Bill Bruford: The Autobiography: Yes, King Crimson, Earthworks and More (2009)

24 January 2012

‘If the British Prime Minister’s Cabinet could co-operate on the same level as the great Miles Davis quintets, we’d be experiencing a different form of government altogether.’ (page 142)

This is an absolutely brilliant book. It is a rare example of an autobiography by a musician who’s got something interesting to say – about making music, about his own feelings and ambitions in music, about the bands he’s played with, about the enormous changes he’s seen over the past 40 years in the music ‘business’ and wider society – and who says it with intelligence and dry humour. The only comparisons I can think of are Mile Davis’s and Bob Dylan’s autobiographies, but Bill’s has intelligent and thoughtful points to make about a much wider range of subjects. And he’s English (hooray!)

If you’re interested in the music of the 70s, if you’re interested in progressive rock music, if you’re interested in jazz, if you want to know how albums are actually pieced together, how bands behave on the road, how the recording studio works, what managers are like, the cost to a person’s private life of being a working musician doing gruelling foreign tours, if you want tips on how to survive in the music business, or if you’re just interested in the social, political, cultural and economic history of the last 40 years, then buy this wonderful book!

Bill Bruford: The Autobiography: Yes, King Crimson, Earthworks and More

Review

Bill Bruford, son of a vet from Sevenoaks in Kent, was a teenage prodigy of a drummer, as soon as he could taking the train up to London to see American jazz drummers performing at Ronny Scott’s and other Soho jazz clubs in the mid-60s and learning from everyone. By 1968 a series of chance encounters led him to land the gig as drummer in the new progressive band, Yes, his extraordinary technique propelling the band through their first five albums: Yes, Time and A Word, The Yes Album (1971), Fragile (1971) and their masterpiece, Close To the Edge (1973).

Yes in concert 1971. L-R: Tony Kaye keyboards, Chris Howe on guitar and Bill Bruford on drums

Yes in concert 1971. L-R: Tony Kaye keyboards, Chris Howe on guitar and Bill Bruford on drums

At which point, just as Yes were about to tour the album round the US and go supernova, Bill left the band to join their rival in progressive rock, the far darker and more experimental King Crimson. Led by guitar maestro Robert Fripp, the Crim had had chronic difficulty keeping a stable line-up since their debut album, In the Court of the Crimson King back in 1969. Bruford’s arrival heralded the third incarnation of the band, much heavier and more guitar-driven and without the pseudo-medieval lyrics and elaborate song structures of Peter Sinfield. This darker sound came to the fore on the albums Larks’ Tongues in Aspic (1973), Starless And Bible Black (1974), Red (1974) and the umpteen bootlegs and live albums from the time.

Bill Bruford drumming with King Crimson in New York, 1973

Bill Bruford drumming with King Crimson in New York, 1973

At which point Fripp surprised the band by dissolving it, and Bruford embarked on the next 35 years forming his own rock combos, sometimes with former Yes-men, sometimes with a reformed Crim (which Fripp undissolved in 1980), but increasingly moving into the area of jazz which had been his earliest love, forming the groups UK and Earthworks, as well as recording with numerous jazz greats in the US and UK, and a constant schedule of touring across Europe, America and Asia. In 2009, after a long and varied career, Bill announced his retirement and, later the same year, published this, his autobiography.

Format Bill has had the brilliant idea of structuring the book around chapters answering the questions he is most frequently asked at cocktail parties, some of which drive him to distraction: So how did you get started? Why did you leave Yes? What’s it like working with Robert Fripp? But what do you do in the daytime? and 15 others. The chapters themselves consist of stories, anecdotes, thoughts and reflections skipping around in time and place but all relating to the central question.

This is a great format because it’s so flexible: it allows him to focus on luminous moments or funny anecdotes or challenging ideas rather than being tied to a chronological list of his activity since, as Bill emphasises, the working musician’s life often boils down to a pretty boring litany of rehearsals, recording and touring. It is a “best of…” Bill’s thoughts and reflections.

Drumming He leaves the details of drumming until well into the book. Personally, I could have done with understanding more how a drummer decides which of all the available rhythms in a piece of music to pick out, and why, and on which drums or percussion instruments? But there is still plenty about the business of drumming, the setting up and the testing, in the studio or before a performance, as well as lots about the business side – attending drumming conferences, fronting ads for specific manufacturers and so on:

‘When I first pick up the sticks, I feel stodgy and slow. I need to warm up. Simple, powerful strokes eventually get some blood circulating in wrists and fingers, and soon the strokes come more easily. Drummers usually practice the rudiments, a codified set of sticking patterns with colourful onomatopoeic names such as flamadiddle and ratamacue. There are traditionally some 26 of these, mostly derived from military drumming, and it’s like practicing the correct fingering for your piano scales.’ (page 294)

There’s a wonderful meditation on the physical, musical and philosophical differences between rock drumming and jazz drumming on page 172 which sheds light on the purpose and structure of the two different genres.

