King Crimson – Tivoli Vredenburg, Utrecht, Holland – 20150924

For the third and final of our “three of a perfect pair” (see how I did that – effortlessly!) we went slightly further afield, and for me, seeing King Crimson playing on European soil, in Holland, in 2015 – was not only very, very surreal, but it brings a nice sense of closure for me over time. Three gigs, in three countries, and for us, in many ways, the Tivoli show was the best.

I never saw the 1969, 1971 or 1972-1974 King Crimson line-ups, for me, I started out with another “three of a perfect pair”, all which took place in San Diego, California (where I lived at the time) during the first half of the 1980s:

November 22, 1981 – UCSD Gymnasium, University Of San Diego Campus

August 10, 1982 – Fox Theatre, San Diego

June 8, 1984 – SDSU Ampitheatre, San Diego State University

(eleven years pass)

then, as a sort of strange Crimson interlude, I saw a pair of live performance by the redoubtable “double trio” during the mid-90s:

June 28 1995 – Symphony Hall, San Diego, CA

July 30, 1996 – Summer Pops Bowl Park (where finally, I got to hear “Schizoid Man” live at last!!).

(a non-descript outdoor venue where I handed out flyers to the concert-goers for Mark – and in return, got a DGM T -shirt!).

(nineteen years pass)

which then brings us to the three current 2015 shows we’ve just completed, with the September 24th, 2015 performance in Utrecht still ringing in my ears…

this show was different in a number of very significant ways, from the two UK shows we’d seen on September 14th and 17th, and we found it very enjoyable because we were much farther back in the venue, this time, up pretty high in the stalls, but it’s a beautifully-built , steep-seated theatre – so no matter how high up you are, you aren’t really that far away from the stage.

but, that actually meant that we could hear the band better, and. hear the bass a bit better, and the overall sound mix was “best” for us, out of the three shows:

September 14, 2015 – Symphony Hall,  Birmingham, England

September 17, 2015 – Usher Hall, Edinburgh, Scotland

September 24, 2015 – Tivoli Vredenburg, Utrecht, Holland

but I am getting ahead of myself…

the Utrecht show began as all shows did, with the eiree, dissonant Robert Fripp Soundscape playing for perhaps fifteen minutes prior to show time; people were slowly finding their seats in the lovely, intimate theatre which was apparently bereft of any staff whatsoever, since there were no ushers of any kind in sight. we found our seats well ahead of time, but as we approached the later European start time of 20:00, a curious thing happened.

the Soundscape faded down briefly.  Then, a lone spotlight picked out RF’s “Lunar Module” rack mount rig and empty guitar stool, the theatre dark save for the strangely lit “Fripp” area.  Then the Soundscape returned, up to full volume again…and another wait of perhaps ten minutes this time (all the while, with that oddly lit Fripp guitar stool and guitar kit still bathed in that bright, bright spotlight), ending when the band finally emerged onto the stage.  This strange combination of Soundscape and the spotlight on the work area of the band’s leader, seemed to be saying something, but I wasn’t quite sure what.  Perhaps “this is where Soundscapes come from”, I don’t know.

so this was a bit of a different start to the show, the UK shows started earlier (at 19:30) and were a bit more on time, here in Utrecht, we started at a more Continental hour, and the band were a bit fashionably late. From our bird’s eye viewpoint this time, we could see well and hear the band really well indeed, and sonically, this show was the clear winner of the three shows we attended – they sounded fantastic.

the set opener remains unchanged, and as I never dreamed I would ever, ever, in a million years, see King Crimson playing “Larks’ Tongues In Aspic, Part I” live, hearing it for the third and final time for this year (this MONTH!!) was something that I really enjoyed, the new arrangement is fantastic and I particularly like the drum parts and the way the two guitars divided up the work, a fantastic song and it just keeps getting better each time.  to a lesser extent than previously, we still had some difficulty at some times, in hearing Tony’s bass or stick, but apparently this is a fairly common issue at all of the shows (or so I have heard, anyway).

it could simply be the placement of the two lines, front and back, and the front line is quite loud….so that may well make things difficult for poor Tony, located as he is with four fairly loud objects encircling him: Mel, Pat, Bill and Jakko.

that may be part of the problem, or it could just be that Pat’s drum kit simply overpowers the bass from time to time, I am not really certain why the level of the bass does seem to be an ongoing issue – we noted it at all three venues we saw shows at, but it had definitely improved by he time we reached Utrecht. From high up, and this time, we were on Fripp’s side of the stage – things sounded good.

at Birmingham (Sept 14th), we were on the left side, sort of in front of Mel and Pat but off to the left; in Edinburgh (Sept. 17th), we were in the fourth row directly in front of Pat, so being both on the far opposite side, and being both “back” and “up”, meant that the Utrecht (Sept. 24th) show sounded different.  There was noticeably more Gavin Harrison in our mix. And we could hear Robert more clearly, being on his side of the stage. And Jakko, too.  The “guitars” mix was better, too.

so it was actually a blessing, getting “bad seats” (actually, it was such a nice theatre, there really was no such thing) – we’d been too close to the band at the other two shows – well, not “too close”, it still sounded amazing, but, we did get a clarity at Utrecht that we didn’t experience during the other two shows.

when “LTIA Part I” came to an end, we got our first surprise: a changed-up set list, so here, in second position, came the very powerful “Level 5” – in the section of the concert where new material normally appeared. this change made me really happy as it meant that this set would not be the same as the two shows we’d previously seen.

then things really took a new turn, in the form of the title track of “a scarcity of miracles” – which I enjoyed immensely, it was totally unexpected; Jakko was in fine voice, and it was nice to see Robert playing quite a bit of keyboard, taking his keyboard duties as seriously as his most difficult lead guitar solo.  the last time I saw Robert Fripp playing a keyboard was in 1981, where he did a bit of keyboard for “Sartori In Tangiers” or some such 80s tune in a live setting.

I really didn’t expect to hear any tracks from the “Scarcity Of Miracles” album, and of course it’s also a great showcase for Mel, too, who sounded great on the track.

once that surprising song choice ended, the “new music” section could finally begin, so we got “Meltdown” and what I think was “Hellhounds Of Krim” – I still don’t have a handle on what the percussion-based pieces are called – but I do prefer “Meltdown” now, to the now-absent “Suitable Grounds For The Blues”, so of those two non-percussion based new songs, we got the one I prefer – so more good luck for me.

then the set returned to something that more resembled the sets we’d seen, with a lively “Pictures Of A City” (featuring more amazing work from Mel of course) which was then followed by the fantastic new arrangement of “The Construction Of Light” – which I love, especially the final flute solo from Mel – I don’t know why, but I really like that part.

I should note here the remarkable talent of Jakko, who learned the interlocking “Fripp and Belew” guitar parts flawlessly, and this is especially notable on “The Construction Of Light” (and on “Level 5”,  etc.) – it’s concise, precise, correct and beautiful, too…Jakko is a natural, and the incredible range of guitar parts he is required to play, from picked mock-acoustic guitar on the 1969 tracks, to the precision interlocking parts of something like “The Construction Of Light” from 2000, or to the uproarious and wonderful guitar parts on the two tracks from 1971’s “Islands”…Jakko nails them all. He makes it look easy!!

speaking of the 1969 tracks, next up comes the first of the three (from the first album) that they often do now in 2015, “Epitaph” and this is yet another piece where Jakko truly stands out; a good vocal, carefully picked mock acoustic guitar while singing lead vocal…he knows these songs so, so well, and sings them as if the spirit of Greg Lake was inhabiting him.

I think that the first ten King Crimson albums are some of Jakko’s favourite music, much of which he learned some years back for the 21st Century Schizoid Band (who performed much of the same early repertoire as the 2015 KC does), he takes the twin tasks of singing the vocal, and playing the guitar parts note-perfect and tone-perfect too (I couldn’t believe the lengths he went to, in the 21st Century Schizoid Band, to play every Fripp note, chord or even special effect, as accuraviewedtely as humanly possible) – an astonishing performance then, and even more amazing now he is in the “real” King Crimson.

I think that Jakko does really well on all of the material, but he really seems to live and breathe the songs from the first four albums (except Lizard, from which they don’t seem to perform any tracks currently) so when he sings something like “Pictures Of A City” or “21st Century Schizoid Man”, or, indeed, “Epitaph” or “The Court Of The Crimson King” – I think he really feels it from the heart. It’s clear to me that he truly, truly loves this music.

the very solemn “Epitaph” then gives way to Gavin Harrison’s lovely little ditty “Banshee Legs Bell Hassle” which makes for a wonderful, cheerful bridging piece to the next Musical Great Leap Forward – “Easy Money” , which is always a high point in these concerts. It’s a chance for the whole band to shine, Mel has invented some great sax parts for it, Jakko sings the original lyric rather than the “USA” or “naughty” version, and Pat turns up with some of the original sounds from the original recording, such as the laugh box that he “plays” at the end. they really do a great job of re-creating the unique sonic atmosphere of this classic 1973 track…I love hearing “Easy Money” live, I can’t get enough of it really, it’s always over far too quickly.

