“islands” and other extraordinary albums…

I came to the music of King Crimson in a fairly random way, I simply started buying their albums, without any knowledge of their running order, the players on the discs, or anything.

I think the first one I bought was “Red”, which I liked very, very much.  Then, it was “Larks Tongues In Aspic” which had a huge, huge impact on me…and then, I bought “Islands” – which I thought was absolutely terrific, but clearly, cut from a different cloth than my first two acquisitions.  After that, I have no idea what I bought, perhaps “USA” – because it was live – and that was another amazing disc – my gut feeling was, I like everything this band does (but everything this band does, is SO different) – from the remarkable and incredibly jazzy “Lizard” to the heavy prog of “Larks’ Tongues” and on up till the end – the live “USA” disk – strangely, with re-dubbed violins – we never really understood why that was.

Getting these remarkable discs out of order, willy-nilly, was probably as good a way as any to get into the band.  Because it arrived very early in the rotation, “Islands” got played a lot, and I took a huge liking to it’s very honest song craft, with that AMAZING saxophonist (Mel Collins, of course!) as a guitarist, I was allegedly getting into King Crimson because of their remarkable guitarist (Robert Fripp, of course!) but I found myself really liking the bands that played behind Fripp, and not knowing what was going on at all, I could recognise the funky combo that performed on “Islands” as a remarkable working unit – a real band, which was clearly, very, very different to the african percussion and ambient percussion present on “Larks’ Tongues” – I could tell that “Larks’ Tongues” was indeed, by a very different King Crimson than “Islands”.

 

Of course, as time went by, I began to read the history of the band, and began to understand who it was I was listening to, was it the original “King Crimson”; the Crimson of the Big Red Face, that only existed for a mere 11 months, or one of the strange hybrids that followed on “In The Wake of Poseidon” and “Lizard”, finally settling down to a working combo for “Islands”.

And I think like many Crimson fans, I did, in the main, favour the triumvirate of “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic”, “Starless & Bible Black” and “Red”, all with the well-known four piece of Bruford-Cross-Fripp-Wetton, and for “Lark’s Tongues”, it was slightly unique in that it featured a remarkable percussionist who left the band in the middle of their first tour, Jamie Muir.

Once you understand the chronology, it all starts to make some kind of sense, although it’s quite difficult to assimilate the “first four” or the “first five” if you add in the live, and very rare and “Import Only” “Earthbound” which I had to special order from a specialist shop to get.  By then, I had everything else – so “Earthbound” with it’s absolutely searing sax from Mel Collins on “21st Century Schizoid Man”, was the missing link between “the first four” the “last three”, if you will.

It’s interesting, I think, I always call it “the first ten” because that’s the classic package, of the band that existed roughly ftom 1969 thru 1974 and then called it quits.  But if you think about it, Fripp did an unusual thing – he book-ended the two different eras with a live album.

So you get the “first four”:

In The Court of the Crimson King

In The Wake of Poseidon

Lizard

Islands

followed by, with some difficulty, the live album

Earthbound

 

Then you get the “last three”:

Larks’ Tongues In Aspic

Starless & Bible Black

Red

followed by, with some difficulty, the live album

USA

It’s an odd pattern, to say the least. Four studio albums, one very rare and hard to obtain live album, three more studio albums, followed by a brilliant live album.

 

That’s my classic “first 10” and for many years, that was all we had – the only other live material available was on expensive and shoddy bootlegs, and you were never quite sure about the information on such records, was it really at that venue?  Was it really on that day?

Then, Fripp introduced the beautifully-covered “A Young Person’s Guide To King Crimson” which gave us a lot of answers, it had an amazing booklet in it, where every gig the band ever did was listed by city and date – so that became our Bible, the only reliable, Fripp-produced list of gigs – and it was a really nice compilation, too, containing a rare demo version of one of their earliest tracks, “I Talk To The Wind” that featured Fairport Convention vocalist Judy Dyble on vocals – who was at that time, the girlfriend of one Ian McDonald.

It was a lovely compilation otherwise, a beautiful piece of artwork, but musically it didn’t present anything much that was new – it was definitely a look back.

So I guess that is the eleventh disk of my “original ten” if you will.

Once King Crimson reformed a few times, and Fripp started releasing better-quality bootlegs of the band, the full picture of King Crimson came sharply into focus.  I could revel in any number of remarkable “Islands” bands shows, including one where they actually play the title track, something they very, very rarely ever did.  I could hear this very funky quintet (the firth member being lyricist Peter Sinfield, who operated the VCS3 from the soundboard) and Ian Wallace’s mighty VCS3-altered drum solo became a huge highlight of the tours.

