Doing things the Delian Way

Who is Delia?

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Delia Ann Derbyshire was:

Born in Coventry 5 May 1937.   The daughter of Edward (Ted), a sheet metal worker in the motor industry (possibly at Alvis) and Mary Amelia (née Dawson);

1948-56 Educated at Barr’s Hill School (which was then a girls’ Grammar school);

1956-59 Scholarship student at Girton College, University of Cambridge;

1956-57 studying Mathematics

1957-59 studying Music

1959 graduated following a special exam

1957 Achieved Licentiateship of the Royal Academy of Music [LRAM] as a pianist;

1959 Turned down by Decca Records for a post in their studios (told “Decca Records does not employ women in its studios” – perhaps by the same man who told the Beatles that “guitar groups are on the way out, Mr Epstein”…)

1960 Appointed as a studio manager at the the BBC;

1962 Started a 6-month “secondment” to the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in Maida Vale – a secondment which was to last 11 years.

1963 Asked to work on Ron Grainer’s score for new science fiction series Dr Who. In a world before synthesisers, Delia used natural sound sources and electronic wave oscillators, endlessly editing and fine tuning the results to realise the eerie signature tune known to millions;

1966-67 Massively influenced a number of mainstream bands to visit her studios, not least The Beatles, The Beach Boys and Pink Floyd;

1968 – worked on the Electric Storm album as part of the band The White Noise.   This album shows much of her talent, both as a creator of musique concrète and as a rather bold vocalist;

1973 Turned her back on the BBC and music studios in the advent of the digital synthesizer;

1973 Moved away from London, first taking a role as a radio operator for British Gas, who were laying a major new pipeline in Cumbria to bring North Sea gas to the south, then had various jobs in bookshops and art galleries;

1980 Met-up with Clive Blackburn (also, ironically, ex-BBC) who was to become her partner for the remainder of her life;

1997 Resumed interest in electronic music; she was encouraged by a younger generation of practitioners – the Chemical Brothers, Orbital, Blur, Sonic Boom..

2001 Died of renal failure aged 64.

The Museum is indebted to the Archivists at Girton College, Cambridge for many of the details here.

What did she do?

During her time at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Delia composed, aranged and realised theme tunes, backing tracks, indents and musical sound effects for many radio and TV programmes.   As she once put it, these were often set either in the far distant past (history, archaeology, evolution…); the far distant future; or some far distant galaxy (science fiction, not least Dr Who).

In addition, the Workshop also provided a vast amount of signature tune and sound effect material for BBC Schools daytime educational broadcasts in the 1960s and 1970s.   Readers “of a certain age” (in our later 40s, 50s and 60s now) will have grown up to many works by Delia and some of her friends at the RWS.

Delia often used everyday objects and strange, home-made devices to generate the initial sounds she used to create her music.   The green enamelled brass Coolicon lamp shade (shown below) was one of her favourites.   The bass line in the Dr Who theme is actually a single note, played on an old piano string, stretcned between two nails on a piece of timber.  The bass melodies were then made by changing the speed of the tape, and cutting the tape “notes” to the right length before joining them together.

Outside of the Radiophonic Workshop, Delia and RWS friend and colleague Brian Hodgson set up Kaleidophon, a studio to create music both for commercial release, and on-commission to independent broadcasters – among her work there was the album by The White Noise entitled An Electric Storm (still available on CD; vinyl copies are higly sought-after), a work created when Delia and Brian got together with classical bass-player and experimental musician David Vorhaus.

Clandestinely working under an anagram of her name, Li De la Russe (for her BBC contract forbade her working elsewhere…) she created work with RWS friend and BBC colleague Brian Hodgson a.k.a. Nikki St George at Hodgson’s studio Unit Delta Plus.  As well as work for Thames TV’s 1973-79 series The Tomorrow People, they also produced an album of library music for radio and TV production, Electrosonic– originally released by the KPM production msic library as catalogue number KPM-1104 (very collectable vinyl!).   This has since been re-released on CD by Glo-Spot as Glo-spot 1104-CD.

Delia's green "Coolicon" lampshade

Delia’s green “Coolicon” lampshade

Why is she so important?

In 2016, some 15 years after her death, musicians and musicologists (people who study the history, structure, development, influence and progression of music) are still only scratching the surface of Delia’s legacy – not just in terms of her vast archive of recorded work (both at the BBC and her personal archive held at Manchester University), but also in terms of her influence on musicians she met, and the inspiration her work continues to bring to musicians in their studios and on stages today.

What was her influence?

During her time at the BBC she was visited in her studio by a number of bands of the day, most of whom are still listened to 50 years later:

The Beach Boys demonstrate some of her influence in the way they start to use studio effects on their Pet Sounds album;

The Beatles show heavy use of tape effects, reversed tape sounds, tape editing, sound manipulation on albums such as Sergeant Pepper and the Magical Mystery Tour following some extended sessions in her studio (ironic, given what that Decca executive had told Brian Epstein some years earlier…);

Pink Floyd were profoundly influenced after a few sessions working with Delia.   It is very reasonable to say that Delia’s influence was a hugely significant factor in the Floyd’s move from their early days as a psychedelic band into one of the founding fathers of Progressive Rock.   Indeed, if the Floyd are to be credited, along with the Moody Blues, as the fathers of Prog, then Delia has to take credit for being its mother.

When she returned to the studio in 1997, working with bands and artists like Rugby’s Peter Kember (a.k.a. Sonic Boom), Delia had a huge impact on a new generation of musicians keen to explore both musique concrète and wider uses of sound manipulation and re-arrangement in their work.

Check out:

The Chemical Brothers

Orbital

Blur

Sonic Boom

Aphex Twin

Spectrum

Silver Apples

and the wonderfully named King of Woolworths, whose album L’Illustration Musicale contains a track simply named Delia Derbyshire.