King Crimson – The Complete 1969 Recordings
(Panegyric. CD review by John Bungey)
Let’s time-travel back five decades to an era when jazz music and rock music fused in a febrile collision of brain and brawn. It wasn’t just Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew or Cream jamming thunderously (“I thought of Cream as sort of a jazz band,” bassist Jack Bruce once said, “only we never told Eric [Clapton] he was really Ornette Coleman.”)
If Sgt Pepper had blown the minds of aspiring young popsters, many had also absorbed the searching spirit of John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders. Ian McDonald seems to have been one such aspirant, an ex-army bandsman heard on restored bootlegs here summoning his own saxophone sheets of sound in the summer of 1969 with a nascent King Crimson. That October the quartet would release In the Court of the Crimson King, a mighty gothic melange of rock, jazz, classical and folk larded with lyrical doom that would pretty much singlehandedly launch the genre of progressive rock.
But in August McDonald can be heard smuggling the spirit of Sixties free jazz into a marquee at the Plumpton pop festival in Sussex. His outpourings on Get Thy Bearings, originally by hippy folkie Donovan, are followed by a guitar improvisation from Robert Fripp that’s part Jimi Hendrix, part Derek Bailey. Fripp, of course, was and is an extraordinary guitarist. A musician who honed his craft playing light jazz to the burghers of Bournemouth with the dance orchestra at the Majestic Hotel was now shredding with high-volume precision. On another recording here, the band travel further out, presumably encouraged by the venue – Chesterfield Jazz Club – stretching Donovan’s little number to 18 minutes. (Happily, the band also has a sense of humour; one questing improv at Plumpton returns to earth as the Desert Island Discs theme.)
Propelling their adventures is Michael Giles, perhaps the first “rock” drummer to progress beyond the backbeat into colouristic playing. He would influence every prog-rock percussionist afterwards, from Phil Collins to Bill Bruford (who later went on to be King Crimson’s longstanding drummer). On bass, Greg Lake is the least “jazz”. But Lake, who would later achieve brief world domination with Emerson, Lake & Palmer, supplies a decent walking bass and neatly negotiates the double time of Travel Weary Capricorn.
It’s striking that when the album In the Court of the Crimson King was released it was the jazzier material from the sets that didn’t make the cut. The metallic 21st Century Schizoid Man, which would become the signature tune of umpteen iterations of the band, has its hairy middle section, and there is the wandering improvisation after Moonchild on the old side two (which puzzled many). But the heart of that album is Mellotron-fuelled and anthemic – and you can’t play jazz on the tape loops of a Mellotron.
Anyway, the story of that album and that year is told in scrupulous detail in this 26-disc (yup, 26) box set. It’s the progress from a mostly hopeless Bournemouth trio called Giles, Giles and Fripp to a debut King Crimson album that Pete Townshend of the Who famously labelled “an uncanny masterpiece”. Of course whether you need this detail is another matter. There are high-def remixes of the hit record, BBC sessions, soundboard tapes plus grotty audience recordings poked and prodded into something close to acceptable listening. Thank goodness the music is good. It should be noted that almost every note of this £150 stonker has been released in some form elsewhere. But this box represents one end of the listening world we live in – a deluxe, lavishly illustrated package for the completist. At the other end is ad-spattered free Spotify on your phone speaker.
While never sounding like a fusion band, later versions of Crimson would sometimes play in the jazz spirit, particularly the 1973-74 version. Fine jazz players – Keith Tippett, Henry Lowther – helped out on recordings. Bill Bruford once noted that King Crimson were the only band in the world who could play in 17/8 time and stay at five-star hotels. He though eventually forsook those hotels for a purer jazz vision with Earthworks.
What’s most striking here, though, is hearing young players all those years ago performing without fear to audiences prepared to take the journey with them. The playing can be clumsy and some of the music is of its time but these recordings document an age when fine young musicians seemed to believe anything was possible.
Categories: CD review