On the 20th of September 1974, a few weeks before the release of the band’s album Red, Robert Fripp announced the end of King Crimson. Completely over for ever and ever, his words. The signs were there in the recording sessions for the album, when the usually opinionated Fripp took a back seat and deferred to bassist John Wetton and drummer Bill Bruford to make decisions in the studio. Still, the sudden announcement took the band members by surprise, as they were still entertaining thoughts of continuing the band and possibly expanding it from a trio format by adding past member Ian McDonald, who guested on two tracks on Red. Bruford said to Melody Maker: “I’d have liked the group to have lasted longer, sure, but here you go.” Bruford had a great time with King Crimson, playing a pivotal role in three studio albums between 1973 and 1974 (Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Starless and Bible Black, Red) and numerous live performances. But Fripp dropped the bomb and ended the band at the peak of their success. Hence started a difficult two-year period for Bruford, a drummer unused to act as session and touring man for a miscellany of bands and artists. This is the story of a period less celebrated in the career of one of the most revered drummers in the history of modern music, starting with his first gig following the demise of King Crimson and culminating with him joining Genesis for their 1976 tour of A Trick Of The Tail.
Bruford’s tenure with Yes and the 70s incarnation of King Crimson are well documented elsewhere. Suffice it to say here that between the two bands he not only acquired a legendary name as one of the most respected drummers in progressive rock, but they also represent two of his most characteristic talents: precision and improvisation. It is interesting to read his summary of his time with these bands. On Yes: “It was a good place to start. I was learning my craft, learning how to get on with other musicians, learning how to co-operate with a group – which is all very important especially when you’re a prima-donna young drummer, who thinks he’s played everything when in fact he’s played nothing.” Indeed those were his formative years, and even though he got tired of the repetitive task of playing the same parts night after night, he honed his skills at creating interesting and complex parts, mastering odd time rhythms and developing a unique sound. On King Crimson: “In fact, what finally drove me out of rock n’ roll was the repetition. That’s what had separated me from Yes. Why I had found King Crimson so attractive was because they were way more open: ‘Surprise us, go ahead, let’s improvise, terrific.'” King Crimson was a perfect fit musically for Bruford, a jazz musician at heart who was seeking spontaneity. There are many brilliant qualities to the golden era of progressive rock, but spontaneity is not usually one of them. The well-crafted and orchestrated pieces created by artists of the genre were meant to be played the same way every night, in the same manner that a symphonic orchestra reproduces a well-known piece from the classical repertoire. King Crimson provided an outlet to express improvisation while still attracting a Rock audience.
Bruford’s musical activities list between late 1974 and 1976 is an interesting one, and even though it was mostly necessitated by practical needs of making an income, it traversed through the many facets of progressive music in the mid 1970s. His first musical activity after Crimson went kaput was a two month stint with Gong at the end of 1974. The band’s revolving drummer door was occupied at the time by Laurie Allan, who was busted in Europe for traveling with no-no substances and could not re-enter France, the next leg of their tour. The band needed an able drummer in a hurry and Bruford was called to help with dates in France, Netherlands and Norway. Even with a less than optimal sound quality from the December 15, 1974 show in Oslo Norway, we can hear his unmistakable snare hits on the excellent Master Builder. Somewhere in there he hits that broken Zilket ride cymbal he found in a studio trash can and made famous on the opening of One More Red Nightmare from Red. The band’s crazy hippie commune proved too much for Bruford after the disciplined music atmosphere that Fripp distilled in King Crimson: “We had a chaotic and argumentative lifestyle that I espoused as readily as the Summer Of Love, the flared loon-pants, and the psychedelia of the early Yes days – which is to say, not readily at all. Searching Gong for alternative methods of communal music-making was like searching a children’s playground for paths to higher enlightenment – not immediately fruitful – although Allen would doubtless have insisted that such a place was exactly where enlightenment was to be found.” Daevid Allen performed a short and curious poem about Bruford on his 1980 US solo tour. End of the Gong chapter.
