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Stewart Lee and Andy Hamilton on Steve Beresford

Steve Beresford has been a central figure in the British and international spontaneous music scenes for over forty years, freely improvising on the piano, electronics and other things with people like Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, Han Bennink, John Zorn and Alterations (with David Toop, Terry Day and Peter Cusack). He has also worked with The Slits, Najma Akhtar, Stewart Lee, Ivor Cutler, Prince Far-I, Alan Hacker, Tania Chen, Ray Davies, Mandhira de Saram, The Flying Lizards, Zeena Parkins, Helen Petts, Satoko Fukuda, The Portsmouth Sinfonia, Hyelim Kim, Ilan Volkov, Rachel Musson, Vic Reeves, Sarah Gail Brand, Lore Lixenberg and many others. (You can find the improvisation that he did exclusively for this magazine here.)

Below is Stewart Lee's introduction to Andy Hamilton's new book of interviews, as well as an extract from Chapter One. Thanks to Andy for his kind permission to republish these.

Steve Beresford - If I Don't Write It, Andy Hamilton Will

Like Steve Beresford, I was born in Wellington in Shropshire. Beresford eventually left the small market town to become a leading light of the British free improvisation scene, whereas I was immediately dispatched to an orphanage in Lichfield, where I lay alone in a charity crib, crying. Those who struggle to appreciate the merits of the musical world Beresford has made his own might wonder which destination was the most disadvantageous to long-term mental health.

Andy Hamilton knows Steve Beresford, in the context of this book, as a subject of study. I know Beresford as a wit and an epicure; as a fount of musical knowledge and a great conversationalist who is disproportionately popular with the capital's cleverest women; as a man who will never turn down a Kir Royale cocktail if one is available; and as someone who will not let the far-flung nature of the night's gig venue deter him from seeking out the finest fusion food restaurant for dinner after the show.

Whilst younger music fans wilt and wither, Beresford, at seventy, is still to be seen most nights, abroad in the city, quietly digesting a diverse array of cultural influences, all of which inform his musical practice, irrespective of whether the guardians of taste have deemed them high or low culture.

It's a trait Beresford shares with Derek Bailey, who found space in his mind-map for both the Scottish music hall comedian Chic Murray and the Austrian composer Anton Webern. Indeed, it was Beresford who steered me towards both the Ethiopian jazz saxophonist Getatchew Mekuria, and the subversive American horror movie Get Out. And it was Beresford who made me, a lowly stand-up comedian, into a conduit for the high art of John Cage.

I think I first saw Beresford playing in the flesh as part of Evan Parker's Foxes Fox group at the old Vortex in Stoke Newington towards the end of the last century. But I almost certainly experienced him before in endlessly recombined line-ups of London improvisers at venues that I attended in a spirit of bewildered curiosity in the early 90s, without knowing who or what I was watching.

I owned The Flying Lizards singles as a teenager, thinking they were funny novelty records, and would have skanked alone to the punky reggae of The Slits as I grew older, without necessarily knowing Beresford is in the mix of so many of the tracks I loved.

Beresford was post-war music's version of Leonard Zelig, the chameleon-like Woody Allen character who moves through the history of the 20th century, present at every major event, but not necessarily noticed by anyone outside a circle of adepts. Andy Hamilton's Pianos, Toys, Music and Noise aims to redress this oversight.

From the opening salvo it is clear that Hamilton has attempted to write a book about musical improvisation, and a musical improviser, in the same spirit of interrogative playfulness that his chosen subject Steve Beresford brings to the scene in which he has seen fit to ensconce himself.

In an effort to be true to the spirit of chance musical meetings conducted in real time, Hamilton edits the pair's conversations as lightly as possible. Discursive tributaries are followed wherever they may flow, leading us to Beresford's time in both the proto-pub rock band Roogalator and the orchestral anarchists the Portsmouth Sinfonia, and to his knowledge of Britain's best commercial whistle manufacturers and Britain's finest Asian restaurants.

