BILL BRUFORD: THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY
Yes, King Crimson, Earthworks, And More
You didn’t really think this was merely going to be a breezily anecdotal flip through the yellowing parchment of prog rock’s back pages, did you?
There are, for sure, anecdotes aplenty for prog-hungry hounds: tales of narrowly-averted terror as Yes vocalist Jon Anderson nods off behind the wheel of the band manager’s Volvo, recollections of the special hell and intermittently glimpsed heaven which constituted working with the maddeningly inscrutable Robert Fripp of King Crimson, priceless insights into the familial civility of Genesis and the rudderless chaos of Gong. However, the long-awaited autobiography of drummer nonpareil Bill Bruford – the linking factor in all of the above – offers the discerning reader considerably more than this.
Bruford’s decision to retire from performance in January 2009, following a good 40 or so years at the coal face, dovetails perfectly with the release of a book which unsentimentally takes stock of a career rich with achievement if dotted with petty frustrations and momentary derailments. With characteristic honesty, he details his reasons for hanging up his drumsticks; and most dignified they are too. I should add, though, that I saw Bruford perform with acoustic jazz deities Earthworks a couple of years ago in Bridport, and the ensemble playing was on an intuitive plane of accomplishment that went somewhere mere language cannot follow. If Bruford at this point was a man at anything less than the stratospheric top of his inimitable game… well, you certainly could have fooled me.
Accordingly, on occasions when reading The Autobiography one senses an understandable bemusement (if not mild irritation) on Bruford’s part that the work he is best known for arguably displays but a miniscule degree of the capabilities he subsequently unveiled in the respective fields of electric and acoustic jazz. It must feel like revering Shakespeare for learning the alphabet. More than this, however, Bruford’s book ends up being an extended treatise on the nature of music itself; not just his place in the pantheon, not just the manifold trials, tribulations and emotional upheavals of the working musician in a marginal genre, but the very essence. Where it came from, where it is going, how it is disseminated, packaged and promoted, what it does to us and why.
Professorial in its remit and written with a bone-dry wit and an authoritative elegance that will be the envy of many far more high-profile cultural commentators, this might just end up becoming one of the best-informed, most informative textbooks of its time.
THE EP BOOK: SWEDISH ROCK & POP PRESSINGS 1954-1969
First published in 1992 and long since elevated to the status of a collector’s item much like very EPs it exhaustively catalogues, The EP Book was until recently in the habit of commanding collectors’ prices in its own right such was the demand for the original edition. Newly updated, revised, expanded and now in full colour, this hardback edition also broadens the range of genres under consideration to include country, hootenanny and skiffle with the result that 500 additional EPs are now lovingly catalogued for posterity.
Author Roger Holegard establishes four basic criteria for the inclusion of the 1500 or so EPs featured in the book. To paraphrase - the disc or sleeve should have been manufactured in a Swedish pressing plant or printers, one of the tracks on the EP should either be in English or an instrumental, the range of styles covered by the book will take in pop, rock ’n’ roll, teenbeat, country, skiffle, hootenanny, folk, blues and rock (but not jazz) and finally that all EPs must have had a bona fide commercial release – no test pressings, promos or acetates. All featured EPs come graded by a 1-10 star rating system based on rarity and collectablity and are all drawn from the period ’54-69 which coincides with the commercial lifespan of the EP as a musical format in Sweden.
The top ranking half dozen are – Eddie Cochran’s self-titled ’59 on London, the red sleeved version of The Beatles’ ’64 The Liverpool Sound on Odeon, The Big Bopper’s ’58 Chantilly Lace on Mercury, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ At Home With on Fontana, Bob Denton’s self titled ’59 EP on Dot and, at the top of the heap, The Kinks’ Tired Of Waiting For You on Pye which is valued at a cool 700 Euros.
FROM THE HIP: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN “HOPPY” HOPKINS 1960-66
In Joe Boyd’s book White Bicycles he describes the so-called underground scene as “the fruits of the energy of one man: John Hopkins”. Those fruits most famously include the UFO Club, International Times, the early exposure of Pink Floyd, the London Free School, the 14-Hour Technicolor Dream and even helping to launch the Notting Hill Carnival. Not that he received much gratitude when sentenced to nine months imprisonment in 1967 for marijuana by a judge who called him “a pest to society”.
