Jun 10

THE TIMELORDS – “Doctorin The Tardis”

Popular101 comments • 14,500 views

#610, 18th June 1988, video

The Manual – the book Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty wrote after this record went to #1 – is an essential read. It tells you a lot about the music business in the late 80s, a bit about the country in the late 80s, and it has many sharp things to say about Number Ones and their qualities. Plenty of glib things too, but entertainingly glib. You can get a PDF of it here and anyone with an interest in this site who hasn’t read it should prepare themselves for an enjoyable and sometimes infuriating hour or so.

About the only thing it won’t tell you much about is this actual record. When introducing their “Golden Rules” the Timelords gleefully admit that “Doctorin’ The Tardis” is an exception to almost all of them. Use the latest house beat! They don’t, they go for an old Gary Glitter rhythm. Have a straightforward title! Theirs is a pun. Make the lyrics universal! Oh, come on. No, the hit may have given them the excuse to write a book but it barely even pretends to work as rationalisation: this is a banging novelty record and doubtless put together with no more or less cynicism and excitement than these things ever are.

That’s not to say their instincts weren’t sound. “Doctorin’ The Tardis” wasn’t the first recent attempt at doing a Doctor Who novelty record. Hi-NRG producer and big-time fan Ian Levine, a man not without hitmaking experience, had made an effort a couple of years before with “Doctor In Distress”, a song protesting the show’s then impending cancellation. This was a mortifying flop: Levine cared way too much and the public cared way too little. So even though Doctor Who was still limping on by the time Drummond and Cauty made “Doctorin'”, the record uses it without having anything to do with it*.

To understand this, imagine a Doctor Who equivalent of “Star Trekkin” – lots of jokes about stairs, scarves and screaming. I might have thought it was quite funny (I’m a Who fan, as you’re probably realising) but it wouldn’t have been nearly as good as this. There’s only one actual gag in “Tardis” – the Daleks grating “Dosh Dosh Dosh! Loadsamoney” – the rest is straight-ahead dumb high-impact pop, and works because it takes only the most iconic sounds from Doctor Who and uses them with almost no reference to the show. Dalek voices, of course. The wheezing, groaning sound of a TARDIS landing. The imploding cliffhanger noise. The theme tune’s hook – using Ron Grainer’s synthed-up 1980 arrangement rather than the eerie wobble of Delia Derbyshire’s original. That bassline – the theme’s secret weapon (if only someone would let Murray bloody Gold know it…)

Ahem. The Timelords mix this stuff in with the pop sounds of 1974, the year of glam rock and Davros, scarves on the Rollers and scarves on the new Doctor, glitterbeat and “Blockbuster” airhorns. It’s a companion piece to “Theme From S’Express” in that sense and just as good – part of the same rediscovery of the 70s, beckoning the boy gangs of yobs and nerds onto the dancefloor, the ones Mark Moore didn’t invite to his party. You could put it in a line of descent from “Hoots Mon” and “Mouldy Old Dough” too – novelty monsters which catch a time more truly than some of the serious songs do.

Can I separate my love of this record from my Who fandom? Not really: at Poptimism in 2005, the night before the series came back, we played it – we had to – and Steve mixed it in with a 1998 number one by a future Doctor Who star. It was a great moment. But maybe I can separate it – the moment worked not just because we were excited about the show’s return, but because the novelty record and the teenpop track worked superbly together. I like to think I’d enjoy “Doctorin’ The Tardis” if I’d never watched a minute of Doctor Who.

*(or only in this sense: sampling – the engine of the JAMMS’ work and the presiding spirit of The Manual – is time travel, fishing sounds out of the past and casting them into the future. And more: every sample works like a TARDIS, a few bars of music which when you open them up are far bigger on the inside, gateways to new songs and worlds if you’re willing to make the trip.)



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  1. 1
    Nicole on 17 Jun 2010 #

    For a long time I thought “Doctorin the Tardis” was the actual theme to the show, and was confused in 2005 to discover that it was not!

  2. 2
    punctum on 17 Jun 2010 #

    Where the initial wave of New Pop sought to question and remodel the style and content of a pop song, its not entirely unexpected second wave launched an assault on form – what exactly constitutes a “pop song,” how should it develop (or should it even need to develop?), what is the relationship between a song and the record on which it is pressed, should its sociopolitical ramifications determine form and content, or should the former naturally arise from the latter?

