LAST week we left Robert Fripp in 1972, resolved to take King Crimson in a radical new direction and replace every member of the band (with the obvious exception of himself).
Out went bassist and singer Boz Burrell, later to form Bad Company with Paul Rodgers and Simon Kirke from Free, and Mott the Hoople’s Mick Ralphs. I saw their amazing debut concert at Newcastle City Hall in 1974, but there I go digressing again.
Saxophonist and flautist Mel Collins also departed, later to play with Camel and the Alan Parsons Project before, early this century, joining the Crimson offshoot 21st Century Schizoid Band.
Drummer Ian Wallace went on to accompany Bob Dylan, notably on his 1978 album Street-Legal.
On bass Fripp recruited his old friend John Wetton, who had lately been a member of Family. On drums came the formidable Bill Bruford, who had quit the strife-torn Yes outfit. Additional percussion was provided by the eccentric Jamie Muir and the line-up was completed by David Cross on violin and occasional keyboards.
In 1973 the band released Larks’ Tongues in Aspic. A friend who bought it on the day of release lent it to me soon afterwards with the warning: ‘It’s a bit quiet so listen on headphones with the volume cranked up.’ Mischievous beggar.
The opening track, Larks’ Tongues in Aspic Part One, does indeed open with a delicate passage of tinkling bells, which continues its leisurely way to about the three-minute mark, when it is joined by Wetton’s bass and a menacing but still reasonably restrained violin riff from Cross. Forty-five seconds later, BAM!! All hell breaks loose – a monster, deafening, heavy-metal riff from Fripp sounding like a chainsaw. I arrived at school the following day deaf as a post, to the chortlement of my erstwhile chum.
The many-sectioned instrumental Part One is followed by a delightful, melodic interlude, Book of Saturday, sung beautifully by Wetton. As is Exiles, a live version of which is here. Lyrics are by former Supertramp guitarist Richard Palmer-James, an old friend of Fripp and Wetton.
The volume goes back up to eleven for Easy Money, followed by an experimental passage heavy on the Jamie Muir antics, The Talking Drum. Again I have had trouble sourcing original tracks on YouTube but here is a live version of the final track, the heavy, riff-laden Larks’ Tongues in Aspic Part Two.
The album, which reached No 20 in the charts, might not be quite as consistent as Crimson’s earliest work but does reflect Fripp’s insistence on innovation. Just don’t play it too loud.
Soon after its release, Muir left the band and spent some time in a monastery. His percussion duties were absorbed by Bruford and the band toured as a four-piece. Much of the next album, 1974’s Starless and Bible Black, was written on the road and several concert recordings were incorporated into the final version. The first two tracks, The Great Deceiver and Lament, are the only ones put down entirely in the studio. I am not at all keen on the frantic and repetitive The Great Deceiver, a live version of which is here, but Lament is an attractive throwback to the vocal tracks of the previous album.
We’ll Let You Know is an improvised instrumental recorded live in Glasgow. This is followed by a Crimson favourite, The Night Watch, inspired by the Rembrandt painting. Trio, another improvisation, is credited to all four band members but in fact Bruford does not play on it. He apparently sat, drumsticks crossed over his chest waiting for the right moment to join in which never came. His contribution to the piece was described as ‘admirable restraint’.
The Mincer, a further improv, was recorded at a Zurich concert with Wetton’s vocals overdubbed in the studio. Side Two of the original album is entirely instrumental, comprising the excellent title track and Fracture, which Fripp has described as one of the most difficult things he has ever played.
The album name, by the way, is a quotation from the opening lines of Dylan Thomas’s play Under Milk Wood. ‘To begin at the beginning: It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters’-and-rabbits’ wood limping invisible down the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea.’
Don’t say I never give you no culture.
Later that same year came KC’s seventh studio album, Red, a much heavier proposition than its predecessor thanks largely to the work of Wetton and Bruford, described memorably by Fripp as ‘the flying brick wall’.
For me, the outstanding track by far is Starless, which had been intended to be the title song of LP number six. Written by Wetton, it originally consisted of just the vocal section which Fripp and Bruford apparently rejected. Later, Fripp created the beautiful mellotron/guitar intro and several further sections were added, taking the running time over 12 minutes of bliss. I can also recommend a 2011 cover version by the clog-dancing Geordies known as the Unthanks.
Starless is one of Crimson’s greatest achievements in my view, particularly since they were torn by internal strife at the time. Cross was eventually sacked and Fripp said he wanted to take a year’s sabbatical. When EG, the band’s management company, demurred he announced the band was finished a month before Red came out. A live album, USA, was released the following year but that was it for Crimson until the early eighties when Fripp and Bruford were joined by Americans Adrian Belew and Tony Levin for the album Discipline.
I must admit I am far less enthusiastic about KC’s later output, which tends to be harsh, hectic and light on melodies, although the band continue to have their moments and are still going strong. For the Crimson anoraks out there, particularly those with deep pockets, there is much to celebrate with countless multi-CD and DVD reissues of the old stuff.
These include a 50th anniversary edition of In the Court of the Crimson King, which takes us back to where we started back in 1969.
And that reminds me. In October I expressed the hope that Santa Claus believed in Frank Zappa because a six-CD box set of the 1969 Hot Rats Sessions was coming out just before Christmas. Sure enough, down the chimbley it came, beautifully wrapped in a brown Amazon envelope. I have now played it all and can recommend it to Frankophiles everywhere, particularly the Willie the Pimp outtakes. Thanks, Santa.