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When in doubt, roll!

By ProgBlog, May 24 2016 07:35PM

It was Bill Bruford’s 67th birthday last week (Tuesday 17th May.) Widely regarded as being one of the great progressive rock drummers with a legacy that includes playing for three greats of prog, Yes, King Crimson and Genesis, he was the first rock drummer that I listened to and followed. The inclusion of Genesis in this list is something of a red herring, despite its reference in almost all articles concerning Bruford and a headline in Melody Maker from March 13th 1976 ‘BRUFORD JOINS GENESIS’ that actually goes on to say he wasn’t going to be a permanent member; yes, he played with them during the A Trick of the Tail tour to assist Phil Collins settle in as the Genesis vocalist but in his autobiography, Bruford describes himself as “on the whole, a lousy hired gun” because, though he dutifully learnt the music he was fairly ambivalent about it, having had no emotional involvement in the writing process and consequently looked upon his role as merely a means to pay the bills. In his rather forthright way he describes his behaviour as becoming increasingly inappropriate, driven by the feeling of frustration from playing material that had nothing to do with him as though he was trying to get himself sacked.


I’m not so sure that my opinion of Genesis music at the time wasn’t dissimilar to the way Bruford felt about it; I did get into Genesis fairly late on for someone who discovered progressive rock only three years after the commencement of the genre, having invested a great deal of time during my emotional development following Yes-related strands to the extent that my O Level English Language exam featured a piece of creative writing about going to a Yes concert with friends and almost missing the show due to some misadventure in snowy conditions.

My best friend bought a copy of Seconds Out (1977) and though I’d already begun to acquire Genesis albums by that time, the inclusion of Bruford as one of the players certainly aided my acceptance of the band as one of the greats. My best friend was a drummer who lived two houses away in Infield Park; his surname was Burford. Quite how Richard Matthew Burford became Bill Burford was one of those strange schoolboy convolutions of logic but certainly by the time we were in the Upper Sixth at Barrow Grammar, his nickname had morphed from Beel to Bill. My brother was christened Richard William, which gives us Bill, and this was transferred to Richard ‘Bill’ Burford; the ‘Beel’ may have been a deliberate mispronunciation because it conjured up images of Beelzebub, long before Bruford came up with the track of that name on his first solo album, Feels Good to Me (1978). I put an advert out in the For Sale column of our local paper the North Western Evening Mail, on the occasion of one of Bill Burford’s birthdays: “Live in the Park – rare triple live album by Bill Burford” and included his telephone number. I know he got at least one enquiry! Bill Burford was also very much into Bruford’s recorded output and this interest enabled him to expand and improve his own drumming. He now plays and records with Water’s Edge, based in the Penrith area of Cumbria.

The departure of Bruford from Yes in 1972 came as something of a shock, even though I’d only just started listening to prog. How could anyone replace the drummer of a band that had just released something as perfect as Close to the Edge? As much as I’ve come to respect Alan White, the work of Bruford seems to act as a positive creative force within Yes, helping to propel them towards an artistic pinnacle. Though subsequent Yes studio albums might come close to matching Close to the Edge, none of them would ever equal that masterwork. Bruford cropped up on two tracks from Rick Wakeman’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1973) and Chris Squire’s Fish out of Water (1975), two albums I bought around the time of their release and still regard very highly, but it wasn’t until I first heard the ’72 – ’74 King Crimson some time in 1974 that I began to take an interest in Bruford’s continuing musical endeavours; I’d not seen the Melody Maker front page Yes Man To Join Crimson on the 22nd July 1972. Though I picked up Crimson albums out of chronological sequence, when my brother Tony bought Larks’ Tongues in Aspic (1973) it became evident that Bruford had not only fallen on his feet following his departure from Yes, he had joined an ensemble that promoted his development as a musician.

King Crimson and Yes are frequently referred to as being part of the same continuum but in reality their output, though displaying some common traits of symphonic progressive rock, had diverged to the extent that by 1974 Crimson were demonstrating a penchant for complex, heavy, improvised material where subtleties were lost as the guitar attempted to keep up with the Bruford/Wetton rhythm section. When Crimson ‘ceased to exist’ in 1974 I followed Bruford’s activity through his appearance on Fish out of Water, Steve Howe’s first solo album Beginnings (1975) and his later involvement with Genesis; sometime in the early 80s I picked up a copy of Pavlov’s Dog album At the Sound of the Bell (1976) for £2.99 because it featured Bruford on drums but also featured Mellotron.

