May 1997 – live album reviews – King Crimson’s ‘Epitaph: Live in 1969’ (” maybe only rivalled, in their day, by The Doors at their peak”)

10 May

King Crimson: 'Epitaph: Live in 1969'

King Crimson: ‘Epitaph: Live in 1969’

With guitarist Robert Fripp as the only constant factor (he once memorably described himself as not so much the leader as “a kind of glue”), King Crimson have negotiated the peaks and troughs of a three-decade career in rock music and at least six distinct and differing incarnations. In the process, they’ve become one of those bands carrying a distinctly hazy reputation.

Where to place them? Not with the evergreen Beatles, Stones or Byrds; or with the narcotic, perversely cynical tradition of the Velvet Underground. Not in punk’s vigorous righteousness, or New Wave’s beat-smarts; or in the ever-credible European avant-rock field. Not even in old-school retro-rock (you won’t find Oasis ripping off one of their riffs). Outside of the healthy Crimson cult, the 1994 description in an LA newssheet (“prog-rock pond scum, set to bum you out”) seems to sum up the rough consensus. To many, King Crimson are and always will be one of the dinosaurs, if not the rotten egg that spawned the whole prog-rock movement. They’re pretentious, ludicrous, and sexless Mellotron fondlers; or they’re just a little too damn strange and perverse, winning your friendship only to kick you in the shins the next moment. Or they just don’t fit onto your party tape. Whatever.

‘Epitaph’ spearheads the series of archive live recordings which are just starting to sluice down the conduit of Fripp’s self-propelled record company (Discipline Global Mobile), each accompanied by the oft-prickly but ever-passionate guitarist’s commentary on the time, place and ethics of Crimson activity. Fripp’s hopes are obviously set on a fairer deal from history, or at least on providing a chance to reassess King Crimson in all of its painfully evolving forms.

His rogue-academic sleevenotes – witty and painstaking, pedantic and enlightening – might play a big part in reinstating this hidden legacy; but the superb “digital necromancy” of DGM engineer David Singleton is equally vital. On ‘Epitaph’, entrusted with the oldest and most variable Crimson live recordings, Singleton has spliced incomplete recording reels together to recreate concerts; wrestled listenable (even impressive) live sound from crumbling BBC master reels; and coaxed atmosphere and clarity from second-generation sound-desk recordings, unwanted overdubs, even crappy home recordings from interference-dogged radio broadcast.

But beyond the Frippertations, and even with the static and the eccentric degrees of muffling, ‘Epitaph’ is a welcome display of the power of the very first King Crimson. This is the band which bowled over Jimi Hendrix, who once approached Fripp saying “shake my left hand, man: it’s closer to my heart.” This is also the group who recorded 1969’s pivotal ‘In the Court of the Crimson King’, then gouged a magnificent trail of dates across Britain and America before fissioning at the end of the year. A band which original frontman Greg Lake still describes as being “without fear.” Perhaps it was the briefly-potent whiff of Faerie which fluttered around English psychedelia at the time, but King Crimson felt itself pervaded by something extraordinary and supernatural (which the members jokingly referred to as “the good fairy”). Of the five original Crims, only Fripp has subsequently regained the same artistic heights which he did here. Yet even he considers this version of the band to be particularly special, embodying a time when “music leant over and took us into its confidence.”

It’s certainly true that on ‘Epitaph’ King Crimson seems to be drawing from something beyond its members. Those mousy young English boys making shyly urbane stage announcements are also those inspired, demonic note-hammerers who are deforming your speakers by brute force. Racking rock’s power up several notches beyond any previous record, King Crimson swarmed like warrior ants through careering unison choruses and stabbing staccato assaults. Here you’ll hear pastoral flute pieces and folk ballads juxtaposed with brain-curdling electrics, jazz effects that scurry from lounge-y hokeyness to bebop and free-fired whiteouts. You’ll also hear the sound of Wagner and Bartok being wrung dry. Unlike many subsequent prog outings, King Crimson provided the feeling that, rather than being cuddled up to, classical music’s cage was being rattled until it screamed.


