Do Us A Tape #4: A Higher State Of Unconsciousness
Alan Parker, Alan Hawkshaw – Sweet Summer
Alan Parker, Alan Hawkshaw – Beach Buggy A
Alan Parker, Alan Hawkshaw – Days of Orange Squash
Bill Le Sage – Vibes in Counterpoint
Bill Le Sage – Vibes in Waltz Time
Tony Kinsey – Light Manufacturing
Tony Kinsey – Consumer Goods
Syd Dale – Man Friday
Syd Dale – Artful Dodger
Syd Dale – More Mexicana
David Lindup – Heart and Sound
David Lindup – Motility
Keith Mansfield – Young Scene
Keith Mansfield – Pop Trumpets
Keith Mansfield – Brass in Action
Dave Gold – American Express
Dave Gold – Easy Street
Harper, Russe, St. George – Frontier of Knowledge
Harper, Russe, St. George – No Man’s Land
James Clarke – Girl of My Dreams
James Clarke – Coming On Home
Marian McPartland – Piano Cocktail
Marian McPartland – Contentment
A Higher State of Unconsciousness
An annotated mixtape in praise of the KPM 1000 Series
When it comes, the blood is darker than you might expect. As it sprays from my throat and across the fiercely white hospital sheets – like Ribena hurled at a tablecloth – it is already beginning to brown. The gush is so sudden, the clenching of my stomach so frighteningly instinctive, I can only sit here and gasp, staring at the huge crimson stain. Red on white, and under such bright lights: it couldn’t be more vivid.
I turn my head and mumble “Sorry”. A hospital operative is staring at me, seemingly still calm. I wonder how it is that she hasn’t fled from the room screaming, shrieking for assistance, for a doctor, for a priest.
“It’s the blood in your stomach – that you’ve swallowed,” she says. “Your tummy doesn’t like it.”
Tummy. The kind of word the school nurse would have used. Here I am, knocking on 40, in the earliest years of the twenty-first century, feeling as helpless and untethered as a child. I’m vomiting blood; I’m lying naked, but for a single sheet, on an operating table; I’m waiting for some clinical business to begin. I pine momentarily for the work-a-day, for the unappreciated magic of the mundane. What wouldn’t I give right now to be under the cosh at work, to be worrying only about stuff that I can actually control.
Here though, I’m a cog in someone else’s machine. Gloved hands grasp my shoulders and push me down on my back. Bodies close in on all sides; an oxygen mask is pressed to my face. I wriggle my head in protest.
“I get claustrophobic,” I whimper, despairing at my cowardice. But claustrophobia, it appears, is not an option. The cold, sweet gas chills my face, and I inhale, and think about my wife and kids, and the blood that I’ve lost. For a fortnight now, ever since a routine tonsillectomy, my throat has been bleeding, on and off, on and off; I’ve been spitting the pillar-box-red stuff into sinks, and chewing ice cubes, and swallowing what I couldn’t soak up with a tissue. And after two weeks of it, my body’s had enough: my skin is grey, my hands are cold to the touch. I’m here now to have my throat cauterized, and I can hardly wait another moment for them to start.
I don’t know if you’d call this an emergency, but I’m panicking now, well and truly. I want oblivion, I want the darkness to descend. And as the anaesthetist prepares his potions, I attempt to calm myself, to will myself into suspended animation. I think of my Walkman upstairs on the ward. I wish I could wrap its headphones around my poor exhausted mind and press PLAY on my KPM cassette – a tape compiled from the KPM label’s ‘1000 Series’ LPs of library music. I imagine the dense peace of the sounds held within; I long for the tickle and caress of brushes on snare drums, the enveloping hug of some muted vibraphone jazz.
I sense a tugging at my wrist and finally, the drugs begin to flow. Someone is counting me out; each number comes from further away. And from the dark blue heart of the cloud that fills my head, there are flutes, and then the wash of a memory as the edge of my thoughts closes in.
Tracks one, two and three
I open my eyes; or attempt to. My view is fuzzy and vague, my sight inhibited by my broken, crumpled lashes: they feel folded and bent, like the bristles on a classroom paintbrush. But the sounds, the smells, the dull light that seems filtered by curtains; I can sense enough to know that I have been transported; that I'm no longer being prodded and pulled across the cold steel slab of an operating table.
