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October 2000 – album reissue reviews – King Crimson’s ‘Lizard’ & ‘Islands’ 30th anniversary reissues (“some of their most surprising – yet most neglected – music”)

7 Oct

From 1970 to 1972, King Crimson existed as a kind of invalid’s cats-cradle between its two ideas men (guitarist/composer Robert Fripp and lyricist/lights man/presentation polymath Peter Sinfield), with one faithful and exceptionally talented sax’n’flute player (Mel Collins) hanging on philosophically to the bouncing threads.

Perhaps it was a comedown for the band who, only a couple of years previously, had single-handedly redefined British rock music and almost stolen Hyde Park from the Rolling Stones in concert. However, this was still a time when they produced prolifically. Matters weren’t helped by internal conflict and a regular turnover of personnel (lead singers in particular). But despite having already lost key members to ELP (magisterial manchild singer Greg Lake), the sessions world (dazzling but personally wayward drummer Michael Giles) and Foreigner (composer and jack-of-all-instruments Ian McDonald, though strictly speaking he wouldn’t help form the AOR collossi for another few years yet), Crimson soldiered on. And, in the process, came up with some of their most surprising – yet most neglected – music.

King Crimson: 'Lizard'

King Crimson: ‘Lizard’

Psychologically, ‘Lizard’ has always felt like the oddest King Crimson album. Hurtling out at the tail-end of 1970 (less than a year after ‘In the Wake of Poseidon‘) and with a shroud of silence surrounding its making, it’s like a black hole in King Crimson’s history. No-one involved in the making of ‘Lizard’ seems to talk about it much. The fact that the band started recordings with a brand new vocal/rhythm section (singing bassist Gordon Haskell from Fleur De Lys and ex-Manfred Mann drummer Andy McCulloch), and ended the sessions with both men shot out of the saddle and vanishing before even playing a note onstage, has given the album’s reputation more than a tinge of sulphur and daggers drawn. Haskell still doesn’t talk to Fripp, and his contributions have been ostentatiously removed from Crimson compilations ever since. Silent prickles. Ooh, nasty.

The new remaster provides few clues to the musical politics behind ‘Lizard’, but does throw its obsessive ambition into sharp relief. It’s a remarkable record – the most panoramic thing Robert Fripp ever attempted until he blew up ambient music with his Soundscapes twenty years later. And it’s also the most anti-rock record he’s released to this day; as far from being a “band” album as this particular Crimson were from being a live band.

The music comes in floods of cryptic decoration, riding on the back of Fripp’s dark and abrasive chordal imagination. Both leaders are on intriguingly different form: Fripp mostly leaving his Les Paul untouched and playing devilishly tricky acoustic guitar, Sinfield throwing away most of his clotted Gothic lyric totems in favour of shifting psychedelic parlour tricks. But pride of place goes to semi-detached piano player Keith Tippett, a jazz guerilla who constantly refused Fripp’s offers of joint musical leadership of King Crimson but (for ‘Lizard’, anyhow) seems to have taken it on anyway.


 
Fripp had produced and played with Tippett’s band Centipede; and the jazzer returns the favour in full measure here, bringing along oboe player Robin Millar, trombonist Nick Evans and cornet player Mark Charig (all reknowned for Soft Machine contributions) to join Mel Collins and himself in expanding King Crimson’s musical voicings. Consequently ‘Lizard’ jangles and loons with a bright, big-band free-jazz sound as the horn section and Tippett’s fulsomely unpredictable pianos joust with Fripp’s gargantuan Mellotron sounds and the blooping cartoon synthesizers. Certain songs – Happy Family in particular, seem to abandon the rigorous Crimson discipline altogether and worry themselves to bits, with Tippett keeping a relaxed but steady grip on the anarchic play.


 
Peter Sinfield, for his part, stays in an almost domestic realm for the first half of the album. His lyric for the perky Indoor Games is a bizarre Bunuel-meets-Doctor-Seuss poke at the pretentions of bourgeois bohemians, his protagonist barely keeping himself afloat in the showy menagerie of his household. The Cirkus which opens the album is reached in a dream-voyage, a gaudy cruel entertainment which immediately succumbs to stampede and peril. Happy Family is one of the acts which could’ve been performed there – an impossibly tortuous metaphorical tribute to the sorry end of The Beatles. Throughout, Tippett tops every surreal word-twist with another kink in his piano playing.


