How Paul McCartney and Delia Derbyshire ‘almost’ made musical history

With the world immersing itself in Peter Jackson’s Get Back documentary over the past few days, we felt it was a good opportunity to revisit one of the great ‘missed opportunities’ in popular music, which saw the Fab Four’s Paul McCartney almost tie up with electronic pioneer Delia Derbyshire.

As he revealed in a Q Magazine interview a few years back, McCartney – who had developed an interest in avant-garde composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen – approached the BBC Radiophonic Workshop impresario some time around 1966 or 1967 about creating an electronic version of Yesterday.

“I even found out where Miss Derbyshire lived, and went round to visit her,” McCartney told the magazine. “We went into the hut at the bottom of her garden. It was full of tape machines and funny instruments.

“My plan in meeting her was to do an electronic backing for my song Yesterday. We’d already recorded it with a string quartet, but I wanted to give the arrangement electronic backing.”

McCartney even graced the same lineup as Derbyshire through his work for the Million Volt Light and Sound Rave, which took place at The Roundhouse in London in January/February 1967. The Beatles contributed a now-infamous 14-minute experimental piece, Carnival of Light – which has only ever been heard by a smattering of individuals – to the event, while Derbyshire’s Unit Delta Plus group were also listed as contributors (although it’s not clear as to whether any of Derbyshire’s compositions were actually aired).

“Leaving aside any speculation about musical merit, the inclusion of Carnival of Light and the Unit Delta Plus contributions to what was quite deliberately a counter-culture celebration was another example of the emerging rapprochement between this counter-culture, of which rock was an integral part, and electronic music,” as Mark Brend wrote in the excellent The Sound of Tomorrow: How Electronic Music Was Smuggled into the Mainstream.

Sadly, while Derbyshire and the Beatle did indeed cross paths, nothing more came of it, as McCartney never had the opportunity to grace the hallowed halls of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.

“He never came to the workshop,”Derbyshire told Boazine magazine shortly before she died. “I always did work outside and he came to [Peter] Zinovieff’s studio and I played him some of my stuff – that’s all… but it was the phrase length he was interested in.

“I’ve always been non-conformist: I don’t like the 8 bar or the 12 bar standard thing. They’re all beautiful in their own way, but why not explore different phrase lengths? [Paul] never came to the workshop.”

As Derbyshire’s compatriot in the BBC Radiophonic Workshop., Brian Hodgson, would go on to say [in Brend’s book] ,“I would have thought Delia would have done [the electronic rework of Yesterday] . So many rumours go around, so many legends. Chance meetings turn into long associations, which didn’t happen.”

Read More: ‘The Delian Mode’ documentary explores the work of electronic music pioneer Delia Derbyshire

It’s one of the great ‘what ifs’ of popular music, but what would such a collaboration have sounded like? As David Mellor noted on the Adventures in Audio blog a few years back, it may have relied more on Derbyshire’s tape-loop work than explore next-generation electronica.

“The reason I don’t think that synthesizers would have been contemplated is that the Radiophonic Workshop only acquired their first synthesizer in 1965. Perhaps it was already available for use at the time of the recording of Yesterday in 1965, but the historical reports I can find don’t give sufficient level of precision to confirm this.

“I would contend however that unless the Radiophonic Workshop immediately went synth-crazy as soon as the synthesizer was delivered, most work would have been accomplished using their existing techniques. And Derbyshire wasn’t the only composer at the Radiophonic Workshop – the other composers would surely have been fighting over the new toy.”

The Beatles would utilise Derbyshire’s tape-loop approach with great aplomb on tracks like Tomorrow Never Knows and Revolution 9, but sadly a collaboration with one of electronic music’s most legendary trailblazers never materialised.

“The Radiophonic Workshop, I loved all that, it fascinated me, and still does,” McCartney told Q. “There came a time when John (Lennon), because of his association with Yoko and the avant garde, became thought of as the one who turned us all on to that. But that early era was more mine.”

Delia Derbyshire died in 2001, with her work celebrated each year on Delia Derbyshire Day. Get Backcan be streamed now on Disney+.

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