The “Islands” band was literally a group that could play from a whisper to a scream, Mel would put away his saxes, and play the flute, ever so beautifully and gently, and vocalist Boz would sing lovely Crimson ballads from the first four albums with real intent – I love his live performances of these classics such as “Lady of the Dancing Water” or “Cadence and Cascade” – Fripp disavows them, he felt that Boz was not a good singer for the quiet pieces; but that he excelled on the rocking ones – my own opinion was the exact opposite, I’m afraid.  Sure, I love to hear this band roar through “Schizoid Man” or “Pictures Of A City” as much as the next guy, but when they turned down, and Fripp consulted his personal dictionary of tasty jazz guitar chords – Boz could do no wrong, if you ask me.

So after only having “Earthbound” to represent the music of the “Islands” band, for many, many years, it was a huge deal to suddenly be able to either buy CDs of their live shows, and / or downloads – a huge deal, because the limited view of what they were capable of “live” given to us by “Earthbound” could finally be laid to rest, and we learned very quickly that this band was a stomping, kicking beast of a rocker, but it was also capable of incredible, gentle beauty, as found in the two quiet tracks I mention above, along with rarities like the live version of “Islands” itself, which is an incredibly brilliant rendition of a truly beautiful song, and features even better guitar than on the studio version.  Why they removed it from the running order so quickly, I will never understand, because it was so incredibly beautiful.

I would, at a guess, think that it might have been an issue with having just two mellotrons to try and recreate the orchestral mood of the studio track, but I think they do a splendid job, with an improved guitar part, and a great vocal from Boz, too.  Again – RF has said that Boz “did not convince” on the ballads – but I do disagree, I think he had a beautiful voice for both rock and ballads alike, and that his voice was a godsend – he was the perfect lead singer for that band.

In any case, they may have stopped playing “Islands” live after just a few attempts at it, but they did continue to play ballads at almost every show, and some of those recordings are incredibly beautiful – because Fripp carries the tracks with his incredible, concise guitar arrangements, while Mel just plays really beautiful flute solos and the rhythm section plays quietly and accurately – it’s really about Fripp’s guitar and Boz’s vocal (and bass playing too, I should add).

So if you do get a chance to pick up some of the live CDs by this band, I highly recommend that you find ones that include a ballad.

Back in 1978, or whenever it was – out of an entirely random series of purchases, I would buy a new Crimson record each week, I somehow fell in love with “Islands” because, perhaps, it was so, so strange, with the incredibly jet-lagged guitar solo from “Ladies of the Road” to Fripp’s vibrant harmonium playing on the title track.  This album also includes one song that the band never did perform live, because it was an orchestral piece written by Fripp to serve as an instrumental introduction to the final piece on the album, the title track – so what you hear is first, “The Song of the Gulls” which is orchestral/instrumental, followed by the vocal piece “Islands” which, I should add, contains one of Peter Sinfield’s most beautiful lyrics ever – I love all of his lyrics on “the first four” – but I have a special place in my heart for the lyrics to the “Islands” album in general, and the song “Islands” in particular – it’s truly beautiful imagery, and Boz’ gentle, quiet delivery makes the lyrics hit home so hard, just really gently and beautifully sung – there’s no other song quite like it in the Crimson canon.

It is, after all, the end of an era, because Earthbound, while it does have an outrageous version of “21st Century Schizoid Man” on it, is somewhat of a disappointment – it’s not in my top ten concerts by the “Islands” band.

I think it must have been an almost random selection, let’s just pick an “average” show, one of those ones where Mel is really kicking ass – and that’s what they did.

But – there is a lot more depth and beauty to be found, if you explore the world of live shows now available from this band – in particular, I recommend the earliest shows, where they have literally just come from the studio, and the songs much more, resemble the album versions, whilst over time, they began to stray wildly from the original forms, so if you want to experience the truest approximation of a perfect Islands band live show – stick with the earliest shows – the double CD at Brighton springs to mind as a good one, but you really can’t go wrong.

Even “Earthbound” has it’s positive moments.

For me, it was really, really nice to see King Crimson not once, but three times on their most recent tour of Britain and Europe, and to see that thanks no doubt to the ministrations of young Jakko Jakszyk, that Robert has indeed, made his peace with this record that at one point, he didn’t want to think about or look at every again.

