The Rhythm Section | UK
Harmony in the UK - John Wetton and Bill Bruford still rhythmic after all these years.
Bill Bruford's drumming and John Wetton's bass playing were heard together for the first time in 1972 with King Crimson. In 1975 they left to work individually recording and touring vigorously in various bands and projects. Recently they joined up again in the new band UK with guitarist Allan Holdsworth and keyboards/violin man Eddie Jobson; Ralph Denyer reports.
Bill Bruford regards seeing and hearing the Graham Bond group of the mid-Sixties as the first major milestone as far as musical influences go. Up until that time he hadn't felt a real commitment to playing. His sister had given him a set of sticks and brushes, telling him that the brushes sound great if you play them on the back of an album sleeve!
'It works, you can get a sound like Tony Williams! Hearing the Graham Bond band was the first thing that made me think of playing professionally. I heard them just after McLaughlin left. They were down to a quartet, Jack Bruce, Dick Heckstall-Smith, Bond and Baker. To me at 14 years of age that made a terrific impression. Fourteen-year-old kids go to see Yes and stuff now, don't they? I know the kind of powerful effect a group can have on a 14-year-old, the Bond group at that time absolutely slaughtered me. I couldn't believe what the men looked like — for a start, most of them looked weird, anyway, all thin and pasty. Jack Bruce was plonking away on an upright double bass which was barely audible. Ginger Baker was playing an extraordinary drum kit with a 24in rivet cymbal which I can still hear right now as I'm speaking to you. Graham Bond had a Hammond organ with two Leslie speakers and was creating a sound that had never been heard on the planet before. It wasn't jazz and it certainly wasn't rock. I thought that I would definitely have a go at this music lark professionally. I thought if I could only play half as well as these people and have half the effect they had on people, it was worth devoting my life to.'
About the same time Bill was also fortunate in starting at a new school which was giving a great deal of help and tuition to those with an interest in music. The school already had a jazz quartet, boys two or three years older than Bill; he was given every encouragement to play and learn. To top it all, once a week he had percussion lessons from Lew Peacock, who worked as a member of that well known group, The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Peacock was around 60 years of age at the time, with a lifetime of drumming and percussion experience from which Bill could draw.
Bill was then playing in a local Kent group playing soul, jazz and Graham Bond material.
In 1968 he made the move to London and became a full-time musician. He did a few gigs with Savoy Brown, and then Yes came together. A lot of hard work went into the band before their third album, The Yes Album, took off.
'We'd recorded Yes and Time And A Word and I think by the time we'd made The Yes Album we'd retrogressed really. The management was absolutely incompetent and we were down to our last five quid. We almost threw the towel in because in those days if a band hadn't made it by the time of their second album they'd get a lot of yawning from the record company. We changed managers and the next record, The Yes Album, took off.
'Why did I leave Yes? I have been asked a lot but there is no sensational answer. I thought it would have been obvious. What people want to hear is that I hated Jon Anderson or we had musical differences. That kind of thing is all a load of bollocks, there was none of that at all, they're all perfectly reasonable people. The only thing was that I'd done just about everything I could do in the group with the Close To The Edge album. So I left, which was like taking a cold shower, and I went off to play with other people. It turned out to be King Crimson which was the other happening band in London at the time and a group that I'd always wanted to play with. I did it because as a musician I'm interested in longevity, I want to be around for a while. I'm trying to acquire a musical personality. It Feels Good To Me (recent first solo album) was a big step in acquiring a musical personality. I hope to do another solo album and that will be another step. I'm learning all the time, I do these things so that by the time I'm 40 I'll be maturing a bit, hopefully'.
You cannot argue with Bill's judgement. Yes, highly acclaimed until then came in for some heavy flak from all directions soon, coincidentally, after Bruford departed. The group and their critics eventually agreed that the Tales From Topographic Oceans album was lacking in direction and progression.
Interestingly John Wetton's first interests in music were through a member of his family, as with Bruford. John's elder brother plays classical music on organ. At first John rebelled against following in his brother's footsteps, just as most younger brothers do, and refused to take piano lessons. However he had Bach ringing in his ears from the age of six and became fascinated by Johann Sebastian's bass lines. Before long he was helping out by playing the bass lines on organ leaving his brother to concentrate on the right hand parts.
