Saturday, October 11, 2008

King Crimson: Trees

The first thing you notice is how absolutely lousy the recording is. You were warned: the web page where you ordered it carried a disclaimer from Fripp saying the sound quality was abysmal (that disclaimer isn't there anymore, but it should be).

But immediately you also notice how beautiful the piece is. Stunning three-part harmonies singing an arrangement that sounds like church music, or the Beatles' "Sun King." This gives way to a lovely mellotron treatment of the melody, with wistful guitar accents. Then the vocals come back in - it's all wordless, and it just might render you that way too.

That's as far as the youtube takes you: to hear minutes five through eighteen of "Trees" you have to acquire the album it's on, King Crimson Collector's Club 1: Live At The Marquee 1969. The bulk of this disc is a performance from the Marquee Club on, it's thought, July 6, 1969, which would make it the day after the famous Hyde Park concert at which King Crimson opened for the Stones, who were introducing Mick Taylor and eulogizing Brian Jones with dead butterflies. (KC's set from that show is also available from their website.) The Marquee set has pretty dismal sound quality as well, but not quite as bad as "Trees," which is a bonus track, recorded October 17, 1969. It's the only known recording of the band playing this early composition.

Minute five brings us out of Gregoria and back into a rock place: drums, bass, electric guitar. Although: the vamp in question wouldn't be too out of place in a jazz setting, a hotel dance band, say.

Then things change. If you know your live King Crimson '69, you may recognize what comes next. For about nine minutes we get a sequence of the instrumental themes that would later be organized into "A Man, A City" and still later formalized as "Pictures Of A City." This is also where the sound gets - well, what's worse than abysmal? Depending on how loud they're playing, you might hear some notes in here (enough to recognize the melody, sometimes), but often enough you just hear noise.

Luckily, it's just clear enough to be able to pick out what happens at about 14:12, which is that the "A Man, A City" theme gives way to a reprise of the initial melodic figure. This time it's instrumental, with a heavy treatment in keeping with the mood of what we've just been hearing. Michael Giles's determined drumming lends the music a tension that the beginning had lacked, and Fripp's guitar is wailing now, not singing (or is that Ian's saxophone? - the tape's so bad it's hard to tell them apart).

This dissolves into some Coltranesque honking and squealing - we may be heading into some "improv" here (what we among the unwashed might call "jamming," a word never mentioned in Crimson company). But the recording suddenly ends, so we'll never know.


You could make an argument, and I'd listen to it, that the only true King Crimson was the first one, consisting of Robert Fripp, Ian McDonald, Greg Lake, Michael Giles (and Peter Sinfield). The one that made one album, In The Court Of The Crimson King, and then disintegrated. A while ago I started to get into KC, chronologically, and I haven't yet gotten much farther than this lineup: it's so good, so deep, so majestic, that I can't bring myself to move on yet.

Partly because they really had a little more than just that one immortal album (and it's truly essential: if you haven't heard it, you must). Fripp, Giles, and his brother Peter Giles had one studio album out as Giles, Giles & Fripp - hardly King Crimson, but weirdly entertaining, as if Ray Davies had taken a gig writing for Monty Python, and then spent a whole summer reading Thomas Hardy novels in preparation for it. There's an archival disc out collecting demos from Giles, Giles & Fripp plus McDonald, as GGF were evolving into KC: surprisingly groovy. There's also the second "King Crimson" album, In The Wake Of Poseidon, which has Lake and both Giles brothers on it, and Lizard, which doesn't, but which has some of the players who filled in the gaps on Poseidon: both of these are stopgap albums, things Fripp did while trying to put together a stable KC to replace the One True KC. There's also the ineffable McDonald And Giles, a one-off project by Ian and Michael, with Peter.

But more than that there's a modicum of live archival releases by the One True KC, which testify to the One Trueness of that lineup. Besides crushingly heavy live renditions of the first album material, there's a couple of whole albums' worth of songs unrecorded by that lineup in there: some were tackled by later "King Crimsons," and some weren't.

But even that's not a whole lot to savor from one of the truly original bands of the rock era. That's why it's worth struggling through the sound issues to try and figure out what's going on in "Trees." (I can't stress enough how lousy the sound here is - and as a Dylan collector, I have a lot of patience with bad-sounding tapes - I've listened to the Karen Wallace tape all the way through at least a half dozen times.)

And what's going on seems to be this: a long composition, the longest known through-composed piece in the '69 Crim's repertoire, that breaks down into three parts. An initial (melodic, gentle, Benedictines on the beach at Brighton in the late spring) section, followed by a long (heavy, fast, Thelonious Monk dancing in steel-toed boots) middle section, concluding with a faster, harder reprise of the initial section (Thelonious lends the monks his boots). Fairly straightforward. The middle section would very shortly be detached and worked into a song in its own right. The first and last sections? Disappeared with the original King Crimson, it seems.

Glad we have the recording.

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