Steve Beresford

Steve Beresford was one of the so-called ‘second generation’ group free improvisers in London in the 1970s grouped around the London Musicians Collective and Musics magazine, who pioneered some very different attitudes and approaches to free improvisation. He plays piano, trumpet and euphonium and homemade and toy instruments, sometimes in a manner which disrupts, contradicts or subverts the other musicians he is playing with. His playing incorporates humour, parody and pastiche, and is perhaps more directly addressed to an audience than that of the earlier players. These differences caused conflicts, for example between him and Evan Parker, some of which are recorded in Musics. At the time of the interview in 1988 much of his time was spent on commercial music, television soundtracks etc., improvisation taking up a relatively small part of his musical activities.

I’ll just give you a quick bio of my early development: My grandfather was originally a cornet player in an early jazz group. I didn’t know that until shortly before he died, I was doing tours of America and I’d come back and he’d go, ‘Oh yeah, I was in Chicago,’ he was a cornet player in the Marines but I think he had a kind of dance band in the ’20s. His brother was the piano player in the Debroy Somers Orchestra, which was a society dance band in London which also backed up Louis Armstrong, he was also the house accordionist for Gaumont British Films. My father was a guitarist in the late ’40s and early ’50s, so there was always an interest in music.

When I was seven I took up the piano and by that time I was listening to my dad’s 78s. I had private lessons initially with a woman called Mrs. Edwards who completely blagged her way through my first year. So they put me in with Mrs. Evans who was very good in fact, though ultimately I had a lot of trouble because I wanted to play Bartok and Debussy and she preferred the light classics, but she was much better… For years that meant that I couldn’t improvise at all, I didn’t know what to do when I sat down at the piano if there wasn’t some sheet music there. Although right from the beginning I was listening to dance band music plus Doris Day, Frank Sinatra and very early on I started listening to Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Charlie Parker and the usual things like that.

I always preferred jazz to classical music; most of the classical music I heard before I did ‘O’ levels was Tchaikovsky and Grieg, which I hated anyway. It was only after I started doing ‘O’ level music that I started listening to Bach and things like that, kind of more depressing music which I preferred, like Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, which I think is a fantastic piece of music. They always keep trying to sell you things like Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition and all this kind of programmed music, which I always thought was crass and stupid. What I really liked was the more abstract types of music. Anyway by then I think I was playing in a soul band. I’d heard Green Onions by Booker T and the MGs and I started conceiving of how to improvise over a chord sequence.

I was listening to Monk and Cecil Taylor, but I had no idea how they were constructing this music. Cecil Taylor sounded great but I didn’t know how to do it, I thought he just banged the piano with his fists but it didn’t sound the same when I did it. I mean I didn’t know about chord sequences, I was living in Shropshire and nobody around there could tell me what a chord sequence was or how to form chords or all that sort of thing. But Green Onions was a sufficiently simple piece of music so I began to figure out how you can make one-note improvisations over a chord sequence and joined a soul band by which time I was playing the trumpet as well; I took that up when I was 15. This would be about 1965, dead in the middle of the mod era, so we were playing Stax and Motown tunes, around Shropshire and Wolverhampton.

That’s how I started improvising initially, though I was a terrible jazz-snob at the time and would go, ‘Oh, of course Coltrane is miles better than Junior Walker,’ these days I don’t actually listen to Coltrane much, I’m more likely to listen to Junior Walker. I did music ‘A’ level, and my parents kind of assumed that I was going to university, which was unusual because I don’t think anyone else in the family had ever been to university but I was obviously bright at school. I wanted a year off to play with the soul band but they said, ‘No, no, you must go to university, in case you lose the place.’ Which was not true but they didn’t know the rules, even if the university had promised to keep the place they would have thought I ought to go. But I used to moonlight at weekends in the first year and played in the soul band anyway.

