You might not have heard the name David Lowe, but – assuming you’ve watched British television at some point in the past 20 years – you’ve heard his work. He’s the writer of the evergreen theme music for programmes like Countryfile, Grand Designs, Cash in the Attic and The One Show. He arranged the current version of the Panorama theme and recently reworked the title music for The X Factor. Perhaps most famously, he’s also the man behind the iconic 1999 BBC News theme, which has provided the broadcaster’s news coverage with an instantly recognisable musical identity for two decades.
Lowe’s latest project was none other than the BBC’s general election coverage back in November 2019 – for which he worked on a new version of the opening track of Rick Wakeman’s 1975 synth-pop classic The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.
“It’s a remix of ‘Arthur’, which is the iconic election theme they used to use in the ’90s,” Lowe explains. “They changed it in 2003, but they decided to bring it back for the latest election.” (Insert your own joke about modern British politics and pining for a mythical version of the past here.)
The election theme is one of a pair of major primetime UK TV commissions for Lowe in 2019 – the other being long-running Simon Cowell-helmed talent show The X Factor, whose 16th series, dubbed The X Factor: Celebrity, features a new arrangement by Lowe of the classic theme music.
The ‘Arthur’ and X-Factor reworks will be among the most listened-to pieces of music on British television this winter, adding to Lowe’s already remarkable CV – which, in addition to the TV programmes listed above, also includes Vangelis’ ‘Chariots of Fire’, remixed for the London 2012 Olympics, and the original song ‘Would You…?’, which propelled Touch and Go to No3 on the UK chart in 1998. (In this writer’s experience, it also inspired a generation of primary schoolchildren, without knowing what it actually meant, to go up to each other in the playground, giggle, and ask: “Would you go to bed with me?”)
Like many composers, Lowe started writing music in childhood. “I’ve always had music buzzing around my in head,” he recalls. “I was constantly thinking of tunes and rhythms – I’d listen to things on the radio and walk off thinking about how that tune would develop from there. I just assumed everyone did that, so I never thought it’d be something I did for a living.” But his real childhood passion, he explains, wasn’t music – it was wanting to work for the BBC. What kind of child dreams of working for a public broadcaster, PSNEurope wonders? “I don’t know what it was!” Lowe says. “I think I was always fascinated by what was going on behind the scenes and how it all worked. Plus, of course, the BBC was always this hub of musical innovation – and Television Centre had this whole magical mystery thing going on… It all just drew me in in some way.”
That preteen dream came true when a schoolteacher who’d worked for the corporation secured him a Saturday work experience place at Auntie Beeb’s Pebble Mill studios in Birmingham. “I knew this was where I wanted to be. I loved every minute of it,” says Lowe, who followed the placement by going on to help produce a BBC Birmingham radio show.
“That’s where I discovered I loved that cross between the technical and creative,” he continues. “I’d spend hours in the studio making jingles with sound effects, splicing and chopping audio… I learnt a lot there; that’s when I started to develop my production skills.”
It was at this time, after a brief spell as a TV sound man, that Lowe “started doing music for fun”, he says. “This was 1982 or ’83, so right at the start of the home recording revolution. People could afford to buy synthesisers for the first time – when they came in the price range of the domestic market – and that was a defining moment.”
“I WAS ALWAYS FASCINATED BY WHAT WAS GOING ON BEHIND THE SCENES AND HOW IT ALL WORKED. PLUS, OF COURSE, THE BBC WAS ALWAYS THIS HUB OF MUSICAL INNOVATION. IT ALL JUST DREW ME IN IN SOME WAY”: DAVID LOWE
What Lowe describes as his “second lucky break” came after he bought one of the first affordable polyphonic synths, the Roland Juno 6, released in late 1982. “I was in the BBC bar one night after work and the producer of a local news show asked me if I wanted to write the theme tune, as he’d been told I had this Juno 6, which had that classic big ’80s pop sound,” Lowe explains. “I scuttled off and came back with an idea quickly, and he said something along the lines of, ‘That’s alright, that.’ “Almost immediately, a light went on in my head – I realised I could work in TV and write music, and combine them into one thing. And it all started with Midlands Today in 1983.”
Since those early 1980s, Lowe has “never stopped playing”, he says, writing on average a tune a day for the past 36 years. “Conceptually, in terms of my approach, I always try and come up with something memorable – a tune you can hum,” he continues. “The old brief in TV is a tune you can whistle, and in a way I’ve always stuck to that idea.
“Ronnie Hazlehurst [Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em, Are You Being Served?, Yes, Minister] was a hero then, and I sometimes think of myself as a modern Ronnie. He’d sit there and write tunes all day from his little office at the BBC, and now I do the same, just round the corner from the BBC.” What has changed – since both the Hazlehurst and Juno 6 eras – is the equipment available to composers and producers. Lowe has “gone through a whole range of kit” over his four-decade career, he says; fondly remembered gear includes a “game-changing” Akai ASQ 10 sequencer and a Roland JV-2080 outboard module, which he used up until 2000, including on his BBC News theme.
Lowe has worked entirely in the box since around 2007, after switching over to Logic in the early 2000s. “That was a bit of a mind-bending learning curve at the beginning,” he recalls. “Back then I thought, ‘I’m never going to stop using a desk’, but my Mackie eight-bus ended up becoming a glorified headphone amp.”
Genelec 8010s, meanwhile, serve as Lowe’s monitors of choice at his Malvern, Worcestershire studio. Reflecting on his career to date, Lowe says he’s probably most proud of his BBC News theme, given his childhood dream to work for the Beeb. “It’s almost,” he ponders, “like the universe collided in one particular spot at that moment, and everything I wanted to do formed into that music.”
Additionally, he says, “it was right first time. I was just told to have something to play people – it doesn’t have to be final – but then I played it in this meeting for the first time and they all said, ‘That’s it! You’ve got it.’”
Other themes that came out almost fully formed, Lowe says, were Grand Designs, where he left the TV production company with the music already in his head, and Cash in the Attic, which he forgot to record until the morning it was due, and “literally put down the final notes as my doorbell rang. The ones that are right the first time are generally the best,” he comments, “as they don’t become laboured – they stay fresh.”
Outside the UK, Lowe’s television and radio credits include musical identities for Euronews, Abu Dhabi TV, Norway’s TV2 and NDTV in India. “I’m doing a lot of work for Chinese TV, too,” he explains, “doing the branding on four state TV stations. I’ve had a lot creative freedom with that project, using different cadences and sound textures and making it sound ‘Chinese’.”