David Bedford - Biography
David Bedford’s versatility and influence may eclipse his fame, but he’s a seminal figure in rock, precisely because he isn’t a rock ‘n’ roll musician at all. However, he arcs across modern composition and progressive rock like a faint yet vivid and connective rainbow — Bedford himself acknowledges he was “the first crossover musician to come over from the classical side,” and he’s entirely correct. His CV makes a brazen leap that few in academia could have imagined in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Bedford was born in London in 1937, to a family of composers, musicians and artists. In his 20s he studied in Italy with famed modernist Luigi Nono, and in the UK with Lennox Berkeley, at the Royal Academy of Music. By the age of 30, he was already ensconced in the upper echelons of academia, as Composer in Residence at Queen's College, London. Contemporary classical seemed Bedford’s inexorable path, and the idea that a student of Schoenberg and Anton Webern would somehow cross-pollinate with pop would have sounded ludicrous in 1969. But when Bedford was commissioned to score a theatrical work titled From Marie Antoinette to the Beatles, the wheels were set in motion. The manager of famed prog-rock progenitors Soft Machine caught the production, and approached Bedford to assist with the solo debut of that group’s guitarist, Kevin Ayers. Bedford’s remarkable career shift would promptly gain momentum.
Not only did Bedford orchestrate the arrangements on Ayers’ album, Joy of a Toy (1969 Harvest), he played keyboards, and was subsequently enlisted to join Ayers’ live band. Abruptly, things had pivoted from the world of Anton Webern to the appreciably more whimsical (and weirder) realm of Syd Barrett. This led to another Ayers’ project, Kevin Ayers and the Whole World, and the LP, Shooting at the Moon (1970 Harvest). This was another pivot point, as it introduced Bedford to famed saxophonist Lol Coxhill. The two formed the Coxhill-Bedford Duo and grabbed the attention of UK tastemaker extraordinaire John Peel, who released several singles on his Dandelion label. The content placed even more distance between Bedford and the conservatory; it was an eclectic mixture of British dance-hall standards, vaudeville schtick, Al Jolson covers, and other bits of long-gone ephemera. A significant amount of this material appears on Coxhill’s solo debut, Ear of Beholder (1971 Dandelion). Peel would also release Bedford’s first solo effort, Nurses Song With Elephants (1972 Dandelion). It’s a charming fusion of spoken and sung poetry, nestled in a far-flung assortment of inventive, post-classical arrangements.
Bedford met another key acquaintance during his stint with Whole World, bassist Mike Oldfield. Oldfield enlisted Bedford to score and conduct the arrangements for an ambitious piece that he was constructing, one that incorporated aspects of post-classicism with a modern, quasi-psychedelic minimalism vaguely reminiscent of Terry Riley. The result was the groundbreaking phenomenon, Tubular Bells (1973 Virgin). It’s a powerful work that attracted a shockingly vast audience, one that multiplied exponentially after the opening strains were used as the soundtrack theme for the film, The Exorcist. The success of Tubular Bells transformed Richard Branson’s Virgin Records from a dorm-room hobby to a multinational force in independent music, on a par with Chris Blackwell’s Island Records, and it afforded Bedford with creative license on a prominent stage. He wrote the arrangements for the inevitable sequel, The Orchestral Tubular Bells (1975 Virgin), which paired him with the prestigious Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and also conducted several critically acclaimed symphonic presentations of Oldfield’s Hergest Ridge.
Bedford’s success with Oldfield also allowed him to expand his own vision as an artist, and he took the opportunity to deftly expand his multi-faceted, pan-genre efforts. Star’s End (1974 Virgin) is the sort of extended avant-garde composition that reflects Bedford’s tutelage with Nono, but it improbably registered on the prog-rock radar thanks to Tubular Bells. He made a bold move with Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1975 Virgin), an interpretation of the Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem; Bedford plays an array of electronic keyboards and synthesizers, while Oldfield multitracks guitars beneath a spoken narrative by actor Robert Powell. However, Beford’s greatest aesthetic achievement is his free-form adaptation of The Odyssey (1976 Virgin). It’s a stunning amalgamation of progressive rock, post-classical composition, electro-acoustic verve and forward-thinking narrative prowess, featuring virtuosic keyboard performances by Bedford, and key contributions from Queen’s College Choir, and Andy Summers of the Police. The outstanding Instructions for Angels (1977 Virgin) followed, and marked the close of Bedford’s impressively influential crossover period.
In the subsequent years, Bedford would continue to have his cake and eat it, too, receiving distinguished commissions for his orchestral compositions, while working with an almost laughably diverse assortment of pop artists, including Elvis Costello, Madness, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Ah Ha, and — wait for it — the Jesus and Mary Chain. Elsewhere, his “serious” works reveal a restlessly inventive mind, including the Ursula Le Guin adaptation, Rigel 9 (1985 Virgin), Great Equatorial (1994 Blueprint), Wind Music of Rundell (1998 Doyen), and My Mother My Sister and I (2000 Classicprint). The latter is a song cycle for three soprano vocalists and typically dexterous synthesizer performances by Bedford. It’s another concept album, this time devoted to a story of the women’s suffrage movement, with text written by Allison Powell. This is just the sort of genre-bending, expectation-twisting, classification-defying effort that defines Bedford’s unique body of work. Luigi Nono, Al Jolson, Tubular Bells, and Frankie Goes to Hollywood? That might sound like aesthetic gibberish in most discographies, but it defines in a nutshell the breathtaking versatility of David Bedford.