King Crimson’s Beat: 35 Years Old Today

EG Records, released 18th June 1982

UK Album Chart position: #39

9/10

If you were to ask fans of 1980s King Crimson why they love the band, lyrics probably wouldn’t be a very high priority. But, pushed hard by Robert Fripp and possibly influenced by the 25th anniversary of Jack Kerouac’s ‘On The Road’, Adrian Belew came up with some choice words on Beat, the excellent second album from this remarkable quartet.

References to the Beat writers abound; ‘Neal and Jack and Me’ concerns Kerouac and his best friend Neal Cassady and mentions several significant Kerouac works; ‘Heartbeat’ is the name of a book written by Cassady’s wife Carolyn about her experiences with the Beats; ‘Sartori In Tangier’ references the Moroccan city where a number of Beats resided; ‘Neurotica’ shares its title with a very influential Beat-era magazine, and presumably ‘The Howler’ refers to Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’.

As the saying goes, you take inspiration where you find it, and Belew had come up with a very handy concept on which to hang the new band improvisations.

Musically, Beat is a brilliant development of the Discipline sound. ‘Neurotica’ and ‘The Howler’ feature some remarkable, unhinged ensemble playing, teetering on total chaos. On the latter, Bill Bruford delivers intricate patterns on his acoustic/electric kit while Belew’s white-noise guitar outburst is a killer (he repeats the trick on ‘Waiting Man’ and ‘Neal’, extending his palette of sounds from Discipline and sometimes using a new tuning system with the high E string tuned down to a C).

‘Sartori’ is a superb vehicle for Fripp while ‘Waiting Man’ demonstrates the amazing rhythm dexterity of the band, a development of the ‘Village Music’ concept with Bruford and Tony Levin sharing a tricky 3/4 figure (joined by Belew on drums when they played it live) underneath an expressive vocal performance. There’s even a noble, painless attempt at a pop hit with ‘Heartbeat’. The only track that outstays its welcome is ‘Requiem’, a fairly dreary investigation of A-minor.

In short, the musical intelligence of this unit was pretty damn scary. But they never neglected a crucial factor: melody. Lesser bands might have built their entire careers on any Beat song.

Not surprisingly, tensions were high during the London recording sessions. Echoing the situation with The Police around the same time, they sought out a producer who might act as peacemaker. Fripp told writer Anthony DeCurtis in 1984: ‘We tried to get someone from the outside to organise it: Rhett Davies. I think if failed. I would rather have the wrong judgement of a member of the band than the right judgement of someone outside the band.’

Also, Belew was now very much the centre of attention and under pressure to produce melodies and lyrics to order. According to Bruford’s autobiography, Belew told Fripp to leave the studio after one too many barbs from the bespectacled Wimbornian, who ‘went straight back to Dorset and was silent for three days’. Only some desperate calls from Bruford and manager Paddy Spinks rescued the situation.

In the same 1984 interview as above, Fripp said of ’80s Crimson: ‘I feel I’ve created a field in which other people can discover themselves’. On the evidence of Beat, he did a fine job.

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King Crimson’s Discipline: 35 Years Old Today

crimson-coverEG Records, released 10th October 1981

14th April 1981: King Crimson – or Discipline, as they are currently named – are rehearsing new material in deepest Dorset. But all is not well. Guitarist/de facto leader Robert Fripp is getting seriously ticked off with Bill Bruford’s drumming. He outlines the pertinent issues in his diary (available to read in the remastered CD’s liner notes):

Bill is really getting to me, so I’m trying to understand how he works:
1. He’s a very busy player and doesn’t enjoy playing sparsely.
2. His parts have lots of fills and major changes of texture.
3. His fills are dramatic ie., they shock.

So Fripp comes up with some suggestions for Bruford:

1. Repeat yourself.
2. Take your time.
3. Leave room.
4. Listen to everybody else.
5. Develop a new set of clichés.
6. Develop a new vocabulary of drum sounds.
7. Listen to the sound of what you play.