 
Tippett, in fact, is far more at home than half of the official Crimsons. Gordon Haskell’s a great bluesy singer; but while sunk in this whirling confection of oboes and exploding pianos, drowning in Sinfield’s crossword puzzle wordplay, he struggles even to be heard (let alone draw meaning out of the songs). Andy McCulloch copes better with music that requires him to jump between drum approaches from jazz hiss to orchestral percussion and military rattle. Still, you can almost hear him furrowing his brow and wondering what the hell all this has got to do with headlining the Marquee Club.


 
Poor old Haskell – a good guy in a bad position – gets some respite on Lady of the Dancing Waters where they give him a wistful tune with a trombone and a little English clearing to serenade in… only for him to be upstaged by the beautifully husky choirboy vocals of Yes singer Jon Anderson for the next song. At the conclusion of Indoor Games he unleashes one of the most fascinating laughs in rock history – a demented, yelping hiccup of crazed, fearful mirth which the engineer picks up and slaps back and forth across the speakers. It’s all in keeping with the chamber-jazz-on-laughing-gas feel of ‘Lizard’. But it also sounds like a helplessly honest reaction to the horribly sinister undercurrent beneath the playfulness – the oily black saw of Mellotron, the thousand little knives in Fripp’s clean cross-picking and Tippett’s electric piano jabs.

The second half – the Lizard suite itself – is King Crimson’s most ambitious conception up until that point, in which chamber symphonics and iconic mediaeval imagery return to the band’s music again. Prince Rupert Awakes opens the suite with a tragic cryptic ballad: a heraldic Anderson singing over Tippett’s rippling piano, tension intruding from the wind-chimes which ripple the surface of the beauty and from the deliberately discordant Mellotron which flicks ghastly shadows across the daylight.

Although Sinfield’s overcooked poetry is almost impenetrable, there’s substance here. Near-suffocated beneath rococo imagery of temple wax, peacocks and “tarnished devil’s spoons” is a small saga of civilisations clashing in a profitless war. Rather than a tale of heroism, it represents the fear, frenzied mood swings and devastation that war visits on human beings. Bolero (anchored on McCulloch’s half-march/half-dance drumming) starts with a long, lyrically sad oboe line bidding farewell to peace, but soon moves into a jagged desperate revelry, the partying before the fight. Slurring, drunken trombone and sax grab the oboe theme and o roaring off with it as Tippett’s piano becomes steadily more impressionistic and jumpy and Fripp’s Mellotron infuses an uneasy, compromised warmth.


 
Dawn Song is the morning after: Haskell sings softly and haltingly, to sparse piano and oboe, of broken ploughs and spokeless wheels, and of soldiers “burnt with dream and taut with fear” waiting for the inevitable reckoning of spears and armour. Which duly arrives in Last Skirmish with brutally knotted jazz snare and more typically Frippish minor key riffs, stately and dark – initially on Mellotron, then taken up by harsh baritone sax with a petrified overblown flute dipping and waving above. As battle commences in earnest, bluesier saxes and an enraged elephantine trombone wail alongside a resurgent Fripp guitar and Tippett’s increasingly shattered piano attack.

In the background, Fripp jacks up an initially sweet and civilised Mellotron string part until the pitch is tortured beyond endurance. Then there’s a brief respite (glimmering lucid guitar and distant rills of piano) before the sound of a hue and cry, galloping brass and hunting horn clamour in the most frantic moment yet. Finally, Prince Rupert’s Lament, the wreckage of bodies and hopes on the battlefield afterwards. A tolling bass ostinato, exhausted kettle drum rolls and a distant bagpipe shriek of Fripp guitar, utterly bereft and angry. ‘Lizard’ is over.

Abstract, absurdist and oblique it may be, but if you avoid involving yourself too literally in Sinfield’s wordplay and just allow the music to speak into you, ‘Lizard’ is an album which has plenty to offer. The game-playing cast of its music only adds to its power, puncturing prog pomposity and adding new dimensions of conceptual menace which the band had never previously achieved. At times, it’s like observing a particularly venomous orgy.

As the last part of ‘Lizard’ fades away, Big Top careens out of the silence – a quease-inducing carousel of circus music in which the pitch spirals further up and out of control than ever before, snagging the ensemble players like a Kansas tornado and dragging them off into the unknown skies, still squiggling out treacherous silvery worms of music.

