It is one of the most uncompromising albums of its age, and one of the most peculiarly enjoyable. It was also, upon release, one of the lowest-selling albums ever released by the Warner Brothers giant, yet today a small cult insists it is also one of the most beloved.
Well, you know what they say. Beauty is in the ear of the beholder.
Saxophonist Lol Coxhill and orchestrator/multi-instrumentalist David Bedford were both ex-Kevin Ayers’ Whole World band when they decided to form their own duo in 1971. And all expectations were immediately thrown to the wind. As Bedford recalled, “Our repertoire was varied—so much so that after one gig, a young woman asked plaintively, ‘what were the last two hours all about?’“
Signed to John Peel’s Dandelion label, “our music was a mixture of real 1930s songs [and] pastiche 1930s songs”—much the same, in fact, as they had been unleashing during the Whole World’s live shows over the past couple of years.
A single, the two part “Pretty Little Girl” (Dandelion 2001 253), evidenced the duo’s combined talents in late 1971; preceding that, Coxhill gigged briefly with the oddly named DC and the MBs (actually, not so odd—the acronym disguised the presence of Judy Dyble, Lol Coxhill and the Miller Brothers), and also prepared the double album Ear of Beholder, a set destined to unleash further tomfoolery from across Coxhill’s world.
Reflecting on the album from 2012, shortly before Coxhill’s death on 10 July that same year, The Wire mused “Veering from solo street extracts, through collective improvisations with the likes of Burton Greene and Robert Wyatt and parlor-type runs through of songs from the ‘30s with pianist David Bedford, to a particularly introspective run through of the Brazilian theme “Insensatez” with guitarist Ed Speight, [Ear of Beholder] signified the unfolding of the Coxhill character. Moreover, it confirmed him as a musician quite indisputably wearing musical affections on his sleeve.”
To which Coxhill responded, “The fact that I have got to the point of being an interviewee really surprises me. I could just have easily stayed as a book-binder”—the trade in which he worked for fourteen years before being invited to tour with a visiting Rufus Thomas in 1964.
Ear of Beholder is scarcely an easy, musical listen. Drawing from recordings made between July 1970 and January 1971, which themselves were often captured on the spur of the moment, it is a wild grab bag of styles and sounds.
One cut, “Mango Walk,” was recorded with a group of children from Mill School in Brixton; Coxhill explained, “the children were out on an adventure walk. I played for them, they sang for the record.” Another, “Piccadilly With Goofs” was “a short dance sequence for soprano saxophone, humans: traffic and faulty recording technique.”
But when it moves into its more conventional aspects, it is sublime; indeed, for all its avant-gardist leanings, it is a remarkably well-balanced platter, with even confirmed saxophobes… those souls who are convinced that the instrument was invented as an excuse to garb discordant ugliness in a cloak of “art”—able to find moments to treasure.
“Mango Walk” and the Beatles’ “I Am The Walrus,” also placed in the hands of a choir of young children, for example, prophesy what might have occurred had Alice Cooper (or Pink Floyd) allowed their younger guests to entirely take over “School’s Out” (or “Another Brick In The Wall”).
“Two Little Pigeons” and the appallingly titled “That’s Why Darkies Were Born” both dip into the kind of music hall novelty bag from which the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band was once so adept at pulling jewels. But in terms of future legend, it is not Mike Oldfield’s playing on “Vorblifa Exit,” and “The Rhythmic Hooter” that catches the ear; or the sound of the Hyde Park era Whole World unleashed on “A Collective Improvisation.” It is the presence on side one of “Don Alfonso,” a song that Oldfield and Bedford would later take for their own as a single in 1975. But which, Oldfield explains, has origins far earlier than that.
“David and Lol, on one of our trips with Kevin Ayers when we were all piled into the six wheeler Transit, we stopped somewhere weird, I don’t remember where we were, maybe Brighton, and found this old music shop that had these old songbooks going back to the 1920s.
“They discovered this song book that had all these weird songs in it, and they took a spot in Kevin’s set and they used to sing strange songs, a handful of them, really weird things. ‘Don Alfonso’ [like the aforementioned “Pigeons” and “Darkies”] was one of those.”
Ear of the Beholder was one of the first albums to be released by Dandelion following the label signing a distribution deal with the American Kinney megalith (home to Warner Brothers, Elektra, Reprise et al) and it clearly posed a difficult sell for the label. So, rather than convince their sales reps and promotion team to try and come up with a conventional, but ultimately dishonest, campaign, they chose to tell the truth.
Thus were ZigZag readers offered a special deal, the whole double LP package for just £1.65. Because “not only were [Kinney’s] salesmen scared stiff of trying to unload it on suburban record shop managers, but the executives of the company, unable to tolerate a complete listening of the album, feared the most terrible criticism. So, in an effort to shift at least three copies, this amazing offer was made to us.”
Ear of the Beholder is now available as a two CD remaster with both sides of the Coxhill Bedford Duo’s singles as bonus tracks (Esoteric ECLEC 22275).