    Three years of tiring Soul, Passion and Honesty would suggest that the latter was a far more viable course for pop to take, and it was right that the new wave should not only arise in tandem with, but also take full advantage of, developments in contemporary dance music. “Doctorin’ The House” bears the same relation to Chicago House as Lennon’s “Twist And Shout” does to “La Bamba”; through choice and circumstances, something new has accidentally, or not so accidentally, been invented.

    What do you mean, Chicago House? It’s Glitterbeat! Well, “Doctorin’ The Tardis” also began life as a House record, or at least an attempt to make a House hit out of the Doctor Who theme, though the KLF quickly realised that its triplet structure would be far more amenable to what we now know as a schaffel beat, and in particular that pioneered by Gary Glitter and Mike Leander (which latter, as has already been noted, did the string arrangement for the Beatles’ original “She’s Leaving Home”) on 1972’s shattering minimalist archaeology-to-make-the-future masterpiece “Rock ‘N’ Roll Part 2.” It remains unclear whether the concept for The Manual had been thought through before they made the record or whether it was written as a conceptual afterthought, but after a year of (glorious) limited edition Situationist sniping (all based on deep, deep love) they fancied a proper mainstream hit record.

    They approached it in exactly the same way as Bickerton and Waddington had approached “Sugar Baby Love,” and it was only fitting that several Rubettes, most notably keyboardist-turned-programmer Nick Coler, were on hand to assist Drummond and Cauty; carefully surveying the trends of the moment (spring 1988) with seventies revivalism poised to take its first tentative stranglehold they pieced together elements of Glitter, Doctor Who (which itself was about to enter its seemingly terminal Sylvester McCoy period at this stage), the Sweet’s “Blockbuster,” Harry Enfield’s Loadsamoney and even the shortly-to-be-late Steve Walsh’s “You what?” war cry and credited the single to a 1968 Ford Galaxy car complete with police siren – the third non-human number one single, in the wake of the Archies and Spitting Image.

    The single was fiendishly clever and fearsomely catchy. Note how Drummond and Cauty use the “Loadsamoney” and “Exterminate!” memes as a springboard for a telling critique of Thatcherism and the yuppies who worshipped at its soiled shrine (“We obey no one! We are the superior beings!”) – and the sight of Bill Drummond’s unquestionably mad eyes glaring from beneath his top hat on TOTP is unlikely ever to be shifted from my memory – while simultaneously celebrating the trash which was always art. Eventually a “Gary In The Tardis” remix featuring the double G himself appeared, and Glitter even guested with the Timelords (now hooded in monks’ cowls) on TOTP the week they went to number one (remember, at this stage Glitter was still a cherished national treasure). The scene liable to celebrate or eat itself? Who cared? Edelweiss, Kon Kan, Scooter, even Xenomania…the post-Manual list continues to flourish.

    As a straightforward novelty single in the lineage of “Star Trekkin’,” “Doctorin’ The Tardis” would scarcely be worth further comment…and yet it was as uncompromising an assault on the concept of the “pop song” and “pop record” as “God Save The Queen,” and from its pores seep an instinctive understanding of the inherent magic of the pop record, what can be done to and with it in the right (or wrong!) circumstances and how deeply it can affect someone else’s world.

  3. 3
    lonepilgrim on 17 Jun 2010 #

    wonderful sensory overload – whereas S’Express had been achingly hip in its 70s referencing this was gloriously uncool and somehow even hipper as a result.
    it’s perhaps a sign of how little the BBC valued Dr Who that they allowed the KLF to ‘adapt’ its theme tune – I can’t imagine them being so relaxed about it now.
    the video is a delightful celebration of a uk punk diy aesthetic – particularly the shot where you see a pair of feet beneath the dalek – but with its shots of Stonehenge, Avebury and decaying airfields and pillboxes suggests hauntography avant la lettre.

  4. 4
    Rory on 17 Jun 2010 #

    [Right, posting this pre-written comment before even reading anyone else’s!]

    I’d always assumed that this was one of those songs that everyone loved, so was surprised to learn from Wikipedia that the critics reviled it at the time, as if it were a novelty track as execrable as ‘Star Trekkin’. They got it wrong, wrong, wrong, but it’s not that hard to guess why. Critics of 1988 would have been of an age to remember Gary Glitter from first time round, and must have considered him a has-been hardly worth reviving; and they must have been too old to be going through the throes of intense Doctor Who disappointment.

