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.

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