“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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