Tag Archives: Bill Bruford

King Crimson in 2017-Monkey Mind Puts on Big Boy Pants and Climbs Incline to Level Seventeen.

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The double quartet in 2017, per Fripp. Eight is perhaps too many people in a band

King Crimson in 2017, a look back at what got us here-the fuck ups and nimble twists, and a look at two current concerts on this tour. Does all this Radikal Action show that the  Monkey Mind is still crazy, or crafty like a fox?

King Crimson in 2017. Just that idea is remarkable considering the perilous courses charted by King Crimson mk1 (the Greg Lake era, where Crimson was an equal partners band still), mk2 (the jazz influenced era, where Fripp and session musicians made up Crimson) and mk3 (the cutting edge Wetton/Bruford/Fripp/Cross era). Each of those bands crashed and burned, mostly at Fripp’s behest, after a two year stretch. Yes, two years is all any of these line ups lasted. Fragile was the word for Crimson band stability. Yet in five years, King Crimson created a body of work in seven albums that still reverberates strongly through the corridors of power in the rock n roll world to this day. This was groundbreaking shit when it came out, it was still groundbreaking two decades later, it is still groundbreaking today, four to nearly five decades after their release. Let that sink in for a minute.

In the Court of the Crimson King is the one that got the attention and still does, but smarter fans and savvier critics knew better. The real deal was Crimson Mk3. Heavy Metal magazine (formerly Metal Hurlant in France) in their December 1979 issue had a highly recommended article on King Crimson’s Lark’s Tongues in Aspic album, which had been released in early 1973. It posited the idea that King Crimson was so far ahead of their time that it would easily be fifty years before critics could come to grips with that album not as a rock release, but as a major musical milestone, a monument in the sand that future musicians would look back upon as an achievement unlike any other in rock music, a la Beethoven or Mozart’s lesser masterpieces. Perhaps it would be closer to one hundred years. Hyperbole or heady and prescient praise? Well here we are 44 years after Lark’s Tongues hit the shelves, and it remains a fairly unchallenged masterpiece in the rock canon. (That Lark’s Tongues borrowed very heavily from Bartok string quartets and Stravinsky’s Rites of Spring was something that seemingly eluded that original author at the time does not diminish his original point-this record is essential and far reaching in scope). Starless and Bible Black dropped the eccentric percussionist Jamie Muir (whose batwing costume and propensity to puke fake blood frightened the band and provided inadvertent inspiration to Kiss), while Red saw Lizard’s Marc Charig and founding member and principle songwriter Ian McDonald return to the fold. King Crimson was set up for another round of success. All three albums are visionary and pushed the edge of rock music to boundaries folks didn’t even suspect existed. Alas, ’twas not to be, as Robert Fripp pulled a schizophrenic disappearing act and Mk3 evaporated in the morning mist, much to the consternation of the fans, music press and the band itself. “Is Fripp crazy?” started to get asked in  many circles. There was no consensus on the answer to that. Fripp layed low.

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Mk1 1969-1970                     Mk2 1970-1971                           Mk3- 1973-1974

Round Two; Pentatonia, Meet Neurotica

“The Drive to 1981” and “The Incline to 1984” were announced in the liner notes of Fripp’s first solo album, Exposure, in 1979. These seemed to be a pair of three year plans for the future. Ambient music, pop music, and a strangely named dance band (the League of Gentlemen) comprised the first set of the plan. The League band is the one where Fripp once famously berated the audience to “stop staring at my fingers. This is a dance band, I suggest you dance!”  But contained in the songs was a structure that repeated itself from song to song: a highly disciplined  hypnotic pentatonic scale style that wove itself into most every song. This ended up being a hint as to what was coming next in the Incline to 1984-Discipline.

1981 brought a new band into existence for the next phase: Discipline. With Bill Bruford from Mk3 on board as drummer, Zappa and Bowie alumni Adrian Belew on guitar and noted jazz iconoclast Tony Levin on the new bass-like instrument the Chapman stick-crowds began to froth. Audiences recognized that this was a new iteration of King Crimson before Fripp himself did, but it wasn’t long before the moniker Discipline was retired and King Crimson Mk4 hit the floorboards. Unlike previous versions of the band, this one stuck very close to the interlocking pentatonic patterns approach of Discipline for all three of the albums in this run. They released the trio of stylistically similar albums, Discipline in 1981, Beat in 1982 and Three of a Perfect Pair in 1984.

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World tours, decent album sales, and glowing critical reviews made the band the envy of their peers. In the prog rock world, many of their contemporaries were flailing. Yes had done well with Owner of a Lonely Heart in the charts, but was that even really Yes? Genesis had become increasingly irrelevant after a last gasp with 1980’s Duke and a warning of things to come with 1981’s Abacab. The Moody Blues had abdicated whatever influence they had in the late sixties. Other extant prog luminaries like Mike Oldfield, PFM, Camel and Caravan were trying out pop formulae. Rush, often lumped in but never really a prog band was showing strong signs of falling off a musical cliff. Asia? ‘Nuff said. Most other influential prog rock bands had already folded up shop (ELP, Gong, Can, Soft Machine, Gentle Giant, Gryphon, National Health, Pink Floyd, UK). King Crimson stood alone at the end of 1984 as not only the last relevant prog era band still standing, but the only one that was still cutting edge, still making statements that made others take notice. Maybe even still ahead of the curve. Things looked pretty good. It wasn’t hard to predict what Fripp would do next- he called a halt to the proceedings and broke the band up.

What is the Opposite of an Incline?

The ecstatic response Crimson received in 1981 was world wide. After a decade off, the reunion prefaced by the EP Vrooom that showed up in 1994 was greeted by long time Crimson fans with…well it definitely was enthusiasm, but few were really surprised. Bruford, Belew, Fripp and Levin had once again reassembled right where they left off in 1984. The sound was not that much different: pentatonic tapestries wove shifting melodies that underpinned Belew’s plaintive wail. “I am a dinosaur” he wryly sang on the debut of Crimson Mk5, THRAK. The album sounded like the word, or as Fripp put it “…the meaning of THRAK is: 117 guitars almost hitting the same chord simultaneously”. He added  “So, the album THRAK, what is it? 56 minutes and 37 seconds of songs and music about love, dying, redemption and mature guys who get erections.” The addition of Trey Gunn on Stick and Pat Mastellotto on drums in 1994 had expanded the 80’s version to a sextet. Things sounded busy yet familiar.

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Like the previous incarnations, this one traveled a three album arc. One huge difference though-multiple lineup changes and a timeline that took from 1994 to 2008 to wrap up this incarnation, fourteen years. Now remember, from In the Court of the Crimson King to Red-mk1, mk2 and mk3-when Crimson was creating masterpieces on a weekly basis,  was less than six years in length. Factor in the hiatus from 1974 to 1981 and we are still only at fifteen years from 69-84. Fripp expanded and contracted the band several times during the tenure of Crimson Mk5.

Bruford’s exit in 1997 left a large hole in the band as one of the last foils to Fripp, someone who could look him in the eye and tell him that he was plain wrong-musically that is. Fripp had become annoyed with Bruford’s chaotic approach to drumming, a seemingly scattershot style that Fripp felt conflicted with the precise mathematical interplay of the guitars. Bruford was spot on in his response : “it was held that the other musicians *couldn’t* keep time, so they employed this guy called a drummer to do it for them…we have to assume that by now that Robert Fripp can keep time. And if he can’t, well, that’s tough.”  Bruford had “once called him an amalgam of Stalin, Gandhi and the Marquis de Sade”. He’s someone who would intimately know given the four decades of work together. Exit Bruford permanently.

Shortly after, Levin went on indefinite hiatus. This reduced the band once more to a quartet-Fripp, Belew, Mastelotto and Gunn, with the two long term member’s absence palpably felt. This move coincided with a noticeable stagnation in the band sound, resulting in the sporadically interesting album The Power to Believe in 2003. By now, they had been mining the interlocking guitar pattern style for 22 years, had put out (read: recycled) Lark’s Tongues in Aspic several times as parts 3,4 and 5 over the years. Visionaries were needed as things began getting a bit stale. Fripp opened up the windows to air out the room, and out flew Gunn and in flew a returning Levin and a new drummer Gavin Harrison of Porcupine Tree. This resulted in a 40th anniversary tour in 2009 that continued over familiar ground and there was a perception that the band was treading water. The band’s cutting edge reputation was now being written about in less than friendly terms, and phrases like “cutting edge” were now preceded by words like ‘once’ and ‘formerly’.