1975 was a very busy year for Bill Bruford, with different activities almost every month of the year. In January and February he played in sessions for a couple of tracks for Steve Howe’s first solo album Beginnings, including Break Away From It All, a fine track featuring only the guitarist and drummer.
Later in February Roy Harper formed Trigger with Chris Spedding on lead guitar, Dave Cochran on bass and Bill Bruford on drums and they recorded Harper’s excellent album HQ. A few months later the band toured the UK, including a performance at Knebworth that also included Pink Floyd, an occasion that resulted in a rare live appearance of the band with Harper (the only time?) on Have a Cigar. Bruford said of the singer: “Roy Harper is the only singer who can sing ‘I Love You’ without making me want to throw up”. Well said. The Game (Parts 1-5) is a great multi-part track from HQ.
A session for Annette Peacock to record a single song, So Hard, It Hurts! followed the same month and from there Bruford moved to a busy March alternating between recording sessions for HQ and Chris Squire’s debut solo album Fish Out Of Water. My favorite track on that album is Lucky Seven, with an easy odd meter of seven that Bruford could play in his sleep. Here is a nice clip showing a few live pieces from that album with Squire supported by Bruford and Patrick Moraz, playing Hold Out Your Hand and You By My Side at the Old Grey Whistle Test in 1975.
May 1975 saw a couple of quick odd ball sessions for Bruford. The first was with the forgotten Absolute Elsewhere, a moniker for keyboard player Paul Fishman who was working on tracks for his album In Search Of Ancient Gods with the subtitle ‘An Experience in Sound and Music Based on the Books of Erich von Däniken’. An interesting mix of electronic music with instrumental rock, Miracles Of The Gods is a good example. The second session was a brief cameo appearance on Jack Lancaster and Robin Lumley’s progressive rock realization of Peter And The Wolf. The album’s list of credits is one of the most impressive in the history of the genre, including Gary Moore, Cozy Powell, Manfred Mann, Keith and Julie Tippett, Gary Brooker, Alvin Lee, Eno, everyone from Brand X, and an unlikely appearance by jazz violin legend Stephane Grappelli (playing the cat). Bruford plays only on a single track, and only a snare drum at that, on the track Hunters. Cymbal is courtesy of one Phil Collins.
After a short tour with Trigger and more sessions for Fish Out Of Water, Bruford landed another session gig with Pavlov’s Dog, recording tracks for their album At The Sound Of The Bell. A mixed bag with a few nice songs with interesting vocals by lead singer David Surkamp, as in Valkerie.
In January and February of 1976 Bruford hooked up with Canterbury band National Health on a short UK tour. This was perhaps his favorite gig thus far following the demise of King Crimson. Bruford recalled: “It was brainy stuff, with titles like ‘Botogroves’, ‘Paracelsus‘ and ‘Agrippa’, and the girls at Trent Polytechnic in Nottingham would excuse themselves as we launched bravely into the ‘Lethargy Shuffle’, heads down, brows furrowed, all concentration. I was right at home.” The association with the band was important to Bruford’s career, with more live work at the end of 1976 and keyboardist Dave Stewart playing a major part in Bruford’s band in the late 1970s.
The band also offered Bruford the drum seat but he declined, demonstrating that he learned a few lessons from his days in Yes and King Crimson he said at the time: “National Health is comprised of musicians with boundless enthusiasm, a lot of fine talent and incredible dedication. But to have joined them would have been difficult. I couldn’t have weighed in on a democratic basis as they already have three writers in Dave (Stewart), Alan (Gowen) and Mont (Campbell), all of who – Mont especially – are very good. Although I don’t compose myself I have very strong ideas about how things should go and might have ended up a disruptive influence, which is the last thing they need. I really hope they get a drummer and I’ll watch their progress with interest as they seem to be one of the few English groups to achieve anything.”
