I became bored of playing in bands that performed our own half-baked compositions to half-empty rooms, so I decided to join one that played popular television theme tunes instead. We called ourselves Dream Themes and gigs suddenly became far more rewarding experiences.
The audiences seemed to stay awake throughout. Our attempts at seasoned classics such as “Grange Hill” and “Grandstand” would be cheered to the rafters, because these pieces of music are more than just jolly tunes; they’re also strong cultural bonds.
A nation would hear them on television every week, and despite having no idea who performed them, who wrote them or how they came to be, we remember them more fondly than much of the pop music from the same era.
The glorious work produced by these often unrecognised tunesmiths is saluted on a new release by Soul Jazz Records, a label perhaps better known for its ska and reggae compilations. British Television, Film and Library Composers 1955-78 features such unsung combos as The Reg Tilsley Orchestra or The Harry Roche Constellation performing beautifully realised arrangements of hook-laden melodies; the resulting recordings would then sit in the vaults of library-music companies such as KPM, waiting to be plucked from obscurity by a television or film producer. Some tracks on this compilation, such as Richard Denton and Martin Cook’s pulsating, synth-driven Tomorrow’s World theme, became known to millions. Others, such as Neil Richardson’s “Guide Path”, didn’t. But that was just the luck of the draw.
Another Neil Richardson composition, “Approaching Menace” (not on this release), became the famously ominous theme to the BBC’s Mastermind quiz programme, but his name never resonated much beyond the world of library music. Even Alan Hawkshaw, perhaps the most celebrated composer of the genre (and the writer of the aforementioned Grange Hill and Grandstand themes), is a light year from being a household name; a concert by his KPM All Stars band (pictured) this coming Saturday at Islington Assembly Hall in north London provides a rare opportunity for fans to assemble, punch the air and applaud wildly in affectionate tribute.
But the relative anonymity of the leading lights of library music is what makes this Soul Jazz collection so charming; the ambition of the composers was restricted to making wonderful tunes and performing them with precision and expertise. There were no distracting dreams of fame or fortune, private transatlantic jets or chucking televisions out of hotel-room windows.
They were just doing a job. And doing it exceptionally well.
Listen to some of the theme tunes mentioned on Spotify: