By ProgBlog, Sep 6 2015 10:44AM

My introduction to King Crimson came towards the end of their 70s prime, between the releases of Starless and Bible Black and Red (both 1974.) At that time I could only delve into their past, their stunning debut In the Court of the Crimson King (1969) being next to entrance me, though their self-inflicted demise also yielded personal favourite USA (1975) and the retrospective compilation A Young Person’s Guide to King Crimson (1976.) I can’t remember why I never bought a copy of Young Person’s but I assume it’s because brother Tony and I had already embarked upon getting hold of the original albums; I do remember being impressed with its brilliant cover (by Fergus Hall) though I wouldn’t get to see the booklet included with the double LP for another couple of years when Jim Knipe acquired a copy.

As far as getting to see them play live, I couldn’t imagine it ever happening. I managed to witness Fripp’s presence, as Dusty Rhodes, when I went to see Peter Gabriel during the tour for his first solo album at the Liverpool Empire, April 1977. Fripp’s continuing emergence from ‘retirement’ for David Bowie’s Heroes (1977) sparked some interest despite my disdain for Bowie material up to that point but as far as I was concerned his return to form was as producer and guitarist on Peter Gabriel II (Scratch, 1978) which included the excellent Exposure, subsequently re-recorded for his own solo album Exposure (1979.) This release wasn’t in the same league as Crimson but Breathless (which we christened ‘Green’) hinted at ’74 Crimson. Fripp’s residency in New York and his work with a number of the local artists seemed to influence his next move, the almost-punk League of Gentlemen that Jim and I saw at the LSE in November 1980.

Meanwhile, I’d been following the fortunes of Bill Bruford and though I didn’t start collecting albums that he’d graced as a guest drummer until a few years later, releases from his own band Bruford and the first UK album were must haves. The reunion of the 72-74 Crimson rhythm section was a cause for celebration and if the original line-up of UK had managed to stay together they might have prolonged the golden era of prog; the material on UK (1978) reflected progressive rock from three or four years earlier but sounded new and different, hinting at jazz rock rather than symphonic prog. Sadly, there was no hint that the Bruford- and Holdsworth-less incarnation would change direction so drastically for Danger Money (1979) where despite some excellent music the song structure included far too much uninspiring verse-chorus-verse chorus form. I went to see UK at Imperial College, London in March 1979 and saw Bruford, in a double-headliner along with Brand X at London’s Venue in May 1980.

It was an incredibly pleasant surprise to hear about the formation of Discipline, though I regarded the inclusion of two Americans with a degree of trepidation. I was well aware of the talents of Tony Levin but not at all acquainted with the pedigree of Adrian Belew. I needn’t have worried because Belew’s on stage antics fitted the feel of the music; joyful, fun, infectious and somewhat difficult to categorise. I found it difficult to figure out which guitar was doing what and some of the noises I’d have associated with Fripp’s guitar playing seemed to come from Belew. The fast circular picked style that featured in some of the League of Gentlemen material had been refined so that when the two guitarists played together it was like tying and then unravelling some highly complex knot – the logo that was to appear on the cover of Discipline (1981) by Steve Ball was very apt. The inclusion of some of the later 70s King Crimson music should have been a clear signal that this group was about to become the next Crimson. Theoretically, I didn’t get to see King Crimson until September 1982 when they performed at the Hammersmith Palais on the tour to promote Beat (1982.) Now used to the sound of this version of Crimson, the music seemed more accessible than on its predecessor but the final release from this Crimson, Three of a Perfect Pair (1984) contained more challenging and experimental pieces. Unfortunately, this material was not toured in the UK and the next time I got to see them was after their break-up and reformation at the Royal Albert Hall in May 1995.

