Archive for June, 2013

“Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers” by the Firesign Theatre (1970)

The Firesign Theatre’s third album does feature some snatches of music, notably the faux hymn “The Rough-as-a-cob March” and the theme from “High School Madness.” But the vast majority is spoken word, and an incredibly effective approach, at that: The New Rolling Stone Record Guide (1983) calls it “the greatest comedy album ever made.”

The four-member troupe – Phil Austin, Peter Bergman, David Ossman and Philip Proctor – began as live radio performers in Los Angeles and gained enough of a following to sign a contract with Columbia Records. Its first album, “Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him” (1968), deviated from other comedy records of the time, which mainly documented comics’ live acts. Instead, “Electrician” presented four sketches satirizing such subjects as the Europeans’ conquest of Indians, the hippie subculture and paranoiac views of American society. A highlight is included as part of the title track, which takes up all of Side 2: “Beat the Reaper,” a mock game show in which the contestant is injected with a disease and must guess what it is in order to win the antidote.

The following year, the Firesign Theatre released “How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You’re Not Anywhere at All,” famed for its cover that states, “All Hail Lennon and Marx,” with accompanying portraits of John and Groucho. The record is split into two sketches, one per side, with one offering a hilarious spoof of the detective story genre in “The Further Adventures of Nick Danger.”

In 1970 came “Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers,” which spreads a single sketch over both sides of the record, providing the listener with approximately 43 minutes of sustained laughter. For a synopsis, here’s Mr. Austin in the liner notes for the 1987 Mobile Fidelity Sound CD release:

“Dwarf” is the story of the five ages of Man and, in particular, the five ages of George Leroy Tirebiter, a man named after a dog. (The dog, the immortal George Tirebiter, was the doughty unofficial mascot of USC athletic teams in earlier times, renowned for his devotion to attacking the spinning wheels of large American automobiles.) …

The five ages of George Leroy Tirebiter are these:

  • Tirebiter the Child, called Peorge or Peorgie
  • Tirebiter the College Student, called George Tirebiter Camden N200-R
  • Tirebiter the Soldier, called Lt. Tirebiter
  • Tirebiter the Actor, called Dave Casman
  • Tirebiter the Old Man, called George Leory Tirebiter

The fable begins with a religious service based on those basic needs, the need to eat and the need to expel waste material. A disgruntled young man, George Tirebiter Camden N200-R (Camden N200-R is a last name in this world of sectors and restrictions), is so hungry and so immobile at 4 in the morning that he must depend for sustenance on the television religion of Pastor Rod Flash and the offer of an electronic Sacrament, a steaming heap of commercially available chicken fingers, sheep dip pies and tubs of slaw to any devotee who will reach into the television set and partake of the glowing host. Tirebiter partakes and is plunged into his personal hour of reckoning.

He will see himself portrayed as Peorgie, the insipid young hero of a potboiler called “High School Madness” about communism and its assault on student life; as a vaguely political candidate who cannot confront either side in the mysterious battle between political forces; as a seasoned combat soldier who not only cannot give the order to kill but cannot even say the word; and as the actor who plays all these parts and can finally only walk out of his own business because of his inability to make up his mind about matters of conscience; and as the old director, pursued by the ghosts of the past, a past dominated by what he sees as his fatal mistake, that somehow he “sold out” the original comic genius which presumably gave him his start.

It is, finally, the selling out that is his key to this confusing world. Selling out is a theme that comes to predominate in the story. Adults sell out the kids at both Communist Martyrs Hi and Morse Science Hi. Gen. Klein sells out Lt. Tirebiter and the movie studio itself. George accuses himself of selling out, and through it all is the barrage of commercial advertisements whose simplest message is sell, sell, sell.

When Tirebiter discovers he got into this mess by selling out and that he can get out by selling out again, he does not find himself returned to his original self, but is left in the guise of the old man, pursued by the past, forever striving to become a little child again: an infantile figure forever chasing a receding ice cream wagon.

As confusing as that may seem, it’s an accurate summation from one of the creators. Take a listen, and you’ll start to understand.

And you’ll have plenty of laughs doing so.

“In the Court of the Crimson King: An Observation by King Crimson” (1969)

In the late 1960s, Deram Records served as a designer label for British giant Decca, showcasing higher-fidelity stereo recordings. Among its early successful rock-oriented acts were the Moody Blues, who recorded their orchestral hybrid “Days of Future Passed” for Deram in 1967, and the likes of Procol Harum, the Move and Ten Years After.

One not-so-successful Deram band was Giles, Giles and Fripp, a trio from the seaside town of Bournemouth featuring brothers Michael on drums and Peter on bass, and Robert on guitar. Deram released “The Cheerful Insanity of Giles, Giles and Fripp” to sales of perhaps 500 copies, Fripp later calculated. The album serves as a charming artifact of Britain’s psychedelic era, featuring a variety of musical styles and spoken-word interludes in a manner that was meant to appeal to the relatively feel-good atmosphere of the era.

Later in 1968, the band was augmented by Ian McDonald, a keyboard and saxophone player, and briefly by Judy Dyble, who had preceded Sandy Denny as the female lead singer for Fairport Convention. Eventually, Peter Giles departed for a more financially secure career in computer programming, and he was replaced by guitarist Greg Lake, who switched to bass at Fripp’s request and took over as lead singer.

Meanwhile, McDonald recommended former bandmate Peter Sinfield as lyricist. One of his compositions was called “The Court of the Crimson King” and, with only one Giles now on board, the band was looking for a new moniker. And so King Crimson came to be.

