Music for a Purpose: KPM, the BBC and the History of Library Music
Ubiquitous and catchy, TV and film theme tunes mark out our viewing. Yet their composers almost always remain anonymous. Robert Barry tracks down the people behind the music, in a piece first published in The Quietus.
Keith Mansfield wrote the theme tune to Grandstand on his way to work one morning. "I can remember driving into London at six o'clock in the morning, stopping at a traffic light and writing baa-buh-bun-bun…" This iconic piece of music, which introduced the BBC's flagship sports programme for some thirty years, was a moment's work. Done by lunchtime.
"I used to write three compositions a day," Mansfield told me over the phone. "If I'd had more time to think about it I would have said, you have to make your mind up: it's either pop music or orchestral." But 'Grandstand''s sudden switch from the simple triadic harmonies of the intro into what Mansfield calls "Las Vegas-style writing" in the B section is part of its appeal. I've never watched so much as a free kick's worth of TV sports and the show went off the air nearly a decade ago, but the riffs and changes that Mansfield wrote in his car that mid-70s morning are still more familiar to me than most of the music I've written myself.
In many respects, 'Grandstand' is the archetypal piece of library music: turned around quickly, in a weird hybrid genre of its own, without anything over-fussy or excessively complex about it, and commissioned, contracted, and produced not by the BBC itself but an external contractor: KPM, a company that once churned out a dozen albums on the trot, each one packaged in an anonymous, rather functional-looking cardboard sleeve, never intended for public consumption.
In the 60s, 70s, and 80s, companies like KPM and De Wolfe in England, Gemelli in Italy, and Editions Montparnasse 2000 in France, produced an almost uncountable quantity of music, pressed in short runs onto records with titles like Corporate Energy or Light Comedy Episodes. Some of the themes on those records would end up, like 'Grandstand', as the sig tune to a hit TV show, or in the background to a Roger Corman film, an advert for a new breakfast cereal, or an in-house corporate video. By such means, this music gradually filtered out of Soho studios and into people's daily lives, ultimately coming to have a profound effect on the listening habits of people all over the world. But a lot of it would simply gather dust on the shelves of production houses and edit suites, never listened to and quickly forgotten, just one more entry in a bulging catalogue of titles.
Library music was created with a completely different mindset to either the pop music of its day or the academic, concert music. Its influence was subterranean. Finding out about it is like peeking behind the curtain and discovering a secret history of twentieth century music. "It wasn't that you had to have a hit," Mansfield explained to me. "You had to have music that people could use – and they would use the most odd pieces of music."
Another thing that makes 'Grandstand' typical of the library music of its era was that it was never written to be a sports theme for the BBC. Exactly what it was originally intended to be used for, nobody can any longer remember. But from the opening baa-buh-bun-bun that Mansfield wrote with one arm on the steering wheel at a red light, to the instantly recognisable diddle-diddle-dee of the xylophone and the infectious boing of a kettle drum, not a single note was written with 'Grandstand' – or anything like it – in mind.
There would have been a brief of some sort which Mansfield sought to fulfil. He composed the piece with that in mind. But the BBC's producers heard something else there and it found its way into a context that nobody could have foreseen.
Such was often the case. The track used by BBC One for all their golf coverage over the last forty years was written by Brian Bennett when he found a couple of spare hours at the end of an orchestral session he was conducting for Demis Roussos. Golf was probably the last thing on his mind.
"You never know what it's going to be used for!" Alan Parker said to me when we met up at a studio in North London in June. "You never, ever know." Just a few days before, Parker had been doing an interview over the phone to an American radio programme when the host of the show informed him that he was "massive in the porn industry." Parker, stunned, replied, "What? What are you talking about?" Turned out a piece he'd written for KPM in 1976 called 'You've Got What It Takes' had since been used for over a hundred porn films, from Barbara Broadcast and Pretty Peaches to The ABCs Of Love And Sex, Australian Style. "I mean, that was the first I've heard of that," Parker said, shaking his head. "But I mean, ok! Novel."