My immediate surroundings are soft and muffled; there appear to be cushions arranged cosily around my body, my neck, my head. With a little effort, I succeed in widening the disobedient gap between eyelid and face, and I see before me a tower of bubbling tangerine. I squint and ransack my memory; and the answer comes back, tatty and scuffed as if on a punch card from an ancient mainframe: the orange-coloured tower is a bottle of Lucozade, its heavy, dimpled glass containing restorative glucose in carbonated, liquid form.
I think of chemists' shops, and sickness, and the raging of tonsils.
I have gone backwards, I'm sure of it. To a time of sore throats and fevers, damp pyjamas and days without school. This is tonsillitis, the bane of my childhood; a regular condition that leaves me thick-voiced and drawn, with white skin and blue rings beneath each eye. This is tonsillitis, a complaint that renders me helpless and pining each time it hits – which is often. But even as I squirm inside my over-heated, blanket cocoon, I remember that tonsillitis also brings with it the gift of a week on the sofa, the pleasures of daytimes in front of the black and white portable, the selfless devotions of mum.
I hear her in the kitchen as she boils milky coffee on the stove.
I pour myself some Lucozade, and relax.
It’s the flute that’s done it – the flute that opens ‘Sweet Summer’, the first track on my KPM 1000 Series cassette. The opening phrase is enough to carry me away from the bruised and bloody indignities of the operating table, away from harsh hospital lighting and into the comfort and embrace of my childhood sitting-room where I now find myself, trussed up and weak, like the sickly boy in a bath-chair from a classic children’s book.
And then I realise: it’s coming from the TV. The flute is coming from the corner of the room, wafting from a monophonic speaker the size of a jam jar lid, above which there are glowing grey ghosts, electrical figures, a ballet of dancing cathode rays. The images are indistinct, still not quite emerging from the mist of my memory; but the flute's song is clear, a soundtrack to the scenes I imagine.
I am a witness, it seems, to the power of this soundtrack; to these off-the-peg sounds manufactured to please. For KPM is one of the famed names in library music – meaning tracks ready-made to be broadcast – and since the mid-fifties, the label has engineered theme tunes, and idents, and sound beds and more for radio and films and TV the world over. And as I sit here on the sofa as a child, or lie comatose on the operating table as an adult – and really, I’m losing track of where exactly I am – I pick up these vibrations like an aerial.
As a child, the names mean nothing to me: they are Alans Parker and Hawkshaw, the concocters of this Proustian magic. But as an adult, spark out and being zapped in the throat, I know they are giants of this world. Alan Parker: a sensational guitarist, composer and arranger. And Alan Hawkshaw: his Hammond skills are legend, his motifs having been dug from the crates and sampled by the entire hip hop community – think of his unsuspecting Denmark Street funk riff from The Mohawks’ ‘The Champ’. But these tracks aren’t look-at-me upstarts: these are gentle flute-driven mood setters; jaunty, and with a jet-setting air.
My throat hurts. My tonsils burn. And my heart performs flip-flops somewhere deep in my chest.
Tracks four and five
It's the suggestions that leave me wrong-footed; the hints and reminders and strange aural connections between incidents and times from the past. So these warm vibraphone studies, played by the British bebop pioneer Bill Le Sage – which hint at a technical obsession with subtle shifts and changes of mood – don't strike me as academic and functional. Instead, the rich, moist tones simply seep through the layers of my memory, and seem to settle somewhere hidden and deep.
On the television I see a circle of dots, white on black, and I watch as they disappear one by one. It’s a countdown, a killing of time. And I scrunch up my eyes and peer at the screen, at the words that seem just out of reach.
'BBC Television for Schools and Colleges'.
So that's where this music has taken me – to the dead, empty seconds that preface educational TV. I imagine my friends stuck at school – in this age before the VCR dawn – with schools’ broadcasts watched live in the classroom. Before each programme begins, there is an interminable wait as the on-screen clock counts down; and via the power of polyrhythmic easy listening music, the class’s shuffling and nipping and giggling can be stilled; and the dots melt away until each one has disappeared from sight.