Beresford and Hamilton listen to each other, engage, look for some common ground and find a way forward. Hamilton's questioning of Beresford, and the wide-ranging answers given, mean that the book expands outwards from its initial subject, like ripples from a tossed pebble, until it becomes an accidental, and vital, history of free improvisation in Britain, albeit one hinged at an oblique angle to the multi-platform presence of Steve Beresford.

As a dedicated comedy fan, Beresford would doubtless know that Eric Sykes' 2005 autobiography If I Don't Write It, Nobody Else Will takes its title from a warning a fellow comedian gave him, that maybe he should take his legacy into his own hands. But auto-memorialisation isn't the sort of thing a self-effacing gentleman-artist like Beresford could do. In the end Steve Beresford wouldn't write this, so Andy Hamilton had to.

Stewart Lee, writer/clown, Stoke Newington, October 2019



Steve Beresford was born in Wellington, Shropshire, in 1950, and started playing piano at the age of seven, studying the classical repertoire. From age fifteen, he played trumpet in the Shropshire Schools Symphony Orchestra. He played Hammond organ in a soul band in Wellington, called Hooker Green – named after a paint colour – and remained a band-member during his first year of studying music at York University. After graduating, he stayed in York to work in theatre groups and working men's clubs, also playing improvised music in Bread and Cheese, with Dave Herzfeld (drums) and Neil Lamb (guitar). He worked in a group with drummer Dave Solomon, whose repertoire included Otis Redding, Sam and Dave and Motown hits, before joining US guitarist/singer Danny Adler's pub rock band Roogalator. He moved to London in 1974. This chapter covers musical developments up to that date, before Beresford began his close involvement with leading free improvisers.

Your fellow improviser Rhodri Davies says that you used to be polemical and acerbic – have you mellowed?

I wasn't conscious of being polemical and acerbic, but I think I was, from what people tell me.

Did you begin in jazz?

No. But my father [Les] was a singer in a semi-pro dance band. He also played a bit of guitar. When he used to sing with a big band, the Musicians' Union rule was you didn't get paid if you were a singer – singers didn't count as musicians. So my dad had to play probably rather quiet rhythm guitar, to get paid. He loved singing standards.

His collection of 78s was mainly Swing, quite a lot of Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, a bit of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington – he loved Johnny Hodges, Benny Goodman, Archie Shaw, that kind of period. During the war, when my mum and dad were courting, there were three gigs a day at the local dance halls – there was one at the top of the high street in Wellington, and a ballroom at the major employer called Sankeys. My dad performed many times at the dance hall at the top of the high street.

[Beresford adds: Hang on, there's a typo there – it's Artie Shaw, not Archie. Maybe there's an Artie Shepp further on. A few years ago, a Barbican press release for McCoy Tyner described him as the piano player in Robbie Coltrane's famous quartet.]

You could go to a lunchtime concert, an early evening concert, and a late evening concert, and they went dancing all the time – they loved dancing. My mum's family was musical. Her dad had played cornet in a very early English dance band that toured America – extraordinarily, I think, in the 20s. His name was Fred Hands, and he played cornet with his brother, Jim, who later became a piano-player with the Debroy Somers Society Orchestra – a big, posh dance band in the 30s. Jim played piano and also accordion, apparently for Gaumont British films.

A big story in my family, that I still haven't been able to prove, though I've looked at all the books, is that Jim Hands – my great-uncle – played piano for Louis Armstrong in 1931 or 32, when Louis was here. That's fantastic if true – I'm thrilled just by the rumour! The first time Louis came he was escaping the Mob, I think – they thought, "This guy's making money, we want a piece of him". I think he finally had to come to some arrangement.

My maternal grandad remarried – his first wife died – and then gave up jazz and was slightly embarrassed that he'd ever played it, I think. He played classical violin.

So, my mother [June] had a musical background. She didn't play an instrument, but she liked singing and dancing. My paternal grandad played a bit of harmonium, so both sides of the family had a musical background. I have a sister, Anne, who produces dance and music films, plays the piano and has always danced, and a younger brother, Pete, who plays the piano and other instruments, is versatile and runs bands.