Bruford’s autobiography outlines his general attitude to these instructions. But he gamely meets Fripp halfway and adapts his style accordingly, laying off the hi-hats, ride and crash cymbals unless absolutely necessary and adding a set of Octobans, a China cymbal and a few electric drums to his kit.

There are other Fripp stipulations. The music’s high frequencies should be saved for the electric guitar (Fripp was perhaps influenced by the ‘rules’ set by Peter Gabriel for his groundbreaking third album) and the 16th notes usually played by the hi-hat or ride cymbal should also now be the guitarists’ responsibility.

The formula was set. And one of the great albums (and bands) of the ’80s was born.

There was something very exciting in the air around late ’70s/early ’80s rock. The talk was all of ‘village music’ – an African concept wherein each player’s contribution is vital but only a small part of the mighty whole. Talking Heads’ Remain In Light, Brian Eno/David Byrne’s My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, David Bowie’s Lodger, Japan’s Tin Drum and Gabriel III showed how ‘world’ influences could integrate with ‘rock’ to thrilling effect, and Discipline fits in very neatly with those albums.

Musical references might come from Mozambique, Java, China, Bali or South Africa, or from the soundworlds of Karlheinz Stockhausen, Glenn Branca, Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Like Talking Heads, King Crimson filtered these influences through a New York art-rock/post-punk perspective but, arguably, no one integrated them more successfully.

Fripp and Bruford recruited Adrian Belew (who chose Crimson over Talking Heads) and Tony Levin in New York. Belew had grown into an incredibly assured vocalist – according to Bruford, he was literally incapable of singing out of tune – and master of unusual guitar textures. His solos featured tones and approaches never heard before.

Levin had already played bass with a plethora of heavyweights including Paul Simon, John Lennon and Gabriel, and had also just turned down an invitation to join Weather Report at the beginning of 1981. He unleashed a new weapon for the Crimson gig – the ten-stringed Chapman Stick, played by tapping or ‘hammering on’ (heard to great effect during the opening of ‘Elephant Talk’).

Back in the mid-’80s, my brother and I used to peruse Discipline‘s liner notes for clues as to the powerful and mysterious music therein. We didn’t have a clue what a ‘Stick’ was, concluding wrongly that it must be the slightly synthetic woodblock sound heard throughout ‘The Sheltering Sky’ and title track (I’m still not sure what that sound is – maybe a ‘triggered’ Bruford hi-hat?).

Tony Levin and Chapman Stick

Tony Levin and Chapman Stick

The band wrote an hour of new material fairly quickly and toured modestly in the UK during April and May 1981, calling themselves Discipline. The album of the same name was recorded over the summer at Island’s Basing Street Studio in Notting Hill (later Trevor Horn’s Sarm complex) with producer Rhett Davies, fresh from helming Roxy Music’s Flesh And Blood. By September, pleasantly surprised by the quality of music in the can, Fripp was issuing a lengthy (and fairly incomprehensible) press release explaining why the band would henceforth be known as King Crimson.

As Bruford says in his book, ‘For a couple of years at the beginning of the ’80s, we were the right band in the right place at the right time – not to get hits, but to do useful, fascinating and right work.’ He also says that the Crimson drum stool was one of the three best rock gigs in the last few decades of the 20th century, naming the other two as Gabriel and Frank Zappa.

David Sylvian’s Gone To Earth: 30 Years Old Today

David sylvian

cover artwork by Russell Mills

Virgin Records, released 13th September 1986

Produced by Steve Nye/David Sylvian

Recorded 1985/1986 at The Manor, Oxfordshire, and Townhouse, Shepherds Bush

UK album chart position: 24

Recently, I was honoured to be asked by photographer William Ellis to contribute to his One LP project where he asks musicians, writers and music business figures to speak about the album that has been most important to them.

Here’s what I said about Gone To Earth (with a few edits):

I was given the album by my parents on my 14th birthday. I had heard the single ‘Taking The Veil’ a few weeks before and it had struck me immediately as something I needed to check out. Concurrently, I was getting into Japan, Sylvian’s band from the early ’80s.

