In an interview to Sounds Magazine’s May 1978 issue, taped a month earlier during rehearsals for U.K.’s first tour, Bill Bruford was quoted saying: “We all appreciate each other’s skills and we’re working towards getting a unique sound. We’ve got one or two tricks up our sleeve that I reckon are pretty much us – combinations of sounds and things like that. But it will probably take us two or three albums to get there.” He got a few things right. U.K. indeed had as unique a sound as they come, and definitely pulled more than a couple of tricks on their debut album. But Bruford got one thing wrong. That lineup was not destined to release another album and in fact ceased to exist only 6 months after that interview. This is the story of the short-lived original lineup of U.K., one of the best progressive rock and fusion ensembles to emerge in the 1970s.
The road to the formation of U.K. is, like its four members, quite diverse. It involves musical connections with multiple progressive and art rock groups in the mid 1970s. Here is a quick review, a worthwhile exercise given the magnitude of all the bands and artists involved. I’ll also throw in some of the great tracks that these musicians contributed their talents to.
The obvious place to start is King Crimson. Immediately after releasing the album Red at the end of 1974 the band called it quits for the rest of the decade. Drummer Bill Bruford and bass player and singer John Wetton were not planning on this abrupt end to a successful run of albums and tours. Robert Fripp’s announcement that the band was no more forced the two musicians to look for other outlets. John Wetton found a position as a bass player for Roxy music on their tour to promote their album Country Life, with Eddie Jobson on violin and keyboards. Although limited to the role of a bass player, Wetton had a great time on that tour: “I first did the European tour with them, then the American and later the Australian and Japanese. I had the fun of my life and it was the only time where I got women’s underwear thrown at me!” Tracks recorded during that tour are included in Roxy Music’s live album Viva! If There Is Something is a fine example of Wetton and Jobson on the same stage three years before forming U.K., with Jobson playing a great violin solo.
After that tour Wetton joined Uriah Heep, recording two albums with the band. Meanwhile, after three years with Roxy Music, the band went on hiatus and Eddie Jobson was quickly recruited to Frank Zappa’s band. Between 1976 and 1977 he participated on a number of Zappa albums, including Zappa in New York and Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar. Jobson tells this story of his audition with Zappa: “Frank flew me to Canada, and I went around with him on tour in Canada after the Roxy tour. I used to play in the dressing room with Frank and Norma Bell, saxophone player. One night I was playing in the dressing room a little bit. It was Hamilton, Ontario. He just said, ‘I want you to come on the stage tonight.’ From the dressing room. I was just like traveling around with him, but he wanted me to play on the stage. I was completely unprepared and had no idea of what was going on the stage. It was like 5 minutes before the concert started. So I had to go on the stage with the violin. He played Black Napkins, which he wrote on this tour, and that was my audition in front of 10,000 people. He pointed at me, and I had to do a solo over Black Napkins.”
Bill Bruford’s path found him playing as a hired gun with the likes of Gong, Roy Harper, Chris Squire, National Health and Genesis. For the detailed story of that musical journey read this article:
In 1977 Bruford reduced his recording activities and focused on his first solo album, Feels Good to Me. In an interview he said of that period: “I suppose it seems like a long empty period for me but that solo album took a lot of hard graft on my part. I was nine months just writing the music. It was a deliberate effort on my part to try and make it as a musician – us drummers have this inferiority complex.” The album included Dave Stewart of National Health on keyboards and a young Jeff Berlin on bass. Looking for a guitarist, Bruford recalled hearing guitar wiz Allan Holdsworth on the Gong album Gazeuse!, or Expresso in the US release. The Gong gig did not last long for Holdsworth: “In 1977 I joined Gong which was a potentially interesting writing situation, but they could never stop arguing long enough to organize anything. We toured a little and then I left.” Holdsworth had great credentials already, having previously played with the band Tempest and then Soft Machine in 1974. On his experience with the Softs he said: “It was really interesting, because I’d never played in odd time signatures before.” That would change very quickly – the U.K. album is odd time signatures galore. Holdsworth’s most recent stint was with the acclaimed jazz rock outfit Lifetime, Tony Williams’ mid-1970s incarnation of the band. Bruford invited Holdsworth to play on his album for sessions that were scheduled to take place in August of 1977. Just before these sessions, Holdsworth played on Jean-Luc Ponty’s successful album Enigmatic Ocean. Here is one of his great solos from that album:
By the time Holdsworth joined Bruford’s sessions, most of the tracks have been recorded and he was asked to overdub his guitar parts. He later said of that experience: “I had never played a completely overdubbed solo until I recorded with Bill Bruford a few years later. It’s so weird, so sterile. You know, you feel like you’re outside. When a band plays together, everybody interacts. And that feels much better to me. If you make mistakes, they don’t feel so goofy as when you overdub and foul it up. It’s hard sometimes, because I can get a mental block.” The overdub process that is often required in recordings of complex material will cause major issues later on with U.K. Still, that first album with Bill Bruford had great moments, including the opener Beelzebub.