In an interview for Street Life in April 1976 Bruford summed up that period: “I was open to sessions for a while. It was part of my policy to float around for a while, which wasn’t a great success. I’ve been burnt a couple of times and I’m a lousy session musician. I don’t operate under the Spedding ethos where most things will do. I don’t have that workmanlike attitude where there’s a job to be done. I think you have to discriminate – either you’re going to lend your force such as it is to music or you’re not. Session musicianship can be incredibly irresponsible. In that respect the Von Daniken thing and Pavlov’s Dog were a lesson for me.” He had his eyes on jazz music, where the exactness of what you execute on your instrument is less important than your individual style: “I’d like to be just as independent as someone like Tony Williams. There’s your kit, you do it and it’s incredible. It doesn’t matter that there’s a mistake or not. That’s the problem with the Chris Squire method. You simply do not leave mistakes on record whereas you should leave them all over the place.”
It was one of the last musical activities Bruford was part of in 1975 that led to his next big gig. In December of 1975 he guested on a few Brand X shows as a percussionist. A year earlier the band offered him the drummer’s seat but he declined due to his then commitment to Gong. Bruford said of the band: “It didn’t seem to be directed at much other than having a good time and delivering some blazing playing as light relief of the participants’ day jobs.” But now the band had an excellent album to their name with Unorthodox Behavior, and more importantly one amazing drummer named Phil Collins. The two drummers knew each other well and had a mutual respect of each other’s talents. Years later, when Collins became a pop mega star, Bruford recalled the first time he met Phil Collins: “Our first meeting had been several years earlier, when, taking a night off from the group he was in at the time, Flaming Youth, he came down to the Town Hall in Barnstaple, Devon, with Yes, to setup my drums. He was a very good drum technician, so there is plenty of work in that area for him if this singing thing doesn’t work out.” Collins also shared early memories of their acquaintance: “We used to hang out and listen to records together. He turned me on to players like Tony Williams and Billy Cobham, which, of course, was to later affect my own drum conception.” Indeed, that jazzy touch on the drum set is what distinguished both of them from most of their peers in the rock arena.
At one of those Brand X gigs the two discussed the current situation at Genesis, with Peter Gabriel leaving the band after the Lamb Lies Down On Broadway tour. The band auditioned many vocalists but not did find anyone suitable. Collins was toying with the idea of stepping up to the microphone, but he was worried about having to look for a drummer. Bruford: “He knew enough about me to know that the nightmare scenario of a drummer-turned-singer – namely that the music might collapse around his ears like a house of cards – was unlikely to happen.” Bruford was in a transition period in his career at that point and likely saw the opportunity as nothing more than a gig, albeit of the luxurious kind. For him the music Genesis made was interesting but not trail blazing: “I think everybody in Yes and King Crimson thought that Genesis would never make it because they sounded like a combination of the two groups. We thought they might be too late — we’d been there and done it. We saw them along the lines of ‘Genesis are quite fun, but they’ve got a guitarist who sits down like Robert Fripp and a drummer who plays a bit like Bill; the Americans have already had that.”
A few months later Bruford found himself at a rehearsal space in Las Colinas, near Dallas, Texas. Genesis were going through the set list for their tour scheduled to start on March 25th 1976 in London, Ontario. The band had a warm and supporting fan base in Canada, a good way to start a tour with the difficult task of replacing Peter Gabriel as the front man with the untested Phil Collins. Softening that task was the fact that Genesis released A Trick Of The Tail the previous month and the album was their most successful to date in the US. About a third of the set list was comprised of songs from their new album, all sang by Phil Collins in the studio, eliminating the concern of comparing them to the Peter Gabriel version. The show was to start on a high note with the energetic Dance On A Volcano (a recording of the song from their show on April 13th in Pittsburgh).
