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"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Record Collector JULY 2016 - by Neil Hussey
ASPIC OF LOVE
In 1973, while other bands settled into a prog groove, King Crimson remained edgy, and sounded like no previous Crimson line-up - in fact like no British band before. Neil Hussey has a taste for the fantastic Larks' Tongues In Aspic.
• • •
For certain British rock bands, 1973 was very much a pivotal year. While top dogs such as The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin enjoyed vast commercial success whilst producing largely underwhelming records, many of their peers were busy pushing themselves and their music in interesting new directions. Yes were taking prog-rock conceptualism as far as it could go on Tales From Topographic Oceans, while Pink Floyd enjoyed the game-changing success of The Dark Side Of The Moon. Roxy Music were sexing up the glam/art interface on For Your Pleasure, and The Who were unleashing Quadrophenia, arguably their last great album, onto a world that perhaps wasn't quite ready for it.
Meanwhile, further down the commercial pecking order, King Crimson were busy reinventing themselves - again - and putting out their best record: Larks' Tongues In Aspic.
King Crimson were prime purveyors of stylistically diverse, multifaceted music. They defied easy categorisation, and Larks' Tongues is a terrific and truly timeless record. Much of it is still incredibly fresh and contemporary with its striking use of unusual sounds, textures and ideas. On the opening track alone, you'll hear kalimbas (African thumb pianos), zithers, and glockenspiels, bird calls and transistor radios; rhapsodic violin playing breathing naturally alongside distorted faux-funk bass and abrasive, proto-metal riffs.
On this record, free-form improvisation shares soundspace with gorgeous rock ballads, prime '70s sleaze and psychedelic, African-tinged grooves.
But its importance reaches beyond the forty-six minutes or so of this record. Larks' Tongues revitalised King Crimson creatively; the '73-'74 incarnation Would become one of rock's most formidable live acts, a band of almost frightening energy and spontaneous creativity.
Listen closely to King Crimson recordings of this period, and you'll hear the roots of post-punk in the fractured rhythms, abrasive textures and the sheer sonic inventiveness of the music. You'll also hear the beginnings of art-rock, avant-rock, math-rock - call it what you will; and of course, it's inconceivable to imagine the existence of present day prog darlings such as Dream Theater and Porcupine Tree without Crimson - just ask Mike Portnoy, who sports a prominent tattoo of the Larks' Tongues cover art on his arm, or Steven Wilson, who has worked extensively on Crimson re-releases, producing buffed-up stereo and surround sound mixes for new and future generations of crimson audiophiles.
It's also possible to hear Crimson in the music of tech-metallers such as Tool and Meshuggah. Butch Vig, of Garbage and Nirvana production fame, has spoken of an epiphanic moment on seeing Crimson perform in the '70s, and has revealed that the band's 1974 Red was the album found in Kurt Cobain's CD player when he died.
On a different tack, free jazz saxophonist Mats Gustafsson, in a cover feature for The Wire magazine, wrote enthusiastically "the experimental shit from Crimson... it HIT me like a sledgehammer". Clearly, this was an important band, and the most productive and arguably most influential phase of their career began with Larks' Tongues In Aspic. As was often the case with Crimson though, the genesis of this album lay in a rebirth, of sorts.
This should come as no surprise. Long-serving Crimson drummer Bill Bruford has said that the group maxim was all about constant change ("change was everything"), and reinvention, and this was a band that had rarely made life easy for itself. They seemed to emerge fully formed and formidable in 1969, from the ashes of the late, unlamented Giles, Giles & Fripp, and soon grabbed a prestigious support slot in front of a quarter of a million people at The Rolling Stones' July Hyde Park show.
They followed up a few months later with In The Court Of The Crimson King, a debut which, with its massed mellotrons, portentous/pretentious lyrics and lengthy, multi-part songs, laid much of the groundwork for the burgeoning prog-rock scene of the early '70s.
The original line-up however, disbanded after less than a year. Reeds player Ian McDonald and drummer Michael Giles left at the end of an American tour, apparently disillusioned with the "plasticity" of the whole US experience (though McDonald clearly came to terms with it, as he later formed Foreigner).
Bassist/vocalist Greg Lake hung around a while longer before going QPF to form ELP, leaving guitarist Robert Fripp to man the rapidly sinking ship. Fripp then put together the next two albums (In The Wake Of Poseidon and Lizard, both 1970), with the help of ex- and soon-to-be ex-members of the band, guests and session players. It wasn't until the release of l971's Islands that he had a lineup stable enough to tour, but by the end of the year, the other founder member, lyricist Peter Sinfield, was also on his way out.
The Islands band consisted of Fripp alongside Mel Collins on reeds, Ian Wallace on drums and Boz Burrell on bass and vocals. They were a formidable live outfit, a rollicking jam band with a unique sound, split between the blues/rock leanings of Burrell and Wallace, the fiery free jazz blasts of Collins and the more cerebral, esoteric tendencies of Fripp.
They played forty-seven UK shows between May and August '71 before embarking on a series of US dates. In January of the following year, Collins presented Fripp with a composition that the guitarist felt was unsuitable for the band, and he told Collins so. The two argued and the rest of the band sided with Collins.
This effectively marked the end of the band. However, a representative of EG, the band's management team, mistakenly informed Fripp that they were contractually obliged to finish the tour, so the agony was prolonged until the beginning of April, at which point a disillusioned Fripp returned to England while the other three stayed in the States to team up with Alexis Korner.
On his return, Fripp spent time sifting through live cassette recordings of the tour in order to put together the much-maligned Earthbound LP, then in the early summer of '72, he set about putting together a new band.
At the time, the guitarist was developing an increasing interest in jazz, and music journalist Richard Williams suggested he check out Jamie Muir, a percussionist who'd worked with free jazz luminaries such as Derek Bailey and Evan Parker. Fripp visited Muir at home and was impressed - not only with his ability but also his unique musical perspective. But Fripp also had a more orthodox percussionist in mind.
Fripp had got to know Yes drummer Bill Bruford when the two bands had played some US dates together. It was while spending time as a guest at Bruford's home that he came up with the idea of asking the Yes man to join Crimson as a kind of percussive straight man to the more wilfully eccentric Muir.
In fact, this was not such an obvious choice. Bruford seemed settled with Yes, and the band were on the verge of making it big. Fortunately for Fripp, the drummer was seeking new challenges, and felt he had learned all he could from Yes. He'd been enthralled with Crimson's music ever since he saw one of their early gigs at London's Speakeasy, and had tentatively approached Fripp on a couple of occasions with a view to joining, only to be told that he wasn't ready. But now, it seemed the time was right.
When Fripp finally gave him the nod and told him, "I think you're ready for King Crimson," Bruford was duly excited by the prospect, keen to get going and to join "a darker and more mysterious organisation altogether". In his self-titled autobiography, the drummer would later refer to Fripp as "the superior intellect with the silver tongue, in possession of some arcane, or possibly occult knowledge to which the rest of us weren't privileged". He also confessed that working with him was "like working with a man who is one part Joseph Stalin, one part Mahatma Gandhi, and one part the Marquis de Sade". Still filled with the youthful naiveté of the time, however, he did admit to Sounds that "Robert is about the only person I would have left (Yes) for."
With two drummers in tow, Fripp needed a bass player, and fate was about to provide him with one.
John Wetton had known Fripp since their college days in Bournemouth, and their paths would cross occasionally. Wetton had in fact seemed on the verge of joining Crimson in early '71, but had felt that the time (and the line-up) wasn't right for him, and joined Family instead. Keen to explore a more prominent role as a vocalist and songwriter, he went in search of Fripp. Taking his parents' Bentley, he drove from their home in Bournemouth to a small village outside Wimborne, having only a vague idea of Fripp's whereabouts.
As luck would have it, the guitarist just happened to be looking out of the window of his cottage as Wetton drove past, and the two made eye contact. As Wetton explained in an email to Fripp (mentioned in the booklet notes to the fortieth anniversary Larks' Tongues In Aspic boxed set), "A fortuitous, benevolent spirit steered me to your cottage that day."
