One of the most eccentric record labels in the entire history of recorded sound, BBC Records And Tapes existed primarily to make a bit more money out of the BBC’s television and radio shows rather than with conquering the pop charts in mind. Between 1967 and 1991, their hundreds of albums and singles covered all corners of the BBC’s output, including a good deal of music – and it’s rarely ever mentioned 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. To the extent that I have actually written two books cataloguing every release from the label; Top Of The Box which covers the singles and which you can get in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here, and Top Of The Box Vol. 2 which does the same for the albums and is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here. From Doctor Who story records and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop all the way to an unreleased Keith Harris and Orville single, they’re all in there. Including all of the birdsong. So much birdsong.
You might well be wondering what some of the music raved about in Top Of The Box and Top Of The Box Vol. 2 actually sounds like. Well, here’s a playlist with sleevenotes of some of the astonishing beat, folk and sounds that somehow sneaked out under the radar on BBC Records And Tapes releases when they really ought to have been on a more collectable and critically revered album, 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 rather than anything approaching straightforward praising of the lord. All of New Life is of a wilder and heavier standard than you might normally 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 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 both Superstition and the Play Away theme song, had been a member of early sixties chart-toppers The Four Pennies. They didn’t sound much like this.
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 regionally appropriate artists were starting to explore their own unique take on folk and psychedelia. Complete with a cover image of some of the eye-hurting graphics from the opening titles, 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, and this rattling singalong from ‘The Welsh Bob Dylan’. There’s probably some kind of joke in there about railways and Dylan ‘going electric’, but it would involve too much translation.
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’s 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 latter – which, ironically considering Radio 2’s audience, was initially geared towards socially progressive concerns including abortion and squatters’ rights (and, erm, aliens) – including this catchy Kinks-like Radiophonic Workshop-assisted synth-driven number with amusingly over-the-top pastiche psychedelic lyrics.
Shelagh McDonald – Hullo Stranger (from REC35 Dungeon Folk)
Radio 1’s live showcase Country Meets Folk gave rise to this accompanying album, recorded at ‘county jail’-themed Tower Bridge folk club The Dungeon. Most of the acts featured on the show never broke through to a wider audience but many of them are now hailed as highly collectable proponents of ‘Acid Folk’, and Dungeon Folk is full of suitably esoteric names such a Dana Stirk, The Crown Folk and Cliff Aungier. This strident, full-throated acoustic thrash by a nineteen-year-old with an angelic face and searing voice particularly stands out, though; Shelagh McDonald 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 of the late sixties and early seventies Play School presenters were recruited from the singer-songwriter circuit, and they frequently found an opportunity 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 on the title track’s moody jazzy ode to the joys of percussion which even some fellow presenters considered a touch too ‘progressive’ for their audience.
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, and linked by quips from a Radiophonically-treated John Peel, this album was an admirable attempt at capturing his celebrated Radio 1 show for the benefit of anyone who wanted to listen to it at a more sociable hour. 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, this was originally created for 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 overviews of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, David Cain provided memorably music for a number of radio productions including Radio 4’s acclaimed late sixties adaptations of The War Of The Worlds and The Hobbit. Originally produced for Radio 4 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 since found a new audience after being championed by the likes of Jarvis Cocker. 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 their infamous image of a motionless girl and a clown playing an existentially infinite game of noughts and crosses. There were the occasional groovers hidden amongst all of the accompanying big-band blandness, however, and Girl On The Test Card reflects this in an unintentionally amusing manner. After thirteen tracks of likeable but lightweight Tijuana-fixated instrumentals, the King Size Brass suddenly let rip with nigh on six minutes of dense cosmic funky jazz, with Fender Rhodes riffing very much to the fore. Presumably, everyone else had gone home and left them to their own devices. Except possibly ‘Girl’ and ‘Clown’.
Maggie Henderson – Jerome (from REC182 Ragtime)
Inspired in equal measure 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 from household implements and scraps of gaudy fabric. Underlining just how deeply odd a programme this was, the musical content boasted a pronounced Philly Soul influence, and many of the more memorable numbers found their way onto this album in an even more unrestrained form. 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, complete with a salutation from Humbug. Dog Obey!
Buy A Book!
Top Of The Box, a look at every single released by BBC Records And Tapes, is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here. Top Of The Box Vol. 2, which takes a similar look at the albums, is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
Alternately, if you’re just feeling generous, you can buy me a coffee here. Though honestly, you’ll get more out of Top Of The Box Vol. 2.
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.
Catrin Lowe chatted about her memories of singing along with Singing In The Band – Songs From BBC TV’s Play School And Play Away in Looks Unfamiliar here.
© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.