    On the first point, I had no prior exposure to Gary in 1988, and loved the supremely chantable and danceable glam of this. And on the second…

    Doctor Who was one of the cornerstones of my TV-watching childhood; some of my earliest telly memories are of Jon Pertwee whizzing around on his yellow hovercraft, and Tom Baker was like Olivier playing Lear to me. Even when Peter Davison took over, I stayed keen, enjoying his run as much as any from the recent revival. And then came the 18-month hiatus in Colin Baker’s tenure, which broke the spell. The ABC, which had repeated the Pertwee and Tom Baker Whos endlessly, never repeated Colin Baker’s, most of which I’ve still never seen; and by the time they reached McCoy’s, those only got a single outing as well. I caught a few of the early McCoys and felt they had gone seriously downhill; apparently they improved, but by then I’d moved on.

    So by 1988, I (like many others, no doubt) was ripe for nostalgia for the good old days of Who. And not just the actors, but the music. By Doctors six and seven, the tinkering with the theme that started with Davison’s Doctor had got out of control, with the results now sounding badly dated in a way that the earlier themes never will, because they were so orthogonal to their times. My canonical Who themes were the modified Delia Derbyshire ones of Pertwee and Tom Baker, which you can compare with the others here. That’s what I wanted to hear.

    And thanks to “Doctorin’ the Tardis”, which I helped send to number two in Australia, I could: the best Doctor Who theme merged with superior glam, with the very best Who monsters over the top. And not only were the juxtaposed results fun, they were funny. Electronic chants of “do what” and “dosh, dosh, dosh, loadsamoney” may not have been the height of Dalek-inspired humour, but until Mark Gatiss contrived to have a Dalek asking “would – you – like – a – cup – of – tea” earlier this year they were the best we had, at least on an actual recorded product rather than in a playground game. Not an official product, true, but then the unofficialness of “Doctorin’ the Tardis” was part of its charm: a song ostensibly recorded by a car, Ford Timelord (shades of Hitchhiker’s Ford Prefect), shown in the video mowing down Daleks cobbled together out of cardboard.

    We didn’t know it then, but this was the first mash-up to reach number one, a direct ancestor of the DIY marvels of “A Stroke of Genie-us” and “Marshall’s Been Snookered”, and for that alone it’s a landmark. It’s also, of course, effectively the first number one by the KLF, and was the inspiration for Drummond and Cauty’s notorious Manual about blagging your way to number one. The song’s creators apparently don’t rate it either, but all that tells you is that artists aren’t always the best judges of their own work: “Doctorin’ the Tardis” was brilliant then and remains brilliant now, a perfect melding of its excellent parts, and I’m always happy to hear it. The only reason I’m not giving it 10 is that I know that some people aren’t fans of the show and might not…

    Oh, sod it: 10. Here, have a jellybaby.

  5. 5
    Rory on 17 Jun 2010 #

    Aha. So it uses the 1980 theme? The mashing-up deceived me. Oh well, near enough.

    And Gary was a national treasure in the UK at the time, eh? Fair enough. I would have thought his music in 1988 would have been smack in that zone of being too recent to be retro and too old to be cool — like Britpop today. But then I was on the other side of the world.

  6. 6
    flahr on 17 Jun 2010 #

    I don’t think the link to The Manual is working.

    (incisive musical comment from flahr)

    EDIT: and of course immediately after posting that I try it again and it works perfectly :P Move along, nothing to see here…

  7. 7
    Rory on 17 Jun 2010 #

    I just re-listened to “Doctorin’ the Tardis” and Who themes numbers 3, 4, and 5 from that link I gave, and it sounds as if Drummond and Cauty didn’t actually use any of the actual recordings – they must have recorded their own. It has elements of five, but has the clearer synth line of the earlier ones, but isn’t exactly like any of them. So much for the “mash-up” theory – all my long-held assumptions are biting the dust!

  8. 8
    swanstep on 17 Jun 2010 #

    Best novelty record ever? I’m not qualified to judge really, but my sense is that it should be a contender. (Doctorin’ spent three weeks at #1 in Dr Who-besotted NZ.)

    The *sounds* of sci-fi from Forbidden Planet through to Star Wars were often a lot more convincing than the visual fx (particularly on tv, with much smaller budgets). Dr Who had some great sounds, of course, but the record’s putting together *that* credits-opening filter-swept sound with the Tardis’s own roar, with (Frankie-like) sirens, with the glam beat and that bass-line is inspired. The first 30-40 seconds of this track are head-snapping and thrilling in equal measure. Nerds… er, everyone, please report to the dance-floor.

