Alice Through the Looking Glass

Band members                             Related acts

  line-up 1 (1969)

- John Ferdinando -- organ, flagelot, glockenspiel, guitar,  bass,

  mandolin, piano, autoharp, percussion
- Peter Howell -- organ, flagelot, glockenspiel, guitar,

  bass, mandolin, piano, autoharp, percussion




- Agincourt (John Ferdinando and Peter Howell)

- Friends (John Ferdinando and Peter Howell)

- Peter Howell (solo efforts)

- Ithaca (John Ferdinando and Peter Howell)

- Tomorrow Come Some Day (John Ferdinando and Peter Howell)






Genre: psych

Rating: *** (3 stars)

Title:  Alice Through the Looking Glass

Company: Tenth Planet

Catalog: TP-032

Year: 1997

Country/State: Ditchling, UK

Grade (cover/record): VG+/VG+

Comments: 1997 official reissue

Available: 1

Catalog ID: 4

Price: $75.00

Cost: $1.00


Based in the small Sussex village of Ditchling, The Ditchling Players were the town's small amateur theatrical group.  In 1968 the group decided to stage a play based on Lewis Carroll's 'Alice Through the Looking Glass' and asked John Ferdinando and Peter Howell to provide the music for the production.


Playing in a string of local rock bands such as The Four Musketeers, Merlin's Spell and The Tudor Mood, Ferdinando and Howell were mainstays on the local music scene and the perfect candidates to score the project. The two were happy to oblige using it as an opportunity to combine Carroll's work with their own growing interest in studio effects and musical experimentation.  With help from a small Philips tape recorder the pair managed to record what unintentionally has become a classic slice of English folk-cum-psychedelia.  




Unveiling their work during play rehearsals, actors and stagehands started asking for copies of the music.  Howell and Ferdinando had 50 copies of the soundtrack pressed by the small London-based Sound News Productions label (catalog number SNP 11/12).  When those sold out the pair had another 23 copies pressed.  That was it for the original run.  Good luck finding a copy of the original release, let alone affording one (expect to pay over $1,500).  Twenty two years later the LP was officially reissued by Tenth Planet.  The reissue was limited to 1,000 copies.




So first a word of warning.  There are lots of folks who will hear this and think "total crap."  If you don't like English folk music I'd suggest staying away.  If you're not a fan of amateur theater I'd suggest staying away.  Finally it also helps to be able to understand heavy English accents and tolike Lewis Carroll.  As you'll see from my comments, I'm okay with the accents, but I'm not a big fan of the other three categories.  That said, I want to be fair when it comes to my comments.  If you remember the 19 and 20 year old Ferdinando and Howell were tasked to compose incidental music for a small, local play, I'll readily admit the results were more than you would have expected.  The fact that with little in the way of money or resources they managed to create a charming musical score that carried the play's plotline while incorporating a wide array of intriguing studio effects (backward tapes, vocal effects, etc.) made for an album that was occasionally intriguing.  So what's the hype all about?  Well in simple terms what you hear is a mixture of dialogue from the play ('Dance of the Talking Flowers'), rounded out by original material written to kick the story along.  The album also actually included three tracks featuring dialog deleted from the play - 'Through the Looking Glass Wood', 'The Walrus and the Carpenter' and 'Whose Dream?'.  At least one review I've seen compared the project to something out of The Moody Blues catalog.  To my ears that comparison wasn't very apt.  Perhaps it sounds like The Moody Blues had they lived in a small English village, had a line-up that included a little girl (Martha Kearney in the role of Alice) and been fascinated by folk music.  Quaint, low-keyed and largely acoustic, this wasn't rock and roll, but material like the instrumental 'The Alice Theme', 'The March of the Chessmen' and 'Dum and Dee' had a certain low-key lysergic charm.  Having listened to the LP dozens of times over the years there were numerous highlights scattered throughout, but pride of place goes to 'Jabberwocky' which reflected an impressive mélange of treated vocals and backward tapes and the album's most psychedelic performance - 'The Walrus and the Carpenter'.  Together these two tunes were worth the price of admission.  