My parents loved jazz, so I grew up listening to it. The first record I bought was "Good Golly Miss Molly" by Little Richard, on a 78 – I was seven when that came out. I still think that's a fantastic record; I'm very proud that that was the first record I bought.

I soon started listening to Charlie Parker. There was a stall in the market that sold EPs – this was Wellington in Shropshire, a market town twelve miles from Shrewsbury. At that time, this guy specialised in EPs, and I got Monk and Coltrane – "Trinkle Tinkle", "Ruby, My Dear" – and Miles Davis and Coltrane. It was a little too much for my parents, but they didn't hate it.

The first book I read about jazz was Brian Rust's Penguin – Jazz Records 1897-1942 (1961). Rust thought that Coleman Hawkins could have been a good player, if he'd played the clarinet – and that a band with a guitar and not a banjo was unacceptable. He thought instrumentation should stay as it was in 1923 – a ridiculous purism about jazz. Then I read Sidney Bechet's autobiography Treat It Gentle.[1] It wasn't that there were millions of books on jazz coming out.

Did you have piano lessons?

Yes, I started when I was seven, initially with a lady called Mrs Edwards – but then it transpired that she wasn't really teaching me to read music, I was just copying her fingers. Then I had Mrs Evans, who was a much better piano teacher, but we never saw eye to eye aesthetically. I wasn't playing by ear, I was playing by sight, I was looking at the fingers – I don't think I played by ear. But I learned to read music with Mrs Evans.

I did the Associated Board piano exams. When I went to university I had a few lessons with a guy whose name I forget – but he tried to look exactly like Stockhausen, with the same floppy haircut and safari suits. He was very much in the mould of the extremely severe classical piano teacher, and I don't think he thought much of me.

At about the age of fifteen I joined a soul band called Hooker Green – by this time I was playing trumpet as well. I was listening to Thelonious Monk and Cecil Taylor, but I had no idea how this music was constructed. I'd never heard anyone play piano like Cecil – I thought he just banged the piano with his fists, but it didn't sound the same when I did it. I didn't know about chord sequences – I was living in Shropshire and nobody round there could tell me how to voice chords or anything.

The thing about jazz piano from that era, the bebop era, is that chord shapes are very hard to hear – what the hell are they playing in the left hand? I went through my whole university career asking various jazz pianists what the hell you do with your left hand, and nobody would tell me. But when I listened to "Green Onions" by Booker T and the MGs – which I still think is a fantastic record – I could work out what the organist, Booker T Jones on Hammond B3, was doing. "Green Onions" was a sufficiently simple piece of music, so I began to figure out how you could improvise over a chord sequence.

This would be about 1965, and we were playing Stax and Motown tunes, around Shropshire and Wolverhampton. This was before uni, and during the first year, when I went back home. We were a relatively successful local band, but probably we were terrible. They finally got me a small Hammond organ to play, and I did more on that. That's definitely what got me into improvising. I wanted to sound like Cecil Taylor but obviously I couldn't start off that way.

I love soul music, I think it's great. I think I was a bit snobbish about it in those days, though. I would say "Of course Coltrane is miles better than Junior Walker". These days I love Junior Walker as much as Coltrane, and I think the song-writing is incredibly impressive in that period of Stax, Motown, and Atlantic. I love that period of soul music – Aretha Franklin's "I Never Loved A Man", and the slightly later stuff like Sly and the Family Stone, and Curtis Mayfield's Curtis/Live! that's an amazing record. At university everyone laughed at my soul records, because they were hippies.

Hippies didn't like soul music?

They didn't like it at all, because it was on singles [rather than albums], and showed you weren't intellectual enough. Also there wasn't much of an interest in African-American music – except for Arthur Lee, Richie Havens, and Jimi Hendrix. Anything that was dancey, they didn't like.

What did your parents think about your music?

Especially coming from that period, and that they probably didn't find free improvisation that congenial, they were very supportive.

I think they saw the soul band once. I don't think they ever went to one of my free improv gigs, because I never played free improv in Wellington. And they never came to London – I mean, they weren't very mobile towards the end. They sort of liked the Portsmouth Sinfonia.

I think they were very happy that I was doing what I enjoyed.

I'd wanted a gap year, but the feeling then was that it wasn't a good idea. I don't think the soul band would ever have taken off, particularly.

Did you know [former Labour Party leader] Jeremy Corbyn, who was born in nearby Telford, a year before you?

What's super-embarrassing is that decades ago I had a drink with a Corbyn in the pub near my parents' house – and I can't recall if it was him, or his slightly creepy right-wing brother Piers, the climate-change denier.[2]

You studied at York University.

I studied music there, starting in 1968. Wilfrid Mellers was professor. He used to wear boot-lace ties, like cowboy ties, and he would sit cross-legged on the table and talk about Bach – he was fantastic talking about Bach. He would pummel out a prelude, get all the notes wrong, but he'd play it with fantastic enthusiasm.

It was a very good music department, wasn't it?

Well, it wasn't great for me. The first lecture was by David Blake, who I later discovered to be an ex-student of Eisler's. He was, I'm guessing, a pretty unreconstructed Stalinist. His first lecture was about Webern, who I'd never heard of – though by this time I'd got as far as SME [Spontaneous Music Ensemble], and I'd heard Sun Ra, Ornette, Coltrane, maybe a little bit of Cecil.

I had the same response to Webern as my friend Shirley Thompson, a composer I later shared an office with at University of Westminster in Harrow. We both went, "Oh my God, this is great, I love it!" – instantly! It's completely opposite to what everyone says about Webern: "Oh, it's completely constructed and totally artificial, it's too intellectual," and so on.

So I went up to David Blake afterwards and said, "That was great! Did Webern write any solo piano pieces that I can look at?" And he said, "You'll never be able to play that stuff". This was the first thing I heard from a lecturer, and he was telling me I was a failure.

How did he know?

He didn't know, he knew nothing about me. The music is hard, of course, but there's a children's piece, actually, and the slow movement of the Variations isn't so difficult. But even if it's true, why would you say it? It makes no sense. You're telling a student who's just arrived from Shropshire...

You took that to heart.

I remember it to this day, and as a lecturer at a university, I really hope I've never said anything that horrible to any of my students. But all the lecturers there were sort of frustrated composers – composers who couldn't make a living out of it, which is fair enough, it's very hard to make a living out of composing. It's almost impossible.

My impression was that the lecturers thought I was a total idiot – except Bernard Rands, who was really supportive.

David Blake wrote an opera about Toussaint L'Ouverture [Toussaint, 1974-77], I think that was his best-known thing. Also in the department were Peter Aston, Robert Sherlaw Johnson, Richard Orton.[3] I think I got in on the strength of an interview with Wilfrid – I knew who Ornette Coleman was, and I think probably nobody else did in that year. The students at York, like most music students, were incredibly conservative. Wilfrid Mellers, to his credit, brought in Feldman, Cage, and Bert Turetzky – we didn't get to speak to these people, but they gave lectures. That was amazing.

It's sometimes surprising how little musicians know about the history of their music.

A decade ago, Mark Sanders was working with some very good, contemporary, London-based jazz saxophone players, and none of them had ever listened to an Evan Parker solo record, which strikes me as astounding. They weren't that young – 35-ish. They'd never wondered, "I wonder what Evan Parker's solo sounds like?" And the guy lives down the road!

It is surprising, but I have to say that the people I was around when I was coming up – particularly Evan, Derek Bailey and John Stevens – were incredibly well-informed.

You've always been attracted to mavericks – you've always been kicking against the establishment.

Yes – but I was really crap at playing conventional music. I'd been told I had to learn an orchestral instrument, but I never got any good on trumpet.

But you got to Grade VIII on piano, so you couldn't have been crap on that!