In 1959 Alan Parker was the guitar champion of north London. Born in Matlock, Derbyshire, in the final years of World War Two, he had originally wanted to learn the trumpet. "My parents weren't very wealthy," he explained, "They said, your uncle's got a guitar in the loft – he wasn't my uncle, just a family friend – so I went round on my bike and brought the guitar back on a piece of string round my back." He started "messing around", as he puts it. Had a few lessons from a local teacher. "And at the age of fourteen and a half, still at school as such, I did extremely well. There used to be a thing called the BMG – the Banjo, Mandolin, and Guitar rallies – at Wigmore Hall and St. Pancras Town Hall, once a year. I entered for it. There were four categories. And I won two cups and two medals. So that's how I started playing. Gradually it went from there."
Parker would become one of the most sought-after session players in Britain. He played on records by the Walker Brothers, Cliff Richard, Rosemary Clooney, Kate Bush, and Serge Gainsbourg. He played the riff that opens David Bowie's 'Rebel, Rebel'. He also played – mostly uncredited – on vast quantities of KPM sessions. "It was Pete McGurk on bass, Kenny Clare on drums, me on guitar," Parker recalls. At that time, and for most of the 60s and 70s, recording library music in England was forbidden by the Musicians' Union since they thought it endangered the common practice of TV variety shows employing a live studio orchestra. KPM, in response, simply upped and went to Germany for their recording sessions.
"One trip, I can't remember how, but they'd finished quite early. So Robin [Phillips, KPM's director throughout the 60s and 70s] sort of said, do you fancy writing some tracks, Alan? So I trundled off back to the hotel, in my bedroom, I'm scribbling away, bits and pieces, virtually through the night. I listen to them now, and think, oh – ouch! But that's how it started."
The story seems to be fairly typical. Practically all the composers I spoke to had some story about Robin Phillips going out on a limb and giving them a chance, following some instinct or simply filling some unexpected free studio time. Brian Bennett started out as a drummer. One session in Brussels, Phillips had said before leaving to bring a couple of extra orchestral charts along, just in case. "One of the sessions they finished three-quarters of an hour early. So Robin said, get the two charts! So I handed the charts out. One was called 'Image' and one was called 'New Horizons'. And I'm sitting there – there's nothing worse, because you're playing the drums, reading the music, and trying to listen to the orchestra to see if they're playing your work correctly. But 'New Horizons' has been used for forty years on the cricket in Australia."
"That was Robin," as Keith Mansfield put it. "I never met anybody else in the music business ever who was as confident in his own judgement as Robin Phillips." Mansfield had been a professional musician and arranger since the age of 19, starting off playing tenor sax at Streatham Meccano, doing tea dances, going on to back up northern comedians at Blackpool tower, late night residencies in Soho Chinese restaurants, before he got a job as a copyist at KPM, carefully drawing out duplicates of other people's scores.
It was a step down for a man who had worked as an arranger and musical director to take a job as a copyist, but he had two kids and needed a steady source of income. Plus, being around the KPM offices brought other perks. He could pop down to the studio and shake a tambourine on other people's sessions. Sometimes other composers would contract him as a 'ghost', farming out arrangement jobs they were too busy for – work that was paid but uncredited. After a while, Robin Phillips had him write some quick small group jazz arrangements of popular Christmas carols for a client in America. They worked. The client loved them and had him do another. Nursery rhymes this time, but the same jazzy approach. Still, after two years in the copyists' department, things weren't exactly taking off.
So after two years, Mansfield took another job at Kassner Music, a rival publishing house from the other end of Denmark Street. Kassner gave Mansfield a retainer and a pokey little office in the basement and set him to work writing arrangements for pop singers like Marty Wilde and Dusty Springfield. Coming from a background playing with swing bands, the simplicity of pop arrangements astounded Mansfield at first. "But when you get into it, you realise that people listen with different ears," he told me. "And being a pop arranger, what that did, is it put you in an environment. You were using the best studios, the best musicians, the best engineers. You were in that circle. All the random things you heard there would, by osmosis, become part of the way you thought."
"And then Robin came to me." Phillips was planning another trip to Germany and he wanted Mansfield to come along, compose some pieces. "It may have been eight scores or it may have been sixteen scores. I'm not sure. But it was for a big orchestra. So that was a hell of a leap. I've gone from writing for a six or seven piece small group to writing for a forty piece orchestra. That showed a hell of a lot of belief from Robin in a guy who'd been a copyist in his father's publishing company only six months earlier."
