Two Bleak House Dramatizations
Bruch: Violin Concerto #1 in G Minor

King Crimson in the '80s

I was not always a fan of prog ("progressive") rock. In its early-to-mid 1970s heyday I was in fact dismissive of it: pretentious, over-complicated, sacrificing good songwriting for an emphasis on virtuosity not really suited for rock music. In short, it seemed to be trying to be something that rock music isn't and shouldn't be: of interest on purely musical grounds, where it was never going to be able to compete with jazz and classical. It was twenty years later that I gave it a second look, for a non-musical reason: my then-adolescent children had gotten interested in popular music (i.e. rock) and I was trying to steer them away from the uglier stuff. 

That didn't work, but it did change my mind. That is, my basic criticisms were justifiable and remained intact, but I enjoyed the music anyway, which led me to listen, in most cases for the first time, to Yes and King Crimson, and to develop quite a liking for them. There were a few others, but I only made a point of hearing most of the 1970s work of those two. And of them, KC seemed to have had the most interesting post-'70s career. 

But that's not really fair. Yes was a band with a fairly consistent lineup and a very consistent sound, at least through their first decade, and seem to have faded away after that, with the exception of one commercially successful and reportedly very atypical album in the early '80s. King Crimson, on the other hand, has not been a proper band at all through much of its fifty-plus years, but rather the ever-changing musical project of Robert Fripp, in which he has included various other musicians as suits his interests and purposes. It's been the exact opposite of consistent lineup and sound--Fripp tended to disband the group, at least partially, after every album or two, and reassemble it, at least partially, and go off in a somewhat different musical direction.

As a band, King Crimson was officially dead as of about 1975. But after half a decade or so Fripp revived the name for a group  of instrumental virtuosos consisting of himself, guitarist Adrian Belew, bass player Tony Levin, and drummer Bill Bruford (formerly of Yes). This band recorded three albums, Discipline (1981), Beat (1982), and Three of A Perfect Pair (1984). 

I would suppose that fans of progressive rock in general and King Crimson in particular were disappointed in these. One of the hallmarks of prog is long compositions with a lot of virtuoso instrumental work, and, despite the very high level of technical skill of all four players, that's not what these albums are. Most of the songs are in fact songs, of fairly typical pop song length, of a piece, with little instrumental stretching out. But that doesn't mean they're simple. They're not great songs as such--you don't come away humming them, or moved by the combination of words and music. But they're interesting. Rather than the complex twists and turns more typical of prog, or the basically simple and repetitive chord changes and beat of most pop, these songs have a static sort of quality--complex, and shifting slowly rather than driving forward. If I felt more confident of my technical understanding of music I would try to describe that more precisely. 

But I can say with confidence that one fairly constant feature is the use of complex repetitive hyperactive guitar figures that slowly shift rhythmically. I find it very hard to follow them for very long. I think I've got it and then suddenly it's wait, where did the accent go? "Frame by Frame," from Discipline, is a good example.

The bass and drums are also doing a lot of complicated things with rhythm there. It's as if the whole emphasis on complexity which characterizes the progressive rock concept is focused on rhythm. Basically, this band invented "math rock" (from Wikipedia) : "a style of alternative and indie rock with roots in bands such as King Crimson and Rush. It is characterized by complex, atypical rhythmic structures (including irregular stopping and starting), counterpoint, odd time signatures, and extended chords. " A week or so ago I found a YouTube video in which Adrian Belew explains this sort of thing, the way the guitar parts shift in and out of phase, so to speak, with one player starting one of these figures, the other playing it but with one note left out, and so on, so that the beat begins to float. But I just spent thirty minutes looking and can't find the video now. 

All this may seem a long way from the long and elaborate suites so often found in '70s prog. But if you listen to "21st Century Schizoid Man," the very first track on the very first KC album, In the Court of the Crimson King (1969), you find that the connecting thread is very clear. 

