Clive Bell: What’s so funny ’bout British improvising?

April 2015

"Is there some synergistic link between UK improv and comedy? To the headphone-clad listener deeply immersed in an AMM album, the answer might be no. To the audience chuckling at an Alan Tomlinson trombone solo, it’s clearly yes." Clive Bell navigates the intersections between British improv and comedy

Here’s Mark Sanders hard at work, splattering a drum kit in a Leeds bingo hall. At his side a straightfaced bingo caller recites numbers into a microphone, interlocking oddly with the ringing cymbals and skittering rimshots. The pair of performers are as “beautiful as the encounter of an umbrella and a sewing-machine on a dissecting table”, in the famous surrealist quote. This is the opening scene of Antoine Prum’s 2014 documentary Taking The Dog For A Walk (Conversations With British Improvisers), which runs with the idea that comedy is one of UK improv’s virtues. Prum’s title comes from a quip made by a musician early on, about what to do if your audience is “four men and a dog”. The film offers plenty of space for the antics of Lol Coxhill, Terry Day, Alan Tomlinson and Steve Beresford. To interview the musicians Prum drafts in comedian Stewart Lee, an out of the closet improv fan. Lee has written eloquently about enjoying Derek Bailey’s humour in live performance, after watching the guitarist bumping into a wall on stage. “I’ve subsequently learned that Bailey once played in the pit orchestra for British comedy duo Morecambe And Wise…Banging your guitar into a wall by accident, and then doing it again in a spirit of clownish curiosity, seems to me like a classic Eric Morecambe move” (The Wire 256).

The show that originally turned Lee onto improv was the far from slapstick collective Morphogenesis, at an early 1990s China Pig gig on Hackney’s Mare Street in East London. Bemused, Lee watched the group trundle through their post-AMM soundscape, which he heard as “an undulating, formless wash of drones, clicks and bubbles”. Half an hour later, he found his brain had been reformatted: “The sounds of pints of lager pouring from taps became raging torrents, background conversation suddenly seemed a meaningless babble of formless noise, and the deafening rattle of the loose change in my hand as I went to pay the barman so stunned me that I felt I could barely lift my glass. Exposure to Morphogenesis seemed to have altered the way I processed sound information.” (The Wire 189)

Is there some synergistic link between UK improv and comedy? To the headphone-clad listener deeply immersed in an AMM album, the answer might be no. To the audience chuckling at an Alan Tomlinson trombone solo, it’s clearly yes. At the risk of giving away my punchline, I’m arguing that comedy was a vital strand of improv, but that it was associated with a particular generation or two. Several of those musicians are still highly active, but for the younger crowd, it’s simply not a concern. The least satisfying part of Prum’s entertaining film is when he explores where the music has been going since Derek Bailey’s death. He keeps his story tight by largely ignoring the last decade’s developments – fair enough, as those developments have led to music that might demand a different kind of film.

In 1991 comedian Vic Reeves made an album, I Will Cure You, on the back of his hit TV series Big Night Out. Four tracks were produced by Steve Beresford, among them “I Remember Punk Rock” and “Sing Hi! The New Romantic”. Beresford’s witty, light jazz arrangements were propelled by Han Bennink’s drums, and periodically ripped apart by searing solos from Evan Parker’s saxophone or Wolter Wierbos’s trombone. A quarter of a century later, it’s still funny. I asked Beresford how this album came about: “Evan Parker told me, you should really watch Big Night Out. I think Evan bought a VHS recorder simply to record it, he couldn’t stand to miss one. I was MD [musical director] on Paul Morley’s Channel 4 series, The Thing Is – we had Alex Balanescu playing syrupy violin for an episode about weddings directed by Helen Petts. Then Paul said, ‘Oh, I’m the producer of Vic Reeves’s album.’ I said, ‘You know who loves Vic Reeves? Evan Parker. That would be great, if you had Evan Parker on a Vic Reeves record.’ And I thought Han Bennink would be ideal, because for me Han is straight out of Jacques Tati anyway.”

I wonder whether Parker’s affection for Reeves was reciprocated at all? Beresford: “Well, this is interesting. I talked to Johny Brown from Band Of Holy Joy, who knew them from New Cross times, and he said that Vic and Bob [Mortimer] actually liked improvised music. But they never ever, ever mentioned it back to me! So, there’s a song called “Oh! Mr Songwriter”, and in the middle Evan plays a circular breathing solo. We were obviously inspired by James Brown, so I was thinking about his track “Same Beat”. It has St Clair Pinckney, who was famous for playing Albert Ayler-inspired free jazz on James Brown records. So getting Evan to play a free jazz solo over a weedy version of a James Brown track wasn’t unprecedented. But at the end, Vic shouts, ‘Pack it in, Parker!’ Which Evan just adored.”