His next musical interest was in early pop instrumentals by the likes of the Shadows and the Spotnicks, mainly because of the electric guitar. So not surprisingly he took up bass guitar playing soon afterwards.
'Then I got into terrible little cowboy groups at school until the Beatles happened and that did it for me. Early R&B was a major influence as well. I find that people around five years older than me were influenced by Jerry Lee Lewis and the whole early rock thing which means nothing to me. I was into anything from the Yardbirds to early American R&B featuring harmonica. I now find that Eddie Jobson for example is one stage back from me, he doesn't know about all that stuff. We were listening to about five tracks of Otis Redding on the way to rehearsals the other day and Eddie was asking who the hell it was as he'd just never heard him before! Anyone from my generation couldn't possibly forget that. Eddie was about five years later. Roger Chapman (whom Wetton worked with in Family) was influenced by early rock'n'roll which means zero to me. I was influenced by R&B which means nothing to Eddie who was brought up on ELP. He was around 13 years old when King Crimson were first happening! It's hard for me to accept or understand that R&B doesn't mean that much to him. Believe it or not there is some influence of R&B in our music with UK. I'm trying to get it in all the time, the simple melodic thing with voice and bass, that's what I sort of specialise in.'
John's first band was a local outfit in Bournemouth which, although not lacking in good intentions, could not get off the ground. Then came the gig that all thinking rock musicians dream of. Yes, you've guessed it, he joined Helen Shapiro's backing group for a tour of football stadiums in Rumania! After watching Miss Shapiro's botty bouncing up and down in front of his very eyes for the duration of the tour he was hooked on life on the road. Although he didn't admit to it I'm sure that must be the point at which he decided to become a superstar.
The first major problem he faced as a budding superstar was to find a gig that would be a true musical progression from working with Helen. This involved coming up to London for auditions and around '68/'69 moving to the city for keeps. A trio, with a drummer and organist, called Splinter followed and they went out to work in Germany. The story of the band's exploits abroad was all too familiar. Running out of petrol, no money, playing in a club for two weeks and not getting paid. Somehow they made it home and John and the drummer were asked soon after to join a band with Malcolm Duncan, who now plays tenor sax with the Average White Band. Jimmy Litherland who played guitar in one of the Colosseum line-ups was also involved. After name changes, the band settled down to being known as Mogul Thrash and recorded an album. Once again the story becomes all too familiar. The band had management problems. If they had tried to stay together with new management they could have been sued in court, so another band bit the dust.
He was lucky enough to break into the session world for a while doing everything from playing back-up on other artists' records to Kodak commercials. He did some serious saving up of session fees to give him the cash to get to the States and check out the West Coast. He was disappointed on the musical side of things, but said: 'Everything else I'd heard about LA came up to expectations!' Say no more, squire.
He felt a lack of empathy with the LA musicians, and after a few weeks was on his way back to England. On his first afternoon back he had a call from Roger Chapman of Family who was extending that band and wanted at least one musician who could sing. To cut a long story short, Wetton joined the band and contributed to two of their best albums, Fearless and Bandstand.
His next band was to be King Crimson, working with Bruford for the first time. That Crimson line-up was to enjoy a good run, and recorded four albums: Larks' Tongues In Aspic, Starless And Bible Black, USA and Red. Wetton and Bruford's success as a rhythm section within the framework of Crimson attracted a great deal of attention and if their next attempt to work together had been successful some interesting music could have been the result. The idea was for a trio with the rhythm section joining forces with Bill's previous colleague in Yes, Rick Wakeman. John explained.
JW: Bill passes it off as a bit of a joke but it was quite serious really. We spent six weeks rehearsing and it all looked as if it was going to happen. Due to circumstances beyond our control the carpet was pulled from under us again, the fickle hand of fate. I think Rick was under pressure about rejoining Yes. It was going to be a trio with obvious comparisons, not that it was anything like ELP. It was a bit of a farce really, Bill and I were just left high and dry. After Crimson dissolved I always hankered to get back in a band which was democratic again. We approached Eddie Jobson, there was some talk of reforming King Crimson and he was the obvious fourth member.
BB: I think wisely that never occurred.
JW: Robert (Fripp) was toying with the idea at one stage but in retrospect I'm glad it didn't happen. We decided not to stop just because Crimson didn't reform but to get another guitarist and do something new.
RD: I think UK is probably vastly different from the band you would have formed with Robert Fripp.
BB: It is vastly different.
RD: You've been involved with groups in the past, many of which play what appears to be conceptual and dynamic music. I was surprised that the UK album sounds more to me as if you are concerned with playing exactly the music you want to play.
BB: This is true. When I set out to rehearse some music, 40 minutes or so for an album, I certainly don't sit down and think in terms of concept or marketability. You use a musical idea as a musical idea. Nobody in our band says: 'Cor that sounds like Frank Zappa' or: 'That's very commercial' although people are under the impression that is what happens.
JW: I don't think about things like making a lot of money out of a particular song.
BB: You just think something is a beano idea and if someone else in the band thinks so too then you go with it.
RD: Your rhythm section is strong for a band of your musical complexity. Very often the power of the rhythm section is depleted by the music becoming more complicated. A lot of jazz and rock influenced things do not have the power maintained by UK.
JW: Well, we're not a terribly structured band, are we Bill? We have arranged lines but I never play the same set twice, ever. I don't think Bill does either.
BB: No, not really. We just go from point to point and what happens in between is pretty open.
JW: You know you're changing from A flat minor to C sharp but what happens in between is anybody's guess.
BB: There are a lot of assumptions in your question actually. There was an assumption that the music is quite complicated which is a matter of opinion. It depends on what music you've heard, and there is vastly complex music around. It really depends what you've heard in your life and I wouldn't think that we are a particularly complicated band. Maybe in rock terms but rock is known for its entire and unbelievable simplicity. In those terms we are marginally more complex.
RD: Let's just say that the album is more complex than the majority of new albums I have heard in the last month or so.
BB: That's probably true, though that may be because you've heard mainly rock albums. (Who is assuming what here?). And also the assumption about jazz and jazz rock. I'm not sure that we are in that area really. I can't play jazz to save my life in a funny sort of way. And also the assumption that when music gets more complicated the rhythm section gets lighter or something. Or diffused.
RD: That is something I'd have to stick with 100%. I think that is also part of a general criticism of music today, that refinement has taken precedence over basic feel. Your music is a little more complex than some yet it is interesting that the rhythm section end is not lacking in power and poke.
JW: It's not three chords music.
BB: You see in many ways we're not a rhythm section, that's a very old term to do with big bands of the Forties and things. A bit like 'gig', another word which has never died. We are part players in a way. Jobson or Holdsworth might play every bit as much rhythm during a passage as I am. In fact I might be playing no rhythm at all, I might be decorative. The idea that a drummer has a rhythm function only is, albeit with the best of intention, a very old idea.
JW: That's not the idea though, Bill, it is a general assumption. You are not always playing lead on drums, I'm not always playing lead on bass. Although at times I might play a lead passage. The best example is someone playing piano unaccompanied. You've got rhythm, harmony and chords. All you do is take that away and delegate it to one person in the band, but it can be moved round.
RD: Do you think that some of the bands you've worked with in the past have had a more conceptual outlook than UK? I'm thinking of Yes, Genesis and Crimson. I would imagine that Robert Fripp's ideas of what he's going into the studio to record are close to what he comes out with at the end of an album session.
JW: Robert? No, no way.
BB: No, you see there again there is this big misconception about him.
JW: He didn't go in with the concept of In The Court Of The Crimson King. That was between Ian McDonald and Pete Sinfield.
BB: That had more to do with Foreigner than Fripp in many ways because of McDonald. There was this conception that Robert did everything, which I have to scotch for you. There was something about his manner on stage which gave him a sort of autocratic feeling and I spend my life saying that he didn't necessarily do that much. He certainly didn't say a lot.
RD: It was also a time when the axeman ruled generally in groups.
JW: Yes, the guitar was at a peak. He certainly didn't go into the studio with a concept. That's right out of the window, forget it. On the last day of recording we'd still be scraping around for a title for an album every time. For the first one Bill and I were on (Larks' Tongues In Aspic) Jamie Muir even thought of the title. Someone asked him what the music reminded him of and that's what he said!
RD: What first attracted you two to the idea of playing together?
BB: We met accidentally really through Robert when he reformed Crimson. He'd had his eye on John and I. We didn't really know about each other before that. Since that time as a rhythm section we've started to make our own sort of noise. In many ways it's the sum total of my faults and of John's, that's one way of looking at it.
JW: When you put together the anarchy of my bass playing and the explosiveness of Bill's drumming somehow it manages to work.
BB: It's not to everybody's taste but it is a fairly unique thing. There shouldn't be two guys around who can strike up with the same equipment and make the same noise. That is a lovely thing about music, if you work hard at it you can find your own personal voice. Get any two geezers, put them on John's bass and my kit and it would come out totally different.
JW: You can express your own personality through the same instrument that everyone else is using. Basically we are using two guitars, keyboards and a drum kit.
BB: That's right, don't believe the technical revolution bit, there are a few sophisticated things in our group but basically it's two guitars, drums and piano.
JW: From the back of the theatre all you can see is four guys using fairly standard equipment but the sound is different. That's the whole ball game.
RD: John, you use a Fender Precision bass?
JW: Yes a 1961 white Precision with Rotosound strings. Since Dick Knight got his hands on it it's cream but after the tour it'll be back to white again.
RD: Is it customised at all?
JW: No, not really, it's just got a very good neck. I found it luckily when I was about 17, paid £35 for it. I've had other basses that have come and gone in between, but I've stuck with the Fender.
BB: Musicians become very attached to their instruments. They feel that if they change they'll lose that voice they've been working on. It's the same with my drums, in a way it's a pretty duff sort of standard Ludwig kit. Whoops! Scrap the word duff or Ludwig will be on the phone to me. It's an old kit of tubs basically and I like to think it has something to do with the way I sound. If I did change kits it would give me the creeps in case I might lose something. There's a suspicion involved.
RD: Do you think that musicians who are constantly changing and trying new equipment just haven't found the instrument that suits their own playing?
BB: Yes, it is all part of trying to find that sound that is exclusively Bill Bruford or John Wetton, quite a long-term process. In as much as young people will read your magazine who may be interested in signing up in the musical world... I may be exaggerating the case a little too far to the opposite end but it is really the player who counts. It's the way you hit the damn bass strings or the way you don't. The same with drums or any instrument. It is not a case of saving for the nicest drum kit in the shop window. Just a salutary thing I have to say because the whole world of advertising and marketing is pitted against the young guy. He's told that a Yamaha kit... Oh God. Let's not mention trade names, but a drum kit of one type will make him rich quicker la-de-da-de-da, than a kit made by someone else. It simply is not true. A nice high quality kit, of which there are many, and you are away. Right, I've said my bit.
JW: The amplifiers that you get foisted upon you these days, manufacturers have gone for a cleaner hi-fi sound. I have a particularly dirty sound actually.
BB: The supreme irony in amplification is that scientists have gone completely past the musicians' requirements. Distortion is essential in our kind of music and scientists following a heavy investment budget have invented transistor amps with a clean sound and everything else. They've unfortunately lost touch with the musician who doesn't actually want that.
JW: We have that problem on stage every night. To get a good sound out front you have to play quietly on stage so that you get a beautifully clear signal coming through. The soundman wants to think of himself as directing a great big hi-fi system. The trouble is, and Eddie feels this way too, that if you don't have distortion you don't feel any power through the chords and therefore lose on interpretation. If you want an angry sound you want it loud and distorted. Similarly, if you want to create a more intimate mood you play quieter and without distortion. You need to be able to control that yourself and not have some guy out front, the automaton, controlling it for you.
RD: On the kind of concerts we're talking about, when you're playing to maybe 3000 people, bands can suffer from a kind of 'audio refraction' with these large sound systems. I'd like to see how the sound technologists are going to overcome that one because to me it seems to be an insurmountable problem.
BB: It may be, it's almost as if music refuses to be translated to more than 3000 people... almost. They've got every conceivable technical facility in the world but music somehow refuses to be communicated in a way. Then you finally get up to the 20000 seater arena when you just have a visual thing with a bit of noise coming out.
What Bill describes as 'a kit of old tubs' is in fact an interesting and wide range of equipment allowing him a great variety of tonal and percussive effects. When I asked him for some details he was still wary of the 'Use Ludwig drums and sound just like Bill Bruford' syndrome, but obliged.
'It is essential for the magazine I take it? OK, but I do change things round all the time. I use a Concert Ludwig snare drum 5½in deep, a small Hayman tom tom 12in x 8in, a 14in Remo Roto-Tom, an 18in Remo Roto-Tom, a 14in x 14in Ludwig floor tom tom, two small Remo Roto-Toms, one 6in and one 8in, and I have a Ludwig 22in bass drum. Then we move on to triangles, three pitched bells, some steel plates, a 24in Paiste gong, a 14in Paiste hi-hat, two 16in Paiste crash cymbals, a 16in Paiste medium crash, a Paiste ride cymbal with rivets. I use Percussion Services D sticks, they can supply me in quantity and their sticks are dead straight. I have a stock of heads at home as they come and go. The Roto-Toms only take Pin Stripe heads. I've had an Evans oil-filled head on the snare which has been on there for about two years, I'll probably change to a new Evans head 'cos that one's worn out.
'All of which doesn't mean that much. It's not something that I've thought about a lot in many ways. I can tune a drum to work with any head but if it doesn't work I'll change the whole thing round and try another drum.'
Bill finds that miking up of drums can be difficult but usually agrees with the sound engineers who seem to have overcome many of the problems experienced not so long ago. He winds a lot of top on the tom toms to give the actual drum stroke definition, and in general pitches the kit higher than the standard low rock sound.
'That again separates me a little from everyone else, just a small thing. Other than that I've got a very weak left hand grip, which makes me sound like me in many ways. I picked it up wrong when I was a kid. I hold it badly so that the speed and attack of the stick produces a sound which sounds like me. So that is an example of sticking with your faults because they can be your best advantage. And that's about all.'
John amplifies his bass through a Marshall valve top and uses a single 15in speaker, sometimes backed up with a 4 x 12in speaker cabinet. He usually records by direct injection into the recording desk. The band experienced studio problems with the recording of the UK album which resulted in tracking on each instrument separately. Amazingly Eddie Jobson recorded a guide keyboard track to which Bill then recorded the drum track. John then added the bass parts, the guide keyboard track was taken out and all the other instruments and vocal added on. This was far from ideal but they were recording at Trident just before the studio was redesigned, John explained.
'It's an extremely small studio and we just could not get separation. But we knew the music backwards so it wasn't as if we had to get that rhythm section spark in the studio. We had worked on the material for so long we were almost over-rehearsed. I'd prefer not to rehearse for so long so that you retain some kind of spark and you're still looking for new things to play, while recording.
'I do generally like to record with the drummer. Also usually I record using direct injection, but use a mixture of di and an amp in the studio sometimes. The general principle I find is if you want to sound live in the studio it's much better to play quietly. If you play loud and put up a huge stack and put a mike in front, you reach a point where the mike just cannot accept any more sound. You can add ambient effects after the event. Of you can put a mike right down the other end of the studio and you will get a louder sounding bass.'
John uses a Jen fuzz-wah and wah pedal which can be heard on the UK album quite a bit, particularly on tracks such as In The Dead Of Night. He has used the effect for about five years and finds he can get the full fuzz effect without losing the low end frequencies.
'I also use an MXR phaser quite a bit and I also use a set of Norlin Taurus bass pedals. Just one octave, but it gives you that very low bass that you can't get on a bass guitar. I use it on stage in particular to reinforce bass guitar lines. Di into the PA, no amplifier at all.'
Interview by Ralph Denyer
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