But Gone To Earth had a whole new influence: ECM-style jazz. Kenny Wheeler plays some beautiful solos, John Taylor features strongly on piano, and Harry Beckett blows all over ‘Wave’. Back in the mid-’80s, pop music embraced jazz with ease, but now it seems like the two worlds have completely diverged. Sylvian combines both elements really nicely.

When I delved deeper into Sylvian’s lyrics, I realised that they could be related to romantic affairs – there was a ‘pop’ element to them – but they could also be spiritual in nature, about ‘the other’ in general, touching on religious ideas, metaphysical ideas. That concept has fascinated me as I’ve got older.

Side two of Gone To Earth is completely instrumental. Sylvian loathed the term ‘new age’ and instead produced ambient music which was more environmental, geared towards self-reflection and an appreciation of nature. He once said, ‘If I didn’t live in a city, I wouldn’t need to make this music.’ On ‘The Healing Place’, German artist Joseph Beuys speaks about his vision of art. Another track features Robert Graves reciting his poem ‘The Foreboding’. The voice of JG Bennett makes a few appearances, familiar from Fripp’s Exposure.

And then, of course, there’s Sylvian’s voice. I think of it as an instrument. Some people find him a bit doomy, depressing, po-faced, but I’m always inspired by his melodies. He’s also a great, natural musician, very underrated/understated on keyboards and guitar.

The story goes that Virgin didn’t want to fund the second instrumental side. You can imagine, can’t you? They said, ‘This pop singer’s trying to an album of instrumentals? What’s going on?’, even though Bowie had done it ten years before. In this fascinating interview from 1986, Sylvian explains that he had to work on side two in his ‘spare’ time, away from Virgin’s watchful eye. I’m glad he did.

Musically, the album is also a guitarists’ dream: Robert Fripp, Phil Palmer, Bill Nelson and Sylvian himself contribute memorable, considered work. Nelson in particular is a revelation. Sylvian gives him space to sculpt and layer his parts, and he delivers some brilliant solos. BJ Cole adds some dreamy pedal steel.

David Sylvian

In 1988, I saw Sylvian at the Hammersmith Odeon with a great band featuring Mark Isham on trumpet, David Torn on guitar and Steve Jansen on drums. It was tremendously exciting; there was a kind of ‘goth’ element at the gig which surprised me and lots of young women screaming for Sylvian!

He was still holding onto his ‘pop’ status – it’s no mean feat for an 80-minute, half-instrumental album to reach 24 in the charts. It was a time when pop music had a lot more mystique; you had to scan The Face, Wire, NME or Melody Maker to glean any snippets of information about artists of Sylvian’s calibre.

Every time I listen to Gone To Earth, I notice something new. It’s such a layered, beautiful piece of music, almost always to be enjoyed in one sitting, and it came out during an incredibly fertile period for Sylvian – the 1984-1987 run of Brilliant Trees, Gone To Earth and Secrets Of The Beehive surely matches any other artist in ’80s music.

Square Records in Fripp Country

squareI’m not much one for rock’n’roll pilgrimages (living in London, the whole place can sometimes feel like a music heritage site), but, during a recent trip down to Dorset, I couldn’t resist visiting one of my favourite muso backwaters: Square Records in Wimborne, a great shop with a deceptively rich history.

As I crept around the corner and spied Square just across the way from the majestic Minster, I was honestly just relieved it had survived for another year. It first came to my attention when it featured in a beautifully-made mid-’80s BBC documentary (see below) about fascinating King Crimson mainman and key Bowie/Gabriel/Eno/Sylvian collaborator Robert Fripp. Fripp was born and raised in Wimborne (before the music bug hit, he almost joined his dad in the family’s estate management firm…), and he perpetually returns to visit relatives and sometimes even rehearse there.

The documentary captures a fascinating time in Fripp’s career – we see him with Andy Summers in what looks like a little studio space above Square Records learning the tunes that would make up the Bewitched album, and also duetting on a little Django Reinhardt. We eavesdrop on Fripp’s presentation/pitch meeting with Polydor Records to discuss the marketing for King Crimson’s Three Of A Perfect Pair (‘we would like a new audience – this is what you can do for us’!), and see Fripp at a Square signing session, giving considered advice to some young Wimborne musos.

