Pop culture treasure, high culture trash.
Saturday, September 15, 2007
The best thing in this month's issue of The Wire (the one with PJ Harvey on the cover) is Simon Reynolds' review of White Noise's Electric Storm, first released in 1969 and currently undergoing a reissue by Island/Universal. As interesting as the words are, it's an accompanying picture that clinches it: a small black-and-white photo of White Noiser Delia Derbyshire, bent over an array of reel-to-reel tape consoles.
It's an arresting image, not least because it seems like it shouldn't exist. We're not used to seeing photographic proof of women's involvement with audio engineering in the early 1960s; it wasn't supposed to have happened. Replace the console under Derbyshire's fingers with a typewriter and the photo slides into a historical context we can recognize. But as it stands, the image of a woman hard at work in a recording studio, her hair and clothes dating her as unmistakably 60s, inspires a kind of revolutionary disbelief. This isn't an ironic feminist collage, the kind that inserts grinning housewives into the cockpits of space shuttles. It's what actually happened. Women were involved in early electronic music; they did stand at consoles and splice tape and twiddle knobs, even in the presumed-to-be-all-male corridors of the 1960s BBC. That there was only a minority of them doesn't erase their existence. It's a shame our narratives of women's musical history don't accommodate them.
They certainly don't accommodate Delia Derbyshire, whose name survives primarily as the arranger and co-producer of the original theme to Dr. Who, which stands as one of the most icily beautiful pieces of pop ever used in the service of science fiction television. This was still the era when a record company could refuse to hire a woman by citing a men-only policy (Decca turned down Derbyshire in 1959), but the BBC's Radiophonic Workshop was more enlightened and took on five women for its eighteen-member staff. Derbyshire worked there until 1973.