Posts Tagged ‘progressive rock’

“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.

“Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd (1975)

That Pink Floyd was able to soldier on after Syd Barrett’s breakdown and subsequent departure surprised many people who had followed the band in its formative years, including its management agency, which cast its lot with Barrett in 1968.

Five years later, Pink Floyd released “The Dark Side of the Moon,” which managed to stay on the charts for the remainder of the LP era.

Barrett, though, continued to influence the band during the interim, with many of its lyrical themes drawing on those established by Syd’s tenuous grasp on reality. Roger Waters’ lyrics for “The Dark Side of the Moon,” in fact, represent a song cycle about the various facets of life that can prompt the onset of insanity: “Time,” “Money,” “Us and Them” and the like. Not to mention the rampant paranoia roiling through the VCS3 synthesizers and sound effects of “On the Run.”

On the heels of the album’s success, Pink Floyd signed a mammoth contract with Columbia Records and, as such, the pressure was on to keep momentum going with the followup. Having scrapped a project called “Household Objects” – literally, songs played on stuff like hand mixers, wine glasses and rubber bands stretched between two tables – the band embarked on a series of compositions based on the brief show-business career of one Roger “Syd” Barrett.

When it emerged in September 1975, “Wish You Were Here” probably exceeded the expectations of many fans and most critics, arriving as a more cohesive, melodic work than its landmark predecessor. While the allusions to Barrett are thinly veiled, the songs stand on their own as musical statements without the necessary back story; indeed, listeners completely unaware of Syd’s travails are able to enjoy the album just the same.

At the heart of “Wish You Were Here” and taking up a majority of the album’s playing time is “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” the nine-part suite that both opens and closes proceedings. The opening is based on a sustained G minor synthesizer chord with a series of subtle embellishments, including a bit of wine-glass sound from “Household Objects.” Eventually, David Gilmour comes in with his signature Bb-F-G-E progression, then the rest of the band joins in, Gilmour playing an understated but tremendously effective lead until Waters delivers his lead vocal:

Remember when you were young, you shone like the sun
Shine on you crazy diamond
Now there’s a look in your eyes, like black holes in the sky
Shine on you crazy diamond
You were caught on the cross fire of childhood and stardom,
Blown on the steel breeze
Come on you target for faraway laughter, come on you stranger,
You legend, you martyr, and shine!

You reached for the secret too soon, you cried for the moon
Shine on you crazy diamond
Treatened by shadows at night, and exposed in the light.
Shine on you crazy diamond
Well you wore out your welcome with random precision,
Rode on the steel breeze
Come on you raver, you seer of visions, come on you painter,
You piper, you prisoner, and shine!

Although the band hadn’t begun the song with Barrett in mind, the lyrics read like a biography: his descent from one of England’s brightest young musical stars to a drug-addled mess, complete with references to his best work (Pink Floyd’s debut album, “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn,” and his own solo debut, “The Madcap Laughs”).

“Shine On” extends through further musical themes, employing saxophonist Dick Parry to great effect, before segueing into the sounds of mechanical equipment that introduce the second track, “Welcome to the Machine.” Waters’ lyrics combine Barrett’s predicament with disdain for the purely economic motifs of the music industry:

Welcome my son, welcome to the machine
Where have you been? It’s alright we know where you’ve been
You’ve been in the pipeline, filling in time,
provided with toys and scouting for boys
You bought a guitar to punish your ma,
And you didn’t like school, and you know you’re nobody’s fool,
So welcome to the machine

If “Welcome to the Machine” seems to bite the hand that fed Pink Floyd, the next track’s theme is so vitriolic that an outsider ended up singing the version that appeared on the album.

The final track of “Led Zeppelin III” is a bizarre stab at the blues titled “Hats Off to (Roy) Harper.” Few of the fans who propelled the album to the top of the charts in 1970 probably understood the reference, as musician Roy Harper hardly was a household name at the time. Yet his freeform style of performing had won a couple of fans in Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, who decided to immortalize him.

Harper had made the acquaintance of the members of Pink Floyd through their mutual management and record label. The band and the singer happened to be at Abbey Road at the same time in 1975, recording their respective latest albums.