I was fortunate to have an academic email account in the early 90s and was an avid reader of Elephant Talk, the King Crimson e-letter lovingly put together by Toby Howard. I’d pretty much given up on musical journals apart from the odd Q which had sufficient interesting content to make it worthwhile buying, so it was through ET that I picked up on Fripp’s work with David Sylvian, going to see them at the RAH in December 1993 where I found the music to have a very dreamlike quality, largely due to the very hi-fi nature of the soundscapes. Vrooom (1994), the EP love-letter from a new-look Crimson, signalled that progressive rock, or at least acts that were classed as prog, were no longer anathema. The Discipline-era band was augmented by Pat Mastelotto (drums) and Trey Gunn (stick), both of whom played with Sylvian and Fripp. This taster release from the so-called ‘double trio’ incorporated the best of the previous incarnations of the band; there were very strong hints of Red-era Crimson and the adult pop-funk that I apportion to the pen of Adrian Belew had matured very nicely. The full release, Thrak (1995), though making Vrooom almost redundant, did not disappoint and that live show, on Bill Bruford’s birthday, was one of the best gigs I’ve ever attended and my feelings were transmitted to the ET readership when I submitted a short review.

At this time I really couldn’t get enough Crimson and went off to see them when they took in London on their next tour at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire in July 1996, the only UK date on the THRAKaTTaK tour. This was another great show in a not-so-good venue and where I picked up my copy of the just-released THRAKaTTaK live CD.

It seemed that tensions within the band may have been a little strained and perhaps members shouldn’t have read too many ET entries. In search of possible direction and allowing time for individuals to pursue other avenues the group divided up into different ProjeKcts. This was a fertile period for the band and for the Crimson imprint DGM, including the tight-knit Crimson community Epitaph and The Nightwatch playbacks that I attended in London in March and September 1997 respectively; I even provided a home-made date and walnut cake for the former. When the band reconvened for The ConstuKction of Light (2000) it was minus Bruford and had become somewhat heavier. This was quite evident during their performance at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire on July 3rd 2000, a gig that I didn’t particularly enjoy, standing downstairs in a crush between the stage and the bar.

I think I’m right in saying that the current tour, with a line-up of Fripp, Levin, Mastelotto, Mel Collins, Jakko Jakszyk, Gavin Harrison and Bill Rieflin, will include the first UK dates since 2000 and will amount to the first UK tour since 1982. I’ve continued to collect bits and pieces from Crimson-related musicians since I last saw them, including Live at the Orpheum (2015) which serves as a brief introduction to this formation with its three drummers.

I’m really looking forward to Monday!

By ProgBlog, Apr 5 2015 06:53PM

Around the time of the double trio King Crimson incarnation, Jim Knipe and I went off to see Robert Fripp performing soundscapes in the foyer of the Queen Elizabeth Hall on London’s South Bank. This attendance was fairly hastily arranged because of respective work commitments such as on-call and the Saturday 9th March was deemed to be the most suitable of the potential dates on offer, Fripp being in residence at the QEH for four days from the 7th to the 10th including what was due to be a marathon session on Saturday 9th, as part of a series of events billed as ‘Now You See It’. Strangely enough, Crystal Palace were at home to Jim’s team, West Bromwich Albion that afternoon, with Palace running out winners 1-0 and legend Dougie Freedman scoring the sole goal; this predated our arrangement to attend Eagles v Baggies and Baggies v Eagles reciprocal home fixtures by some years, when West Brom and Palace are playing in the same division.

I’m a fan of Fripp’s soundscapes. I’ve got (No Pussyfooting) and Evening Star, which I regard as early, lo-fi examples of guitar and tape loops which marked the beginning of Frippertronics (a term coined by Fripp’s girlfriend at the time, Joanna Walton). Though I don’t own either God Save the Queen/Under Heavy Manners (1980) or Let the Power Fall (1981) I do have the Fripp-produced Sacred Songs by Daryl Hall, recorded in 1977 but not released until 1980 which some believe contains the first examples of proper Frippertronics. I’ve charted their evolution from the original collaborations with Eno, through solo album Exposure (1979) and the 80s incarnation of Crimson to the work with David Sylvian, The First Day and the live album Damage (both 1993), that presaged the double trio King Crimson of the 90s. The calm, dreamy Bringing Down the Light from The First Day was probably the earliest recorded example of Fripp’s modern take on the soundscape; my collection ends with the four track CD EP Pie Jesu (1997) which contains material from A Blessing of Tears and The Gates of Paradise. By this time, technology had become very reliable and instead of twin Revox tape decks and his effect pedal that I’d seen give up the ghost while playing with the League of Gentlemen at the LSE in November 1980, he was now using industry-standard TC2290 dynamic digital delay modules from TC electronics.