Resurrection of the Crimson King

As noted previously here, Fripp is a bit of a crazed musical force, self destructive and visionary in the same breath. He retreated into some fairly intractable diatribes online, culminating in his sudden self avowed quitting of the music business in 2012. This was perceived by many as a large hissy fit-likely triggered by Kanye West using 21st Century Schizoid Man as a sample in a song and having a huge hit with it. His interview at the time about this retirement can be read here. (click to expand the text below the link) So when Fripp announced in 2013 that King Crimson was reforming, well people were taken by surprise. This time the band was based on a 2011 project Fripp had done with Jakko Jakszyk, former Crimson reedsman Mel Collins, Tony Levin and Gavin Harrison.  While skirting close to easy listening or Crimson lite, it laid the foundation for a new page in Crim history.

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The tour in 2015 was a fairly interesting proposition. Gone were two decades of Belew/Fripp guitar interactions, and in was a set that drew heavily for the first time in their career on the early stuff. In the Court of the Crimson King, In the Wake of Poseidon, Islands, Lark’s Tongues were all represented. Although Fripp had offloaded some of the weightier guitar tasks to Jakko, his presence on many songs was still felt. Seated in the back corner of the stage, one could be forgiven for mistaking him for a turn of the century accountant sitting in for an evening. Three drummers lined the front of the stage. It was an evening of musical inspiration-stripped of the normal frills accompanying most shows like lighting rigs and video screens, this tour was about the music.  Reviews were glowing.

2017 Tour of America-King Crimson Live in Boston and Albany

The current tour saw some semi-confusing lineup changes for those not paying attention. Percussionist Bill Rieflin had departed the band in 2016 for reasons unknown, but had returned for this tour, but departed the touring band before the tour started, yet stayed in the band as a member. But now suddenly was replaced by TWO musicians: Chris Gibson now occupied the riser on keyboards (something Rieflin did from behind his kit originally), and new drummer and session man Jeremy Stacey on full drum kit, something Rieflin hadn’t usually played-sticking more to percussion work. The ‘Seven Headed Beast’ is now a full octet. (Belew had gotten into a scrape with Fripp and was tossed in 2009; today they have made up  and Fripp has allowed that Belew is now an unofficial 9th member of the band, awaiting a call up to the big leagues. Note that if Rieflin returns, this will bring the head count up to ten. Hmm)

Well how was it compared to last tour? The short answer is that there is a noticeable improvement in delivery, improvisation and general comfort level with each other onstage. I witnessed both a Boston show and an Albany show on this tour, and both were exceptional. The music was delivered in two sets. Boston had a tour record of 25 songs. Setlist here. This time around, Fripp was a much more active participant in the proceedings, taking back some guitar duties from Jakko, adding more mellotron here and there before switching back to electric banshee wails that are his trademark. Jakko is vocally very suited to the band. He is able to duplicate early Crimson with an air of authenticity-Greg Lake, Boz Burrell, John Wetton era tunes sounded very close to the original arrangements vocally. The Belew era was less convincing-Indiscipline’s strong spoken word portion now had a sing songy processed vocal arrangement that didn’t really work, though the instrumental portion of the song was still spot on. Mel Collins was once again a quiet force, able to reproduce the bellowing sax explosions of Ian McDonald’s work on the early material as well as his own riffs from Islands.  One complaint that overlapped from the last tour is his soprano saxophone work can tend to put some of the Islands material (never thought of as an essential album) awfully close to Kenny G territory–the smooth jazz approach of Scarcity of Miracles album that seemed like the whole Crimson thing was on life support. Me? I’d flush most of the Islands album from the set. A Sailor’s Tale and The Letters were nice on the reunion tour to reinforce the ‘early material’ vibe, but nothing from that album really  needed to be revisited. (historical note: the whole Islands band quit on Fripp in 1972 to form their own band due to his overbearing attitudes) Boston had some surprises-Cirkus and Lizard from the Lizard album were some out of the blue choices. Cirkus in particular was a highlight of the evening. Four songs from In the Court of the Crimson King also were crowd favorites, as was the rarely played encore of Heroes by David Bowie-a tune Fripp had laid guitar down on in 1977. The crowd was ecstatic.

Two days later, the Egg in Albany offered a different take on the band. The tiny venue has a capacity of just over 900 and is an acoustically designed amphitheater. Once again the crowd was warned in written and audio statements against photography, filming and recording. (one of the better bootlegs of the 2015 tour was recorded here, but Fripp’s minions diligently hunt it down and remove it whenever it pops up online.) Although the apparent attempt by Fripp is to enjoin us all to ‘remain in the moment’ and actively stay focused on the music, it is clear that this is evidence of Fripp’s long term paranoia that has hampered the ‘fun vibe’ for decades. Folks were ejected for taking a single picture, including a white haired gentleman from the front rows forced to leave during the last song.   My seats on the aisle stage left top revealed a flaw in the design of the Egg-if any artist isn’t standing near the front of the stage, they tend to be cut off from view. With five members of Crimson on a podium at the back of the stage, fully half the band was cut off from view. Here is an approximate view (no Crimson onstage):

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No Fripp, Jakko or Gavin in view from here-some Levin. Really?

I moved to the standing room center quickly and had a good view for the show. This time the band took a while to get going. They opened with a drum solo showing off their new triple full kit attack. Nice technique, but Fripp should  know better than to open a show with a drum solo. In fact most people would know not to open a show with a drum solo, but common sense often does not factor into decisions here. In fact there were FIVE count ’em five drum solos in the first set alone. Jesus. (Mastelotto took Harrison and Stacey to school btw-Stacey hung in there but Harrison was somewhat plodding in comparison). Back to back versions of Moonchild and The Court of the Crimson King kept set one from being entirely a wash. Set two picked things up instantly, no new disposable tunes, it was pedal to the metal. Setlist here.  Lark’s Tongues part 1 and part 2 back to back? Fallen Angel and Starless? They hit the stratosphere right to the last clang of Easy Money.

The Shooshers

Also of note in Albany were the “shooshers”. Some folks get vocally enthusiastic at shows, but this brand of anal retentives are hell bent on making everyone shut up. By loudly  and continuously shushing at the first sign of anyone cheering….and not noticing that they are disrupting the proceedings as much as anyone. I saw one guy get out of his seat and walk ten feet to angrily admonish someone in the standing room to stop whooping. Another shoosher in the middle kept it up at the slightest instance of incidental noise. At his second insistent shoosh I was forced to spontaneously yell out a quick “faaaaackofffff’ which got quick approval of all in the standing room area. (I had witnessed the previous week at a Goblin show in Boston a fan TWICE move across the floor to get in a guy’s face threaten to beat the shit out of someone who was yelling enthusiasm at the Italian horror legends.) Message to shooshers: get over yourselves. People enjoy concerts in their own personal way.

21st Century Schizoid Man needs a Drum Solo In It Like Close to the Edge Needs a Grand Funk Railroad Commercial In the Middle of It.

Why is there a drum solo in this song? In view of the five drum solos in the first set, I had trouble keeping quiet and not going all ‘belligerent seventies New York style’ to show my disapproval. Seriously, this shit has to stop. The song doesn’t need it, never had it before, and smacks of gratuitous soloing–something that Crimson was always avowedly against. Does Gavin Harrison have dirt on Fripp? For he is the only one with a true drum *solo* in the whole evening. All other ones were interactions between the trio of drummers. Which leads us to….

The Ever Present March of the Quill Pig

Porcupine Tree. The band is becoming worryingly intertwined with King Crimson, which beckons the question above. I have been vocal in my opposition to Steve Wilson’s remixing of Crimson and other bands (read a quick take here), and began to question why Fripp was allowing Wilson to tamper with his work. Then Gavin Harrison of Porcupine Tree joins on drums. Now Steve Wilson’s solo album drummer Jeremy Stacey is in the Crimfold. What gives? One can be forgiven for thinking that these fuckers are aiming to take over Crimson on the sly. Maybe Steve Wilson is actually the one with dirt on Robert.

The Final Cut

As stated in the introduction, King Crimson in 2017 is a fairly unlikely event. A quick read of Fripp’s phoenix-like self immolations would lead one to think this could never be a reality, and yet-it is. I’ve seen the band three times since the reunion, and they are still  going strong, with signs of actually becoming even more musically dangerous. And that my friends, is a good thing for all of us.

