On the last stop of Bill Bruford’s book tour promoting Uncharted: Creativity and the Expert Drummer, the legendary percussionist, appeared at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. Although the Hall of Fame Series event focused on his career timeline, it seamlessly corresponded with the book’s theme of creativity and performance.
The 2017 Rock Hall Inductee, as a member of Yes, discussed his 41 year drumming career with Yes, King Crimson, Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe and as a bandleader with the Rock Hall’s Vice President of Education and Visitor Engagement Jason Hanley. Questions by the audience and those watching on facebook Live tied up other details including time spent with UK, Genesis and collaborating with Patrick Moraz.
“I get bored easily. I see it as my obligation to keep moving into things that I’m not quite sure about…and began to get a name for leaving groups.”
To demonstrate his illuminating comments, Bruford played songs snippets throughout the two hour event — “Every Little Thing” and “Heart of the Sunrise” (Yes), “Discipline” (King Crimson), “My Heart Declares a Holiday” (Earthworks) and “In the Dead of Night” (UK).
“It occurred to me when I was seven or eight that rhythm did seem to be everywhere, even windscreen wipers on cars, clocks ticking, everything. The whole world seemed rhythmic to me.”
Soon after this discovery, his sister received a set of drum brushes. Bruford used them on album covers to mimic the sounds he heard on records. Following that, he bought a snare and practiced on it. Then, he added one drum after another to his fill out his kit.
Attending a liberal arts school, he and his fellow students paid attention to the blossoming rock ‘n’ roll music released by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones but he fell in with the jazz players. “Neither was as exciting as Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers…we thought.” At 13 he inherited the drumming position in the school’s jazz quartet.
Answering an ad Jon Anderson and Chris Squire placed in “Melody Maker” led to his big break and transition to rock music. “Before I joined Yes, I probably played three gigs in my life. And they let me in. I can’t believe it.”
With no rehearsal time he performed with them later that evening. “We played a very extended version of Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour,” which was about all we knew. But, they could sing. They harmonized. Now, that was hip.”
He added, “Jon was a big fan of “Pet Sounds,” and the Fifth Dimension was another strong vocal group that we all loved.”
With little advancement in Yes’ career, Bruford left to attend Leeds University. Dissatisfied with his replacement, the members asked him to rejoin the band for an upcoming gig at Royal Albert Hall, opening for Cream at its farewell performance.
Early Yes material concentrated on adapting covers that coincided with the members’ abilities. “We used to do things to the covers to make them sound interesting. I’m a keen fan of cover bands in the sense that you shouldn’t replicate what the originals did. You should take the material and do whatever your unique selling point is to the material. With Yes we could sing everything in three-part harmony for a start and then have some weird meter or jazz beat behind it.
An example of how they’d “cobble” bits together was adding “The Big Country” theme to the cover of Richie Havens “No Opportunity Necessary No Experience Needed.”
He attributed the switch to writing all original material to Anderson, whose rough song ideas proposed to the band would encourage them to add their instrumental brushstrokes. They’d record the music in sections, which were then edited together by engineer Eddie Offord who cut the two-inch studio tape by hand with a demagnetized razor blade. The process eventually resulted in a fully-developed Yes song.
Viewing the band as having “five leaders,” Bruford felt that getting anything done was a matter of negotiations.
Despite the band’s growing success he left Yes after its fifth album, “Close to the Edge.” “I think I was a very romantic hot-headed kid, and there was a sense that the job had been done effectively. I knew that the next one would be four sides of an album and called “Tales from Topographic Oceans” and would take six months to make because this was how things were going. I just didn’t quite have patience. I am very engaged in the music if I’m being involved. An older man would probably would have said, ‘I’ll catch you in a week. I recorded some tracks. You sort it out. I’ll leave the studio and let you get on with it.’ That would have been an easy thing.”
Despite being turned down to join King Crimson on his first inquiry because its visionary leader and guitarist Robert Fripp felt Bruford wasn’t “ready,” he checked again six months later and replaced drummer Ian Wallace.
Discussing “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic,” his debut with Crimson, Bruford said, “There’s a school of making records which says get the five most interesting people you can find — doesn’t matter what instruments they’re on — lock them in a recording studio for a week and see what kind of music they make.
“To this day it still sends shivers down my spine.” What followed was a segment of the timeless-sounding title track playing on the Rock Hall’s Fourth Floor Theater’s PA.
He stayed with the lineup for three albums. Then, Fripp disbanded it in 1974.
It was the first of his three stints with Crimson. He convinced bassist Tony Levin to take a break from his successful career as a globe-trotting session player to join the Anglo-English version of Crimson in 1981. “The way we all worked together was hilarious. The two American guys go to the bar and sit quietly waiting for the two British guys (mimics two people having a heated discussion), and eventually we’d decide to play something and they’d play the hell out of it.”
Three years later, Fripp dissolved Crimson a second time. Bruford then joined the “Double Trio” version of the band for much of the ‘90s.
“With King Crimson you never quite knew whether it would be there at breakfast the next morning. But, it was a great group because it was like research and development. Any ideas that you had, you can try ‘em out in King Crimson.
“Basically, any drumming was welcome just as long as Robert hadn’t heard it before. He didn’t say that but he’d say, ‘Try to get it so it’s new, fresh. That’s what we’re after.’”
It was during that second time with Crimson and his solo project Earthworks that Bruford embraced electronic drums. “I’m always using things that will, hopefully, make me sound more like me and differentiate from another drummer as well. I don’t do that for that reason alone but that’s a happy byproduct.”
On his intentions with Earthworks he said, “I wanted to take the electronic drums that I’d taken a little way and take that into jazz. So, I formed a band around the idea that the drummer would play lots of confections of percussion sound and the horn players could play what the hell they liked. I didn’t really care.
“I exported a lot of stuff you’d hear in a King Crimson rehearsal. Ideas, ways of going about making music, I suddenly found myself saying to these young British jazz guys who were younger than me. It’s funny how it gets passed through the genre and passed down generations. A good idea is a great idea, whatever it is.”
With the advancement of MIDI technology Bruford began to play chords on his Simmons drum pads. “Now, am I a piano player or am I a drummer? Which is a nice area to be in. Am I a very rhythmic pianist or a very melodic drummer?”
The creative possibilities were negated by whether the equipment worked properly. “I laugh now but I was a neurotic performer eventually.”
Asked by Jon Anderson to contribute to a solo album, Bruford became convinced to join when he found out the sessions would take place on the Caribbean island of Montserrat. After other Yes members came aboard, the recordings became the debut of Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe.
With ABWH’s success there was a push to bring in Yes members Chris Squire and Trevor Rabin for what became the overstuffed unsatisfying (for Bruford) “Union” album. “We were told that the west coast Yes would be Sellotaped to the music that we were making — too many people, too many cooks, too many computers and too many lawyers. That many people interfering in the process will kill any music that’s beginning to flower.”
Finally, the discussion moved to Bruford earning a doctorate from the University of Surrey and the subsequent publication of “Unchartered,” his doctoral dissertation that deals with the creative process of drumming in performance. “In all art you have to choose something and offer some variation. Then, you need to communicate that to someone for later assessment. Performance creativity is a special case because it happens in the moment. You get instant assessment because people clap or they don’t. A lot of performers love that.
“It all takes place in this cultural media, which in my case was King Crimson and Yes, which offered opportunities to negotiate and to try things and not worry about failing and all the creative drivers that enhance the possibility of creative action being enacted.”