8 May 2008

In the meantime, here's some light music...

Channel Four Testcard

It should hopefully be obvious to anyone reading this blog that the phrase “guilty pleasures” isn’t one I like to give a great deal of time to. Either you like something, or you don’t. Feeling guilty about liking certain music should only really apply if you’re treating yourself to a compilation of the finest Nazi rock classics, or perhaps some sicko dance track consisting of the samples of a cat being forcefed broken glass to an uptempo beat. Otherwise, you should be able to listen to what you want without feeling the need to justify it. Go on, stick on Phil Collins’ “No Jacket Required” if you like. It’s your life. As long as I’m not in the same room at the time, you’ll hear no sermons from me.

All that said, there are certain things you can profess a liking for at certain points in history and silence an entire room, and this entry is really dedicated to an entire genre which baffles the minds of many. Back in the eighties, I stumbled across some music I loved not on the radio, not through a friend, nor even through a (conventional) television programme. I happened to have the day off school, and I switched over to Channel Four which had yet to begin broadcasting. On the testcard was some sort of light, partly synthetic reggae noise I instantly found slightly sinister and odd, but tuneful too. Odd fragments of vocals and agonized “oh” noises came out in the track which was obviously imitating the methods of dub in its own particular muzak way. Whatever this was, it certainly wasn’t the Ray Coniff Orchestra. It was actually slightly unsettling and cropped up in my dreams at least a couple of times. I think what threw me most was perhaps that it challenged my expectations of what “testcard music” was and should be. In the context of the company it was in, it sounded horrendously threatening.

I carried on “watching” (or listening) to the testcard and heard, interspersed with the usual pieces of light fluff, other electronic tracks which seemed rather rum, even if they weren’t as strange as material I knew was already commercially available. I may have been very young, but I already owned The Art of Noise’s “Who’s Afraid of?” album, and knew things could get a lot more otherworldly than this. Still, though, it was such likeable stuff that I found myself in the habit of turning Channel Four on out of the usual broadcasting hours just to see if I could catch more music like this on a regular basis. For about a year in the mid-eighties, Channel Four acted as some sort of New Age/ Ambient radio station for me before late afternoon began and Richard Whiteley awkwardly chuckled his introductions to “Countdown”.

Of course, members of the family told me I was wrong, and being very silly indeed. My father was the most vocal, informing me that what I was listening to was “library music”, made in a rush by session musicians and given to the television station cheaply. “It’s just background noise, you’re not supposed to listen to it,” he told me, flicking his newspaper wearily. I must admit, I started to get a bit embarrassed. I’d try to sneak downstairs and listen to the testcard when there was nobody near the television. Everybody I’d tried to explain the phenomenon to just looked at me as if I was perhaps having an adolescent mental breakdown.

If there’s one thing you good people can learn from the above story, it’s that whatever music you love – within reason – will eventually become popular with others too. I say this because I’ve since managed to trace a lot of the music I liked from the testcard, and one of the tracks, “Marguerite” by Bob Morgan, seems to have worked its way on to a number of DJ blogs and ambient compilations. People have been known to utter “respect!” in its presence, admiring its gentle, haunting ambience. The Boards of Canada regularly reference this sort of library music on their albums. Beyond that, bands like Stereolab and Misty’s Big Adventure happily talk about the electronic composers in the manner that others might discuss Stockhausen. It clearly wasn’t just me listening, whatever I thought at the time.

Better still, given the power of the Internet these days it’s actually relatively easy to trace a lot of these recordings and listen to them in full again. Follow the link below to the KPM database, for example, and you’ll find the reggae track I was talking about, which was also composed by Bob Morgan. It can be found on a compilation simply entitled “The Reggae Album”.

http://www1.playkpmmusic.com/pages/viewcd/viewcd.cfm?cdnum=1831 (this link might need a few clicks to display properly).

“Fool in Love (b)” still sounds marginally peculiar to my ears even these days, its electronic bubbling noises and mock-dub muzak stylings making it sound out of sorts. If this is wallpaper music, it would possibly be rather like the yellow wallpaper in the Charlotte Perkins Gilman short story. It’s hypnotic, but regularly surprising, and the central riff is almost menacing. It’s no wonder it worried me at the time.

The “Reggae Album” compiled here is admittedly patchy if we're reviewing it as a "proper" piece of work. There’s a certain rushed “will this do?” feel about a few of the tracks, and the constant repetition does cause the appeal of the weakest efforts to pall pretty quickly. For a few listens, though, the concept is intriguing, and you’re forced to realize that Channel Four would probably be the only station to use this sort of material on their testcard.

You can have much more fun on the KPM website by typing in searches on their database for words like “moog” or “sixties”, and call up a whole host of treasures. To actually download the material you’re required to register as somebody working for the media, but anyone with a reasonable knowledge of how the Temporary Internet Files folder works on their computer will probably be able to keep hold of the MP3s very easily (*coughs* - it’s not illegal or your fault if somebody else put them there, is it?)

As for Bob Morgan, he’s by no means an anonymous session muso, either, contrary to what my Dad believed. Further research on his work shows that he regularly works with Ken Campbell on his theatre productions, though sadly didn’t seem to be actively working with him on the “Illuminatus!” production at the same time Bill Drummond was, which buggers up a neat link to our last entry completely, but does at least put him in some pretty fine creative company.


Tim Worthington said...

Marguerite was briefly used as the Gallery music on latterday Take Hart, if I remember correctly. Great find Daves!

23 Daves said...

You do indeed remember rightly - I was going to crowbar in a reference to that somewhere, then realised I'd waffled on for far too long already.

I could also have mentioned that reggae legend Dennis Bovell is on the compilation I linked to as well, which strikes me as odd.