So much so, that they now play two tracks from the record live, which is an astonishing and almost impossible feat – I couldn’t believe my own luck, I was not only going to see King Crimson play repertoire from across their career(s) but I was going to hear them play two songs from Islands as well – “Sailor’s Tale” and “The Letters” – and for me, that really felt like full closure – both Ian Wallace and Boz Burell have passed away, but Fripp in this way remembers them – and brings their amazing music to King Crimson fans via the 2015 incarnation of the band.  I think that is absolutely brilliant!  And the other player from the Islands band – is IN the new band, and it’s so, so lovely to hear Robert and Mel playing together again – Mel is an incredibly gifted player, and having him in the band has been absolutely brilliant.

I think that everyone knows and loves “In The Court Of The Crimson King” but then after that, doesn’t really know how to form an opinion of the band that made those next three records – “In The Wake”, “Lizard” and “Island” – each with different singers, different musicians, where only Fripp is the constant.

If we set aside the legendary first incarnation of King Crimson, and look at what happened afterwards – how the band changed in the studio – but that last incarnation, with Boz being taught how to play bass bv rote by Robert – he was originally just their singer – they couldn’t find a bass player – so he became the bass player! – they got it right, and the album they made, in 1971, still stands up today as an odd masterpiece of jazzy, blowing prog like no other.  if you are not familiar with “Islands” – I cannot recommend it more highly – in some ways, it’s my favourite King Crimson album.

It moves between so many moods, the lyrics are outstanding, there are great guitar parts and guitar solos, there are great sax and flute solos – the combination of Robert Fripp and Mel Collins, both of them mellotron-playing soloists – was a very dangerous one, and one that created a remarkable record with an incredible edge – “Islands”.  The record then travels through chaos until you reach the last two tracks on side two, when peace and beauty are restored in an incredible way – a truly gorgeous way.

 

 

 

“Islands hold hands, ‘neath heaven’s seas…..”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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6 responses to ““islands” and other extraordinary albums…

  1. Wow, I just saw this reply! I had checked a few times and didn’t see my comments show up, so this is a pleasant surprise! Thank you Dave, for being so kind and polite. And I’m so glad you told me about the boxed set. Are you referring to the Live at the Marquee recording from 71? I guess not, but I have been confused about that while listening on YouTube to some Boz I had not heard since the concert. Then I looked up the Marquee record (not 69) but some eBay and Amazon listings call it a 2 CD set and others don’t specify. I’ve written the sellers (usually from U.K.) but gotten no reply. So perhaps you can straighten me out on this !

    On YouTube there seem to be some fans of Islands. So perhaps there are a few more of us! I hope! I know there is one guy on YouTube who said in the comments that he felt Boz was the greatest KC singer.

    I am trying to put together a little FB group called King Crimson: The Early Years 69-74. If you’re on FB please search for it. I would love to get a few people in there, even just you(!) since I have become obsessed with this band especially the Boz lineup, as of late, and long to discuss them with a kindred spirit. I had always said it was the best concert of my life, but kind of lost touch for the longest time. The impact it had on me had never waned but I just got swallowed up into life and didn’t even realize Boz never sang lead again in a prominent way. What a strange thing! And I only learned that he died a couple of years ago. I really regret not having written him.

    In answer to your question, they played Cirkus, Cadence and Cascade, Ladies of the Road, 21st Century Schizoid Man, Formentera Lady, and i believe Cat Food and it seems they played I Talk to the Wind, too….but I could be fuzzy on that. I was most certainly in an altered state! 😉 lol
    (They were sandwiched between Ashton Gardner and Dyke whom I don’t remember, and Badfinger. I have said before that this was a bit like Mozart opening for Salieri!! But Badfinger was a very polished, tuneful group. I was just still slayed by KC!)
    Anyway, I had always thought they’d played Islands, but from what you’ve said, probably not. There were several ballads though it seems, and they truly did go from one extreme to the other with remarkable ease (or force, as the case may be!). Boz was my favorite pure singer to ever see live. His voice and tuning and presence were all kingly. In fact he resembled a young king in every way and in that sense, belonged right where he was to front a band with such a moniker!
    I must confess I will always be a little in love with him. He was a gorgeous man, on top of all that talent. Mel was AMAZING.. and Fripp was Fripp! Modified Afro and all, on his stool! I didn’t pay much attention at that age to Ian Wallace. Hate that.. I think Sinfield was there.. yes. But the three that grabbed you were Boz, Mel and Fripp.

