The Bevis Frond: New River Head

The Bevis Frond
New River Head

With the preponderance of ’60s-rock influences on current indie music, it’s hard to remember how irrelevant the whole tradition was held to be in the ’80s, that cultural dark age when popular music reached its all-time nadir in its synthetic, mechanized soullessness. Those from rock’s vanguard, who made the genre vital and relevant in the late ’60s and early ’70s, had no place in the ’80s, and their dismal efforts to conform to that climate made for their careers’ biggest embarrassments: Bob Dylan’s Knocked Out Loaded, The Kinks Word of Mouth, Paul McCartney’s Give My Regards to Broad Street, David Bowie’s Never Let Me Down, Jimmy Page’s presence in the Firm, every album released by Rod Stewart, and so on. As these musicians were systematically sullying their own legends, the innovations the ’60s brought to rock music were being dismantled and discarded as well, a trend perhaps best exemplified by the low regard with which psychedelic music was held. If recognized at all, psychedelia was considered a nostalgic period-piece, something to accompany tie-dies and long-haired wigs donned for Halloween, something campy to recall bygone days when people took such silly things like mind expansion and political protest seriously. The unlikely rise to prominence of Nick Saloman’s Bevis Frond, on the strength of a few improbable, poorly recorded but wildly inventive albums that rejected most received ideas in the music industry at the time, helped changed that; and his unpretentious and unrepentant forays into wah-wah-saturated guitar chaos did much to restore to psychedelic music the dignity it never should have lost.

Because he has released records with admirable consistency since he started in the mid-’80s, there’s a daunting surfeit of material for newcomers to the Bevis Frond to sift through. 1990’s New River Head, recently reissued as a double-CD set with its full running order reinstated (the previous issue deleted six songs) and with a few extra tracks (which are well worth hearing, not the rejects that sometimes turn up on reissue packages) and demos dating from the same period added, is widely regarded as his finest album, and as it’s spacious enough to accommodate Saloman’s extended jams and his more concise folk-rock efforts, it seems the perfect point of entry into his catalog.

Saloman has garnered a reputation for being a quintessential English kook, not only because he has a crotchety, blokey accent (think Neil from The Young Ones or Billy Bragg with a wicked case of the grippe), but because he stands at a remove from the music culture he participates in, detached from trends that others seem to find so self-evidently important. But there’s nothing especially wacky or willfully eccentric about the music itself, despite the participation of a former member of Hawkwind. It’s far more accessible on a consistent basis than, say, Daevid Allen or Syd Barrett, to whom he’s sometimes compared. The Bevis Frond is not really prog-psych à la Soft Machine or Gong, and this isn’t the Acid Mothers Temple despite the frenzied guitar playing and the occasional sixteen-minute track (New River Head features the epic “Miskatonic Variations II”, which is as spaced-out as anything Pink Floyd played at Pompeii). The Bevis Frond’s brand of psychedelia is not of the Beatlesque Sgt. Pepper variety, either; there are no baroque flourishes, surrealistic lyrics, or eccentric instruments such as sitars or flugelhorns involved here (though “White Sun” does feature some free-jazz horn blowing, and some folky fiddle turns up on “Waving” and “Thankless Task”) — the emphasis instead is on tremoloed guitar effects (particularly on slow-builders “Drowned” and “Stain on the Sun”), the occasional organ touch here and there (“Chinese Burn” sounds like Farfisified garage rock), and, of course, over the top guitar soloing at the least provocation. Saloman’s more like a proto-J. Mascis, deriving inspiration from the same overamplified Crazy Horse sound, giving himself ample space for Hendrix-style solos, working the same alchemy to reinvigorate exhausted hooks, and delivering his vaguely downbeat lyrics with the same sort of nasal insularity. Still, compared to what is usually dubbed psychedelic, the Bevis Frond is downright accessible.

Not that one should make a fetish out of accessibility: often the most accessible music is the most dull and antiseptic. Think of bands like Coldplay, who sound a lot like those ’80s bands the Bevis Frond was originally such a pointed and welcome alternative to. So the extended instrumental wah-wah freakouts like “Solar Marmalade” and “Cracked Universe” — featuring endless soloing over a repeating chord pattern — are essential freak flags for the Frond to fly. Reviewers tend to label these long jams “self-indulgent,” dismissing without real consideration the seriousness of the project implicit in them — its a bit beside the point, like calling John Cage’s silent 4’33” boring. Anything that aspires to the label of psychedelic must transgress boundaries ordinarily imposed to push out further the frontiers of what one can tolerate, conceptually and sensually, to expand the listener’s mind, as it were. And mind expansion is always an inward, individualistic project, one that is inherently self-absorbed, one that challenges listeners to embrace total self-absorption as a path to a new kind of freedom.

But for all that, Saloman stays pretty grounded on much of New River Head. In some ways, it’s easier to link Saloman with ’80s underground stalwarts as it is to link him to ’60s bands: “Wild Jack Hammer” is like a heavier Robyn Hitchcock, “Down in the Well” sounds like an outtake from Husker Du’s Warehouse: Songs and Stories, and the Byrds-derived “He’d Be a Diamond” could have been performed by any band from the ’80s jangle pop scene (though it sounds a bit like Elvis Costello’s “I Hope You’re Happy Now”). In other ways the Bevis Frond was a pivotal transitional figure, presaging some trends in British music in the ’90s. In songs like “It Won’t Come Again”, one can make out the blueprint for the coming wave of Brit-pop bands, who would turn to the ’60s and emphasize their Englishness just as Saloman had, while on “Son of Many Mothers” and the repetitive, echoing “God Speed You to Earth” you can hear the space-rock method of Spacemen 3 and Spiritualized foreshadowed, but without the stubborn, malicious joy in monotony that Spacemen 3 evinced. This exemplifies what ultimately distinguishes the Bevis Frond from its heirs. Despite being difficult listening at times, the Frond is never confrontational, and Saloman doesn’t seem to have a specific musical agenda, has no implicit argument about why you should find his music cool or how listening to it makes more interesting than other people.