Fripp wanders around other fascinating local landmarks – Badbury Rings (probably my favourite spot), Knowlton Church, Horton Tower and the medieval hunting lodge where Crimson rehearsed Discipline – all the while discussing his career and spiritual beliefs (‘the top of my head blew off…I saw what it was to be a human being’). There’s even time for afternoon tea with Mother.

badbury rings

But back to Square in 2016. I found myself properly browsing CDs and vinyl for the first time in years, unsure what I’d find. I came across a rack titled something like ‘Local Bands’ but didn’t see any Fripp or Crimson in there, so grabbed In The Court Of The Crimson King from the K section and naughtily re-categorised it.

Taking my Siouxsie & The Banshees best-of (a steal at £4.99) to the counter, I admitted my crime to the friendly woman behind the counter. She ignored the transgression, cheerfully saying, ‘Oh, Robert used to live above the shop.’ Oh, right. Wow. I asked her about that BBC documentary. ‘Oh, I’m in that too. You can see me when Robert is doing the album signing.’

You can indeed. Long live Square. And Fripp.

The 1980s Summer Playlist (Part One)

Elis Regina

Elis Regina

What makes good summer music? Damned if I know, but the 1980s seemed to produce an endless trickle of tracks tailor-made for long, hot evenings.

Putting together this list, I gave myself only two rules: an artist can only appear once, and the choice has to be slightly off the beaten track, so no ‘accepted’ summer classics.

What else does the full selection (parts two and three to follow) have in common? Not a lot; there’s pop, funk, fusion, Latin, AOR, Brazilian, hip-hop and psychedelia, but of course they’re all pretty ‘up’ pieces of music.

Some of these songs were heard and bought when they came out, others have become key summer selections in the years since. Many of them will make up my soundtrack for this season and I hope yours too.

The Lotus Eaters: ‘The First Picture Of You’

On a very warm summer’s evening five or six years ago, I was in a pub just off Piccadilly Circus when this beguiling track came on – I was smitten, and have been ever since.

Robert Fripp featuring Daryl Hall: ‘North Star’

This rather lovely slice of whimsy, with an incredible Hall vocal, always reminds me of ’80s family holidays near the White Cliffs of Dover.

Elis Regina: ‘Calcanhar de Aquiles’

One of the purest Brazilian voices of all time. This is from her final studio album, 1980’s Elis.

Dukes Of Stratosphear: ‘Bike Ride To The Moon’

Nothing says summer to me like Brit psychedelia. But since I’m not allowed anything by Syd Barrett/The Beatles/Small Faces/Kinks, XTC’s alter-egos will do just fine.

Wendy & Lisa: ‘Honeymoon Express’

Best known as Prince’s chief collaborators between 1984-1986, I never tire of Wendy & Lisa’s sublime vocal harmonies in the chorus.

Roy Ayers: ‘Poo Poo La La’

By the time of 1984’s In The Dark album, Roy didn’t have much to prove and was clearly having some fun in the studio. Contains the line: ‘Poo poo la la means I love you’!

Toninho Horta featuring Joyce: ‘Beijo Partido (Broken Kiss)’

A classic Brazilian ballad, full of gorgeous and mysterious harmonies, from a seriously underrated guitarist/songwriter. Taken from the 1988 album Diamond Land.

It Bites: ‘Once Around The World’

Included mainly for its pastoral, elegant opening section, the Cumbrian four-piece excelled themselves with this astonishing 15-minute melody-fest.

Light Of The World: ‘London Town’

This Brit-funk classic reminds me of all that’s great about summer in my hometown.

David Bowie’s Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps): 35 Years Old Today

bowieRCA Records, released 12th September 1980

10/10

‘Albums of the ’80s’ lists are all the rage these days. Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) would easily be in my top five. It might even be in my top one. It’s a timeless, masterful work which, for me, can only ever be consumed in its totality. It’s also the collection that all subsequent Bowie albums have been measured against. I would put it over and above Low, Ziggy Stardust and Hunky Dory for its sheer consistency.