I actually hated university and didn’t get on with any of the people. I studied music at York under Professor Wilfrid Mellers, Robert Sherlaw Johnson, David Blake, Richard Orton, I was just completely out of water. I mean I was a country boy, you know, and half the people in my year had double-barreled names, I’d never met anybody with a double-barrel name before and I was completely lost for three years, hated it, and got a very bad degree. Basically music students are the most conservative people in the world, it was really frightening. I went up to York about two years ago and they were all wearing the same clothes and saying the same things and acting in the same way as they did when I was first their, and I immediately felt like this sprog from the country again! People in tie-dyed gypsy skirts going, (puts on public school accent) ‘Oh Fiona, are you playing first violin in the Beethoven?’ It’s just terrible, frightening.

– Yes, of course it’s a class thing. Most of those people are going… well most of the women are going to marry bank managers and/or become music teachers. It’s hopeless. Music colleges are just producing millions of piano players; I mean how many piano players can get a gig? How often do you get the chance to do a piano concerto? It’s ridiculous, the whole thing is really stupid. And, although this was supposed to be the most avant-garde course, it was actually very conservative in most ways.

The only useful thing was that I could just muck about on my own. At that time I was listening to the Spontaneous Music Ensemble. Because in those days you could buy the Melody Maker and it would have a review of the new Albert Ayler LP or you could tune in to Jazz Club and it would have SME playing live, which is inconceivable now. This was the most advanced music and it was just on the radio and it did my head in, I was very impressed. I was listening Ornette and stuff, I just wanted to know what the most avant-garde shit was and then I would listen to it, John Cage and people like that. I was very attracted to the SME, Evan’s playing was particularly good, it was like all his saxophone phrases would come out from underneath the music, almost like backwards playing. Then I picked up things like Manfred Schoof’s European Echoes…

In 1971 I met these people called Neil Lamb and Dave Herzfeld. Neil was a guitarist from Maine and he was immediately very interested in Derek (Bailey), and also in Luciano Berio and also things like The Band – what was going on in America in terms of rock music. He brought over this drummer from New York called Dave Herzfeld who was like Elvin (Jones) and we had this trio called Bread and Cheese, which was obviously very influenced by English improvised music. We really liked the jigsaw aspect; the way things lock together, how things would mask each other. I was very horrified when I heard things like Peter Brötzmann albums because there didn’t seem to be any interlocking at all, it was just three people playing their arses off, that seemed very retrogressive to me at the time, it was like, ‘Well, they’re playing jazz, and we’re playing Improvised Music which is a different thing.’ And I think it was a valid attitude as well.

Improvised music becoming very identified with jazz is really a bad thing… Anyway, we started working at York University, I think the first gig we ever did was the best. We were very interested in using voices as well as instruments and I started using lots of little instruments, and played bit of trumpet and piano. Derek heard us and liked my playing particularly. Initially he got us a gig in London at Ronnie Scott’s, which was obviously incredibly thrilling, I’d hardly even been to London before. Then he put me in a group with Frank Perry, Phil Wachsmann, and then later I think Christine Jeffrey. There were three years after college when I was basically on the dole, trying to be a music teacher and failing very badly and playing with various types of groups.

I finally moved to London in 1974 and I played bass guitar with a group called Roogalator for a bit which was just pre-punk, a guy called Danny Adler, and Dave Solomon, he was listening to James Brown on the one hand and Han Bennink on the other. It was a great idea but never really came off. We always reacted very strongly against all that experimental rock music. Especially Henry Cow, that stuff where they change time signature every bar and play cheap pastiches of Messiaen and the words would be sort of apocalyptic.