Fripp does take a remarkable solo during “Easy Money”, using a great vintage Fripp tone dialled in on his trusty Axe-FX II effects unit, and I was privileged to see and hear him approach that solo on three different occasions, and this one was fantastic as always, a wonderful, nostalgic 1973 style lead guitar solo with cracked Wah and distortion to the fore.

from here on out, the show just hits highlight after highlight, this is really my favourite part of the show, and the next two tracks are probably my favourites, the melodramatic “The Letters” which features Fripp playing an ungainly but wonderful guitar part, a solo atop Mel‘s rollicking saxes, followed by the absolutely sublime live performance of “Sailor’s Tale”, a great instrumental featuring Mel Collins on screaming impossible sax solo, with Jakko and Robert locked in on their long, sustained notes in perfect twinned guitar harmonies.

oddly, both Pat and Gavin fall completely silent during most of this track, leave Bill Rieflin (ex-Ministry) to handle the drum part on his own; only rejoining him when he has to switch to mellotron for the ending section. Somehow, having just Bill playing drums on this, made it sound right – it just worked best with one kit – and they realised that – and I really admire that decision.  I admired Pat and Gavin for being absolutely silent and motionless during most of this piece. Two fantastic vintage “Islands”-era Crimson songs played in incredibly accurate detail, with an absolutely swinging drum and cymbal part from Bill – he really nails (the late) Ian Wallace’s drum part.

did I mention Jakko’s impassioned reading of the lyrics for “The Letters”, he really sings “The Letters” so, so beautifully, it’s such a tragic tale, beautifully sung right up to the fantastic lyric “impaled on nails of ice…and wait for emerald fire”…which eventually leads him to the final, utterly a capella stanzas.  A roar of applause greets him when his lone voice finally falls silent with “…I take my leave of mortal flesh”.  Shivers.

I often think that Jakko gets a bit short-changed here; he is alternately viewed as, usurping Adrian Belew’s “rightful place” in King Crimson (is there such a thing, for anyone except Robert himself?? I don’t think so!) or not doing justice to a certain vocalist, or whatever – but, if you think about it, the expectation that rides on this young man’s shoulders is considerable:  he has to sing like Greg Lake, he has to sing like Boz, he has to sing like John Wetton, and he has to play guitar like Robert Fripp. All four things, of which he does, without issue, without fuss – he just does it – and I think he is a remarkable, under-appreciated part of the band.  Huge expectations – and Jakko delivers, night after night after night.  He is a brilliant guitarist, too – he’s the “other Fripp” in the band 🙂

with the two amazing songs from “Islands” now done, at this juncture in the concert, I had no idea what to expect.  Would they just do the typical “last three” and be away, or what?  I didn’t have long to wait to find out, as the crashing riff and insanely-clever triple drum threat arrangements of “One More Red Nightmare” began. What a treat, too, to finally “see” just exactly how Gavin worked out the drum parts, and to see the amazing co-ordination between the three drummers on this song from 1974’s “Red” album.

this song holds fond memories for me,as I used to play and sing it, in one of my bands (Pyramid) when I was about 21 or so. the slow sections that modulate between either an E Minor To D motif, or, move up to a G minor based section, were brilliantly executed, with Mel’s snarling saxes over the two guitars…and finally, the whole band hits that opening riff hard, the triple drummers out do themselves once again, and one of the most amazing tracks of the night is over.

I was personally ecstatic that they included this song in Utrecht, it really made the set so special for me…I got my cake and ate it too, I got a different set from Birmingham or Edinburgh; I got “One More Red Nightmare” without giving up my two precious “Islands” songs.  Perfection – an inspired variation of set list.

and thence, following immediately, the beautiful “Starless”, with Mel Collins and Robert Fripp sharing that thick, liquid melodic line so perfectly, Mel in particular has clearly studied the recording incredibly well, but together they just sound so excellent on this track.  Fripp bends those notes so, so precisely this time, a great vocal from Jakko, this song works so well, too, with the triple drummers.  Tony gets a real workout, as well, playing the lead bass part for the last two-thirds of the song, until the fast bit at the end, which resolves at last into that amazing Fripp / Collins melodic conclusion – so, so beautiful!!

the Dutch crowd were very responsive indeed, I’d say they even gave the Scottish crowd in Edinburgh a run for their money, but both Scottish and Dutch were much louder and more demonstrative than the audience at Birmingham was.

A long, long, loud round of applause erupted at the conclusion of “Starless”, followed by rhythmic clapping eventually brought the band back for the two final numbers, another finger-picking exercise for Jakko in the form of “The Court Of The Crimson King” which also features the Michael Giles-channelling Pat doing his very damnedest to break his drum heads with the ferocity and speed of his drum rolling – such a powerhouse of a performer, Pat absolutely propels the final section of this song into a kind of drummer’s stratosphere.

meanwhile, Robert’s subtle, reverbed lead guitar, was so so lovely, working perfectly with Jakko’s mock acoustic guitar, and the vocal, too: “the yellow jester does not play, but gently pulls the strings…” Cue RF, gently bending between one half step and another, as if in answer to the lyric’s meaning, his guitar on this was just perfectly done, sounding very, very much like the original.

finally, it’s the end, which means it’s time for “21st Century Schizoid Man” 2015-style. Jakko sings the lyric like a man possessed, even dragging a little bit of actual melody out at the end of each spat-out line…an almost-melodic “….century schizoid man….” For me, this is one of the most altered arrangements, and it took me awhile to realise that actually, there is no real lead guitar “solo” at any point. RF does play a wonderfully convoluted descending guitar lead that walks right down to Mel’s solo (which doesn’t last long enough to become a solo) – and Mel just owns the song from there on out.

the band of course, all join together for the “precision part” which goes without incident, and then, the final verse, the final chorus…the wild ending that suddenly stops in dead silence…and the show is over.

the Dutch crowd is on their feet cheering and once again, the applause is long and loud, as the band take their final bows and are away down the stairs…and out into the cool night of Holland.

my first ever concert in Holland, but, the last of three King Crimson shows for September, 2015 – this is a month that I will not forget any time soon!!! The quality of musicianship on display, from all seven gentlemen in the band, is simply extraordinary; the selection of songs, mind-boggling in their quality and diversity; the overall effect is simple one of wonder, you are left wondering where else music could possibly go, from what you just heard…

the melodies stay with you for days.  you find yourself singing “Easy Money” or “Starless”, all the time, or you hear the choppy chords and mellotrons from “The Court Of The Crimson King” in your head – this music stays with you, for days and days, you find yourself playing your “Red” and “Larks’ Tongues In Aspic” albums over and over again.

its now been five days since the concert, and I can still hear huge chunks of the show in my head when I think about it.

and…I’m still singing “starless and…bible black…” and then I close my eyes and wait for Robert and Mel to come in with that unforgettable melody.  sigh.

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the return of progressive rock…

I turn now to a topic that I have not ever addressed directly from these pages, something very close to my heart indeed – progressive rock music.  I have very occasionally reviewed progressive rock albums, such as king crimson’s “larks’ tongues in aspic”, or written about some of my favourite progressive rock bands, such as focus, but I’ve never tackled the genre itself until now.

as a visual adjunct to this essay, please take a look at some selected album art from four of the best progressive rock bands – king crimson, yes, genesis and gentle giant. the artwork that was such an integral part of progressive rock music, deserves it’s own separate treatise, and would include, of course, familiar artists such as roger dean, who has long been associated with the progressive rock genre. the beautiful, fanciful, and extremely creative artwork that has graced many a prog album cover, we will leave for another time, and instead, this essay will concentrate on the music itself.

“prog rock” as it’s known, or progressive rock if you want the long version, is a unique, remarkable and very persistent genre of music. speaking of the “long version”, that’s exactly what the proggers are famous for, epic pieces of music such as (but not limited to):  “supper’s ready” (genesis), “a plague of lighthouse keepers” (van der graaf generator), “fracture” (king crimson) – or to choose an even longer live crimson improv, “a voyage to the centre of the cosmos”, “karn evil 9” (emerson, lake & palmer), “the revealing science of god” (yes), “thick as a brick part one” (jethro tull), “echoes” (pink floyd), “nine feet underground” (caravan), “in held ’twas in I” (procol harum), or even some of the very earliest works by, of all people, the mothers of invention, such as the title track from the “absolutely free” album – this trend for very long tracks was mimicked by, strangely enough, in the mid-1980s, a genesis-soundalike band called marillion – with their very long piece entitled “grendel”. of course, not all prog songs are very, very long – this is just one of many aspects of progressive rock.

it’s generally acknowledged that progressive rock developed out of psychedelic rock, and certain well known records, including the beatles “sgt. pepper’s lonely hearts club band”the mothers of invention‘s “freak out”, and the beach boys‘ “pet sounds” – these, and others, bands such as the left banke, who introduced unusual instruments into their songs, are considered to contain the first seeds of true progressive rock.  king crimson‘s robert fripp has cited the beatles “sgt. pepper” as being a profound influence when he first heard it, on the radio (along with classical works by bela bartok), in 1967, so that certainly lends some credence to this theory.

prog rock is remarkable for a number of reasons, the primary one being the incredibly short period of time that it existed in it’s original incarnation.  it is somewhat difficult to pick a year to represent the “beginning” of “true progressive rock” – because there are examples going all the way back to 1966’s “freak out” by the mothers of invention, whose leader, the late, great frank zappa, understood classical, jazz, and many, many other musical forms – which of course, came out in the mothers of invention’s music – these can be considered to be “prog prototypes”…but if I had to pick a “starting year”, I would say it was 1969 – the year that saw the release of “in the court of the crimson king” – the classic first long playing album from one of prog’s most important bands, king crimson.

