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. In fact, given the status of each player, it’s a miracle Crimson produced anything of note in the studio.

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 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.

The Crap Movie Club: One-Trick Pony (1980)

paul simonBy his own admission, Paul Simon had some very lean years between his 1975 classic Still Crazy After All These Years and 1986’s multi-million selling, multi-Grammy-winning Graceland. His 1983 album Hearts And Bones was a major flop despite featuring some fine songs and great musicianship.

But the real nadir was ‘One-Trick Pony’. I stumbled across it very late at night on British TV in the late ’90s and was instantly gripped. It’s that special kind of crap movie – the ‘rock star’ vanity project with a gallon of overreaching ambition. To say it hasn’t aged well would be a huge understatement, though, as with most genuinely bad films, it features a myriad of guilty pleasures too…

In 1980, Simon clearly wanted to celebrate his new Warner Bros record contract with a bang (he’d just jumped ship from CBS) but who persuaded him that a self-written, autobiographical movie was the answer? His screen persona was hitherto based pretty much on one (admittedly superb) cameo in Woody Allen’s ‘Annie Hall’.

But in ‘One-Trick Pony’ he tried to carry an entire movie with just two default settings: he’s either bopping around the stage, sweaty and somewhat bug-eyed, trying desperately to ‘rock’ (in Joe Queenan’s memorably cruel words, Simon is ‘too short to rock’n’roll, too young to die’), or he’s sulky and morose, peering doe-eyed into the middle distance, desperately trying to be adorable.

Simon plays Jonah Levin, a once-popular folk-rock artist who has fallen on hard times (see what he did there?) and now reduced to hawking his band (Steve Gadd, Tony Levin, Richard Tee and Eric Gale) around the Midwest, supporting bands like the B-52’s (who are held up as an example of the ‘hideous’ way the recording industry is going, but whose schtick is so much more vital and life-affirming than Simon’s supposedly ‘raw’ music…).

Jonah’s relationship with his estranged wife – Blair Brown in a completely thankless role – is terminally dull, with undramatic longueurs and clunking one-liners. There’s also some excruciating stuff with Jonah’s ‘cute’ son. You know the kind of thing – lots of ‘whatever happens, Daddy loves you, OK?’-type dialogue and cloying shenanigans with baseball mitts and copying Daddy shaving at the mirror.

From a muso perspective, you might well ask how a movie so heavily featuring superstar players such as Gadd, Gale, Tee and Levin can be outright crap. Well, the novelty effect lasts a few minutes but after that you can only feel for these gents – they’re given pretty thankless roles, playing a fairly tasteless ‘dead pop stars’ quiz in the car, reading out gig reviews and endlessly checking into dodgy hotels. Poor Richard Tee and Eric Gale look the most uncomfortable.

Jonah’s dealings with the record-biz ‘suits’ in ‘One-Trick Pony’ are presumably based on Simon’s disagreements with his previous employers CBS Records, and they produce the only enjoyable sections of the film. Rip Torn is reliably gruff though resolutely uncomical in his impersonation of legendary CBS hatchet man Walter Yetnikoff, but Lou Reed clearly relishes his cameo as a jobsworth producer; he’s desperate to add strings, horns and backing vocals to Jonah’s stripped-down tracks. Cue a lingering close-up of David Sanborn letting rip on alto, though we’re never sure if this is meant to be a Bad Thing or even a joke – to this viewer, it seemed like the first bit of decent music in the movie.

Oh yeah. The music. The soundtrack of course did a hell of a lot better than the movie – great single ‘Late In The Evening‘ featured a Steve Gadd groove almost as influential as ’50 Ways To Leave Your Lover’ and even made the top 10 in the States.

To be fair to Simon, he had sorted out his screen persona by the time of the ‘You Can Call Me Al’ video in 1986, settling on a kind of faux-naif ‘everyman’ figure with some aplomb. He was also pretty funny in Steve Martin’s ‘Homage To Steve’ short from the same year. But let’s just rejoice that he hasn’t returned to the world of feature films since (or has he? Ed).

