The Bevis Frond is Londoner Nick Saloman, an artist of singular vision whose staunch devotion to the spirit of vintage psychedelia has yielded a shelf full of unmistakably ’60s-derived albums. But there’s more to the Bevis Frond’s extensive catalogue than mere hippie revival. The singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist’s twisted pop tunes, reflective acoustic excursions and extended guitar freakouts carry a quirkily personal edge and a distinctive melodic sensibility that raises them well above mere stylistic fetishism. Increasingly, his songs have found their way into the repertoires of American indie-rockers (most reliably Mary Lou Lord), and that has increased his profile even among those daunted by the prospect of a substantial oeuvre.
The home-recorded, relatively lo-fi Miasma, Inner Marshland, Triptych and The Auntie Winnie Album are pretty much of a piece, exploring Saloman’s various obsessions with abundant spirit and flashes of absurdist humor. (The Reckless CD editions of these titles offer excellent value for money, appending jam-intensive bonus tracks drawn from the vinyl-only Bevis Through the Looking Glass and Acid Jam; indeed, virtually every Bevis Frond CD is filled to the gills, time-wise.)
With Any Gas Faster, Saloman upgraded the Frond’s sonic fidelity without sacrificing the music’s character, and that approach continued, with minor variations, through his ’90s releases. New River Head features some of his most mature and disciplined material — specifically the bittersweet title track and the heartbreaking “Thankless Task.” (A subsequent EP of two Any Gas Faster tracks, “Ear Song” and “Olde Worlde,” also contains four live songs from a 1990 Copenhagen show, at which Saloman ably leads a four-man group.) Since an 80-minute CD wasn’t enough to contain all of the music on the album’s double-disc vinyl configuration, A Gathering of Fronds CD was subsequently assembled from the six tracks left off the New River Head CD, plus ten more singles, compilation and vinyl-only tracks — including unlikely but well-executed covers of songs by Muddy Waters and Iron Butterfly.
London Stone, despite its fiddle-instrumental intro, sticks largely to heavier rock numbers; it’s not bad, but the lack of variety makes it less compelling than it ought to be. It Just Is follows largely in the same vein, but boasts a pair of ace pop tunes in “I Can’t Catch Up With You” and “Everyday Sunshine.” True to its title, Sprawl concentrates on the Frond’s spacey jamming side, and even includes a 20-minute-plus meditation entitled “Right On (Hippie Dream).”
Various musicians appeared on Bevis Frond records in the early ’90s but Superseeder was the first studio album for which Saloman fielded a full band throughout: ex-Hawkwind bassist Adrian Shaw and ex-Camel drummer Andy Ward, both members of the touring version of the Frond. Despite the presence of tracks that clock in at 11 and 17 minutes, Superseeder restores the eclectic balance of Saloman’s best albums, stressing tunefulness and melodic wit on tracks like “Stoned Train Driver” and the humorously autobiographical “Animal Tracks.”
Saloman returned to the one-man-band format on his next three albums. For Son of Walter, he ensconced himself in his bedroom once more and revived the lo-fi ethos of the earliest Bevis Frond releases. Son of Walter covers the familiar Frond bases: melodic pop (“You Saw Me Coming”), melancholia (“Dead Man Sitting on a Train”), driving hard rock (“Red Hair”) and psych epics (“Garden Aeroplane Trap”). Although not as instantly memorable as New River Head, the album offers another testament to Saloman’s songwriting talent.
Two years on—an eternity in Bevis Frond time—the triple-vinyl, double-CD behemoth North Circular appeared. More than any previous Frond record, it dramatized the curious position occupied by Saloman, an artist who enjoys a large cult following for precisely the same reasons that certain sectors of the music press consistently dismiss him: unfashionable attention to craft, an unashamedly nostalgic sound, sprawling tracks and a thematic focus on middle age and decline, the short-sightedness of urban planners, the evils of the music business and the vacuity of contemporary pop. To cynics it was another easy target for a slagging — indeed, “The Pips” plays into the critics’ hands. This 13-minute spleen vent takes on everyone and everything, from the price of replica soccer jerseys to the destruction of the city’s history to Saloman’s particular bête noire, music journalists. While his ranting is spot on, the relative absence of irony and wit here makes Saloman come across like a miserable old curmudgeon going on and on and on. Still, the numerous songs that revisit his standard themes more gracefully or succinctly compensate for that lapse. Tracks like “The Wind Blew All Around Me” and “Heritage Coast” stand as some of the finest Saloman has recorded.