in my mind, then, I’ve always felt that prog “ran”, if you will, from 1969 through 1977 – and it was during 1976 and 1977 that a new form of music came along that didn’t sit well with prog – punk. prog tried to persist all the way up until 1980 (and in a limited number of cases, beyond), but by 1977, a lot of the life had already gone out of it, so roughly speaking (this can be argued a number of ways, this is just an arbitrary span approximating the time when prog had the most influence) – progressive rock lasted exactly eight years. ten at a stretch – if I had an alternate, decade long version, it would run from 1968 – 1977.  if the beginning of prog is difficult to determine…really, we could place it anywhere between 1966 and 1969, in contrast, the end of prog is quite clearly delineated by the arrival of johnny rotten and co.  in 1977, there were still a few decent remnants of prog, but by 1978…progressive rock was in serious trouble. there were a few stalwarts who continued to work through the end of the 1970s, such as u,k., a late arriver on the prog scene featuring two ex-king crimson members, john wetton and bill bruford.

if you follow the career of any prog band that started say, in 1969, and ended, say, in 1980 – you can audibly hear the prog heart of the band dying.  an example of this, would be the amazing gentle giant, who put out an unbroken string of great records…up until 1977’s “the missing piece”, which, while still containing some excellent music, you could hear the change coming…and then, the albums that followed, between 1978 – 1980 – bear almost no resemblance to the band we knew and loved circa 1970 – 1977. something happened.  the catalogue of emerson lake & palmer traces a similar course – complex, inventive, intriguing music which perhaps reached it’s height with “brain salad surgery”…eventually gave way to “works”, which in comparison, seemed dull and lifeless.  and don’t even get me started on the musically reprehensible “love beach”…

I’ve always maintained that for myself, 1974 was the perfect year of prog.  I mean, in that year, we heard “red” by king crimson“the power & the glory” by gentle giant“the lamb lies down on broadway” by genesis (which I actually saw the concert of at the san diego civic theatre – outrageously good concert…), from yes the ground-breaking  “relayer”, two albums from the suddenly solo peter hammill“the silent corner and the empty stage” and the incomparable “in camera” , the live rendering of “brain salad surgery” and much more in “welcome back my friends, to the show that never ends…ladies and gentlemen, emerson, lake & palmer” – the obligatory live album from emerson,lake and palmer“exotic birds and fruit” from the redoubtable procol harum“hero and heroine” (strawbs), “hamburger concerto” (focus), from pfm (premiate forneria marconi)  a double release of “l’isola di niente” (the original italian album) and it’s english language counterpart (featuring english lyrics from king crimson’s peter sinfield – of course) “the world became the world” from italy’s finest prog band…

my perfect year of prog list of amazing albums continues…with the absolutely extremely innovative and incredible “mirage” from andy latimer‘s cameljethro tull’s “war child”, and the remarkable gryphon with one of their most amazing records, “midnight mushrumps”, the surprising debut from todd rundgren‘s progressive rock band, “todd rundgren’s utopia” and album of the same name (who knew that the previously very pop rundgren had a soul of pure progressive rock? – and was a guitar slinger second only to my next star?)…the incomparable, amazing, genius guitarist and composer, frank zappa, now mothers-less, with one of his most incredible records, the absolutely unique, hilarious yet deadly serious musically, “apostrophe(‘)”…none of these recordings being exactly second-rate.

of course, by choosing 1974, I do have to leave out a huge number of really fantastic albums that came out in 197119721973 and 1975…but, I had to pick just one, so 1974 is the year for me. I am sure you have a favourite year of prog too, which very well might be different, for different reasons, but there is something about prog, about that strange moment in time, an incredibly unique event that only comes once in the history of music…

I feel very, very fortunate that I was born at a point in time that intersected almost precisely with this absolutely unique 8 year period, because this is the music that I grew up with, starting with a love for the beatles, moving briefly to hard rock via led zeppelinjimi hendrixzz top and so on, and then eventually through yesgenesisgentle giantking crimson, and so on…in 1974, in my perfect year of prog – I was sixteen years old – old enough to go to concerts, and the first concerts I did go to cemented me in a place of first rock, then prog:

concert 1 = led zeppelin, san diego sport arena 1973 (OK, I was 15 for this one – barefoot in that amazing crush at the front, a stone’s throw from the amazing jimmy page…)

concert 2 = yes, san diego sports arena 1974 (tales of topographic oceans tour, quadraphonic sound)

and from then on, via various rock and progressive rock shows, as diverse as steely dan or the allman brothers…eventually leading to the aforementioned “lamb lies down on broadway” show, maybe the single most amazing concert I’ve ever been to…and then more yes, much more yes (they visited san diego twice during the “relayer” tour – not often you get to see one of your favourite bands twice in a row, although technically, it was on two different tours, 75 and 76 – the set lists were quite similar), then gentle giant (finally – a 40 minute set, but – better than not seeing them!)…

eventually, since I missed them in the seventies, much to my chagrin – in 1981, finally – I got to see king crimson.  as it turns out, I did see crimson several times in the 80s and 90s…which almost, but not quite, makes up for me missing the 1960s and 1970s incarnation(s) of the band.  I was just a tiny bit too young to witness the first few years of prog, but thankfully, by the time the “lamb” tour hit san diego…I was there with open ears.  I can still remember the crowd as we left the venue, complete strangers turning to each other, everyone wearing the same permanently-jaw-dropped facial expression, sort of saying to each other “do you BELIEVE what you just saw and heard??”.  the future of music – peter gabriel‘s amazing costumes and characters, the theatrical front man with the incredibly capable band…there was nothing on earth like genesis live at the end of the “gabriel years”.

the 1980’s king crimson, adrian belewrobert fripptony levin and bill bruford on the other hand, is one very rare example of a progressive rock band actually adapting to the times, and reinventing themselves in the very prog-unfriendly 1980s – and having a good run of albums and tours.  80s crimson were the exception to almost every rule, most prog bands that tried to exist in the 8os, simply found that they couldn’t.  some bands changed so much (remember yes-meets-buggles with the rather dreadful “drama” album of 1980? – not their best moment) that you could no longer recognise that they were a prog band any longer.  of course, I suppose you do need to change with the times, but in a lot of cases, it was better for a prog band to just quit (as gentle giant wisely did after their final three albums, which were not to the standard of their string of albums from 71 to 75) than to carry on forever trying to adapt your music to times that were, frankly, not suited to progressive rock at all. it’s such a strange series of events…

rock music, in the 60s, itself barely a decade old…then spawning psychedelic rock, which then in turn…spawned progressive rock (sort of) – and that then only really ran for less than a decade – before the big backlash, the punk wave and the new wave that overwhelmed prog completely, so that by the dreaded 80s…it was mostly gone.  except for king crimson, who held on from 1981 – 1984 before calling it quits once more. it was such a serious backlash, too, the punks really didn’t like prog (although, of course, not advertising that in one case, john lydon being not-quite-secretly a fan of the music of peter hammill (in particular, the punk-predictive 1975 “nadir’s big chance” album and his band van der graaf generator, so prog was actually a secret influence on punk…) and they were very vocal about it, and the whole punk movement and the new wave that followed, showed disdain for the “bloated excesses” of prog – made a lot of fun of that (even though those excesses were actually really only limited to a very few prog bands – who shall remain nameless – hint, starts with e, ends with p, l in the middle…but never mind that!)

and that sort of sealed prog’s fate until the various resurgences of very recent years…so out of all the genres that came and went from 1950 forward…progressive rock is one of the strangest, lasting such a short time, being of such a unique musical cast, with the “progressive rock” tag being applied to bands as different sounding as jethro tullking crimsongenesis, and van der graaf generator – none of whom sounded remotely like the other.  arguments ensued; was van der graaf REALLY a prog band?  because they had no lead guitarist (until 1975, anyway).  was king crimson really prog, when some of their albums (particularly, the lizard album) were so jazz there was very little “rock” to be found on them? and jethro tull – a band led by a crazed, bearded gentleman who shouted into his flute – how exactly was THAT progressive rock?

none of those questions can even be answered, and there is not much point in arguing about them – all of those bands were, for better or for worse – prog rock.  even oddball groups like gryphon, who were really more classically oriented than progressive, still had the “progressive rock” label attached to them, whether they would or no…

so if you think about it, all of these bands, who are labelled “progressive rock” – bands like pink floyd, who began life as a psychedelic rock band – eventually somehow mutated and evolved until they were then lumped in with “progressive rock” by about 1971 or so.  in the particular case of pink floyd, that would partially be due to the change in line up, from the psychedelic / rave up syd barrett era, to the calmer, relatively “normal” david gilmour version of the band (“relatively” being the operative word in that sentence!).

a few bands seem to “fit” the genre more neatly than others – genesis and yes, to my mind, being “typical” progressive rock bands (if there is such a thing) but even that doesn’t hold up, because if they are typical, then where does that put king crimson, also one of the bastions of the genre.  genesis and king crimson don’t really share that much musical common ground, not if you think about it.  those beautiful, pastoral genesis records, from “trespass” to “nursery cryme” to “foxtrot” – sure, there are some heavy prog passages, but there are also a lot of lilting, gentle acoustic guitars and 12 strings – something you do not generally hear on early king crimson records.

fripp did play acoustic guitar, but in a very, very different way to the way that anthony phillips, steve hackett, michael rutherford and tony banks did – very different, and if you don’t believe me, then simply play “the musical box” by genesis followed by “cirkus” (studio version, from lizard) by king crimson – and you will be able to hear what I am talking about. I love both of those tracks, but they are a million miles apart musically speaking!

