“Whaddaya Hear?” The Complete 1969 Recordings

KING CRIMSON, The Complete 1969 Recordings (DGM)

PERSONNEL:

  • Greg Lake, bass and vocals
  • Robert Fripp, guitars
  • Ian McDonald, woodwinds, keyboards and backing vocals
  • Michael Giles, drums and backing vocals
  • Peter Sinfield, words and illumination

TRACK LISTING (Original Album, In The Court Of The Crimson King)

  1. 21st Century Schizoid Man
  2. I Talk To The Wind
  3. Epitaph
  4. Moonchild
  5. The Court Of The Crimson King

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AWCV9LLTHx0

Every band is formed with some variation on the ambition to become the biggest in the world. Now, what if that actually happened?

With more than 50 years in the rearview mirror, it can be hard to fathom the Beatles releasing the whole of its collective output in just three quarters of a decade. It can be even harder to fathom a band coming together, exploding onto the landscape, recording a landmark album, beginning world domination, and imploding all within the same calendar year.

Welcome to 1969, the year of King Crimson.

It’s a truth stranger, in many ways, than fiction. But that truth is documented, and the tale is told via The Complete 1969 Recordings (DGM), an in-depth look at the formation of not just a band, but a scene. This was the year King Crimson released In the Court of the Crimson King, largely credited with being the birth of progressive rock, a musical genre that dominated the scene (in its own way) until 1974, spawning band after band clearly influenced by this particular work. No less than Jimi Hendrix and Pete Townshend — clearly distinctive rock voices in their own rights — were declaring the band and its debut album the greatest thing they had ever heard.

It seems hard to believe, given the relatively low-key nature of Crimson’s founder, guitarist Robert Fripp. A man serious about his craft, he was able to assemble a group of completely like-minded individuals eager to put everything else aside to form “the biggest band in the world,” according to the well-documented (as usual) liner notes assembled and written by Sid Smith. Over the course of 20 Cds, one DVD, one DVD-A, and four Blu-ray Discs, we are able to witness just how serious this ambition was. Trite though it may seem, it is fascinating to hear this group grow before one’s own ears.

The band was born in January of ’69, when it began rehearsals. Almost immediately, word of its musical power began to spread. By April, they were playing in London’s legendary Speakeasy. They played the famous Marquee club 13 times, each time to a larger audience. By July 5, the were playing before at least half a million people at Hyde Park, opening for the Rolling Stones. This is where we are introduced to the band in the box set, thanks to a “bootleg” cassette recording taken from a member of the audience. While the notes being played are nothing short of revolutionary, the sound of the recording is far from stellar. With the benefit of context, this makes perfect sense. After all, King Crimson was only just beginning to come above ground, even if they were doing it faster than the average band.

Crimson was captured by another audience member the following evening at the Marquee, and at Plumpton a month later. Sound quality aside, it doesn’t take much to hear the band gaining strength as its material grows more and more familiar. Greg Lake’s vocal power is matched only by the thunder of his bass, while Ian McDonald stretches his woodwinds to their absolute limit to match the onstage fray. His mellotron playing (along with the other keyboards) are a perfect accompaniment for Fripp, whose ambitious guitar runs are rapidly becoming the stuff of legend. The equally thunderous and scattershot drums, provided by Michael Giles, take the audience places more pop-driven outfits dared not explore. There was nothing like the King Crimson sound, which the band proved at every opportunity.

By the time Crimson reached Chesterfield in September, someone finally decided it was time to record the band properly, which is reflected in the sound quality of that particular gig. The band was continuously tightening up it material, most of which became In the Court … via sessions started (properly for them, without the aid of a producer) a couple of months before. The group’s collective sound bordered on arrogance, given its relatively short existence. But a wise man once said, “It ain’t bragging if you can back it up,” which King Crimson most certainly could.

Not only could it play the established numbers, but they had the nerve to improvise for extended periods like a jazz band, and issue their own bombastic take on Gustav Holst’s “Mars.” This was not music destined for the dance clubs. Which no doubt explains why so many soon-to-be prominent musicians took such a shine to them.

By the time the band arrived in America, top-flight recordings of gigs were being made, climaxing appropriately with the band’s final show in December at the Fillmore West in San Francisco. The sound of this recording is the most “present” of the batch, which seems appropriate in relation to the band’s arrival on the scene.

Crimson’s arrival in the USA should have marked the end of its beginning. Alas, it proved to be the beginning of the end. Internal strife and other issues saw this band go under just as it reached its zenith. Fortunately, we have this collection to remember them by.

To their credit, Crimson’s recording of Court … is probably the most representative of their live shows. The band had a firm grasp of its material by the time they arrived in the studio, and it showed.

While there is nothing wrong with the original mix, the brilliant details (particularly the improv section of “Moonchild”) really come to life once Steven Wilson gets hold of the original master tapes and remixes them. The album manages to take presence to the next level.

The box set is a treasure trove of alternate mixes, session reels, and live performances. As with the other Crimson box sets, a handsome book loaded with photos and other forms of art round out the experience. Fripp and company left it all out on the field.

While this was the only album featuring this lineup, King Crimson has soldiered forward, off and on, for 50-plus years. As Fripp would say, Crimson is “not a band, but a way of doing things.” And while this album may sound the most like its era, it can’t help but do so while it lays the foundation for nearly all sounds that followed.

1969 was a seminal year for progressive rock. One look no further than here for proof.

#cirdecsongs

You can follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram (cirdecsongs) My book, I Can’t Be the Only One Hearing This: A Lifetime of Music Through Eclectic Ears, is available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other fine book dealers. I’m currently working on my next book, The Wizard of WOO: The Life and Music of Bernie Worrell

Would you like to have your album reviewed? Contact me at cirdecsongs@gmail.com

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