In his book “Saucerful of Secrets: The Pink Floyd Odyssey,” the late Nicholas Schaffner wrote that “when it came time to record ‘Have a Cigar,’ Roger’s admittedly limited voice was in shreds from his struggles with the ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’ lead vocal.” After Gilmour declined, the band drafted Harper, “whose hippie credentials (and subterranean sales figures) had never been overly compromised by the rock machine.”

“Have a Cigar,” one of the harder-rocking songs in the Pink Floyd catalogue, savages the music-business type who cares only about making money off the artists, and by extension, what young Syd Barrett faced:

Come in here, dear boy, have a cigar, you’re gonna go far
You’re gonna fly high, you’re never gonna die, you’re gonna make it if you try, they’re gonna love you
Well I’ve always had a deep respect, and I mean that most sincerely
The band is just fantastic, that is really what I think
Oh by the way, which one’s Pink?
And did we tell you the name of the game, boy
we call it riding the gravy train

The “which one’s Pink?” line is derived from an actual question asked of the band, and, of course, gained further notoriety when “Pink” appeared as the central character Waters’ “The Wall.”

The segue between “Have a Cigar” and the album’s title track confused many listeners who first heard it on the radio, myself included. The production, indeed, consigns the end of the former song to a tinny, mono sound before an unseen hand turns a transistor dial to a couple of stations, a short burst of classical music pouring forth before it settles on a guitar riff.

Shortly after, the sonic clarity is fully restored for the memorable chord structure and acoustic lead of “Wish You Were Here,” the subject of which turns sharply from criticism of the music industry to a heartfelt plea. The song is a Waters poem set to music by Gilmour, and it works as either a love song or a message to Barrett:

So, so you think you can tell, Heaven from Hell, blue skies from pain
Can you tell a green field from a cold steel rail?
A smile from a veil?
Do you think you can tell?
And did they get you to trade your heroes for ghosts?
Hot ashes for trees?
Hot air for a cool breeze?
Cold comfort for change?
And did you exchange a walk on part in the war for a lead role in a cage?
How I wish, how I wish you were here
We’re just two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl, year after year
Running over the same old ground
What have we found? The same old fears
Wish you were here

The song’s fadeout is overtaken by the resumption of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” with Richard Wright’s synthesizer flourishes dominating a darkly toned section before Water delivers the final verse:

Nobody knows where you are, how near or how far
Shine on you crazy diamond
Pile on many more layers, and I’ll be joining you there
Shine on you crazy diamond
And we’ll bask in the shadow of yesterday’s triumph,
And sail on the steel breeze
Come on you boy child, you winner and loser
Come on you miner for truth and delusion, and shine!

One line of that wasn’t quite true. The band members knew exactly where Barrett was, if for just a short period. On June 5, 1975, Gilmour and his girlfriend, Philadelphia-born Virginia “Ginger” Hasenbein, were planning to get married the day before the band left for an American tour, and the band was working on wrapping up “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.” As Schaffner wrote:

With the voices of Roger and Dave summoning the spirit of Syd Barrett from the studio monitors, who should lurch in but an obese man with shaven head and eyebrows, wearing a white trench coat and white shoes and clutching a white plastic bag. Gilmour was the first to notice him sniffing around the Floyd’s equipment; but, preoccupied with other matters, he figured that the odd-looking character was some EMI (recording studio) minion.

“He came into the studio,” recalls Rick Wright, “and no one recognized this person. I remember going in, and Roger was already in the studio working. I came in and sat next to Roger. After 10 minutes, Roger said to me, ‘Do you know who that guy is?’ I said, ‘I have no idea. I assumed it was a friend of yours.’ He said, ‘Think. THINK.’ And I kept looking at him. And suddenly I realized it was Syd!” Roger Waters, by his own account, was “in fucking tears” upon divining the identity of “this great, fat, bald, mad person.”

As his ex-colleagues applied themselves to the onerous task of of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” replaying it over and over, Syd fell silent, giving no sign of understanding he was the hero of this stirring tribute. Finally, when they asked for the track to be played yet another time, he interrupted: “Why bother? You’ve heard it once already.”

Barrett subsequently joined the others at the EMI canteen for the Gilmours’ wedding reception. After unnerving unsuspecting guests – some of which took him for a Hare Krishna fanatic – with his maniacal laughter and penetrating stares, Syd vanished into the night without saying goodbye.

The following day, the Floyd left for America without him. None of them has ever seen him since.

That held true up to Roger Keith Barrett’s death on July 7, 2006.