first (original genesis guitarist) anthony phillips, and then steve hackett (phillip’s replacement), brought distinctive lead guitar sounds to genesis as their music evolved, yet, comparing either of those to the style envisioned by king crimson‘s robert fripp – there’s just no musical continuity – fripp plays guitar in a completely different style to hackett or phillips.  and bands like jethro tull – they were so odd, so unique, and really, no other band was quite like them – I think they were given the label “progressive rock” simply because there was no other choice, no other possible genre that a band that unusual and creative could by placed in.  but jethro tull have none of the standard hallmarks of a prog band, except perhaps a propensity for very, very long pieces of music.  but even though I suppose they were, I never really felt like tull were a prog band – they were just…tull !  a unique musical entity who perhaps, deserved a niche genre of their own…who knows?

if you know what I mean.

so – I was lucky, I was actually there, and I did manage to see some of these bands, at the time that they ruled the earth.  and those I didn’t get to see…well, that was what albums were for, and we all collected prog – british prog mostly, but also french prog, italian prog – we would listen to anything once, just to see if it was good – and much of it was good.  but the truth was, it was mostly a british phenomenon, and there were really very, very few prog bands from anywhere except the UK.  the USA produced a very few prog bands, all I can think of off the top of my head are happy the manthe dixie dregs (featuring guitarist steve morse), and todd rundgren’s utopia, and of course, canada’s redoubtable power prog trio, rush.  I suppose that early kansas (I mean, “song for america” kansas, NOT later kansas) were prog, but they moved very quickly towards more ordinary rock with songs like “carry on my wayward son” and “dust in the wind”, so personally, I don’t really count kansas as prog myself, but this is another one of those arguable points that prog fans will never agree on…they certainly started out as a prog band, “song for america” does prove that, but after that…well.

meanwhile, while the perhaps the best and brightest prog always came from great britain, italy produced pfmle orme, and banco;  france, angegong (which also featured brits and australians, and was actually founded by an australian, daevid allen – also a founder member of soft machine), magma and others, germany produced a few prog bands, most notably triumvirat and various versions and incarnations of amon duul, while the netherlands gave us the amazing focus (featuring one of my all-time favourite guitarists, the remarkable jan akkerman), as well as the arguably “are they really prog??” golden earring…most countries produced a few progressive rock bands, but it was really just down to the british isles from whence the lion’s share of progressive rock bands sprang…

and what an amazing and bizarre lot those british prog bands were – from the shulman brothers, born in one of the poorest parts of glasgow, raised in portsmouth, mutating from simon dupree and the big sound into one of the most remarkable and innovative groups of all time, in any genre, the insanely talented multi-instrumental gentle giant; to dorset’s soft spoken robert fripp with his singular vision of multiple guitar-driven incarnations of king crimson, which now spans four decades, to the canterbury scene with the extremely capable caravan, to andy latimer‘s fabulous rock-meets-jazzy guitar prog outfit camel – the list goes on and on, and each one of these groups, has a distinctive sound, sometimes more than one, which is often very unlike the others.

I would take a moment to mention an odd stem that branched off of the progressive rock family tree, and it relates to what happened in germany – which did produce some really good progressive groups, such as the aforementioned triumvirat, and while they had british members, were considered to be a british band, but were actually originally based in germany (so a lot of folk thought they were german) – I would be remiss not to mention the very talented nektar, a band that I used to cover – one of my earliest bands, “pyramid”, used to play both sides, the entire “remember the future” album, live – a fantastic achievement for three out of work nineteen year old musicians 🙂  what happened in germany, though, is that rather than just producing a few prog bands, as almost every european country did – prog mutated once again – into what became known as “krautrock” – as represented by tangerine dreamfaustcanpopol vuh and neu! – and if we fast forward a bit, that same branch eventually produced the decidedly unique kraftwerk – a band that I consider to be a sort of “descendant of krautrock“.  if there could be such a thing…

another odd thing about prog, is that all these progressive rock bands…almost every one of them had a unique sound, and often, did not sound anything like their contemporaries. for example, it’s difficult for me to name two progressive bands that “sound quite similar”, although if I had to, I might cite camel and caravan – if only because richard sinclair was lead vocalist and bassist for both bands at different times – so that did temporarily, give them a similar sound…I suppose.  but not really similar… this of course, does not include intentional sound-alikes, the most notable probably being bi kyo ran, a japanese band that sounds suspiciously like 1973 period king crimson.

some of the european bands might also semi-accidentally adopt an elp-like or crimson-like sound, but mostly, most of these prog bands did actually have a unique sound – and that’s possibly due to the very different instrumentation used by some of these bands – where for example, the lead instrument might be a flute (as in jethro tull) a saxophone (as in early van der graaf generator, played by the remarkable david jackson), or the more traditional lead guitar (as in many prog bands – but not all!!).

gentle giant sounded different because they would play completely different sets of instruments on stage, starting a song (such as “so sincere”, from 1974’s “the power and the glory album”) with all five members playing acoustic, classical instruments (cello, violin, acoustic guitar, recorder, drums), switching quickly during two bars of drum beat, to electric instruments (electric guitar, bass guitar, keyboards, drums, vocals), and ending with all five members playing drums!! – which was unheard of – no other band could do that!  they also sounded quite different to other bands in the studio, because they played so many different instruments. one of my very, very favourite progressive rock bands, the classically-oriented gryphon, had a very unique sound, because they used some very strange and quite rare instruments, such as the krumhorn.

speaking specifically of the instruments that prog musicians favoured, there are a few that do tend to crop up again and again as “common” in progressive rock bands, besides the ubiquitous electric lead guitar, the mellotron is absolutely associated with progressive rock, as is the hammond b3 organ– although that instrument is common across all rock styles – so probably the mellotron, and it’s successor the birotron, are the most often associated with prog. the other very, very common instrument found in prog, is the now ever-present moog synthesizer – in particular, the mini-moog, which rick wakeman helped popularise both in his work with yes, and in on his various solo albums, the most successful of which was “the six wives of henry VIII”, where he created six long suites using a huge array of keyboards, mellotrons, moogs and other synthesizers.

some prog bands used a lot of mellotron in their recordings on stage, notably king crimson, while others, like camel and nektar, favoured the hammond b3 sound, while still others such as yes, incorporated all three.

of course, the beatles had used mellotron quite a bit in the studio, and from the late 1960s onward, they were to be found on many of the most important progressive rock recordings and on the stages at progressive rock shows.  prone to breakdowns and notoriously hard to tune, they didn’t really evolve much during prog’s brief run, although rick wakeman had some success with the birotron in later years.  it is interesting to note that now, in 2013, you can get mellotron apps on your ipad or iphone, and even better, a company called “g force” has published a software synth (or softsynth) named m-tron pro (which, in 2011, I created an entire album with – “sky full of stars” – and, m-tron pro was also my instrument of choice for the “dreamtime” sessions from my latest collaborative band, “scorched by the sun”), that faithfully reproduces all the classic sounds of the original mellotron, plus, hundreds of more modern sounds, including looped versions of the classic mellotron strings, flutes, horns and choirs – as well as artist “presets” from players like rick wakemang force have also developed additional add-on sound libraries of other samples, such as samples from instruments like the chamberlin, another offshoot from the mellotron family tree…

all this to say, that there really was no “formula” for a progressive rock band – you might be led by a flute, a guitar, a sax, or a voice – you might have no lead guitars, or three of them – there was no formula like the formula “two guitars, bass and drums” for rock music, that really applied to prog, and that is possibly a good thing – because that meant that prog could be represented by some very, very different musical outfits, yet somehow, still be one genre.  I’m damned if I understand how it’s supposed to work, because I just can’t see what some of these bands have in common!  and some of them are so strange and so unique, that they probably ought to have had their own genres – but, when in doubt – just call them “prog”, and that sorts it all out.

having actually…been there in the 1970s, and witnessed certain watershed events like “tales from topographic oceans” and “the lamb lies down on broadway” performed live in the day, means that the recent, and not so recent, resurgences of prog, in the 1990s, noughties, and the tens, are simultaneously making me feel very, very old, and at the same time, baffling me greatly.  I mean, don’t get me wrong, I am very, very glad indeed, even grateful – as if what we knew all along has finally been vindicated! – that an entire new generation (or two or three generations, actually) of music fans are suddenly hugely in love with the current version of yes (astonishing!) – the one with the lead singer from the yes cover band – yeah, that yes – and are discovering the amazing music of all the bands mentioned in this article, and so many more that I did not mention – I think that is fabulous, and this means for those prog bands that still exist, they are getting some long-deserved recognition, after having to ride out the punk / new wave anti-prog rock backlash of 1976 / 77 / 78 and beyond – and that’s fantastic. it must feel so good, to the chris squires and steve howes and john wettons – to now suddenly find themselves lauded as musical heroes, after struggling for so long to get any recognition at all.

speaking of john wetton (possibly my personal favourite bassist of all time) – on my latest CD / download release, “gone native” (pureambient records – 2012), I wrote and performed a progressive rock track that honours the spirit of his playing, entitled “wettonizer”…so in a very, very tiny way, I hope, that I’ve added something to the progressive rock genre.  “gone native” contains three or four prog tracks, a handful of rock tracks, and a few improvs,  loops and experimental music too, and this is the first time in 41 years that I’ve recorded and released any songs in the progressive rock style – but that is only because I chose a very different path – ambient loop guitar, and it’s only been recently that I had the time to sit down, compose and record some “songs proper”.