The new quartet decided to turn up the volume while continuing to explore a variety of styles. The results wowed audiences as soon as the band debuted in April 1969, and King Crimson put itself firmly on the British musical map with a stunning performance at the free concert at Hyde Park in July 1969 headlined by the Rolling Stones, in front of perhaps half a million people. A recording contract with Island Records followed, and the band went to work on its debut album.

What resulted stands as the apex of what came to be known as progressive rock. “In the Court of the Crimson King” contains five extended pieces displaying a tremendous amount of skill and versatility on the musicians’ part, while creating well-suited soundscapes for Sinfield’s fanciful lyrics.

The first sounds of the album are of a railroad whistle, quickly followed by a primeval blast of heavy metal with the opening notes of “21st Century Schizoid Man.” Lake’s distorted vocals carry Sinfield’s uneasy visions of the present and future:

Cat’s foot, iron claw
Neurosurgeons scream for more
At paranoia’s poison door
21st-century schizoid man

Blood rack, barbed wire
Polititians’ funeral pyre
Innocents raped with napalm fire
21st-century schizoid man

Death seed, blind man’s greed
Poets starving, children bleed
Nothing he’s got he really needs
21st-century schizoid man

The musical accompaniment, composed by the core quartet, was unlike anything heard in the ’60s and still sounds advanced, combining a series of differing time signatures played at ear-splitting volume in a prime display of instrumental prowess. The middle section, titled “Mirrors,” features Michael Giles’ polyrhythmic drumming and Lake’s fluid base supporting Fripp’s sustain-laden guitar solo, followed by McDonald’s multi-tracked saxophones playing at a frenetic pace.

“21st Century Schizoid Man” quickly became a major selling point for the album, which jumped all the way to No. 5 in the U.K., and still stands as King Crimson’s most popular composition. It has been covered by such acts as Japan’s Flower Travellin’ Band, Canada’s April Wine and Voivod, and Ozzy Osbourne for his his 2005 album “Under Cover.”

On “In the Court of the Crimson King,” the pace slows down considerably for the second track, McDonald and Sinfield’s “I Talk to the Wind.” Rather than roaring guitars and saxophone, the featured instrument is McDonald’s flute, as he takes a lengthy, melodious solo in the middle, complemented by Giles’ creative percussion.

The lyrical themes of “Schizoid Man” return in “Epitaph,” which features McDonald playing Mellotron, an early version of the synthesizer, and Fripp’s acoustic guitar. Sinfield draws on concerns that still are pertinent today:

Knowledge is a deadly friend
When no one sets the rules
The fate of all mankind I see
Is in the hands of fools

The vinyl Side Two contains two extended pieces, although Fripp has done his best to abridge the first track, “Moonchild.” Rooted firmly in period psychedelia, the song starts as a relatively soft, melodic tale seemingly straight out of Tolkien:

Call her moonchild
Dancing in the shallows of a river
Lovely moonchild
Dreaming in the shadow of the willow
Talking to the trees of the cobweb strange
Sleeping on the steps of a fountain
Waving silver wands to the night bird’s song
Waiting for the sun on the mountain

Following the opening section is a lengthy free-form jam, lacking structure but notable for Giles’ use of alternation between his ride cymbals. At one point, Fripp quotes the Rodgers and Hammerstein standard “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top.”

At least, that’s what listeners of the original album hear. For the 1991 CD compilation “Frame by Frame,” Fripp jettisoned the entire free-form section, more than nine minutes’ worth. And in later reissues of “The Court of the Crimson King,” he eliminated about 2:30 of the jam. Today, the entire track can be heard as a bonus track on the album’s 40th-anniversary deluxe edition.

Closing the album is its title track, more or less, with McDonald’s signature Mellotron line carrying Sinfield’s lyrics about a mythical slice of royalty. “The Court of the Crimson King” actually was released as a two-sided single in the United States and reached No. 80 on the Billboard charts! Perhaps more improbably, the song was covered by “Tonight Show” bandleader Doc Severinsen for his 1970 album “Doc Severinsen’s Closet.” No word on what Johnny Carson might have thought.

The album cover for “In the Court of the Crimson King” is one of the most distinctive of the rock era, a nightmarish vision of abject terror created by a computer programmer friend of the band named Barry Godber. Sadly, he wouldn’t know of his artwork’s iconic legacy, as he died of a heart attack at age 24 shortly after the LP’s release.

To promote “In the Court of the Crimson King” in the United States, the band embarked on a well-received tour. As it wound down in December 1969, McDonald and Giles announced they were leaving the band. Also, Lake had made friends with Keith Emerson – keyboard player for the Nice, which shared the bill with King Crimson on several U.S. dates – and the pair combined with Atomic Rooster drummer Carl Palmer to write their own chapter in progressive rock history.

Fripp was left with King Crimson’s name but no band. Nevertheless, he went ahead with a followup album, “In the Wake of Poseidon,” which bears a stunning resemblance to the debut. Chipping in were both Giles brothers, with Lake providing vocals.

By the time of the band’s third album, “Lizard,” King Crimson had a completely different lineup. As it did for its fourth effort, “Islands.” And by the time of the fifth studio album, “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic,” yet another group of musicians called itself King Crimson, with Fripp as the only constant.

He dissolved the band in 1974, then resurrected it in the early ’80s, and again in the mid-’90s. King Crimson was active as a four-piece into the 21st century.

But even Robert Fripp acknowledges that his favorite incarnation was the one that closed the ’60s.