King Crimson
The Collectable King Crimson Volume 1


Originally released for mere contractual obligations, Earthbound (1972) appeared to close the door on King Crimson's glorious history in the worst possible way: horrible sound (which made it impossible for the album to be released in the United States), funky music, jam-sessions.

Soon, comforting news appeared: it appeared like Fripp was assembling a brand-new line-up which promised to be equal - even surpass, maybe - to the highest points reached during the group's past history.

The names of the musicians didn't explain much. As crazy as it sounded, the new drummer was Bill Bruford from Yes, a group that at the time was incredibly famous on both sides of the Atlantic. On bass and vocals, John Wetton: a musician not really that well-known, but who had greatly performed on Family's Fearless. On viola, violin, and keyboards, the unknown David Cross; not many people had ever heard of percussionist Jamie Muir.

It's quite difficult today to express the surprise, the doubts, the endless listening sessions, the controlled enthusiasm, the debates originated by the release of Larks' Tongues In Aspic (only the release of the debut album by Henry Cow, Legend, later that year, would originate such heavy debates, though on a somewhat more limited scale). While the songs managed to sound fresh, the instrumental tracks were excellent: the instrumentation used by the group was varied and quite unusual, with a definite "European" slant, and a clarity in the ideas dept. that was simply stunning. It was still possible, of course, to see some similar points from previous groups, such as the violin/guitar duets of High Tide, or some rhythmic pulses from Mahavishnu Orchestra. But Fripp had succeeded in something that - at least on paper - appeared to be impossible: reinventing King Crimson, while at the same time reinventing himself as a guitarist.

Alas, not much time passed, and already what at first had looked like the group's most precious asset - the individual personalities of the musicians Fripp had called - looked like the main reason for the group's implosion. After Jamie Muir went away (for reasons destined to remain obscure for about thirty years), David Cross's violin and keyboards could not be able to compete with an unstoppable rhythmic section.

Hence, two fatal consequences: first, the group improvisations - the feature that had appeared to make the new King Crimson so different from rock groups of the time (though it's quite easy to imagine members of Henry Cow disagreeing) - progressively changed in the direction of brutal, and quite "cigar-like"-sounding jams; then, Fripp himself was not terribly inclined to favour a sound that was increasingly becoming more "American" and funky, quite the opposite of what had been the original plan for the group.

The market disagreed, giving increasing success to both the albums released after Lark's Tongues In Aspic: Starless And Bible Black and Red, both from '74. (It's funny to notice how the Dean of American Rock Critics, Robert Christgau, who had never been very favourable towards the group, gave Red an "A") And so, one more time, Fripp decided to pull the plug. And once again, it was decided that a live album, U.S.A., (featuring piano and violin overdubs by Eddie Jobson, and a mix that didn't really feature Cross) should close the door on the whole thing.

The release in 1992 of a four-CD Box Set, The Great Deceiver, made it possible to revisit the complex history of King Crimson from '73-'74. There was also a later release, The Night Watch (1997), recorded in Amsterdam in November '73: a double CD set that - whether available - could perfectly work as a summary.

Then the digital floodgates opened. So it was only logical for the group to create DGMLive, where live concerts can be bought and downloaded by those most interested, like previously done by groups such as Greatful Dead and Phish.

Well, what about the rest of us? Well, there's the "tangible" existence of this double CD set featuring two different concerts: the one held in Mainz, in Germany, March 30, '74; and the very famous concert held in Asbury Park, New Jersey, June 28, '74: it being very famous because it's the concert from where most of the material from the U.S.A. album - without overdubs, obviously - was taken.

As it's widely known by those in the know with all things Crimson, songs and instrumentals didn't vary that much from concert to concert (not talking about the individual performances!), so it's obviously the improvisations which made things different. Hence, the pragmatic question whether a double CD with some overlapping material is really worth one's money. After arguing that pragmatic considerations are not really the domain of a critic, I can nonetheless declare that the concerts in question are not that similar when it comes to material; and that they so differ in atmosphere as to make a side-by-side listening a very interesting experience.

The Main concert is quite relaxed (provided, of course, that the word can be used when it comes to the music of King Crimson), with the various improvised moments bridging the compositions; funny how the improvisation called Atria presents a melody that sounds quite similar to that of The Sheltering Sky, a track which appeared seven years later on the album Discipline. There is the unreleased track Dr. Diamond, and the obvious classics from the period: Exiles, The Night Watch, Starless, Lament, Trio, Easy Money. All sound OK, the violin is featured to great effect, Wetton sings well, the bass sound is round. The CD, off a 2-track tape off the mixer, sounds fantastic (strange, on the cover it says "Very Fine", with "Excellent" reserved for the US concert: I'd say the opposite to be true).

As stated before, the tapes used on the U.S.A. album were overdubbed; though he added two pieces, when the album was re-released on CD Fripp decided to leave the overdubs and the cuts just as they were. What do we have here on this CD? Larks' Tongues In Aspic: Part II, Lament, Exiles, the full version of the improvisation titled Asbury Park, the full version of Easy Money (so, no cut at the end of the very celebrated guitar solo: I'm not certain it's a good move), Fracture, Starless and the obligatory 21st Century Schizoid Man. The concert sounds quite hysterical, with the heavily fuzzed bass which sooner or later will definitely weigh on one's nerves (readers beware: this is a minority opinion); funny to hear how the well-known version of Asbury Park had totally obliterated Cross's contribution on keyboards, which are now on the left channel, in the spot where in the edited version drums and bass appeared.

Beppe Colli

Beppe Colli 2007 | Oct. 4, 2007