FROM 33 ⅓ SUBMISSION
CHAPTER ONE — “Introduction”
You are now the owner of the latest His Master’s Voice radio gramophone and you have at your command all the pleasures to be found on His Master’s Voice records. To show you how lovely modern records sound on a modern radio gramophone, here are extracts from records of various character. [0:18]
Delivered in an educated English voice, the transcription above provides a spoken word introduction to New River Head, the 1991 album by The Bevis Frond. A gentleman well-trained in what is known as Received Pronunciation—aka the Queen’s English—welcomes us into the world of His Master’s Voice, manufacturers of both radio gramophones and the discs they play. Amidst the scratch and crackle of a vintage demonstration record we are congratulated on entering this exciting era of modern technology, embodied in the HMV radio gramophone; a marvellous device combining a radio—essential for both news and entertainment in the pre-television age—and a mechanism for playing records. What versatility! It is a word that applies to both the man who formed The Bevis Frond and to his approach to music. Which is apt, really, as perhaps the most obvious feature of the Bevis Frond catalogue, above and beyond versatility, is consistency and reliability.
At face value, the spoken word introduction is a simple welcome to the new Bevis Frond record. You’ve bought this, it contains lots of different things, enjoy! There’s also a sly joke about recording fidelity; a less hi-fi sound than an ancient crackly record could scarcely be imagined. This is, however, more a backwards pointer to the earliest Bevis Frond releases rather than an indicator of the fidelity of New River Head. Saloman’s earliest songs were recorded on a Tascam Portastudio, the world’s first four-track cassette recorder and enabler of a thousand bedroom recordings. The resulting tapes could accurately be described as lo-fi, retaining an undeniable charm and immediacy, but at some cost to audio clarity and sonic detail.
The well-tutored vocal tone of the speaker is a further nip of humour: anyone who has listened to Nick Saloman sing knows his distinctive North-London dialect, one neither fancy nor mannered, but certainly honest and real. The connection of the songwriter to his roots is clear in every line; Saloman eschews artifice and falsity. At a deeper level, the intro’s promise of variety is a reference to the earliest days of The Bevis Frond. As Saloman has said in interviews, he recorded his songs because he wanted to commit them to tape, then pressed them on vinyl to have a record (in both senses) of the diversity of his musical output. Miasma, that first album, could well be seen as a calling card, or perhaps a sampler demonstrating the songwriter’s range.
My outlook was to make the album I’d always dreamed of doing, playing all the instruments myself and just giving it to friends and family and sticking the rest up in the attic forever. [Cover notes to Miasma, rubric records, 2001]
In as much as the spoken word overture to New River Head could be considered a product disclosure statement, the scratchy archive recording from an HMV demonstration disc raps the nail smartly on the head. Even the most cursory internet research into Nick Saloman’s band will throw up a bewildering array of music genres and sub-genres. Indie, classic rock, folk and folk rock, psychedelic, alternative, pop/rock, neo-psychedelia, garage, acid rock… it is a style-classifier’s nightmare. “Records of various character” doesn’t even scratch the surface.
How did Saloman come by the ancient record? Years before recording Miasma, he bought an antique 78 rpm record player from a junk shop. It looked good and spoke to the musician of the history of recorded sound. When he got it home, it was with some delight Saloman realised the original demonstration disc was sitting on the platter. Listening to it, in all its crackly 1930s splendour, the musician filed this sonic time capsule in the cupboard of his mind labelled “interesting bits and bobs”, extracting it for the prologue to the 1991 album.
New River Head, like every album in the Bevis Frond catalogue, offers all the above styles and more. The many faces of Bevis will be explored throughout the book, but for now let’s start with a central element: Nick Saloman’s singing style. The voice is consistent in its downbeat London dialect; a kind of North London Michael Caine. Saloman never liked the idea of “putting on” a singing voice, of attempting to conceal the regional inflection. His voice is an instrument that eschews histrionics and stridency yet manages to powerfully convey emotion. The authenticity leads us towards trust. Refusing to pretend, even for a moment, to be something other than what he is, the singer draws closer to the listener, and vice versa. In the no frills presentation of the songs there is something of that directness of punk, an attitude that says “I’m more similar to you than different” as opposed to rubbing the audience’s collective nose in the gap between them. With Saloman there is a quiet confidence in knowing his way around the craft of songwriting, but there is neither posturing nor boasting. As demonstrated by “Enjoy”, the opening song on We’re Your Friends, Man, album-making is one part inspiration and nine parts suffering. How literally should we take Saloman’s uninviting description of the creative process? Not entirely seriously, certainly, but nor can it be dismissed simply as wry observation. His mind really is buzzing with words and lyrics and the need to get them out.
