Good day to you.
“Oh, is it? Is it?” I hear you reply wearily — possibly over-theatrically, but with feeling, I get you. Is it, indeed. If you’re reading this in the UK, I feel I can speak for all when I say — albeit with varying degrees of understatement depending on where exactly — that we’ve had quite enough of this summer’s weather. Since my last posting, typed ruefully from a rain-lashed caravan on a wild and windswept stretch of East Anglian coastline during the washed-out Jubilee week, I have seen approximately two days of splendid, sun-blest skies. The Scots have a word to describe depressingly wet, cold, endless and pitiless days: ‘dreich’ — such a pungent, original word, instinctively conveying to me all the dour, sodden meaning of ‘dreary’, ‘drab’ and ‘drench’ distilled into one crisp, poetic-yet-monosyllabic word — and it even contains ‘reich’ if we’re talking about unrelenting oppression.
Now, far be it from me to revert to that Greatest of British clichés and discuss the inclement climate in further detail (although clearly I’m not above using hoary and hackneyed phrases like ‘far be it from me’, so don’t quote me on that. Oh, look, there’s another one!) but it truly is amazing how far an unrelenting and lengthy bout of dismal, dreich days can go towards wearing away the old humour, as surely as sea water on sandstone. I’m warning you now that I have an article prepared on the Olympics in the dank recesses of my mind to post up in the coming weeks and it’s going to be a bit of a ranter. I’m saving my best nature for brighter days in the autumn at this rate.
Perversely, I have plenty to be happy about right now. I would not consider myself to be unreliable, but there is a certain waywardness to my nature that would preclude absolute, guaranteed consistency in most of my dealings with the world. However, I’ve been keeping myself busy and of happy use to others in the past weeks with that most honourable of endeavours: making music. The results of my work(s), and my fruitful collaboration with other quite brilliant and creative conspirators, will make itself known and heard before too long. But for now, I’m going to let you in on something I think may, in certain (admittedly rareifed) circles, rival the twin discoveries of the Higgs Boson and dark matter in its sheer sublimity of revelation. I won’t waste your time any longer in building this up: it’s a piece of Star Wars trivia. I await whatever passes in cyberspace for the clatter of shifted chairs that accompanies the mass exodus of a dissident faction from the lecture hall.
OK, if the rest of you would like to close up the circle and move a little nearer to me… I have something marvellous to impart unto the pair of you. In fact, let’s have a new title and a bit of a drumroll...
The voice of the Imperial Probe Droid - solved.
Those who know what I'm on about love it — the weird chattering language of the Imperial Probe Droid, or ‘Probot’ — the first ‘character’ seen in the original Star Wars sequel, The Empire Strikes Back. It makes a literal impression upon first arrival. A meteorite slices through the atmosphere and into the electric blue skies of a cold, ice world. It strikes ground, sending up a tall flurry of snow — and from within the steaming, blackened heart of the impact crater, the Probot emerges: a mechanical spider-squid device, floating like an ironclad Art Deco jellyfish over the frozen wastes. Later in the film we hear it speak. Here's a sample of it for those that need reminding (please ignore the idiot who starts chipping in!)
I’m not exaggerating when I say that this voice has fascinated and puzzled me for over thirty years. That it is a human voice, processed in several different ways I hope is clear to you — as it was to me aged nine upon first hearing it. When I was old enough to gain more of an interest and appreciation into how sound is designed and realised for film, I always thought it was a sample from another film — possibly a resonant line of dialogue best known to the sound engineer. In this case, like all the sounds in the Star Wars saga, the Probot voice was a product of sound designer Ben Burtt. Mr Burtt has won several Academy Awards — among other well-deserved plaudits — for his outstanding, resounding and astounding work on the Star Wars saga. He brings considerable musicality and organic rhythm to his soundscapes, often creating sonic ‘events’ to visual set-pieces that are tantamout to an alternative, musique concrete movie score.