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When Critics Get It Wrong-“Flash Will Get Huge and Yes Won’t Survive”-A Blast From the Vaults of Rock Obscurity

It’s 1970, and one of the up and coming British bands tapped for success was Yes. The liner notes of their 1969 debut boldly quote Melody Maker critic Tony Wilson who declared that Led Zeppelin and Yes would be the two Brit bands most likely to succeed in 1969  (Nostradamus-wise, Zep perhaps being an easy call, Yes less so). Their debut album got some attention for it’s mash up of unlikely covers and burgeoning musical prowess, but in May 1970, disaster struck the band….

As the second Yes album, Time and a Word was undergoing final tweaks in post production and a tour testing the new material was underway-founding member Peter Banks was shown the door. Or quit, depending on who you  believe. Either way, this was looked upon in the industry as a death knell for Yes. After all, Peter Banks was generally considered to be the heart and soul of the band-fashion savvy, and with a personality and playing style that were open and daring–in marked contrast to the taskmaster persona brought by Jon and the aloof and entitled (some friends said condescending) views of Squire. He had named the band in 1968 when Jon Anderson’s suggestion of ‘Life’ and Chris Squire’s suggestion of ‘World’ were met with indifference. Peter suggested ‘Yes!’ (exclamation and all) as a holding action until they came up with something better. It stuck,  though the exclamation point was dropped quickly.(The less letters in the band name, the larger it shows up on posters noted Peter).  Banks also designed the first Yes logo.

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With a sound fueled by a Gibson ES-335 that was very difficult to define, Banks was able to fuse rhythm and lead guitar sounds simultaneously to make a jazz rock fusion that some said formed the original definition of  progressive rock guitar. Lester Bangs noted of their debut album both the good and the bad in his February 1970 review:

Because all of it is excellently done: brisk fuzz leads, whirring bass, a bit of the Beatles vocally, a touch of Wes Montgomery in the guitar solos—a definitive album, in fact, in the prevalent style of “hip” groups over the past two years. The only trouble is that there are hosts of American bands (and presumably British as well) who are into the same bag with equal facility and taste. The excitement of true innovation is missing—which may not be a valid criticism, since most rock is folk music anyway, but that’s what makes albums like this one so much less arresting than many others…Their version of the Byrds’ “I See You” is especially nice, although none of their own compositions are very memorable.

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The second Yes album cover was hastily reshot for the US version with newly acquired guitarist Steve Howe on the cover, although he didn’t play at all on the record. Howe played a similar style to Banks and his Gibson ES-175 hollow body brought a similar sound to the band as Banks’ ES-335. Howe’s reputation on the circuit was as a low key but tastefully improving guitarist, but not a forceful and flashy personality like Banks. Time and a Word featured some fairly heavy handed orchestral overdubs which stepped all over Banks’ guitar in the mix, and rendered Kaye’s organ work nearly invisible. A short attempt to demo this live in  concert left Banks even more dissatisfied-and he was gone. But with a new guitarist under their wing, the band soldiered on to create their first mini masterpiece, the meticulously ‘assembled from little song bits’ lp the Yes Album. Recorded six months after Banks departure, it brought some new success to the band. But while on tour in 1971, the axe fell again-and founding keyboardist Tony Kaye was left curbside for pickup. Two founding members leaving in a year? Many thought Yes was in big trouble. This is where our story begins:

Flash (clockwise, from left), drummer Mike Hough, bassist Ray Bennett, guitarist Peter Banks and vocalist Colin Carter. 

There is little agreement on the facts surrounding Banks and Kaye’s ouster from the Yes. In one interview Kaye said that Anderson came in his bedroom while he was sleeping off a night out and profoundly hung over. ‘You’re out of the band” said Jon and Kaye later said “I just grunted, mostly relieved that he was leaving the room so I could sleep more”

An early 1972 Rolling Stone article noted the difference of opinions as to what had transpired:


Tony Kaye and Pete Banks have now come together and formed their own band, Flash, which is currently working its way around the club and dance hall circuit.  Their departures from Yes are explained by Jon:  “They didn’t leave- we decided to get someone else.  It doesn’t help them to say that.  We’ve always said that Tony decided to leave the band because it’d get him a better situation. The truth is that we blew them out because they weren’t really into what we were trying to get together . . . Peter was a bit lazy, that’s why. He liked his clothes a bit more than his music.  Tony had a marvelous mind, he was a great guy to talk to, but he didn’t have so many ideas.  He wasn’t willing to expound himself.”

Jon and Tony seem to agree that he was tossed, Peter however disagrees (from the same early 1972 article):

  Pete Banks still doesn’t quite see that things happened the way Jon described.  “I decided to make a move more than anything,” he explained one evening, sitting on the floor of his basement flat.  On the walls were reminders of his stay with the band – posters, photographs and an album sleeve.  “I only made the decision though after I’d given it a lot of thought. Luckily Yes were strong enough to get a new guitarist, rehearse and get it back on the road.”  From his point of view Yes had become a mechanical band producing music that was less than human.  He remembered the times when he and Bruford had gone through the motions of clocking in and out on live performances, and how it [was] really only half a joke for them. “We’d go on each night knowing we’d go down well,” he said.”We’d got things worked out to that degree.  Yes always went for the technique approach, whereas with Flash we’re going for the feel.  Yes tends to lack feel.  Sometimes it’s good to make mistakes to show you’re human and that it’s not being made by a machine.  I don’t think Fragile was human.  You couldn’t fault it in any other way though.”

Peter seemed to reverse himself  and took a more distanced view of what happened in a 2006 interview:

Peter: I was kicked out, simple as that. I’ve never really found out why, to be honest. I think it was mostly musical. We hit a really bad period where we had quite a lot of work and rehearsals. I think the musical reason was, and I’m kinda guessing here, I think I lacked a certain amount of structure, and Steve came in to replace me, he was a more structured player, where my approach always has been really, I don’t like to play the same thing twice.

Obviously you have structure within music, but if someone says ‘I like what you played last week can you play it again?’ chances are I probably won’t, I’ll go out of my way to play something different, with a new spin on it. If you’re a lead singer, that kind of puts lead singers out. I think that might have been a reason but I don’t know.

I think Jon mentioned in a recent interview, where he was talking about Yes guitar players, he was very frustrated that I never played the same thing twice. Same with Bill, us two were a bit of a loose cannon. Because we were playing the same things night after night after night, we would like to screw around with it.

Rolling Stone in their review of 1971’s Fragile also took note of some of the complaints Banks had pointed out about Yes’ shortcomings:

  Some problems remain, however: They’re good and they know it, so they tend to succumb to the show-off syndrome. Their music (notably “Cans and Brahms” and “We Have Heaven”) often seems designed only to impress and tries too hard to call attention to itself. Is anyone really still excited by things like “Five tracks on this album are individual ideas, personally arranged and organized by the five members of the band..etc.”

Melody Maker echoed this in 1971: ‘Fragile’ does not seem to go anywhere or have any theme except displaying Yes’ technical ability …   It’s all a little too much like exercises, clever and beautifully played”.

 (A quick aside: Jon wasn’t averse to taking some dodgy chances with Yes-like recording around this time, as a Faberge commercial was recorded during the sessions for the studio version of America:     Another project which was waiting to be recorded when “America”  finally reached the can was a 60-second commercial for Faberge-
Put a little music on and hear it play/ Put a little music on from Faberge.
They’d even got a nice little arrangement for the band to set the lyrics to, but Jon wanted to it his way. He decided to use the same technique he used on “We Have Heaven” on the Fragile album, where they overlay vocal tracks from their own music. ” I think it’s worth it,” said Jon.”Not for the money we’re getting, but because it’ll be a nice little song when it’s done the way I want it. I didn’t want a dinky little song. Anyway, the more people that hear our music the better.”)

Whatever the facts were, two important founding members of Yes had joined forces in 1971 to create a band that echoed the early sound of Yes, but emphasized feeling over technique, and playing for the sheer joy of creation over the construction of things far removed from the emotional immediacy of rock n roll. People were excited.

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Although he is listed as a full member on their debut album, Tony Kaye was always viewed as a sideman in this project according to both Kaye and Banks (there were high hopes he’d stay on) Still, this fact escaped the music press, and Flash were viewed as a back to roots version of Yes, something that is less evident as desirable today as it was back in 1971. With the guitarist and keyboardist who’d provided most of the musical ‘sound’ to the parent band now in a new project-who could say which one would come out on top?