 
Fripp’s guitar playing is the closest thing that King Crimson have ever had to a trademark sound. Here, though, it’s merely part of the ensemble – it was an approach which was applied far more to underpinning the band’s hefty array of textures and sonics than to taking on the guru trappings it would later assume. And it was up against formidable, if beneficial, competition. Yet to become the self-satisfied face of ELP, a pre-pomp Greg Lake was already achieving a career best. Michael Giles was providing an object lesson in how to drum with subtle, taut complexity and economy rather than bombast, yet simultaneously make yourself unmissable.

Seen from the here and now, the overwhelming musicality of Ian McDonald is a particular shock. A few years later he’d be reduced to providing Foreigner with a horribly diluted version of Crimson’s hybrid sounds, but here he’s untouchable. His robotic Mellotron orchestras were a benchmark in violent grandeur – as structurally stressed and queasy as sailing ships, and played with demented intensity. Hearing him stabbing and slamming the ‘Tron into an inferno of junked but coherent string-death noise on Mars is little short of a revelation. As are the moments when he leads the band on a blazing, wailing saxophone that strained towards Albert Ayler’s fierce free jazz rather than British dance-bands or pirated Stax records.

Off in the wings, Peter Sinfield is the silent participant here – only audible in the odd buzz (since his then-revolutionary stage lights also affected the speakers). However, he was also present in the ornamental lyrics which – even at their most floridly Victorian and romantic – got to grips with the contradictions implied in the music and in the civilisation of its time.


 
The four BBC radio session recordings display a group already far more ambitious than even the ’60s norm – maybe only rivalled, in their day, by The Doors at their peak – and a good deal more haunted in outlook. 21st Century Schizoid Man is still one of the most calculatedly vicious pop songs ever – a ‘Mad Max’ duelling-car of a piece, studded with flails, razor blades and serpentine instrumentation – and one of the notable occasions on which Sinfield’s flamboyant verbosity hit the mark on every line. The inflated stateliness of In the Court of the Crimson King’s title track, soaked in mediaeval imagery (jesters, witches and all), may well have given the green light to every sub-Gothic fantasy that would blight prog during the ’70s. But here it still looms sad, bad, blood-soaked and as steeped in pitiless history as the Tower of London – a heavy, tattered tapestry of the creeping and destructive blights that come with civilisation. Lake delivers it with a wounded and disaffected majesty.


 
For all their pomp and ceremony, their purple filters, King Crimson were as political as any of their contemporaries. It seems odd to hear a group featuring the notoriously abstemious Fripp singing “let’s all get stoned” on their unexpected, woozy but ballsy cover of Donovan’s Get Thy Bearings. But Crimson – a band with strong working-class roots, despite the bourgeois tag prog-rock was to be lumbered with by punk revisionists – identified themselves far more with the ’60s counter-culture (drugs notwithstanding) than they did with the establishment. On one concert recording, Fripp pointedly dedicates Schizoid Man to Spiro Agnew. The shadows of Altamont’s rude awakening, Vietnam’s ongoing barbarities, and the precarious threat to a future Utopia are all present in the bleak scary screech of the band’s wilder moments and in the epic mourning of their ballads. Of which Epitaph itself takes the crown – ageless, with Fripp’s watchful guitars rolling out acoustic swathes and quietly brimming electric tears, Mellotrons sweeping across like opera house curtains, and Lake singing with trepidation into the face of an uncertain future.


 
The concert recordings stem from that first, final, fatal American tour, including the ’69 Crimson’s last bow in its entirety (the concerts at San Francisco’s Filmore West just before both McDonald and Giles quit). As expected, magnificent string-drenched versions of Epitaph and a couple of overwhelming breakneck runthroughs of Schizoid Man rear their heads; but you also get earlier, raw versions of evolving new material.


