Sunday, February 5, 2017

The 21st Century Guide to King Crimson: Volume One, 1969-1974

Recently, two of the crucial members of early incarnations of King Crimson passed away.  Greg Lake, the original bassist and vocalist in 1969-70, died on 7 December, and John Wetton, who also played bass and sang during the 1972-74 incarnation of the band, died on 31 January.  To many fans, the two men represented the finest of the group's many vocalists and, in Wetton's case, the best of the legion of bass players, as well.

This admirer avoids those kinds of rankings, but there is no question that both men were major contributors to the success of the band in what are arguably the two most critically and commercially successful periods in King Crimson's history.

This 2004 compilation, which included a second volume spanning from 1981 to 2003, provides plenty of highlights featuring Lake and Wetton, and is organized to provide a disc of studio and live recordings from 1969 to 1972, much of which includes Lake's tenure in the group, and a similar arrangement for Wetton's years, with his contributions spanning the entirety of the two discs.

Most of the 1969 debut album is included here and, because In the Court of the Crimson King was such a shock when it came out that fall, it is still, nearly a half-century later, easy to hear why.  The album was the feature of a post here in 2012, so that can be referred to in terms of its content.

The five live tracks on the second disc, however, demonstrate the special nature of the band in recordings from San Francisco and New York during the American tour that ended with the dissolution of the group and from Chesterfield in England a couple months prior.  The band is uniformly stellar, working with great material, and Lake performs superbly in his vocalizing, as well as his bass playing, and his singing is less restrained and more powerful.  His work on "21st Century Schizoid Man" is particularly great.

After King Crimson's break-up, guitarist Robert Fripp persuaded drummer Michael Giles and Lake to stay and record a second album, In the Wake of Poseidon, early in 1970.  Widely considered a copy of the first album, though there are some important differences and, perhaps, tighter musicianship, the record has Lake singing only, with bass duties handled by Giles' brother Peter.  Lake's work on the left-field "Cat Food" is excellent, though the tune is dominated by the free jazz pianist Keith Tippett.  Before the album was finished, though, Lake left to form a new group with drummer Carl Palmer and keyboardist Keith Emerson that took him to greater levels of fame and success (as well as no shortage of ridicule).

After moving through short-lived lineups through two years from 1970-1972, Fripp started over again by bringing together drummer Bill Bruford, who'd just left a very successful gig with Yes, percussionist Jamie Muir, violinist David Cross, and Wetton, whose work was not yet very well known.  That quickly changed as the new lineup toured to hone its chops and then made 1973's Larks Tongues in Aspic.  Muir soon departed due to an injury and the resulting quartet toured heavily and recorded Starless in Bible Black, which was released in early 1974.  After more touring, Bruford and Wetton wanted Cross fired, feeling he was not needed, and a dejected Fripp decided to record one last album, the amazing Red, before leaving the group in the summer.

This group got a lot done in a short time and the two discs featuring that lineup well reflect the power, intensity and unpredictability of the 1972-74 version of KC.  Wetton, who co-wrote most of the lyrics with friend Richard Palmer-James, had a smokier, earthier voice than Lake and grew significantly in his confidence as a singer during those two years.  Those only familiar with Wetton's work in the mega-popular Asia in the early 80s might be surprised by just how phenomenal a bass player he was with Crimson, especially in partnership with the remarkable work by Bruford.  Fripp felt overwhelmed by the rhythm section and it's understandable why, but the duo were still exhilarating.

The studio material is well represented and always great to hear, but, again, it's the live material that really shows King Crimson in its element.  Favorites include the stunning improvisation "Asbury Park," which is a Fripp showcase, "The Talking Drum," with a hypnotic Wetton bass line, a hushed and gorgeous "Trio," and several Wetton vocals on "Lament," "Exiles," "Easy Money," and a powerful "21st Century Schizoid Man."

Greg Lake and John Wetton were bass players and vocalists who contributed mightily to very different versions of King Crimson.  A good deal of time, undoubtedly, has been spent comparing and contrasting the two men and the versions of the band they were in, but, to this listener, there isn't any need to try to compare the two to each other or to others who performed those roles in the many lineups of the band over the years.  They did great work for a great band and that seems enough.

May Greg Lake and John Wetton rest in peace!

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