This is the product of my fevered mind
And this is the sound of being left behind
And this is the ritual dissection of the soul
And I hope that you will enjoy it
Sounds a downer for a “calling on” song. Ritual dissection of the soul seems like a cult activity best avoided, not something to seek out—let alone enjoy. Yet discovering the wry humour in Saloman’s lyrics is crucial to understanding and appreciating The Bevis Frond. It balances out the air of melancholy seeping into many songs and embodied in the world-weary voice, bringing to mind the famous quote by American author James Branch Cabell; “The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds; and the pessimist fears this is true.” Nick Saloman may not be a chirpy optimist, but he is willing to fight the relentless rearguard action needed to keep despair at bay. There is hope, even though our grip on it is sometimes tenuous.
This is the twenty-somethingth swingin’ disc
And this is the last thing on your Christmas list
But this is the only gift that I have got to give
And I hope that you will enjoy it
Here’s a little nod to the glories of mid-1960s Swinging London, a time of which the songwriter has his own memories and to which he often alludes in his lyrics. But then we jump to the present, indeed, to presents. Who would put a Bevis Frond album on their Santa wish list? Well, this writer, for one. But what the verse illustrates is a strange collision between self-effacement and confidence, an oscillation marked by self-deprecation at one end and hope at the other. The singer finds it difficult to imagine anyone actually wanting his musical offering, yet he quietly dreams they might. After all, a lot of concentrated work has gone into it…
It doesn’t begin to justify the time it took
I’m not even sure it’s worthy of a second look
I wanted to make the masterpiece you waited for
But maybe I just can’t do it any more.
And this is a sudden lack of confidence
And this is the uncontested evidence
And this is my final chance to prove myself to you
And I hope that you will enjoy it
Three of the four verses end with the plea, “I hope you will enjoy it”. Delivered in Saloman’s slightly glum London dialect, there is nothing disingenuous in the aspiration. Indeed, the repetition suggests genuine uncertainty regarding reception of his latest offering. He longs for appreciation, but doesn’t necessarily expect it. That self-effacing attitude is one clashing noisily with rock’s bravura confidence, especially in those parts of the English-speaking world where aiming to be a “tall poppy” is a birthright. In other climes there is entrenched suspicion of those who aim high and broadcast that ambition. “Tall Poppy Syndrome” requires a shortening of the flower by removal of the bloom. Is that difference part of the reason why The Bevis Frond is more an underground phenomenon in the USA? Perhaps fans of this quintessentially British alt-rock band—and they are out there, from J. Mascis and Mary Lou Lord to my 33 ⅓ Book Group friends in the Pacific North West—are wary of glitzy packaging and the bludgeoning ego of much mainstream rock. Maybe in post-truth society a little honesty goes a long way.
Although “Enjoy” is overtly an invitational song, inducting the listener into the world of the artist and presaging what is to come on We’re Your Friends, Man, it is not the only example in The Bevis Frond catalogue of care taken with beginnings. Saloman clearly enjoys doing something different with those first moments of an album. Here are some examples of various character.
The opening track of Miasma [the debut] has a few bars of lush strings in the Ray Conniff style before a guitar/organ squall alerts us to this being a long way from easy listening. There is a child’s voice in the mix too, Saloman’s three year old daughter Deb. It is at once charming and a little unsettling. From the same year’s Inner Marshland  we have another instrumental beginning, one that could be described as a collage of freakout guitar with bonus bubbles. Presumably the swampy sound effects are the “Cries from the Inner Marshland” of the title; natural gas in fact. It’s another wry joke, possibly one elevating Inner Marshland into an exclusive category of records beginning with a flatulence joke (the swamp is an inner marsh, right?).
The artist provides a spoken word introduction to the third Bevis Frond release of 1987, Bevis Through The Looking Glass. Saloman assures us the sound effects are an “authentic rustling of hand-written notes”. Furthermore, a guarantee is offered that this “official Bevis Frond outtakes album” is a limited edition of 500 and “there won’t be any more”, a well-meaning but inaccurate promise we will return to later. Just before he dissolves into giggles, Saloman invites us to “roll back the carpet and have a great time.” This old-fashioned prelude to a living room dance is followed by an explosion of guitar noise and swirling neo-psychedelic freakout entitled “1970 Home Improvements”, clocking in at almost fourteen minutes. Easy to imagine you’d collapse onto the sofa after frugging through that epic; perhaps that’s why Saloman is chuckling: he knows what’s coming.