Not that these precise vibraphone pieces were used for this purpose. But they have triggered the recollection, and they share the same spirit: a quiet, intricate quality that keeps time suspended – at least, until the boys at the back have settled down, and the milk empties have been stacked away, and the paint pots returned to the stock cupboard.
I realise the irony of my situation. I am off school, revelling in absence; and yet I gaze at shows meant to educate. And in the meantime…
“Our programmes will continue in two minutes. Until then, here’s some music…”
Tracks six and seven
They call it 'library music', which suggests stillness and knowledge and hush. But it’s not made for libraries; it’s made to accompany the moving image. It could be any kind of music of course, and in the 'real' world of Soho recording dens, I dare say it is. But in this anaesthetised dream world in which I’m wallowing, the sounds are daubed on to the picture using a more restricted palette.
The origins of the KPM music library date back to the late eighteenth century, but it was only with the coming of commercial TV in the mid-fifties, when its market suddenly expanded, that it set about defining the Jet Age in sound: not intentionally of course, but by default. And when the KP Library merged with the Peter Maurice publishing company in 1959 – to form Keith Prowse Maurice – it took on the name that it still uses today.
In launching the KPM 1000 Series in 1965, it created its own Taste The Difference range, a Tesco Finest menu of Britain’s leading session musicians – jazz men in particular – who had often learned their trade on post-war transatlantic liners, where they played for the passengers before disembarking in Manhattan and exploring the streets of their dreams. For the KPM 1000 Series, they could fashion multi-purpose sound sketches that would be catalogued and shelved, and made available to the broadcasting professionals of the day. They might become theme tunes or incidental tracks; they might be hummed by the masses or never heard of again.
But the defining sound of the series – at least as far as this cassette-triggered memory is concerned – is a languid and gentle kind of jazziness. It is experimental in its way, with foot-baffling time signatures and frequent nods to the dashing and the exotic; but it’s a mercenary art, and therefore conservative in its view of the world.
Thus, 'Light Manufacturing' and 'Consumer Goods' by Tony Kinsey, a jazz drummer of considerable accomplishment. The tracks are blatant in their acknowledgement of their function, with classic library titles betraying their purpose even before the needle hits the groove. And given the inescapable connection between the title and the sounds held within, the message of these pieces must be that capitalism and consumerism are cool – in the beatnikky jazz sense, all ski pants and polo-necks and poetry.
On the television, a 16mm montage – from a careers programme such as ‘Going To Work’: inside factories, production lines, men in suits. And accompanying this vision of glorified possibilities, a jazz-lite soundtrack: lounge bar drumming, a hotel keyboard, the warmest of delicate vibes. This is ‘work’ as defined by a text-book, with unquestioned hierarchies and systems, every process broken down into constituent parts – and sanitised, as through the Play School window.
But as a child on a sofa – or a kid in a school – I have no reason to question what I’m shown: as with all dominant ideologies, it comes to seem like the way of the world. And who wouldn't be beguiled by these shimmering vibraphonic seductions? Who wouldn't be sedated by a music like this?
Tracks eight, nine and ten
I was drifting; but now I’m awake. An exuberant parade of big band extravaganzas seems to pass between my vacant ears and I snap out of my vibraphone-tinged reverie. Here are over-blown trumpets, James Bond strings, spit-flecked flute notes and a battery of funkyish drumming. And what begins with a prancing harpsichord comes to a halt with a brass burst and fade that sounds as if it’s come straight out of ‘Top Cat’.
This is ‘Man Friday’ by Syd Dale, a shaken-not-stirred cocktail of chat shows and pant suits and tightly-clutched packs of Rothman’s King Size. It fizzes with those ‘on sale in this cinema’ vibrations; a kind of frenzied Pearl & Dean ad break heralding the dawn of the Age of Keg Bitter.
‘The Artful Dodger’ propels me further through this Berni Inn world, while the rich exotica of ‘More Mexicana’ pastes the weediest of smiles across my self-pitying face. Which is some achievement. I grin, because the brass section makes me think of ‘It’s a Knockout’; and for a moment my illness leaves me behind.
