It’s Ada Lovelace Day today and the brief was very open – just write a blog post about a woman in technology who you revere.
So here’s mine. The above video shows Delia Derbyshire demonstrating reel-to-reel music recording and production.
Derbyshire was known for her creative sound engineering work at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (which was itself the subject of some 50th anniversary retrospectives last year). Among those working long-term there in the early days there were three women in total, all of whom deserve credit. But I’m going to focus on Derbyshire.
Although many might know her as the warped genius behind the original – and best – Doctor Who theme, Derbyshire was very prolific. There are countless more fascinating themes, incidentals and effects on her CV, including a big batch of recordings which have only recently been found and reported.
While DJing, I’ve been known to play the spooky, beguiling and downright peculiar tune Love Without Sound by The White Noise, a band in which Derbyshire was a key member. The track is 40 years old but sits quite comfortably (but in a funny way, uncomfortably) with latter day tunes.
The fact that it’s now difficult to find the original vinyl LP, entitled Electric Storm, is some sort of indictment on either the record buying public or the marketing people at the record label. Either way, in 1969 that lack of attention would have been disappointing. But not for me in 2009 because I own and cherish one. W00t!
If you’re curious, the album was reissued last year by the famous (but somewhat oxymoronically-named) Universal Island label. You can hear it on CD, download or on Spotify where such services exist.
Delia Derbyshire was by many first-hand accounts a shy person. Dedication, focus and extremely high levels of patience were almost requirements for the job at the Workshop. These character traits, along with the BBC’s low esteem at the time for this mere “service department for drama“, may explain in part why appropriate recognition for her talents has been late in coming.
But among other luminaries who have been hybrids of performer, composer and producer, she really holds a place. Joe Meek, who was working on similar techniques in the 1960s but in the more mainstream world of pop, can be considered a peer. More widely, the name Delia Derbyshire should really be listed next to visionary producers like Phil Spector, Lee “Scratch” Perry and Brian Wilson (for adventurousness of musical output, it should be said, rather than behaviour).
Here’s to crazy electronica from the 1960s. And here’s to Delia Derbyshire!