    It’s worthwhile comparing this effort to Def Leppard’s very corporate-feeling, 1974-pastiche Rocket, which was a huge album track at the same time (it became something like the sixth single and vid. off Hysteria in early 1989 IIRC – boy did that album sell and sell). It’s efficient enough, but hardly inspires the affection that Doctorin’ does:
    8 (a bit lower score than most others here, but still easily my highest score for 1988 so far)

    p.s. I’m looking forward to reading The Manual (which is new to me). Thanks for the link.

  9. 9
    flahr on 17 Jun 2010 #

    Well, I’ve listened to it now. It’s certainly enjoyable – I’m not sure, thinking about, how much of its getting to Number One was the work of the KLF and how much was just British affection for the theme itself and anything that sounded like it – but I can’t quite get anything more than that out of it. Lacking a certain spark for me; a 7 I guess.

    Straight in, incidentally, at #2 on the FT All-Time Popular Readers’ Chart. Impressive – and of course a vehicle for inappropriate comparisons to “I Feel Love”, if anyone wants to try it.

  10. 10
    Jezza on 17 Jun 2010 #

    The problem with ‘The Manual’ is that Bill Drummond mortgaged his house previously to pay for a record. He also had a lot of experience in the music industry. So the book is somewhat dishonest. Yes, you can have a No.1 hit, but you have to have a background in classical piano (Edelweiss), OR friends in the music business (S Express), OR a house to mortgage (Bill Drummond).

  11. 11
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 17 Jun 2010 #

    Has anyone else actually HAD a number one simply by following the Manual? Has anyone else tried?

  12. 12
    Rory on 17 Jun 2010 #

    Listening to the 12″ mix just now, which I’d never heard before, I’m noticing a subliminal similarity in some of the guitar sounds to certain Martian noises on Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds.

  13. 13
    thefatgit on 17 Jun 2010 #

    I am now absolutely convinced that Bill Drummond is the Marcel Duchamp of pop. Best. Novelty. Record. Ever.

  14. 14
    MikeMCSG on 17 Jun 2010 #

    Sorry to be pedantic Tom but Davros didn’t appear until “Genesis Of The Daleks” which was broadcast in 1975 !

    This is I think the last novelty number one not to be tied into Comic Relief or an official spinoff from a TV series.

    The theme had been a hit before in a discofied version by Mankind in 1978 so this felt a bit second hand to me. Plus the whole police car concept grated on me; I have a low tolerance of that sort of art school humour.

    # 10 You’re right Jezza , Bill Drummond was hardly a fresh-faced youngster. In fact he continued a remarkable sequence of number ones from the former members of long-forgotten Liverpool band Big In Japan (who only recorded about a dozen tracks) which will finally be completed when we get to 1996.

  15. 15
    Tom on 18 Jun 2010 #

    #14 Aargh! You’re right! ’74 is the last Pertwee season isn’t it? Another one for the eventual rewrites file. :)

  16. 16
    Elsa on 18 Jun 2010 #

    It sounds quite a bit like Blondie’s “Call Me,” which a surprising number of people were unimpressed with on the “What Decade is Tops” board.

  17. 17
    lockedintheattic on 18 Jun 2010 #

    #11 well Edelweiss did (in Austria & Germany & Switzerland & Holland anyway – it only got to number 5 here in the UK)


    one of the joyhs of popular is discovering via links that one of the people behind Edelweiss went on to create the annoying Intel jingle

  18. 18
    swanstep on 18 Jun 2010 #

    Have just checked out the Mankind (1978) disco version of the Who theme on youtube (both 7″ and 12″ mixes), and to me it’s not a patch on the Timelords (I tend to think that the organic feel of late ’70s disco just isn’t what the track needs, but some studio great from the period like Bohannon or Edwin Birdsong or Moroder or Chic or Quincy Jones might have been able to stiffen everything up sufficiently I suppose). I’ve loved the TOTP Timelords stuff I’ve been able to find on youtube: Daleks ‘playing’ keyboards, very droll. If you’re a novelty you have to commit to your novel concept, and I think these guys did.

  19. 19
    Elsa on 18 Jun 2010 #

    Records this is better than, according to Tom: She Loves You, You Really Got Me, Mr. Tambourine Man, Day Tripper/We Can Work It Out, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, Sunny Afternoon, A Whiter Shade of Pale, Hey Jude, Honky Tonk Women, Bad Moon Rising (…and that’s just the ’60s).