Many stories about how U.K. came to be surfaced in various interviews by all members of the band. Sometimes these stories conflict with each other, but it is quite clear that the roads lead again to King Crimson. Bruford and Wetton were still identified with that band after its demise. Wetton remembered: “All the time I was on the road with Roxy Music guys would keep coming up to me and asking me ‘Why did Crimson end, what happened?’ While I was doing that Bill Bruford was out on the road with Genesis and he was getting the same questions. One thing led to another and Bill and myself always felt that there was some unfinished business and that Crimson had ended too quickly. We felt that there was a lot more life left there. I wrote to him and told him that I was getting this all the time and why don’t we do something together? He was getting the same thing so he said ‘Yeah let’s do it’.” This led to rehearsing for a few weeks with Rick Wakeman for a band to be named British Legion, but other than writing pieces such as Beelzebob that surfaced later on Bruford’s solo album, it went nowhere. The two have also been in contact with Robert Fripp, who toyed with the idea of forming a King Crimson-like band with the name of The League of Gentlemen. They approached Eddie Jobson and got him interested, but Fripp was reluctant to commit. At this point the idea of forming a band was too hot to discard, and Bruford suggested they complete the line up with the guitarist who played on his solo album. The last piece of the U.K. puzzle was in place with Allan Holdsworth.
The band dedicated a few months to rehearsing together starting in the autumn of 1977. During that period the material for the album was written and arranged. Wetton on that period: “Suddenly there were four of us in the studio and we were all looking at each other. I had never heard of Allan Holdsworth in my life but when he started to play I thought: this is in-cre-di-ble! Allan had only been playing in small clubs so very few people knew who he was. What would happen with this guy if he was to play large venues? I immediately knew we had to make sure there was plenty of room for improvisations in our music.” The band temporarily named themselves Alaska until Bruford came up with U.K., the one thing that tied all four members to a common thread. Wetton proceeded to write the lyrics to the music during Christmas of 1977. The album was recorded in December 1977 and January of 1978 at the famed Trident studios in Soho, London. Shortly after the release of the album Holdsworth said in an interview: “It’s great, a fantastic place, the engineers are great. We produced the album ourselves. It might be better to get an outside producer for the next album because he’ll have a chance to listen to the material first but it was better this time if we produced it ourselves. And besides, we had Steve Tayler as an engineer and he’s fantastic!” Indeed Tayler had worked wonders with a list or artists too long for this article. In the period surrounding the recording of U.K. alone, he worked with Bruford on his first two solo albums, Peter Gabriel’s second solo album, Stomu Yamashta Go Too, Shakti with John McLaughlin, and albums by Anthony Phillips, Brand X, Gong and many more.
And we finally arrive at the music. In 1978 Jobson said this about what he seeks in music: “Listening to any music, particularly as I have a classical background, emotion, atmosphere and power are very important factors for me.” As the main composer of the music on the album he characterized it well. No better way to start the album than one of prog rock’s classic pieces of music, a 13-minute suite composed by Jobson. The first part, sharing the suite’s name In The Dead of Night, is absolutely one of the best album openers I know. A great synth riff, Bruford’s fills on the roto toms, the irresistible 7/4 groove, Wetton’s lyrics and vocals. Jobson on the piece: “In The Dead of Night was probably the song that came together the quickest and easiest, which is probably why it became U.K.’s signature song. I brought the piece in as a virtually complete three-part suite—mostly written out on sheet music—but it turned out to be one of those songs that everyone just started playing and it immediately worked.” The highlight of the song is Holdsworth’s unforgettable guitar solo that starts at 3:08. Bruford was full of praise of that solo: “Allan delivered a knockout blow on the first cut, 94 seconds of liquid passion married to a blinding technical facility that was to go down in the annals of rock guitar history. It remains one of the most perfectly formed, intelligently paced, and brilliantly executed guitar bliss you are ever likely to hear.” Well said. In the promo clip below Holdsworth can be seen using a tremolo arm on his guitar, a device he later ditched, but used to great effect here: “I used to like to use the tremolo bar in the beginning because that wasn’t used very often by many people, and then that technique got sort of attached to me.” Amazingly, but not unusual for Holdsworth, the solo was completely improvised. His reluctance to play the same way on repeated stage performances would cause issues within the band later on, but on the album it was magic. He later said about this topic: “I never played a solo that wasn’t a complete improvisation, so if I did it again it wouldn’t be the same. That’s the part of music that I love.”
In The Dead of Night segues into the second part of the suite, In the Light of Day, an atmospheric piece that features one of John Wetton’s best vocals on the album. No guitar on this track, but Eddie Jobson’s electric violin makes its first appearance. The synth solo that starts at 2:50 reminds me a lot of the flute solo on The Court of the Crimson King.
