David Bedford part 1, 1969-1972

David Bedford was exposed to classical music from the moment he was born. With a pedigree of two composers as grandmother (Liza Lehmann) and grandfather (Herbert Bedford), plus an opera singer for a mother (Lesley Duff), who was a member of the English Opera Group after the Second World War, he was destined from a very early age to practice the art of music. Both his brothers played instruments and the family enjoyed musical evenings playing duets, with young David honing his skills on the oboe. He started composing music at the age of seven, and later enrolled at the Royal Academy of Music under the instruction of composer Lennox Berkeley. In the early 1960s he traveled to Italy and studied in Venice with avant-garde composer Luigi Nono. Back in England he started composing modern classical pieces, many of them featuring a choir. Early compositions include Piece for Mo from 1963 on which he said it is “the earliest piece I’m prepared to hear again”, Music from Albion Moonlight and A dream of the Seven Lost Stars, starting a long career of music composed with themes about space and astronomy. Bedford also experimented with alternate music notations, influenced by avant-garde composers such as John Cage. His use of space-time notation allowed the performers to interpret complex scores in a less strict manner than standard metric notation.

The next chapter in Bedford’s career was From Marie Antoinette to the Beatles. What’s that, you say? Indeed it is a forgotten theatre production, but it kicked off a vast career associating Bedford with some of the best talents in British art rock in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s. Through his publisher, Bedford was asked in 1968 to arrange music for five instruments to accompany a woman singing a set of revolutionary songs at the Roundhouse. While the project itself did not advance his career an inch, it did connect Bedford with stage designer Ian Knight who also designed the London clubs Middle Earth and UFO, the city’s favorite clubs for underground music. Knight later worked with some of rock’s music biggest acts including The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, but at the moment he became David Bedford’s jumping board to the world of rock music, for he was also managing Soft Machine. The band’s lead singer Kevin Ayers left the band in 1968 to start a solo career and was looking for an arranger to work on his debut album. At the recommendation of Ian Knight David Bedford got the job.

Recalling his first meeting with Ayers, Bedford said: “It was about ten in the morning and he offered me a glass of wine. I didn’t really fancy that, not at ten in the morning. That was Kevin.” This was Bedford’s first exposure as a musician to the world of rock music, having been previously quite ignorant about popular music spare an admiration for the Beach Boys and their great vocal harmonies. He played keyboards on most of the tracks on the album, a great collection of songs named Joy of a Toy. Bedford said of the songs Ayers wrote for the album: “He hadn’t completely broken free from Soft Machine. But it was a fact that his ideas were far simpler than where the Soft Machine were going.”

The album was recorded during the summer of 1969 at Abbey Road, and Bedford received £12 per track as arranger’s fee. Here is a great example of his early arranging skills from that album:

Before we dive deep into David Bedford’s career as a rock musician, it is important to note his activities in the field of music education both as teacher and composer. In the early 1960s, realizing that composing modern classical pieces will not generate sufficient steady income, Bedford started a music teaching career. In the mid-1960s he became music teacher at Whitefield school in Hendon, and in 1969 joined Queen’s College in London as composer in residence, a position he held until 1981.

Many of his compositions were written for youth orchestras, always showcasing whimsical, playful and game-like music scores geared towards the younger spectrum of classical performers. His score for the composition An Exciting New Game for Children of All Ages, written in 1969, includes instructions such as “Do anything you like on any instrument as long as it sounds different from what the player on your left is playing.” Another composition, Balloon Music 1, instructs group 1 to “Let air out of your balloon slowly, holding the neck to produce a continuous squealing sound” and Group 2 to “Try to imitate, with your voice, the sound you just heard from Group 1”.  The score was written for any number of players from 2 to 1000 each with 2 Balloons, a pin and their voices.