When the Bevis Frond went on the road in 1997, Salomon sold a five-cassette set called The Vaultscan Tapes, which consisted of Vaultscan Vol. 1 & 2 (unreleased tracks from 1986 to ’95), Livewired Vol. 1 & 2 (live material dating from the first half of the ’90s) and Radio Activity (broadcast performances).
Vavona Burr — possibly the only rock record ever titled for a type of veneer — was the last of the home-recorded one-man-Frond albums of the ’90s. It distills the essence of the previous two releases and presents the Bevis Frond in a condensed format, emphatically underscoring the strength of Saloman’s songwriting. One of the standouts, the folk miniature “Bulldozer,” runs for less than two minutes, transforming a British nursery rhyme into a poignant conservationist statement. In a comic moment, Country Joe McDonald contributes a version of his Woodstock cheer (using another f-word: FROND), but the familiar melancholy air hangs over this eclectic material: whether bluesy swamp-rock (“Don Lang”), acid rock (“Begging Bowl”), jangly ballads (“In Her Eyes”) or anthemic pop sing-alongs (“Couldn’t Care Less”), most of the tracks have a dark undercurrent.
Live at the Great American Music Hall, San Francisco features the three-piece touring Bevis Frond of the period (Saloman, Shaw and Ward). Released as is, with no remixing or doctoring, this is an excellent rough-and-ready document of the Frond in concert; with a broad selection of tracks dating back to Miasma, it also serves as a useful, comparatively short introduction to Saloman’s work. Most compelling are renditions of “New River Head,” “He’d Be a Diamond” and “Lights Are Changing” — numbers that attest to Saloman’s seemingly endless reserve of intelligent pop-rock tunes — but the highlight is the closer, Love’s “Signed DC,” an impressive extended jam.
Saloman and the same rhythm section made Valedictory Songs (so-named because he felt it might be his swan song), which nicely translates the trio’s live presence to the studio. It shares Vavona Burr‘s melancholy tone and its concision — guest guitarist Bari Watts’ freakout, for instance, works well within the more contained framework of “Can’t Feel It.” Although it’s Saloman’s most polished production thus far, he doesn’t sacrifice any of the familiar Frond sound, drawing on his standard Byrds-Hendrix-Beatles axis of influences and rendering them in the usual diverse collection of hooky power-pop, downcast ballads and riffing hard rock. Indeed, Valedictory Songs neatly encapsulates the way Saloman’s strongest work draws on the motifs of psychedelic rock and pop of the ’60s while avoiding the trap of anachronistic pastiche. If ever there were to be a breakthrough release after 15 Bevis Frond studio albums, this should have been it. It wasn’t. Even so, the album is packed with fine material, particularly “Artillery Row,” with its sitar and harmonies, the yearning piano-based “High on a Downer” and “Portobello Man,” a heartfelt archaeological elegy to Saloman’s hippie muse.
Putting the lie to the title of Valedictory Songs, Saloman pressed on with What Did for the Dinosaurs. It again features Shaw and Ward, as well as guitar from Bari Watts and Paul Simmons of the Alchemysts. Dinosaurs is very much a companion piece to Valedictory Songs: Aside from epic opening and closing tracks, it blends straight-ahead rock and catchy pop psychedelia like “Silver Dart” with slower, more contemplative tunes, the most memorable being the gentle, folky “Lost Soul’s Day.” The lyrical mood is similarly introspective, if not dispirited. On the title track — a rock operetta with sitar, horns and backing vocals from daughter Debbie — Saloman continues to thematize his mid-life crisis and his ambivalence toward the music business and contemporary music, albeit in a generally self-deprecating manner. Sick of listening to “rubbish” that’s rewarded with success, he proclaims, “I never thought I’d come across like my dad…All I can say is that I suddenly looked in the mirror / And found that I’d turned into him.” The 13-minute closing track, “Dustbins in the Rain,” is another suite-like creation in which Saloman documents his small-hours meditations and ends on a stark note, dreaming of being taken to a “better place.”