That was all still to come. The first half of the ’60s saw Hoppy working as a photographer and his work vividly captures the seeds for what would shortly blossom in that heady psychedelic period. All influences and interests of the counterculture are present and correct in over 180 pictures: sex (prostitutes and fetishists), drugs (joint rolling and scoring), rock ’n’ roll (Stones and Beatles), jazz (UK and US greats including Lee Morgan, the epitome of buttoned-down hipster cool playing the trumpet with a cigarette between his fingers), blues (dig John Lee Hooker playing the Alexandra Palace to a crowd of enthralled mods), the Beats (Burroughs, Corso and Ginsberg wearing only his pants... on his head), youth movements (bikers in the Ace Cafe), politics (CND marches), race (Martin Luther King and Malcolm X), it goes on and on. Hardly any are posed so there’s a thrilling sense of freedom and verve to these pictures.
It’s difficult to imagine many people who not only saw the decade as clearly but played such an activate role from beginning to end. I asked Hoppy why the photographs stop in ’66. “That’s when I stopped taking pictures and found more interesting things to do”. And that’s worth a whole other book.
I HATE NEW MUSIC: THE CLASSIC ROCK MANIFESTO
Dave Thompson, foreword by Richard Meltzer
Based on the premise that a golden age of classic rock existed roughly between the mid-60s and mid-70s, Thompson proceeds to lay waste to most of rock and pop’s sacred cows from the past and present alike. It’s as much an exercise to indulge himself in nostalgia as it as an excuse to play devil’s advocate. Nothing is spared his barbed criticism.
Except for the few notable songs on it, the usually sacrosanct Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album is none too delicately put in its miserable faux-music hall/vaudevillian place, and is accused of inspiring a glut of similar, yet more awful, pastiches. Not even punk is immune from Thompson’s comments. After all, he argues, the stripped down back-to-basics ethos of mid-70s punk music was largely based on early-60s Who, Kinks and Small Faces anyway.
Thompson seems to infer that all rock music is now recycled, the implication being that it can’t really evolve any further, and as such this is the cause of a deep malaise it now finds itself in. In dismissing grunge – all recycled Boston and Neil Young riffs – Thompson says it only achieved popularity because there was no alternative at the time. Although he champions classic ’70s rock it ain’t spared his criticism if he thinks it warrants it. And, as for today’s crop of MOR rockers, he heaps opprobrium onto Coldplay, Travis, Muse and Stereophonics, who are roundly condemned as being merely interchangeable.
Contradictory as I Hate New Music is at times the point is not to take it too seriously, and a number of Nick Hornby style lists punctuate the book, adding further humour to the proceedings. Shamelessly subjective, Thompson would probably be the first to admit that his tongue was firmly in cheek when writing this book. That said, it’s an incisive manifesto nevertheless, and a thoroughly entertaining one at that – his scathing critique of Live Aid and the numerous other star-studded charity fund raisers it spawned is hilarious, ironically though, for all the wrong reasons probably, because he’s right!
Whether you agree with Thompson or not, there is still much to be said for his treatise, and you will find yourself laughing out loud at times, and nodding in response to many of his arguments. I know I did.
PLEASE PLEASE ME: SIXTIES BRITISH POP, INSIDE OUT
Oxford University Press
Pick up a book that has the words “Sixties British Pop” as part of its subtitle and you figure you’re about to be regaled with tales of The Beatles, The Stones, The Who, The Kinks et al during the swinging British Invasion heyday. But while all of those acts and others (The Animals, Them, Donovan, Herman’s Hermits) are briefly covered here, the greater emphasis of Thompson’s book is on the behind the scenes people who didn’t get their faces plastered on magazine covers but who still had much to do with what was going down in British music of the time. Producers, engineers, non-performing songwriters, session musicians, and musical directors all get their moment, and the reader gains some insight into how important all of these often invisible people were in the processes of hit-making and star-making.
Easily the most entertaining chapter is the one that covers some of the some of the more significant British producers of the era: the personality portraits of people like Andrew Loog Oldham, Joe Meek, Mickie Most and Shel Talmy – as well as the insider’s look at how they interacted with the artists whose music came under their direction – is something that could have been expanded into a book on its own.
