"Who"? I hear you ask! Delia Derbyshire produced the single most important piece of electronic music in history and one which I guarantee that all of you in the UK will have heard - the original "Dr. Who" theme from 1963.
The story is that Ron Grainer wrote the basic score and scribbled some notes ('swoosh'!) which were left with Derbyshire (who had recently joined the BBC Radiophonic Workshop as a studio manager fresh from studying mathematics and music at Cambridge University) to 'realise'. When Grainger came back from holiday and heard what Derbyshire had done he asked, amazed, "Did I write that"? "Most of it" replied Delia. Grainer tried to insist that Derbyshire receive half of the royalties but the BBC refused and her name never appeared in the titles.
Derbyshire worked in a world before synthesisers, when her music had to be made by recording and treating recorded noises from natural and electronic sources and constructed a note at a time on tape loops. The reason her music sounds so different and so fresh even now, when compared with the 'electronic' music which the rock world came to be familiar with, is precisely because she and her colleagues had to do it themselves with neither the freedoms, nor the limitations, imposed by commercial instrumentation.
Some of Delia's BBC work is available commercially on Dr. Who soundtrack cds or the recently reissued "BBC Radiophonic Music", originally released to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the workshop. With due respect to the other musicians featured on the cd, it is Delia's work which stands out, especially the gorgeous, reflective "The Delian Mode", a five and a half minute soundscape in which plangent tones are placed against a brooding background and the listener is invited to melt into the music without questioning too much what on earth is going on. In "Ziwzih Ziwzih 00-00-00", written as theme for an episode of "Out of the Unknown" based around an Isaac Asimov story in which automata rebel against humans and worship God in an energy converter, the insistent robotic chant of the title draws you into a catchy piece of AI sixties pop. "Blue Veils and Golden Sands", composed for a "World About Us" documentary, takes you into a blazing inner desert where the persistent sun and glaring horizon leave you in a semi-dream state. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the degree to which elements of these pieces were reused in the seventies electronic music scare (and elements of early Tangerine Dream sound very Delia-ish) is revealing of her influence.
Chafing at the anonymity of the BBC, Delia and colleagues formed 'Unit Delta Plus' and became involved in swinging happenings in sixties London where, with protege David Vorhaus, they recorded a track, co-written by Derbyshire and Vorhaus, called 'Love Without Sound' under the name 'The White Noise'. On first hearing it Chris Blackwell of Island Records payed them an advance and told them to go and produce an album. The result 'An Electric Storm' became the second most influential piece of electronic music in the sixties [notwithstanding claims by other pretenders to that crown such as Tonto's Expanding Headband's "Zero Time" and Joe Byrd's excursions with the United States of America and the Field Hippies ].
Dark, funny, insistent and psychotic, An Electric Storm became the legendary accompaniment to a host of trips and highs for succeeding generations of Hippies, especially side 2 with the epic 'The Visitation' [boy goes to visit girl on motorcycle, boy is killed in road accident, boy still visits girl but as a ghost] and 'An Electric Storm: a Black Mass in Hell' improvised in the studio when Blackwell demanded the overdue album within two days.
Delia also recorded odds and ends for library records of generic sounds and music: the two that I know of are Standard Music Library ESL104 (1969) - credited as "Russe"- and Electrosonic, KPM1104 (1972) - credited as Harper/Russe (I have a copy of the latter, I would really like a copy of the former). Also on Electrosonic is Brian Hodgson of the Radiophonic Workshop credited under the pseudonym "St. George". TV trivia fans (are you reading Gordon?) might like to know that one of the tracks from ESL104, "Lure of the Space Godess", was later used as incidental music on '70s childrens classic Timeslip. I also have a copy of "The Music of Africa" - BBC Records, Mono, Rec 130 M which comprises mostly short field recordings but which also features Delia's title music for a programme called "Tutankhamun's Egypt", built around the sound of a silver trumpet found in Tutankhamun's tomb.
Eventually, disheartened by the lack of recognition for her music, Derbyshire left the scene and somehow became a radio operator for a major British Gas pipe laying project and disappeared into obscurity. Eventually she was rediscovered by a new generation of musicians and turned up at the odd Dr. Who convention, but died aged 64 in 2001.
Delia's music, like that of Jake Thackray, is amply represented by unreleased material in the BBC archives and like Jake is likely to stay there for the time being. Having once approached the BBC to ask about the possibility of re-releasing Jake material and having been quoted their rates for doing so, I can understand why the music remains in the vaults. A bit of a pain really considering that, as a public corporation, their funding to record it in the first place came from the great UK public.
Delia Derbyshire managed the singular feat of realising one of the best known, influential and loved pieces of music of the late 20th century, yet remaining virtually anonymous to the world throughout her life. I won't pretend that this web page will make her better known, but if you are interested in finding out more there is a website to her memory at delia-derbyshire.com that is good and will be even better when it finds a permanent home and the soundclips are available again. Follow the links below for a discussion group which kicked off in December 2003 and which needs members! You can find The Guardian's obituary of her at http://www.guardian.co.uk/obituaries/story/0,3604,518008,00.html.
Incidentally, I am aware from my site logs that many visitors find their way here through searching for Delia on assorted search engines. Please feel free to drop me a note.
Click here to return to the 'artists' page.
Version 2: posted 24 December 2002, updated 14 Nov. 2004