We always liked dance music and thought it was more intelligent musically than any amount of sort of sixth form intellectual… that’s one of the things I’ve always tried to do, steer away from that sixth form intellectual music, I never liked that, not that I’ve got anything against intellectuals or sixth formers per se…

By the time I came to London I had a whole circle of friends. We had this group called the Three Pullovers; sometimes it was called the Four Pullovers. If I listen to that tape now it just sounds like white noise! It was a really radical group, Nigel Coombes was playing kind of feedback with piles of tobacco tins and a violin, Roger Smith was playing this kind of crab serial Spanish guitar which would suddenly sort of generate into epileptic strumming, Terry Day was playing Coca-Cola cans and me, I didn’t play any piano with that group at all, just little toy instruments and squeakers and things. It was just like scratching about, but really intense, I can’t imagine how anybody sat through it -except that it was so single minded. At that point I was absolutely determined that I wasn’t going to play anything to do with jazz at all because that was somebody else’s music. This was our music.

I was one of the founder members of Musics magazine, and we started the Musicians’ Collective, which was after the Musicians’ Co-op folded. But we had much more kind of liberationist ideas and we let anyone in, we didn’t really realise that a lot of people that get attracted to those types of organisations are in there because of the organisation not because of the music, know what I mean? They like having meetings basically, and endless ideological discussions which never got anywhere. It never really did what I wanted it to do which was bring people together and sell the music, to reach out and convince people that this music was fun. The problem was that most of the musicians didn’t think it was fun. How are you going to convince the public that it’s fun if the musicians don’t even have a good time playing it? You wonder, well, ‘Why are they playing? They’re not getting paid’. I always thought it was fun.

R.S What was the shift in emphasis in the seventies? What was different that annoyed some of the older players?

Well we certainly never thought about technique. I think what caused some of the conflicts… Apart from that, well, it’s similar to the reaction we got to an album I recorded about 18 months ago, called Deadly Weapons, with John Zorn, David Toop and an actress called Tonie Marshall. It had very good reviews in all the big cinema magazines and popular culture magazines, but all the jazz magazines hated it, I mean they just loathed it. It was quite incredible; one of them said it was, ‘chic elevator music for pseudo-leftist intellectuals,’ which I take as a compliment obviously!

But what they hated about it was that they took jazz and juxtaposed it, like we would just drop into a jazz piece and drop out. And I think that was one of the things that caused the hatred in the ’70s, it was like we were devaluing Derek’s flattened ninths by saying, ‘Ah well, let’s have two minutes of flattened ninths and then do a Marlene Dietrich tune, or something’. Not that you plan it, you just do it, and you can use jazz as an element, part of ‘the soup,’ to quote Steve Lacy. And I think that the fact that Derek had obviously spent years of his life working on this language and then to see it picked up and thrown away like a straw dog was…

I have to say that Derek has always been incredibly nice to me and deeply supportive, I don’t think Derek could give a shit what people do with his ideas, I think he just plays. But maybe some of the people did give a shit, and certainly Evan and I had quite a big falling out at certain points. I mean I get on fine with him now, I think he’s brilliant, and I never suggested for one moment that he was anything less than a brilliant saxophone player, but I think maybe he felt my music did.

If you’re going to try and look at the Three Pullovers in terms of instrumental virtuosity, you’re going to get nowhere. We had virtuosity, at least Roger did, Roger’s a virtuoso guitarist, and Terry can just touch a cymbal and it speaks volumes, but what was important was just playing together. I think we were very very committed to the idea of group improvisation as one of the most important things.

Most of the people I was working with came out of John Stevens’ workshops. You may have seen John Stevens completely obliterate groups from time to time but in the workshops, he’s different, I think they’re very good. People like Paul Burwell and David Toop went through them, and Roger Smith. A lot of my generation went quite religiously and what it fostered was that real deep belief in the whole group working as one unit. I think what I was very interested in was, like, setting up a mood very quickly and then destroying the mood, which is why I like advertising music and TV music. You set a mood like that (Clicks fingers.) in a few notes and then completely go against it, almost like a tape edit, which is why I’ve always felt a great affinity with John Zorn’s music.