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https://ronkanefiles.files.wordpress.com/2012/02/flash_new.jpg?w=1440&h=712Their debut album in 1972 was decidedly Yes-like. Band members Mike Hough on drums, Ray Bennett on bass and the noticeably Jon Anderson-ish Colin Carter on vocals made up the quartet. Bennett had some prog-cred even in his teenage years: he’d been in a band with Bill Bruford at age 15, and rubbed elbows in bands with musicians who ended up in Gentle Giant, Man and Gun. The album cover by Hipgnosis was ambiguously created to impart a sauciness when viewed in the racks, but entirely confusing as to whether it was a front or rear shot when folded out. Small Beginnings, the first single, charted on both sides of the pond (top 30 in US Billboard) and things looked bright.

Children of the Universe, another highlight, accentuated the Yes vibe. Diddits and rahoovyahs straight out of The Yes Album were the frosting on the dexterous and constantly changing instrumental underpinnings. Banks was able to knit together some impressive runs that challenged the depth of his earlier work with Yes. His runs became even more jazz-like than in Yes, approaching a territory the Robert Fripp had dipped his toes into during the early days of King Crimson, yet Banks created a more successful hybridization of rock and jazz stylings. Although this album didn’t make the waves some critics were expecting, it did well enough to warrant a second album release, and many Yes fans snapped this up instantly. In retrospect, this was a fine response to  The Yes Album. Fragile? Well there was no challenger to Roundabout here, but the earlier notation by Banks that Fragile was hampered by sterility of playing shows the difference of opinions that led to his departure. Besides, Fragile only contained four actual songs.

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Fully keyboard-less, the band delivered their sophomore effort, just as strong as their debut. Titled Flash in the Can, a name that punned on  the sophomoric cover. Like the first album, this one also flaunted the ‘sex will sell this album, dammit!” as it likewise folded out to a more salacious version. Despite the word flash meaning ‘fancy and cool’ in British slang, the record company was intent on another meaning of flash for the public to grab onto. One thing was sure at this point-Flash could jam live.

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Banks reveals anti-gravity guitar solo effect

The second album contains what many consider their finest musical moment, There No More. Overall, this album hangs together better than their debut, despite the lack of a proper keyboardist. The first two albums are definitely essential for any Yes fan. Critics weren’t so sure that a progressive rock band could cut it without keyboards, but Banks fretwork here ups the ante from the debut. Check out this:

Despite being perhaps even more overtly Yes-like (albeit an early version of Yes), their second album didn’t get the attention it deserved.Songwriting credit for Banks was limited to a half a song, as Ray Bennett was revealed as the principle songwriter-Banks crafted his guitar in and around songs. Maddeningly,  despite a full US tour spending a large chunk of  1972 in the States with the likes of Foghat, Savoy Brown, Wishbone Ash, Three Dog Night, Beck Bogert and Appice, Black Sabbath, Genesis, Alice Cooper, Mott the Hoople and Humble Pie, the band’s fortunes only slightly crept onward. A second US tour in December of 1972 did see them headlining many of their own shows, and a full billboard graced the streets of Los Angeles next to the Whiskey-A-Go-Go.

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Their 1973 album, Out of Our Hands continued the ‘boobs n butts’ theme, with hands and knuckles cleverly taking the place of arched backs and bums. The band had been sued for their name, forcing the record company to call the band ‘Flash featuring England’s Peter Banks’, much to the consternation of his hard working band mates. Sure Banks was still the draw, even three albums in, but his musical mates chafed at the change. They  played at least 65 US shows on an arduous tour from early August to mid November, finally imploding on November 17, 1973 with seven shows remaining to the tour-which all had to be canceled. Dissension and fatigue combined with the inability to get to the next level to finally destroy the band. According to Bennett, the problems 
all came down to Banks: “He
 was almost entirely to blame for the early Flash breakup, and for a major 
amount of friction and unrest in our
 camp — and not just with the band
— almost everyone around us, too:
 manager, producer, Capitol Records
 and others. I’ve restrained myself
 from just saying it bluntly in the past,
 but Flash didn’t just ‘implode on the
 road’. We’d had enough of Banks.”Some information on their dissolution can be found in an interview with Carter and Bennett here.

Banks takes a more distant, but similar view of the break-up in 2006, acknowledging he might have been a problem:

 We didn’t last long, but we were very creative, we made 3 albums in 2 years. But business things were very bad, we needed new management, I was very unhappy. What turned out to be our last tour was very Spinal Tap, I wasn’t even traveling with the guys, I would show up sometimes 10 minutes before the show, and I  probably acted like a real asshole at the time.

We broke up in New Mexico with 4 more gigs to go, very unfortunate thing to happen. I tried and I tried after that, because it was like a divorce. For 2 years we’d been working so intensely, we were getting better but the audiences were dropping off. We were playing with bands we shouldn’t have played with.

I had wondered about some of the bills they had been booked on during the US tour. They had more success here than in the UK, and it made sense to try to capitalize on the buzz created by the first album and single, but really…Three Dog Night and Flash on tour together? Grand Funk? Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show? A gig is a gig I suppose, but a more concerted effort to get them in front of an appreciative audience by  their management is perhaps the biggest spike driven into their possible success.
An easy example-Genesis was in the States in 1973, and Flash would have been the perfect opening act on that bill. Perhaps they were trying a bit too hard to shake the perception that they were a junior varsity version of Yes and were their own band by playing with folks not even close to their more technically adept stylings.

  Image result for peter banks flash

Image result for flash colin carter   Image result for flash ray bennett

In retrospect, it’s easy to see that Flash wasn’t going to hit the same level as Yes. But in 1971, things weren’t as easy to predict. Half of Yes strikes out on their own, leaving only the singer, drummer and bassist? You can see how those paying attention might be wont to plunk their ducats on the dark horse in this race. To this day, the first two Flash albums stand up extremely well against their peer group of B-division progressive rock bands of the early 70’s, (hell it even stands up fairly well against pre-Close to the Edge Yes.)  And the world would have to wait a few more years for the next even more  derivative Yes clone band to hit the floorboards, (though lacking the cachet of real Yes members)…..Starcastle.

But for now, let’s just ruminate on some small beginnings with large aspirations. One more pass through with Flash on US TV in 1972:

Anderson, Rabin, Wakeman-Howe, White, Squire (RIP): Yes? No? Maybe?

The story of Yes in their glory days is pretty well known, but many fans lost track of them in the 80’s. Even fewer are aware that things kept going right up to the present day, with some decidedly mixed and contentious moments and results. (If your name is Jon Davison or Billy Sherwood, please x out of this window now, it’s not going to be pretty.)

Yes is one of the defining bands of the 70’s rock n roll scene. Able to jump genres, (mostly their fan’s genres) everyone who had records in the late 70’s had a Yes album: Fragile, Yessongs and the Yes Album were on most kids shelves. Close to the Edge showed up on the more adventurous fan’s collection. Even Tales From Topographic Oceans wasn’t unfamiliar in college dorms in the early 80’s. But the ability to please everyone in the plebeian beer swilling rock scene was a heady achievement for such a distinctly tricky British prog band.

The Eighties

Image result for yes drama  Image result for yes 90125 Image result for yes big generator

Many Yes fans lost track of the band as they ended up combining forces with the Buggles’ Trevor Horne and Geoff Downes in 1980 (better than one might guess) but soon broke up, crushing fans and scattering them to the winds. 1983 saw an unlikely resurgence for the band: a reunion line up of Yes (originally called Cinema until Jon rejoined) which suddenly had a number one hit (Owner of a Lonely Heart), a triple platinum album (90125, initially known as 80120 until its release was delayed), a huge MTV video, and a battalion of new fans unaware of their deep philosophic and esoteric musical heritage. 1987’s Big Generator couldn’t really sustain the immense wave of popularity they had garnered. (The complete lack of thought in the last two album covers wasn’t helping, either)

The Big Split

Image result for abwh cover       vs.       Image result for chris squire promo photo 1988 -getty

Then…something happened. Chris Squire and Jon Anderson had a falling out in 1988 over the future of the band, as Squire had descended into a coke infused downward spiral but stubbornly held to creative control, he either a. eventually fired Anderson or b. Anderson quit. In the end, Squire owned the name, but had no bandmates as Anderson took Steve Howe, Bill Bruford and Rick Wakeman from the classic era, plugged in Tony Levin on bass, and the legal team of Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman and Howe was born. Yes existed as Chris Squire alone, with no band. (Tony Kaye, Trevor Rabin and Alan White were still lurking around, but with Anderson gone, it was a band without any viable plans.) ABWH put out a fairly convincing version of Yes, and toured successfully in 1989. Attempts by Squire and his legal team to sue ABWH into submission did little to convince anyone that this wasn’t the ‘real’ Yes.