To call a work of art "interesting" is sometimes to damn with faint praise, at least on my part. And the word does pretty well summarize my opinion of these three albums. But I mean it quite literally. This is not my favorite music, but it is in fact interesting, interesting enough to return to now and then. There seems to be a consensus among critics and fans that the chronological sequence of the three albums is also the sequence of their quality, the first (Discipline) being the best. I agree with that. But if one likes the style at all, they're all worth hearing. 

A group consisting of Belew, Levin, Steve Vai (a name known to anyone interested in rock guitar), and Danny Carey, drummer of the band Tool, is doing a tour under the name BEAT performing this music. They're not coming anywhere very near me, but if they did I'd go. 


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I had all three of these albums back in the 80's, but I liked them in the order 1, 3, 2. I remember not liking all the tracks, but I put a cassette together of my favorite songs from each record. I also had a VHS tape of a live performance in Japan that a friend had recorded off of MTV or VH1. I later got a DVD copy which I still have. I think that a CD was eventually made from the Japan concert but I never picked one up.

They appeared on the American TV show "Fridays" in 1981 and did two songs. I vaguely remember seeing this, but I can't remember if I was already familiar with them by this time or not. In any case they are very good performances, and must have been fairly startling to people who were unfamiliar with them, or with the "modern rock" of that period in general.

Both 2 and 3 include tracks that actively get on my nerves. A mixtape or playlist is definitely a good idea.

I hadn't seen any video of them live. That's really interesting. Somehow I didn't expect Belew to be such a lively front man. "Thela Hun Ginjeet" sounds like a Talking Heads song, including the vocal, which is not too surprising considering that Belew worked with them. I assumed that the title was some kind of foreign language reference but according to Wikipedia it's an anagram of "Heat in the Jungle."

YouTube offered me this live performance of Matte Kudasai, an uncharacteristally pretty and reflective song.

Elephant Talk is very Talking Heads-ish. I had these albums back in the day also. Adrian Belew's pink suit is worth a mention!

Yeah, and looks like something David Byrne would wear. In fact I think it looks like what he did wear in Stop Making Sense.

I feel the same about 2 and 3. I'm much more partial to the first one as a complete album.

Not sure if the Talking Heads comparison would spring to mind so quickly if Belew's vocals weren't so Byrne-esque.

Some of The Police's "deep cuts" occasionally call up a similar sound, mostly on the later albums.

I bought Beat and Discipline back then. I think I liked them (or convinced myself that I did). The only song that I remember is Thela Hun Gingeet, which I tried listening to earlier today and found much more jarring than I remember.

Most of the music on those three albums is somewhat jarring. "Matte Kudasai" is an exception.

Re The Police: I really never have listened much to them past the singles. For some reason their sound just didn't appeal to me that much. No particular reason, just personal taste.

I hope there's a concert film of the BEAT tour. That would probably be enjoyable.

For me the three most memorable songs from that period are "Elephant Talk," "Sleepless," and "Three of a Perfect Pair."

As far as The Police go I really like the first three albums, but to me they got less adventurous on the final two, which is where many of the better-known singles appear. I remember liking some of those tracks at the time, but my appreciation has faded over the years, while I still very much enjoy the earlier stuff.

Back in the day (1980?) I owned two Police albums. I have no idea why. I rarely listened to them and don't remember liking them particularly. I just looked at the track list for Outlandos d'Amour and only recognize by title two of them: "Roxanne" for obviously reasons, and "Born in the 50's," because I was.

There was a great skit on SNL where Sting was in an elevator in the World Trade Center or some other tall building and the others in the elevator recognized him and started singing "Roxanne." He got off before he got to the top.

Not on Youtube, but the one where Sting is "making copies" is.

Apart from the radio singles, my exposure to The Police was through a mixtape put together by a friend. So it was whatever he thought was worthwhile.

I wanted to stop that SNL skit after 30 seconds or so. Almost unbearable.