Oddly, Ben Burtt has been cagey on the source of the voice sample (and by ‘sample’ may I make myself quite clear when I mean something that has been lifted (and in this case looped) from elsewhere, as opposed to the more modern idea of ‘digital sampling’ which did not exist for Burtt to use in 1980 — his work was largely confined to analogue recording and manipulation). The 2010 book The Sounds Of Star Wars comes complete with a sound card of over 250 effects created by Burtt for George Lucas’ franchise, from which the actual ‘voice’ of the beastie is conspicuously and curiously absent. Burtt claims it comes from a recording his grandfather, a radio ham enthusiast, made of a transmission. I don’t doubt this — but what transmission?
I’ll come to that, but may I digress for a moment? Charles Manson famously cited The Beatles 1968 album (the ‘White Album’) as a source of hidden messages that instructed him and his ‘Family’ to embark on their bloody, notorious killing spree at the close of the Sixties. Like the rest of the right-minded world, I can detect no correlation between Manson’s claims of darkness, insurrection and destruction, and the delightfully varied splendour, the musical joy, that I find upon hearing the White Album. However, I once experienced a nightmare in which a friend and I decided to try playing the White Album backwards to see if we could hear the sonic sedition Manson heard in it in 1969 — and we did. I awoke feeling I’d never feel truly happy again. Thank goodness it really was only a bad dream.
I mention this because the other day I was listening to a piece of music and…something happened. An inner moment of immense portent, gravid with significance. All right, all right, I may falute most highly, but you know that passing, chill realisation that hits you momentarily when you learn that someone famous who you like has died? Not dissimilar to that it was, it really was. The music in question was ‘The Motorcade Sped On’, by Steinski & The Mass Media‚ a cut-and-paste classic of urban dance music from the mid/late-Eighties. The closer students of 20th Century history will recognise the subject matter from the song title, culled — as are the rest of the quotes laid in voiceover on the track — from newsreel footage on the 1963 Kennedy assassination.
Yes, I think the Imperial Probe Droid's voice is in reality that of Ike Pappas, the reporter who was live on-the-spot when Lee Harvey Oswald was shot — and taken from that moment. Pappas entered US broadcasting history when his outside broadcast account of Oswald’s transfer from the holding pen became the second recorded assassination event in as many days. Regard the famous picture of Oswald’s intense, pained reaction to Jack Ruby’s point-blank bullet: see there, the figure on the right with the Brylcreemed hair and dark suit, left hand raised to his mouth, right hand outstretched, holding a mic obscured by Jack Ruby himself — that’s Ike Pappas.
“Now the prisoner…wearing a…black sweater — he’s changed from his t-shirt — is being moved out toward an armored car… Being led out by… Captain Fritz [HORN BEEP]… Here is the prisoner... Do you have anything to say in your defence? [BANG - someone howls as if winded]…there was a shot… Oswald has been shot! Oswald has been shot!”
Listen again to the Probot sample. The first part is Pappas remarking “Here is the prisoner…” as Oswald is brought out and the second part is his next line, delivered directly to Oswald: “Do you have anything to say...” right up to just before the shot is heard (at 47-51secs on the link above) . It’s a little sped up (it is a sampled loop on a tape reel after all), but the rhythm works: “Here is the prisoner...you have anything to say… Here is the prisoner...you have anything to say…”
Now, you can appreciate that Ben Burtt wouldn't consider this a trivia point to throw casually into conversation! Nonetheless, I'm certain this is where it's from. As far as I can tell, there's nothing about it on the Internet anywhere. Seriously, I've not seen anyone else mention this.
Mr Burtt, if you're reading this — love your work — could you elucidate, please?
Captain Swing 1, 2 & 3 - spooky spoken word fiction by the writer Cathi Unsworth, with music by yours truly, available as free downloads on Cathi’s website.
Everything by the Neil Cowley Trio.
Everything by Morphine.
Alt (Van der Graaf Generator, 2012)
Symphonies 2, 7, & 12 by Henk Badings.
Ealing comedies! Lots of Ealing comedies! Alec Guinness! Joan Greenwood! Stanley Holloway!