(Does anyone remember the Dead Milkmen album Metaphysical Graffiti? Which contained the song Anderson, Walkman, Buttholes and How! Gibby Haynes of Butthole Surfers fame ranted these lyrics:

We’ve got to get together
And we’ve got to save the snails
Let’s board the purple spaceships
Before they set sail

I want a Yes reunion
And you know I want one now
No more Anderson
Walkman, Buttholes and How!

Listening to the opera
And smoking angels’ dust
You can’t get more fucking
Progressive than us)

War is Over, We Will Now Have a Union….

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Yes, one big happy family?

Yes - Union.jpg

ABWH began to fall apart during the second album sessions, and a solution was hastily proposed: a fusion of ABWH and the remnants of Yes to form a supergroup derived from a single band–an apparent octet featuring Jon Anderson on vocals, Steve Howe and Trevor Rabin on guitar, Rick Wakeman and Tony Kaye on keyboards, Chris Squire on bass, and Bill Bruford and Alan White on drums. (In reality, White and Kaye only appear on one song, and Rabin on three). Too many cooks spoiled the broth, hired hands re-recorded Howe and Wakeman’s original recordings, and Jon Anderson’s control freak streak combined to make the most disjointed and disappointing Yes release to date, one which had a startling amount of sidemen credited-18 in total, ten of them keyboardists. Seven producers are listed. No one was surprised when this lineup imploded (1992).

Or Not….

Image result for yes talk cover
Peter Max cover

Talk, in 1994, quietly rewrote what was essentially  going to be a Trevor Rabin solo affair into a hastily reconstituted ‘Yes of the 80’s’ lineup. It was a fully digital project pre-dating Protools–it  is sonic-wise a great high end stereo system test album, but sterile is another word used frequently for this cut and paste technique that eventually took the industry over in the next few years. The odd choice of Peter Max was diametrically opposed to the whole ethos of the mysticism of the Yes concept, but appears to be signaling an intentional break with the past. Yes seemed to be fading into the woodwork. ( I still like this album a lot, just found it on vinyl)

Wakeman In, Wakeman Out, Wakeman In, Wakeman Out

Image result for yes keys to ascension    Image result for yes keys to ascension

1995 saw the reformation of the classic lineup, with Howe and Wakeman rejoining, displacing Rabin and Kaye (who wasn’t on much of Talk anyway). Keys to Ascension 1 and Keys to Ascension 2 were the result of this 1995-1996 reunion. Mostly remakes of classic 70’s era tunes, the second volume contained Mind Drive, a lengthy song that was the last and one of the few pieces to survive from the ill fated 1981 collaboration between Led Zeppelin and Yes known as XYZ. (a quick read on them here.) Wakeman bounced in November 1996 and Billy Sherwood, mixing engineer on Keys came aboard as the new keyboardist. The lackluster Open Your Eyes in 1997 closed many eyes forever for older Yes fans still clinging on.

 

Image result for yes ladder

Yes, now a quartet plus one replacement part was struggling for a sound. Pop? Prog? Neither? The third choice seemed to describe 1999’s The Ladder, which saw Sherwood shift to second guitar, the first time Yes had had a second guitarist in their 31 years to that date. Producer Bruce Fairbairn died while recording this lp, prompting some ill advised jokes about the current state of the band. Igor Khoroshev took over on keys and Yes now contained two replacement parts. Horns? World music? Techno? (via Front Line Assembly/Skinny Puppy associate Rhys Fulber) This further muddied the waters of the Yes sound as they seemed to throw anything against the wall to see what stuck. (see: Union) Magnification in 2001 was a mild return to form, written specifically to be recorded with an orchestra to replace the departed Sherwood and Igor. Some Yes fans forgave them since they had jettisoned the replacement parts and were now a quartet. Anderson was frustrated with low album sales and a moratorium on new material was declared. Yes became a live outfit only.

A 2000 tour where they played only seven songs was one dream finally realized: the big three: Close to the Edge, Ritual, Gates of Delerium in one set combined with  Starship Trooper to bring in a four song wallop that clocked in at nearly 80 minutes. A Roundabout and All Good People, and a Heart of the Sunrise rounded out the evening. ( I remember watching Howe on the jumbotron during Gates as he grimaced at his fingers to will them to get every note as he silently cursed himself for writing such convoluted passages).  Wakeman wasn’t yet returned, and Igor held down the keyboard duties. (Igor eventually got the heave ho for feeling up and biting a couple of  unamused female security guards backstage at a show in Washington DC in 2000)

Image result for yes 2004 tour

Suddenly, Wakeman was inspired to rejoin for the..let’s see errr…fourth time, and the classic lineup toured from 2002-2004.  The 2004 35th anniversary tour featured inflatable stage props to give Roger Dean’s art work some three dimensional life. (when the lights hit it wrong, it looked a bit uncomfortably weird, like slightly uncool deflated and warped beach toys) The band didn’t seem like they were having much fun. Wakeman bailed once again after the 2004 tour.

Kicked Out of a Band You Founded?

When a 2008 world tour had to be first postponed and then canceled due to Jon Anderson’s serious respiratory illness, the band quickly made a muddle headed decision, and fired the founder, voice of the band and spiritual leader, and moved on. (note that when Squire’s ill health forced a postponement of the spring 2009 tour, nobody even blinked.) Benoit David from a Canadian Yes tribute band was YouTube selected by Squire, and with Oliver Wakeman (Rick’s kid) in tow, the band hurriedly set out to honor the commitments of the failed tour. Yes was now playing clubs and small theaters as the trio of Squire, White and Howe didn’t get folks frothing to see the remnants of a legendary outfit sporting now an offspring as a member. David acquitted himself well, recording Fly From Here, the first Yes album in a decade. It relies heavily on the 1980 Buggles era album Drama as its source for material, reworking themes and re-recording some unreleased pieces to generally good effect. Ironically, David was shown the door in 2012 for a brief respiratory illness that postponed a leg of the tour (he found he was out of the band when reading a Chris Squire interview announcing his departure).

Enter Jon version 2

Image result for jon davison yes
Mountains came out of the sky once, Jon

Jon Davison, yet another YouTube discovery, was hastily plugged in to replace David and the 2012 tour commenced. (Geoff Downes from the Buggles and Drama (and Asia) had rejoined on keys by now, replacing Oliver Wakeman) Davison was much more faithful to the Jon Anderson’s ethereal vibe than Benoit David’s more Trevor Horn approach. He also exudes a passion for the music that is tangible on stage. But the excitement quickly dissipated with the replacement singers, and Yes was doing package tours with Styx and Procol Harum to get some asses in the seats. Copping a trick that many classic rock acts had done to reboot some enthusiasm, Yes went out on “the Albums Tour”. They played Close to the Edge, the Yes Album and Going For the One in their entirety, which had mixed results. Fans were excited by the old chestnuts revisited, but others wondered why the now healed Jon Anderson wasn’t a part of this. Yes also ignored the wisdom of the moratorium on new material, and blorted out the ill advised album, Heaven and Earth. Scathing reviews put this as the nadir of the Yes experience, as many questioned why they would sully what was left of their reputation. This album made Union look refreshing and challenging.

Heaven & Earth
Cover = A-. Music = D+.