some of those musical heroes…didn’t make it, too many to list – including peter bardens of camel, more recently, the very talented peter banks of yes, are not here to enjoy the latest resurgence of camel or yes-mania.  and that is indeed, a shame.  some of these bands are still here, in the same incarnation or very nearly the same as their original incarnation (van der graaf generator being one prime example, although they are down to a trio now – but what a trio!) and are actually playing at a level equal or better than in the day.  that’s mostly down to huge improvements in technology, so while in the 70s it was mellotrons breaking down, underpowered pa systems, and failing electronics…now it’s customised electronic organ / synth / mellotrons that never break down, and that sound absolutely amazing; pedalboards that actually work (most of the time…) and so on. current music reproduction technology, to a child of prog like myself, is absolutely unbelievable and astonishing, guitar and synthesizer magic…

so I am very happy for the surviving members of these bands, that their music is being hugely celebrated by succeeding generations of music fans, who have listened, and realised that the progressive rock music made between 1968 and 1978 is very special indeed, of a unique and unforgettable era (that amazingly, I grew up in) and that’s fantastic.

what’s more difficult for me to get used to, is the progressive rock bands of today.  I really struggle with most of them, because for me, anything they play – anything, no matter how good, no matter how clever, I am afraid I can point to each section and say “that’s stolen from genesis song x, that part, is a rush track y, that section there, is king crimson from track z” and so on…every bar of music, seems derivative, seems borrowed or copied from SOME record made between 1968 and 1978.  because really, I don’t think there is a lot of point in trying to improve on something that is impossible to improve on.  that music was of a time, and it was created by a bizarre set of musical coincidences that can never recur…so in a way, while it’s very, very flattering to the bands in question – in some ways, I don’t see the point in having new prog bands now, in 2013 !  this is just an opinion…please, no flame wars !! 🙂

I am not saying there shouldn’t be prog bands now – I have no issue with that, but for me – it’s difficult.  because while most people listen to a current prog band and hear something original and wonderful…I hear the albums from which they have copied, or adapted it, usually in a fairly obvious way, sometimes, in a more subtle (better) way – but always, at some point, always, always derivative of the original prog bands of the sixties and seventies.  at least, that’s been my experience so far.  I have to admit, because of that experience, I have been a bit reluctant to really embrace any prog made post 2000. or actually, post 1984…when the 80s crimson stopped performing and disbanded.

in a way, I just don’t…need new prog.  it’s great for young fans, and it’s fun for the musicians, because they get to play in a unique style that is pretty musically challenging.  but for myself…all the music I ever need, was already made in that “magic decade”, where progressive rock was the stuff of dreams, being “pretentious” was a bold and outrageous move, and prog rock ruled the earth.  I’m still discovering prog gems from the time, that I missed, or could not afford to buy, now re-released on CD forty odd years later. so while I am very, very glad that prog is “back” – for me, it was never gone, it was always here, kept alive by multiple incarnations of king crimson, by the return of van der graaf generator to full time performance beginning in 2005, to the “three friends” gentle giant partial reunions that very briefly saw part of gentle giant reforming as a new entity…

and it’s a good thing that some of these bands persisted.  I never got to see the sixties or seventies king crimson.  but, in 1995, at an outdoor concert by the double trio king crimson – I finally got to hear king crimson play “21st century schizoid man”.  I’d seen peter hammill solo shows, but had missed ever seeing van der graaf generator in the day – until one day in the late 2000s, I saw the classic four man lineup play a full concert in glasgow, and later, saw the trio version in manchester – and these modern versions of crimson and van der graaf are even more musically astonishing than the original early lineups.  van der graaf have even made several new studio albums which stand up very well when compared to their 70s output, as did king crimson.

after missing them in the 1970s, I finally saw dutch prog rock sensation “focus” live in glasgow in 2009 or was it 2010? – and they were absolutely amazing.  a fantastically talented and capable band, still led by thijs van leer, who is, without a doubt, a musical genius; while my favourite focus alumni, from the early 70s incarnation of the band, drummer pierre van der linden was absolutely spot on, it was so good to hear pierre’s meticulous, clean, precise drumming behind thijs’ “organ and flute” once again – and the two younger members of the band, were utterly equal to the task.  remarkable.

so the legacy of prog has moved forward through time in the hands and hearts of the original players who made it happen in the sixties and seventies…the visionary musicians who made progressive rock great then, and are still very much the masters of it now – the robert fripps, the peter hammills, the andy latimers, the richard sinclairs…the thijs van leers, still carrying that amazing musical legacy forward into the 2010s…

I can hear the skill and sincerity of modern progressive rock bands.  I can admire their instrumental prowess. but I really struggle with the actual music, because the form it’s based on, means that it almost has to imitate directly to even be “prog” – the apple has to fall far too close to the tree for their music to “sound” prog.  don’t get me wrong – there are a huge number of very, very adept, skilled progressive rock bands, from across the last three decades, from spock’s beard to steven wilson (oh he, the great re-mixer of the king crimson catalogue – all hail steven!) to dream theatre to pendragon to the mars volta to echolyn to glass hammer to the flower kings…prog bands from the 80s (like marillion, for example), 90s, 00s, and the current decade – the 10s, I guess we call them.  an enormous list that this is only the beginning of – which shows that there is so much love and respect for the music that is responsible for almost everyone in that list – progressive rock!

but – I am afraid that for me, the passage of time is just too long – I am very glad that prog, both old and new, seems to be having a fantastic resurgence, particularly right here, and right now, in march, 2013, but for me, as spectacular and as impressive as some of the new prog is…from porcupine tree to neal morse and beyond – for my personal taste, it’s just too derivative, so when I hear it, all I can hear is the 70s prog band that inspired it – whichever one or ones it is – which makes it more difficult for me to enjoy it for it’s own sake.  I don’t dislike modern prog, at all, I just…don’t need it 🙂 so when I witness a remarkable resurgence – which is two pronged: many, many new prog bands playing music that honours and compliments the progressive rock music by it’s imitation (and if you are going to imitate a genre of music, you can’t go far wrong by imitating progressive rock!) as well as, many of the originals, from the 60s and 70s I mean – still playing, bringing in whole new generations of fans, the original fans’ children and grandchildren, and who knows, by now, probably great-grandchildren.  and thinking about that really does make me feel as if I am getting old! 🙂

prog is an enormous topic.  I’ve just written over seven thousand words about it, and I’ve omitted dozens of great prog bands, and not touched on many important aspects of prog, but it’s the endless level of detail to be found within the music that continues to fascinate fans of the music old and new. I still listen to a lot of the records I mention in this article, and sometimes, even though I’ve heard a track a hundred times in my lifetime – I hear something new that I never noticed before.  a strange counterpart, or unnoticed rhythmic change – a strange sound you never heard before.  and of course remasters and re-mixes, and a good pair of headphones, can reveal musical details that were missed on previous “listens”! and CD only bonus tracks, for example, the “wind session” included on the remastered “in the court of the crimson king” deluxe box set, reveal much about the creative process that was not apparent from just hearing the original album…in that case, revealing in fascinating detail (complete with the band and engineer’s studio chatter from the actual recording session) how the famous sound effects that precede the studio version of “21st century schizoid man” were created.

scholars and aficionados argue about what the “form” of progressive rock is…and depending on which progressive rock bands you listen to – those “forms” can range from mini-classical suites, to modified and enhanced verse-chorus-verse forms, to the extended improvisations that might speak to the classical tradition or to the later jazz tradition, lyrically, prog is all over the place – king crimson’s peter sinfield (my favourite prog lyricist of all time) wrote epic poems (such as the title track of the band’s fourth studio album, “islands”) which were then set to music, while rush was unusual in that their drummer wrote all the lyrics, some prog bands depended on outside lyricists, not only king crimson, but procol harum is notable as well in this aspect with pianist gary brooker writing the music, and lyricist keith reid writing the lyrics – other bands had a lyricist or two in the band – van der graaf generator had peter hammill, as well as the absolutely remarkable, eccentric talented musician chris judge smithpeter hammill has covered a number of judge smith songs on his solo albums, long, long after he left van der graaf, and hammill often performs judge smith songs in live performance.

some prog bands go for the long form, with many extended interludes, additional verses, long solos, including some interminable drum solos that are difficult even for the fans to take! while other prog bands feature much shorter, more “normal” or “song-like” works.  classical influences are common but not mandatory, some prog acts seem to have quite a bit of jazz influences, others, hardly any… the only consistent thing about the “form” of progressive music, and also, the only consistency about what instruments were used to create it…is their complete and utter inconsistency.

but perhaps – that’s what makes it magic.  the fact that one band can have a one-legged flute and acoustic guitar wielding eccentric singer at the helm, while another was led by a very determined young guitarist with a particular vision of being in the best band in the world…and for a short time during their heyday in 1969, king crimson arguably were that band.  or maybe you just liked to do endless spacey jams, surrounded by science fiction lyrics, as the founder of gong, daevid allen seems to do, with a whole mythology around “planet gong” which was recently revisited in a very successful follow on album to their classic album “flying teapot”, entitled “2032”.

