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DVD Review: Bruford – Rock Goes To College

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Sometimes you see old photographs of gathering crowds taken in the early part of the 20th Century in which nearly every single soul is wearing a cap or hat of some sort. It’s a time overtaken by changing fashions, the hat-wearers and the people who made them, both long lost in mutual oblivion.

You get a similar feeling when the camera pulls back to reveal the audience at Oxford Polytechnic in 1979; the incongruous sight of lots of people crammed together nodding, swaying, cheering, and otherwise showing irrefutable signs they are enjoying the music flowing off-stage by fluent and gifted musicians.

But surely it was exactly this kind of music, in exactly this kind of venue, punk was meant to have done away with?

Even allowing for the attraction of a BBC TV unit, and the attendant opportunities to wave a “Hello Mum” placard as an extra incentive for going along, this DVD provides incontrovertible proof people used to turn out in decent numbers for this fast-moving, complex, and often knotty music. Sure it was ‘difficult’ but it was also, relatively speaking, popular enough amongst young people of the day.

Lest we forgot, it was common, even in the UK during the late '70s, for gigs by jazz-rockers such as Isotope, Pacific Eardrum, Turning Point, John Steven’s Away, Soft Machine, Hatfield & The North, etc., to be well attended by enthusiastic punters who not only knew the material, but were able to nod their heads in 12/8 whilst jabbing troublesome chord shapes in the direction of their air-Fender Rhodes (with optional mini-moog at the side).

With Bruford, things generally rocked along and moved so fast there was little time for folks to worry about whether it was jazz, or rock, or something between the two. It simply was what it was. With customary understatement, Bill Bruford notes in the scrapbook accompanying this release as far as they were concerned, Bruford was just a 'rock group with fancy chords.'

The playing from the quartet is astoundingly confident throughout. Aside from their leader’s never less than athletic urgings from behind the kit, the finicky handiwork from Jeff Berlin and Alan Holdsworth’s quicksilver guitar glance and dart above Dave Stewart’s consistently classy keyboards.

Vocalist Annette Peacock who appears on two tracks makes an oddly timid addition to the show. During “Back To The Beginning Again” she wanders to the rear of the stage delivering her brand of sprechgesang from behind the drum riser at one point.

Whether this is due to indifferent on-stage monitoring, disdain for rock show convention, or fashionable truculence is unclear, but it has the effect of making her contribution somewhat dispassionate and lack-lustre.

Transmitted back in the days when television appeared to value music for its own sake rather than as an adjunct to cross-promotion, filler or without it being mediated by an omnipresent host, this DVD captures 40 minutes of intelligent, racy tunes whose wit and virtuosity now appears as arcane as all those hat-wearing types way back when.

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