OUT OF THIS WORLD

Sci-Fi Sounds from the BBC

Hello again dear friends, and welcome once again to the 'Orrible 'Ouse of Terrible Old Tat! Now then last time our rooting about through the cobwebbed crates in here was inspired by my recollection of an ad in an ancient copy of Fangoria. And while leafing through my boxes of old Fangos looking for the ad in question to scan, I chanced upon another little advertisement which prompted a whole new search through the dusty depths of the 'Orrible Old 'Ouse.

As I've remarked before, and undoubtedly will remark again frequently in these articles, the pre-internet world now looks like a very strange place. For it was a place where if you missed a movie or a TV show, it was pretty gone forever. Now it is true that the dawning of the age of home video and cable TV had brought us endless repeats and boxed sets of video cassettes, but these were just primitive, crude ancestors of the on-demand playground we now have, the all-you-can-eat digital sweetshop that never closes. However for many decades, before VCRs and cable/satellite telly, there was another medium in which films and TV shows lived on, a strange netherworld where old favourites could be re-lived. Well, in part anyway. Welcome to the strange world of the tie-in record!

Now to begin with there were releases of favourite theme tunes and soundtracks, and then later assorted ill-judged stabs at the pop charts and tie-in novelty records. Sometimes you could even get a purely audio version of a movie or show, although admittedly often edited down and with inserted narration to make sense on non dialogue bits. And as the record industry enjoyed its golden age in the 1960s and 1970s, it's not surprising that many broadcasters decided to cut out the middle man and began setting up their own record labels.

Hence in 1967 the BBC began releasing all manner of assorted tie-in records as BBC Radio Enterprises. As the name suggests, in the early days it was drawing heavily on its extensive radio back catalog, with one of the earliest releases being a Goon Show LP. The venture was a great success, and by 1970 it had become the catchier sounding BBC Records, and the label would morph once again in 1974, becoming BBC Records & Tapes when the new-fangled audio cassette took off. However aside from repackaging old shows in vinyl and cassette, and releasing themes and music, something very odd happened.

Some one somewhere noted that the Beeb kept on getting requests from drama groups and amateur film-makers for sound effects. And as well they might, for the BBC was famous for having its own dedicated sound division, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, which had been founded in 1958 to conjuring up music, jingles and sound effects galore. Now quite often the boffins at the Workshop would very obligingly dash off a tape of the requested sound effects and mail it out, but then some bright spark had the idea of releasing whole LPs of sound effects, cutting out a lot of faffing around. And making a few quid in the process!

Hence in 1969, the LP BBC Sound Effects No 1 was unleashed upon an unsuspecting world. And evidently the platter sold well, despite having a somewhat specialised market, and soon further volumes were hitting the records stores. The early volumes were simply assortments of useful sound effects, but as the series progressed they began to specialise, with Volume 10 being titled Music and Sounds for Home Movies. Judging from the track-listing, the home movies in question weren't the sort you mucky sods are looking up online these days. With tracks entitled "The Aegean", "Spain" and "Effects (French cafe)" I'm guessing this LP was intended for use with cine films of people's holidays. Although I grant you that "Effects (Dutch Carnival With Chair Dance)" does sound like an euphemism, and "Cup Bells, Vase Drum" could be a misprint... But moving on!

And the themed approach continued with the next release, for Volume 11 was entitled Off Beat Sounds - and from the collection of splashes, creaks, squeaks, and doooinnnnnnng! noises, I'm guessing this was designed for amateur comic capers. Although if you were to argue that most home-filmed smut would benefit from a swannee whistle or two, I wouldn't disagree. But the discussion of the acoustic choices in what they used to call "stag reels" aside, it was with the release of the next volume that things got really exciting!

For Volume 12 was called.... deep breath... BBC Sound Effects Vol. 12 Out of This World, Atmospheric Sounds and Effects from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Yes, hitting the record stores in 1976, and if I remember rightly often plugged by the voiceover bloke after the final credits for Doctor Who or Blakes 7 had rolled, now you could enjoy a trip to a "Sea of Mercury" or a "Venusian Space Lab" from comfort of your own Parker Knoll. However it wasn't all just "Laser Gun, Five Bursts" and "Flying Saucer Take-off", for this double LP was was composed of four themed sections, each taking up a separate side of vinyl. We began our audio odyssey with "Outer Space", and then flipped the platter for "Magic and Fantasy". While on the second disc we had "Suspense and the Supernatural" and "The Elements". The full tracklist can be found here and you can sample the auditory delights on this video just below!

Now the BBC Sound Effects series would return to the interstellar audio realms once again later on, with 1978's Vol. 19 being Dr Who Sound Effects (see here for details), and again in 1981 with Vol. 26 Sci-Fi Sound Effects (details here). However undoubtedly this first excursion into fantastical radiophonic ambience is still the classic. Firstly because the credited artists are the stuff of TV legend. And if you watch a lot of classic BBC shows, and not just their SF offerings by the way, names like Dick Mills and Roger Limb you'll recognise from countless credit sequences. However the second reason why it is so great is that is because it actually works rather well as a complete soundscape in itself, for as well as spacey sound effects there were little soundscapes of what we would now call ambient music or electronica. Indeed the likes of Radiophonic Workshop alumni such as Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson are now recognised as pioneers of electronic music making. And certainly plenty of musicians listened very closely to this LP, and it should be perhaps no surprise then that the sounds of this double album have been sampled countless times over the years.

In this regard, BBC Sound Effects Vol. 12 Out of This World, Atmospheric Sounds and Effects from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop is a truly classic record in its own right. This was an LP that was snapped up by kids obsessed with spaceships, robots and monsters, kids who later would be messing about with samplers and sequences and inventing musical genres like acid house, techno, trance and ambient. Given its landmark status and influence, it's only right and proper that the album was re-released on CD in 1991 as Essential Science Fiction Sound Effects Vol. 2. and was re-released on vinyl LP in 2012 by AudioGo and Discovery Records.

However this wasn't the only legendary sound effect LP produced by the BBC, for the next volume in the series would prove to be highly memorable to genre fans of a certain age, although perhaps for very different reasons...

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