anything from the loosest, jazziest 20 minute improv, that you might get with can or the soft machine or any number of prog bands;  to the most incredibly practised, precision musical callisthenics (examples might be the “precision part” near the end of king crimson’s famous prog anthem, “21st century schizoid man”, or some of the guitar/bass/organ/drum precision work in the side-long “eruption” from focus’ breakthrough 1971 album “moving waves”  – which is sometimes also known as “focus II”, depending on the country of release) – in prog, just about anything goes! so the form, and the content of prog – is quite variable.  just about any configuration is possible, and there are some strange ones out there – the current line up of van der graaf generator is drums, organ/synth, and piano – or, electric guitar, depending on the song – so it’s quite odd, to see two keyboardists and a drummer producing prog rock, when genesis required drums, keyboards, bass guitar, lead guitar, and a lead vocalist to do the same thing.

a few examples of what in the world of rock would be called a “power trio”, guitar, bass, drums – rush takes those same well known instruments, as popularised in the rock world by the two most famous power trios of all, cream, and the jimi hendrix experience – and make intelligent, articulate, and very recognisably prog (with a bit of hard rock thrown in for good measure) …using the same three instruments that used to be the backbone of the hard rock power trio. technology helps, cream and jimi hendrix had a very, very limited palette of guitar pedals to use in live performance – three, basically: fuzz tonewah-wah pedal, and later, univibe (a device that imitates a rotating speaker). that was all they had, every other sound had to come from hands, strings and marshall stack – that was all they had.

fast forward 10 years, and in the 70s, the now common pedalboard started to make it’s appearance, the beatles (originally calling their chorus device “adt” for “automatic double tracking”) and jimi hendrix both had a hand in the development of modern effects such as chorus, flanging and phasing…and even in the early 70s, guitarists had a huge palette of sounds to choose from – but of course, each decade since has seen music technology leapfrog to newer and better sounding gear, it’s now gone beyond belief what you can control from one guitar and one pedalboard – it’s far beyond “guitar”. I’ve made this transition myself, from electric guitar and amplifier, with the crudest fuzz, wah and echo devices – to guitar synth controlling multiple pedalboards and effects – on three or four different signal paths – and it’s still something that I am still getting used to.

so technology enabled rock players to grow their sounds in many new ways, many improvements were made to the sound of the bass guitar, keyboards and in particular, synthesizers; that technology in particular, grew out exponentially, so during the last half of the lifetime of progressive rock, gear was changing so fast, so many new sounds – anything from compact guitar pedals, to the first guitar synthesizers, to the invention of the e-bow or energy bow, to the invention of “loopers” so musicians can capture digital recordings of what they are playing live, and layer many guitars or keyboards atop each other – those changes happened at the exact right moment for progressive rock musicians to take full advantage of.

so when I see all the excitement around this progressive rock cruise ship that’s about to embark on what surely must be the strangest holiday of all time, yes and several other prog bands on an ocean liner – how very odd that is – but I am glad, because new generations of yes fans get to enjoy the current version of yes – whereas, I don’t need to go, because I saw the real yes in 1974.  and again in 1977 (and while I want to deny it, I want to pretend I didn’t go, and it was the last time I went – I also saw the dread “drama” tour in 1980 – which I am afraid, put me off yes for many, many years afterwards…).  so it’s strange to me – but it’s OK.  for me – that magic decade is all I need, because I was there.  for folk younger than me – that could not be there, or can only experience it via video – well, this is a chance to connect with an amazing time in musical history.

and surely – that is a good thing. 🙂

king crimson – larks’ tongues in aspic (40th anniversary super deluxe edition) – the album I almost didn’t get

more three months after the rest of the world, i’m finally enjoying my super deluxe 15 disc edition of king crimson’s seminal 1973 album, “larks’ tongues in aspic” – the 40th anniversary version.

despite the difficulties I had in acquiring the super deluxe 14-disc larks’ tongues in aspic cd box set, in sitting down to listen to it, well – it’s worth the wait – it’s worth any wait – and as the last of the 40th anniversary series from the “classic” crimson period (1969 – 1974) (save – “USA”, which has been through various re-issues, currently up to 30th, not sure what the future holds for “USA”). I can see why they took their time with it – it’s a massive undertaking, basically, it compiles every single note ever recorded by the quintet version of the band: robert fripp, john wetton, bill bruford, david cross, jamie muir.  every note ever recorded !

I won’t delve into a lot of specifics here (although the temptation to do so is overwhelming – there are a lot of remarkable performances in this box!) but instead, will attempt to speak in generalities – which, when faced with 84 pieces of music that revolve around one album, is really all one can do – well, to start, I will offer just two words “astonishing musicianship”.

at a time when most rock bands worked in a very, very predictable and formulaic way, king crimson worked in reverse.  so, where most rock bands would go into the studio, write music, record music, and then go on tour in support of that record – fripp’s idea of how a band should work was completely different, completely innovative, and very, very intelligent: – and, the proof is in the pudding – the concept is simple, but it works:  while on the road, develop songs, play them in, improvise on them – and then, once you know the repertoire inside and out – then, and only then, go into the studio and record the material.

brilliant !  so the six tracks on the album were all pieces that the band had been playing for a number of months…honed to perfection, battle-tested, altered, mutated, fully road-tested until the perfect incarnation could then be conceived and executed once in the studio.  this approach actually makes a lot of sense, because you work out all the issues in the songs on the tour, then you sit down in the studio and say, “OK, what have we learned about this song over the past x months  – how does “easy money” go?” – and, instead of talking about it – they can just play it until they get the version they want.

so it’s fitting that first, you get to live with the band for several months, in an astonishing series of live recordings, some only recently unearthed, as they “work through” these songs, and at the same time, have a blast playing long, complex and sometimes bizarre live jams of almost indescribable variety and consistency.  how much live material ?? – well, if you download the bonus two-disc live show that you get a coupon for in the box (including a disclaimer concerning it’s very poor sound quality – but, it’s a good show, so I am glad I downloaded it…), you end up with exactly 60 live tracks, which start with the band’s first live gig at the zoom club in germany in october, 1972, and ends just prior to the recording of the studio album itself in early 1973…

the remaining 24 “studio” tracks are divided up as follows: a copy of the 30th anniversary mix (the original mix remastered for the 30th anniversary), the 2012 new mix of the album, a full disc of alternative versions (either alternative takes or alternative mixes, including one incredibly revealing piece – the jamie muir track, solo, of his performance on “easy money” – an astonishing revelation, which clearly shows what an important part muir played in creating the extremely unique percussion sound that this band had) – and, finally a fascinating nearly 80 minute “session reel” that contains the first take of each piece on the record, as well as various run-throughs and bits – absolutely fabulous stuff.

so – a record with six songs, represented by a massive box set, 15 discs, 84 songs, (the box also contains various 5.1 mixes, a video shot in Germany, in both regular and blu-ray flavours – and hearing the album in 5.1 is yet another remarkable revelation, I can tell you that for free!).  those six songs had a lot that went into them, and if you sit down and listen to the 60 live tracks spanning some five months, you hear each one of those six songs go through transformation after transformation – and, you begin to understand how they came to slowly mutate into the final form that they eventually reached in the studio.

even if you follow the journey of just one of the songs, from the shortest “book of saturday” – also known as “daily games” – or a song like “easy money” – the amount of creative change that the pieces go through is astonishing.  you can just about imagine the band meetings after the gig – “OK, that went…OK tonight, but tomorrow, we are going to try doing it this way…” and, night by night, the songs…improve.

sometimes they take unusual courses to get to their final form, changing, and changing again, some early sections end up disappearing altogether (as in “easy money”) while others have more subtle refinements on their path to the making of the actual album.

but there is a lot to be said for fripp’s method of “playing in” a record in the live setting, and he went on to do this successfully with many, many different versions of king crimson over the years – playing the material live first, and then recording the album…it just works!

having said that, it might not work for other bands, it might only work for king crimson – that’s difficult to say.  I don’t know what other bands may have tried a similar technique, but certainly, some very famous albums are mostly “road” albums, written on the road, learned on the road, then recorded in the studio (led zeppelin II leaps to mind) – but I think in the main, most groups stuck to the “formula” – i.e. they did what the record company said, “make the record, then go tour it and make us a million dollars”.

it’s a credit to fripp’s integrity that he refused to tread that well-worn path, refused time and time again, and the albums produced by this “working in reverse” method are a testament to the method’s success – larks’ tongues in aspic, and it’s followup, “starless and bible black” – another largely live album – are two prime examples of this technique working very, very well indeed.

but getting back to the matter at hand – sixty live tracks of the quintet 1972 – 1973 version of king crimson.  60 tracks of any band live is a lot to wade through, but if you have the patience (and in some cases, it does require patience – the majority of these shows are restored audio bootlegs – from cassette – so sound quality is sometimes an issue) it’s a more than rewarding ride.  some of the live CDs have been available before, either as crimson club releases, or as downloads from dgm, some, are heard here for the first time anywhere – but as always with every version of the band, what you get is…amazing musicianship. truly amazing musicianship!

this band was put together very, very quickly indeed, before the ashes of the “islands” line-up had even cooled – that band stopped performing live in early/mid 1972, and by october 1972, fripp had re-formed (mostly via a chance meeting with wetton) this entirely new line up and had them out and playing by october 1972 – there is apparently, no rest for the wicked.

and while I personally have huge, huge respect for the “islands” band line up, I can’t deny that the “larks’ tongues” line up is a dramatic upgrade in terms of sheer musical prowess – fripp now attracting the best young players of the time, and the group he gathered around him this time is no less than magical.