That section aside, Please Please Me is interesting if not wildly enjoyable. Thompson writes about these times and people in such a muted tone that you might think you were reading about the history of the umbrella, rather than a study of rock ’n’ roll in one of its headiest combinations of time and place.
REASONS TO BE CHEERFUL: THE LIFE AND WORK OF BARNEY BUBBLES
Paul Gorman; Essay: Peter Saville; Foreword: Malcolm Garrett; Introduction: Billy Bragg
When Barney Bubbles, AKA Colin Fulcher, took his own life in November 1983, Britain was robbed of one of its most talented graphic artists of the modern era. Although he didn’t quite catch the same wave that the likes of British psychedelic artists Nigel Weymouth, Michael English and Martin Sharp surfed in on in the late ’60s, Bubbles’ contribution to the graphics of popular music is no less significant – if anything, perhaps more diverse and enduring.
Having met Californian psychedelic artists Alton Kelly and Stanley Mouse during a trip to San Francisco in ’68, Bubbles’ designs soon transmogrified into his own brand of “cosmic Art Nouveau”. Drawing inspiration from the likes of Mucha, his artwork adorned a series of Hawkwind albums and accompanying posters during the first half of the ’70s, including two particularly elaborate affairs, X In Search of Space and Space Ritual Alive. He also regularly contributed to underground mags Friends and Oz.
Bubbles was one of the few hippies who actually earned the respect of the punk generation, and he made the transition to punk via pub rock with relative ease, providing art work for the likes of Brinsley Schwarz, Chilli Willi and The Edgar Broughton Band along the way. He then became in-house artist for Stiff Records and slightly later, Radar and F-Beat, designing covers for the likes of The Damned, The Adverts, Ian Dury and Elvis Costello. Not long before his death he had extended his talents into furniture design, but graphic art was always his raison d’être, and it’s his artwork for the record industry that he will largely be remembered for.
The book itself is a real visual treat, lavishly illustrated, nicely presented on high quality paper, and chock-full of virtually everything he never put his name to. Preferring to remain largely anonymous – Bubbles rarely signed his work – you might be surprised to learn that he was responsible for more LP covers than you might imagine.
Full marks then to Gorman for providing this long overdue and fully deserving appraisal of Bubbles’ life and works. It should go some way in elevating Bubbles’ profile in the pantheon of great British popular artists.
ULTIMATE HENDRIX: AN ILLUSTRATED ENCYCLOPEDIA OF LIVE CONCERTS AND SESSIONS
John McDermott with Eddie Kramer and Billy Cox
Taking Mark Lewisohn’s The Beatles Recording Sessions as a template, John McDermott, the Hendrix Estate’s chief archivist, has attempted to piece together as much as is known about Jimi’s recording and performance history, substantially building upon 1995’s Jimi Hendrix Sessions. He admits that this remains, and forever will be, an incomplete jigsaw.
What we do have, however, across 250 pages is a fascinating and absorbing day-by-day account of Jimi’s artistic activity from his ’62 army discharge to early death, concentrating on the intense four-year period that saw him change the musical landscape irrevocably.
Delving deep into the processes of magic is not going to be everyone’s modus operandi, but I think us Shindiggers are pretty much kindred spirits; we’re going to get drawn in. Hendrix engineer Eddie Kramer’s insight is invaluable in fleshing out the bones of whatever track was being laid down, dubbed or mixed on a given date. He it was who hosted the Electric Ladyland documentary DVD reviewed in the last issue. Bassist Billy Cox is the eye-witness for Jimi’s earliest days and the latter day Band of Gypsies era.
Naturally, not all of it is riveting, and your approach is likely to be as mine, by jumping in head first looking for fresh info on the major landmarks: Chas’s discovery, The Lulu Show, the recording of favourite tracks, the live rendition of ‘Sgt Pepper’ in the week of its release.
We get an excellent idea as to the madness of being a pop star, ’60s style. In 37 consecutive days in March and April ’67, the band played three TV and two radio sessions, 54 gigs (including 25 double shows) in 29 locations, Jimi first set his guitar alight and spent three days in the studio finishing Are You Experienced with just two days off.
The balance between text and research against photographs and illustrations is just right at around 85:15. Even I have about had my fill of “previously unseen” snaps of this most photogenic god and his two English band mates.
Do we really need another Hendrix book? Well, in this case, it’s a great big yes.