Syd Dale’s tightly-packed arrangements seem to bang, blow and whistle for all they’re worth. They are desperate to please and eager to impress; and being constructed from phrases that are easily teased apart – with enough hooks to rehang the National Gallery - they prove perfect for TV and film. Dale was one of the original KPM 1000 Series composers, with the second LP in the series devoted solely to him; and between 1965 and 1970, he was one of the label’s most revered names.
And library music clearly suited him, as in 1970 he launched his own Amphonic library label, allowing his expansive orchestral productions to take on the funkier flavours of the decade. But here and now, in these imaginary mid-nineteen seventies, I’m happy to hear him hark back to the sixties; which, in the time honoured way of all children, seems like a hundred years in the past.
Tracks eleven and twelve
The door opens and in comes mum to ask if I want anything. I whimper, and clutch my blankets in a balled fist beneath my chin; and I mouth that I'm fine, while doing my best to appear anything but.
It's not that I'm not really ill you understand. I couldn't fake this temperature even if I wanted to, and my throat feels lumpy and wrong. It's just... well, it's tonsillitis; it's something I get all the time. By now I'm used to the way it takes over for a day or two, boiling my blood and draining my vigour, before the penicillin starts to go on the attack. And once that heroic fungus is running rampant, I'm free to look faint on the sofa while living the indolent life of a Borgia.
So I waft my hand in the air and dismiss her, and turn back to the television which appears to have slipped into some kind of coma of its own. On the screen there are monochrome bars and op art designs, and in the centre sits a girl playing noughts and crosses with a clown. I gulp a mouthful of Lucozade and accept the strange vision before me: it doesn't seem extraordinary as it's an image I see every day – but viewed cold, as if by a hovering alien (which is how part of me is starting to feel) it's as opaque as a wall full of hieroglyphs. What are these strange runic symbols, this bizarre iconography? Some kind of mandala perhaps – a tool of deep meditation?
In a way, of course, it is. Because this is the BBC's famous test card 'F', a static image broadcast at intervals throughout the day to help TV installation technicians get the picture just right. There are patterns to help adjust colour and alignment; and there's a soundtrack too, an easy listening concoction of light music, of woozy brass, of sophisticated orchestrations and band leaders with goatee beards and grins.
The world in which I sit on the sofa and suffer is a three-channel universe – with just two BBCs and an ITV – and though neither of these broadcasters uses KPM discs to accompany its test cards, it's simply the mood of this music that elicits these memories, with the aching drift of David Lindup's 'Heart and Sound' serving to spirit me through till lunchtime – when I’ll enjoy the traditional tonsillitis repast of cream of tomato soup accompanied by sliced and buttered Mother’s Pride.
Illness or no illness, when faced with a can of Heinz's finest, you'd have to be a fool to refuse.
Tracks thirteen, fourteen and fifteen
The day shuffles forwards, and with lunch over, I find myself in a postprandial convalescent kingdom; where afternoons, it seems, are all about trumpets. Keith Mansfield’s shrill and startling anthems are as brassy as Bet Lynch after a brisk rub with Wenol: they are invigorating – a shock of iced water to the system – and in the easy listening evolutionary tree, they seem to share a common ancestor with Raymond Lefèvre’s ‘As You Please’, the theme tune to the magazine programme ‘Pebble Mill at One’.
So as this music roughly towels me down (with an echo of Mansfield’s own ‘Grandstand’ theme adding the cold sting and tingle of dressing-room embrocation) I feel my alertness return – if just a little. I stare at the television, and watch grey-suited men with comb-overs lolling back on contemporary seating. They wield clip-boards like fencing foils; they are weapons, but they're not meant to harm. This is the 'Pebble Mill at One' method; fresh for the nineteen seventies, this is chat of the least threatening kind; ever-smiling, they nuzzle and banter, engaged in a playful rough and tumble – like 'Parkinson' with his one claw removed.
The BBC's Pebble Mill studios in Birmingham are formed from Bauhausian concrete and glass – a great slab of modernist architecture on the edge of Cannon Hill Park. I know this, because the programme's titles fly me over the building, glorying in the functional construction, still optimistic and brave in its rejection of things decorative and twee. The show is beamed live from the building's lobby, with a backdrop of plate glass and views out onto Birmingham suburbia; with a stripe of Ford Anglias and Allegros and Minis parading down some distant carriageway towards town, this is a new kind of afternoon TV.
