In Frith’s musical world, anything that makes a noise that he likes is fair game. “The history of my playing is a gradual demolition of the guitar over a period of about 15 years.” The 1986 Guitar Player magazine article that included this quote also called Fred Frith the “Orville Wright of deconstructive guitaring.” And not without good reason. Over the course of his career, Frith has banged, pelted, and scraped his electric guitars with a variety of objects and substances that has included rice and barley, scrub brushes, and electronic bows of his own invention.
Frith was born on February 17, 1949, in Heathfield, East Sussex, England. He began taking violin lessons at the age of five. Since his father was an accomplished pianist, Frith had access to pianos from an early age as well. In the early 1960s, he switched to guitar. His first band, the Chaperones, was a pop band that covered Ventures songs and others of that ilk. In about 1964, American blues became all the rage among young British musicians, and Frith was carried off by the same blues wave that formed the musical ideas of such rockers as the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton. He also began listening to important guitarists from other idioms, such as jazzer Django Reinhardt. Frith absorbed it all, and soon became proficient in a number of guitar styles. When he moved to Cambridge to go to college, he started playing guitar at folk clubs. He also performed with blues bands, composed music for experimental theater, and even dabbled in flamenco guitar.
By the mid-1960s, Frith was listening to every type of music he could get his hands on, and each kind contributed in some small way to the development of his unique sound. A major influence during this time was the philosophy of avant-garde composer John Cage, who wrote of a blurring in the boundary line between music and noise. Frith also became enamored of several branches of Eastern music, and those styles also percolated into his own work. A breakthrough moment came when he disassembled a telephone mouthpiece, and used the little microphone inside of it to amplify the sounds from the “wrong” side of his hand on the guitar fingerboard. Frith has been experimenting with the gadgetry of sound ever since.
In 1968, while still at Cambridge, Frith teamed up with saxophonist and classmate Tim Hodgekinson to form Henry Cow, an avant-garde rock band formed to explore ideas that were radical both musically and politically. Henry Cow was afiercely independent entity, refusing to rely on record companies in any way that might force the group to compromise its musical approach. Gradually, a batch of bands with similar views on the music industry and politics in general formed a collective called Rock in Opposition, with Henry Cowat its core. Henry Cow lasted for ten years, during which time the group recorded six albums (starting with Leg En. in 1973), performed hundreds of concerts, and influenced a generation of cutting edge rockers in Europe.
Around the time that Henry Cow released its second album, 1974’s Unrest, Frith made the first of his solo improvisational records. Titled simply Guitar Solos, the album featured a number of technical innovations that have been much copied since then. One of the trademark techniques featured on the album is the “hammering on” method using both hands on the fingerboard side of the guitar, a move that has become a staple of guitar rockers inthe Eddie Van Halen mold. Frith recorded two more albums in the Guitar Solos series during the 1970s, and pieces from those recordings were rereleased on CD in 1991. These recordings featured collaborations with other free-form experts, including Derek Bailey, Eugene Chadbourne, and Hans Reichel.
As Henry Cow began to fall apart in the late 1970s, Frith launched a splinter project with vocalist Dagmar Krause and percussionist Chris Cutler called the Art Bears. Unlike Henry Cow, the Art Bears were not a live performing
For the Record…
Formed first band, The Chaperones, c. 1963; played guitar in a variety of styles at pubs and coffeehouses throughout England, 1963-1968; recorded and toured with Henry Cow, 1968-1978; released first solo album, Guitar Solos, 1974; recorded with the Art Bears, 1979-1981; recorded landmark solo album, Gravity, 1979; formed the band Massacre, 1980; recorded and performed with Skeleton Crew, 1984-86; guest appearances with dozens of artists, both live and on recordings, c. 1973-.
Addresses: Record company — RecRec Genossenschaft, Switzerland; East Side Digital, 530 North 3rd St., Mineapolis, MN 55401.
entity. The Art Bears’ three LPs reflected a politically-charged, if rather dim, world view. As the 1970s drew to a close, Frith moved to New York, where he quickly recorded what many consider to be his masterpiece, the solo album Gravity, in 1979. In sharp contrastto his work with the Art Bears, the mood of Gravit. is utterly uplifting. Its material is lifted from the dance music of many different cultures from around the world.
Frith jointed forces with Bill Laswell (co-founder of the band Material) and drummer Fred Maher in 1980 to form a group called Massacre, a raucously loud and energetic band tailor-made for the surging New York downtown club scene. Massacre lasted only a couple of years, after which Frith puttogether another loud trio, Skeleton Crew, with Tom Cora and Zeena Parkins. Meanwhile, Frith was collaborating and guesting with every cutting-edge musician in sight, including appearanceson recordings by Brian Eno, the Violent Femmes, the Residents, John Zorn, and too many others to list. He also followed up Gravit. with the solo efforts Speechles. (1981) and Cheap at Half the Pric. (1983).
As the 1980s continued, Frith’s prepared guitars, which are played lying on a table (the guitar, not the player), began to resemble guitars less and less, until he eventually stopped calling them guitars. In 1988 he released another solo album, The Technology of Tears. He also began to compose more music for film, theater, and dance, as well as pieces to be played by other musicians. A 1991 documentary, Step Across the Border, chronicled Frith’s career beginning with Massacre, and Frith also released a soundtrack CD of the same title. In the early 1990s, Frith moved to California, although he maintained a strong New York connection through his frequent collaborations with the equally prolific John Zorn. He was a regular performer with Zorn’s band Naked City. Keep the Dog is another band with which Frith was active.
At some point in the 1990s Frith moved his permanent base back to Europe, where experimental music has always been received in a friendlier manner. In 1996 he released Allies —Music for Dance, vol. 2. on Switzerland’s RecRec label. Although he remains as innovative as ever in his approach to sound, Frith has outgrown his former reputation as a noise rocker who bashes hisguitar with objects; he is now generally regarded as a more or less serious avant-garde composer. In the case of Fred Frith, however, such labels are meaningless. It’sonlythe noise that counts.
Guitar Solos, Caroline, 1974.
Guitar Solos 2, Caroline, 1976.
Guitar Solos 3, Red, 1979
Gravity, Ralph, 1980.
Speechless, Ralph, 1981.
Live in Japan, Recommended, 1982.
Cheap at Half the Price, Ralph, 1983.
The Technology of Tears, SST, 1988.
Top of His Head, Crammed, 1990.
Step Across the Border, ESD, 1991.
Allies—Music for Dance, RecRec, 1996.
With Henry Cow
Leg End, Virgin, 1973.
Unrest, Virgin, 1974.
In Praise of Learning, Virgin, 1975.
Western Culture, Interzone, 1980.
With Art Bears
Hopes and Fears, Random Radar, 1978.
Winter Songs, Ralph, 1979.
The World as It is Today, Recommended, 1981.
Killing Time, Celluloid, 1981.
With Skeleton Crew
Learn to Walk, Rift, 1984.
The Country of Blinds, Rift, 1986.
Gagne, Cole, Sonic Transports: New Frontiers in our Music, de Falco, 1990.
DownBeat, January 1983.
Guitar Player, August 1986;December 1992.
Musician, March 1983.
Additional material was obtained from the RecRec label website, http://www.music.ch/recrec/artist/fred2.html#bio.
—Robert R. Jacobson