Bill Bruford on 12 Career Highlights: Yes, King Crimson, Earthworks - Rolling Stone
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Yes, King Crimson, and Earthworks Drummer Bill Bruford on 12 Career Highlights

The genre-spanning percussion master chooses some of his favorite moments from his four-decade discography

UNITED KINGDOM - FEBRUARY 26:  Photo of Bill BRUFORD; Posed portrait of drummer Bill Bruford at EG Records  (Photo by David Corio/Redferns)

Master drummer Bill Bruford looks back on 12 highlights from his four-decade discography, covering Yes, King Crimson, Earthworks, and more.

David Corio/Redferns/Getty Images

From the late Sixties through his retirement in 2009, drummer Bill Bruford played progressive rock in stadiums, jazz in small clubs, and just about everything in between. During a recent conversation with Rolling Stone — touching on his work with Yes, King Crimson, his own band Earthworks, and more — Bruford mentioned in passing that he’d like to compile a list of some of his favorite moments from his vast recorded legacy, spotlighting not just his own contributions but the music as a whole. We invited him to take on the project, and the results are what follows, with Bruford’s own annotations. 

These tracks roll from the acoustic, analog, pre-computer, pre–click-track 1970s to the electronic, post-digital, computer-based 2000s: an exciting four decades to be behind a drum kit. Collectively they describe an unfolding set of ideas about what drums and drummers can or should do. The criterion for selection was either: did the performance do something I didn’t do yesterday, or: did it cover something I hadn’t really heard much of before? The probability that someone else may have done it elsewhere didn’t concern me. All timings are approximate.

Bill Bruford of Yes performs on stage at the Camden Festival, The Roundhouse, London 25th April 1971. (Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Images)

Michael Putland/Getty Images

Yes, ‘And You and I’ (1972)

Close to the Edge

Seems to me we sit on the groove about right here (7:11–8:20): I’m well behind the beat, though. It’s a passage I play if I want to remember good times with the band. Before automation and click tracks, music used to breathe a little more.

King Crimson, NYC, 1973

© Bill Bruford/Bill Bruford Productions Ltd.

King Crimson, ‘One More Red Nightmare’ (1974)


[Hear this track on Spotify.]

The series of two-bar breaks are fun here. In the second group, the break at 1:16 with a pregnant pause at the end, and at 1:24 with a quiet-and-getting-quieter approach: these two always make me smile.

The Group UK, 1976

© Bill Bruford/Bill Bruford Productions Ltd.

U.K., ‘In the Dead of Night’ (1976)


The solid 7/4 groove at 2:57 is strong and repetitive, doesn’t “go” anywhere at all, but works perfectly to highlight the unfurling drama of Allan Holdsworth’s legendary guitar solo — 94 seconds of liquid passion married to a blinding technical facility that was to go down in the annals of rock guitar history. I couldn’t resist putting a ratchet on the third beat of every bar, right there in the hole. A great day at the office.

English drummer Bill Bruford performing with English progressive rock supergroup, U.K. in Central Park, New York City, 7th July 1978. The band are supporting Al DiMeola. (Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Images)

Michael Putland/Getty Images

Bruford, ‘One of a Kind, Pt. 2’ (1979)

One of a Kind

I like the way this extended group interplay smolders for a while and then really catches light at around 1:13. [Bassist] Jeff Berlin is deep in the engine room with this one.

Bill Bruford of King Crimson at the Park West in Chicago, Illinois, November 10, 1981. (Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

Paul Natkin/Getty Images

King Crimson, ‘Waiting Man’ (1980)


The first half of this is just six analog Simmons drums, pitched up and airy. Adrian Belew joins me with a harmony. The timbre gives a quasi-ethnic feel, and the absence of a bass drum allows the music to float and be a bit ambiguous rather than being nailed to the floor. Who says drums don’t play tunes?

UNITED KINGDOM - JANUARY 01: British drummer Bill Bruford circa 1983. (Photo by Fin Costello/Redferns)

Fin Costello/Redferns/Getty Images

David Torn, ‘Previous Man’ (1984)

Cloud About Mercury

[Hear the studio version of this track on Spotify.]