After the release of Joy of a Toy in December 1969, Kevin Ayers promoted the album as a solo performer, quickly realizing he needs a band to back him up on stage. Bedford was his natural choice for a keyboard player, having played on the album. Bedford recalls how the band was assembled: “We auditioned for a bass player and Mike Oldfield turned up, and Kevin met Lol Coxhill busking somewhere and asked him to join. Mick Fincher was our first drummer but it was like Spinal Tap – we went through drummers like nobody’s business, not because they exploded or anything, but Kevin was very fussy about drumming.”

Ayers named the band The Whole World and they started touring England in March 1970. In July Robert Wyatt joined the band for a couple of months, including a tour of Europe. Bedford had fond memories of playing with Wyatt: “Robert Wyatt was brilliant, absolutely brilliant. He actually inspired us because of the little things he would do. He would propel us along. I thought he was a brilliant drummer, by far the best we’d had, but he only stayed for a couple of months I think, just for the tour.”

A memorable performance took place on July 18, 1970 at Hyde Park in London, a concert that also featured Roy Harper, Edgar Broughton Band and Pink Floyd, who premiered their latest epic Atom Heart Mother.

The Whole World

In April 1970 the band started recording material for their first album, released later in the year as Shooting at the Moon. Bedford had to adapt to the standard recording methods of popular music, quite different from recording orchestras and classical ensembles: “Shooting At The Moon was an example of the old-fashioned way of recording where you did all the rhythm tracks together, played live in booths with headphones and then the vocals went on afterwards, so if anyone made a mistake you had to do the whole thing again. So one time I’d make a mistake, next take Kevin would, and then the drummer, it could go on forever, it took ages to make. Lots and lots of takes for some tracks, it got very tense at times.”

The band gelled on the road and had plenty of opportunities to play the material before entering the studio, and Kevin Ayers was quite prolific, writing new songs all the time. The diversity of the band members and their leanings toward the ambitious side of popular music generated a great combination of carefree, whimsical songs with challenging arrangements, sometime boarding on the avant-garde. Bedford remembers: “Too often there’s a nice song idea and just in the middle of the song it all goes mad and you get weird sounds all through it so it wasn’t the type of stuff that would have worked as a single – going off into weird arrangements.”

Here is a fine example, Rheinhardt & Geraldine/Colores Para Dolores, a song that could have been a single, but watch what’s happening at the 2:18 mark:

The album included one of Kevin Ayers’ best known songs, May I, which was also recorded in French (Puis-Je?). It was the closest to a single on this album and a favorite in live performances. Here is a version of the song the members of the band performed on the TV show Old Grey Whistle Test in 1972. The band did not exist by then but its members kept playing together on various projects as we will discover shortly. Great accordion accompaniment by Bedford here:

The Whole World continued to perform into 1971 but dissolved in April of that year with only a lone album to their name. David Bedford continued to work with Kevin Ayers, but before we get to that there is more music to cover in 1970.

In September of 1970 The Whole World performed along with members of the London Sinfonietta at Queen Elizabeth Hall in London. The event was a premiere of the composition The Garden of Love, a musical setting written by David Bedford to a poem by William Blake from his a collection of illustrated poems Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Bedford scored the piece in his space/time notation and in the best avant-garde tradition the cast included ‘six beautiful girls for dancing and turning pages’, who also took over the instruments midpoint through the performance while the band members took a beer brake onstage. After fifteen minutes of these shenanigans, the surviving members of the audience got to hear Kevin Ayers sing the poem. Lets pick it up from that point:

In 1970 Bedford started collaborating with The Whole World band mate Lol Coxhill, playing the odd gig in a duo format. The material was all over the map given the wide palette of musical styles they drew from. Bedford recalls: “Our repertoire was varied—so much so that after one gig, a young woman asked plaintively, ‘what were the last two hours all about?’“

The sax player, who also played in the band Delivery, recorded his first solo album Ear of the Beholder on John Peel’s Dandelion label that year, featuring David Bedford on piano and keyboards. The two play a few duets in the style of music hall novelty songs on the album. Mike Oldfield, who also plays on the album, remembers: “David and Lol, on one of our trips with Kevin Ayers when we were all piled into the six wheeler Transit, we stopped somewhere weird, I don’t remember where we were, maybe Brighton, and found this old music shop that had these old songbooks going back to the 1920s. They discovered this song book that had all these weird songs in it, and they took a spot in Kevin’s set and they used to sing strange songs, a handful of them, really weird things.”