    I do not know Crimson nearly as thoroughly as you, but I am passionate about them because they had such a profound impact on me in formative years, and they are the greatest band ever, after the Beatles.
    I’d love to learn more about KC, especially the live stuff and the records after the Great Seven. I know nothing about the new lineups.. I’ve been leery because so many times older bands are ghosts of themselves. I say this with all due respect, but am kind of with Grace Slick on older rockers! I make exceptions though.. 😉

    • Hello and thank you for your post. I am glad my reply was useful.

      A very brief response for now, I will respond to this properly, soon.

      The 2016 Tour Box does contain 2 CDs and features bits and pieces from all eras.

      But it’s worth having just for the Islands section…it’s exquisite.

      You should be able to order it from http://www.dgm-live.com or I would think, Amazon.

      Please take care to only get the 2016 one, there are identical looking boxes, for 2014 and 2015… The clip,you want is only on Tour Box 2016.

      There are one or two performances of the song “Islands” I can dig up their names tomorrow (they are all from the mail order CDs from DGM – of which I have quite a few).

      Finally,,,,I searched for your group, but Facebook said “no results.” I tried several different searches. Can you perhaps invite me or provide a link to the group. Happy to join if I can just get there.

      In haste – all the very best, and – a proper answer “to follow”.

      Dave

      http://www.pureambient.com
      davestafford.bandcamp.com

        • Hi

          You are right, a lot of the material on Tour Box 2016 is more recent, which you may not enjoy.

          I am looking at the song list, for disc 1, and I’d say it’s about half and half…half current 2015 band or other post-1974 band, half 1969-1974 band.

          I’m listening to the Islands Run-Thru track now, it’s just the four of them, simple drum beat, simple bass line, mostly Boz singing and Robert playing guitar.

          However, it’s difficult to say if Mel is there, because, the guitar stops, and the Mellotron begins – then the Mellotron stops, and the guitar returns…so it’s very possibly Robert playing both, and Mel isn’t there at all…or, it’s Mel playing just Mellotron. There are no notes so I don’t actually know who is there, except it’s certainly Boz and Robert… Boz sings a verse, which contains some different lyrics to the album, and then, sings another verse of just na na na and la la la…then, after a beautiful Fripp Mellotron, Boz returns again singing a real lyric again, so Sinfield had most of it written by this time. It’s by far the longest track on the disc at 10.53,and it is a real beauty.

          But maybe not worth shelling out for a whole 2CD Box Set for one rehearsal take…that’s up to you. But I can say…that is the only way I know of, to get this track…and it is truly beautiful!!

          Unfortunately, Disc 2 is taken up by mostly post 1974 material, again which you may not care for.

          I did follow them through all of the line up changes, and there was good and bad, for example. I had to wait until 1995’s “double trio” King Crimson to hear Schizoid Man live (and it was worth the wait). But, the double trio also played a lot of really painfully dissonant, chaotic music that only a Fripp could love.

          The Islands Studio Run Thru is indeed, the 1971-1972 “Boz lineup” and it’s a wonderful track, but, it’s a lot of money for one ten minute track.

          You spoke about the “first seven”

          Court
          Wake
          Lizard
          Island
          Larks
          Starless
          Red

          But I know this as “the first nine” because I include both live albums:

          Court
          Wake
          Lizard
          Islands
          Earthbound
          Larks
          Starless
          Red
          USA

          But I understand the reference – this was the real deal, the original and in a way, when Fripp disbanded the group just after Red, that was the end of that era. Very sad!

          While there are some really, really good KC albums during 1981-2016, what I’ve done mentally, is just consider every different lineup, as a new and completely different band.

          You can’t compare later KC to classic KC, it just doesn’t work in my opinion – but if you judge them as a different band, then things work better.

          I would say that the following albums are essential “later” KC:

          1981 Discipline

          1995 THRAK (and it’s prequel, VROOOM)

          2000 The Construction Of Light

          2003 The Power To Believe

          2015 Radical Action (plus two live albums, one made in LA, the other, in Toronto).

          You could really miss out on the rest. Of these bands, the 2015 / 2016 band are by far the best…by far. And they play a lot of the 1969 – 1974 material – a huge amount of it, including two tracks from our beloved islands – first rate versions of “The Letters” and “Sailor’s Tale”, and now. They are playing two from Lizard as well, not to mention 3 from In The Court, 2 from In The Wake, 3 from Larks, 1 from Starless (Fracture, no less!!) and 3 from Red – all of that is on the Radical Action BluRay or DVD.

