I have been reading drummer Bill Bruford’s autobiography lately after reading an article announcing it at. I had thought about doing an actual review, but the WAY in which I read the book told me I should do it differently.
This is a true autobiography – not like one of those unattributed, ghost-written Sarah Palin books. The style varies between academic, allegorical, conversational, formal and casual. The writing won’t have you shelving your James Joyce (I had actually just finished re-reading Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man … so there was a bit of a difference). But for me that was all for the better – it all felt REAL. You could tell when Bruford was doing research to write a topic, when he was ‘having a discussion’ or teaching a lesson, and when he was retelling fond tales.
If the name Bill Bruford isn’t immediately familiar, that is OK and quite acceptable even to Bruford himself. He says that early on in his career he saw the difference between success and popularity and has attempted to shape his decisions towards being artistically successful even at the cost of personal fame and fleeting fortune.
When I mentioned I found the ‘way I read the book’ interesting, what I meant was that I quickly found myself loading up my iPod and listening to the loads of Bruford music I have collected through the years. Amazing for me – there was some stuff I owned where he was the drummer and I wasn’t really aware! So it became more than reading a book – it was a multimedia rediscovery!
So how has Bruford done in terms of his pursuit of success? Let’s take a look:
- Founding Member of Yes: In the late 1960’s Bruford along with bassist Chris Squire and singer Jon Anderson founded Yes. He stayed with them as the guiding pulse in a strong rhythm section through their best work: The Yes Album, Fragile, and Close to the Edge. All of their best work (and everything famous other than their 80’s pop outing 90125) featured Bruford, who left just as the band was becoming famous in the wake of Close to the Edge.
- Long-time member of King Crimson: In 1972 it seemed King Crimson was finished … then founder Robert Fripp brought together a new group – including Bill Bruford on drums! This unit produced some of the best work the band ever produced, particularly Larks Tongue In Aspic and Red, before disbanding in 1974. When Fripp reformed the group yet again in 1980, Bruford was again on drums. Now with electronics and more power than ever, this group produced the greatest commercial success in three short albums before the personnel shifts started. Bruford stayed until 1997, making him the longest running member of King Crimson not named Rovert Fripp!
- Member of Genesis: In 1976 Genesis was somewhat adrift after Peter Gabriel left the group. Phil Collins was discussing the matter with his drummer friend – Bill Bruford – and the two had an idea: why not have Collins step in front of the mic and Bruford join in on drums. The rest is history … even though Bruford lasted one record and tour, his mark was immense.
- Founding Member of U.K.: Before John Wetton and some others formed Asia, he also joined with others and started another ambitious prog-rock veteran project called U.K. Not nearly as famous as groups like Yes or Asia, but massively influential. Most of the group left after the first recording … and that is the only one worth getting.
- Seminal Post-prog-rock/fusion bandleader: By the time he was in Genesis he knew he needed to do something of his own in a jazz/rock vein but not really part of either genre. That group was Bruford – with mammoth talents like Alan Holdsworth and Jeff Berlin joining rock-solid Dave Stewart, this was truly one of the great instrumental groups – every bit as talented as Return to Forever, but much more musical in terms of their song focus. Each member laid down such extreme tracks that their two albums are still must-haves for students of jazz and rock guitar, bass & drums. Holdsworth gave Alex Lifeson a new lease on life as his Jimmy Page clone thing was wearing thing, and Eddie Van Halen should be sending him royalty checks for the impact!
- Founder of Earthworks: After the huge early 80’s King Crimson run, Bruford sought to form a new ‘musical enterprise’, one that would become a working group and a sort of long term musical incubator. Earthworks did just that. It featured an interesting mix of tuned electronic drums and acoustic horns and bass, gradually gaining electric bass and more chordal electronic drums, and from there shifting back and forth. The level of creativity in this group was fueled by young lions Django Bates and Iain Ballamy. In the last several years the personnel have changed but the mission – tradition meets forward-looking innovation – remains more alive than ever!
- Duets & Trios: Aside from doing occasional Yes shows and continuing to expand with Earthworks, Bruford did an interesting trio recording with Ralph Towner and Eddie Gomez, and a duet with former King Crimson bandmate and Chapman Stick player Tony Levin. His creative output remains extremely high.
Not too bad, really – he was in most of the major prog-rock groups, a seminal fusion group, and has gotten widespread acclaim for his own efforts as a leader. He has a body of work that is nothing short of astounding. Of course, they aren’t all gems, but that is the way of things – what is remarkable to me is how Bruford seems to be around for the pinnacle of so many groups’ output.
Listening as I went along involved some deep dives into my archives … some things were on my backup, others were archived earlier to Iomega Zip or Peerless drives, but only a few were in my active iTunes library.
It is interesting … I knew that Bruford was a founding member of Yes, and that he left pretty early, but for some reason I never associated him with their most popular stuff. So I went to my backup disk to grab some of their catalog – specifically the three main albums with Bruford (I don’t really count the rough first two), I was stunned by how immediately I knew it was Bruford on drums but had never thought of it before. Quickly I forgave myself since my primary instrument is bass so I have always been a fan of Chris Squire.
I find that Yes’ catalog has aged with varying success: the ‘songs’ do better than most of the ‘artsy’ stuff. Fragile comes across very well, with the Yes Album being more hit-or-miss and Close to the Edge swinging wildly between masterpiece and pretentious. It is interesting reading Bruford’s take on Yes – he was so young and new to all of it, and the stories are just hilarious. This part of the book flows like a wonderful conversation.