the fierce, aggressive power of wetton’s bass playing, which spans an incredible range of emotion – from beauty to fear to raw power and back to beauty again – alone is remarkable and unique and unlike anything you will hear anywhere else in rock, but add to that, a man with a beautiful, smoky voice capable of expressing great emotion (some of the takes of “exiles” or “book of saturday” are just heartbreakingly beautiful – wetton’s voice is so, so beautiful – something not too many people notice) – and you have an incredibly talented bassist / singer, and a very experienced, capable player as well (coming most recently from 13 months with family, and a long string of other bands prior to that, wetton was a seasoned veteran by the time he and fripp decided to finally form a band together (something they had discussed numerous times previously, but never did until 1972).

bill bruford’s musical pedigree can hardly be argued – and his move, from leaving the very, very successful “yes” to join the totally unknown, “dark horse” that this brand new king crimson incarnation represented, has often been remarked on – but, bruford is primarily interested in music, so he went where the music was likely to be best, not where commercial success was in the offing.

speaking of “dark horses”, the two other new members of this new band, david cross on violin, flute, mellotron and electric piano, and jamie muir, drums, percussion, all sorts – well, while neither was as well known at the time, but when you hear the live tapes, you will immediately hear how crucial these two “dark horse” players’ contributions are – particularly muir, whose strange stage antics, and ever-increasingly large collection of kitchen implements and sheets of metal and so on threatened to make the band’s set up the longest on record – muir’s contribution to these performances is incalcuable.

a track like “larks’ tongues in aspic part I” would be nothing without muir, and in the video, you see why – he is a whirlwind of percussive motion, and yet, on cue, lands on the drum kit seat to bash out the power chord coda of the track along with a frankly admiring bruford – for bruford, muir represented a kind of free playing that he himself could not quite get to until later on, long after muir left the band.

the fact that muir left the band after only a very short time, meant that this line-up was very, very short-lived indeed, measuring in months, and leaving the band to the more familiar quartet line-up that went on to tour and record the next crimson record, “starless and bible black”.  when it all became too much for david cross, the band ended up life as a strange, progressive rock power trio, for their final (studio) release “red” (and, posthumous live document “usa”, too).

some might argue that the three of them – fripp, wetton, bruford – were the core, and – yes, they were, but in the case of larks’ tongues in aspic, it was really more about those five people coming together at the same moment, to make the music that was in the air – and I really feel that both david cross and jamie muir have tended to have their roles’ downplayed – but I am hopeful that with this extensive “proof” (which is exactly what this super deluxe box is) of just how good this band was live, that opinion will change and we will understand that this was indeed, a quintet, not a power trio with two extra players!

having only ever seen the original beat club broadcast verison of “larks tongues in aspic part 1” video prior to owning the LTIA box, it was a revelation to see the properly filmed version (along with two other full tracks that are on the included mono video) because I’d never really realised just how much real drums jamie muir played (and he plays trombone on stage t00 – amazing!!) – and he and bruford together, were for robert fripp, replacing the long-departed michael giles – whom fripp has said could not be replaced with one person, so he decided that the only way to get the drum sound he wanted, to replace what michael giles had brought to the 1969 king crimson – was to work with two drummers.  it’s a testament to both giles’ skill as a drummer and the level of fripp’s respect for giles as a musician, that it took two drummers of the calibre of bruford and muir, two excellent drummers, one, a brilliant percussionist, too – to replace him – that’s quite a compliment from fripp, really.

musically, it works.  two drum kits sometimes, at all other times, one drum kit and one most unusual collection of percussion “instruments”, many of which were found percussion items, sheets of metal, kitchen implements, and so on – non-traditional percussion implements – was just what the 1972 king crimson needed to set them apart both live and in the studio – and, set them apart, it did.

in some ways, it’s a shame that it only lasted for one tour and one album, but at least we have that – and now, it’s well, well documented (the box includes a long interview with robert fripp, as well as a most excellent essay from king crimson historian sid smith) – but really, to fully understand the contribution of jamie muir, you need to see the full film, and also, to hear his performances on the live shows and in the studio – the solo alternate version of easy money, which is just muir’s part isolated, is remarkable – I’ve never heard anything like it.  so personally, I would not have minded another tour and another album including jamie – but, it was not to be.

what about the guitarist then?  I would not know where to begin, fripp here has upped his personal game once more (the one about playing guitar from an intelligent standpoint), building on what he learned during the lizard / islands era, and, with a very different kind of band, sets out here to bring a new kind of fripp guitar to the proceedings.  for me, in some ways, this was the first time we really heard fripp let the cat out the bag – sure, we heard some of it in the live 1969 concerts, but here, he has four more years of playing experience to draw on – and draw on it he does.

I will never forget the day I first heard this album, at about 8 am in the morning, I bought the cassette and drove over to the drummer in my bands’ house – we put it on – and when that first set of power chords came in, we about jumped out of our chairs – this record was something else.

for me though, as a guitarist, to hear fripp’s solos, chords, comping, jamming, bending, scraping – he does it all – but this time, for the first time since greg lake, he has a musical equal in the band – john wetton.  wetton’s proficiency on bass is arguably better than lake’s (no flame wars please, I love the bass playing of greg lake, he is amazing – I just happen to slightly prefer wetton! – personal preference only), although they are both very, very good players, for my money, wetton is the more creative player (despite it being lake who came up with the nearly impossible bass part for “21st century schizoid man”) and I think that fripp and wetton had a much longer time together to really work out their style together – as evidenced by the blistering very late 1974 live recordings, such as “asbury park” from the USA album – by then, wetton and fripp are like a well-honed improvising machine – but even back in 1972, and all through 1973, the two soloed, harmonised, battled, clashed, flowed, dreamed and worked beautifully together – fripp on lead guitar, wetton on lead bass.

sometimes though, that would be wetton on melodic lead bass, and fripp on flute mellotron.  or other unusual combinations…but with fripp on lead guitar, and wetton on lead bass, with those amazing fuzz tones and monster bass cabinets – that’s the set up that I prefer :-).  I think fripp solos with such confidence and authority on these recordings, and indeed, throughout the life of this band in all of their incarnations – and that confidence immediately rubbed off on wetton, who felt challenged and then upped his own game considerably.  I think that they challenged each other, so the higher fripp flew, the higher wetton flew, and vice versa.  unavoidably, this results in some insanely amazing guitar/bass solos, some of which are just unbelievably fluid and well executed.

moments of peace though, are equally important, as evidenced by many, many lovely versions of “book of saturday” (aka “daily games”) where fripp plays quiet, complex chord based guitar, and wetton sings and plays melodic bass – a very quiet, very beautiful musical space (and personally, my favourite piece from the album – and somewhere, eventually to be put up on the blog companion page – there is a live performance of byran helm and I playing “book of saturday” together at a bindlestiff gig).

or on the beautiful “exiles”, again, a pastoral, beautiful, melodic song with great lyrics from the rarely mentioned lyricist, richard palmer-james (a school friend of wetton’s), who provided really lovely lyrics for this record.  wetton and palmer-james worked together on the songs, and both “book of saturday” and “exiles” are beautiful examples of their work together.  fripp’s guitar contributions to those two tracks are the icing on the cake, and I love those two songs in some ways, above the “loud” more obvious choices that a lot of other fans might choose.  “book of saturday” in particular has a very special place in my heart, since I worked for so many weeks on learning it (and while I could play it, I couldn’t really play it correctly or very well – ever!) it is deceptively difficult – as fripp guitar parts often are !!!

on the earliest live quintet recordings, wetton sounds like he’s just been released from prison (note, I am not suggesting that the bass player role in the band family is akin to prison!) – he is a bit wild, he sings along to his bass lines as if he is a jazz bassist, he is soloing in an almost uncontrollable way – singing really powerfully but almost in a very funky way at times – the very first shows are extremely strange! but as time goes on, wetton very quickly finds his place, and he begins to calm down, and fit in – and that’s when the magic happens.

by the end of the quintet, wetton had moved from world-class bassist to universe-class bassist…which is where he’s been ever since.  and really, in 73 and 74, he reached even more dizzying heights of bass playing.

I know I said I wouldn’t single anything out, but “a boolean melody medley” (taken from the november 25th performance at new theatre, oxford, uk) is one live track I do want to single out – coming out of a performance of “book of saturday”, the band move into this amazing piece of quasi-classical music, and suddenly, this band is transcending, I’ve never heard anything so beautiful…wetton is playing beautiful, melodic bass while fripp and cross soar over the top with the most gorgeous, astonishing solos I’ve ever heard either do – fluid, beautiful, astonishing – and the two drummers are quietly playing along, almost afraid to intrude – and for me, it’s moments like this, that it all becomes worthwhile – for every slightly dodgy improv, for every slightly imperfect moment that can and does occur in other king crimson live shows – when you get an improv THIS beautiful – this is what it’s all about.  sigh.

this piece was new to me, and it’s as if “book of saturday” suddenly-yet-gradually “turned into” this giant, beautiful improvisation – it just floors me, completely.  it moves from quasi-classical, to a bass solo, and then an almost jazzy kind of jam – but it’s just stupendous, and all five players are amazing on it – I cannot recommend this piece more highly.  it goes completely wild, and then somehow, near the end, the quiet part returns – or a quiet part returns after it had reached maximum sonic madness – and it then quietly wends it’s way along towards it’s conclusion – after an astonishing twenty minute improv – the conclusion is to seamlessly move into the beginning of “exiles”.

so – the band are basically playing the three songs that made up what was “side one” of the vinyl album, in the same order as they appear on the album – with the slight detail of an impossible, beautiful, classical, jazz, rock, improv – a 20 minute improv – appearing out of nowhere, being placed between “book of saturday” and “exiles” – that is just nothing short of remarkable.