The release of the eponymous UK debut album in March 1978 and the first Bruford solo album Feels Good to Me five months later demonstrated two sides of Bruford: the relatively straightforward progressive rock playing on UK and the matured compositional rock-jazz styling on his debut album under his own name. These two albums helped to fill in the canvas of my progressive rock world. Other than reuniting the Crimson rhythm section there was a common link in Allan Holdsworth; Eddie Jobson had added violin parts to Crimson’s USA (1975) and I was aware of Bruford’s keyboard player Dave Stewart from The Civil Surface by Egg (1974), the first ‘Canterbury’ album in my collection. This allowed me to discover National Health where, although not appearing on any of the full studio albums, Bruford was a member of this amorphous ensemble from around October 1975 until September 1976 and his contributions can be heard on Missing Pieces (1996).


I first got to see Bruford play in 1980 with the ‘unknown John Clark’ line-up having taped One of a Kind (1979) and added Gradually Going Tornado (1980) to my collection. I find the second solo effort more coherent than Feels Good to Me but slightly less bright. By the time of Tornado the group were incredibly slick (c.f. the excellent official bootleg The Bruford Tapes, 1979) and rather funky. The next time I got to see Bruford was reunited with Robert Fripp in Discipline, before they renamed themselves King Crimson and it was here that I possibly first truly appreciated his drum technique with the interwoven polyrhythmic patterns and his embracing of electronic drums; Discipline (1981) is as much a groundbreaking album as Larks’ Tongues was in 1973. I went to see the band again in 1982 during the Beat tour but the subsequent time I saw Crimson play, at the Royal Albert Hall in 1995 in the double trio formation was on Bruford’s 46th birthday, a memorable and enjoyable gig where our seats were ideally placed to witness his seemingly effortless style.

Bruford’s professed main love is jazz and it’s his jazz sensibility that benefited both Yes and King Crimson. His work under the Bruford moniker wasn’t really jazz rock but it was rock with more than a hint of jazz and for this reason, and his association with Dave Stewart, that has resulted in some observers classing the band under the Canterbury banner. While still with Crimson, Bruford recorded Music for Piano and Drums with Patrick Moraz in 1983 which, despite the progressive rock heritage of the two musicians, was a jazz album. Bruford formed Earthworks, originally an electric jazz band, in 1985 following the cessation of the 80s Crimson but returned to progressive rock with Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe (ABWH) in 1988, releasing their self-titled debut album in 1989. The proposed follow-up album was hijacked by music executives and Bruford was for a short while a member of Yes once more, responsible for Union (1991) which was disowned by the majority of the cast. I really enjoyed the ABWH tour, seeing Bruford perform Close to the Edge, but the Union show was less satisfactory with Trevor Rabin hogging the limelight and Steve Howe and Bruford pushed to the periphery.

The modus operandi of the double trio Crimson saw the various members split off into ‘ProjeKcts’ in search of possible new material. Aside from these fractals, Bruford teamed up with Tony Levin to form Bruford Levin Upper Extremities (BLUE). Difficult to pigeonhole, this group, who had first recorded together on David Torn’s Cloud About Mercury (1987) played a form of electric jazz rooted very much in a rock context, releasing a self titled album in 1998 and the live set B.L.U.E. Nights recorded in 1998 and released in 2000.

The last time I got to see Bruford was with Earthworks, by now an acoustic jazz band at the Clair Hall in Haywards Heath in May 1999. He joked about members of the audience wearing Yes T-shirts and told us not to expect anything like that. What we did get was an evening of inventive, original modern jazz, brilliantly played.


Bruford gave up public performance at the beginning of 2009 but his status as the godfather of progressive rock drumming means he’s still very much in demand as a talking head and as a contributor to the foreword of publications on the genre. He may have ended up as a jazz drummer but there’s absolutely no doubt that he’s had a profound influence on prog and remains immensely popular with prog fans.
Bruford gave up public performance at the beginning of 2009 but his status as the godfather of progressive rock drumming means he’s still very much in demand as a talking head and as a contributor to the foreword of publications on the genre. He may have ended up as a jazz drummer but there’s absolutely no doubt that he’s had a profound influence on prog and remains immensely popular with prog fans.






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