The late 70s and early 80s saw Fripp embarking on a number of intimate solo performances in off-beat venues, in the guise of a ‘small, mobile, intelligent unit’. This modus operandi was revisited in the mid-90s with the new technology and resulted in a series of releases that sadly aren’t currently available (though a series of more recent compilations are readily accessible); these shows were sonically and physically disparate from his playing in a group context. In Crimson he migrated out of the front line, remaining in the shadows but he was entirely out of sight when I went to see Peter Gabriel at the Liverpool Empire in April 1977 performing his first solo tour, until his introduction as ‘Dusty Rhodes’ when he appeared to take a bow. As a solo performer, whatever the ambient lighting, he was always in the spotlight and the perceived barriers between Fripp and the audience were rendered insignificant. Fripp was able to trigger loops and delays and leave his ‘stage’ from time-to-time, blurring the lines between the distinction of guitarist and listeners. On Fripp writes “The Soundscape performances are part of an ongoing series which has the aim of finding ways in which intelligence and music, definition and discovery, courtesy and reciprocation may enter into the act of music for both musician and audience.”

This interaction is one reason why the music shouldn’t be simply classed as ‘ambient’ music. The ambient tag suggests the listener is passive but it is Fripp’s stated aim to seek an interaction which may then shape the course of the event; proactive music making, with Fripp and a guitar able to make a great deal of noise should he decide to do so. These aren’t sampled atmospherics, sounds from nature or even urban background chatter but a controlled, improvised, sonic narrative that may be calming, dramatic, eerie, alarming or even jagged and angular.

The ambient genre had its origins in the 70s and could be described as a musical form with an emphasis on tone, timbral quality and atmosphere rather than a traditional structure or rhythm. To this extent, ambient music ought to have an unobtrusive quality. Early pioneer Brian Eno has said that ambient music should be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; that it must be as ignorable as it is interesting. This suggests to me that ambient music is passive and so, by applying Fripp’s description of soundscapes, soundscapes are not ambient music.

‘Ambient’ somehow seems mixed up with New Age ideas, or rather there is an association between the two through a construct of the marketing industry. Fripp’s critique of the music business is well documented, largely through copious sleeve notes that have accompanied Fripp-related releases through DGM; the corporate music world relies on consumer trends that are controlled via the medium of marketing.

Soundscapes aren’t electronica, either. This is a sub-genre I associate with sequencer pulses and (predominantly) keyboard washes. Whether intended or not, programmed sequences form the basis of rhythm, and they certainly provide a sense of drive and direction which removes them from the accepted definition of ‘ambient’. Thus Tangerine Dream, synthesizer innovators of the early 70s, are allowed to be described as producing ‘atmospheric’ music but their ephemeral melody lines that interweave with snatched, developing pulsating sequences excludes them from ambientism.

It’s the unknown direction of soundscapes that I find appealing. Some of my own improvised music using a Roland synthesizer falls into calming soundscape territory, though I have a tendency to overdub ‘natural’ sounds, rainfall, wind or waves and use reverse waveforms played over the original recording to produce smooth, soothing compositions. This is very unlike Fripp (and obviously nowhere near as good) with only his guitar and effects, conjuring angels and demons in response to his audience in an intimate, live setting. Each performance is unique and if Fripp has full recordings of his recital from March 9th 1996 (the piano-inflected Sometimes God Hides that appears on The Gates of Paradise released in 1997 was taken from that appearance) I’d very much like him to consider releasing it – the memory of standing sipping bottles of Becks watching the craftsman at work is beginning to fade.