ScaryMonstersBackCover

Here’s my case for the defence, track by track:

1. It’s No Game (Part 1)

I’ve previously written about this being one of the great ’80s album intros. Vocally, Bowie channels John Lydon and Peter Hammill to deliver a New York/New Wave anti-fascist tirade that ranks among his great performances. Producer Tony Visconti ‘f***s with the fabric of time‘ to create a cavernous, Eventide-drenched mix and guitarist Robert Fripp delivers one of his most unhinged statements. Avant-rock heaven. Adapted from Bowie’s early demo ‘Tired Of My Life‘.

2. Up The Hill Backwards

A brilliant treatise on press intrusion and the wretchedness of celeb culture inspired by Bowie’s ‘dealings’ with the press during his failing marriage, with an ingenious central image of paparazza snapping away at their prey as they shuffle ‘up the hill backwards’. Endlessly catchy with a beautifully-realised unison vocal – the only track in the Bowie canon which doesn’t feature his solo singing.

3. Scary Monsters

Bowie revisits his finest Mockney accent to deliver a bleak, blanked-out, darkly funny tale of semi-stalking. There’s more Phil Spector-style brilliance from Visconti and another Fripp masterclass in balls-out guitar playing. The only minor criticism is that it possibly goes on for about a minute too long.

4. Ashes To Ashes

An instant classic with a very Bowie mix of child-like innocence and creeping malevolence as the hopelessly drug-addicted, world-weary Major Tom drifts off into the ether. Effortlessly superb songcraft with three or four memorable sections, boundary-pushing lyrics (‘Visions of Jap girls in synthesis’!) and a myriad of sweeping hooks.

5. Fashion

The lameness of the style wars is in Bowie’s sights this time as he almost mumbles the ironic verse lyrics over a tough New York disco/funk/rock groove. And there’s more barking mad Fripp soloing. Danceable, amusing, timeless. Originally titled ‘Jamaica’ in demo form.

6. Teenage Wildlife

Initially coming across as slightly lumpy and leaden, the track builds and builds in intensity to deliver a powerful message to Bowie’s ‘mythical younger brother’ about keeping a sense of perspective as one gets older. His patented ‘histrionic’ vocal style is superbly realised and drummer Dennis Davis holds it all together with aplomb. Originally titled ‘It Happens Every Day’ in demo form.

7. Scream Like A Baby

Spooky dystopian fable about a future society’s outlawing of homosexuality and other ‘deviant’ behaviour. Bowie’s ingenious stuttering provoked many a schoolyard titter and the weird vocal doppler effects are perfectly realised. Revamped from the Bowie-written/produced ‘I Am A Laser‘ originally recorded by Ava Cherry/The Astronettes.

=bowie

8. Kingdom Come

A superb cover of a track from Tom Verlaine’s debut album, Phil Spector is the obvious influence again with Davis’s booming, overdubbed tom fills and some anthemic, reverb-drenched backing vocals. Majestic, powerful, intriguing. Verlaine was apparently supposed to play guest guitar throughout the album but bowed out at the eleventh hour.

9. Because You’re Young

An ‘advice’ song to his son, Bowie offers the lessons he has learnt and looks back with great poignancy and not a little sarcasm on his carefree, youthful days. Peter Townshend strums along (apparently he arrived at the studio drunk and ready to party, but was stunned to find Visconti and Bowie sitting quietly at the recording desk like ‘two sober, little old men’!) and Bowie delivers a superb, kaleidoscopic lead/backing vocal combo.

10. It’s No Game (Part Two)

Carlos Alomar’s masterly rhythm guitar anchors this reprise, with Bowie doing his best Iggy croon and offering up images of world poverty, media saturation and dunderheaded political/cultural strategies. We hear the multitrack tape spool off its reels at the very end to close one of the great albums of the ’80s or any other decade.

A big nod to Nicholas Pegg.