The Delightful Delia Derbyshire - OZY | A Modern Media Company


Because doing stuff that seems amazing now back in the 1950s is, well, pretty amazing.

By Eugene S. Robinson

If you know anything, by reputation even, of post-World War II England, you’ve already conjured images of angry young men, pervasive gray and industries grinding to a halt. Which is not far from the truth. And that makes the ascendency of Cambridge mathematician, medieval historian and electronic music pioneer Delia Derbyshire all the more remarkable.

You see, despite her almost lifelong interest in how things sounded, what made them sound the way they did, and how to make them sound that way again, her life as a professional sound creator got off to a rocky start. When she went for a job at Decca Records back in the early 1960s after graduating from Cambridge in 1959, she was told that they couldn’t, wouldn’t and didn’t hire women. But for a working class girl from Lancashire by way of Coventry who learned how to read when she was 4 years old, this was only a minor inconvenience. She detoured to working at the United Nations, then took a quick jump to music publishing, eventually ending up at the BBC.

Creating music on the basis of sonic qualities and not from instruments? Important, influential and wonderful.

Where things got completely and totally serious.

You see, all genius needs is a place where genius is recognized. At the BBC she kicked ass so significantly that in her subsequent 11 years there she created music, sound and soundscapes for nearly 200 radio and TV shows. Which is a lot of blah-blah – unless you’re a sci-fi geek, in which case you’ll understand that in 1963 she created what would make her golden for all eternity: the theme for the Doctor Who series. 

Then, in short order, she produced a whole boatload of music, all electronically composed and played, for shows and celebs like Yoko Ono and Anthony Newley. She released her seminal and largely unknown – at the time – record, An Electric Storm. Which, if you had ears in 1969 and were listening, you know that, amidst The Beatles, Rolling Stones and Creedence Clearwater Revival, it was a refreshing burst of electronic breath at a time when rootsy blues “authenticity” or eastern influence raga rock held major sway. Or, as the head of the BBC at the time once said, according to Derbyshire herself: “It was impossible for electronic music to be beautiful … until Delia came along.”

And come along she did, creating beauty even as she claimed in a super rare interview with Boazine that her early love of sounds came from the air raid sirens she heard during The Blitz. “That’s a sound you hear and you don’t know the source of as a young child … then the sound of the ‘all clear’ — that was electronic music.” They inspired her to create musical sounds that were both plangent and eerie. Repeated patterns, light on beats but heavy on rhythms and textures, a sound so far ahead of its time that by the time music caught up to her, it was largely forgotten that Derbyshire had done it first. 

So, it would not be an exaggeration to say that an entire industry sprouted up in her giant footsteps. Debts are owed to her by everyone from DJ Spooky and Kid 606, to DJ Rapture and Blevin from Blechtdom. Throw in Moby and half of the music for present-day commercials, movies and TV and you have a clear sense of the lineage she created with tape manipulation, electronics and a restless sense of the possibilities of sonics. 

It would not be an exaggeration to say that an entire industry sprouted up in her giant footsteps.

”It really is like landing on the moon,” says Philippe Petit, a self-described musical travel agent and musician based in Marseilles (total disclosure: OZY Deputy Editor Eugene S. Robinson has appeared on a number of Petit releases). ”Creating music on the basis of sonic qualities and not from instruments? Important, influential and wonderful.” And though Derbyshire died early at the age of 64 in 2001, her swath cut wide and deep.

For which we’re all a little better off.

Sign up for the weekly newsletter!

Related Stories