What does it sound like?:
First of all – the facts – as much in their words as mine. An ‘Ultimate Boxed Set Edition’ of 20 CDs, plus further DVD and Blue Ray discs. The latter were not available to review, nor can the packaging be commented upon, though it says here that it includes unseen photographs and contributions from band biographer, Sid Smith, arch-Fripp-collaborator David Singleton, as well as Robert himself. This collection constitutes a very detailed document of one single, if intense, year in the life a band passing through a complete life cycle, leaving the world with, by any measure, a remarkable debut album – In the Court of the Crimson King. Of those 20 CDs, 7 are of live performances, and 6 of recording sessions, charting the development of the 5 tracks on the album; the balance includes expanded albums, and remasters, including that of the Giles, Giles & Fripp album.
For context, the album came out in October ‘69, when I was just turning seven, so I wasn’t exactly queuing at Woolies on release day, but older brother syndrome meant I soon became familiar with it, even loved it. I still think that Ian McDonald’s double tracked sax coiling round itself at the heart of Schizoid Man is one of the most thrilling, exhilarating rides in my collection. But I am also the owner of the Great Deceiver 4 CD boxed set, which came out in ’92 chronicling the live shows of the Wetton / Bruford years. That era is peak Crimson for me yet, truth be told, I never turn to that set. So could I warm to a lockdown-busting 20 CDs?
It is instructive listening to the succession / progression of live performance as the year wore on, and fascinating to imagine the impression the nascent band must have had on well over half a million fans waiting for The Stones in Hyde Park, with no recorded material to prepare the ground; but unfortunately imagination is what is required, with reproduction as muddy as a festival field. Successive gigs in successive months witness the band’s rapid coalescence into a fighting force, and Lake’s vocals gaining majesty and impressive control. By September, live versions are recognisably contemporary with what was being laid down in the studio; the iron was hot and it was time to strike. The Chesterfield gig, stretching out over two discs, is undeniably vital. By the Fillmore in San Francisco, it was scorching. But another 3 CDs of inessential live gigs overeggs the pudding.
While prog got a name for inflexible arrangements reproduced impeccably on stage, Crimson were improvisers and with that came the excitement and uncertainty that electrified the live offering. Material was developing on stage not just for the imminent release of ITCOTCK, but with enough left over that it crops up recognisably in new guise on later albums. Interesting that the rambling Moonchild held its position against other rivals for vinyl space. Follow up In the Wake of Poseidon was released just 7 months later and the live shows of ’69 spill over into that album; various jams and songs eventually fed into Pictures of a City, while Mars, with whose brooding drama the set was usually closed, morphed with little concealment into The Devil’s Triangle. Acknowledged on stage, quite how they got away without credit to Holst on the album is presumably another tale. Another regular was Drop In, which eventually resurfaced as much as three albums later as The Letters. The speed of personnel changes means that the Islands studio version is effectively played by a different band. The earlier versions show the song better suited to the jazz sensitivities of the original line up – a flare that wouldn’t return until Bruford was on the stool.
The sessions give some idea of the time-consuming – and downright tedious – end of creativity. Is my life richer for hearing several minutes of experimenting with ‘wind sounds’ from a pipe organ, sampled for the nicely odd opener to Schizoid Man? Doubtful. What is beyond doubt is that there is little pleasure in hearing two-dimensional versions of songs prior to the laying down of the all-essential sax or mellotron. In fact, let’s be clear about this. As a maxim in life: mellotrons are ace; if in doubt, keep ’em in. As for instrumental tracks awaiting the vocal, well, they do give you some clarity on the construction of the arrangement. However, interesting as that may be one time around, the concept of ‘prog karaoke’ never really caught on. And yet. Of all the tracks, it is I Talk to the Wind that reveals most from the stripped down session treatment, with Fripp and McDonald’s guitar-and-flute-duetting taking on a dreamy quality that bears repeated listens. The Singleton mixed CD also has its moments, often with mellotron. But I’m unconvinced that many will bother distinguishing between the many versions of the track In the Court of the Crimson King. There is no joy in having so many.
What does it all *mean*?
There is a reason why certain takes ended up on the studio album. Guess what? They were the best, and the rest should stay in the vault. It is possible to wring dry the archive of even the most audacious, virtuoso performance. But I do wonder how later albums would have sounded, graced by Lake’s voice.
Goes well with…
A long period of restricted socialising – oh hang on.
6th November. £150 from various outlets, so you don’t have to go to the ‘dodgers.
Might suit people who like…
Surely, only for super-nerds. If you were tutting “but the full title is ‘ITCOTCK an Observation by King Crimson’”, then this is for you. If you appreciate deconstructing the make-up of a track, you know who you are and you will enjoy much of this. But we are salami slicing the very extremes of a fanbase here.