With its drowsy atmosphere, myriad sound effects and languid organ-based sound, Alice certainly invoked the spirit of the psychedelic age, albeit from the perspective of photogenic Middle England rather than hallucinogenic Middle Earth.  Not for everyone, but if you were in the right frame of mind, this might prove interesting.


"Alice Through the Looking Glass" track listing:

(side 1)

1.) The Alice Theme (instrumental)   (Peter Howell - John Ferdinando) - 2:49   rating: *** stars

The brief instrumental 'The Alice Theme' opened the album with a pretty flute powered instrumental.  Probably too "precious" for many folks, the melody was nice enough and the addition of some organ and then full rock band instrumentation  helped a bit.

2.) The March of the Chessmen (instrumental)   (Peter Howell - John Ferdinando) - 2:23   rating: *** stars

Kicked along by some martial percussion and a mixture of organ and early synthesizers, the title provided a good indication of what to expect.  It certainly wasn't rock and roll.

3.) Jabberwocky   (Peter Howell - John Ferdinando) - 3:45   rating: **** stars

Opening up with some spoken word narrative, 'Jabberwocky' quickly shifted over to an acoustic guitar powered folk tune with synthesizers and a freak-out ending.

4.) Dance of the Talking Flowers (instrumental)   (Peter Howell - John Ferdinando) - 4:11   rating: *** stars

Besides having a great psychedelic title, the instrumental 'Dance of the Talking Flowers' also sported one of the album's most conventional and commercial melodies.  It was also the first song to embed some of the play's spoken word narratives into to plotline.  You can also hear the audience reaction.

5.) Alice's Train Journey (instrumental)   (Peter Howell - John Ferdinando) - 2:31   rating: *** stars

Opening up with some railroad sound effects, 'Alice's Train Journey' showcased the pair on acoustic guitar.

6.) Through the Looking Glass Wood (instrumental)   (Peter Howell - John Ferdinando) - 2:49    rating: *** stars

The Instrumental 'Through the Looking Glass' also stitched together dialogue from the play (including an audience member coughing), along a pretty acoustic melody and a host of the pair's in-studio sound effects.


(side 2)

1.) Dum and Dee (instrumental)   (Peter Howell - John Ferdinando) - 1:27   rating: *** stars

A brief and bouncy flute instrumental, 'Dum and Dee' quickly opened into more dialog from the play with the Dum and Dee characters reciting the next "track".  

2.) The Walrus and the Carpenter   (Peter Howell - John Ferdinando) - 3:20   rating: **** stars

Waves breaking on a beach with heavily treated vocals - someone half-singing some of the dialog.  The album's most outright psychedelic performance and another highlight.

3.) Alice Meets the Knights (instrumental)   (Peter Howell - John Ferdinando) - 1:48  rating: ** stars

Sound effects, carousel organ ...  clearly incidental music to push the plotline along.

4.) A Sitting On a Gate   (Peter Howell - John Ferdinando) - 4:03  rating: ** stars

One of the book's poems set to a pastoral melody.  Probably should have just had the narrator continue reading the poem rather than trying to sing it.  For some reason this one reminds me of Eric Idle ...

5.) Her Majesty Queen Alice (instrumental)   (Peter Howell - John Ferdinando) - 3:50   rating: *** stars

Surrounded by dialog snippets, 'Her Majesty Queen Alice' was another pretty flute-powered instrumental.

6.) Whose Dream? (instrumental)  (Peter Howell - John Ferdinando) - 2:44   rating: *** stars

The last of the segments deleted from the play.  Another pretty melody that sounded like something you would play to get your baby to fall asleep.





Over the next decade Howell and Ferdinando continued their musical partnership through a number of obscure and highly sought after projects including Agincourt ("To Fly Away"), Ithaca ("A Game for All Who Know"), and the self titled projects "Tomorrow Come Some Day" and "Friends".  Howell subsequently focused his time and talent on his job with the BBC Radiophonic Workshop where he was tasked to compose theme and incidental music for various television shows, including updating the original Dr. Who theme song.


If this kind of stuff scratches an itch with you, there's a fascinating BBC 3 segment on the album: