Growing up in the Midlands in the seventies and eighties, Prog Rock was never too far away. It was generally to be found in the record collections of my friends’ older brothers. Genesis and Yes were the two prime suspects. King Crimson never really figured greatly though.
A bunch of us used to go around my friend Clegg’s house on a Friday night for a late night cup of tea after a few beers at whichever local boozer we got served in. It was at Clegg’s that I was introduced to King Crimson. This wasn’t the seventies incarnation though. It was the eighties line up with Adrian Belew, Tony Levin and Bill Bruford alongside Robert Fripp. This was no huge musical gap to bridge on my behalf. As a Bowie fan, Fripp was already well known to me from his work on “”Heroes”” and “Scary Monsters.” Tony Levin was a regular in Peter Gabriel’s band and Adrian Belew was a guest touring musician in the wonderful Talking Heads during the early eighties. Around the same time, BBC broadcast a King Crimson show from Frejus in France.
Here’s the opening number from that show, “Waiting Man”, which shows the Rock Gamelan thing that Fripp was looking to achieve to best effect.
It occurred to me when writing this piece that the only two main protagonists (or even protagonists) of the era that entered the 1980’s with creative reputations intact were Fripp and Gabriel. Both shut down their operations before the late seventies excesses when the money got too good and the drugs got too bad, Gabriel quitting Genesis after “The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway” in 1975 and Fripp putting a hold on Crimson after 1974’s “Red.” They both avoided the retreads and dilution of the music that they built their careers on that so many of the Prog bands (Yes, ELP, Genesis, Floyd) were guilty of, as eventually the call of the eighties kicked in. Both headed down to the West Country rather than the Surrey stockbroker belt that their contemporaries moved to in the Seventies and this may have given them the freedom to plough their own furrow.
I still regularly play the trio of albums that the line up released (“Discipline”, “Beat”, “Three Of A Perfect Pair”). It was edgy, funky, concise with some of the most inventive interplay between the musicians that one could imagine.
I didn’t see them live and must admit that I thought I had missed that particular bus. Fripp, who was the only constant throughout the band’s career effectively dissolved the band as a recording entity around the turn of the century and retired personally as a musician in 2010. Fripp had poured his efforts into a series of legal disputes over a period of 23 years, the final six of which have been spent specifically fighting Universal Music Group (UMG) for control of the band’s catalogue. UMG and Sanctuary were offering Crimson’s music online for download without the right to so. EMI owed them £450,000 in unpaid royalties.
During the legal battles, Crimson had created an exemplary model for distributing their music via their DGM Live! website. Fripp had also run the “Guitar Craft” operation. This was part musical workshop/part personal and physical development exercise. A friend of mine went along. He’s no mean guitarist himself and he said that it was one of the hardest things he’d done. Much of his accumulated (and often bad) habits built up over the years had to be dispensed with. Based on alternative tunings and playing techniques, combined with Tai Chi and the Alexander Technique, it had grown men and women wondering if their intention of becoming “crafty” guitarists was really worth persevering with.
The legals were resolved in 2012 and then out of the blue in 2013, Fripp, at the age of 66, announced that the band were operating again. They toured North America in 2014 and announced UK dates, their first in almost fifteen years. I was not going to miss this.
Crimson have a habit of playing unusual venues and the Hackney Empire was no exception. It rarely puts on gigs and operates as a genuine theatre. Opening in 1901 as an old-time music hall, it was used in the sixties by ATV for “Opportunity Knocks” and “Oh Boy!”. It became a bingo hall until a public campaign brought it back into use in 1986, after a brief spell as a comedy venue. The theatre was refurbished early this century and goes from strength to strength. I went along for their highly regarded pantomime a couple of years ago.
The new line up was:
- Fripp on guitar
- Levin on bass
- Jakko Jakszyk on vocals and guitar. Amongst many other gigs, Jakko has played with the remaining members of Japan minus Sylvian after the Rain Tree Crow project
- Mel Collins on sax. Amongst other achievements, Collins played the sax solo on the Stone’s “Miss You”
- Pat Mastelotto on drums. Mastelotto has played with Crimson for around 20 years.
- Gavin Harrison of Porcupine Tree, also on drums
- Bill Rieflin, also on drums. Rieflin was R.E.M’s final drummer before their split in 2011.
Now the more observant of you will see three drummers in the band. So aside from my curiosity as to what Crimson were going to sound like, I also was wanting to know what will Crimson with three drummers sound like. I’ve thought that multiples drummers is somewhat an affectation. It didn’t work for Led Zeppelin at Live Aid, but then again neither of the drummers was called Bonham. I’ve seen the Bad Seeds play with two drummers but couldn’t really detect what it gave them – it felt like one drummer plus a percussionist which is fine.
The stage was set up as above with the three drummers at the front and the remaining band on risers behind them. A pre-recorded Robert Fripp soundscape was interrupted by an announcement by the band members suggest ceasing and desisting from the use of mobiles would be a good thing and generally it was respected.
It ended with a suggestion from Fripp to “rock out” and as the band started up, it was immediately apparent just how the three drummers would work out. Starting with the first part of “Larks Tongues In Aspic” (which had barely been played live before these tours), the drummers immediately started a percussive interplay, which felt very African influenced, particularly with a Congolese feel. The track stretched out and the rest of the members joined in.
Here’s a mad little minute on how Pat has set up his kit for the tour.
This relationship between the drummers was a constant theme throughout the evening. “Meltdown” finished with gamelan-like interlude. “Easy Money” started with another interlude that had a Steve Reich feel to it. “VROOOM” had a series of fantastic drum solos but no-one left the auditorium as is de rigeur for when the drummers normally let fly.
The band were possibly the most tightly rehearsed and skilled I’ve ever seen. As the guy next to me said, there was improvisation but it was micro rather than macro. This provided the impression of it being possible that anything could happen but everything being in full control. It reminded me of the recent gig I’d seen by Tortoise, where there was a level of precision that you don’t normally see at rock gigs but it didn’t remove the sense of spontaneity.
Epitaph was a particular highlight. Jakko’s vocal, which was getting stronger as the night went on, was on the mark. The combination of mellotron (played by the drummer Rieflin!) and oboe showed just how close the distance was between Crimson and early Roxy Music. All through the night, Mel Collins’ contributions were thoughtful, powerful and understated. There was even a duet of flutes with bass, a multiple of flutes being something that usually would have me heading for the exit.
As we neared home, “21st Century Schizoid Man” crackled into life and exploded after Gavin’s solo. The sign off was wonderful though. “Starless” eased its way in before the lighting, which had been neutral all evening, dropped into an ever-deepening shade of red for the brooding coda.
An encore of “Talking Drum/Larks Tongues in Aspic Part 2” and “In The Court of The Crimson King” rounded the evening off with the second standing ovation.
I left the building and passed the merchandise queue which was heading out the door well onto Mare Street.
They didn’t play anything from the era of my favourite line up. They may never again but I would gladly see the band again on the off chance. If this is the last time that the band tour, it was the perfect way of showing how a vintage band playing old material doesn’t have to mean an evening of unchallenging nostalgia.
To finish, here’s a version of “Starless” from 1974 which gives a flavour of last night.
Whilst I was looking for this clip, I found another which is lovely. This is Starless who appear to be a band of young King Crimson fans from the USA. They’ve videoed a version of “Starless” (the song) with John Wetton, the original vocalist and bass player – and they’ve nailed it.
Larks’ Tongues In Aspic (Part I)
Radical Action (To Unseat The Hold Of Monkey Mind)
Hell Hounds Of Krim
The ConstruKction Of Light
Suitable Grounds For The Blues
Banshee Legs Bell Hassle
Devil Dogs Of Tessellation Row
21st Century Schizoid Man
The Talking Drum
Larks’ Tongues In Aspic (Part II)
The Court Of The Crimson King