King Crimson: 'Islands'

King Crimson: ‘Islands’

Although the ever-underrated ‘Lizard’ now jumps out of the speakers with renewed animation and significance, the real rediscovery from King Crimson’s current reissue phase is 1971’s ‘Islands’.
Long-unavailable on CD, this album was recorded by those Crimsoneers who’d survived the latest falling out (Sinfield, Collins and Fripp) with two new full-time recruits – Boz Burrell and Ian Wallace.

The new boys were grounded in rootsy jazz and rhythm’n’blues. Boz, in particular, seems antithetical to the perceived Way Of Crimson – a brash and commanding singer with scatting tendencies, and perhaps suspicious of Crimson’s grand designs as hatched on prog touchstone ‘In the Court of the Crimson King’ and further honed on ‘In the Wake of Poseidon’ and the formal dementia of ‘Lizard’.

In spite of this, ‘Islands’ is the King Crimson album that’s furthest from the roots heartlands. There is one exception – Ladies of the Road, in which Sinfield turns in a salacious lyric of international groupie action that allows the band to engage in their dirtiest and most gleeful playing ever. Collins roars boozily on dick-grabbing tenor sax; Fripp plays as if his guitar’s strung with Mississippi baling wire and slams down some gloriously sloppy, sleazy little solos; and Boz revels in the rampant bluesy shouting. Even the flute and the fragrant Paul McCartney harmonies in the chorus can’t shake the sweat off this one.

 
It’s certainly a sharp contrast to The Letters. This is the album’s main sticking point, with aggressively stilted music rescued from Crimson’s early days and a lyric of pure antiquated Jacobean melodrama (poison pens, adultery, madness and suicide) in which sex is the engine of betrayal and degradation.

However, neither of these pieces fairly represent the unprecedented warmth and clarity of intent on ‘Islands’. If the preceding ‘Lizard’ was perhaps Tippett and Sinfield’s album – liberally dusted with the excitement and lawlessness of free jazz and untrammeled purple poetry – ‘Islands’ is most definitely Fripp’s, its scope narrowed down with superb clarity. It’s King Crimson’s simplest album by far, one in which the tunes and the placing of changes and instruments are far more important than complexity or the thrill of clash.

Several ‘Lizard’ buddies – jazz pianist Keith Tippett, Marc Charig on cornet and Robin Millar on oboe – are all along for the album sessions, and ‘Islands’ is also suffused with the warmth, light and mesmeric relaxing qualities of the Mediterranean and Aegean seas, inspired by Sinfield’s travelling. After the demented rush of ‘Lizard’ it’s a much more contemplative work, with Tippett returning to a reflective supporting role and with that Crimson intensity redirected towards knowledge and timing instead of flamboyant theatre. Formentera Lady (introduced by fluttering flute, romantic swirls of piano and the deep bowed chording of Harry Miller’s double bass) sees Sinfield “shadowed by a dragon fig tree’s fan, /rRinged by ants and musing over man”, and that’s to be the central flavour of the album.


 
Ian Wallace was the perfect drummer for this music – well aware of the jazz and rock heat needed for the Crimson repertoire, but equally capable of the delicate timekeeping needed for the gentler pace of the new material. Formentera Lady ticks along on his hushed bass drum and cymbals, his trickles of wind chime and seed-pod percussion, and Boz’s gentle two-note bass riff. And whatever Boz’s feelings for the material might have been (he’s the prime suspect for having described much of ‘Islands’ as “airy-fairy shit”) he sings Sinfield’s contented landlocked reveries in a nostalgic, light tenor with a surprisingly humble and innocent charm. The gentle pulse of Fripp’s supportive acoustic guitar arrives four-and-a-half minutes in. Greek strings hum in trapezoidal shapes, and when King Crimson’s first familiar slip into the texture of legend arrives it happens seamlessly, cued by “here Odysseus charmed for dark Circe fell”, when guest soprano Paulina Lucas opens her throat for prolonged eerie siren singing, merging with Collins’s explorations on tenor sax.

Equally seamlessly, it gives way – on the rising heat of Wallace’s ride cymbal – to Sailor’s Tale, Fripp’s musical portrait of Odysseus’ doomed navigation between the parallel forces of destruction, Scylla and Charybdis. If Formentera Lady is King Crimson entranced in siesta time, Sailor’s Tale is a slow awakening to peril. Not the Gothic nightmares that the band used to specialise in. This time, what’s central to the piece’s power is the sheer excitement it generates.