Yes vs. Anderson Rabin Wakeman

The untimely death of founding member (and main antagonist to Anderson) Chris Squire in 2015 threw Yes for a loop. Down to Howe and White, with Geoff Downes of the 1980 Drama album as the authentic members, folks questioned the decision (rooted in Squire’s final wishes) to continue the band. The 2016 tour revisited Tales From Topographic Oceans and Drama, with a bands worth of replacement players. With Alan White out due to back problems, Yes consists of Steve Howe. Reactions to the tour were mixed.(scroll to end of that review)

But very quietly, whispers indicated something else was cooking. Jon Anderson had done a small tour with Rick Wakeman in 2011, and another one with Jean Luc Ponty in 2015. He seemed healthy and vibrant on stage, and gave consistently warm and powerful performances of reworked Yes classics.  Then in summer 2016, fans were greeted with this news:

ARW.JPG

Image result for anderson rabin wakeman live

Image result for anderson rabin wakeman live
I think this one is in ‘G’

Holy shit, a real version of Yes was going to tour? Discussions started to pop up in well informed boards-which one is the real Yes? (stevehoffman.com polls had ARW as the 88% choice) As you have read, this wasn’t a new question, but one that has dogged them for decades. The ARW tour has just begun this month, and I attended the 12th show of the tour. What confronted me was the real Yes (friends said this blew the current Yes out of the water in the first ten minutes). Wakeman, resplendent in a very complicated cape, surrounded by a dozen keyboards including two Minimoogs,  Jon trim and in full voice, Rabin the quiet metal edged power-this band cooks like the 1985 tour did. Sure Steve Howe is missed, as is Alan White. But those two guys cannot fill up a room with sound, power and vibrations like Anderson and Wakeman (with Rabin)  can. Jon regaling us with tales from the past: “Ahh Boston Garden…remember that? You were there, I was there. We were stoned, eh?” and introducing the Meeting from AWBH said “we were in Montserrat recording, and we went out to play cricket against some local schoolkids. They were like eleven and twelve and thought we could wipe the field with them. Wrong! They annihilated us. Rick and I got drunk after and went into the studio to improvise a piano/vocal duet on the spot. This is the result”

Though the evening of Yes Music and More consisted of Yes music only (barring the Meeting from AWBH), and some choices posited in early interviews (Endless Dream from Talk, I’m Running from Big Generator) were instead represented by Rhythm of Love (Big Generator) and Lift Me Up (Union), it didn’t matter. The power of Awaken, Perpetual Change, Heart of the Sunrise and Long Distance Runaround blew the theater to delirious heights. (overheard at show: ‘if Jon Davison sees this, he is going to quit Yes on the spot out of guilt’). In short, ARW is the real deal, Yes reborn. Friends after the show that attend all things Yes agreed: the current version of Yes is a nice, a polite evening’s entertainment. ARW is full on Yes, where you walk out of the show going ‘holy shit was that amazing!’ A set list is available here.

Shoot High, Aim Low… or: Wither Yes?

So where does that leave us? Is the current Yes even Yes? Is it now a tribute band to Yes? Is the band that doesn’t own the name the real Yes? The only logical solution is a fusion of the two units. No Chris Squire leaves a large hole in the proceedings, as he was the second strong voice in harmonies, and his distinctive growling Rickenbacker bass stylings practically founded a genre of prog bass playing (Rush, Starcastle, Genesis, Lemmy in Hawkwind among the many). He is irreplaceable. But the lineup of Anderson Wakeman Howe White and perhaps Rabin and Tony Levin would certainly engender some real excitement. Fill up some hockey rinks. I will leave you with one further thing overheard on the way out:

“Yes is in BIG trouble when word of this gets around…”

Update April 2017: Jon Anderson reclaims the band name, and ARW is now known at Yes featuring Anderson, Rabin and Wakeman. Let the fun begin.

King Crimson and Robert Fripp in 2015-Still Batshit Crazy After All These Years

crimson 2014

The fact that there is even a King Crimson in 2015 is beyond any doubt incredible. Hell, the reunion in 1981 was fairly improbable, as was the reformation in 1994. But the action around the band in the last six months-full US tour, box set of unreleased material going back to 1969, live album on Cd and vinyl of the 2014 tour? It beggars description that this is happening currently, and is astonishingly well planned and executed. Why such a level of surprise? The main reason is Robert Fripp. As noted in the title, he is batshit crazy. A genius? Certainly. One of the most influential rock musicians of the last fifty years? Absolutely. But behind the thin veil of normalcy, Fripp  bubbles away like the crazy friend you had in middle school, who when you meet again at a class reunion decades later has gone from eccentric to just plain weird. Of course your friend from middle school didn’t tour the world several times over and play some of the most cutting edge music to thousands of fans each night. That is why Fripp has been able to glide through mostly unquestioned by the masses. Before we begin, a quick recap of some of the more notable ‘eccentricites’

king-crimson-1974-granger Crimson1_Fripp

Now don’t get me wrong, nobody is perfect. Everyone has their own little quirks. And to his credit, Fripp has been quite forthcoming on his own shortcomings. What can be annoying is when Fripp imposes his quirks upon you, and leaves you no choice except get on board or leave. Cracks in the facade could be traced back to the origins of the band, but the real damage appeared in the 1974 tour. Even his own tour diary leading up to the final show in Central Park June 1974, Fripp admits that he is alienated in his own band, and now eats his meals alone while the rest of the band eats at a table across the restaurant. The hints he drops in his diary indicates this is pretty much a result of his increasingly strange and borderline OCD behavior. Fracture on Starless and Bible Black is a nice sonic picture and strong hint of the paranoia and disintegrating hold on reality for a character that appears anonymous but is more likely autobiographical.  King Crimson in 1974 was not a waning proposition but an increasingly powerful one. The album Red, the final one of this lineup, contained newly returned founding member Ian McDonald, composer and co-writer of all five songs on the landmark debut album, 1969’s In the Court of the Crimson King. Marc Charig, a cornet player from the albums Lizard and Islands had returned as well. It seemed as if all the eras of King Crimson were folding together, and the result was a stunning masterpiece of hypnotic heaviness, a proto metal progressive album, the first of its kind. But suddenly, the band was no more. Fripp had decided to break the band up. Not only was the rock world stunned and angered, the band members were even more upset. Drummer Bill Bruford was informed of the band’s just announced demise during an interview with a journalist and wept openly at the news. Extreme? Not really. This was a band that had scaled the heights of rock music, and pushed boundaries further and further, literally redefining genres with each song. Bruford wasn’t the only one in tears. No good reasons for breaking the band up were offered, and even those close to the band thought it was inexplicable. But then some information snuck out. Fripp had perhaps fled  to Dorset on an extended spiritual retreat. Later, stories circulated that his then current girlfriend, a practicing witch, had convinced him that the world was going to end soon, and they retreated to an island to wait for the end and go out in style. This would seem to be something that would actually break the band up. Why tour and work when you could relax in luxury and meditate on the end of humanity? Luckily the witch was off by at least five decades in her prediction, but at least this one is understandable, if  not easily explainable.

To come closer to the current times-Fripp on a solo tour hit my town in 1998. He was dreadfully put out by flash photography. He had been known to bail on shows on this tour if one flash went off in the crowd. At this show, a single flash in the balcony 30 minutes in caused him to slowly turn his gear off, and exit the stage without a word. He had to be coaxed back. (After that show, a friend saw him eating alone in a huge restaurant window. He took a large flash photo that lit up the window like a movie screen. Fripp may have lost five years of life in that moment). I saw him at a Projeckt 2 show later in the year, and saw him dressed in a scarf and overcoat (it was about 85 degrees that night), and I yelled “Hey Mr. Fripp, great show!” He saw he was recognized, and quickly scurried away.  In 2012, Fripp threw a large online tantrum and said he was quitting the music business over the way labels have handled the Crimson catalogue. While some of his points are valid, he signed contracts in a music business that operated in a certain fashion. He was well aware of what he was getting into . But in the new millenium, large diatribes would appear online and even in the fanclub live cds booklets excorciating the major labels as devils. Some agreed, most were embarrassed for him. Fripp can certainly turn a phrase when he’s got his dander up, and these intractable tracts are highly recommended to read at least once.

elements

Now back to current times. Apparently unconcerned he promised to quit the music business altogether forever, Fripp reformed King Crimson. This was pretty astounding, as the band had run its course by 2009, and was repeating themes created in 1981 with Adrian Belew for the past few decades. Whenever Crimson feels stale, it’s time for a change. Everyone expected that was it for the band when he folded up shop at the end of the  2008 tour. A revamped line up raised some eyebrows as it was noted that Belew wouldn’t be part of this incarnation.The tour was preceded by the Elements box, sold only at shows and the Crimson website. I was expecting it to be a primer for new fans, and was astounded to find two cds of previously unreleased material. Some of the stuff was insanely rare-Greg Lake singing Cadence and Cascade? Fripp assured us that this never happened, yet here it is in all its delicate beauty. Eight of the fifteen tracks on the first disc are songs proper, the remaining seven are snippets and snapshots of rejected guitar solos and such. The first disc contains only material from the 69-74 version of Crimson, barring the interspersed tracks of the 2014 rehearsals, five ‘songs’ totaling six minutes-a bit light on what they could have offered to preview this line up. Cirkus from 1971 is a genuine treasure. Disc 2 is the modern era Crimson-1981 to the current day. The prize on this disc is a recording of Manhattan (later known as Neurotica). It is a vivid picture of someone standing in NYC surrounded by the hustle and bustle of sirens, horns and cacophony that bring them to the edge of a nervous breakdown. I had witnessed this played live in 1982 and felt the original had been completely stripped of its power in the final lp version and lamented the loss of the original–but now overjoyed at its return. Another treasure is the band in rehearsals working on a particularly complex part of music and not quite getting it right. Belew exclaims “this shit is hard!” at the end. A nice insight to what the band goes through to get to their seamless endpoints. The set is only marred by the inclusion of two songs from the dreadfully soporific and mostly unlistenable Scarcity of Miracles, an album that preceded the reunion and brought Jakko Jakszyk into the Crim fold.

