One of the most eccentric record labels ever, BBC Records And Tapes existed to make a bit more money out of the Corporation’s television and radio shows. Between 1967 and 1991, they covered all corners of the BBC’s output, including a lot of music – and people forget just how good some of that music was. From radio session tracks to frustrated children’s presenters getting to play at being pop stars, there are plenty of hidden beat, funk and psych highlights in their bewildering catalogue.
You may be vaguely aware that I am quite interested in the gloriously eccentric output of BBC Records And Tapes. And in case you didn’t quite detect the sarcasm in that statement, I’ve actually written a book covering every single released by the label. If you haven’t, it’s called Top Of The Box and you can get it in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
For no other reason than that more people really need to hear the amazing music that somehow sneaked out under the radar on BBC tie-in records when they really ought to have been on a more revered and collectable album, here a collection of beat, folk and psych-tinged ‘Deep Cuts’ from BBC Records And Tapes, taking in Radiophonic Workshop nightmares, Play School funk, Acid Folk recorded to fill non-needletime slots on Radio 2 and even TV’s ‘Clown’ and ‘Girl’ (Test Card) trying their hand at a bit of cosmic Stoner Jazz. No I’m not making that up…
Good News – Spirit (from RESR29 New Life)
The Salvation Army’s resident prog rock outfit were regulars on Radio 4’s religious magazine show Subject For Sunday and schools programme An Act Of Worship and recorded this impressively credible album for the label’s Study Series imprint. Although the young lineup are pictured in their Sunday School finery on the cover, ‘Spirit’ moves between hard rocking verses that would have sounded more at home on The Old Grey Whistle Test and spectral bluesy interludes. All of New Life is of a higher standard than you’d expect, though how well their appearance on Songs Of Praise to promote it went down is open to question.
Brian Cant, Toni Arthur, Lionel Morton And Chloe Ashcroft – Superstition (from RBT19 Play Away)
Funded by a surplus from Play School’s budget, Play Away allowed the pre-school show’s presenters the chance to show off their comic skills to a slightly older audience, backed by a jazz ensemble frequently made up of top session players. First performed on the show early in 1972 – and beating Stevie Wonder to it by six months – ‘Superstition’ features gags about walking under ladders and four-leaved clovers set to a tight wah wah-driven groove straight out of a Blaxploitation film soundtrack. Lionel Morton, who wrote the famous Play Away theme song, had been a member of The Four Pennies in the early sixties.
Meic Stevens – Dwyn Y Lein (Stealing The Railroad) (from REC65 Disc A Dawn)
Essentially BBC Wales’ equivalent of Top Of The Pops, Disc A Dawn had the good fortune to appear just as local artists were starting to explore their own unique brand of folk and psychedelia. Complete with eye-hurting graphics from the opening titles on the cover, and a handful of Welsh language Leonard Cohen covers hidden amongst the artists’ own compositions, this album captures exclusive performances by Heather Jones, Y Diliau, Iris Williams and other later cult favourites. This rattling singalong from the artist often dubbed “The Welsh Bob Dylan” was never featured on any of his regular releases.
Trane – Mansion Of Cards (from RESL5 Waggoners’ Walk)
Moog-toting folk-rock outfit Trane were regular contributors to a number of BBC radio shows, including schools’ programme Get Together and Radio 2 house share soap opera Waggoners’ Walk. This EP featured a number of songs they had performed when appearing as a fictional pop group in the serial – which, ironically considering Radio 2’s audience, was initially geared towards socially progressive concerns and never shied away from covering subjects such as abortion and squatters’ rights – including this catchy Kinks-like synth-driven number with amusingly over-the-top pastiche psychedelic lyrics. The programme it came from may be largely forgotten, but the EP is now highly collectable.