That was 1967. The whole business of library music was changing. A new style was coming in. And the man largely responsible for bringing those changes about was Robin Phillips. When Keith Mansfield first arrived in the copyists' office in 1964, Robin Phillips was the post boy. His father ran the company and Robin was working his way up from the bottom. In those days, library music was mostly light orchestral music or trad jazz.
Adrian Kerridge, who engineered most of Phillips' jaunts to the continent from the late sixties on, remembers Robin's predecessor bringing the Ted Heath Band in to Landsdowne Studio, the Holland Park recording house where Kerridge used to work as an assistant to Joe Meek. The silken strings of tracks like 'Limelight Waltz' and 'Pink Fizz' by The Group-Forty Orchestra, KPM's other stalwarts in the late 50s and early 60s, sound like another world, sepia-toned and chalk-striped. "It was a good library," as Mansfield said, "but it was second division." All that was about to change.
"Fast-forwarding to the middle sixties, I had a call out of the blue from Robin," Kerridge recalls. "He said, we're going to record new library music and would you like to do it? I said, yeah, of course I would – what is it going to be? He said, it's going to be a different approach, a different type of composer, a different type of writing, a different approach to recording, and we think you're the right kind of guy to do it. But, he said, we're not going to do it in England. We're gonna record abroad."
I was a student when I first discovered library music. There was a place off Oxford Street that fitted perfectly the stereotype of what record shops used to be like, before they turned into luxury boutiques for the sale of decorative 12" square objets d'art: it was cramped, smelt faintly of mould, was populated by small numbers of mostly middle-aged socially awkward men, its overstuffed racks were coated with a thin patina of dust and grime.
One such rack was labeled 'library'. It bulged with almost-indistinguishable green-sleeved KPM records at a fiver a pop. Knowing nothing, I bought things essentially at random, always hoping I might stumble across something like KPM 1104: Electrosonic or Standard Music Library ESL 104, the two library albums Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson cut while moonlighting from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Finally, in 2006, both of those records were reissued, respectively, by Glo-Spot Recordings of Glasgow, and London's own Trunk Records.
"I've been at it longer than most people," Jonny Trunk, Trunk Records founder, sighed when I called him up on Skype. Trunk started re-issuing library music records in 1996 and, alongside film soundtracks, old British jazz, and general weirdness like reissues of Jeff Keen's Noise Art album and flexidiscs that originally came free with porn mags, it's become one of their mainstays, encompassing rediscovered gems by such composers as Basil Kirchin, John Baker, and Sven Libaek. In the early 90s, Trunk told me, "most of the music I was getting into was through the TV."
"I was drinking a lot probably, smoking a lot," he continued, "and staying up quite late watching bizarre late night broadcasts: Open University, stuff like that. And I was wondering where the music that they were using in their scientific demonstrations and stuff came from. It was almost like a kind of happy avant-garde music and I couldn't really work out what it was or where it was from. I couldn't find music that said, you know, this is an album that's used by the Open University, or this is for science broadcasts or anything like that. But I knew I wanted to find it."
One day, in the same mildewed London record shop that I would stumble into almost a decade later, Trunk found an odd-looking record called Dramatics Background. "It's classic library," Trunk explained, "because it's got the singular and the plural mixed. And it just looked like a weird record. Track listings on the front and on the back, with different languages. No artist picture. Nothing like that."
The record he had found was produced by a company called Bosworth, one of the oldest library music companies in the world, with a history stretching deep into the nineteenth century. Taking it home and listening through tracks like 'Amoebae' and 'Mechanised Electrons', Trunk knew that he had found what he was looking for. "This is fucking it!" he exclaimed, and then, "What is it?" The only clue he had to its identity was the name of a company: Bosworth. So Trunk simply looked them up in the phone book and called round. That meeting sparked the beginning of a long journey for Trunk and his label, a journey into this "happy avant-garde" that seemed to offer, as Trunk put it to me, "everything you want from music that you don't get from anything else."
"Oh, I like Johnny! He's just amazing," John Cameron said to me when I bring him up on the phone. "Because he's like one of those great collectors who takes from the highways and byways of music. He collects things not because they're great or earth shattering but because he likes them. And I think it's done our side of things a huge favour. It's made it live."