Fripp and Collins (the former back on his rich drone of overdriven guitar) play prolonged horn notes off each other above Wallace’s rapid triple-time jazz pulse, reaching a peak at which they split off and howl their own paths – Collins squalling like Ayler or Coltrane, while Fripp prepares to deliver the most colossally dirty solo of his career. Played on a shattering echo like a deranged banjo, it passes through a maelstrom crescendo of hellish Mellotron and frantic cymballing out into free space, disintegrates spectacularly and falls into nothingness. Only the dark primeval bass of Sinfield’s prolonged oceanic synthesizer chords to witness its passing. The hairs don’t settle on the back of the neck for a good few minutes.


 
The rest of the album returns to the sun- and sea-warmed peace of Formentera Lady. The Song of the Gulls prelude is a small Fripp-written study for Robin Millar’s oboe and polite strings: no more than a serene intro to the album’s title-track finale, bridging the huge stylistic gap between Ladies of the Road and the final resolution of Sinfield’s escape. Islands itself is a subtle compositional triumph: King Crimson’s own miniature ‘Sketches of Spain’, finally proving that they can sustain a gentle and nourishing rhapsody without tweeness or needing to pounce back into violence. Wallace is almost invisible but for a few lightly brushed cymbals, letting Collins’s miraculously tender bass flute and Tippett’s delicately shaded Bill Evans-ish piano set the atmosphere. Fripp abandons guitar altogether to quietly pump a small harmonium (you can hear his feet patiently working the pedals).

Boz sings alone and unaffected, again displaying a surprising empathy for Sinfield’s lyric of separateness yielding to inclusion over time – “grain after grain love erodes / the high weathered walls which fend off the tide… / Equal in love, bound in circles. / Earth stream and tree return to the sea. / Waves sweep the sand from my island, / from me.” Mark Charig’s jazzy, sleepy cornet plays a crucial part, taking up the melody and soaking it in acceptance and the weary joy of homecoming, before a softly swelling finale where sedate and harmonious Mellotron strings lift the ensemble to resolution. “Beneath the wind turned wave, / infinite peace. / Islands join hands / ‘neath heaven’s sea.”


 
But for a brief hidden track (in which we hear a burst of studio tune-ups and Fripp’s soft Dorset burr patiently instructing the oboe and string players) that’s the end. Incidentally, it was also the end of King Crimson’s “grand design” phase. The core five-piece would briefly tour and squabble (with Peter Sinfield’s departure forever closing the early Crimson songbook) and the rootsy bar-band which lurked in the ‘Islands’ line-up would then honk its way across the States, jettisoning all the Debussy and fragrance of the album as it went.

It would all end in tooth-sucking enmity and anger, with everyone but Fripp abandoning King Crimson in favour of rhythm’n’blues. Boz would even end up thumping bass for Bad Company, which evidently pleased him musically and financially but seems a sorry waste of talent after his showing on ‘Islands’. The next time that Fripp surfaced, he’d be leading a far louder, far more cryptic improvisatory band, which would immediately overshadow his work here. This period of King Crimson’s existence is always outshone by the horns and flurries of the band’s debut years, by the bold and bitter brute minimalism of ‘Red’, by the stalking menace of the European improv years or the poppy art-rock of their New Wave era.

But both ‘Islands’ and its companion ‘Lizard’ – two of the most unusual to emerge from the body of rock – contain some of King Crimson’s best-planned, best executed and most intricately beautiful work, with a unified conceptual scope the bands would never really match again. These reissues bring that buried treasure back to light, revealing an exciting early ’70s meeting point between musical forms that’s been poorly served by an increasing suspect official history. It’s time to put it back on the chart. If more of today’s bands had the same open-minded determination – stumbles and all – that King Crimson exhibit here, we’d be better served ourselves.

King Crimson: ‘Lizard’
Virgin Records Ltd., CDVKCX3 (7243 8 48947 2 6)
King Crimson: ‘Islands’
Virgin Records Ltd., CDVKCX4 (7243 8 48949 2 4 )
CD-only reissue albums
Released:
4th October 2000
Get them from: (2020 update) Both records have now been superseded by 40th Anniversary Editions with new remastering and additional tracks. Current or former versions can be obtained from the King Crimson stores at Burning Shed and the Schizoid Shop.
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