and to me, the bit where they move out of the improv, and then moving onto to “exiles” as if nothing had happened – that is sheer genius.  not to mention, that the band had only played a handful of shows at this point in time, they had been on the road for perhaps, five or six weeks, when this miraculous piece of music appeared – that’s astonishing – some bands practice and perform for years and never play a blinder like this one. a totally awesome, totally amazing, totally beautiful piece of music!

moving back to the world of generalities, generally, this band played very, very well live – sure, there were problems, for one, the tuning between the electric instruments and the acoustic violin was often a problem, as of course was the problem of the tuning between two mellotrons, and between said mellotrons and the rest of the band – but, for the most part, this is not a problem – just occasionally, and the violin is notoriously difficult to keep in tune in the fast moving environment of progressive rock or jazz rock.

unfortunately, when they filmed the video, the first long improvised piece, “the rich tapestry of life” is quite out of tune at the start, and takes a while before it gets a bit more in tune – but that’s life, it’s just the way it goes – at least there is film of the band – the first time, really, that this group was ever properly filmed – otherwise, we have nothing except the french television performance that was included in the “red” 40th anniversary box set, but that’s a much later version (1974, near the end of their seventies career) of king crimson.

from the classic 1969 band, there is that tantalising clip from the hyde park gig – less than a minute of footage I think, a tiny excerpt from “schizoid man” that the TV crew happened to film – which has since been synced to it’s bootleg sound – from the next three records – nothing – except perhaps the odd tv clip here or there – this time though, you get three full tracks, including one very long improv – so this film does add significantly to the recorded visual history of king crimson.

I should also mention here, from the long, long line-up of live performances, an incredibly spirited performance from glasgow, from december 1, 1972 – where the audience are louder and more vocal than on any other performance (scottish audiences are not renowned for their reticence) but this, uh, verbal communication from the audience, spurs the band onto a brilliant performance – so sometimes a bit of heckling can have a very positive result.

at one point one audience member gets a huge round of applause for swearing, which I must admit, is a much loved pastime of “we scots”.  even as a transported/imported brit, I find myself swearing much more than I used to, since emigrating to scotland nearly ten years ago – I do swear more than I used to.

this glasgow gig contains a variant of “a boolean melody medley” with the even more unlikely title of “a vinyl hobby job”, which ends up more like a scottish reel, with a long, droning violin section which is quite lovely and quite hypnotic – a very different version from the original done at the oxford show; but starting out in a very similar way – moving from “book of saturday” into the boolean improv, but this time taking a very different path indeed, featuring an excellent performance by cross – playing in a way I’ve never heard him play before or since – most excellent.

the glasgow show has a completely different feel to the other shows, during “exiles”, fripp plays a normally distorted guitar solo with a much cleaner guitar tone; then we have the very violin-centric drone/raga improv, it’s just an odd gig – with a very vocal audience!

at this point in time, december 1, 1972, then, jamie muir had only a handful of december gigs, the making of the album, and one gig only afterwards before he left the band for good, to retire to a scottish monastery.  it’s odd to think that only a few months in…he was already on his way out – but his participation, particularly in the recording of the album, pivotal in live performances – is key, so while short-lived, it’s still amazing the contributions jamie muir made to the band – on stage, the “wild man” of king crimson, biting on blood capsules and spitting blood, smashing his pieces of metal plate…in the studio, innovative to the highest degree – and ultimately, not cut out for the rock and roll lifestyle (as so many of us are not).

I about fell out of my chair when I first heard his tour de force one-take live percussion run through for “easy money” (included as the “alternate mix” for that track on the “alternates” disc) – you don’t realise when you listen to the finished track just how much input muir had into that track – but when you hear his “solo” performance of “easy money” – which is absolutely impossible to describe with words – it all makes perfect sense.  “my my”…

it’s not really surprising though, that muir left after just a few months as part of the quintet version of king crimson – I am sure he fulfilled his desire to have a brief dalliance with the rock world (coming from a very sort of avant garde/experimental musical background) and I am sure he had a blast playing with bruford and the rest of the band, but the level of energy, the level of commitment – it was probably quite exhausting, so I think he had just had enough, and decided to go.  there was some kind of injury, too, a broken ankle on stage or something, which probably tipped the already-weighted scales.

muir did re-emerge briefly, once, in the 1980s, curiously, to record an album with ex-crimson alumni michael giles in about 1983, titled “ghost dance” but beyond that, after his short but very memorable time with king crimson – he left music behind, never to return.

and then there were four.

those four still had another 18 months of music ahead of them, including, for the quartet, the followup to “larks’ tongues in aspic”, 1973’s “starless and bible black”, and for the trio, two albums, 1974’s “red” and 1975’s posthumous “USA” (david cross appears on all of the tracks on USA, but tracks 2, 3 and 7 included “in the studio” overdubs from violinist eddie jobson – for reasons never stated).

but for many, it’s “larks’ tongues in aspic” that resonates the most, and until now, I never really totally understood why it stands apart from the rest of the 1972 – 1974 king crimson’s catalogue – and really, the reason it does boils down to two things: the presence of one very remarkable individual, jamie muir, who took the percussion and drums side of things to a new extreme, and, the combination of those five men in that place at that time – those two factors, made this album what it is – one of the best and most unique examples of forward-thinking, intelligent, truly progressive rock – a masterwork of the genre.

the 40th anniversary version of “larks’ tongues in aspic” is available in three different versions, although the super deluxe box set is a limited edition of I believe, 7000 – and I very nearly didn’t get one – dgm managed to lose my copy in the post, and then failed to replace it (for reasons I will never understand) which eventually forced me to cancel my order, and buy it from a more reliable, local vendor – who delivered it in one day, on a saturday.  the abject failure of dgm to honour my order (which was one of the very first placed, a pre-order in fact, which should really guarantee you a copy) very nearly caused me to not get a copy – which would have been disastrous indeed.

my “box of saturday”, if you will 🙂 – delivered by the best and most reliable vendor ever: amazon.  utterly dependable.

I feel really disheartened by what happened, it has really disappointed me pretty seriously – it was so, so important to me to make sure I had reserved a copy, so I was first off the mark – I rarely ever pre-order anything, but it was that important – and what did that pre-order get me?  absolutely nothing; sheer frustration; months of waiting, with no product ever delivered – and after having to wait all that time, I then had to cancel the order and re-order it from amazon – just to be SURE that I got it…that’s really pathetic.  and can you imagine how heartbroken I felt, each time one of my friends across the world would post a picture of their happy, smiling face, holding aloft the box set – the one I very, very nearly did not get?  it was, shall we say – most upsetting!

so I decline to celebrate, you will not see me holding up my copy in victory, because that moment came and went a long, long time ago – and listening now to it, the happiness I feel at hearing this music will actually be, ever so slightly, forever marred by the nerve-wracking, anxiety-inducing “experience” I had of trying to chase up my “pre-order”.

…but – luckily for me, there is that “little shoppe on the corner” (called “amazon.co.uk”) that is very dependable, very reliable, and they got me my copy in 24 hours – after waiting in vain for over three months and repeatedly receiving nothing whatsoever from dgm – so at long, long last I can join all my friends who have been listening to and enjoying the album for the past three months…I’ve finally caught up with you.  I am finally getting to see and hear this record.  for a while there, during december 2012, there was a time when I began to believe I might NEVER hear it – until I wised up and ordered it from a reliable vendor 🙂

meanwhile, since I began listening to it last Saturday, it’s hardly been off heavy rotation – and I am currently listening to all 60 live tracks in chronological order, which is a remarkable experience in itself, to say the least!

the 5.1 mixes, too, are an absolute revelation, and I could sit in that sound field forever listening to music that is utterly familiar, yet, configured in a new and very unfamiliar way – with fripp’s ominous power notes at the beginning of “larks’ tongues in aspic, part I” slowly revolving across all five speakers – a wetton bass part emerging behind me – just beautiful, and steven wilson deserves all the praise the world has been heaping on him – as does robert fripp, who also worked on these mixes along with wilson.

the video, while not of my personal favourite live performance, is essential, if not at least so that you can visually see just how important both cross and muir were to this line-up – in fact, muir is so visually interesting, that the camera spends most of it’s time on him – and wetton, you hardly see at all, by comparison.

the new 2012 stereo mix – well.  it’s beautiful.  I love it.  but for my money, you cannot go wrong with the steven wilson / robert fripp team, they have done a stupendous job on every one of these 40th anniversary re-issues, and this one is no exception – it’s very possibly the best, although personally, I would say that “in the court”, “islands” and “larks’ tongues in aspic” are all tied for first place…in the “most absolutely stunning, astonishing, amazing and thorough re-issue” category.

so as robert fripp wends his way up the scale for an amazing lead guitar solo in the live verison of “easy money” from december 1, 1972, from the glasgow green’s playhouse (a really unusual and remarkable live performance, with a lot of audience interaction), I go now to immerse myself in the never-ending live world of “larks’ tongues in aspic”…a beautiful experience from any and every angle – and, with up to 60 live tracks and 24 studio/live tracks on offer, you can’t really go wrong – it’s all good.  I mean – it’s king crimson, after all :-).

I waited a long, long time for this record, and then I was made to wait three months longer than that, but now that I finally have it, I would have to say it takes the prize, it’s all folk have said and much, much more, and I am happy to add my voice to those who support it – a most excellent effort indeed from team wilson / fripp – bravo!

highly recommended.