1970 also brought with it the first release of a classical composition by David Bedford. In 1965 he composed a chamber work for soprano and septet called Music For Albion Moonlight. Don’t get fooled by the title of the composition, for the music is set to poems by Kenneth Patchen (who wrote a novel named The Journal of Albion Moonlight), which are quite disturbing. The performance calls for extended vocal techniques by the soprano singer, including screaming into the open piano. Here is a recording of one of these pieces, Fall of the Evening Star, featuring a great performance by soprano Jane Manning.

1970 was a great year for David Bedford, and what better way to end it than conduct an all-star ensemble singing Christmas carols? On Boxing Day that year the BBC featured on their Top Gear program a carol concert featuring (you ready?): Marc Bolan, John Peel & Sheila, Robert Wyatt, Mike Ratledge, Rod Stewart, Kenny Jones, Pete Buckland, Romie Young, Sonja Krystina, Ian McLagan, Ronnie Lane, Ronnie Wood, Ivor Cutler and – David Bedford on piano.

BBC Top Gear Carol Concert first broadcast on boxing day 1970

Unlikely as it sounds, this colorful set of characters entertained the listeners with heartfelt renditions of Silent Night, Away In a Manger, Good King Wenceslas, and God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. My favorite is Sonja Krystina’s take on Silent Night, with Rod Stewart and Robert Wyatt also getting their spot.

We reach 1971, a year in which Bedford collaborated with a few artists with whom Kevin Ayers and The Whole World shared the stage quite often, being on the same label, the underground music friendly Harvest.

The first was Edgar Broughton Band, who in 1970, after releasing their excellent album Sing Brother Sing, also released a single called Up Yours!, a satire about the General Election and British Government. The band, never shy from making a political statement, received no airplay for that song, but got a fine and uncharacteristically bombastic arrangement from Bedford.

The collaboration on that song proved satisfactory enough to continue on the band’s next album, the eponymous Edgar Broughton Band, also known as The Meat Album for its front cover.

Recorded late in 1970 and early 1971 at Abbey Road Studios, it is an excellent collection of songs. The album includes a couple of songs with arrangements by Bedford including one of the band’s favorite songs, Evening Over Rooftops. Bedford wrote a dramatic opening for strings that sets the tone to a fantastic song.

Another collaboration yielded one of the best albums of that year in my opinion, and Bedford played a great part in it. We are talking about Roy Harper’s masterpiece Stormcock, for which I dedicated a separate article on this blog.

My favorite track on the album is Me and My Woman, a 13-minute long and complex song with multiple parts. For me it is Roy Harper’s finest moment, where the composition, performance, arrangement and recording quality all come together magically. Harper uses the studio very effectively with multiple tracks of vocal harmonies, guitar parts and tasty effects on the vocal tracks. Most striking is the superb orchestral arrangement by David Bedford. The strings and horns not only accompany Roy Harper, they play counter melodies, sometimes with short bursts of horns and at other times with lush string passages. Bedford: “It’s rather like an opera. The themes and the basic riff keep recurring. I decided to give the verses a kind of baroque feel, then have these big sweeping strings for the chorus to differentiate the two. Me and My Woman was almost three songs fused together”.

One more excellent recording project in 1971 was Kevin Ayers’ next solo album, and my personal favorite in his catalog, Whatevershebringswesing. In the best fashion of a Kevin Ayers album it consists of a wide range of styles, the highlights including the tape-loops collage in Song from the Bottom of a Well and one of Mike Oldfield’s best guitar solos on the title track.