There is no mystery here, no withholding of broadcasting's secrets. Here, the Pebble Mill studios can be seen going about their business in the background – a real-time unfolding of life while a TV show just happens to occur. Twenty years before this, TV was pure magic, and most people didn't even own a set. Now look at me: glucosed and doped up on penicillin, I recline into the curve of the day while watching the deconstruction of TV's mystique. All brought into life by the vigorous taunt of Keith Mansfield’s masterful brass.
Tracks sixteen and seventeen
That penicillin: it's my upper, my downer, my crutch. I am hooked on its cherryade bouquet, its slow-moving cordial gloop. I loathe it, mind you, for its flavours of illness and the terrible way that it slips down my throat; but I love it, because one sip means that reality's suspended: it's an elixir that erases my world.
I understand, I think, how it works - at least in terms that a child can grasp. The penicillin is full of little knights in armour, and they're swirling through my bloodstream RIGHT NOW, slashing and chopping and dismembering the tonsillitis bacteria that they find. Well; I know it’s something like that: it's what Dr Ruck said the first time I met him.
Now he doesn't bother with explanations. As soon as he sees me and mum open the door to his surgery, he's already scrawled my prescription before we get chance to sit down. Then it's off to the chemist's round the corner, and back home while the test card's still on. And ahead of me... this luxury, this gentleness, this calm.
Except... something is happening. I'm feeling feverish and shivery; there's a bubbling beneath the surface of my skin. I imagine those evil bacteria chewing away at my insides; not just my throat - causing my tonsils to balloon like two bullfrogs - but also my fingers, my tummy, my toes. I shut my eyes, the lids burning like sheets of hot metal, and I concentrate on this music, its lilt and its crisp, pure tones.
There are hurried strings and gentle percussion, and delicate violins weaving one of those 'all because the lady loves Milk Tray' melodies around the inside of my mind. Dave Gold's rolling rhythms and sudden switches of pace carry my inner self somewhere way beyond this room, this cosy haven where the routine rules don't apply.
Tonsillitis eh? It's so much more than a sore throat. It's not even an illness. It's a journey.
Tracks eighteen and nineteen
And with eyes closed and sweat pouring down my body in torrents, I find myself in a dark place; an empty place; a void filled with whorls of video feedback. A synthetic howl jabs at my ears, setting my teeth precipitously on edge. My breath is caught, like a salmon on a line; with a tension that tugs dangerously at my heart.
These are radiophonic noises, the type that accompany the Doctor as he sidles down blank corridors. That's Doctor Who, not Ruck; a humanoid with more on his mind than explaining antibiotics to kids. Here are whole worlds that must be saved, dusty quarries to explore, a universe to defend each Saturday, post-Grandstand. And it's no wonder that I'm picking up the Doctor through my fever; because although these sounds are plucked from a KPM LP called 'Electrosonic', credited to Harper, Russe and St. George, this is actually a BBC Radiophonic Workshop production in all but name.
While the Australian composer Don Harper was able to appear unmasked, his pseudonymous accomplices were forced to don cloaks and daggers: 'Nikki St. George' was actually the electronic musician Brian Hodgson, while the surely pale and fragrant 'Li De La Russe' was the legendary Delia Derbyshire in anagrammatic mood. The latter two were BBC employees, adventurers within the Radiophonic Workshop, and were thus contractually forbidden to record for KPM, or anyone. But having grown increasingly frustrated at the Corporation's insistence that they were service technicians, not composers, they were happy to accept KPM's offer and contribute their own distinctive sonic visions to the 1000 Series catalogue.
The disc they worked on and produced – 'Electrosonic' – is a singularity at the heart of the 1000 Series universe: its frigid analogue electronica could consume in moments the other residents of that sonic library - all the jazz, the funk, the Hammond keyboard runs; the whistling strings and orchestral swoops and the big bad big band pops. Those tidy-bearded transatlantic jazz men could fashion all kinds of slick light music destined to define our collective television memories, but they were drawing on an audio tradition of dance bands, studios, live performance. But these 'Electrosonic' tracks – they seem to break the library code. They are production music – but not as we once knew it.