The last part of the suite, Presto Vivace and Reprise, starts with a showcase of Jobson’s and Bruford’s mastery of their instruments. Jobson, who came to UK after his time with Zappa came to an end, said of the piece: “The Presto Vivace section of the suite was obviously inspired by my tenure with Zappa. My favorite pieces to play with Frank were the highly technical Inca Roads-style keyboard-featured instrumentals that he was famous for, and I really wanted to have a piece like that to play with UK. The original version of Presto Vivace though, before I added the syncopated bass part, was like a Hungarian dance in a regular 7/16 Eastern dance rhythm. That’s probably hard to imagine now, if you know the piece.” I always imagine one of Zappa’s great percussionists playing a xylophone or marimba when I hear the 100-miles per hour percussive synth runs that Jobson plays in the first minute of the tune. Bruford’s signature snare drum and rototoms again take center stage in these 60 seconds of virtuosity.
One of my favorite tracks on the album is Thirty Years, the closer of the first side on the LP. This is another great vocal delivery by John Wetton, reminding me this time of his singing on Book of Saturday, from the King Crimson album Larks’ Tongues in Aspic. Bands like King Crimson and UK could not have the level of success they had without interspersing great melodies and vocals within their complex music, and Wetton should get a huge credit for that. Jobson recognized that aspect of the band’s music later on: “John’s great talent of finding a melodic vocal line over the most unusual, even dissonant instrumental tracks was probably quite helpful in us reaching the level of popularity that we did acquire, which at the end of the day was a positive thing.” Wetton’s aspirations to emphasize the memorable melodic parts in order to appeal to a wider audience, created a gap within the band that widened after it went on tour. However on that album it was a perfect mix between the two opposites, as he later commented: “That was always the stumbling block in both King Crimson and U.K. I’m naturally inclined to write three or four minute songs, that’s what I do. If you wanted to compare it to classical musicians, I write the aria. Then it’s up to the others what they do with it. In King Crimson that would get expanded to anywhere from seven to ten to eleven minutes. The same thing applied in U.K. really.” In a 1978 interview Wetton commented on the song’s subject: “It is about a certain type of a young lady that gets to the age of 30 and finds out that although she’s been doing the social butterfly number, 30 years has suddenly slipped by and she’s missed the boat.”
Side two opens up with Alaska, a feature piece for Eddie Jobson and time to discuss his use of the Yamaha CS-80 synth. This was one of the early polyphonic synths, released in 1976 and later becoming famous for its use by Vangelis on the soundtracks to Blade Runner and Chariots of Fire. The hefty 220- pound synth featured a number of innovative features that Jobson put into great use on this album. One was the pitch ribbon, a controller that allowed the player to bend notes much further than regular pitch-bend wheels found on most synths. You can hear that effect at the end of By the Light of Day. Another feature of the CS-80 was the after-touch, a keyboard sensitive to the pressure the player applies to each individual key. When playing chords, it allows the musician to play some notes with more volume or vibrato. Jobson on that effect: “I am lucky enough to have very strong and very independent fingers, so using polyphonic pressure after-touch always felt pretty natural to me. Of course, the first synth with that feature was the CS-80, so I used independent pressure control on all of the UK albums. You can hear it clearly on By the Light of Day, with the filters opening up on individual notes of the chord.” The opening of Alaska is a great showcase for Jobson and the CS-80, in a solo that reminds me of Keith Emerson, one of Jobson’s idols when he was listening to him as a teenager. Jobson summarizes the role of the CS-80 in his career: “I was lucky enough to time the formation of UK with the first introduction of the Yamaha CS-80 polyphonic synthesizer, so that helped give me a distinctive new sound with which to start writing the UK material. There’s no question that instrument inspired the writing of Alaska, In the Dead of Night, Danger Money, Carrying No Cross, and years later, the entire Green Album.”
The next tune, Time to Kill, sounds at the beginning as an attempt at a radio-friendly tune, but the middle part that starts at 1:45 is a wonderful complex instrumental with another great violin solo.
Allan Holdsworth makes his debut on the list of composer credits with Nevermore, one of the album highlights for me. The tune starts with a beautiful acoustic guitar solo that develops into a Weather Report–like melody. The tune shares a lot with jazz rock and fusion bands of that period, and there is a great duel of solos between Holdsworth and Jobson. Holdsworth on the song: “I already had that song written, but it was an instrumental. I think John Wetton wrote the lyrics. I was doing some layered guitar things in those days and we just took the guitar parts and he sang them as opposed to me playing them. I used a distorted sound, all recorded on separate tracks. I wouldn’t need to take that approach if I was to harmonize or write vocal melodies. It was just something we tried. I think that song turned out OK.” Another great synth of the 1970s, The ARP 2500, makes an appearance at the atmospheric part that starts at 5:30. That behemoth of an analog synth was in the studio and Jobson is making a great use of it here. More about that synth in an article dedicated to ARP Instruments in the 1970s:
About the song lyrics, Wetton said: “It is called Nevermore because of the proposed demolition of Soho in London and I think that it is quite important to me that place carries on existing. They want to knock it down and put a concrete version of high rise flats, and doing that you lose all the character of London. You lose the red light district but you also lose that lovely character.”