This is an interesting comment, tying in with Fripp's belief in "a benevolent creative impulse" (something he's referred to as "the good fairy"), which brings the right individuals together at the right time in order to find a form of artistic expression.
Adhering to this rather esoteric belief system then, one assumes that the Good Fairy was responsible for the last piece of the King Crimson puzzle falling into place. David Cross, a classically-trained violinist and flautist, was rehearsing with his band Waves in a basement cafe in London (coincidentally one of Crimson's old rehearsal spots), when Fripp walked in. Waves were looking to score a deal with EG, and though nothing came of it, Fripp, who had gone along out of interest, was impressed enough with Cross to ask him to join himself and Muir for a jam.
The addition of a violinist to the band, in place of the reed players, can possibly be explained partly by Fripp's enthusiasm for western classical music and his burgeoning interest in bringing new tonalities into Crimson's sound.
The new King Crimson line up was announced on the front page of Melody Maker on July 22, 1972, and the band began working together officially at the beginning of August after Fripp had wrapped up production duties on Matching Mole's Little Red Record.
The chemistry was there from the beginning and material came together quickly. The new band played a trio of warm-up gigs in Frankfurt in October, followed by a trip to Bremen for an appearance on the Beat Club TV programme. Although only a short piece of this footage was ever screened, the whole forty-minute set can be seen on the 2012 Larks' Tongues box set. It's an incredibly striking performance, which opens with a frenetic thirty-minute improvisation, before moving into two new pieces (Exiles, and Larks' Tongues In Aspic Part I.)
This was an audacious move by any standards - even more so for a band who had been together for a matter of weeks and were playing only their fourth show together. During the course of the performance, they shift from brittle, anglicised funk grooves and clattering percussion workouts to quietly rhapsodic guitar/violin interludes, creaky door noises and free-jazz flute playing.
Even when judged by the somewhat freer, less-proscribed standards of the time, it's a remarkable performance. It's unthinkable that a band of a similar stature would do something like this today - or that a national TV station would let them. Somehow, they hold it together, the energy and adrenaline pulling them through the occasional moments of chaos. Cross described himself as a "nervous wreck" before the show, and in the footage he can be seen constantly looking across to Fripp for guidance, but the beatific smile he throws in the guitarist's direction towards the end shows a man suddenly at ease with himself.
The footage is also notable as it's the only visual document of Jamie Muir in action. Dressed in bright orange trousers and what can only be described as a kind of animal-skin waistcoat, he stalks around the performance space, mostly bent double, like a Neanderthal in need of a chiropractor, banging, tapping scraping and blowing pretty much anything he can lay his hands on.
Apart from a rack of hanging gongs and metals and a conventional drum kit, Muir's percussive weaponry also includes a tabletop full of plastic funnels, balloons, bird callers, toys and what looks like an alarm clock. When he gently tosses a mass of dead leaves into the air towards the end of the opening piece, Muir comes close to turning a rock performance into a conceptual art happening.
Returning to the UK, they embarked on a twenty-eight-date UK tour throughout November and December, where there was a conscious attempt to break away from their standard repertoire, the one concession being a run-through of 21st Century Schizoid Man as an encore. The material which would form Larks' Tongues was played in its entirety, interspersed with lengthy bouts of improvisation. As Cross put it: "There were long stretches where anything could happen, and frequently did."
This was genuine high-wire stuff. Rock bands of the time were no strangers to improvisation, but that usually took the form of a soloist vamping against a sustained groove or chord sequence. This was collective improvisation, with the band exploring a range of sounds and tonalities. There were abrasive, metallic guitar riffs, fractured rhythms and trance-like grooves; there were power ballads, clashing, avant-garde sonorities and gentle, pastoral interludes. And then of course, there was Muir and his antics.
Still clad in his animal-skin waistcoat, Muir would prowl the stage, dividing his time between a drum kit and his percussive devices. He would hurl chains across the stage, climb onto the PA stacks, and glare at the audience while spitting stage blood at them. Strangely, these antics seemed to come as a shock to both Muir and his bandmates, as well as the audience. "I had no plans to do any of that," he admitted to Prog magazine in December 2012. "It's just I was very pumped up with enthusiasm, having such a good time... just being creative and inventive."
David Cross was more succinct: "I could have died when I saw him on stage for the first time. We had no idea he was going to do it."
The shows were well received by both audience and critics, and brimming with confidence, the band took a Christmas break and reconvened on January 1, 1973 to begin recording the new material.
After abortive recording attempts at Wessex studios, the quintet reconvened at Piccadilly's Command suite, where the rattle of the passing' Tube trains could occasionally be heard during a take, and where they came up against an engineer who knew nothing about tape editing, and according to Wetton in the Larks' Tongues booklet notes, "things were constantly blowing up, or they were losing bits". Despite this, the band seemed to radiate confidence about the music they were creating. During mixing sessions, Bruford spoke of making "magical music that will change people". With the record completed, they prepared for more British dates to promote it, including two intimate shows at London's Marquee.
The first of these, on February 10, went according to plan, but on the second night, Jamie Muir failed to turn up. Crimson's management informed the rest of the band and the public that Muir had injured himself during the previous night's show, and was taking time out to recover. The truth was that Muir, a practicing Buddhist, had decided that the rock'n'roll life was not for him, and had resolved to join a Scottish monastery.
Muir had offered to see out the band's remaining commitments, rather than leave them in the lurch, but the management insisted he leave immediately.
"It didn't seem to make any sense to me at all," said Muir of their decision to lie about his departure, "but then there were a number of things which that management did which didn't seem to make any sense, except perhaps to themselves."
Despite his onstage antics, Muir was not just some kind of percussive idiot-savant, but a genuine catalyst in opening Crimson up to new sounds, ideas and approaches. In an August 1973 NME interview, Bruford said of him: "He caused me to review everything about my music and woke me up to many ideas I only vaguely suspected existed."
Certainly, Bruford's approach changed after Muir's departure. He adopted many of Jamie's percussive devices, and began to play in a more obviously textural, as well as rhythmic fashion.
Larks' Tongues In Aspic, (a phrase coined by Muir in reference to the preservation of something rare and beautiful) was released in the UK in March 1973 to mixed reviews - hardly surprising, given the extraordinarily esoteric nature of the record. However, thanks to clever marketing by Island, it reached a respectable Number 20 in the album chart.
The cover art was a departure from the more grandiose designs of earlier Crimson sleeves, and is particularly striking in its simplicity: a circular sun/moon motif, presented in bright primary colours; both sun and moon sport simple, cartoon-like faces, bright yellow rays radiate outwardly from the central design, which is enclosed in a plain, claret-coloured border.
Crimson scribe Andrew Keeling, in his book Musical Guide To Larks' Tongues In Aspic, relates the artwork to Tantric and Hermetic symbolism, the sun and moon representing yin and yang, opposing energies combining to form a stronger union. In its use of colour and design it seems more reminiscent of Tarot card iconography, where the moon often points to fluctuation and change, and the sun represents energy and a source of strength - near-perfect metaphors for the band at this time. In keeping with most Crimson albums of the period, the band's name and the title are absent from the front - part of Fripp's grand plan to make the artwork more distinctive.
The title track is split into two parts, which bookend the album. Part I stretches itself leisurely over thirteen minutes or so, its tentative opening of kalimba and glockenspiel sounding like gamelan music in miniature.
After Cross' violin has breathed gently across the surface of the music, Wetton's bass cuts in with a thickly distorted groove which sounds as though it could have come from one of Miles Davis' monumental early '70s bands. There are passages of brittle, fractured funk, introspective solo violin, brief flickers of zither and sections of dialogue from Gallowglan, a BBC radio play about capital punishment. The piece starts to move to a climax as a voice solemnly intones "to be hanged by the neck upon a gibbet until you are dead" in a terse Scottish brogue.
By contrast, Part II is more succinct; it's a chunk of abrasive, metallic math-rock, a scything guitar riff and clattering drums cutting a swathe through the main body of the piece towards the end, to euphoric effect.