Peter Gabriel’s So: 30 Years Old Today

gabrielVirgin Records, released 19th May 1986

Bought: Our Price Richmond, 1986

‘At the time of coming back, he had tremendous determination. He said, “I do want to make it! I do want to succeed!” Instead of going along with the idea that he is different, special, unique, precious, So was about him saying, “F**k that! I’m going to allow myself to succeed.”’

Jill Gabriel, quoted in ‘Peter Gabriel’ by Spencer Bright

So was the Peter Gabriel album that put him – albeit very briefly – into the Big League, alongside the likes of Madonna, Michael Jackson, Phil Collins, Prince, Hall and Oates and Springsteen. He stopped being simply the slightly esoteric, hugely-respected, highly-intelligent man about the arts, and opened himself up to mainstream success via more direct lyrics and music. And it worked a treat. So still sounds fantastic today; it’s a near-perfect mix of art and commerce.

photo by Steven Toole

photo by Steven Toole

In interviews, Gabriel has described the ’83/’84’ period as a dark time in his life. He mixed and released an excellent live album and looked for solace in film soundtrack work, producing two fairly inconsequential tracks: ‘Walk Through The Fire‘ from ‘Against All Odds’ and ‘Out Out‘ – produced by Nile Rodgers and featuring Adrian Belew on lead guitar – from ‘Gremlins’. Far more substantial was his soundtrack for Alan Parker’s ‘Birdy’, but, most importantly, it was the project that introduced him to So co-producer Daniel Lanois. Gabriel later credited Lanois and his then wife Jill for steering him back towards more positive thoughts, and much more ‘up’ music and lyrics.

Gabriel came up with 20 new songs by early 1985. Lanois helped him whittle them down to 12, and then six months of pre-production began, focusing on song structures and arrangements. So was mainly recorded at Gabriel’s home studio, Ashcombe House near Bath. Working at home was intended to save money on big studio fees and also speed up the creative process, but lyric-writing was still a big problem and a lack of words necessitated two missed release deadlines for So: 31st July 1985 and 14th December 1985. Virgin were patient. Lanois once even nailed him into a back room to force him to come up with some lyrics – Gabriel was not amused, at least not for a few hours. ‘It is the most upset I’ve seen him at the studio,’ guitarist David Rhodes remarked. Lanois had made his point.

Musically, Gabriel very much leaned on tried-and-tested collaborators such as Rhodes and Tony Levin – it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing bass on So. He’s so much part of the music. Check out his ‘drumstick bass’ (later marketed as Funk Fingers!) on ‘Big Time’. No one else would have thought of that. Joni Mitchell’s then husband Larry Klein also plays some lovely fretless on ‘Mercy Street’. French-African newcomer Manu Katche amazed everyone with his drumming, particularly on ‘That Voice Again‘ and ‘In Your Eyes’. He had a new twist on Stewart Copeland’s style and also somehow found the time to fit occasional tom-tom flurries into his grooves too.

Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange

Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange

Red Rain‘ opens with some resplendent Copeland hi-hat work, and ends with the kind of piano/vocal coda that Simple Minds excelled at – the influences were now flowing both ways. ‘Don’t Give Up‘ was inspired by a BBC TV documentary about the effect of unemployment on British family life, and also the photography of Dorothea Lange, portraying dust-bowl conditions during the Great Depression.

Mercy Street‘, dedicated to poet Anne Sexton, shows evidence of Lanois’ influence; its opening ambient textures resemble Brian Eno’s ‘Under Stars‘ which Lanois co-produced. Gabriel’s low-octave vocals apparently had to be recorded first thing in the morning for maximum deepness. The song’s Brazilian/African groove predates Paul Simon’s Graceland by six months or so.

We Do What We’re Told (Milgram’s 37)‘, concerning social psychologist Stanley Milgram’s infamous experiments, was originally recorded for Melt in 1980. While musically very rich and dark (I always think of Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up That Hill’ when I hear that opening minor chord), lyrically it is possibly a little half-baked – it’s hard to see what ‘One doubt/One voice/One war/One truth/One dream’ has to do with the experiment.