Shelagh McDonald – Hullo Stranger (from REC35 Dungeon Folk)
Radio 1’s live showcase Country Meets Folk gave rise to this album, recorded at ‘county jail’-themed Tower Bridge folk club The Dungeon. Most acts featured on the show never broke through to a wider audience but many are now hailed as highly collectable ‘Acid Folk’, and Dungeon Folk is full of esoteric names like Dana Stirk, The Crown Folk and Cliff Aungier. It’s this strident, full-throated acoustic thrash by a nineteen-year-old with an angelic face and searing voice that really stands out, though; Shelagh would go on to record two highly rated albums before mysteriously withdrawing from the music industry.
Rick Jones – Bang On A Drum (from RBT17 Bang On A Drum – Songs From Play School And Play Away)
Many Play School presenters were recruited from the singer-songwriter circuit, and often got the chance to perform suitably retooled versions of their own compositions on the show. Bang On A Drum – plundered for samples by artists as diverse as Eric B & Rakim and The Go! Team – is full of them, not least this moody jazzy ode to the joys of percussion which even some fellow presenters considered a touch too ‘progressive’ for their audience. Although it’s a story rather than a song, Rick’s ‘Splodges’ from 1970’s Play School, liberally decorated with Radiophonic Workshop squiggles, is also well worth a listen.
The Welfare State Featuring White Noise – Silence Is Requested In The Ultimate Abyss (from REC52 John Peel Presents Top Gear)
Featuring session tracks from the likes of Ron Geesin and Bridget St. John, linked by quips from a Radiophonically-treated John Peel, this album was an admirable attempt at capturing his celebrated Radio 1 show. Provocative performance art troupe The Welfare State joined forces with White Noise, the electronic rock ensemble formed by composer David Vorhaus with Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, for this terrifyingly hypnotic epic featuring robotic incantations about a macabre ritual over loops of guitar and electronically generated sounds. Reportedly originally from one of their stage shows, which must have made for a gruesome watch.
David Cain And Ronald Duncan – April (from RESR17 The Seasons)
Frequently overlooked in histories of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, David Cain provided superb music for a number of productions including Radio 4’s acclaimed late sixties adaptations of The War Of The Worlds and The Hobbit. Originally produced for the station’s schools programme Drama Workshop, this set of eerie folk-tinged electronic pieces combined with elliptical poetry about cycles of nature was aimed at schools and sold poorly, but has recently started to attract a lot of attention. Quite how children in the assembly hall interpreted “larks are the sound to which silences echo, from their throat flows this river of light” is sadly something we can only guess at.
Pete Winslow And His King Size Brass – Space Chariots (from RBT103 Girl On The Test Card)
Most viewers were probably either too bored or too frightened to sit through the BBC’s Test Card broadcasts, with the infamous image of a girl and a clown playing noughts and crosses. There was the occasional groover hidden amongst all the big-band muzak, though, and Girl On The Test Card reflects this in fine style. After thirteen tracks of likeable but slight Tijuana instrumentals, the band suddenly let rip with almost six minutes of dense cosmic funky jazz, with Fender Rhodes very much to the fore. Presumably, everyone else had gone home and left them to their own devices.
Maggie Henderson – Jerome (from REC182 Ragtime)
Inspired by Monty Python and Fringe Theatre, part-improvised children’s comedy show Ragtime saw Maggie Henderson and Fred Harris trade absurdist wordplay with minimal props made by producer Michael Cole’s family. Underlining just how odd this was, the songs featured a pronounced Philly Soul influence, and many of the best ones found their way onto this album. This epic retelling of the biblical scholar’s lion-taming escapade features wailing harmonica, free jazz-influenced piano, massive drum breaks and a gospel choir before folding back into the show’s theme song at the end.
Buy A Book!
Listen With Hamble is a complete guide to the often surprisingly funky and folky albums released in the early seventies under BBC Records And Tapes’ children’s imprint Roundabout; you can find it here.
If You’re Feeling Happy, Tap Your Feet takes a look at the various commercially released versions of the Play Away theme and why none of them ever quite match up to what was heard on screen; you can find it here.
© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.