Bill with Mark Hodgson (acoustic bass) and Tim Garland (tenor saxophone). Photo: Fernando Aceves

Bill with Mark Hodgson (acoustic bass) and Tim Garland (tenor saxophone). Photo: Fernando Aceves

Prog rock Bill has numerous insights into the history and development of the genre music to which he contributed so hugely – after all he worked with the giants of the genre, Yes, King Crimson and, briefly, Genesis. Passages of pure insight like the following are scattered throughout the book:

‘Robert Fripp had stopped King Crimson, rather smartly I thought, in 1974, and we were able to leave the scene relatively unsoiled by the excesses that were fast entrapping the unwary… The history of progressive rock since about 1976 can be divided into two distinct periods. From 1976 to 1982, a watered-down, simpler version limped on as American stadium rock and British symphonic pop, but no new ground was being broken and the older bands started to lose commercial viability… The Yes, Genesis, King Crimson, and Pink Floyd groups of 1972 became the lighter, more consistent stadium rockers such as the Journey, Styx or Kansas of 1978…  By the time John Wetton’s Asia had sold millions of copies of its bland radio-friendly pop in the 80s, the post-hippie extension of the counterculture that was progressive rock, based on the idealistic impulses of the 60s, had finally runs its course. The dream, or illusion, of individual and global enlightenment was over. Progressive rock, like the period that gave rise to it, was essentially optimistic…Perhaps that lasting innocence, a refreshing anecdote to modern times, is where the attraction lies for the remarkably large group of listeners it has managed, over many turbulent years, to retain.’ (page 125)

As someone fascinated by the historical context of all types of art, these passages are, for me, pure gold.

Jazz Jazz was always Bruford’s first love and the book makes clear that, throughout the 70s, he felt like a jazz drummer masquerading as a rock drummer until he felt confident enough to set up his first jazz group in the 1980s. Having experienced both worlds he is uniquely well-placed to comment on the enormous disparity between the two musics:

‘If I threw a party for my greatest 20 musical friends, past and present, the room would divide down the middle with 10 on one side and ten on the other. The ten on my right would be millionaires with salaries so unaccountably large that more time would be spent in charitable dispersal of the stuff than its actual acquisition. The ten on my left would be among the finest jazz musicians in the world, with an average salary approximately equal to that of a supermarket checkout girl. And I would be standing in the middle.’ (page 199)

The music biz Bill describes himself and his band mates in Yes as being astonishingly naive about every aspect of the business when they started out. They were on a weekly wage of £25 well into their period of greatest success. He gives vivid vignettes of the band, memorably recalling Jon Anderson in the band’s communal flat in Fulham, yelling down the phone at promoters and agents, doing everything necessary to keep the band going. Bill’s anecdotes give a good sense of the various managers Yes and King Crimson went through, and an unnerving insight into the chanciness and dodgy dealing which accompanied so many of the ‘business’ arrangements.

Our hero - older and wiser

Our hero – older and wiser

But behind the anecdotes about this or that manager, about the constant squabbling over money (and everything else) which characterised Yes, about the hussling for gigs, the sordid contractual realities which lay behind the making of the albums the fans loved and the tours they sold out – it’s the confidence with which Bill sets his own story within the much broader context of the day which makes the book so rewarding. He explains key facts such as the music business’s turnover tripled each year in the early 70s. Money seemed to be pouring in in uncountable amounts for the successful groups which managed to make it big in America, the platinum albums, the sellout stadium tours, the private jets, the hotel suites which they felt free to trash. The bands, the managers, the promoters and the record companies thought the gravy train (which Pink Floyd sing about with such disgust on 1975’s Wish You Were Here) would never stop, but…

I remember seeing The Song Remains the Same, the epic film of Led Zeppelin live, at the Odeon Leicester Square in October 1976 and being blown away; but then I was an impressionable 14 year-old. Led Zeppelin hadn’t played in England for two years to avoid paying supertax and most of the other megagroups – Genesis, Yes, Supertramp, Pink Floyd – had become similarly rich and distanced from their ‘fans’. Earlier that year a couple of new bands had been touring England creating a grass-roots movement wherever they played. They were The Clash, The Damned and The Sex Pistols. Though they would lumber on into the 80s and increase their turnovers, the era when the prog rockers represented youthful idealism was over. Increasingly they just represented their own need to make money.

