King Crimson
Ladies Of The Road


As the end of 1971 was fast approaching, the tiny (but not too tiny, since it still counted for something) world of "difficult & high-quality" rock waited with growing curiosity for the soon-to-be-released fourth studio album by King Crimson (announced title: Islands), the UK group whose enormous innovative power had unfortunately been equal to its difficult existence.

Quite original, also difficult, but with great potential, it had appeared as King Crimson had come out of the blue. After a series of much-lauded concerts, some of them of a very high profile (above all, their performance at the Summer megaconcert by the Rolling Stones held in Hyde Park), having decided to produce themselves, the group released their debut album in October, 1969. The album acquired an "instant celebrity" status as soon as people saw the unforgettable image on its cover.

In The Court Of The Crimson King offered prodigious technical skills, an inventive instrumental combination, and a compositional approach that was quite different from what was the current vogue of the time. At the drums, Michael Giles had a highly original playing style, which quickly became quite influential well beyond the group's national borders. With Mellotron, flutes and saxophones being used, the guitar was definitely not much to the fore, with the main exception of the opening number, 21st Century Schizoid Man: a track where in the space of just a few bars the guitar solo by a young unknown player whose name was Robert Fripp changed forever the landscape of what was possible to achieve on the instrument.

It was the fact of the pieces being obviously "composed", and what was seen as a certain "cerebral coldness", that provoked a certain degree of indifference, and sometimes open hostility, of a portion of the rock audience (the fact that Fripp played while sitting on a stool - not a very "rock" thing to do - didn't help). This was a problem that, while circumstances changed, always remained for the group.

Great success, a well-received US tour (one can hear good live recordings on Epitaph, a double CD released almost thirty years after the fact), and ¾ of the band suddenly quitting. Fripp somehow managed to keep the boat afloat, invited Keith Tippett to play (his fast piano lines in the song Cat Food had an impact that proved to be no less important than the "Taylor-like" piano solo played, on a very different stage, by Mike Garson on the David Bowie song Aladdin Sane, a solo that gave Garson eternal fame), and in 1970 released the much-praised second King Crimson album, In The Wake Of Poseidon.

But the album was (only?) a studio creation by a group which didn't really exist. So, it was great hope that one had when it came to the new quartet that recorded Lizard. This line-up evaporated well before the album release date. Lizard featured what was the group's most difficult music up to that time. A lot of music of a very high caliber, Fripp inviting Tippett back again, Tippett taking along a few musicians from the "New English jazz" scene; much-deserved space was given to Mel Collins, whose saxes and flutes had already been featured on In The Wake Of Poseidon; lotsa Mellotron, many styles, a stunning oboe, while Fripp used some approaches on the guitar which differ greatly from what he had played before.

Mel Collins was kept in the group, with newcomers Ian Wallace on drums, and Boz (Burrell) on vocals: desperate from the lack of alternatives, Fripp decided to teach (!) Boz how to play the bass. This is the quartet that, along with a few "outside musicians" (such as Harry Miller on double bass, Keith Tippett on piano, and Mark Charig on cornet), recorded Islands. At the time of its original release, not too many people appeared to like the album: the material being judged of too many different styles, with a certain lack of direction, a certain "lack of virtuosity" on the part of the rhythmic section (and whether the material had been adapted to technical skills that were far from formidable, or whether the musicians were not really too keen in performing such material, wasn't really clear). Considered on their own, five pieces out of six were quite good, and at times excellent; it was the whole that lacked coherence. Here Fripp uses many different techniques and styles, while Collins easily demonstrates his prodigious versatility on many wind instruments.

The group went on tour in the States, and then split. But this is not the whole story. Contractual reasons made it compulsory for the group to release a live album: with the blow being somehow softened by the fact that the album was released on a budget-price line (not in Italy), Earthbound sounded just like a bad bootleg (in the States it didn't even come out). But the worst thing was the music: there was something nice, yes, and Fripp's solo on The Sailor's Tale was really something else; but all those scat vocalizing, funky rhythms, and a tenor sax sounding like a mixture of John Coltrane and King Curtis... well, all those things sounded definitely out of place on an album by King Crimson. (On a track like Peoria, Fripp doesn't sound like a leader, he sounds like a hostage.) This was the end for King Crimson.

But not really. Back in the day, a few badly-recorded bootlegs (not really that much worse than Earthbound...) had showed the quartet successfully performing some back pages. It's obvious that the Web and those digital means give one many unprecedented possibilities to listen to vintage material. So King Crimson make the best of the new scenarios by opening the King Crimson Collectors' Club, which has already released four live CDs presenting the Earthbound line-up. Ladies Of The Road is a Special Edition regularly available to anybody (the one I own, released in 2007, I suspect to be the second edition).

The first CD is very well recorded, featuring tracks from a variety of sources. The whole group sounds good, Boz has already made some progress on bass, Ian Wallace plays quite well, Mel Collins is prodigious, while Fripp, though he often has the job of keeping the group grounded harmonically on guitar and Mellotron, has some very good moments. The quite famous Pictures Of A City is performed very well, with a fine sax solo by Mel Collins. There's also a good performance of The Letters, this also has a fine solo by Collins. There's a convincing version of Formentera Lady. Fripp plays a brilliant solo on The Sailor's Tale, with a nice backing by the group. Mellotrons come to the fore (two of them!) on Cirkus, Fripp playing the strings, while Collins plays the orchestra brass; Collins also plays the (real) saxophone - many times, while listening to the CD, I caught myself thinking that Collins's old work has always been terribly undervalued - it still is.

Groon - the former B-side of Cat Food which had already been featured on Earthbound - is given a quick treatment, with a good solo by Collins and a performance that makes the piece appear quite similar to Earthbound (the track). Groon is the CD's starting point towards more "American" climates, as is confirmed by the group's version of Donovan's Get Thy Bearings. We also have a version of 21st Century Schizoid Man, and a brief fragment of In The Court Of The Crimson King, in a peculiar arrangement.

What about the second CD? With a bold move, it's totally dedicated to the guitar and saxophone solos taken off various group performances of 21st Century Schizoid Man. How does it sound? Well, it's incredibly stimulating, and not at all monotonous, even if fidelity here is quite lower than that of the material featured on CD 1. Track 5 has the solos from the version of the piece featured on Earthbound. Already on first listening one can appreciate the clear structure of the work, the result of splicing up different fragments. Once in a while we hear guitar crescendos which point in the general direction of The Sailor's Tale. It's strange to hear on Track 4 (definitely for more than a few moments) some scales that are not too dissimilar from first-period Zappa, like, for instance, his solo on Nine Types Of Industrial Pollution. While here Collins has some very nice moments, the real star of CD 2 is definitely Fripp.

Beppe Colli

Beppe Colli 2007 | Oct. 4, 2007