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John Baker - Profile

  by Malcolm Carter

published: 31 / 7 / 2008

John Baker - Profile


Malcom Carter profiles the career of BBC Radiophonic Workshop and soundtrack composer John Baker, who has just had two retropsective compilations released on Trunk Records

The two volumes of this double CD compilation,'Volume 1' (BBC Radiophonic 1963-1974) and 'Volume 2'(Soundtracks, Library Home Recordings, Electro Ad’ 1954-1985), are both being released under the Trunk Records label which alone is reason enough to get excited. Head honcho Jonny Trunk really does deserve some kind of award. Is there another label that has such a diverse catalogue as his ? From ‘The Wicker Man’ soundtrack through various strange compilations to the soundtracks to classic children’s programs, Trunk releases them all. John Baker was one of the composers working at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in the 60's and 70's. Although maybe Delia Derbyshire is, in some circles, better known through her work on Ron Grainer’s theme tune for ‘Dr. Who’ the 49 ‘tracks’ on volume one show just how important Baker’s contribution was to the Workshop and it is surprising just how many of these pieces of music are familiar. With a biography in the CD booklet written by John’s brother, broadcaster Richard Baker, and notes about every song presented here, this really is a fine package. There are long forgotten theme tunes, (‘Dial M For Murder’, ‘Trial), jingles and snatches of sound from a variety of BBC radio and TV broadcasts. Many of the tracks have never been released before and some were even thought lost until they were discovered in Richard Baker’s archive. This is, in fact, an important collection for anyone with an interest in early electronic sounds, especially those who were thrilled by the weird and wonderful snippets they heard at times on the BBC, and the sounds have lost none of their charm and are as fascinating today as when they were first recorded. Some tracks, like the opening ‘Newstime BBC 1 & 2’, which feature an all-so-English BBC voice introducing the news before a strangely familiar electronic tune floats in, last less than 30 seconds. Then there are tracks that last a few minutes like the one from ‘20th Century Focus’, a secondary school education programme that ran from 1966 to 1974. The sound is quite disturbing. Listening to it while watching one of the programmes which covered topics such as mental health and drugs was enough to scare the toughest of school kids back in the 60's I would imagine! One of the most interesting tracks is John Baker explaining how he achieved the sound for the ‘Woman’s Hour, Reading Your Letters’ section. Baker explains how he produced the sound by pouring water from a cider bottle, taking one of the sounds and playing the tape back at different speeds therefore altering the pitch. Out of that Baker composed what can only be described as an appealing and catchy tune. The rhythm track was achieved by the sound of a cork being pulled from a bottle. The track is only 8 seconds long but it is fascinating to hear how Baker made this piece of music. Just as captivating is the six minutes plus of music from ‘Building The Bomb’, which was a TV and radio show about the atom bomb made in 1965. It’s such an atmospheric piece of music, even standing alone without the visuals, and it would be good to know how Baker produced those sounds as well. 'Volume 2' leaves behind Baker’s BBC work and concentrates on his whole musical career starting in 1954. This time there are 39 tracks and again they last anywhere from a few seconds up to a few minutes. There’s a version of the jazz standard ‘Get Happy’ by the Weinberger Jazz Duo from the mid 60's which features Baker on piano ; music Baker composed from Ridley Scott’s first short film, ‘Boy On A Bicycle’ from 1965, which is previously unreleased and a number of jingles; I can vaguely recall a washing powder called ‘Omo’ and the jingle for that and Giro are particularly fascinating, not just the electro sounds Baker provided but the actual adverts which are amusing to say the least. Weinbergers Jazz Duo show up again with Baker on piano on a ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’ (The Beatles) melody from the mid 60's. It’s surprisingly very good, and showcases just what a brilliant musician Baker was. But nothing here can really beat the advert for ‘Brylcreem’; 30 seconds which will bring a tear to the eye to any male who was a teenager in the early 60's. There is even the John Baker Obituary read by his brother Richard which was broadcast in 1997 and again includes snippets of how John achieved some of his musical sounds. The second CD closes with the first ever recording Baker made in 1954, ‘All The Things You Are’, when he was just 16 and which was originally pressed on a 78 rpm record. With test tones, his tempo counter and feedback loops this is a fine companion to Baker’s work for the BBC. I’ve a feeling that with this release Trunk Records are finally going to get more of the credit that they so rightly deserve for getting these lost but essential pieces of English musical history finally into the eager hands of record collectors worldwide.

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John Baker - Profile

John Baker - Profile

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