The 1976 tour took Bruford together with Genesis on 34 dates in Canadian and US cities, and then 29 more shows in Europe and the UK. What was it like for the drummer to tour with Genesis around that time? Bruford, who devotes a good chunk of his autobiography to the topic of life on the road, found the experience much more agreeable than touring with bands such as King Crimson and Gong: “Here was the quintessentially family-minded band. By 1976, we were mostly childless young marrieds, and wives or girlfriends were encouraged on the road. Genesis treated touring as an extension of a trip to Harrods. All necessary requirements were laid on, the partners behaved themselves and didn’t interfere unduly, and a jolly around North America was undertaken with the same kind of excitement that might have been engendered by an orderly picnic in Richmond Park”. The mishmash of gigs he was used to get in 1975 might have set a low bar as far as his expectations as a hired gun. He continues his fond memories of his tour with Genesis: “Genesis were exceptionally considerate to employees, from the high-status sideman such as myself or, later on, drummer Chester Thompson and Guitarist Darryl Steurmer, down to the lowly third drum roadie from the left. Even girlfriends of sidemen were welcomed to the bosom of this extended family, an unheard-of generosity. Easy, I hear you say, when you’re loaded and successful rock band like Genesis with private planes and plenty of manpower to help. But this warmly accommodating, family-friendly attitude had existed from the beginning in that particular band – it was just built into the fabric.” Earning 500 quid a week, a mighty sum for a hired musician at the time, sweetened the deal for Bruford, no doubt. One of his great contributions during the tour was on A Trick Of The Tail album closer Los Endos, where he found a great percussion/drums balance in a track that became a staple drum duet in Genesis’ live shows long after Bruford no longer toured with them. For this tour he assembled a percussion rack to the right of his drum set, using it when Collins sat down to his drums for an instrumental section. Genesis used to end their show with the instrumental, an interesting twist that did not escape Elton John who pointed out: “I can’t believe you end the show on an instrumental: what a great idea!”
But as welcoming a family Genesis was for Bruford, it was not his family, in the sense that he was not a creative force behind their music. Many musicians accept their function as role players in various situations, not so Bruford. In his own admission: “I was, on the whole, a lousy hired gun. Accustomed to arguing my corner in Yes or Crimson, and being as a consequence emotionally involved in the music from the first note onward, there was simply too little for me to do. I dutifully learnt the music, which I didn’t particularly like or dislike – I just knew it was nothing to do with me. This was an alien feeling, which I had found barely acceptable in the anodyne recording studio, but which troubled me more on stage. I had no motivation other than that of earning a living. I felt bogus and fraudulent, and began to behave badly.” Ever used to having a major input into the making of the music, Bruford found it increasingly difficult to get on as a hired musician on a long tour: “I snipped ineffectually from the sidelines, offered my opinion too frequently, and generally forgot to hold my tongue. The group remained unfailingly polite and generous to Carolyn and me, which only made me feel worse. I must have been trying to provoke my own dismissal, but the tour ended in the nick of time in the cavernous Bingley Hall in Staffordshire, with the presentation of a gold album that I hadn’t earned, and certainly didn’t deserve, for a record I wasn’t on.”
Upon coming back to London Bruford rejoined National Health for another tour at the end of 1976 and started planning his next career move. 1977 became a pivotal year in his career, yielding two of the best albums he is associated with: his first solo record Feels Good To Me with Allan Holdsworth on electric guitar, Dave Stewart on keyboards and Jeff Berlin on bass and guest appearances by Kenny Wheeler on flugelhorn and Annette Peacock on vocals. And then the classic debut of the short-lived UK, the progressive rock super group that rose from the ashes of a King Crimson reunion attempt. Maybe the last great progressive rock album of the 1970s, it is one of my personal favorite albums, not just in Bruford’s discography but in general. A good topic for a future article, that.