Larks' Tongues Part II is the one piece on the album credited solely to Fripp, and it's a musical bone he continued to gnaw at, adding parts III and IV to the repertoire in 1984 and 2000, both striking pieces of antsy, rhythmically complex cerebral rock.
Immediately preceding Larks' Tongues Part II is The Talking Drum, where fuzzy, vaguely lysergic guitar and fiddle vibrations with a whiff of the souk about them are layered over trance-like grooves constructed from throbbing bass and African hand percussion - like a weird, Afrodelic version of Can. Wedged between these instrumental tracks are a trio of vaguely more conventional songs. Book Of Saturday and Exiles are lovely, sumptuous-sounding ballads, the former a thoughtful, intelligent treatise on sexual politics, the latter a wistful elegiac paean to one's homeland by someone living abroad. The literary, incisive words are provided by the band's lyricist of the time Richard Palmer-James, a friend and ex-band mate of Wetton's.
Palmer-James' poetic, insightful lyrics, with their somewhat existentialist worldview, make a marked contrast to the more artful, baroque whimsy of his predecessor Sinfield. His lyrics, in fact, go a long way to giving the band's music of this period a sharper, more contemporary feel.
That said, his other lyrical contribution to the album is perhaps not his finest hour. Easy Money offers a more typically '70s viewpoint on the idea of selling sex, and is, thematically speaking, a kind of sequel to Ladies Of The Road from their previous album Islands. It has a suitably sleazy, lascivious stomp and swagger to it, and Muir, in particular, has a ball with it, adding the sounds of zips and tearing Velcro at strategic points, as well as the odd bit of dirty mac-style grunting. It's very much a product of its time, but done with just enough tongue-in-cheek humour to keep it the right side of embarrassing.
Easy Money proved a particularly malleable track during live performance, and it's possible to get a sense of that here, with its limber, loose-limbed bounce. Even on these relatively tight-sounding studio recordings there is often a feeling of untethered playfulness at work, particularly in Larks' Tongues Part I and The Talking Drum. There's a sense that the band have sought to tap into the energy and spontaneity of their live performances and bring it into the studio.
Strangely, the band were never entirely happy with the way the finished version of the album sounded, feeling it didn't capture their live energy, which Fripp partly blamed on their experience at Command. Wetton saw it as the first step on a musical journey which culminated in Red, their 1974 album which is seen by many as one of the main influences on the current prog-metal scene.
Leaving aside its perceived failings in the eyes of the musicians who created it, Larks' Tongues remains an important record - something that Fripp now seems to recognise. After a lengthy legal struggle that took up most of the mid-'90s, he managed to gain control over the band's master recordings, and in October 2012, he put out a gargantuan fifteen-disc set of Larks' Tongues recordings through his label DGM, which included all available live recordings of the band (mostly sourced from bootlegs), as well as the usual plethora of remixes and alternate takes, and a disc of session reels, which shows the band pulling and pushing the still-malleable material around like putty, exposing the bare bones of the music in the process.
As you'd expect, this is an expensive and indulgent artefact, but its importance lies in the way it presents a near-complete recorded document of one of the most unique and exciting bands of the era, whose creative life covered a mere five months, but who achieved more in that time - in purely musical terms - than some bands manage in a full couple of decades together.
A key factor in Crimson's artistic success of the time was that they were progressive in a literal sense - actually moving forward creatively, as opposed to in a merely stylistic way. By 1973 they'd left behind the cod-classical bombast, lyrical whimsy and occasional forays into pretentiousness, unlike most of their peers.
The Muir-less quartet continued to tour relentlessly, clocking up a further hundred and fifty-two gigs in Europe and the States between February '75 and July '74, becoming one of the finest live bands of the era. For confirmation of just what this band could do, check out the live disc USA, or The Great Deceiver, a 1992 box set, long-deleted but now available as a brace of double-disc recordings. These releases showcase the unstoppable energy and near-telepathic communication that were the band's stock-in-trade.
They followed Larks' Tongues with Starless And Bible Black in March '74, a striking amalgam of uptempo rock, plangent ballads, improvised electric jazz and abstract instrumentals, with much of the music drawn from live improvisations and woven seamlessly into the fabric of the album.
By the time Red was released in October '74, David Cross had quit. He felt that the subtleties of violin and flute were being lost among the ever-increasing power and volume the other three were generating. As a bright and sensitive individual, sensing which way the wind was blowing, he jumped before he could be pushed, though he makes a guest appearance on Red, alongside former members Ian McDonald and Mel Collins.
Red has had a far-reaching influence on the post-punk generation of rock and metal musicians, particularly in the US. It had the dubious distinction of being one of Q's 50 Heaviest Albums Of All Time in 2001 - a decidedly blinkered view of its many virtues.
In his autobiography, Bruford admits that making Red was a painful experience. Fripp was beginning to undergo what Bruford describes as a "spiritual awakening" and thus distracted, was largely uncommunicative when it came to offering his thoughts on the music.
Despite this, the drummer remains enthusiastic about the album: "I love Red," he admits in the book. "The record has a coherence and a gritty consistency that has translated Well across decades of rock, and an influence beyond the pain of its making."
It could be reasonably argued that both Red and Starless offer a more seamless, more consistent vision than Larks' Tongues, but it's also true that neither have the same freshness or vitality, the kind of energy that comes with the feeling of new ground being broken.
By the time of Red's release however, King Crimson no longer existed. They seemed about to embark on a new project with Ian McDonald back in the fold, but they officially disbanded in September 1974, with Fripp unequivocally confirming a month later that "King Crimson is completely over. For ever and ever" - an assertion that turned out to be a little premature, to say the least.
Fripp had become increasingly disillusioned with the mechanics of the music business and the way it seemed to feed on the blood of the creative people it relied upon for its existence. He also felt he'd hit a brick Wall, creatively speaking. After tying up a few personal and professional loose ends, he decamped to Sherbourne House in Gloucestershire for spiritual study and contemplation, effectively retiring from the music business for three years.
In an October 1974 interview with Melody Maker, he said: "The energies involved in the particular lifestyle of the band and in the music are no longer of value to the way I live."
Fripp re-formed King Crimson in 1981, revitalised but almost unrecognisable, musically and aesthetically, from former line-ups - "King Crimson with a trendy New Wave haircut," as was waggishly suggested. Fripp subsequently distanced himself from much of what had gone on at Sherbourne House, but it was clear that, creatively at least, he'd benefitted from it.
In the booklet accompanying the fortieth Anniversary reissue of Starless And Bible Black, Fripp tries to pin down the band's mercurial appeal: "King Crimson were nothing like the other bands of its generation... this isn't quite rock music, yet it's nearer rock than other forms... something astonishing is at the heart of it all, and whatever that astonishing is, it has not been fully articulated."
Andrew Keeling has ascribed the sounds and theories of Hungarian composer Bela Bartok to their music, an influence Fripp himself is happy to acknowledge. Fripp has also spoken of attempting to combine the power and energy of Hendrix with the textural richness and primal force of Stravinsky's Rite OfSpring. Keeling prefers to describe the band's sound on Larks' Tongues as "Indian raga put through the prism of Steve Reich and rock."
Crimson's mid-'70s music was often gnarled and knotty, and its reliance on collective improvisation, non-western sounds and the more visceral end of the classical tradition for inspiration perhaps explains why they escaped much of the vilification heaped on their peers in the post-punk years.
It's difficult to contextualise this music properly, so weighted is it by the accepted narrative of '70s musical history. It's easiest, perhaps, to regard Larks' Tongues as simply a peerless piece of music-making, a transmission from a bygone era, a utopian past where Bartokian theories could breathe freely alongside Afro-psychedelic grooves, rock balladry, high-wire improv and proto-metal riffs - and still make it into the UK Top 20.
The author wishes to acknowledge the writings of Bill Bruford, Robert Fripp, Andrew Keeling and Sid Smith, which proved invaluable.
King Crimson return to Friars, Waterside Theatre, Aylesbury, on September 4 and 5, having first played there on July 28, 1969.