 
Drop In is a version of The Letters (the Jacobean nightmare from ‘Islands‘) with a different lyric. But the violent emotional sentiments remain the same – the form is lazy bluesy pop, the words are typically detached, sardonic Crimson menace. “Why don’t you just drop in, / and let the game begin? / You wished you’d learned to play, / and lived to die another day. / The rules you pick and you choose. / The odds are stacked for you to lose.” The music has a far nastier focus. Chopped and diced, riff-stamping, the sneer of McDonald’s deadly tenor sax and Giles’ explosive, spasmodic bop drums bring it closer to the level of a Coltrane scream.


 
A Man, a City would later evolve into Pictures of a City. Here, you can hear King Crimson attempting to blend New York’s pitiless industry with a Hieronymous Bosch nightmare, via a lurching Gothically-proportioned snarl of R’n’B sax riffs and metal-tearing guitar. On the road, their painstakingly written rock texts were transformed by interpretation and improvisation (from McDonald and Giles in particular). Though the results were inescapably lofty and English – and also rigidly stark – they make an interesting parallel to the electrified jazz-scapes Miles Davis and Tony Williams were pursuing on ‘In a Silent Way’ and ‘Lifetime’, or which John McLaughlin had already carved into for ‘Extrapolation’.


 
At Filmore West, in the home of the hippy movement, King Crimson opened up with In the Court of the Crimson King, lacing English roses into Haight-Ashbury hair. Typically, this was a sly and malevolent seduction to soften them up for the full Schizoid onslaught. Perhaps as an adjunct to this, Crimson also showed more of their softer, more fragrant side. Travel Weary Capricorn was one of their few moments of hippyish peace: a fragment of boppy Traffic-y pop, with Lake almost scatting and McDonald’s blissy jazz flute darting and scurrying like Herbie Mann over the band’s deconstructing, half-melted bluesiness.


 
Although Mantra shows its age (pleasant kaftan-y stuff with, admittedly, some ravishing flute solos – bits of it would later show up on Exiles), Travel Bleary Capricorn has them accidentally anticipating the post-modern dissections of the ’90s as they turn, briefly, into an improvising lounge act. Spanish guitar wobbles while McDonald pisses about on the Mellotron presets (cheesy piano and lounge rhythms), as King Crimson pay a quizzical visit back to their hideous apprenticeships in hotel dance groups, army bands and cabaret backings. Right from the start, Fripp’s humour was always a tad elliptical, and his glimpses into a future of “chance and hazard” are often surprising in retrospect.

But what you’ll remember most is the head-crunching power and violence in their improv treatments of Gustav Holst’s ‘Mars’. Each version builds from a gentle bass and drum throb, with McDonald unwinding the harmonies out of the dark, bloodied guts of a Mellotron. Growing ever more loud, staccato and harsh, the theme is psychotically smacked against the back wall; and ends up in blistering ray-gun effects over the stabbing, splintering, deafening unison riffs – the first sighting of thrash-classical. You can hear the seeds of math-rock, Mogwai/Slint crunch, and Foetus-style orchestral-industrial here; and The Young Gods clearly owe Crimson everything.


 
What must those stoned California hippies have made of it, with their storybook pictures of England? It must have been like being stomped into the ground by a full-armour cavalry charge, just when you were expecting Maid Marion to give you an apple. Listen back to Crimson’s second, post-split album ‘In the Wake of Poseidon’, and you can catch a persistent flutter of Frippish hands clutching at the memories of that jaw-dropping tour.

Some music takes years to fade. For all its baroque bloodiness, this still sounds freshly minted. A remarkable rediscovery.

King Crimson: ‘Epitaph: Live in 1969’
Discipline Global Mobile, DGM 9607A (5 028676 900252)
CD-only double live album
Released:
6th May 1997
Get it from: (2020 update) Burning Shed
King Crimson online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Soundcloud Tumblr Last FM Apple Music YouTube Vimeo Deezer Google Play Pandora Spotify Tidal Instagram Amazon Music
 

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