Free of melody, they trigger lunacy deep inside Geiger counters: in fact, they are reinventions contrived by scientists from another solar system entirely.
Tracks twenty and twenty-one
Post-lunch, the educational programmes seem to ebb away, and I'm left washed up on the shores of my fever with 'Farmhouse Kitchen' and 'Paint Along with Nancy' lapping at my slippered toes. These infotainment waters are warm and enveloping; my temperature subsides and I allow my soul to slide into the shallows where I will float until teatime.
Mum has finished the unknowable tasks that this morning kept her busy beyond the closed door of the living room. Now she brings me hot C-Vit in a Snoopy mug and takes a seat in the big chair by the book shelves. She smiles at me, and sips from a steaming cup.
“I don't know why they won't take your tonsils out,” she says. “I'm sure it would put a stop to all this.”
I nod imperceptibly, wondering at a life unpunctuated in this way.
“I think,” she says, pausing to exert the force needed to rupture a ginger nut, “it just doesn't seem to be the fashionable thing to do these days.”
I turn back to the television – the easy listening, easy watching television. From somewhere beyond this place, the relaxed brush and shuffle of James Clarke's 'Girl of My Dreams' is giving vague memories the intensity of the moment. I silently deliver up thanks and praises to the god of medical practice who has deemed my time on earth to be the period When Tonsils Will Not Be Removed Willy Nilly.
“Doctor Ruck said you'll probably just grow out of it. And if not, you can always have them out when you're older. It's such an easy operation he said.”
I nod again. And with that, I close my eyes, and rest.
Tracks twenty two and twenty three
To snooze away a weekday afternoon, absent from school and sunk deep in cushions; to topple from the edge of consciousness and plunge into a chewy, viscous sleep; to drift through the sonic detritus of a naive and primitive televisual age. And while I tumble thus, these late-night piano miniatures seem to echo through a mist of memory and suggestion; from somewhere non-specific and vague, but carrying with them an evocative charge that conjures images from neural sparks – pictures from an ether of the mind.
Marian McPartland, an English pianist turned American jazz heroine, coaxes from her instrument an after-hours sense of heavy limbed surrender – to fatigue, to the evening, to the concept of life itself. Even through the innocent haze of a childhood illness, I pick up these atmospheres, filtered through the medium of light entertainment: after all, they are staple tropes of late night variety shows, the ballast of Saturday night TV. In their original incarnations – as jazz dive end-of-nighters – they seem laden with existential weariness, the soundtracks to bourbon-chased dereliction. But as they reach me here on this sofa, watched over by mum and the television’s unblinking, unthreatening eye, they serve as a gentle jazz coda, a sound to usher in a deeply happy kind of slumber.
So though my throat hurts, and my metabolism simmers, and bacterial wars rage inside my childish frame, I feel anaesthetised; immune to the terrors of this life.
I am cosseted. Cared for. And content.
Marian McPartland’s final chord triggers a melancholic spasm: I jerk awake in a body – unmistakeably adult – that seems riddled with hurt. I am... uncertain... unsure of where I am. But as hurried voices buzz round my head and begowned shadows flit like phantoms before my lightly closed eyes, I recall the glare of the operating theatre, and realise I have now passed into a world beyond those walls. Meaning the recovery ward, rather than death.
My throat feels sliced; my face seems punched at and bruised. And I try and probe at the tender place where my tonsils used to be, frightened that I might once again get the bad-penny taste of blood. But for once, I am numb to the horrors that may hide there – a blessing, at least, in a world made of pain.
Finally, I open my eyes, and there is my wife looking back. Her worried folds are tucked into a compressed kind of smile; but there is a brittle feel now to the glimpses between us, and a guiltiness in the way I retreat back behind my eyelids – and the way I clutch onto this bed.
From within the darkness, I think of that music; the vanished certainties of those delicate moments. I yearn for my tape; I long for my KPM cassette.
And I want to go back there. To the comfort. To the memories. To that suspended existence.
To that infinite, black and white world.
© Damon Fairclough 2011