          I can’t stop playing it, it’s a great record from a great band who are in no way a mockery of themselves. They are dead serious, there are no stage announcements – they play the songs, really well, now and leave, performance done.

          Some bands, like Cream for example, didn’t transfer well to the present. Of all the many prog bands who are resurrecting, only Crimson and one other, the amazing Van Der Graaf Generator, actually sound better than they used to. I’ve seen Crimson six times in the last two years, and Van Der Graaf perhaps four times in the last nine years…and only those two groups demonstrated a true musicianship, the way it should be – and, thoae were all amazing performances – that I never dreamed I would get to see and hear live – but I am so, so glad that I did get that experience !!!!

          Other bands get back together, learn their greatest hits and do “sell out” tours to make money. King Crimson and VDGG are out there, making MUSIC.

          Which is why I love and respect them both so much as artists.

          I shall try your link, hope to see you there…
          Hope this has been helpful.

          More soon

          Dave

  2. I love your review and I couldn’t agree more. A lot of diehard KC purists seem to agree with everything Fripp ever says about the band – and don’t misunderstand; I do think he’s a genius – but artists are the worst at assessing their own works. Boz was one of the best pure singers to ever grace KC, in my opinion, which admittedly may be biased because as an impressionable young girl I saw this incarnation, in what turned out to be their last concert ever, on April Fool’s Day 1972, at Municipal Auditorium in Birmingham, Alabama. It changed my life.
    There were so many great bands in those days and we could see them for $5 and less, but I have always said that King Crimson was the best show that I ever saw. (And perhaps the Allman Bros Band with Duane.)
    They let young girls come right up to the stage back then. I was just feet from the band.
    It was mesmerizing, and magical. My standards have been impossibly high ever since. !! Plus it influenced me, as I was a classical musician (piano and vocal), and did some band work as well. (Even a prog band!)
    Boz was extremely beautiful, with a refined voice, long tapered fingers and a somewhat slight, artistic, almost delicate frame.
    Now I know that bass was new to him but by this time he was a very proficient player and had “found himself.” I had no idea at the time that he hadn’t been a bass player all along. My brother, some of our friends and I were deeply into King Crimson from ‘Court’ on.. Especially me. I loved the sophistication of it, the beauty, the raw power, the strident dissonance and chaos that you mentioned, which was at times unsettling. But as you said, peace and beauty are restored in a truly incredible way, a gorgeous way on this record. (And on others)
    ‘Islands’ might be my favorite Crimson album too. ‘Court’ is more “important” in the history of prog and of rock in general, but this is a rare and well polished gem.
    And dammit I wish Boz would get the respect he deserves.
    Thanks for your contribution toward making this a reality.

    • Hello and thank you so, so much for your moving and obviously heartfelt comments, what an extraordinary post.

      I will endeavour to make a proper reply in the fullness of time, but there are one or two points that I wanted to make immediately:

      1) it is imperative that you find a copy of the 2016 Tour Box by King Crimson, which I myself have only had for a few weeks – because it features a long rehearsal clip of the title track from “Islands” which is remarkable for two reasons: an incredibly beautiful vocal from Boz, even when there were insufficient lyrics from Sinfield (and, different lyrics, too) and a chance to hear the guitar part of the song properly (which is exciting for me as a guitarist).

      2) Thank you for restoring my faith in King Crimson fans, besides Jakko and myself, I wasn’t sure if there were any others out there with a passion for the Islands album – so now there are at least three of us.

      3) I keep hoping that Jakko will convince Robert to let the 2016 band play the title track of Islands, he has managed to get Robert to play two other tracks from the record, and this year, two tracks from Lizard….so, I live in hope. I know that Jakko would love to play this song, and sing it.

      Years ago, I used to play it on the piano, and sing it, and I can still remember most of it some thirty odd years later – the song is in my head and in my heart forever.

      You were so lucky to see that incarnation of the band, my first KC concert was in 1981.

      I wasn’t aware of them / was too young when they played my original hometown of San Diego, CA.

      I envy you your experience. Do you have any idea what songs they played that night in 1972??

      Thank you again for your comments, and I am hopeful that more folk who love the more obscure outputs of KC will also speak up.

      All the very best,

      Dave

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