I did a performance in my last year at university, Schoenberg op. 33a – I love that piece – a Bach Prelude and Fugue, and Satie's "Sports et Divertissements".

I didn't meet any nice classical musicians then. Now I know lots of nice classical players! Ilan Volkov, Aisha Orazbayeva, Satoko Fukuda, Mandhira de Saram...they're delightful – they would never be horrible and snobbish.

When did you first get to know the work of John Cage?

Probably like a lot of people I read his books before I heard the music – there was nothing on any easily-available label. When I went to university it was getting a little easier – Nonesuch released the Concerto for Prepared Piano and Chamber Orchestra. Years later I heard John Tilbury play it at the Proms, and I realised I knew that piece off by heart, though I hadn't heard it for years. We had small record collections as teenagers, because we didn't have any money, and we played those records obsessively – so I knew the Cage piece.

Did you listen to radio much?

Yes – I first heard SME on Charles Fox's jazz programme on what was then the BBC Third Programme, though they certainly weren't playing jazz. Charles Fox was amazing, a very nice man.

I left university in 1971, and stayed in York for three years – I moved to London in 1974. First of all, I taught music at Archbishop Holgate Grammar School, where the headmaster was Fred Frith's dad, who's a really nice man. But I was the world's worst teacher, and the kids just came in and broke all the instruments. It was embarrassing. I had no control – I was terrible.

I must have signed on – then I got this job, playing in working men's clubs. I think I made £11.50 a week, and that was plenty. I think our band did two nights at this working men's club – it was Jan Steele's band, he was a saxophone player, and the drummer was a guy called Arthur, who I think moved to Australia. We had a lot of free time. Rent was nothing.

I think they had Gallien Kruegers in those days, those tiny little PAs. We'd back singers, always male – I don't think we ever backed a female singer. They would always show up with a microphone stand, a stool with a little switch to turn the reverb on, and lots of frilly shirts. You'd have to turn the reverb off between tunes, so you could tell jokes – you can't be a comedian with reverb on your voice. But when you sing, you should sound glamorous, so you need reverb. Surely you know the semiotics of popular music?

You just click it in, as part of the reverb unit – actually, it was probably built into the amp. They would always tell us, "Right, colla voce, and segue into a paso doble". We didn't know what any of these words meant. Now I do. But when people told us "colla voce", "segue", and "paso doble", we just said, "Oh, OK, fine". "Colla voce" means you follow the voice, so you're out of tempo – you're waiting for the voice and then you're playing behind. "Segue" is following immediately with another tune. So I did three years of that.

What were you playing?

God knows. "Beautiful Sunday" by a singer called Daniel Boone was one hit we played – he was a sort of manly singer. This was 1972, not pre-rock-and-roll.

You were backing crooners.

They were showbiz singers. They'd probably do an Elvis tune or two, and they'd always do "Beautiful Sunday" because it was always on Sunday. We played "Tie A Yellow Ribbon" a lot. Years later there was a tune called "Silly Games" by Janet Kay, the ultimate in British Lover's Rock – it was quite sophisticated reggae, out of the Tottenham area, a really great bass-line, brilliant drum track. Janet Kay had an incredibly high range – years later [with The Slits] I worked with the writer and producer of that tune, Dennis Bovell, and he said, "I stole the entire chord sequence from 'Tie A Yellow Ribbon'!", which was hilarious.

Did you think, "God, at last I'm a musician"?

It paid the rent. I think it was a challenge, because that wasn't really our kind of music. At the same time I had a free improv group called Bread and Cheese, with a guitarist called Neil Lamb and a drummer called Dave Herzfeld, both from the States. Dave was from New York, I think, and Neil was from New England or somewhere. That was the first free improv I did. We always played at the university – by that time I'd left but was still around, so I worked with people that were still there.

