‘The Hidden Door,’ an early track on the new Belbury Poly album, From An Ancient Star, sounds like the opening credits to a long-lost television show from the 1970s: one that promised answers to the cosmic mysteries of UFOs and distant, inhabited galaxies. A queasy melody leads us out into the unexplored blackness of outer space. Arpeggio synthesisers suggest a phalanx of stars streaming past on either side, like a point-of-view shot constructed to make the viewer feel as if they are plunging headlong through the television screen into another universe.
Television itself can be the hidden door into other worlds: this premise lies at the centre of British musician Jim Jupp’s work, and of Ghost Box, the record label he co-founded in 2004. Each artist on Ghost Box – two of them, Belbury Poly and Eric Zann, are Jupp’s pseudonyms – creates music that more or less explicitly derives its sounds from a lost world of 1960s and ’70s British television: sci-fi and pulp horror serials; well-meant yet nevertheless threatening public information programs.
“Part of a theme that’s ongoing in all the Belbury Poly records, and I think all of the Ghost Box records,” explains Jupp, “is a tradition of British science fiction, where you’ve got on the one hand the setting of a very traditional background, with very ancient things, but you’ve got this weird, cosmic stuff happening [at the same time]. A lot of old British sci-fi books –
John Wyndham, for instance – have these really mundane, quaint little village settings, but all of a sudden something really freaky and cosmic appears in the middle of it.”
What is freakish is not necessarily overt – a nuclear war, or a sudden landing of carnivorous aliens – but a more subtle, unsettling sensation that the ordinary world is lying side-by-side with any number of other, stranger ones. It might only take turning a street corner at the right (or wrong) moment; opening a door that you’d never noticed before; switching on the television in time to catch a sinister glitch in the broadcast: any momentary gap in the border between here and elsewhere might thrust you into a new – or an old – reality. From An Ancient Star explores this very British pop-cultural collision between the modern and the folkloric, with reference to the 1970s: “ancient astronauts and Chariot of the Gods stuff, and programs on telly about UFOs, with Leonard Nimoy doing the voiceover,” as Jupp remembers it.
These programs “seemed to dovetail with the sci-fi disco that was going on in clubs at the time,” he continues. Sci-fi disco is an accurate description of a Belbury Poly track such as ‘The All At Once Club’, where bubbling, rocket ship FX noises and a thin metallic beat meet a jaunty synthesiser tune. It sounds like the kind of music that young groovers living in a Brutalist apartment tower might have swung their hips to circa 1978.
“Two composers who were around at that time in Britain and doing a lot of TV work were a couple of fellas called Denton and Cooke,” says Jupp, “and they did theme tunes for a couple of British TV programs. There was a disco style to them, but it was a clunky, British, not very funky disco, and I was trying to tap into that. A slightly quirky, slightly wrong Britishness, even though there’s clearly a disco sound.”
Along with disco, there is a hint of glam to the album, a faint trace of Roxy Music’s strange glitter. Previous Belbury Poly records have focused less on song structures than on creating genteel but eerie musical interludes. More than any other Ghost Box release so far, From An Ancient Star sounds like it could be a pop album.
“It’s partly accident, but I think it’s probably one of the more accessible Ghost Box records,” Jupp agrees. “I didn’t set out to do that and it doesn’t mean it’s a new direction for Belbury Poly or the other Ghost Box artists. It was more of a focused sound for the whole album, and a focused set of references. I’m really happy with the way it came out because it’s more coherent for me than the other albums, they kind of jump around a bit… [But] it’s not supposed to be from any particular point in time,” he emphasises. “Like all the Ghost Box stuff, it’s an imaginary past. But given that, it’s from the late-70s of this imaginary past, if that makes sense?”
Unlike the slavish retro-worship and tiresome recycling that characterises so many contemporary musical artists – stuck in a past they can’t get out of – the artists on Ghost Box hold firmly to the notion that the past is irrecoverable and, for that reason, all the more interesting. It must be re-imagined, rather than copied. This impulse is, as Jupp describes it, “a nostalgia for nostalgia””. The ghosts that haunt this music are not bed-sheet spooks but the trace, folded into a past that never quite was, of a common future that never came to be. The matrix of Ghost Box influences – television soundtracks and library records, science fiction, British folklore, Penguin Books and public service announcements on the BBC – all share a certain utopian impulse, whether that lies in the belief that “all the ancient places in Britain, like Stonehenge” might be capable of transporting you to another world, or in the civilising, modernist influence of “these very worthy organisations and public bodies that were set up in the post-World War II period to educate people.” That utopias fail is part of what drives people to re-imagine them, even as that effort might be – perhaps inevitably – headed for its own failure. After all, a utopia ultimately exists nowhere.
The freedom to create a new world – Jupp also works as an architect, perhaps not entirely coincidentally – has lead in turn to the other long-running Ghost Box conceit: the imaginary town. Belbury is this town. “Hidden away in border country, the ancient market town of Belbury has much to recommend it,” states Field Guides to British Towns and Villages: Volume 7, a concocted tourist pamphlet reproduced on the Ghost Box website. Although “badly damaged by an opportune air raid” in 1940, Belbury still boasts “a Neolithic stone circle”, “a picturesque 11th century church”, and “some notable modernist architecture, including the Polytechnic College.”
“It’s a setting for a lot that happens in the Ghost Box world – I talk about it with the other artists,” Jupp elaborates. Each Ghost Box release adds a few more details to Belbury’s existence, without ever quite revealing its entirety. “Little films, bits of copy that we write for the records, and even titles: they all spin off these conversations about where Belbury is,” he continues, “and what it is. I like the idea of little models that might map out this territory. It’s not like it’s The Lord Of The Rings, and we’re going to give you a map and a big book. But as we talk about it more, it makes more sense and we can drop more hints. It’s slowly developing into a fleshed-out world. For us at least,” he laughs.
From An Ancient Star evokes spaces that are simultaneously larger and smaller in scope than Belbury itself: a title like ‘Clockwork Horoscope’ perfectly captures the enjambment of miniature and galactic scales on the album. The preceding Belbury Poly records The Willows (2004) and The Owl’s Map (2006) functioned more explicitly as guides to the town, with the design work of Julian House, who records as The Focus Group and is co-founder of the Ghost Box label, playing a crucial role. “You think, ‘There’s more to this than just a weird collage’,” says Jupp of House’s designs. “Maybe there are references to something that was on another record. There are a lot of cross-references and that’s how we like to develop this world, with little hints and tiny bits of imagery.”
House – who has also designed notable sleeves for Broadcast and Stereolab – uses the austere template of early Penguin paperbacks as his model for each Ghost Box release, though some, including From An Ancient Star, are allowed to go more ‘off the grid’ than others. With its stone circle and purple sky, the sleeve of From An Ancient Star is deliberately lurid, like the cover of a dog-eared and long out-of-print sci-fi novel tucked away on an overlooked shelf at the local Salvation Army store. The redundancy a pop cultural artefact still faintly transmitting ideas from a dead era is part of its curious appeal. The “little hints” that make up a Ghost Box sleeve are akin, in Jupp’s description, “to the kind of thing you might find in a charity shop or a second-hand record shop: you’ve got this weird old record, and it might not have any photos of the artist on the cover, but there are weird bits of writing and maybe a weird image on the cover, and you think ‘What the hell is this? I want to know more about it.’ But all you’ve got to go on is little clues and little bits of copy on the back.”
For Jupp, an avid collector of both outré vinyl records and vintage electronic instruments, the most interesting charity-shop finds were always “library records, certainly, because they were so damn peculiar. Especially in that era just before people started to realise that there was interesting stuff there, and they became incredibly valuable and hard to get hold of. There was something very, very mysterious about them. A lot of old jazz records had very abstract artwork, no pictures of the artists, and some intriguing sleeve notes that might be quite arch about a performance that some guy had once seen… A lot of ’80s stuff, like Factory Records – I think Julian would certainly say that kind of austerity is part of the design.”
Library records, wildly obscure private press jazz, and post-punk albums are all eminently collectable today, as indeed are the Ghost Box releases themselves, with their deliberate appeal to exactly the sort of person who might enjoy trawling sleeve notes or sci-fi serials for a trail of clues that leads to a hidden door. To cultivate such a coterie obsession is also to be convinced, on some level, that if you gather enough evidence together then this world will either reassemble itself, or let you through to another, much more interesting one. In the digital era, however, the clues are becoming easier to put together. The undeniably romantic notion of tunnelling through to another universe via the dusty artefacts of the second-hand shop is vanishing: a musical mystery can be solved with a quick Google search; half-remembered television footage can be viewed again, and almost inevitably disappoints. What does Jupp make of the internet’s ever-expanding archive, given that a complete verisimilitude between memory and document runs entirely counter to the Ghost Box aesthetic?
“It’s necessary and it’s great, but it’s also a bit sad,” he answers, “… because once all that stuff is uploaded, then that’s it, really, there’ll be nothing left to find or cross-reference. There’ll be no more mystery. That’s the ultimate, bleak, sci-fi outcome of it all.”
But he’s also excited by the amount of interesting material that is being put back into circulation. “There are some great reissue labels,” he says enthusiastically. “Every week you can hear old psychedelic bands from the ’60s that never had a career, records that nobody’s ever heard, old library records. There’s loads of great stuff out there being rediscovered.”
A wealth of material to draw upon means that small but interesting shifts are taking place in in Jupp’s musical approach. From An Ancient Star is notable for its bizarre vocal samples, not an element that has intruded far into the Belbury Poly universe before now. ‘Timescale’ interlaces a calm female voice instructing us to “Feel time. Feel it now. Burst the seconds between your fingers” with a plummy, professorial man lamenting “Time, cruel time”. Tabla-like rhythms and synthesised, Oriental flute noises float in the background. The effect is akin to splicing together a metaphysical fitness lesson with an opiated parlour conversation circa 1897. It’s callisthenics meets H.G. Wells.