By ProgBlog, Apr 20 2014 01:02PM

I got a room to myself in my second year at uni, overlooking a portion of the beer garden of the White Horse next door. In good weather I would open my windows and play Asbury Park from King Crimson’s USA really loud, posing with my bass strapped round my neck. I have no idea what the pub clientele thought of the noise, but I rather hope it annoyed them. I considered Courage, the beer at the pub, to be quite unpleasant and the bar staff had begun to charge me for soda water when I ordered a soda and blackcurrant. My Barrovian accent was quite alien to the Kent locals, and one evening I was served with a disgusting concoction of cider and blackcurrant.

After another summer of working at British Steel and with nothing major to spend the money on I felt more able to get out to gigs, including two I’m not particularly proud of: Slade at the Goldsmiths’ College Christmas Ball and UFO at the Hammersmith Odeon, but live music generates a good feeling even though it might not be one’s preferred style, as long as it’s well played. The UFO gig was recorded for BBC in Concert and has since become available on CD and as a download. On-line reviewer SJC Armstrong called the overall performance stunning and every bit the equal of UFO’s Strangers in the Night album. They were supported by a dreadful glam-metal band, Girl, so the evening was more painful than pleasurable.

The Slade gig was memorable for the student who got up on stage, stripped off her top and bra and then dived into the audience, landing on top of me. Slade by this time had renounced all pop overtones and were just a rock band that did exceptionally well from the college circuit. They played all their hits but also showed a degree of musicianship that never came across on Top of the Pops; bassist Jim Lea was a former Staffordshire Youth Orchestra violinist.

I did go to some gigs that I enjoyed. The academic year started with Camel at the Hammersmith Odeon. Tony was doing his elective at the Institute of Psychiatry in Denmark Hill which coincided with my return to Goldsmiths’ so we met up, checked the listings in Time Out and headed off to west London. Some might say that by this time Camel were in creative decline. I’d heard but not bought Breathless, the studio release after Rain Dances and was not particularly impressed because it had dropped any pretence of being a conceptual whole and was more a collection of songs of varying quality and style. Breathless ran the gamut from classic progressive rock (Echoes) to the whimsical early Caravanesque Down On the Farm via funk (Wing and a Prayer; Summer Lightning). This mixture of styles detracted from the overall quality of the album but was obviously a result of the creative tensions between Peter Bardens and Andrew Latimer; Bardens would leave the band once the album was finished to be replaced for the ensuing tour by two ex-Caravan keyboard players, Jan Schelhaas and Dave Sinclair.

I’d not heard I Can See Your House from Here, Camel’s next effort because the album wasn’t due for release for another few days. This turned out to be unimportant because there was sufficient early classic Camel material to make it a good gig, but I was left with the impression that this was Camel without any balance: Andy Latimer playing leader of the ship and taking on the persona of guitar hero.

Dave Brubeck made a rare appearance in London at the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank in November 1979. I was quite in awe of the venue, something of a brutalist behemoth on the outside, but with an auditorium renowned for its excellent acoustics. I was equally in awe of the clientele that patronised the RFH, regarding it as a citadel of high culture, so it was somewhat surprising that Jim, Amanda Lait (Jim’s girlfriend at the time) and I managed to get tickets without much difficulty. Throughout his career Brubeck had upset jazz purists for making the genre too accessible, for using odd time signatures and for playing with electric instruments. It was this ‘outsider’ persona that I found intriguing. Keith Emerson had adapted Blue Rondo a la Turk for The Nice (changing it from 9/8 to 4/4 in the process) and I’ve always liked Take Five. Piano-led jazz is my favourite form of jazz and consequently I really enjoyed the concert.