On this I took the idea of playing pitches into a short solo at 3:45. The electronic drums are tied through MIDI to a Yamaha keyboard, and this recorded in the hallowed halls of Manfred Eicher’s ECM Records, famed for its acoustic drum and cymbal sounds! I also like the integrated “conversation” between the pitched, hard drum phrases and the little acoustic percussions. One take only, of course, and just four pitches to play with.

© Bill Bruford/Bill Bruford Productions Ltd.

Earthworks, ‘Stromboli Kicks’ (1987)


By now digital computer-based drum systems could configure all manner of chordal harmony along with multiple samples assigned to pads. Two things work well here: First, the introduction is played on three entirely different drum kits — the first kit changes to the second on the bar line at :17 which changes to the third at :37 for the bulk of the song. Latency made this tricky to play live, but doable. The second thing is the “little toys” percussion solo at 3:58, which employs multiple samples randomly assigned to many pads. I couldn’t be sure what sound the next strike of a pad would produce — some 70 samples were available. It was random, alright, but I got lucky. The feel is humorous and childlike.

Bill Bruford of King Crimson At The Rosemont Theater in Rosemont, Illinois,  December 5, 1995.  (Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

Paul Natkin/Getty Images

King Crimson, ‘B’Boom’ (1995)


[Hear this track on Spotify.]

The title is a play on Max Roach’s group M’Boom. Following the brilliant Gavin Harrison, I’d started fooling around with meters as something interesting to do with my Crimson drumming partner Pat Mastelotto. At :56 Pat introduces his steady 3/4 against which I improvise by layering different meters over his, eventually telescoping (or progressively shortening) the bar lines which gives the feeling of the music speeding up, till we both arrive at the snare drum cue at 2:30. More fun at the office.

UNITED KINGDOM - JULY 18:  ROYAL FESTIVAL HALL  Photo of Bill BRUFORD  (Photo by James Cumpsty/Redferns)

James Cumpsty/Redferns/Getty Images

Pete Lockett’s Network of Sparks, ‘Prism’ (1999)


A tightly orchestrated percussion ensemble with large areas for improvisation is a great setting. All of this track works, but a personal moment that makes me smile involves my Meazzi pedal-pitch-change floor tom. During a short drum intervention at around :54 the pitch rises and the tempo accelerates simultaneously, not often heard in drum kit playing.

OAKLAND, UNITED STATES - 2001: Bill Bruford performing at Yoshi's in Oakland, CA in 2001 (Photo by Clayton Call/Redferns)

Clayton Call/Redferns/Getty Images

Earthworks, ‘Revel Without a Pause’ (2000)

The Sound of Surprise

The drum solo at 5:30 is on a standard acoustic set, albeit with the drums set up in the “wrong” order, and over a 5/4 vamp. I have warm memories of watching my hands and legs playing stuff I’d never played before and wondering, as I was doing it, ‘Where is the heck is this coming from?’ Appropriate enough, given the album title.

Picture Tim Dickeson 27-05-2007 Michiel Bortslap (Piano, Keyboards), Bill Bruford (Drums & Percussion)

Tim Dickeson/© Bill Bruford/Bill Bruford Productions Ltd.

Bill Bruford and Michiel Borstlap, ‘The 16 Kingdoms of the 5 Barbarians’ (2004)

Every Step a Dance, Every Word a Song

The duo setting was one I found progressively more appealing. If it’s simply keyboards and drums there is so much space; but equally, so much space to hang yourself. The piece is entirely improvised, yet has a feeling of compositional structure. Yes would have spent months in a rehearsal room, devising and learning this.

Earthworks Underground OrchestraCredit: David Sokol

David Sokol/© Bill Bruford/Bill Bruford Productions Ltd.

Bill Bruford and Tim Garland, ‘Footloose and Fancy Free’ (2005)

Earthworks Underground Orchestra

My last studio album was The Sound of Surprise; after that everything was live. This setting of a “little big band” (nine pieces) roaring in a New York Club was unusual for me. But then I guess everything was unusual for me. The quality of the players was terrifyingly high, and rehearsal time minimal. As ever, I was hanging on by my fingernails, but I find this one irresistible.

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