Velocity Press have just issued an expanded and amended version of Ian Helliwell's Tape Leaders: A Compendium of Early British Electronic Composers! Prompting me to wheel and come again with my own review from several years ago (see below). It's even more of a lavishly illustrated fetish object than before. You can buy the new edition of Tape Leaders here.
(While we're on this subject, a huge cache of pieces - by one of the figures in Helliwell's Encyclopedia Anglotronica, the avant-choreographer Ernest Berk - has found its way onto YouTube. Thirteen pieces in all, some of them lengthy, and all accompanied by stills of his ballet ensemble performing, sometimes starkers - Berk was a fervent naturist - and daubed in psychedelic body-paint)
Ian Helliwell also has a retrospective of his experimental filmwork showing at The Cube in Bristol this Sunday 24th October.
For years now independent researcher Ian Helliwell has been excavating the early decades of electronic and tape-based experimental music, with a particular focus on the British story. He's displayed his discoveries via a radio series, The Tone Generation, the F.C. Judd documentary Practical Electronica, and most recently through an irregular series of in-depth features in The Wire. Now he's written a book, Tape Leaders: A Compendium Of Early British Electronic Music Composers.
As seen with his Wire article on Practical Electronics magazine as a hub for DIY synth operators, Helliwell's special fascination is for a breed of British amateurs who doggedly pursued their eccentric interests. Unlike Europe, where composers generally came out of the academy or were attached to the experimental units of national radio stations, or America, where they might also be supported by corporations like Bell, the U.K. was a particularly fertile ground for hobbyists - boffins like Peter Keen and Brian Whibley who cobbled together contraptions in shed or garage workshops.
Styled as an encyclopedia, Tape Leaders doesn't go in much for evocation of sonix, but the book bulges with fascinating details and the illustrative material is fabulous: groovy looking flyers and posters for electronic music events and multi-media arts festivals, diagrams of equipment set-ups, adverts for brands of tape, and as you might expect lots of black-and-white photos of middle-aged experimenters with well-combed hair, ties and button shirts with the sleeves rolled up posed next to banks of wires, dials, and reel-to-reels. Helliwell has fun with the guidebook format: a rating system evaluates each composer in terms of Commitment Factor, Obscurity Quotient, and Recording Availability. The latter is rather often "Poor". That tantalising effect is one of the only downsides with this delightful book. So often the reader's desire is piqued hopelessly by the knowledge that these works - many written for arty film shorts, theatrical plays or avant-garde ballets - exist in the world but that it's pretty unlikely you'll ever get to hear them. Those pangs are mitigated slightly by the 15-track CD that accompanies Tape Leaders which includes impossibly obscure work by the likes of Peter Grogono, Donald Henshilwood, David Piper, and the aforementioned Berk.