Big Time‘ is Gabriel’s amusing, self-mocking, Randy Newmanesque satire on success and celebrity – ‘This drive for success is a basic part of human nature and my nature’, he later said. Musically, it’s a potent mixture of driving Copeland drums, treated rhythm guitar, synth bass, quasi-industrial samples and some great Hammond organ by Simon Clark. Another much rockier version – featuring Jerry Marotta on drums – was also recorded but scrapped just before the mastering stage.

‘Sledgehammer’ was the last song written and recorded for So. Ironically, it dislodged Genesis’s ‘Invisible Touch’ to become a US number one single in July 1986. A catalogue of sexual innuendos, it’s one of the weirder hits of the 1980s. Its odd cheerfulness may come from the fact that it’s mainly in a major key, a rarity for an R’n’B-influenced track. David Rhodes’ rhythm guitar part is eccentric and the Farfisa organ bizarre. The opening sampled bamboo flute was copied by hundreds of keyboard players across the UK (or at least a few in my school). The groundbreaking video for the song, directed by Stephen Johnson (who had used similar techniques for Talking Heads’ ‘Road To Nowhere’ clip), required 100 hours of Gabriel’s time.

Apparently Gabriel was obsessed with the album’s sequencing: he made up endless cassettes featuring just song endings/beginnings, testing all the different permutations. He always wanted ‘In Your Eyes’ to close So, but was persuaded otherwise when told that its drums and bass wouldn’t hold up very well at the end of a long side of vinyl (though it’s hard to ‘hear’ it anywhere else but at the beginning of side two…). He finally got it where he wanted it on the definitive remastered version.

Gabriel’s only concession to the record company was to name the album something apart from ‘Peter Gabriel’. So seemed suitably off-the-cuff – ‘It had a nice shape but very little meaning’, he later said. He also decided that a simple cover shot would better suit the directness of the music and lyrics than some of the more disturbing covers of albums past. So‘s design and packaging still look fantastic today.

The album topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic and by summer 1987 had sold over 5 million copies worldwide. Gabriel promoted the album extensively before embarking on Amnesty’s Human Rights Now! with Sting, Tracy Chapman and Bruce Springsteen in 1988. He had a lot more than music on his mind – he waited a full six years before releasing the official follow-up to So.

More power to PG – a national treasure.

Jazz, Clicks And Synths: Steps Ahead’s Modern Times

Steps-Ahead-Modern-TimesElektra/Asylum, released July 1984

7/10

Michael Brecker

Michael Brecker

Any budding sax player of the ’80s was learning Michael Brecker’s licks. Jazz people loved his post-Coltrane superchops and forensic exploration of every chord. Funk and pop people loved him because he could play brilliantly-tight horn arrangements with his trumpet-playing brother Randy and solo superbly over vamps, finding endless melodic ideas in the simplest two-chord changes. He was surely the only sax player who could play comfortably with Kenny Wheeler, Parliament and Everything But The Girl (though it has to be said that most hardcore jazz purists were intrinsically suspicious of this, but who cares what they think…).

Brecker formed Steps Ahead (originally Steps) with fellow New York masters vibraphonist Mike Mainieri and bassist Eddie Gomez, put together initially for the Japanese market. Steve Gadd was their original drummer, replaced in the early ’80s by Weather Report man Peter Erskine.

Steps Ahead’s self-titled debut album showcased a mostly-acoustic fusion sound, but the follow-up Modern Times embraced all sorts of ’80s technology to intriguing effect. Of course such tinkering opens it up to sounding somewhat dated these days, but at least the album has ambition, quality compositions and the kind of attention to detail that makes it an interesting companion piece to key mid-’80s pop albums like The Flat Earth, Hounds Of Love, Boys And Girls and So.

Opener ‘Safari’ kicks off with a vaguely Caribbean/reggae groove featuring a multitude of synths and sequencers and a tribal, almost Zawinulesque melody. With repeated listens there are many pleasures to be found; Brecker’s typically incisive tenor solo, Erskine’s subtly-building groove work, the slinky bass line which rumbles on throughout.

Equally arresting is pianist Warren Bernhardt’s title track, a modal piece built over another serpentine, sequenced line, developing into a series of lovely vignettes featuring Brecker’s solos and some very Steely Dan-ish chord progressions. Mainieri’s composition ‘Old Town’ features King Crimson/Peter Gabriel sideman Tony Levin playing some menacing Stick over the sort of exotic, ambient groove Bryan Ferry would utilise on Boys And Girls a year later. And ‘Radio-Active’ taps into some of the World vibes Peter Gabriel investigated throughout the ’80s.