In the 60s, Cameron worked on the music for Ken Loach films like Kes and Poor Cow. It was his arrangement of Led Zeppelin's 'Whole Lotta Love' that opened Top Of The Pops for many years. He also produced at least two dozen library albums for KPM and, later, Bruton Music. "In the late 60s," he said to me, "I was running about like a blue-arsed whatsit. At one point, we had a string section who used to go around on motorbikes so they could do a morning at Olympic, then an afternoon at Landsdowne, and then the evening at Kingsway."
"The great thing about library music," Cameron told me, "is it's anonymous." That lack of an artist picture that Jonny Trunk had noticed when he got his first Bosworth album – and sometimes even the name of the artist can be quit hard to find – is a key part of the whole game. At the music library, nobody knows you're a dog – and nobody cares, so long as the music works at a specific time, for a specific context. It's that relatively hands-off nature of library that made it, for Cameron, an ideal arena in which "to experiment and find out new sounds."
A few weeks after my phone call with John Cameron, I found myself at Angel Studios in North London where he, Brian Bennett, Alan Parker, Alan Hawkshaw, and Keith Mansfield were re-uniting to record one last KPM record together. Intended as a tribute to Robin Phillips, who died in 2006, for the first time ever the composers had been assigned no particular theme to compose to – Drama & Intrigue, say, or Current Affairs – but requested simply to compose in a way that evoked "classic KPM".
In the live room there were some twenty-odd assembled musicians – brass, saxes, drums, percussion, guitarists, acoustic and electric pianos – spread across four different booths, wth sound baffling partitions to split up the horns in the main room. In the centre of it all, on a raised podium topped with red baize, Cameron perched on the edge of a high stool. "Keep it laid back, funky –" he instructed the band, "– and horrible." He points to the control room: – "Go!" – and waves his conductor's baton as if it were a lone chopstick, picking out the bars like a particularly sticky chow mein. But the sound that comes out is magical, immediately evocative of old films and daytime TV dimly remembered from childhood, an intoxicating melee of pop rhythms, jazzy brass, and classical sophistication. Kettle drums sit beside congas; the lead guitarist has enough pedals to sit in for Radiohead; there are enough trumpets here for a sinfonia.
A little later in the afternoon, I got a chance to sit down with Brian Bennett, out by the studio green room. It must feel strange, I suggested, to go from a situation where every composition you write is ordered to a specific remit, written to match a particular theme, and come to a situation like today where you're being asked almost to pastiche your work of forty-odd years ago?
"Well, as you say," Bennett nodded, "there wasn't a brief. It was, like: think KPM. So I did. And I said to myself, what would Robin want? So I treated today's brief the same as if I'd just had lunch with Robin."
And what would they be like, those lunches with Robin?
"He would always order the finest wine," Bennett began. "We'd have a few stories, jokes, then he'd have his way of introducing his needs, what holes there were in the library. In other words, a client would come along and say, have you got anything like that? And he'd look at the library and say to himself, no we haven't. So then he'll fix that. He understood the client's wishes so he would always talk to you about the client. And if the client wants a saxophone and a bagpipe and a bass drum and you say, what do you want to do that for? He would say, don't worry about it – just do it. As it were. He had this wonderful phraseology. Every now and then it would be, as it were this and as it were that. He was a very fun person to be with, but when it came to the job, you had to be sharp and right on it. He liked what he did. It wasn't just a job. This was going to be the best library."
The other thing I was eager to know was whether the developments of the last twenty years had changed the way he approached composing. In the heyday of KPM, Bennett and his colleagues were making music, effectively, without an audience. This was one of the reasons Keith Mansfield had finally given up composing for the library, twenty-five years ago. "I was writing music not to be listened to but to do a job," Mansfield had said to me. "You have no interaction with an audience and you don't get that sort of buzz from performance." But since Trunk put out the first Super Sounds Of Bosworth record in 1996, all sorts of labels had spring up re-issuing long-neglected production albums. Hip hop producers like Dangermouse, Madlib and Jay Z had sampled tracks by Mansfield, Bennett, and Cameron. Some of the records Trunk had helped make famous were now changing hands for hundreds of pounds – far more than he could keep up with himself.
So has it changed your approach, I asked Brian Bennett, knowing that now there is an audience out there, waiting to listen to this?
"I didn't go down that road," he replied. "This is the spirit of Robin Philips, here. So if it does get played, all in good. But I'm writing music for a purpose."
Share this article