Library music is enjoying a vinyl renaissance, but was nearly left to languish in the vaults forever. Don’t burn down the library until you’ve heard all the music, says Chris Parkin…
If you’re a fan of schlocky 70s horror films – or indeed, you’ve ever turned on a TV – then you will have heard library music. These are songs or incidental tracks composed for TV or film to capture a mood or soundtrack an activity, thus avoiding the costs of proper live scores, and before digital software, library music was essential. Grandstand, Countdown, Grange Hill… they all featured it. And pioneering artists such as Ennio Morricone and Delia Derbyshire began their careers making it.
Because it’s functional above all else, its creators didn’t get much attention, even if their songs reached more people than many hit singles. And when studios and labels destroyed many of their recordings in the switch to digital, the story of library music was nearly lost forever.
The allure for collectors is obvious, then: rare vintage music pressed to vinyl, for the benefit of TV studios and housed in simple, iconic sleeves with matching spines; tracks performed by many of the same musicians; and music that is by turns funky, terrifying, silly, and wildly experimental. Artists on Ghostbox and bands such as Broadcast and Public Service Broadcasting have been influenced by the music; hip-hop and pop producers continue to sample it, and collecting obsessives have helped revive popular interest in the ‘genre’. The British Library recently hosted a celebration of library-music purveyors KPM, and Texan collector David Hollander has written an in-depth book about the subject for Anthology Records called Unusual Sounds: The Hidden History Of Library Music.
To accompany it, Anthology has also released a kind of ‘Library Music: Greatest Hits’ compilation of the same name. The record features tracks by the key library-music players of the 60s and 70s golden era, including Joel Vandroogenbroeck, the founding member of Belgian ‘krautrock’ band Brainticket, KPM stars Keith Mansfield and John Cameron, who scored Kes and worked with Bobbie Gentry, plus composers Janko Nilovi and Stefano Torossi.
But it’s Be With Records who have really stepped up the library-music revival. They’re reissuing 10 records from the KPM 1000 Series and Themes International Music, plus a new album from two of KPM’s chief composers, Brian Bennett and Alan Hawkshaw (the man who created the Grange Hill theme and also played keyboard on Bowie At The Beeb). Alan Parker, David Snell and the rest of the KPM All Stars feature across the archival series, which runs the gamut from haunting, folkish moodscapes to space funk, Balearic-like ambient and John Cage-inspired flights of minimalism.
Of course, Trunk Records have been dabbling in this world for over a decade. The label dug up music from the UK’s late godfather of ambient Basil Kirchin back in 2005, with Abstractions Of The Industrial North, a strange melancholy collection of hypnotic fi lm music. Another Trunk essential, from 2008, is The John Baker Tapes, which revisits the playfully bonkers, early electronic experiments of the tape-manipulating BBC Radiophonic Workshop wiz.