Bill Bruford - The Autobiography

A comment by Dave Stewart


I heard that Bill Bruford had retired from public performance a few months after the event - Barbara and I were in Japan in March 2009 playing some gigs and our host Tom Ohsawa (who had arranged several tours for Bill) told me the news, adding with typical Japanese understatement "The fans were very surprised". So was I - Bill just didn't seem the retiring type. On returning home I called him and (as is my wont) gave him the dubious benefit of some unasked-for advice, suggesting that he could always "do an Alex Ferguson" and arbitrarily cancel his retirement any time he felt like it. Though Bill took this in good humour and gave several logical reasons for his decision, I still came away feeling puzzled why he, or indeed anyone, would voluntarily retire from a pursuit which can bring so much pleasure and satisfaction. But having read my former colleague's autobiography and had time to reflect on it, I now understand his reasons.

Critics from the keep-rock-dumb school would probably say Bill Bruford is too clever by half (an exaggeration - Bruford claims the figure is closer to 36.7%). Personally I find intelligence an attractive quality, and this book oozes it. As well as being an excellent and entertaining read, it's a terrific analytical work which gives great insight into the psychology of performing, recording, band membership and band-leading. It's also a valuable historical treatise on the late 20th century music industry and the sector of it Bill inhabited, which we can call progressive rock / art rock / alt prog / post-rock / alternative rock / avant-prog / classic British rock / jazz / jazz-rock / fusion / electro-acoustic jazz / improv / new jazz / progressive jazz / experimental jazz-inflected rock / instrumental rock jazz / post-bop progressive modern jazz / pre-neoprog, post-fusion polymetric experimental alt-jazz / polyrhythmic, post-modern, neo-jazz-fusion-avant-rock / progressive, post-neoclassical, pre-watershed, fin-de-siecle left-field anarcho rock-jazz-fusion / post-futurist, pre-modern, polymetric mid-alt-symphonic-art-metal-electro-improv album-oriented UK new wave stadium rock-jazz, or something in that general ballpark.

Amongst its many spot-on pieces of musical analysis is this description of 1970s English progressive rock: "Typically, a blistering intro of some sort would give way to a rather fey, dreamy vocal delivery over some twinkling backing. This would wind its often tortured way through a number of extensions, second subjects, and codicils before a return, probably in a different metre or with a different orchestration, of the overtly masculine bravura main theme." 1 Ironically given the name of the genre, this description is as true of today's neo-prog as it was in 1973, though the 'in a different metre' bit may now have passed into history.

The accuracy of the reporting takes a sharp dip in this description of a certain keyboardist's equipment: " . . . some combination of electric piano and Clavinet, all of which complained bitterly at being fed through a ring-modulator." 2 In fact the instrument was a Pianet and the distortion unit a common-or-garden fuzz box, but their owner concedes that such subtle distinctions are unlikely to be recognised by those of a percussive persuasion.

There's No Business Like . . .

Gratifyingly for those of us who like a laugh, there's a lot of humour in this book - the following description of the hoops bandleaders have to jump through to get their group booked at trendy festivals made me guffaw out loud: "Regular touring groups tend to lose out over sometimes spurious and unlikely combinations of artists that will read well in the festival brochure and provide the necessary cutting-edge feel to proceedings so beloved of the fashion-conscious sponsors. If your group can count among its number John The Baptist on nose-flute, ex-President Clinton on tenor saxophone, a couple of tabla players, and a rock guy on guitar, preferably Andy Summers from The Police, you will do well on the festival circuit that summer." 3

[ Despite the serious facade, Bill can be very funny. I fondly remember his response (delivered as we partied, somewhat improbably, on a Los Angeles studio-owner's boat) to a tipsy fellow guest's innocent query: "Hey Bill! Are ya HAVIN' FUN!?!!"."Yes thank you", Bill replied - "I've located some fun, and I'm having it". ]

In this autobiography, fun is in regrettably short supply. The commentary is underpinned by a relentless, ongoing critique of the horrid quagmire that is (or was) the music business. Dreams are dashed at every turn: fleeting moments of triumph (the American public's tremendous, heart-warming reception of Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman and Howe / Bill's band UK drawing 50,000 people to a free open-air concert / King Crimson's triumphant re-emergence in the '80s) are soon scuppered (AWB&H's second album wrecked by record company interference / UK split asunder by musical differences / Robert Fripp breaks up King Crimson again).

Maybe it's just the cold-water-in-the-face reality of showbiz, but the focus on how much is disfunctional and dodgy in the industry makes you wonder how anyone could possibly enjoy a successful career. One welcome departure from the general gloom is an account of an improvised piano-and-drums concert with Michiel Borstlap at the Purcell Room, a storming gig in which Bill manages to throw off his demons and enjoy himself. The sense of relief for the reader is enormous, as it must have been for Bill himself that night. But the downside is never more than a page turn away.

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Drummer

While all of the book interested me, the part that affected me most was where the author talks about the psychological difficulties that affected the last few years of his performing career and ultimately caused him to quit. Such problems were not in evidence when I started working with him in 1976 - indeed, he was one of the most confident musicians I had ever met, appeared supremely at ease with his playing and seemed to know exactly what he wanted to do professionally.