And I think Alterations, a band I had with David Toop, Terry Day and Pete Cusack was a very important band in terms of that juxtaposition. I really liked the idea of just becoming like a machine, although in some ways it was obviously very neurotic, but then I suppose I’m a very neurotic person anyway. The way I put it then made it sound very responsible and intelligent whereas in fact it was pure self-indulgence, which I think is fine as long as it works. Of course that’s what we were always accused of, just being self-indulgent, but I would always say, ‘What’s wrong with being self-indulgent?’ And I still believe that. And anyway I think everybody’s a performer, everybody will deny that it’s show business until they are blue in the face but in fact of course it’s show business.

John Stevens, for example, is one of the biggest poseurs in the world, isn’t he! He knows what he looks like when he’s playing the drums, he’ll think very carefully about what suit to wear, or what haircut. I think John is very self-conscious, not in a bad way, I don’t see that as a pejorative term. And Derek, I know he just comes over as a mild mannered English guitarist, but this has clearly become Derek’s persona, which to some extent he has internalised. And the fact that you become a mild mannered English guitarist does not mean that it is not show business.

Evan was talking about the ’60s when he started wearing T shirts and jeans on stage, saying that was a conscious thing, saying, ‘Look, it doesn’t matter what we look like, you’ve got to concentrate on the music’. I was surprised about Evan actually admitting that he made a decision about what he wore on stage. This is a great jump forward from the time when nobody would even dream of talking about clothes, this would have seemed like a bourgeois deviation of the highest order; purism was something that was in the air a lot at that time.

-Were we political? I think we were very political at one point, I mean very vociferous. I did a few benefits for the National Abortion Campaign. And I got involved with Music For Socialism, but I gave it up because it was the hegemony of the sixth form intellectual. Chris Cutler stood up and said, ‘I don’t have any interest in any music that isn’t supported by the proletariat,’ which is ridiculous, I don’t know any proletarians who liked Henry Cow and it seemed such a stupid thing to say. Because he is somebody who despises popular music, he hates it. I was also involved in this anti-sexist music movement for a very short while until I discovered that they hated soul music. It was just around punk time and everybody was making moral judgments on the basis of genre, so somehow punk was supposed to be politically responsible, even though I thought it was completely irresponsible.

I always thought that most punk sounded like the Rolling Stones, who I’ve always hated, but I thought it was fun; I liked the kind of mindless violence aspect of it. And I really liked the Slits, who I worked with for a while. I thought they were absolutely the funniest things I had ever seen, because they were so angry and so completely useless at the same time. I really liked that about it, it was completely incoherent rubbish and everybody was trying to be so macho when they were obviously a total weed, I really liked that too.

***

I still improvise now, but I don’t play in London, nobody will give me a gig in London, and I spend much less of my time improvising. I mean I used to play down the Collective three times a week at one point. There were some ridiculous things like me and David would do Top Of The Pops on Thursday and play down the Collective on Friday in front of three people and a dog, which was great. I really loved that, but a lot of people hated it, it was like real flak for playing pop music. I do less improvising now, but everything I’ve done is absolutely infused with improvisation. Because that’s how I found out what I wanted to do and that’s how I gained confidence. At the moment I’m doing TV music and things like that…

I hate working on my own, the big problem of having worked in groups all my life is that confronted with a blank manuscript I’m completely at a loss and have no ideas whatsoever, completely useless. I mean I could do it, but it would take me days to write the simplest thing, whereas working with other people who make demands on me then I’m quite happy to try and meet those demands. I can do solo improvisations for an audience, but I would never sit down and improvise for my own amusement, or maybe for two minutes. I never practice; I never have practiced since I was about twenty.

RS. Looking at your musical involvements, from free music, to Doris Day songs and Television theme tunes, it strikes me that a lot of them seem to have nothing in common. Is there any point around which they interlock? Some central theme?

It’s not for me to find that central theme, I don’t think. I don’t know, I think artists can be divided into two groups, if I am an artist, which I seriously doubt, okay you can divide people into two types. People like John, or like Webern; who are always on about the core of the thing, the seed, the grail, the thing that defines everything else, and people like me; who wouldn’t even dream of looking for what this thing is, who don’t give a damn really (laughs)…

(16th February 1988.)

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