 

b31c2__20CRIMSON-master675 crimso 2014

This brings us to the fall tour of 2014. Although I have been a die hard Crimson fan since the late 70’s, somehow I didn’t have many high hopes for this tour. The Scarcity of Miracles had a paucity of ideas, and if this was a preview of the new direction–then it was time to bury the carcass and be done with it. I went to the fourth show of the tour, and hadn’t looked at the set list. The band lineup was an augmented version of scarcity-Fripp, Mel Collins (from the Islands days) on sax, Jakko on guitar and vocals, Tony Levin returning once again on bass, and then….three drummers? Pat Mastelotto, Bill Rieflin and Gavin Harrison lined up front and center across the stage-band behind on risers. Mastelotto had been Crimson’s drummer since 1994 (he started in the MTV staple band Mr. Mister) and Harrison had been in Crimson for a cup of coffee in 2008. He has been Porcupine Tree’s drummer since 2002. Rieflin seemed an odd choice-Ministry, Pigface, Nine Inch Nails, Revolting Cocks, KMFDM were his staple gigs-but a long term stint in REM showed him to be versatile at least. In concert, Bill was a wise choice-professorly in demeanor, and subtle in execution.

crimson bostonphoto(1)

The evening opened with a cringe-worthy nod to Robert’s obsession…bootleg recording and photography. In a recorded skit between him and the other members of the band, they danced around the concept of ‘being in the moment’ to discourage any picture taking or recording. Although this was meant to be clever, it had all the authenticity of your teachers in sixth grade putting on a skit to keep you from smoking. Eye rolling led to a vow to actually take pictures of the show against their will, much like the wide eyed sixth grader watching his teachers play and saying “dammit these assholes are actually going to drive me to trying a cigarette”  It hadn’t been a thought until the awkwardness of the opening tape entered its third minute of preaching. When will this guy learn? (illegal show pix above)

I was very glad I had not glimpsed a set list before the show, because what we had in store was monstrously unexpected. Crimson was never a band to delve into back catalogue or do anything remotely close to a greatest hits show. A tinkling of kalimba and sundry percussion came up as the lights went down. All three drummers worked busily to make a very quiet tapestry of sound. I seemed to be the only one who noticed this was a song–“HOLY SHIT! They are opening with Lark’s Tongues in Aspic Part One!” I yelled out in the darkened theater. This song had not been played on stage in forty years, I was ecstatic. Next up was Pictures of a City from In the Wake of Poseidon, a tune not played since 1972. What was going on? Songs from Lark’s Tongues, Red, Islands, In the Court of the Crimson King? This was not what I expected at all. The band was flawless in execution, although those who were watching closely could see that Fripp sitting quietly on the side had off loaded many of his guitar parts to Jakko, but this was fairly indistinguishable in the long run. The only damper was a drum solo by Harrison in the middle of 21st Century Schizoid Man (aside: There has never been a drum solo proper in this song, why now? And….there are 3 drummers, he is the only one to get a solo? First Steve Wilson is allowed to remix Crimson’s albums and now the Porcupine Tree drummer gets a solo? Do these guys have dirt on Fripp? Ugh) The show was flawless, perhaps the best I had seen the band since my first show in 1981. I wished that I had gone to the previous shows, but was glad that I had seen this  one, even more glad I hadn’t glanced at a set list. So where does that leave us in 2015? Lots of complaints, even more delights.

You didn't take any pictures, did you?
You didn’t take any pictures, did you?

In the long run, all of Fripp’s perceived oddities and eccentricities, however annoying, are essentially coming from the right place. And that place is fueled by a passion for music that many of his contemporaries are sorely lacking. No band in the history of rock has remained relevant as long as King Crimson. That is a weighty statement there. Nobody has managed this. And the sole reason for Crimson’s being able to stay a light year or two ahead of the competition all comes back to Robert Fripp’s single minded devotion to principle and perfection. So batshit crazy or batshit genius? Grab a bunch of Crimson albums, hell grab all of them. Lock yourself into the soundroom and let it fly, and you decide.

Update 2017: read about Crimson’s 2017 tour here

In The Lap of the Gods-Amazing Super Groups That Almost Happened: HELP, XYZ, WWB and Beyond

The Super Group: a collection of well known stars that band together to make up a highly touted record selling juggernaut, attract all of the attention, get the plum gigs, and of course, get all the girls. Most have failed, few rise above the hype and the lucky ones (usually ones not noted initially as super groups) grab the brass ring of success.

blind

Early super groups were defined by the band Blind Faith. Even the name suggests what the audience should have going into the project. Members of Cream (kind of a super group already)  and Traffic (Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker, Steve Winwood and Ric Grech) combined ideas and personnel to make one middling album (known more for its topless twelve year old girl on the album cover than any music inside), a 1969 tour that pulled in the dollars but showed the band to be more or less a blues jam band with few real songs, and relied on their former bands for in concert faves. Playing the same Cream songs to increasing hordes of rabid fans who were out of their minds wasted was exactly why Clapton had broken Cream up, so the writing was on the wall. They pulled the plug and quickly faded from memory, thus providing the model for many super groups to follow. (see GTR)

Jimi_Hendrix_Exp. elp help

But this article isn’t about the dinosaur era of failed super groups, it is about groups that nearly formed, or formed and then disbanded without any output. You know, the big “what if’s?” of rock history. One of the first of note did not have a name, but was going to be a collision between the most histrionic rock guitarist going, and the most over the top keyboardist of all time: Jimi Hendrix and Keith Emerson. It was to be called either HELP or HELM depending on the final line up. With the end of the Nice, Emerson was looking to retool a band. He had already pooched Greg Lake from King Crimson, and was fishing around for some pieces of the puzzle to round out the band. Supposedly he contacted Hendrix to jam together, and (depending on who you listen to) Jimi came by to sit in on  some of the early sessions that yielded Emerson, Lake and Palmer.  This is where the story gets a little murky. The one thing that has been documented is that Hendrix and Mitch Mitchell showed up to a rehearsal at Emerson’s studio with a large entourage. Discussions of Mitchell coming on board to round out the trio led to the wild idea of including Hendrix. It is uncertain whether Carl Palmer was in the loop of discussion as of yet as a drum choice. It is likely that, had the project gone a bit further, Hendrix would have had the final say in drummers, and gone with his favorite in Mitchell over the unknown Palmer. British tabloids at the time hinted at the HELP moniker, but a close look at the facts indicate that the HELM lineup would have been the final outcome. Witnesses to the first meetings said that the huge drugged out entourage Hendrix brought with him did not lend to the ‘friendly jam’ atmosphere that nascent bands crave in the formative stage, and that Lake and Emerson “freaked out”, and had second thoughts. Still, for any fans of Hendrix and ELP, the thought of two of the most talented point men in rock being able to duel on stage and trade riffs and solos of unimaginable depth is pretty appealing. (Hendrix’s untimely death in 1970 put an end to the proposal). But the jazzier leanings Hendrix was dabbling in at the time make it even more of a tantalizing proposition. Which leads to….

miles telegram

Hendrix, McCartney, Miles Davis and Tony Williams. This lineup is documented by an October telegram sent to Apple Records and Paul McCartney trying to get the bass player to show up in New York for the album sessions. Hendrix and McCartney are already a fairly enticing proposition, but throw in jazz legend Miles Davis and phenom jazz drummer Tony Williams? Good god the mind boggles at the thought of what that quartet could have accomplished. Whether Macca would have been one of many bassists on the album or a solid member of the quartet is unknown. But the tantalizing scrap of paper in the Hard Rock Cafe bears witness to something that rock fans can only dream about- a super group that could have rewritten musical boundaries forever. The Hendrix album Nine to the Universe released in 1980 had jazz leanings, and a little known album session with John McLaughlin of Mahavishnu Orchestra fame showed the direction Hendrix was heading. (McLaughlin nixed the release of his jams with Jimi, alluding to crappy playing on his part. I have a bootleg of  the session, and McLaughlin gets truly smoked at every turn and is out of sorts with Hendrix, not something a flash guitarist wants on his resume). In the long run, McCartney was on holiday and it is unknown whether he was apprised of the telegram. (Apple was notoriously inefficient in 1969).  But this would have been something special, no doubt. A group that would have defined and redefined “jazz rock”.

Hindenburg

Led Zeppelin Mk 0, Proto-Zep 1966

This is a band line up  that has fueled much speculation and disagreement over the years: Led Zeppelin almost happened in 1966. There is only one enticingly small piece of evidence that documents this incarnation of the proto-band. A barely noticed B-side to a Jeff Beck single (Hi Ho Silver Lining) called Beck’s Bolero had been recorded in May 1966, and quietly slipped out in 1967. A truly earth shaking super group this was too: Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck on guitar, Nicky Hopkins on keyboards, John Paul Jones on bass and Keith Moon on drums. Page and Beck had a short run together in the Yardbirds (Train Kept a Rollin’ in the film Blow Up was their only documented duet), but this single had the earmarks of a real band. The Who were on the verge of a break up once again (Daltrey had been fired briefly in 1966) and Moon and Entwistle had discussed a project involving Jimmy Page. Whether the original name Lead Zeppelin originated with Moon, Entwistle or future Zep manager Peter Grant is unclear (Page has tapped Moon as the origin)–Entwistle was adamant that Grant was present at his and Moon’s initial discussions and stole the idea, including that he had even thought the project out to include the Hindenburg in flames on their first album cover (which Grant also nicked). Soon the Who and Moon had kissed and made up, and this idea was put on the backburner to simmer for a couple of years.

beatles  (FILE) Rolling Stones Return To Hyde Park, A Look Back At The 1969 Concert bob-dylan-1969

Beatles, Stones, Dylan form a single band

Before passing out of the sixties, another proposed band has recently come to light. In the realms of the word super group, this one would  have been a doozy: a nine piece band comprising Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, Bill Wyman, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr. Yep–Dylan, the Beatles and the Stones, all in one band. Producer Glyn Johns let this one out in his recent book. According to Johns, the impetus for this project came solely from Bob Dylan. He wanted to make an album with the most influential song writers of the 1960’s, and see what the combined talents could collaborate on to produce. The time period would have been the summer of 1969-Self Portrait era of Dylan, post Brian Jones Stones, and the chaos of Let it Be for the Beatles. Johns had worked for years on the Rolling Stones production end, and Dylan was intrigued by his recent work with the Beatles. Despite Dylan’s enthusiasm, only George Harrison and Keith Richards jumped at the chance and tried to gather support. Wyman, Ringo and Watts waited to see what others would do, and Lennon felt ambivalent. McCartney and Jagger would not even consider it for a second, perhaps reflecting the power struggles then going on in both bands. Despite the cachet these names generate, it is hard to see how this would have played out. Collaborative song writing? If real, then it would have been something we’d still be analyzing to this day. But other luminaries were sidling up…

yes-xyz plant

                                           xyz

Fast forwarding a decade comes a super group that strikes very close to home: XYZ. Representing eX Yes and Zeppelin, XYZ was formed in late 1980 as both Yes and Led Zeppelin had imploded (the former due to a break up during the failed follow up to Tormato, the other by the death of John Bonham.). At the time, two of my favorite bands had just jumped the rails, and my lifelong search to finally see Led Zeppelin live summer 1980 was thwarted by Bonham’s untimely death. Whispers by those who had insider information spoke of XYZ-Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, Chris Squire and Alan White. Holy Crap–talk about a consolation prize! I anxiously awaited further news. I carried around a 1981 clipping from a local newspaper from a ticket scalping agency for the better part of a decade. Around the border were upcoming big concerts they were pushing: The Rolling Stones, Springsteen, AC/DC…the hottest tours of the biggest bands circled in a border around the advert. But one caught my eye, the elusive XYZ. Was there going to be a tour? Holy shit! But then….an information black out. Nothing in the news anywhere about this. What was going on?  In reality, Page, White and Squire had gotten together with former Greenslade keyboardist David Lawson to combine forces. As a front man, the obvious choice was Robert Plant. Rehearsals in early 1981 progressed well, but Plant dropped out after a single session with them, citing lingering trauma from Bonham’s death. Other sources claim the songs being written were straying into an unfamiliar ground as Squire and White drew Page into much trickier uncharted territory-fluctuating time signatures, stops and starts and evolving key changes–the hallmarks of prog rock and Yes. Plant found this material out of  his comfort zone and a bit too “tricky” for his liking. Whichever excuse you  prefer, Plant was out. This left Squire and David Lawson as vocalists, but the initial momentum and  enthusiasm began to wane as rehearsals continued. Disputes over management between Brian Lane of the Yes camp and Peter Grant of the Zep camp did not help. (The aborted sessions produced some tantalizingly rare outtakes, which finally have surfaced in the bootleg underground and are readily available to the skilled internet surfer). Finally both parties realized that this was headed in the wrong direction without Plant to tie it together, and they went their separate ways. Some of the more finished material ended up on the rare Squire/White single,  Run With the Fox. Other material ended up on the 1983 Yes reformation album 90125. One song ended up on a Page/Rodgers Firm album. One of the ‘trickier’ pieces finally surfaced 15 years later as Mind Drive on the 1997 Keys to Ascension2 Yes album. For many Yes fans, this was the last decent original song they ever released. Few know that its origins have Jimmy Page rattling around in there somewhere. But this wasn’t the only aborted Yes project of the era….

When Yes failed to come up with a follow up to Tormato, they imploded in Paris. Roy Thomas Baker was at the helm, and the band bickered endlessly. Writing was strained and Jon Anderson tried to wrestle control and impose his will upon the band, a very un-Yeslike attitude. (Songs of this era showed up on bonus tracks of Drama and the Anderson solo album Song of Seven. They are excruciatingly bad.) In the background was the easily disaffected keyboard genius Rick Wakeman. Rick had once famously consumed sausage sandwiches on his grand piano while playing on the Tales From Topographic Oceans tour to show his disapproval of the material and horrify the recently vegan turned Anderson and Howe. So when Alan White broke his ankle during the sessions, Rick saw his opportunity and wisely bolted for the door.

wwb wetton

WWB-Wakeman, Wetton, Bruford

But this was not the first time Wakeman had pulled a vanishing act. The first time was post Tales, in 1974. He then became a fairly large draw as a solo act, but stage productions for Journey to the Center of the Earth (performed around a lake with inflatable monsters bobbing up and down from the surface) and The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of  the Round Table (performed around a skating rink with ice skating characters, and orchestra and choir) drained finances like burning money in a stove. A solution was in the offing, and America had the answer. With ELP effectively off the road, a keyboard led supergroup was needed. That group was Wakeman Wetton and Bruford, WWB.  John Wetton and Bill Bruford had most recently played together in the final 70’s version of King Crimson, and were nearly telepathic in their playing. Wakeman? Well as he himself has noted, was an unofficial member of the UK Olympic Drinking Team. This seemed doomed from the start, but they hung together for six weeks in May-June 1977, took promo photos on a James Bond movie set, had press releases out and record companies lined up. Unfortunately, the execs pumped up Wakeman’s already inflated ego with promises of ELP styled mega events with him at the helm. They also proposed a 50-25-25 split of the finances, something that Wetton and Bruford could not swallow. With  accountants running with contracts after them, the band fell apart. Wakeman rejoined Yes, while Wetton and Bruford enlisted Eddie Jobson and Alan Holdsworth for the more sedate and complex band, UK. The bombastic WWB never saw the light of day. Two songs of their work survived–Beelzebub surfaced on a Bruford solo album, and Thirty Years on the first UK album.

Recent history has provided many an example of super groups that fizzle out upon launch. Had these bands continued and actually toured and released albums,the same fate may have struck the above mentioned bands. But time and events will not let us know how this  would have played out. One thing I do know, I really would  have loved to see Jimmy Page in a progressive rock band. “What if?” indeed.