What’s a nice tune like you
doing in a place like this?

The joys of the music library by Pascal Wyse

From The Guardian, 5 July 2001, p.10

Reproduced here by kind permission of the author

 


Can you imagine Michael Aspel sneaking up on an unsuspecting celebrity, red book in hand, without that big fanfare from the band? It just seems so right. It even fits the rhythm of the words: “This is your life!” Or a brainy train driver approaching Mastermind’s black chair without that funereal march? Grange Hill without the squidgy funk?

The programmes’ theme tunes seem made to measure. But the surprising thing about that music, and other big signatures such as Grandstand, Blue Peter and Captain Pugwash, is that they were never written for those programmes. They are all library music — tunes written and stored, along with thousands of other snippets, waiting for the day when someone would come along and say: ‘I need a high-energy; sporty-sounding thing to use at the beginning of my show’.

The composers remained anonymous: no credit at the end, but enough cash to make up for it. Since radio and television started broadcasting, these libraries have grown into vast archives of music for every mood, nuance and style you can imagine. And for those in search of the obscure, they have become a favourite hunting ground.

The DJ and composer Luke Vibert has just released Nuggets, a selection 28 rarities from the libraries of Chappell, L’Illustration Musicale, Peer International and Southern — stacks of forgotten vinyl and tape from the 1970s.

‘Seven-eighths of it was complete cack, just comedy records to be honest’, says Vibert. ‘You get pretty spun out after hours of it. We had these huge piles: one for “listen again”, one for “no-nos” and one for “wow!” But there were real gems. Many of the tracks come from a time when, because of a dispute with the Musician’s Union in this country; a lot of work was farmed out to French studios. They carry bizarre subtitles: “an electronic festival with filthy drums”; “exotic easy listening monster”; “very odd electronic pop piece with crazy chipmunk vocals”.’

‘ Much of it is funky much of it is sweet, and much of it is profoundly strange. Five years ago many of Vibert’s hundreds oflibrary music recordings could be picked up for pennies. I’d buy albums with titles like The Worst 45s Ever. But they were always the best. That was before such obscurities shot up in value, partly because of the rise of sampler-based music and partly because of a renewed interest in lounge listening. Now people will cough up hundreds of pounds for this stuff.’ Which means that at least one company has thrown away a fortune.

Martin Webb is a catalogue manager with KPM, perhaps the most successful library music company in the UK. ‘Perhaps I shouldnt say this’, he admits, ‘but 16 years ago we decided to transfer completely to CD. We went down to our warehouse, picked up about two tonnes of vinyl and... er, just chucked it out.’ He moves quickly on. ‘You do wonder what some of these people were thinking about when they were writing this stuff. It’s been cut out now but in the middle of Grandstand there was this completely wild guitar solo that just didn’t have any bearing at all. Then there’s News at Ten. That was a four-and-a-half minute piece called Arabesque that suddenly, about three minutes in goes: “Derrr da da derrr”.’

Vibert’s Nuggets evoke exotic funky worlds that didn’t hit prime time, but listening to one of KPM’s compilations is like being locked inside a TV. The company owns just about all the famous broadcast tunes you can think of. When you hear the longer tunes that have been pillaged by the creators of familiar themes — such as News at Ten — you get an eerie feeling, as if you’d diccovered a close friend had a secret other life.

Music for film and TV has often been seen as creatively second-rate — not serious music By that logic, off-the-peg TV music is an even lower art form: pure headless commerciality. But while KPM and the other libraries are big business, they also contain great examples of how commercial practice and experimental music-making can be happily united in one piece of music. Many musicians find the industry provides an attractive market for their work.

‘A lot of musicians don’t want publishing deals now,’ says mastering engineer Matthew Denny. ‘We don’t sign people, but work project by project. You don’t have the same egos as you do with big record companies. It’s actually more about the smusic.’

KPM must realise that its stores contain a fair amount of pap but it is also aware of the recordings’ sampling potential. The more the music is used by artists (there are currently tracks in the charts by Snoop and Jay Z that contain snippets from KPM’s archives) the more the firm’s street cred goes up. As the Nuggets album suggests, —Some people will be irate that this "secret’ music is now available? But libraries still receive a few intriguing demos from hopeful outsiders.

Inside the most secret KPM vault lurks a tape from “the Lionel Bart of Pinner”. It’s a recording of the Grandstand theme with the tune sung over the top — with lyrics so unutterably bad that they could only be the work of some sort of twisted genius. ‘Oh no. this one’s never going out’, says Denny. But you can bet it’ll be kept carefully archived for the moment when the world is ready.

Nuggets is out on Lo Recordings.

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