Peter Howell ‘Through A Glass Darkly’

In 1977, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s Peter Howell recorded ‘Through A Glass Darkly’, a stunning album of synth-heavy prog rock. The jewel in the crown? ‘A Lyrical Adventure’, the 19-minute epic sprawling across the entirety of Side One

“Absolutely nobody knew what I was doing. I’d said to [BBC Radiophonic Workshop co-founder] Desmond Briscoe that I wanted to record something, and if he’d allow me to do it alongside my other work, that I’d like to use Studio Four, the rock music studio downstairs at Maida Vale. He said that was fine, providing I organised it myself. 

“Generally speaking, he was very accommodating of anything that would broaden our horizons. I wanted to prove I wasn’t just a second fiddle guitarist to Paddy Kingsland and that I could actually find my way around a piano – and Studio Four had a Steinway! This was 1977, three years after I’d joined the Radiophonic Workshop. I was getting used to working there, but I was feeling like I was in Paddy’s shadow a little bit. 

“‘A Lyrical Adventure’ is an allegory about good and evil. My original album title was ‘In The Kingdom Of Colours’ and there was a very loose outline of a story. The piano is the protagonist, and you could say the first five minutes are the arrival, taking in these new surroundings. Then there’s a visit to the king in a courtly palace, with pageantry and flags. Some rather threatening drums mark the entrance of more malevolent forces, and the rest is a battle between the piano and those forces. It was rather nice to think of the piano being in a landscape made from electronics. Everything developed from there.

“Up until that time at the Radiophonic Workshop, I’d been presented with commissions – ‘Could you write some music for this sequence?’. And I would just respond to the requirements of the film. But writing in a vacuum is harder, and that’s why I started out with some fairly basic structural ideas. I was aiming for half an album, 28 or 29 minutes – it was the age of prog rock! One of my favourite records is ‘Thick As A Brick’ by Jethro Tull, which I still absolutely adore. The musicianship on it is incredible.

“I worked in parallel with my other jobs, and it was pretty hard. It took an embarrassingly long time – probably about three months – working in the evenings when there were no bookings in Studio Four. I was on my own, so I had to start the multitrack tape machine in the control room a minute-and- a-half before I wanted to play, then run through two sealed doors into the studio, put my headphones on, hear the cue coming up, play the piano and then go back. That cycle went on and on!

“There were also 12 fire doors between the Radiophonic Workshop studios and Studio Four, and they were always closed. The fire officers ruled the roost in those days! I’d be carrying the ARP Odyssey synth through them all, thinking, ‘Is this worth the effort?’. But I stuck with it. The ARP features quite a lot on the album. It was a fantastic mainstay. Another synth I really enjoyed using was the Yamaha SY-2. It was very basic, but it had a soprano sax and a flute sound, and I used it for a lot of the thematic lines in the first half of ‘A Lyrical Adventure’.

“I tried to extend the concept onto Side Two of the album, but it was more of an afterthought. There’s a track called ‘Caches Of Gold’, and then ‘Colour Rinse’ was intended as an antidote to Side One. ‘Magenta Court’ was actually named after a block of flats close to Maida Vale. 

“I walked past it once, after a swimming session with the now even more mega-famous Angela Rippon! I used to go swimming at a sports club in Ladbroke Grove, and on one occasion we were the only two people in the pool. She was gliding serenely through the water, almost as though she was running on a battery. Whereas I’ve never been a great swimmer, so I was on the other side making a hell of a fuss. On the way back, I walked through a series of blocks of flats, and each of them was named after a colour – Violet Court, Magnolia Court, Magenta Court – and I thought it all sounded a bit King Crimson. 

“The word ‘allegory’ frightened [BBC Records producer] Mike Harding. He was a very direct Glaswegian guy, very experienced at what he was doing, and I was fully aware of the fact that I’d arrived from this madhouse in Maida Vale with these high-flying ideas about a long track taking up the entire first side of an album. He wrote a publicity quote: ‘It has been compared to “Tubular Bells”.’ I asked him, ‘Who’s compared it to “Tubular Bells”?’. He said, ‘I have…’

“He wasn’t happy with the title, though, he thought it was a bit twee and naff. This was most unlike him as a character, but he then said, ‘I always think biblical references work well’. He didn’t come across as a churchgoer, but he came up with three or four! I didn’t like any of them because I wanted ‘In The Kingdom Of Colours’, but we ended up with ‘Through A Glass Darkly’. I was disappointed and I felt it undermined the original concept of the album, but we went ahead. 

“I actually listened to the album yesterday. My immediate reaction was that Side One stands up pretty well, but Side Two is a bit of a curate’s egg. One thing that did occur to me, and it’s a bit sad really, is how much the digital world has stunted our technique. My piano playing is nothing like as good as that now!”

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