Later I came to understand some of the pressure he was under, much of it self-imposed. Bill is a responsible fellow and admits that walking the wobbling tightrope between domesticity and touring was very hard for him. Though he found the sex and drugs part of the rock'n'roll package easy to resist, the separation from his wife and children was a constant strain, the more so because the enforced absence is non-negotiable - performing musicians have to go out and play, and if the gigs happen to be in the USA (where Bill is best known) you might not see your family for a month.

Being ‘the responsible guy' creates other pressures: anxious to bring in recording projects on budget and with one eye always on the studio clock, it would be Bill who would remind Allan Holdsworth, Ian Ballamy or myself that if we wanted to get the track finished that day we really needed to wrap up the current overdub we were wrestling with. If the overdubber was feeling particularly sensitive (and there are few organisms as thin-skinned as an improvising musician in a recording studio), Bill's gentle reminders might be mistaken for the sound of a whip cracking, and that occasionally caused friction.

This pressure impacted equally on Bill himself: rather than allow a project to fall badly behind schedule, he'd rattle off a drum solo in one take and respond to the control room query ‘Great Bill - wanna try another?' with ‘No, that'll do - there isn't time, let's move on'. Most rock musicians in that position* would just overrun and to hell with the consequences, but that's not Bill's way.

(* Hatfield and The North, for example - my old band (1973-1975) took a cavalier attitude to the ever-mounting studio time required to complete its debut album, and consequently generated a recording bill that took 30 years to pay off.)

Studio tensions contributed to Bill hankering after a simpler life in which a band plays a concert, somebody records it and bingo! - that's your next album, quite possible to achieve with a mobile jazz group like Earthworks. But that approach places more emphasis on finding the right gigs at the right time, never easy in the jazz world where players tend to fill up their diaries by playing in several different bands. Another general problem (as Bill explains) is that the contraction of the industry in the '90s meant that luxuries like booking agents, managers, record companies and publicists had to be dispensed with (if they hadn't dispensed with us first). To carry on recording and gigging, musicians had to set up their own production companies, deal with record distributors, find their own gigs and promote themselves to the wider world, all time-consuming chores when all you really want to do is play. More pressure, more obligations, less time to snatch a bit of musical enjoyment.

Big Bang Theory

To digress a little, if I had the luxury of being able to plan a career trajectory in advance, I wouldn't choose to start off with a great and conspicuous success - that peak would be better placed somewhere near the middle, giving your legs plenty of time to adjust to the climb up and equally strenuous clamber down. Examples of how not to do it include a friend's school band whose 16-year old "manager" had the bright idea of booking them a headlining gig at Hammersmith Odeon 12 months in advance - given a year to sell tickets they managed to fill the place with whooping supporters, so my pal's career started (as it were) at the top, a place from which one can only descend. Neither would I recommend the career graph of comedy double act Phil Cornwell and Rick Stone - according to Phil, "We started at the bottom, and worked our way along." But even that might be preferable to trying to emulate Cliff Richard's record of 50 years topping the singles charts - that's just weird.

Bill's career began with an enormous bang in the early ‘70s as the youngest member of Yes, whose popularity in America over the years has been roughly equal to that of Diet Coke. The era of the Mahavishnu Orchestra-style instrumental supergroup was effectively over by the end of that decade, so unless our man followed Phil Collins' journey from the drum stool to the spotlight at the front of the stage, there was effectively no way for him to rise higher. The belated realisation that your career has already peaked (in the crude terms of the market at least) at the age of 23 can't be good for long-term morale. Music lovers know the real value of an artist's work has nothing to do with chart positions, financial reward or celebrity, but unfortunately this industry recognises only one unit of currency - an oversized, unwieldy coin called the gold disc.

Clinical Finish

Being a high-profile drummer with exceptional (in rock terms) technique soon saw Bill winning music magazine ‘Best Drummer' polls. That continued for many years, leading to equipment endorsements and their unavoidable flipside, drum clinics. Far from being specialist medical facilities where people are cured of a perverse desire to play the drums, these events are designed to do the opposite: all the percussive anthropoids in a 50-mile radius gather to gawp at some unfortunate tub-thumper attempting to wring musical emotion out of a solo drum kit performance accompanied by CD or laptop playback through a blaring P.A., usually operated by someone of limited hearing ability. As bizarre human rituals go, it's up there on a par with ditch-swimming and the knobbly knees contest.

It seems to me there are a lot of things wrong with drum clinics: first, the CD or laptop will not share a beer and a laugh with you after the show. It's a lonely gig. Second, the drum world's simple-minded obsession with technique makes all its members worry that their technique isn't up to scratch, undermining the simple enjoyment musicians ought to get from playing their instrument. Third, the eternal hunt for the ‘new guy with fantastic chops' makes the old guy painfully aware that he is thirty years older and 10bpm slower (something Bill acknowledges with commendable honesty). Yet another problem is that drum clinic audiences, confronted with their hero at close quarters, become so nervous and tongue-tied that the drummer's cheerful "any questions?" following a performance is often greeted by an unnerving tumbleweed silence.