  20. 20
    punctum on 18 Jun 2010 #

    Shows you how good it is!

    #10: probably, but, as I said in my original post, who cared? It was about the spectacle, the gesture. Also, and most importantly, it was a Good Story!

  21. 21
    Tom on 18 Jun 2010 #

    Once again I am delighted by my own consistency! I get more enjoyment out of this record than any of those, for certain.

  22. 22
    rosie on 18 Jun 2010 #

    I know the scoring system was meant to be a bit of fun, but it’s become meaningless for me now. Tom’s objectivity is slipping. No collage of electronic noises is permitted to be less than a 9!

  23. 23
    Stevie on 18 Jun 2010 #

    I have probably related this before, but at the very first ILx Picnic In The Sky I was struck by the sight of several of the Freaky Trigger crew merrily stomping around in a circle to Daft Punk’s “One More Time”. I racked my brain to remember what this spectacle reminded me of. Only several years later did I realise it was the time in 1988 I went out for a drink with my college friend Alan – now a leading Whovian – who, unbeknownst to me, had also invited the local chapter of DWAS. They proceeded to put “Doctorin’ the Tardis” on repeat on the pub jukebox and bash the table with nerdy glee each time it came on.

  24. 24
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 18 Jun 2010 #

    There was something strangely nu-whovian abt the ILx Picnic In The Sky*: location AND attendees!

  25. 25
    Mike Atkinson on 18 Jun 2010 #

    I can’t take Drummond’s claims in The Manual any more seriously than McLaren’s claims in The Great Rock & Roll Swindle. Both are the work of a couple of situationist chancers who fluked it – albeit brilliantly, and The Manual is still a great read – and who then tried to claim that it had been a meticulously conceived masterplan all along. Yeah, right!

    The JAMMs/KLF had been one of my pet acts for the past year, ever since I took a random punt on their debut single “All You Need Is Love”. Every couple of months or so, an unadvertised 12″ would appear in the new release racks at Selectadisc – “Burn The Bastards”, “Downtown”, “Whitney Joins The JAMs”, Disco 2000’s “I Gotta CD” and “One Love Nation” – and I’d snap them all up, fascinated by their surreal inventiveness and unpredictability. Thanks to its heavy sampling on “The Queen And I” from the debut JAMMs album 1987 – What The Fuck Is Going On, I had started playing Abba’s “Dancing Queen” in my sets, only to discover that it filled the floor every time. (I once got as far as cueing up “The Queen And I” on the second turntable, only to wimp out with seconds to spare.)

    Although it pleased me that “Doctorin The Tardis” stormed the charts, and although I enjoyed the novelty while it lasted, this was still my least favourite KLF single to date: barring the bosh-bosh-loadsamoney Daleks, it was all just a bit too obvious. Once you’d got the joke, that was pretty much that. No abiding resonance, darlings. And as far as I was concerned, there were plenty of other acts using samples with a lot more creativity and flair. (We’ve had a couple of them on Popular already.)

    So, yeah, basically I’m the annoying “I was there FIRST!” indie snob with regard to this one. Sorry about that!

  26. 26
    vinylscot on 18 Jun 2010 #

    Have to agree with the slightly less than entusiastic posters. This was fun, not genius. It happened to strike a chord, and good luck to them for that, but, really, endowing this with any deeper significance is stretching things more than a little.

    ..and I’m with rosie on the scoring – I know the marking is personal, but all objectivity has gone now. Many of the more recent (ridiculously high) marks are unfortunately devaluing the whole project.

  27. 27
    punctum on 18 Jun 2010 #

    #22: Where has Tom ever said anything on Popular about “objectivity”?

  28. 28
    rosie on 18 Jun 2010 #

    @27: I don’t know if Tom has ever said anything about being objective, but he used to be bloody good at it when critiquing the pop from before his time.

  29. 29
    LondonLee on 18 Jun 2010 #

    File me under the “fun, not genius” camp with this one too. Conceptual/performance art is all well and good but I’m always bothered by art that needs an accompanying essay to explain it. Drummond might well be the Duchamp of pop but what does that mean really? That pop is so easy (and the audience/critics so gullible) any thrown-together silliness (or signed urinal) can get to #1? I know that’s probably true but it’s very cynical, no?

  30. 30
    lonepilgrim on 18 Jun 2010 #

    i’m not sure that it’s worth, let alone possible, to be ‘objective’ about pop

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