Although disillusionment, decline and death continue to prove ironically fertile lyrical terrain, Hit Squad displays even more sonic diversity than Saloman’s previous two records. The album begins much like What Did for the Dinosaurs, as guest Roddy Lorimer’s trumpet flourishes raise up the wistful “All Set?”; elsewhere, “Flood Warning” serves up some vintage Saloman jangle-pop and “Dragons” gives your speakers a typically Frondian seeing-to. At the same time, however, Hit Squad has a newly energized feel, with fresh ideas and inventive instrumental coloring that expand the familiar sonic palette. Spacey Hawkwind- like synths punctuate the grindingly aggressive “Doing Nothing,” and a brooding organ lurks in the background of “Through the Hedge.” In contrast, Saloman’s harmonica and slide guitar bring a sunny country flavor to “High Point.” Saloman’s guitar work has always shown considerable range, but he achieves a new level of expressiveness on the melancholy “Crumbs,” coaxing hypnotic, Frippertronic melodies from his instrument. Also striking is the prowess of the current Frond lineup. Bassist Shaw and new drummer Jules Fenton excel in their propulsive duties on the driving “Mission Completed”; Paul Simmons adds a characteristically scorching solo. As further proof of Saloman’s animus toward the music business, “Hit Squad” provides the most vivid evidence yet, portraying a rock ‘n’ roll Travis Bickle, gunning for promoters, record distributors and journalists who have fucked with the Frond (“He got a shitty review in a music mag / Try writing when you’re zipped up in a body bag”). This isn’t a marathon tirade like “The Pips,” though. Suggesting a hybrid of “Summertime Blues” and Neal Hefti’s Batman theme (with great backing vocals by daughter Debbie again), it’s a contagious, economical song whose ironic lyrics embody the playful side of Saloman’s writing: “He’s got a semi- detached and a family car / He’s got a season ticket down at QPR / He’s just turned 50 and he’s deaf in one ear / And he grows more bitter with each passing year.” Amid the subtle new dimensions of Hit Squad, the standout track is a radical departure: “Fast Falls the Eventide” is an atmospheric epic of fluid guitar and synth textures that conjures up mytho-apocalyptic visions of London, riddled with insanity and death. It concludes with Saloman contemplating “the unimportant hour at which we both depart” — but before you start measuring him up for a coffin, it’s worth remembering that What Did for the Dinosaurs ended on a similarly morbid note and itself followed Valedictory Songs.
In addition to cranking out Bevis Frond albums over the years, Saloman has found time for numerous side projects. Looking very much like father and son in the cover snap, Saloman and ex-Pink Fairies drummer Twink unite two generations of British psychedelia on Magic Eye, alternating vocals for an inconsistent but frequently fab batch of unstylized (nonetheless retro-sounding) songs, like Bevis’ Hüsker Düish “Flying Igloos,” the two-chord “Fractured Sky,” Twink’s deliciously sludgy “The Fairy” and the no-it’s-not-the-Stooges “Bag Drip.” Despite an overabundance of wanky noodling (all that’s lacking at the most aimless points is a voice going “check…check…”), there’s plenty here to enjoy.
On 1991’s Gulp! he joined “Rustic” Rod Goodway, Adrian Shaw, Steve Broughton and Simon House for a revival of Magic Muscle, the storied British free-festival band of the early ’70s. In 1998 Country Joe McDonald invited the Bevis Frond to back him for a couple of UK concerts. The subsequent live album, 1999’s Eat Flowers and Kiss Babies, finds the Frond (Saloman, Shaw, Ward and Shaw’s son Aaron) doing an accomplished Fish impression on a selection of McDonald’s classics. The same year, Saloman played on A Journal of the Plague Year by another ’60s icon, Tom Rapp. A decade after the original Acid Jam, Saloman and 18 members of the Woronzow Records family convened for another session, Acid Jam 2; while Saloman’s Bevis Frond albums of the period were becoming more song-oriented, this double CD proved he was still given to heavyweight guitar-centric workouts. In a similar vein, Fed to Your Head featured Saloman and a couple of Woronzow associates performing under dubious pseudonyms (e.g., Bob “Devilfinger” Kramer II) as Scorched Earth, an allegedly long-lost biker band specializing in brilliantly over-the-top blues rock and psychedelia. Some reviewers actually fell for it. Saloman also contributed to and co-produced Inexactness by Tony Hill (formerly of the Misunderstood and High Tide) and appeared on Adrian Shaw’s string of neo-psychedelic solo albums (Tea for the Hydra, Displaced Person, Head Cleaner and Look Out). Saloman and Shaw backed Anton Barbeau on 2003’s King of Missouri.
More more more: Salomon merely plays bass on the record by the Oddsocks, a folk duo he helped out on a recording session (for which he got credited as a member of the group). Doctor Frond is a more thorough collaboration with a band called Dr. Brown. Nick co-wrote some of the songs and plays guitar on the self-titled album. On the first two Outskirts of Infinity records, Salomon plays bass and keyboards and wrote or co-wrote some of the songs. On the third one, he merely wrote two songs. And that’s not to mention all of his work with Mary Lou Lord…