Pipe-smoking Dutch drummer Han Bennink (born in 1942) and pianist Misha Mengelberg (born in Kiev, 1935) founded The Instant Composers Pool (ICP) in 1967. Mengelberg’s background included composition classes and Fluxus activities in the 1950s, while Bennink came from show business. Fluxus, showbiz – right there you’ve got two crucial routes to comedy in music. Beresford again: “Han’s dad was an orchestral percussionist who also played clarinet and saxophone. He was the regular guy with Radio Hilversum; he played for Charles Trenet or anybody else who came through. Han is steeped in showbiz, a bit like John Stevens actually. I got this book of Harry Hammond’s pictures of 1950s pop music in London, just up to The Beatles, so there’s lots of big bands. Han knew the names of every player in every one of those English big bands. Now my dad knew that, but I didn’t think Han would! I don’t think he sees any difference between being a musician and being an entertainer.” (Beresford senior was a semi-pro dance band singer and avid reader of Melody Maker.)

ICP’s frequently hilarious activities had an ongoing influence on British improv, and alliances like the Beresford-Bennink connection were common. In the 80s one view was that Brit improvisors were uptight and po-faced, but an encounter with, say, Steve Noble’s drumming would dispel that. Guitarist Peter Cusack went to Holland for two years, came back and founded Alterations, a quartet with Beresford, Terry Day and David Toop. The group were notorious for genre-plundering humour. Day himself was from People Band, sprung from the legendary dada theatre outfit People Show, and can currently be found employing The London Improvisers Orchestra as backing group for his life-affirming outbursts of poetry and song.

As an example of the current legacy from Misha and Han’s comedy, Beresford cites the trio of Alan Tomlinson, Dave Tucker and Manchester drummer Phil Marks: “They’re really funny, they have that non sequitur thing going. Steve Blake said to me, I’ve been watching Misha and Han on YouTube and they act like they don’t know the other person’s there – I said yeah, I love that! That trio, it’s more like a series of conversations where you never answer the question.”

If one person embodied the comedic side of UK improv, it was Lol Coxhill, who played hundreds of times with Beresford in endless groupings, as well as in The Promenaders (on Brighton beach) and The Melody Four (a trio with Tony Coe). A favourite Coxhill persona was Buck Funk, a jazz legend in a nasty wig. Beresford vividly recalls a show at the Chantenay festival in France: “Lol was playing with Mike Cooper, Dave Green and Ted Milton. Ted became very animated and ran out of the chapel after about ten minutes, and never came back. Anyway, Lol says, ‘Backstage there’s a great jazz legend, but he’s a bit shy, so I’m going to have to go and get him.’ Then he comes back in that horrible blazer – cream with red squares on it – shades, a tenor saxophone and a greasy wig. They did a whole set of standards – Lol sounding like a lecherous Bud Freeman. Mike Cooper wasn’t playing the changes at all, but of course Dave Green was a fantastic walking bass player. At one point Lol stops for a guitar solo. Mike doesn’t play anything for about 24 bars, and Buck Funk says, ‘Nice solo’. And he’s got this horrible cough [demonstrates saxophonist pausing to hack up phlegm]. He leaves and there’s this crash backstage. And Lol comes back as himself and says, ‘I’m afraid Buck Funk has just died.’”

Coxhill was a famous busker, a jazzman, a spontaneous comedian and a tireless improvisor, and he’d get annoyed with anyone who focused on only one of these facets. His trio The Recedents, with Cooper and Roger Turner, was a combo that could be trusted to deliver either scintillating music or comedy, often both. But as Beresford points out, musicians have an advantage over comedians: they’re not obliged to be funny, and Coxhill and, for that matter, Derek Bailey often weren’t. Other funny acts include FIG (Feminist Improvising Group), Bow Gamelan Ensemble, The Bohman Brothers (still prospering), and several of the poets around Bob Cobbing, Hugh Metcalfe and The Klinker club. I recently watched Klinker stalwart, ‘comedian’ Sir Gideon Vein, provoking a younger crowd at one of Sally Golding’s Unconscious Archives nights, and that chilly feeling returned like an acid flashback: the exquisite embarrassment, the not-knowing-where-to-look, the flesh-crawling inappropriateness that seemed to be the stock in trade of several poets and performance artists around the old London Musicians Collective. Too uncomfortable to be termed comedy, that stuff.