The instructional tone – though the instructions might be preposterous – inevitably brings to mind the sort of health and safety announcements that many of us absorbed as children, snuck in as they were between cartoons, or sometimes – more sneakily – disguised as cartoons. Stranger Danger. Fit For Life. Get Down Low and Go, Go, Go. “With hindsight we all look back on those fondly,” remarks Jupp, “but there’s also something slightly sinister about them, and I think these days we would resent public education films telling us how to drive and what to eat. Do you know what I mean? There’s something a bit sinister and controlling about them.”
It is easy, in this markedly more commercial era, to become nostalgic about these little films, a product of post-WWII democracies that invested equally in social welfare and public television broadcasting. Australian broadcasting might never have reached the Cold War paranoia of Protect And Survive: British Nuclear War Civil Defense, but as any Australian who was spooked as child by the infamous Grim Reaper ads – a response to the AIDS crisis – into genuinely fearing for their life might reflect, it is still passing strange to have the government list for you all the nasty ways in which you might die. The threatening television is “a particular strain of the Ghost Box stuff that Julian is particularly interested in,” Jupp says. “The Focus Group record We Are All Pan’s People – I don’t think that anybody’s ever really pieced it together, but that’s what’s going on there: it’s a popular cultural event that’s being broadcast, but something has gone horribly wrong with it, and it’s having weird results.”
The question remains, however, just how far these references can travel outside of Britain – or outside of the Anglosphere, more accurately: those countries where a significant measure of British cultural influence has been absorbed. “I wonder about it myself,” says Jupp, “why our music would even make sense to American audiences. I think we’ve sold fairly well over there: people have heard of us and a couple of stores carry our records. So we’ve got an American audience and that’s great, and hopefully it means that we’re more than just a very parochial set of British influences. Maybe there’s something more archetypal that people recognise,” he ponders, “or a stereotype: the British boffin working away at something in the garden shed.”
Right now, Jupp and House are working away together on a new collaborative project, along with John Brooks of The Advisory Circle, whose 2008 album Other Channels has been the most explicit attempt on Ghost Box so far to create a wholly plausible, yet horrible, television broadcast. Their new alias is The Elsewhere Quartet. As Jupp explains, it will be “slightly new territory for Ghost Box but we think it will also really fit in… It’s got a lot of early ’60s electronic sounds and jazz elements, so it will be a bit like Joe Meek, and John Baker’s stuff for the BBC, electronic jazz. A sound palette from a world that could be about 1962.” Don’t expect them to be cracking out the tenor saxophones any time soon, though. “None of us are jazz musicians, so we won’t get in over our depths with that,” Jupp advises. “We’ll put a toe in the waters. But it’s electronic music and we’re not pretending it’s anything else.”
2009 will be busy year for Ghost Box, with an album release by either The Elsewhere Quartet or The Advisory Circle, “whichever is finished first.” There’s also a forthcoming album by Roj, aka Richard Stevens, a former member of Broadcast, furthering the tangled connections between Ghost Box and the Birmingham outfit that go back to Jim and Julian’s days together at school. Add to this the recent label sampler Ritual and Education, and the ambitious Belbury Youth Club Night, featuring DJ sets by Jupp, House, Jonny Trunk of the estimable reissue label Trunk Records, and prominent blogger/record collector/musician Woebot; screenings of “rare, unsettling and forgotten TV drama and public information”, plus live and improvised electronics courtesy of Broadcast’s Trish Keenan and James Cargill. It’s exactly this kind of total, public event that makes sense for a label engaged in building its own imaginary – yet weirdly familiar – universe.
Having steadily grown in prominence over the past five years thanks to the word-of-mouth recommendations of music bloggers – evidence of the positive role that the internet does play in piecing together clues, and connecting otherwise lone aficionados – Ghost Box has begun to gain attention, even from The Sunday Times. The more Jupp and his cohorts drop hints to strange artefacts of the past, the more the label’s fans scramble to uncover them, in a sort of archival arms race. Can Jupp see a time when the Ghost Box and Belbury Poly projects will exhaust their purpose?
“No,” he answers. “At the moment it’s open-ended. There’s a lot of stuff that we haven’t mined yet, that I think we can: other types of music and other time frames.” He remains “pleased and surprised” by the growing audience. One could envisage Jupp as programming director of a slightly paternalistic public access television station, one with good pedagogical intentions but bent on oddities: a kind of Open University for those “ancient astronauts” that roamed across bygone screens. “I guess that we could be accused us of foisting this stuff onto people and saying ‘Aren’t we clever?’” he muses. “But that’s not really what why we’re doing it.” Philosophic intentions and fictional town planning aside, the beautifully crafted musical miniatures of From An Ancient Star have a charm that is difficult to resist. But wait. Could this charm be a front for a sinister mind-control plot? Stay tuned…
Belbury Poly’s From An Ancient Star is available from Ghost Box.