For Any Gas Faster (1990), a snatch of a male crooner singing “Give me the moonlight…” for an audience of appreciative bobby soxers is vaguely reminiscent of Miasma’s strings. Then POW! straight into a rocking “Lord Plentiful Reflects”. Why? Perhaps because Nick Saloman always wanted to sing like Sammy Davis Jr, but more probably just because he could. The man follows the beat of his own quirky drum.
Folk influences are scattered through the Frond folio, but rarely as obviously as the opening piece on London Stone . “Stone dance” is a lively violin led instrumental that compensates for its short length with an abundance of energy. It’s like walking into a folk hoedown where the host immediately thrusts a pint of ale into your hand. It is both welcoming and enlivening and, for some fans, a little surprising! However the oddest fanfare on a Bevis Frond album is 1999’s Vavona Burr. “The Frond Cheer” is a twisted adaptation of the famous Country Joe “Fish Cheer”— “Give me an F… Give me and I… —with the man himself, Country Joe McDonald, providing the call. As for the responses, they are positively bizarre. The story of how the American legend of Woodstock and the 1960s West Coast scene generally came to adapt his famous crowd-participation chant for a Bevis Frond studio album is one we’ll return to later.
“Everyone has a favourite tune,” intones the posh male presenter of a 1960s sampler of Easy Listening music. “Is this yours?” With that, 2011’s The Leaving of London explodes into the guitar fireworks of opener “Johnny Kwango”. Again, a contrast between blue-collar rock energy and the dulcet tones of the gentleman posing the question suggests contrarian humour. That chap with his pristine enunciation couldn’t possibly love the welding-torch crackle of “Johnny Kwango”, could he? From annunciation to ululation. Example 22 leads with ten seconds of electronic yowling straight out of a 1960s Dr Who episode. Then the stomping riff of “Are we nearly there yet?” crunches in. The diversity of opening plays on Bevis Frond albums is breathtaking.
Although there is a pattern of unorthodox openings it should be noted that many albums simply start with the first song, predictably a strong one. “Begone” (White Numbers) is a fiery exorcism of a relationship gone cold; “All set?” (Hit Squad) boasts “Penny Lane” horns and is a delightful slice of Beatlesque pop. More downbeat is the moody lament of “Plastic Elvis” (opening Son of Walter), while Triptych offers a delightful acid-folk instrumental. A favourite of the writer is “Stars burn out” from North Circular, a crisp 3:30 of melancholic power pop joy.
Noting this playfulness and variety in the way Bevis Frond albums greet the listener, the statement of purpose in the welcome to New River Head is unapologetically direct; the record does exactly what the announcer promises; songs “of various character” is what Nick Saloman offers. Yet the unvarnished list of rock styles and niche-genres mentioned earlier gives little indication of the song craft permeating every Frond record. This is not a mayfly buzzing between styles without rhyme or reason, but an artist who has honed his craft to a set of varied yet linked templates that allow him to choose the framework best fitting the song. One needs extra guitar crunch, another demands garage thrash, here is some folk-inspired melancholy, and so it goes… with that voice and the ever present guitar providing the glue.
New River Head was Saloman’s second album recorded in a professional studio. His knowledge and confidence had grown such that the sound retains the raw energy of the earlier albums but demonstrates greater sonic sophistication, opening up the songs for those less enraptured by lo-fi recordings. It also has my single favourite (vinyl) side of a Bevis Frond album, containing a simmering instrumental and three absolutely brilliant songs.
So this book examines New River Head’s songs, tending to emphasise the lyrics over music theory as that is the direction this writer’s interests lean. But just as the chorus of a song provides the impetus for a spiralling guitar solo (and there are plenty of those on New River Head), so the album’s songs serve as a launch pad for excursions into related topics. Trips will be taken to 1960s London and the golden age of pop and to some of the landmarks of Swinging London’s exploding rock scene. We’ll reflect on the birth of psychedelia and examine its different colours, while noting how one 7” single can turn a child into a lifelong record collector. Throughout there is the story of the songwriter himself, the stuff that made Nick Saloman who he is. It is a story of love and mental illness, stability and restlessness, and the gift of music.
I hope you will enjoy it.
Footnote: Submitted MAY 2021, the result came three and a half months later. New River Head was not one of the twelve titles selected for publication. It is, nevertheless, an outstanding album and a fine example of Nick Saloman’s craft. The failure of the pitch should be attributed entirely to the author.
NEXT: A review of the new Bevis Frond album, Little Eden