Switching to King Crimson, I discovered them through 1981’s Discipline and then listened to the older stuff later on. I still prefer the later recordings, although I definitely feel that the three records from 1972-74 are more consistent than the 1981-84 output. Lark’s Tongues In Aspic and Red, in particular, are highly creative works that have aged badly in many ways but are still great listens.
Bruford talks about joining King Crimson after coming out of Yes as almost a natural progression. He knew Fripp and the timing was perfect as Fripp was just deciding to reform the ensemble. But it was a very different vibe as Bruford describes it, and was constantly falling apart. They also struggled creatively, as the middle album shows. I am surprised that Red happened based on how Bruford describes the band falling apart to the point of becoming a trio … but Red is one of the best King Crimson records.
It is also funny how Bruford describes rejoining King Crimson – his own Bruford band was touring and quickly running out of money as the tour was finishing. He knew that the current Holdsworth/Berlin ensemble was untenable, and with Fripp things would be interesting, so he put his own stuff on hold for a few years and joined up again – with great success.
For the later King Crimson stuff I was amazed at the huge step changes in quality between 1981’s Discipline and 1982’s Beat and 1984’s Three of a Perfect Pair. Discipline is clearly the best of the group, and I had always put Beat at the bottom because it is like Discipline all over again but not as good. However, Three of a Perfect Pair has not withstood the test of time as well – the pop material aged worse than Beat, and the creative stuff fizzles compared to Discipline. So quickly I was back to just Discipline on my iPod again.
The group U.K. was short-lived … and for good reason. They made exactly one record worth listening to, and even that hasn’t aged all that well – it is solid late 70’s prog-rock with great instrumentalists at their peak, but not much more. John Wetton really wanted this to take off, and the record labels pushed them pretty hard and they had some decent success – but it was just the wrong time. Within a couple of years, Wetton found a more pliable group ready to deal with much more pop-oriented material and subsume their prowess and creativity. That group? Asia, of course!
Astute observers might think ‘hey, what about Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe’? Well, I always viewed it as ‘hop a ride on the sell-out train’, as it was a Jon Anderson pseudo-Yes-reunion but they couldn’t use the name. Bruford describes that he basically knew this, but loved working with some of his old friends for a bit, but ultimately Anderson was working with others behind the scene at what was to become the Yes project Union, a melding of the old and new Yes groups. It was a disaster artistically and not so great commercially, and Bruford hated it but was contracted to do the record and tour … and dealt with it for the money before returning to his Earthworks project.
I could write volumes about Bruford’s solo recordings and Earthworks, but I’ll try to control myself! I have gushed enough about the late-70’s unit already. Earthworks released their first recording in 1986 and I was floored – definitely jazz, but with an amazingly organic combination of acoustic and electronic sounds and a rhythmic sense that encompasses both the rock and jazz traditions. From the beginning my thoughts went back to Art Blakey and his Jazz Messengers – the veteran drummer teamed with hot young creative artists seeking to extend the tradition in their own new ways. Earthworks brought Iain Ballamy and Django Bates to the fore, with their creative compositions and excellent improvisational skills … and as the years have progressed the group is a touchstone for them but also has featured other young artists – and the music has evolved all along the way while remaining true Bruford’s original vision.
Since starting Earthworks Bruford has done occasional tours with Yes and stuck with King Crimson in the on-again, off-again iterations all the way until 1997. But he has been active in both the jazz and post-fusion genres. His work with Tony Levin in the combo called Upper Extremities was genre-busting and creative, featuring some wild rock songs and some cool jazz bits – and even features some of the best stuff I’ve heard from current smooth jazz-pop star Chris Botti.
Bruford also produced the great trio If Summer Had Its Ghosts with Ralph Towner and Eddie Gomez, in a very sparse acoustic setting that at times sounds like something from the ECM catalog (not a bad thing) while maintaining a distinct individual feel from all three. Most recently there have been more Earthworks recordings – mostly great live stuff – and a duet improvisation albums and live shows with keyboardist Michiel Borstlap … some really great stuff that shows great communication and spontaneity.
Through the years I have been fortunate to see Bill Bruford live in a few contexts: first with his group featuring Alan Holdsworth and Jeff Berlin, where I was really there to just absorb whatever I could from Berlin and stand in awe of Holdsworth. Later I saw the 80’s King Crimson during their first and last tour, and both shows were amazing. Finally I have been able to catch Earthworks on a few occasions (though sadly nothing recently), and have been astounded each time with the level at which the band operates.
For me the reason to read a music biography isn’t about expecting great writing, nor is it to hear salacious gossip. It is to get inside the head of an artist whose music I care about. As Bruford writes, you see how his life flows together in terms of his upbringing, his relationships, his love of music and drumming, and his core of support from his family. It is interesting that he doesn’t bad-mouth anyone but nor does he really hold back – not even on himself. There is a load of introspection here as well as the telling of funny stories from the early days of prog rock.
If you are a fan of any of the bands Bruford played with, or a drummer, or just a general music fan, it is worth checking out.
Before I finish, I wanted to share some videos. These take Bruford from a 1972 live Yes show right up through a 2008 duet concert … with loads of stuff from in between!
Yes Live in 1970 ‘Beyond & Before’
Genesis Live 1976 – Supper’s Ready
Bill Bruford Live – Sahara of Snow
U.K. – In the Dead of Night (1978)
Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe – Sweet Dreams
Bruford Levin Upper Extremities – Cobalt Canyons
Recent Stuff – Earthworks – Footloose & Fancy Free
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