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Bruford: Rock Goes to College

John Kelman By

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Rock Goes to College
Winterfold Records

Charting the career of drummer Bill Bruford, one has to sometimes wonder exactly what was he thinking? On the cusp of major commercial success on the heels of Close to the Edge (Atlantic, 1972), Bruford chose to leave Yes to join King Crimson—a band with no small cachet, but at the same time never possessing the commercial appeal of Yes in terms of record sales. But Bruford—a rock drummer and an art rock drummer at that, but one who had deep roots in jazz from the very beginning—wanted to pursue improvisational opportunities. As his career has born out ever since, the majority of his decisions have been made in pursuit of the opportunity to work with others who might complement his desire to grow—not only as a player but as a writer and bandleader. Rock Goes to College is an all-too-brief but totally riveting performance by his first band as a leader—a band that demonstrated in no uncertain terms that Bruford was far more than "just" a drummer.

When Crimson founder/guitarist Robert Fripp "permanently" dissolved the band in 1974, in what would turn out to be but the first of many such dissolutions, Bruford found himself out of a steady job for the first time in six years. In a move that would be completely in keeping with his approach to growth, he began working with groups like National Health, which featured keyboardist Dave Stewart. Stewart, who had previously worked with Canterbury bands Egg and the influential Hatfield and the North, has never received the recognition he deserves, despite some pop hits in the 1980s with his wife, singer Barbara Gaskin. But in 1975 the hook-up with Stewart was the beginning of a relationship that, along with Bruford's growing expertise on tuned percussion, would lead to the formation of the drummer's first band, simply called Bruford.

Bruford's first release, Feels Good to Me (EG, 1977, reissued Winterfold, 2005) came as a shock, even to those who'd been following the drummer's career closely. Bruford's core group featured Stewart, along already-becoming-iconic guitarist Allan Holdsworth and bassist Jeff Berlin, another too-often overlooked player. It was a muscular band, as capable of navigating Bruford's mind-bending rhythmic twists and turns as they were a surprisingly sophisticated harmonic conception that came from the collaborative writing efforts of Bruford and Stewart. Bruford's debut also featured the sultry-voiced Annette Peacock, mixed so far up front that, despite her relatively brief appearance, her contribution became an inescapable fundamental of the release.

The group would go on to record one more record (without Peacock), One of a Kind (EG, 1979, reissued Winterfold, 2005) before Holdsworth left, to be replaced by the somewhat clone-like and aptly-nicknamed The 'Unknown' John Clarke. That group would tour extensively for a year, and release two more albums—the Live The Bruford Tapes (EG, 1979, reissued Winterfold, 2005) and Gradually Going Tornado (EG, 1980, reissued Winterfold, 2005)—before disbanding as Bruford would again join Robert Fripp in a new 1980s incarnation of King Crimson.

Rock Goes to College rescues a March 7, 1979 performance for the BBC television show "Rock Goes to College" from the archives, and represents one of only two performances to feature the original band with Holdsworth. The DVD release is an historic significant event for fans of this band or one or more of the musicians involved. It also features a guest appearance by Annette Peacock for two songs—but more about that later.

For its time the recording quality is more than acceptable. Berlin's lithe bass lines thunder, Stewart's wall of sound is big as life, Holdsworth's blinding solos are clear as day and Bruford's sound as snappy as always. While there was considerable structure behind songs like the knotty-themed "Beelzebub," there was also plenty of room for Stewart and Holdsworth to become more explorative. Bucking tradition, Bruford eschews exhibitionist solos altogether and, with the exception of the intro to "5G" where Berlin's slapping is a clear antecedent for players like Level 42's Mark King, there aren't many bass solos to speak of. But as form-based as Bruford and Stewart's music is, there's also plenty of interaction, with Berlin a strong melodic voice at times, at others an overall strong contrapuntal player who, like Bruford, went beyond even the more liberal constraints of art rock.


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