New technology Bill’s book sheds fascinating light on the way the music industry has changed and evolved not only during the period he’s been active, but throughout the entire 20th century. Again he places his own personal story in a much wider context:

‘It is an industry for which the  constant stream of technical innovations – phonogram, wireless, recording, vinyl, cassette, long-player, multi-track recording, CD – has been both the lifeblood and a constant source of disruption and disturbance that threaten the established ways of exploiting musical materials to yield a profit. If the music industry was all about banging out bits of black vinyl on an assembly line and delivering to a vast number of retail outlets, then its modern replacement, the music business, is about the never-ending war waged by record companies, composers, and publishers to establish and then protect copyrights on their material and collect royalties for its use.’ (page 181)

I’ve rarely read anything so thought-provoking about popular music, its place in all our lives, in our Western culture, and in the vast tentacular capitalist economies which control us. He sees the big picture:

‘It’s hard to escape the conclusion that there is already enough music in Western society, and Western society tends to point out to the musician through the market – sometimes quite brutally, because the stupid musician doesn’t get it – that it doesn’t really want any new music, that it’s stuffed with the music it’s got.’ (page 181)

Something I think about all the time. I chatted to a student at Pierrot Lunaire the other day, and she told me about a few gigs she’d been to recently, Lou Reed and Patti Smith. Good God, why them, Lou’s first album is nearly 50 years old! People at work are getting excited about a series of gigs we’re staging with Paul Weller, Jools Holland, Blondie and the Human League. The biggest selling music tours of last year were Madonna (first single 1982), Bruce Springsteen (first single 1975) and Roger Waters’ The Wall (1979). Where’s the new stuff?

When everything, all the written and recorded music of the past is immediately available at the flick of a few buttons, anywhere with wifi or 3G, what value does that music have? What meaning? It certainly has lost all ability to shock or subvert or change. I grew up on the Sex Pistols. Ollie Murs doesn’t worry me. And with recorded music so ubiquitous how can the new young performing musician compete? With so many avenues of exploration so thoroughly mined, where can the ambitious musician begin to say something new?

These and lots of other issues, ideas, questions and concerns are raised and discussed by someone who has really been there and done it, in this marvellous and marvellously thought-provoking book.

All quotes from ‘Bill Bruford: The Autobiography’. Used by permission of the author.

A Postscript from Robert Fripp

Robert Fripp has been lovingly remastering, repackaging and reissuing King Crimson’s LPs as well as issuing a host of live recording, and accompanying them with fascinating commentary, on the group and the times. In the notes to ‘The Great Deceiver‘ double live CD (a fascinating record of the group in 1973-74) he makes comments which supplement Bill’s and Paul Stump’s:

‘The record industry in the period 1968-1978 was a seemingly unstoppable growth industry. The early amateurism surrounding the rock business had professionalised by about 1974, although this increased throughout the Seventies and Eighties. Records became ‘products’ and ‘units’ which moved, audiences became consumers whose ‘behaviour patterns’ were charted by ‘demographics’. Something went terribly, terribly wrong in our sense of values. Pragmatics replaced Principle. Quantity demonstrated Quality.’

(Sleevenotes to ‘The Great Deceiver, volume 1’. Copyright Robert Fripp)

In 1978 when I was buying punk singles and albums I still thought music was some kind of rebellion, had something political to say, and could change things. By 1982 I realised the New Romantic movement was deifying the Triumph of Money and the comprehensive defeat of everything the 60s stood for. In the 1990s I got to be series editor of a TV arts programme, and was quietly appalled that the clever 20-somethings who produced the music items for it made their case for who should be on the show entirely in terms of units sold, gold, platinum records achieved or Mercury or MOBO awards. The entire sector had been comprehensively corporatised. The student I chatted to at Pierrot Lunaire said she’d been to see Radiohead at the O2 last year and was disgusted by the cost and the spectacle and the merchandising and the special lifts to the VIP boxes where bankers and property developers could enjoy this so-called ‘subversive’ music in luxury.

Not unlike Bill (though as a humble fan, not a premier league performer) I also abandoned rock music in the 80s for more musically interesting jazz – and then progressed on into 20th century classical music, much of which is still so uncommercial and difficult that it resists corporatisation, assimilation and denaturing to fit the infantilised tastes of the ipod age.

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