Meet Delia Derbyshire, the Dr. Who Composer Who Almost Turned The Beatles’ “Yesterday” Into Early Electronica

The March issue of UK month­ly music mag­a­zine Q recent­ly hit news­stands, fea­tur­ing a Bea­t­les 50th anniver­sary cov­er with an inset promis­ing “Mac­ca Speaks!”. Did we need anoth­er Paul McCart­ney inter­view, you may well ask? Is there any­thing Bea­t­les-relat­ed left to tell? It seems there is. McCart­ney reveals that he once gave seri­ous con­sid­er­a­tion to using an elec­tron­ic back­ing for the 1965 record­ing of “Yes­ter­day” instead of the string arrange­ment he end­ed up with. Now, in itself, this may not seem note­wor­thy except that, well, it was 1965… what did “elec­tron­ic” even mean in music at the time?

To find out, we should get acquaint­ed with Delia Der­byshire, com­pos­er and arranger at the BBC’s Radio­phon­ic Work­shop, who would have scored McCartney’s elec­tron­ic “Yes­ter­day.” Der­byshire is now best known as the com­pos­er of the clas­sic 1963 theme to the orig­i­nal Dr. Who series (above), a fact we will return to. But first, let Q read­er and record pro­duc­er David Mel­lor explain why he thinks that when McCart­ney says elec­tron­ic, he doesn’t mean syn­the­sized music:

The rea­son I don’t think that syn­the­siz­ers would have been con­tem­plat­ed is that the Radio­phon­ic Work­shop only acquired their first syn­the­siz­er in 1965. Per­haps it was already avail­able for use at the time of the record­ing of Yes­ter­day in 1965, but the his­tor­i­cal reports I can find don’t give suf­fi­cient lev­el of pre­ci­sion to con­firm this. I would con­tend how­ev­er that unless the Radio­phon­ic Work­shop imme­di­ate­ly went synth-crazy as soon as the syn­the­siz­er was deliv­ered, most work would have been accom­plished using their exist­ing tech­niques.

So what were the “exist­ing tech­niques” before the use of syn­the­siz­ers? McCart­ney him­self alludes to them in say­ing that Der­byshire had a “hut in the bot­tom of her gar­den… full of tape machines and fun­ny instru­ments.” What McCart­ney saw were the imple­ments of radio sound effects and also of what was called musique con­créte, an ear­ly form of elec­tron­ic music devel­oped by French com­pos­er Pierre Scha­ef­fer, Egypt­ian com­pos­er Hal­im El-Dabh, and oth­ers (most notably Olivi­er Mes­si­aen and Karl­heinz Stock­hausen). Musique con­créte com­posers manip­u­lat­ed nat­ur­al sounds with basic record­ing technologies—microphones, tape recorders, film cameras—to cre­ate com­plex elec­troa­coustic arrang­ments through care­ful edit­ing and effects like reverb, echo, and over­dub­bing. The excerpt below from the BBC’s 1979 doc­u­men­tary The New Sound of Music demon­strates.

It so hap­pened that Delia Der­byshire had mas­tered these tech­niques, using them in her arrange­ment of Ron Grainer’s Dr. Who theme, com­posed entire­ly of musique con­créte effects. The work of Der­byshire and her col­leagues at the BBC sound effects unit cap­tured the imag­i­na­tions of thou­sands of sci­ence fic­tion fans and lovers of radio dra­ma, includ­ing McCart­ney, who is quot­ed from his Q inter­view say­ing:

The Radio­phon­ic Work­shop, I loved all that, it fas­ci­nat­ed me, and still does… there came a time when John (Lennon), because of his asso­ci­a­tion with Yoko and the avant garde, became thought of as the one who turned us all on to that. But that ear­ly era was more mine.

Mac­ca can take the cred­it, but the ear­ly era of exper­i­men­tal elec­tron­ic music belonged to Delia Der­byshire. See her demon­strate her craft below, using tape machines to cre­ate a rhythm track.

Der­byshire did, of course, also embrace the use of syn­the­siz­ers as they became more wide­ly avail­able. Branch­ing out from her BBC work, she began to make music with anoth­er com­pos­er, Bri­an Hodg­son, under the name Unit Delta Plus. The two soon joined with clas­si­cal bass play­er David Vorhaus to form the exper­i­men­tal elec­tron­ic band White Noise in 1968. The fol­low­ing year, the band released their now-clas­sic album An Elec­tric Storm, which used the tape manip­u­la­tion tech­niques Der­byshire demon­strates above as well as the first British syn­the­siz­er, the EMS Syn­thi VCS3.  This record, notes All­mu­sic, is renowned “as one of the first albums to fuse pop and elec­tron­ic music.” Check out the White Noise song “Love with­out Sound” below to get a taste of what they were about.

What­ev­er your inter­est in the place this song occu­pies with­in the wider his­to­ry of elec­tron­ic music, there’s no doubt that Der­byshire and com­pa­ny were sim­ply mak­ing fan­tas­tic exper­i­men­tal pop. If they sound well ahead of their time, that’s because of the influ­ence they’ve had on so many musi­cians since (why, Pitch­fork even gives the White Noise album an 8.6!). After sev­er­al more pro­duc­tive years, Der­byshire became dis­il­lu­sioned with the state of elec­tron­ic music in the sev­en­ties and with­drew to work in a book­shop and art gallery, but with the mid-nineties revival of the sounds she helped cre­ate, she saw a resur­gence of recog­ni­tion as both a genre pio­neer and a hero to female musi­cians and engi­neers. For an extend­ed look at Derbyshire’s life and art, be sure to watch the doc­u­men­tary Sculp­tress of Sound, on YouTube in sev­en parts.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The “Amen Break”: The Most Famous 6‑Second Drum Loop & How It Spawned a Sam­pling Rev­o­lu­tion

Glenn Gould Pre­dicts Mash-up Cul­ture in 1969 Doc­u­men­tary

Josh Jones is a writer, edi­tor, and musi­cian based in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Fol­low him @jdmagness

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