Doctor Who: The most important electronic music ever?

The Dr Who theme tune is the most famous piece from the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop. Andrew Harrison looks at how the team created groundbreaking electronic music.

In a venue called, appropriately enough, the Shoreditch Electric Light Station the musicians who constitute one of the hottest tickets in the London Electronic Arts Festival are taking the stage. These are no digital manipulators or brave-haired superstar DJs. Mostly in their 60s and 70s and sporting a wardrobe of sensible shirts and slacks, they could probably walk unmolested through any rave or bleeding edge sonic arts happening. They’re even playing a matinee show.

Yet these five everyday figures – Roger Limb, Paddy Kingsland, Dick Mills, Peter Howell and Mark Ayres – represent one of the most adventurous moments in modern music history. This is the reformed Radiophonic Workshop, carrying the banner for a particular and very British strain of handmade invention.

The avant-garde music known as radiophonics influenced pop from The Beatles through to modern dance music and techno, even though its progenitors were not eccentric art visionaries but salaried BBC engineers and composers who never earned royalties from their work.

In its golden period from 1958 to the late ’70s, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop created music by hitting old pieces of machinery, resonating household objects, generating white noise and manipulating the resulting sounds until their origins were lost but new moods and truths about the world emerged. This was electronic music in an age before consumer electronics, utilising the techniques of music concrète and the logic of Futurism to open up a new aural world.

As Doctor Who turns 50 this year, the Workshop’s most famous work is back in the spotlight. In 1963, a member of the group, Delia Derbyshire, transformed songwriter Ron Grainer’s straightforward theme tune into a cosmic fantasia of burbles and alien winds. Grainer famously asked her “Did I write that?” “Most of it,” she replied.

The Doctor Who theme became possibly the most important electronic music ever made and certainly the most widely-heard avant-garde recording in history. It is not too much to say that it triggered the modern era in popular music just as much as The Beatles did.

“Back then it must have been the most incredible thing you could possibly imagine,” says Steven Moffat, Doctor Who’s current executive producer and a fan since the age of five. “It’s still unearthly now. It’s a collection of sounds that you simply cannot imagine coming from the real world. We’ve heard all sorts of weird sounds since,” he says. “I can’t imagine what people made of it.”

Falling star

The success of the Doctor Who theme and the pathos of her own story have made Delia Derbyshire the Workshop’s posthumous star. A gifted mathematician and composer who had studied at Cambridge, she also scored groundbreaking music for radio drama and religious programming. Her electronic band Unit Delta Plus performed with The Beatles at London’s Roundhouse in 1967. Paul McCartney later asked her to rearrange Yesterday in the radiophonic style, a fascinating idea that sadly never happened.

Derbyshire even moonlighted to co-create the music for The Tomorrow People – ITV’s rival to Doctor Who – under a pseudonym. But Derbyshire slipped into disillusion and alcoholism and died at 64 in 2001, just as a new generation of musicians was beginning to extol the value of her work.

“Delia was wonderful to work with, but she had an exponential curve to her enthusiasm, and it was downwards,” explains Dick Mills, of the reformed Radiophonic Workshop, who collaborated with her on the Doctor Who theme. “I won’t decry her achievement in any way but she got her satisfaction in the planning, not the execution. She thought it was better to travel than to arrive. But her creations for radio and TV were astonishing.”

Mills describes the Radiophonic Workshop as coming into being by happy accident. After learning that tape recorders could replace the vinyl records they used to play in live sound effect, BBC drama producers found that if you ‘mistreated’ the machines, voice effects and nightmarish sounds would result. “One of the early criticisms,” says Mills, “was that we produced sounds that nobody liked for plays that nobody could understand.”

Orders for music began to pour in from the rest of the BBC, especially from local radio. When Radio Sheffield asked for a short jingle to identify the station, the Workshop’s David Cain built it from the sounds of cutlery. They created the sound of a halo of bees around a saint’s head for a religious broadcast, and for Westminster at Work their engineer John Harrison climbed inside Big Ben to record its maintenance engineers.

But when cheap synthesisers came into the picture the Radiophonic Workshop’s future grew cloudier. In the early ‘90s a new BBC policy called Producer Choice obliged the Workshop to compete with commercial providers and show a profit. Its musicians and engineers proved to be no masters of the spreadsheet.

“The rot set in when Doctor Who ended in 1989,” says Mills, who had provided ‘special sound’ on the programme since the 1960s. The BBC moved him to remaster the sound on archive tapes. “They used to pay me to put horrible noises on TV programmes,” he says, “and now they were paying me to take them off.” Mills left the Workshop in 1993 and in 1998 it closed.

Variations on a theme

This would have been the end of the story except that many musicians who reached maturity in the ‘90s had grown up with Doctor Who. Artists from Stereolab to Aphex Twin to Broadcast began to quote from radiophonics. A creative spark previously hidden on sound effects albums became more widely know.

“I’ve been drawn to that sound since I was a child,” says Paul Hartnoll of electronic duo Orbital.  “It creeped me out but it also made me feel a bit melancholy, and I loved that. It was the equivalent of looking at a tower block and finding it oppressive but beautiful too.” At the low point of Doctor Who’s popularity, in 2001, he and brother Phil recorded a raved-up version of the theme tune which became a highlight of their show at festivals. “We thought a lot of younger people wouldn’t even know it but it really resonated with them.”

In 2008, for the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Radiophonic Workshop, the British dance duo Coldcut performed a new remixed, re-edited work based on original radiophonic recordings for the BBC Electric Proms. “You can locate the beginning of electronic music as far back as the Futurist Art Of Noises manifesto in 1913,” says the duo’s Matt Black. “But realistically, the Doctor Who theme is where it began. That title sequence was the catalyst for everything that we do with sound, and visuals too.”

The five members of the Workshop plan to make a new album in 2014. But true to its most famous client, they have also regenerated, with a different face and personality but the same core ideas. Backed by the Arts Council and the BBC, the electronic composer and dance music producer Matthew Herbert has assembled a loose new group including theatre directors, academics, radio producers and people who build robots, as well as musicians.

“The original Radiophonic Workshop was collaborative, democratic and almost anonymous,” says Herbert. “They had the incredible bravery that comes from not having to justify what you’re doing against a budget. We wanted to apply that spirit to the digital context.”

We are now living in the future that the Radiophonic Workshop used to imagine, he thinks. Music has become very easy to make, which raises the question, why are you making it? “Making music the radiophonic way was bloody hard,” says Herbert. “They had to physically cut, splice and manipulate tape.

“But they showed that you can put challenging, different music onto teatime TV and that far from being frightened away, people would love it. That’s an inspiration and an incredible achievement.”

If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.