From the fully seated concert hall to the cabaret style double-heading bill of Bruford and Brand X at the Venue, I was choosing my gigs fairly carefully. This was the first time I’d seen a band with Bruford occupying the drum stool; the man who had played with the three greats of progressive rock: Yes, King Crimson and Genesis. I like to watch all musicians who are masters of their craft, and Bill Bruford has the incredible ability to make complex drumming seem effortless. The set list (in running order) comprised of Hell's Bells; Sample & Hold; Land's End; Joe Frazier; Gothic 17; Palewell Park; Age of Information; and 5G. The music produced by Bruford is difficult to categorise, ranging from jazz rock to progressive. Brand X on the other hand were once called the ‘British Mahavishnu Orchestra’, and though less fiery than the avatars of fusion, they easily fitted within the jazz rock umbrella. This was a really good evening despite the price of the drinks. I made one pint of bitter last the whole evening.

The jazz-themed gigs continued with a summer term outing to Dartford to see Barbara Thompson. I’d picked up her band’s first album in 1989 from somewhere, an impulse buy influenced by the presence of ex-Soft Machine Roy Babbington on bass. At the time I was unaware of Ms Thompson’s jazz pedigree but after one listen I was hooked. This was melodic electric jazz not a million miles from progressive rock.

Being based in London meant that I had access to a wide variety of live music, but there weren’t too many prog acts around, and consequently I’d deliberated over which bands to go and see. I’d done Genesis and Yes; King Crimson were in hiatus (though at the time we all believed that KC had ceased to exist) but there was one remaining major act that were still touring. The big event was scheduled for the summer of 1980; Pink Floyd had major success with The Wall at the tail end of 1979 and were going to be performing a limited number of shows in the UK. Though not fully enamoured with the album, believing their progressive days were far behind them, I’d heard positive things about live Floyd shows (school friend John Bull had seen them playing at the Bingley Hall in Stafford on the Animals tour), I managed to get tickets for myself and some friends from Infield Park. I have to admit that it was the greatest spectacle I’d ever seen.

At the start of the third year Jim and I went to see Barbara Thompson at the Tramshed and, to Jim’s surprise, he knew the violinist in the band, Pete Hartley, with whom he’d been to school in Birmingham. This proved to be an easy opening for a chat with Barbara Thompson herself during the interval. Next up were Jethro Tull at the Royal Albert Hall, which had sold out so quickly that the only tickets we could get were standing in the gods, reached by narrow, winding enclosed stairs. This was the tour to promote A, with Eddie Jobson on violin and keyboards, including a mini-solo on the Hall’s organ. The A material was below-par Tull and from our perch on high the sound quality was dreadful. This was not the best of gigs, so it’s a good job that the tickets were only £1.75

The following week was a small stand-up affair at the London School of Economics, The League of Gentlemen, Robert Fripp’s pared-down New Wave band. According to the sleeve notes on their eponymous album the band played 77 gigs though only 71 are listed, the last one being the LSE show on November 29th 1980. The notes also reveal that the band’s commitment to work together ended on December 4th. Anyone going to see some form of reincarnation of Crimson would have been very disappointed. This sound was angular and immediate, dance music for a new decade. Or it would have been if it could get going. Fripp’s famous pedal board that allowed him to produce ‘Frippertronics’ effects (the precursor to Fripp’s soundscapes) and guitar sounds that could strip the paint off walls, decided not to function, however much the road crew coaxed and cajoled it. The crowd were getting restless but I can only imagine that Fripp himself was less than happy with this piece of defunct electronics. I think that eventually one or more of the components were by-passed and the show eventually went ahead. Fripp’s next venture would feature the more reliable Roland guitar synthesizer.

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I was lucky enough to get to see two gigs in Italy last summer while the UK live music industry was halted and unsupported by the government, and the subsequent year-long gap between going to see bands play live has been frustrating - but necessary.

The first weekend in September marked the return of live prog in England, and ProgBlog was there...

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