Unfortunately a few tunes let the side down, drifting uncomfortably into smooth jazz territory. Mainieri’s composition ‘Self Portrait’ is almost saved by a lyrical Brecker solo but far too saccharine for my tastes, while Erskine’s ‘Now You Know’ features a melody line (Brecker on soprano) which, though memorable, veers scarily towards Kenny G. And it has to be said that Eddie Gomez’s role in the band would seem to be diminishing very fast, so anonymous is his contribution. He would be gone by the next album Magnetic, replaced by ex-Weather Report man Victor Bailey.

In Modern Times‘ liner notes, Peter Erskine thanks someone for their help with click tracks, and that concept in itself would probably turn off a big section of the ‘jazz’ audience. But some arresting compositions, tribal grooves and typically tasty Brecker solos ensure that one’s attention never strays for long. Modern Times is a key jazz album of the ’80s, albeit one that would probably have given most of the Young Lions nightmares…

ECM Goes Rock: David Torn’s Cloud About Mercury

Cloud_About_MercuryECM Records, released 1987

8/10

The late ‘80s was a great period for avant-garde guitar playing with the likes of Vernon Reid, Reeves Gabrels, Adrian Belew, Arto Lindsay, Fred Frith, Dave Fiuczynski, Stevie Salas, Sonny Sharrock, Skip McDonald, Robert Quine, Steve Vai and Bill Frisell laying down some seriously mind-bending tones and textures.

Cloud About Mercury, David Torn’s second ECM solo album, definitely put him into the same league. Though just as influential as many of the aforementioned guitarists, he has never really gained as much of a public profile despite occasional solo albums (the latest Only Sky has just come out on ECM) and stellar sideman work with the likes of David Bowie and David Sylvian.

My dad used to get sent a lot of music for his work and I vaguely remember him passing Cloud About Mercury onto me knowing I was a big fan of early-’80s King Crimson. My muso mates and I quickly grew to like the album’s perverse concepts and silly song titles (‘Egg Learns To Walk’ indeed…). With a superstar avant-rock rhythm section of Bill Bruford and Tony Levin on board, the album also came on a bit like the follow-up to Crimson’s Three Of A Perfect Pair, but it also offered a strikingly original take on jazz/rock.

I recall a contemporary review of Cloud About Mercury in Q magazine which said something like: ‘Torn luxuriates in the silence for a bit…and then goes KRAOOOOOOW!’ To be fair, that writer probably hadn’t listened beyond track one (and there is an excellent counterbalancing AllMusic review).

But in its louder moments, CAM is definitely one to annoy the neighbours. Torn can certainly make a racket. His Trans-Trem guitar enables him to create some very novel effects and original lines, with micro-tones and Middle Eastern flavours, and you can really get lost in his ambient loops. As far as I know, he was the first guitarist to use the loop/delay pedal extensively.

CAM is also a very uncharacteristic ECM album, being much more in-your-face and rockist in its mixing and playing than most of the label’s output. In fact, it’s not really fair to judge it as a ‘jazz’ album at all. But sometimes Torn seems much happier playing solo or in duet with Isham; he doesn’t seem to know quite how to best use his superb rhythm section, composing tunes that rely heavily on one-chord sections. Consequently Bruford and Levin sound somewhat muted and can’t quite bring the sort of forward-motion dynamics so crucial to jazz/rock. Bruford’s most successful moments are when he fashions melodic motifs from his Simmons pads.

Torn toured extensively to promote CAM (but presumably not London or I surely would have been there…) with ex-Japan bass player Mick Karn replacing the unavailable Tony Levin. An excellent decision, both musically and commercially. The band sounded fantastic and the tunes really came to life. Torn and Isham then accompanied David Sylvian on the In Praise Of Shamen world tour which I caught at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1988 – good memories.

Two quick questions to end, prompted by a discussion with my brother about Torn: why isn’t there any music like this around these days? Or is there?