One of my first sightings of Beresford was around 1974 with The Mavis Brothers, his York based trio with Stuart Jones (from the electronic pioneers and Stockhausen collaborators Gentle Fire) and Arthur Rutherford (later to play C&W in Curly Bill). This was a group in which comedy had the edge over music, as opposed to a music group where comedy keeps leaking in, like The Bohmans. Another madcap trio was Bruce Lacey’s The Alberts (The Wire 368), who were friends, either side of 1960, with Spike Milligan, Lenny Bruce, George Martin and John Lennon. An expanded version, The Massed Alberts, included future members of The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. The further back in time you go within the avant garde, the more you find out and out music comedy, because you’re getting closer to BBC radio’s The Goon Show, and eventually to music hall itself. David Toop has pinpointed these wellsprings of wackiness (in The Wire 256): “I would argue that the incidental music, montage and sound effects created for radio comedy shows such as Hancock’s Half Hour, The Jack Jackson Show and The Goon Show were as influential on the musical experimentation of my generation in Britain as Stockhausen or Cage.” Notable Goons fans include Prince Charles, Pink Floyd collaborator Ron Geesin and The Beatles. At the close of “Tomorrow Never Knows” (1966), arguably one of their most revolutionary songs, Paul McCartney can be heard improvising a Goons-like piano fantasy on the fade.

As for music hall, Lacey was born in 1927, so he was able to attend the music hall with his father at Lewisham Hippodrome in southeast London. He was tap dancing at the age of nine, and mixing up knife-throwing with trapeze work as an art student. Lacey is still with us, making trouble in the Norwich area: Julian Cowley described him at the Wymondham fair, selling dead rats and hot air next to the WI jam stall (The Wire 368). But as Beresford points out, that music hall-inspired world has really gone: “Eric Morecambe and Les Dawson played piano, all of The Marx Brothers played instruments, Morecambe And Wise were quite nice dancers. Nowadays you’re not brought up to do a bit of juggling, a bit of clarinet playing and a bit of dancing – it just doesn’t happen.”

It certainly doesn’t. My own father, Stanley Bell, was born in Hammersmith, West London, in 1906 and loved the music halls dearly. He continued to visit till they faded away in the late 1940s. He was light on his feet, with a talent for knockabout comedy, and could play any instrument, never having studied any of them. After watching a show, he would go home and play all its tunes on the piano.

As we move further away from that apparently chaotic mix of music, slapstick and verbal play, we may discover we’ve just been living through a golden age of improv comedy – hope you didn’t miss it. UK improv is still a fertile and fascinating musical field, but its concerns have shifted, and getting a big laugh may no longer be a consideration. It’s hard to suppress a smile, for example, while listening to the well-timed tin can detonations of Daichi Yoshikawa’s feedback, but I doubt that’s his intention.

On the other hand, comedians may be improvising more than ever. Take Ross Noble, who lurches onto the stage, spots a man in the front row in a Hawaiian shirt and takes it from there. He seems to have no prepared material, but within a few minutes he’s bellowing “All pineapples have been banned in Manchester city centre”, and in eager response a vast audience is roaring glissandi cries in unison: “Urrh… ooh!” I’m thinking, this is not a million miles from a Terry Day conduction at The London Improvisers Orchestra.

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Clive Bell: What’s so funny ’bout British improvising?

"Is there some synergistic link between UK improv and comedy? To the headphone-clad listener deeply immersed in an AMM album, the answer might be no. To the audience chuckling at an Alan Tomlinson trombone solo, it’s clearly yes."

Faster Than Sound: Christian Marclay & Roly Porter performance primers

Two Faster Than Sound events take place at Snape Maltings in Suffolk this month, featuring The Wire 332 cover artist Christian Marclay with Steve Beresford, John Butcher, Mark Sanders, Alan Tomlinson and Suffolk Phoenix Brass on 1 October (4pm, £12), followed by Roly Porter (of Vex'd), Cynthia Millar and Rod Maclachlan on 29 October (6:30pm, £10).

Teatime MP3s

Listen to two tracks off Teatime, mid-1970s free improvisation from Garry Todd/Dave Solomon/John Russell/Nigel Coombes/Steve Beresford recently reissued by Emanem