would reflect well, after all, on a story that is partly all ‘about’ zipping between completely different story environments (alien world, New York City, the Marie Celeste, a haunted house, etc). Any single soundscape might work for one of those environments but not all of them. But as we’re talking about a Richard Martin-directed story here we can only posit this as a ‘perhaps’. The chances are it’s just a hodge-podge because the man in charge couldn’t be arsed about cohesion.


And I haven’t even mentioned the ‘thick Dalek’, who “um”s and “er”s in ring-modulated idiocy. What were they thinking.....??