Bruford’s departure from the Genesis live lineup was not one sided. The band had its own reservations whether the master drummer is the right choice or them. In his autobiography The Living Years Mike Rutherford remembered: “Bill was up, noisy, direct and humorous. Getting him on board had been a bit of a coup – he was quite a name in America from his time with Yes – but he was a funny choice for a band like Genesis. Bill wasn’t a session drummer: he couldn’t wear a hat and be someone else. He came from that jazz world where every time you play it, it should be different. That’s fine to a degree, but there are certain key moments in certain songs that need to be played a certain way.” In his own memoir Not Dead Yet Phil Collins echoed the same sentiments: “Bill fits in well, although he’s the kind of drummer who likes to play something different every night. Although I sympathize with him wanting to keep it fresh, some drum fills are cues, something Tony, Mike and Steve rely on.” On another occasion Collins said: “On some of the songs, like Squonk, the drummer has to put a John Bonham hat on to get that Led Zep sound. Bill didn’t want to put anybody’s hat on.” Bruford’s loath of repetition was in contrast to what the band needed, as he admitted in his own autobiography: “I like to wing it a bit on stage, but Genesis were very, very precise. I’m much more accustomed to making it up as I’m going along. . . I’d learnt the tunes from the albums, and if it felt a little different from what Phil would have done. People would look at me and say, ‘Hey, Bill, could you make it sound a bit more like the record?’. . . Not being much of the session type, I didn’t do terribly well at just delivering the parts.”
In my opinion the crown achievement of Bruford and Genesis together on stage was their performance of The Cinema Show. The song was already a highlight in the band’s live performances, but with Bruford the intensity was pushed up a few notches. It was certainly a favorite of the band members. Rutherford: “Selling England By The Pound wasn’t my favorite album but ‘The Cinema Show’ was a real standout moment. The second half of the song was the start of a new phase between me and Tony. The rhythm was 7/8, which feels different but doesn’t sound clever-clever. I’m moving around chords, Tony’s reacting and improvising over them, and between the two of us we’re coming up with something that would go on to be the essence of the Genesis sound for the next twenty years. And the drumming’s great, too.” The Cinema Show is two pieces of music glued together. The first is a beautiful acoustic melody that starts with a duet of 12-string guitars played by Rutherford and Banks. That unique sound of the two guitars weaving an acoustic accompaniment was a staple of the group’s sound, and can also be heard at the beginning of earlier compositions such as Supper’s Ready, Musical Box and Stagnation. The second part is a music tour de force in 7/8 that features one of the best keyboard solos in progressive rock, a great example by Tony Banks constructing a long instrumental solo that never bores you. Banks played that solo on an ARP Pro Soloist, a small synth that was unique at the time for being portable and deigned to fit on top of heavier keyboard such as a Hammond organ.
When Genesis decided to put a double live album out after their tours in 1976 (with Bruford) and 1977 (with Chester Thompson on drums), they were strongly biased towards the tracks they recorded with Thompson, who’s drumming they found more suitable to their style. Of the twelve tracks on the album, they left a single track with Bruford. That track was The Cinema show, and my guess is that they too found that performance so stellar that it would have been a criminal act to leave it out. Tony Banks on Bruford: “He gave us the possibility of using two drummers live, which was something we hadn’t thought of before, but which came an incredibly important part of the show. When he and Phil were playing together on The Cinema Show, that was one of the strongest moments on stage.” Here is The Cinema Show from that 1976 tour. You can hear Bruford’s improvisational tendencies with that restless snare drum in the first part of the song, but it is the second part that is truly one of progressive rock’s finest moments, with two of the genre’s best drummers going at it in perfect synchronicity.
A number of resources were used extensively for this article:
The highly recommended and witty memoir Bill Bruford The Autobiography
Calyx – The Canterbury Website page dedicated to Bill Bruford’s live shows chronology
If you enjoyed this article, you may also be interested in another intersection of King Crimson and Genesis solo artists at the second half of the 1970s: