Interview With David Bedford

David Bedford, arranger, avant-garde composer and keyboard player, was, without doubt, a hugely influential figure in those long gone early days of Kevin Ayers' solo career. His guiding presence is unmistakeable in the first three legendary albums, imbuing the halcyonic frivolity and velvet loiterings of Ayers unique talent with accomplished musical erudition and lucid eccentricity in equal amounts. There is an impelling depth of landscape to those early outings which Ayers rarely matched again without the anchoring spirit of Bedford, to dispel his mumpishness and spin his beautiful mummery within cocoons of diffusive summer days, dappled green and lush with remarkable melody. The two artists perfectly complemented each other's creativity and drew around them an exceptional band in the Whole World. With the release of Windsong's CD of the Whole World in concert and Voiceprint's reissue on CD of two of Bedford's earliest albums, 'Nurses Song With Elephants' (VP116CD) and 'Song Of The White Horse' (VP 110CD), the time seemed right for Why Are We Sleeping's stalwart rover Mick Dillingham to visit David at his home in the quiet backwaters of Mill Hill at the very edge of North London to chat about his time with Ayers and beyond......

Surrounded by walls of classical CDsand tapes, sprinkled with the reassuringly familiar sight of an incidental Ayers CD or two, David Bedford is an unassuming man, thoughtful and easygoing. There's no trace of rancour to his musings, he is happy to talk of times past, with an amicable fondness for the memories bringing the occasional faint smile to his lips. Sometimes he would pause at these moments and lapse into thought, his eyes turned momentarily inwards before continuing in his quiet and studied way. So, a cup of tea and a chat with David Bedford, let us begin......

WAWS - So, let's go back to the beginning, when did you first become aware of music?

David - Well, as long as I can remember, because my mother was an opera singer and my father the son of a famous Edwardian composer, so there was music around the whole time. Both my brothers are musicians though I'm the only one who decided I wanted to make my own music up, so when I was about seven I started writing things.

WAWS - So it was a classical background?

David - Very classical yes. We used to play piano duets, and I played the oboe, we had musical evenings basically. So later on I went to the Royal Academy of Music. Then I went and studied in Italy for a bit with an avant-garde composer called Luigi Nono who died about 3 or 4 years ago, and then I came back to England in the early sixties. In those days it was impossible, especially if you were writing avant-garde music, to earn a living, so I did music copying and teaching, all sorts of things. I became qualified and started teaching full time.

WAWS - Were you doing any of your own performances at this time?

David - My pieces were being performed, but the royalties from that are minute, the publisher takes 50% of performances and 90% of sales so you don't really get very much. In the late sixties I did a show at the Roundhouse called 'From Marie Antoinette to the Beatles' and it was this woman who did a set of revolutionary songs which she needed to be arranged for this small ensemble of five instruments. One of her friends was my publisher and she asked for a recommendation of any young composers who would like to do the arrangements. So I did this show which was stage-managed by Ian Knight who also worked with the Soft Machine band. So when Kevin Ayers left the Soft Machine and wanted an arranger for his first solo album 'Joy Of A Toy', Ian Knight, having heard my arrangements, suggested me. So that's how I got to meet Kevin.

WAWS - So what do recall of your first meeting with Kevin?

David - 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.

WAWS - He already had demos of the songs?

David - He had very rough demos, yes. I played keyboards on every track except he brought the Soft Machine in for one track 'Song For Insane Times'. So when it came to forming a band, since I knew all the songs I was in. It took a couple of months to do the album. I had to do the arrangements. A lot of the instrumental stuff was written down. We used a lot of session musicians. Kevin's guitar playing was never of the greatest quality so it took him a long time to do the songs.

WAWS - So you had quite a large recording budget comparable with what you would be offered these days?

David - You could say it was a large budget but I got 12 a track arranging fee. I now get 1500 per track, so everything's gone up. Presumably he got an advance from EMI and there were only two of us in the studio most of the time. Studio costs weren't nearly so high then even though it was Abbey Road.

WAWS - So what did you feel about Kevin's songs when you first heard them?

David - I didn't really listen to a lot of Rock music. I liked the Beach Boys for about two years, because I'd listened to a lot of choral music and I loved the sound the Beach Boys made with their vocal harmonies. A snobbish thing that a lot of classical musicians still have about rock is that it was second rate music, and I'd already got over that. Once the Beatles had come along and had been written about in the Sunday Times by the classical music critic, saying they were as good as Schubert as songwriters then it became very respectable. I liked Kevin's songs because they were very melodic, obviously much more melodic than the ethos of the Soft Machine was suitable for. So it was right for him to leave the Soft Machine who were getting more and more complex. I've never understood why he didn't become huge because his songs are so good, maybe the Whole World was too anarchic. I suppose that in that sort of style of writing and mannerisms on stage, Kevin was an English gentleman with a rich voice, like a sort of English Lou Reed, and there was only room for one of that type of person and he was upstaged by Bryan Ferry in those terms.

WAWS - I think Roxy Music had a much more popular street style to their music whereas Kevin was more whimsical.

David - Yes that's true.

WAWS - Was there much in the way of outtakes left over from 'Joy Of A Toy'?

David - Not really. I think Kevin knew exactly what he wanted on the album. I don't recall if there were any songs which didn't get recorded, he had one song 'Why Are We Sleeping?' which didn't go on the album but became a big part of our live set. It was usually the last song we did. I wonder why we didn't get round to recording it? After the album he formed the band to take the songs on the road, and I got asked to be the keyboardist, we only had a piano and an organ really. 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.

WAWS - What particular memories of that band do you have? Any gigs particularly that stick in your mind?

David - Only the bad ones, you don't remember the ones where you get a good reception and people enjoy it, you remember the ones where you get ripped of and don't get paid a penny. I remember one at a place in Worthing, it was an open air concert called Phun - spelt in true sixties fashion - Phuncity, and the promoter disappeared halfway through the weekend. So in order not to hang around wasting time when there was no hope of being paid we went on together with the Edgar Broughton Band and played simultaneously! Since the Edgar Broughton Band only had about two chords in all their songs we were able to join in with them, but when it came to doing Kevin's songs I had to scream out all the chord changes in the middle of playing to their bass player and Rob Broughton stood next to Kevin who shouted out the chord changes to him, and both drummers just did what they could. It must have been a dreadful row for the audience! There was a really nice one in Hyde Park when Pink Floyd premiered 'Atom Heart Mother' with orchestra and choir, and the chap conducting that had just commissioned me to write a piece for his choir, so it was my two worlds sort of mixing up. It was a really hot day and really nice, it was a good piece 'Atom Heart Mother'. After that came the first band album 'Shooting At The Moon' and it was a typical mixture of things that happened at gigs - straight forward pleasant whimsical songs and crazy avant-garde plinky plonk stuff of the sort that I was doing in my concert music pieces. Because I hadn't stopped writing to commission - there's never been a year since 1963 when I haven't had 2 or 3 commissions to do - so I was still having to find time to do these between working with the Whole World. I did a piece called 'The Garden Of Love' pop band and instruments. It was one of he first ever cross over pieces, and it was done with the London Sinfonietta and Kevin Ayers and the Whole World at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. The Nice and Deep Purple had done things with symphony orchestras which was just their music with orchestration, but this was my music with a rock band, the other way round so to speak. '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. It was also relaxed at points where we sort of improvised , especially with Lol Coxhill. We knew all the songs before going into the studio, we'd played them live. Kevin was writing songs all the time on the road. I don't think the production is that good, it didn't sound as good as we sounded on stage. 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.

WAWS - So next up was the European tour with Robert Wyatt.

David - It was fun because everyone liked us so therefore you play better when you're conscious of that. 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.

WAWS - When I spoke with him he said that when you stayed in hotels, you, Robert, Lol and Mike would be put up in one room and Kevin would have another room all to himself and Robert didn't think that was right somehow.

David - Oh yes, Kevin was always the superstar, we were signed as session musicians basically and Kevin got all the royalties.

WAWS - What was your commitment to the band at that time?

David - Well, it was a major source of income. We did get paid for the gigs all the time. It was great except Mike Oldfield was becoming a bit dissatisfied with the standard of the music so he was always a bit stroppy and rude.

WAWS - What did you feel about your own keyboard playing?

David - I'm not the world's best keyboard player, it was adequate for what was wanted but it was great fun.

WAWS - And so onto 'Whatevershebringswesing'....perhaps your strongest work with Kevin?

David - Yes. 'Stranger In Blue Suede Shoes' was the single. When Kevin put together a later live band I go a call from the keyboardist who wanted to know how the piano solo in it went, what were the notes?! I've been told it's become sort of legendary apparently, this sort of piano solo halfway through when he's smoking his joint, but it was just a little phrase that went round and round, nothing special! I remember the orchestration I did for 'There Is Loving', it was quite a large orchestra if I recall. 'Margaret' was based on his girlfriend of the time, she's on the cover in the middle - I've got strings being soppy on that, it's not very good. 'Oh My' I've got a video of us doing that on 'The Old Grey Whistle Test', it was a sort of dixieland number. It was the Alan Elsden Band on that, a traditional jazz band. 'Whatevershebringswesing' is a kind of slow waltz, it's really rather nice but it goes on forever. We had the Ladybirds doing backing vocals. 'Lullabye' is a nick off a piano piece by Sarte. But I think you're right that it's a very strong album all together. The production is really good too.

WAWS - What do you remember about the BBC concert of that year?

David - We hired quite a big orchestra and for that session I orchestrated 'Lady Rachel', 'Why Are We Sleeping' and I did an ending for 'Crazy Gift Of Time' so the only examples of these are on this CD. It's dreadful sound quality, the mistakes we make and the out-of-tuneness is quite staggering. It's a reflection of a live orchestral gig where I sometimes forget to bring the orchestra in, it's a bit of a mess really. ( ! - Ed)

WAWS - So what happened next?

David - There was a big bust-up when Mike insisted Kevin stop playing guitar and only play bass and that he would take over the lead guitar and do all the arranging. So all the songs started sounding like bits of Tubular Bells and that just didn't work. Then I had a motorbike crash and I was out of action for about six months - I'm using crutches on that 'Old Grey Whistle Test'- at the same time as Mike Oldfield left in order to do Tubular Bells and I had two choices. I was asked to join the reformed Whole World or to do Tubular Bells and I opted to do that on the theory that you should always move on to do new things rather than doing old things again.

WAWS - But you remained good friends with Kevin?

David - Very much so. I still did the occasional thing for him like 'Beware Of The Dog' from 'Bananamour'.

WAWS - Let's talk about 'Nurses Songs With Elephants'.

David - 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.

WAWS - What do you feel about it, listening to it now?

David - It's like your children. Looking back with fond memories but you wouldn't do it again. There are lots of composers whose styles have changed very minimally over 20 0r 30 years but I've changed quite a lot so I wouldn't write in that sort of way now. It was very adventurous of John Peel to do it because he must have lost a fortune, it only sold about 20 copies I guess! If you can find a copy now it goes for about 25 I hear. I'm very pleased that Rob Ayling has now made it available to a wider audience. ( VP116CD )

WAWS - The choral arrangement on 'Blue', the last track on 'Mananas' would have been your last involvement with Kevin?

David - Yes, except we reformed in 1980 to do a concert in Holland. We were second on the bill to 'The Specials' at some festival which was paying really well so he thought it was worth not letting on that the Whole World had officially split up. We got Lol Coxhill, I don't think we got Mike.

WAWS - So that was the end. When was the last time then that you saw Kevin?

David - That was it. He played in London a couple of years back but I wasn't free to go.

WAWS - Let's talk about your other Voiceprint Cds.

David - 'Song Of The White Horse' consists of a piece of music called 'Star Clusters, Nebulae and Places in Devon' which is for brass and a huge choir. What happened was that Mike Oldfield fell in love with the piece when he heard it in 1971 and he tried to get Virgin to record it because his voice was law at Virgin in those days but they didn't want to know because it was so expensive to do. So eventually he paid for it to be recorded and created his own 'Oldfield Music' label to release it. On the other side was a piece I'd written for the BBC Omnibus programme about the White Horse at Uffington. Unfortunately the distributor went bust and most of the copies are still sitting in Mike's garage so it was a forgotten record until Rob Ayling came along with Voiceprint and released it recently. ( VP110CD )

WAWS - And what do you feel about it now?

David - I like it. There are certain weaknesses but I always see weaknesses in pieces after about a year. For example, in the last song in 'The White Horse' I wouldn't have gone on for so long because it's a great strain for the singers and they go out of tune having to repeat the same thing over and over again. But the 'Star Clusters' piece I wouldn't change anything although the CD shows that the recording could have been better. I wrote a piece for the Greenwich Observatory. They reconstructed the Great Equatorial Telescope and it's open to the public now and I was commissioned to write ten minutes of music to play in the background while the public walk round. They play the piece in a continuous loop and I'm going to expand it to CD length for Voiceprint. (scheduled for imminent release as VP156CD with title 'Great Equatorial'.)

David - Camel did a symphonic version of 'The Snow Goose' which was very good I thought, and we did it at the Royal Albert Hall with the London Philharmonic and that was pretty hair-raising because the balance was so loud. It was difficult but it came off alright. I thought Camel were great.

WAWS - What were Madness like to work with?

David - Brilliant, that was really fun. They were really good but they didn't know the first thing about music. If you said 'What key is this one in?' they'd have no idea what you were talking about but they had the most extraordinary chord changes without realising they were extraordinary.

WAWS - If you got a phone call tomorrow from Kevin Ayers saying 'come and do something', would you?

David - Yeah, for sure, as long as he paid the going rate! (laughs)

WAWS - What if he didn't pay the going rate?

David - I've got a special rate for old friends, special old-times-sake rates! Kevin's problem was always lack of discipline, he had these nice ideas but he wouldn't work on them like composers have to do to make them better and make them work. He just had a nice idea, wrote down a few chords and that was about it, often a very nice tune that didn't go anywhere after that. That was Kevin at his weakest but I think songs like 'Lady Rachel' are classics and he deserved to be bigger on the basis of those songs. But then he would let himself down by writing a weak song or by drunken behaviour on stage. The trouble was when he got drunk he couldn't play and audiences didn't like that.

Conducted and written by Mick Dillingham with splendid acknowledgements, seasonal trimmings, chipolata and bacon to Alison, Rob Ayling and, of course, David Bedford. © 1993

first published in WAWS #6, August 94