Your first appearance on record was on a disc by Trevor Wishart, the electro-acoustic composer.[4]

It was Trevor Wishart's Journey Into Space – maybe two of us played squeaky toy trumpets, but there's millions of people on it. I think it was me and Neil Lamb – this was the year after I graduated, and before the Portsmouth Sinfonia. Trevor was doing a postgraduate degree at York University. After that I didn't have much contact with him.[5]

One influence while you were at university was The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band.

At uni we had a band called The Inedible Cheese Sandwich, which was slightly influenced by them – it was to do with parodying groups that were taken very seriously, like The Velvet Underground.

Who were the Bonzos parodying?

They started out as a sort of Dixieland band, like Bob Kerr's Whoopee Band – they had banjos and cornets. They dressed like Edwardian gentlemen, with beards and tweed jackets. They mixed up 1920s jazz with Edwardian clothes – and being quite posh, and also interested in Dada, or Satie. They had a theremin piece, and a parody of Micky Spillane, with a John Coltrane pastiche in the middle. They were very adept. They had a robot with a three-necked guitar, who played the blues.

Were they not just pure entertainers?

I think so. It was a good combination. Neil Innes was more of a conventional musician, who had a kind of pop sensibility – he wrote their hit "I'm The Urban Spaceman". Others were more from the art world.

Until I saw a BBC documentary recently, I didn't realise how amazingly good they were – and what a sad story it was. You played Hammond organ in a soul group with Dave Solomon, performing Otis Redding, Sam and Dave and Motown hits – you said Dave Solomon was listening to James Brown on the one hand and Han Bennink on the other. Then you joined Danny Adler's pub rock band Roogalator.

When most of us moved to London around 1974, the rhythm section – Dave Solomon on drums, Nick Plytas on keyboards and me on bass – also played for Roogalator.

In the period after you graduated, in 1971-4, when you were still in York, you also had a duo with drummer Dave Solomon called Sorry – because every time Dave did something wrong, he'd say "Sorry!"

I was also getting to know my generation of free improvisers, the people who were on Teatime – John Russell, Garry Todd, Nigel Coombes, as well as Dave Solomon.

How did you get to know them?

I was going down to London regularly, to the Little Theatre Club, that was the main place to hear free improvisation.[6] I guess I met them at gigs – I was sitting in on gigs, I think. I wasn't taking notes at the time [for my autobiography], but I'm sure I sat in.

Nigel is shy – so is Dave Solomon. Dave went to a gig where he was down to play, and he was so shy he paid to get in.

That's completely bizarre.

Was there a point when you realised you were committed to improvisation? Was the fact that the music was improvised always a big thing about it?

It must have been at some point in the three years after I left university, while I was staying in York. By the end of my undergraduate years, I was doing some improvising, because I was in this Love Rock musical. We played in a student theatre festival in Poland.

I was committed to free improvisation, but not to the exclusion of everything else.

TOP TIP No. 1: Never pay to get into one of your own gigs.

[1] Bechet (2002).

[2] There are four Corbyn brothers in total, in fact.

[3] Martin Mayes adds: also Neil Sorrell (world music) and John Paynter (music in schools).

[4] Born in Leeds in 1946, Trevor Wishart is a composer and author, influential in the area of electro-acoustic music. Following a postgraduate degree at the University of York, Wishart's early work included improvisation using found objects and tape manipulation. His interest later shifted towards technology and electro-acoustic composition, with a particular focus on the human voice, heard for instance in Red Birds (A Political Prisoner's Dream). Wishart has written several books, including On Sonic Art, Audible Design, and Sound Composition.

[5] "Journey-into-Space" was made in the University of York Electronic Music Studio between January 1970 and December 1972; it was originally released as two LPs privately pressed in 1973. (1970/72, Journey into space, York University (no label) [Double album]. Trevor Wishart; 1970/72, Journey into space, Paradigm Discs PD18. Trevor Wishart. CD re-issue of York University LPs.)

[6] London venue widely regarded as the birthplace of free improvisation, through its open nights run by drummer John Stevens.

Pianos, Toys, Music and Noise is published by Bloomsbury. A paperback version is due out early in 2022 but, in the meantime, you can find the hardback here.

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