The album closes with Mental Medication, another writing contribution by Holdsworth. Interestingly, the two tracks he helped compose on the album were never attempted during the live tour that followed its release. Although he was the last to join the band, his contributions made that album so unique in the Progressive Rock repertoire, pulling it into jazz territories and great levels of improvisation. Jobson had this to say about the amazing guitarist: “Apart from him being the greatest guitarist in the world, I think his playing benefited from the harmonic and rhythmic structures provided by UK. It allowed him to be just as innovative, but within tighter bounds.”
The album was released in March 1978, an era when ambitious music and musical virtuosity were much less appreciated than only a few years earlier. There was even a single, a short edited version of In the Dead of Night with the B-side occupied by Mental Medication. How on earth did anyone expect that a B-side with that tune will chart anywhere remains a mystery. The album debuted on the British album charts in May 1978, 58 places behind the chart topper, the soundtrack to the movie Saturday Night Fever. It stayed 3 weeks on the charts, leaving that other album to top the charts for 18 weeks.
A month after the album release the band went on a short tour of the UK, followed by a coast-to-coast tour of the US. The music produced by the band confused promoters, who along with featuring them as headliners, booked them as a supporting act and festivals with a stylistically schizophrenic class of artists including Al Di Meola, Tom Petty, Renaissance, Van Halen, Kansas and Alvin Lee. The band liked starting their shows with Alaska, getting the audience into the dark atmospheric mindset that was so dominant on the album.
During these shows the band started to fall apart. In an interview to Guitar magazine in 1980, Holdsworth talked about the difficulty of translating an album made with many overdubs to a live setting: “We just played bits and pieces of songs, and they would shake them up and record them. Then we had to try to reproduce those parts live. And I just don’t feel at home doing that. We had millions of overdubs, and then we had to try to decide who could play what parts live because one guy doesn’t have four hands. Again it comes back to the magical quality of interplay between band members.” In another interview he added: “I used to daydream an awful lot while we were playing all those bits onstage, thinking about a nice pint of beer or something. I was easily distracted. And because I couldn’t associate all those bits – they didn’t form any kind of cohesive picture in my mind – I wouldn’t know if it was tune three or tune six or what.”
Wetton wanted to go the commercial route, aspiring for arena shows that necessitated more rock-oriented music than the pull into jazz and fusion that interested Holdsworth and Bruford. Jobson was on the fence: “John always wanted it to be more commercial, more accessible. Allan, on the other hand, wanted it to be more jazz, more obscure. And Bill…he’d gone exactly opposite direction of most people. He started off with the biggest band in the world, and getting more and more obscure, more into jazz, less commercial thing, you know. Yes to King Crimson to U.K. to Bruford. I was probably happiest than anybody in the band because I was sort of in the middle.” Following the last show on the first leg of the US tour in Philadelphia, the members decided to part ways. Wetton and Jobson would continue the band, Holdsworth and Bruford would leave after finishing their commitments to complete the second leg of the tour.
During that tour a number of new tunes appeared on the set list. They would later be split between the second UK album and Bruford’s band with Allan Holdsworth. The Only Thing She Needs, Carrying No Cross and Caesar’s Palace Blues appeared on UK’s second album, in a trio format with Terry Bozzio on drums. Forever Until Sunday and The Sahara of Snow were included on Bruford’s second solo album, the excellent One of a Kind from 1979. After going solo with his band, Bruford was asked how it feels to be up front on the stage, to which he answered: “It’s absolutely great. It’s fun to get out and about. I love seeing the whites of an audience’s eyes instead of being stuck in back and seeing John Wetton’ s ass. Life for me is a series of asses that I’m behind. Adrian’s got a very nice ass, slim. John Wetton’s is fat. Jon Anderson’s is very small. Nice legs, lousy ass. It’s a series of asses.”
And so fell the curtain over one of the most brilliant musical episodes to appear in the 1970s, and perhaps the last great British progressive rock albums of that decade. Bruford summarized it in his dry wit: “It was planned that if a couple of Jazz guys and a couple of Pop guys could somehow meet then it would be an interesting album. It was interesting people in a room, but the wrong people. So they made the one good album and they fell apart. It was a good album, I even like it.” I like it too, a lot.
The following sources were used during the writing of this article:
UK Ultimate box booklet
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