Perhaps the worst thing about being famous for playing an instrument is that you feel obliged to play it famously at all times with all eyes on you as you do it. That doesn't sound like fun to me. At worst, it creates a separation between musician and musical context which can be downright damaging. In Bill's case drum clinics became a source of increasing anxiety, and I must say that if I were in his position I'd have felt exactly the same.

Outside The Music

To return to the book: no writer can produce analysis of this quality without being acutely aware of their own part in it. Being able to see yourself as others do is admirable, but the habit of self-observation can lead to painful self-consciousness; one can only sympathise with Bill's predicament when he writes "My self-awareness at the drumset is reaching epic proportions. I can see every beat I'm about to play, and in the nanosecond it takes for the stick to descend to the drum or cymbal, my conscious mind sticks its oar in and says something distinctly discouraging. No sequence of notes now seems playable without an agony of self-doubt and self-recrimination." 4 40 years of psychological baggage had taken its toll, and in Bill's words "Something'll have to give." It wasn't always so difficult. This remark (on recording his solo album Feels Good To Me) is telling: "The drumming was easy, mostly because I hardly gave it a thought." 5 In his music book 'When In Doubt, Roll!' he says much the same about One Of A Kind: "Most of the drumming on that album was almost an afterthought ... So fascinated had I become with melody and harmony that the actual percussion on the album was scarcely given a second thought, and in fact, sounds all the more natural and relaxed for it." 6 Bill also speaks poignantly of his inability to lose himself in music as other players appear to do, writing enviously of the 83-year-old jazz drummer Roy Haynes "His music-making must be absorbed so deeply into the fabric of his being that he and it have become one and the same thing." 7

And there's the key. Music lives inside you, an instinct, a feeling, an outpouring, and though tempered at times by intellectual calculation, it's ultimately an elemental emotional force which you mess with at your peril. The irony is that you can't make good music without first putting in mental effort, but if you continue to think about it too much it stops working. This is probably something to do with the forebrain interfering with the subconscious mind, but whatever the scientific explanation, it's a fact that the most enjoyable musical moments do seem to happen when you're not thinking. As the ever-complaining British TV character Victor Meldrew said, "Wouldn't it be nice if you could just switch off your brain?"

Like all performers, Bill did his best stuff when he stopped being self-critical, forgot the ideas and theories and just PLAYED. When that happened, in the 90 minutes on stage when he was able to stop worrying about how he was perceived, Bill was a musical force of nature, capable of leaving a room full of musicians speechless at what they had just heard him do.

Why Must The Show Go On?

Although it didn't work for football boss Alex Ferguson (who retired in 2002 and soon thought better of it), there's something to be said for quitting while you're ahead. No-one enjoys witnessing a musician becoming a pale shadow of himself due to the aging process, and few bands pull off the ‘Still Crazy'-style 40-year anniversary reunion with dignity. But the reason why people (including myself) found it hard to accept Bill's retirement, even at the relatively advanced age of 60, is that he appears to have so much more in his locker. I long ago stopped thinking of him as merely a drummer - he was, and is a musical thinker, a composer and generator of ideas as well as a master of rhythm and percussion, and his experience, wisdom and distinctive style will be missed by the musical community.

If 'Bill Bruford - The Autobiography' reads like the story of a musician who has forgotten how to enjoy himself, it's comforting to know that its author now at least has the time to play the piano purely for pleasure - the last time we spoke, he was happily engaged in working out the chord changes to that great Sex Pistols classic 'A Foggy Day in London Town'. However, I like to believe (indeed, I have a small bet riding on it) that after a couple of years spent ridding his garden of knotweed, thrashing the neighbours at tennis and addressing the massed knitted brows of La Società del Rock Progressivo on the influence of Shastric teaching on the lyrics of Tales From Topographic Oceans by Yes, Bill will be back in action behind the drums with that manic grin on his face, terrifying audiences once again with his polyrhythmic 17/8 paradiddles.

But in a sense it doesn't matter: whether he does it in public or not, I feel the important thing is that our man finds a way of circumventing the psychological hurdles and rediscovers the pure enjoyment of music, the primary reason anyone starts playing it in the first place. The simple truth is that when musicians concentrate on playing something they enjoy and don't let other stuff get in the way, everything tends to works fine. Whatever the public and critics may think, the only real obligation of a musician is to play the music that makes them smile.

In any case, I'm sure you will join me in wishing this master musician and fabulous drummer the best in his retirement - you've earned a break Bill, so now's the time to go out, locate some fun, and make sure you have it.


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Quotes

1 Bill Bruford - The Autobiography p.116
2 Bill Bruford - The Autobiography p.102
3 Bill Bruford - The Autobiography p.217
4 Bill Bruford - The Autobiography p.287
5 Bill Bruford - The Autobiography p.112
6 When In Doubt, Roll! p.61
7 Bill Bruford - The Autobiography p.287


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