David Bedford gets composer and arranger credits on the opening track, the fantastic multi-part song There is Loving/Among Us/There is Loving. Bedford scored the backing track for a large orchestra and composed the middle part Among Us. It was recorded at Abbey Road early in the recording phase of the album. There Is Loving is in part based on a single Kevin Ayers released in 1970 with The Whole World, named Butterfly Dance.

Entering 1972 we find a reunion of The Whole World, backed by an orchestra and backup singers for an evening commissioned by the BBC for an In Concert session. The event took place on January 6th at the Paris Theatre in London in front of a live audience, to be aired a week later. Kevin Ayers included some old favorites in the concert, one of them Soft Machine’s Why Are We Sleeping, for which Bedford wrote an orchestral arrangement. Another song benefiting from his talented orchestration was The Lady Rachel, a song from Joy of a Toy written by Ayers for his daughter with the full name The Lady Rachel (Lullaby for Children). I don’t know many kids who sleep peacefully to a song like that but grownups certainly loved it, and it became one of Ayers’ favorite songs and a mainstay in his live performances. Bedford wrote a wonderful, dramatic arrangement that gave the song a very different mood than the original stripped down version. A month later it was recorded with the intent to be released as a single, a plan that did not materialize until its release in 1976 on Kevin Ayers’ album Odd Ditties. Here it is in all its glory:

1972 also saw the release of David Bedford’s first album, Nurses Song With Elephants, a collection of music pieces he wrote starting in the mid 1960s, some of them for educational purposes. The instrumentation widely varies between the pieces, from 8 recorders and 8 melodicas to 10 acoustic guitars to 80 girl voices and 30 whirlies. Years later Bedford wrote in the sleeve notes to the CD release: “Looking back over a gap of 20 years, it is of course very easy to feel embarrassed at some of the naivetés in the music, but the pieces were a product of the 1960s, and for me listening now, reflect some of the excitement, experimentation, freedom, and, yes, chaos and uninhibitedness of the times. If I were to be given time to revise these pieces, I would either withdraw them completely, or not change a note!”

Recalling the circumstances around the release of the album, Bedford said: “John Peel had his Dandelion label for weird and experimental things and it was really genuinely sixties because he said ‘Do an album, do anything you like’ which you certainly wouldn’t get nowadays, so I did. I put on some of my old pieces and I wrote a new piece for it so it’s a complete mess really.”

The only piece written specifically for the album was Sad and Lonely Faces, an experimental piece for 6 pianos set again to words by Kenneth Patchen. Kevin Ayers was invited to recite the text, reading over atonal runs on the pianos, reminding me sometimes of the piano style of Cecil Taylor. The piece abruptly settles into quite a more relaxed mood in the last 2 minutes, a nice way to end the album.

Continuing with the experimental spirit, 1972 continued with another curious project called With 100 Kazoos. A year earlier famed composer and conductor Pierre Boulez was appointed to the post of Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and in 1972 ran a series of concerts at the Roundhouse. One of these concerts was commissioned by the BBC with instructions from Boulez to feature audience participation. The assignment was given to David Bedford, who without farther ado proceeded to supply the 100 audience members seating at the front with kazoos. They were given a booklet with illustrations of a star chart, the planet Saturn and a spaceman playing cards with aliens, and – lo and behold – asked to interpret them on the kazoos. In addition they were asked to repeat musical phrases played by a small orchestra, again on their kazoos. Those were the days when such live musical experiments were welcome on TV.

Bedford misunderstood Boulez, who was after a simple Q&A with the audience, not, god forbid, the audience taking over the musical performance. Bedford remembers: “He rejected my piece on the grounds that audiences would be stupid and would fool about with their kazoos in the other pieces too. Absolute rubbish. That’s never happened. He was just being too serious. I thought that, if people were actually part of the piece, they’d pay more attention to the bits I’d written without them in. Which is what actually happens, and everybody claps everybody else at the end.”

Here is the program as filmed for TV:

The second part of the article, focusing on the years 1973-1976, is coming soon…

If you enjoyed reading this article, you may also like these retrospectives about the early careers of British musicians:

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