I only discovered KC after my music degree. That's probably a good thing, as I would have been even more snooty about it. I have all their albums, But discipline is definitely my favorite. I live Heartbeat on Beat, but Fripp hated it. They got back together in the 90s and made a great album called Thrakk.

AllMusic thinks they've made a number of 4-star (out of 5) albums since the '80s.

"Heartbeat" is one of the songs on Beat that annoy me. :-) I like "Waiting Man."

I looked up that Live in Japan CD and it turns out that it's a lot longer than the VHS/DVD that I have. The CD set seems to have the full concert while the video only has ten songs or so.

"I wanted to stop that SNL skit after 30 seconds or so. Almost unbearable."

That's the point. I hope you watched it to the end. If for no other reason than to see Sting using a copy machine.

I did stick it out and having waited for Sting to appear was disappointed that he didn't do anything besides use the copier. I expected them to work in some comedy. To make the excruciatingness seem worthwhile.

Well I laughed the entire way through the video!

I think I might have shot him, given the opportunity. And yet at the same time I cringed for him. Excruciatingly.

Re the youtube video, I wonder whether that was the debut appearance of the "Richmeister." Audience didn't seem to get it at the beginning or know what was coming.

Yes, it was the first.

Hey, that is the wrong link! Here is the right one.

"...But because the Richmeister was oddly likable despite his quirks..." YMMV. Mine certainly does.

I admit I didn't know who Rob Schneider is. As far as SNL is concerned, I'm like those guys--also annoying, I know--who say of a beloved band that had a successful 40-year career, "Yeah, their first few albums were great, but they weren't very good after that." SNL for me was Belushi, Ackroyd, et al.

Actually I'm not just like those guys, I'm one of them. R.E.M. U2.

LOL, I'm one of them too, with the same two bands. REM and U2 were my two favorite bands when I was in my early 20's, having become a fan of both in college. But to this day I listen only to the early albums of both: the first three of REM, the first two of U2. I probably should like U2's third album, War, more than I do, but I played it to death, grew tired of it, and alas, haven't liked it much when I've revisited it.

I think I'm one of the few people who never thought SNL was all that funny, even in its early days. There were certain players and certain gags that I thought were good, but when I watched it back in the day it was mainly to see the musical guests.

I haven't heard those early R.E.M. albums since maybe the early '90s. I'm planning to listen to Murmur sometime soon and will report back.

I did like about half of the songs on U2's albums after the first two, up until Achtung Baby, so I'm exaggerating a bit. Never heard anything after that.

Same here, with both bands. I liked the odd track here and there, but was never fond of the albums as wholes.

To me Murmur is a record that sounds better on vinyl than on CD. It wasn't produced particularly well and the digital version, by its precision, brings that forward. Of course if you're listening in the car or something that won't matter much.

Remember that disclaimer on early CD's that used to say something like, "The digital process may bring out flaws that are inherent in the original recording," or something like that?

I do remember that but never knew exactly what sort of things they were talking about.

As the years go by I find myself less interested in many rock groups that I was at one time quite excited about; REM, U2 and The Police all fall into that category. That said, I agree that the first three Police albums are very good. The Police started their Synchronicity tour at the Orange Bowl in Miami whatever year that was. MTV was there for the kick-off and The Animals were the opening act. Me and friends were down in the crowd, and pretty close to the stage. Those were the days. I was young then!
I also saw REM and U2 back in the day. The REM concert was fantastic, and I thought the U2 one was sort of a bust. These things are of course subjective.

I'm having a similar experience, to the point of wondering if I've finally, in my '70s, outgrown my interest in pop music.

I guess the last time I attended a rock concert where the artist(s) were still fairly new on the scene and exciting was Bruce Springsteen in 1976 (probably). Great concert. Born to Run had just come out and he was on the verge of superstardom, but not there yet.

I still have interest in new music but I'm not really in touch with the concert scene anymore. I've always been a bit crowd-averse and that has increased as I've gotten older. I honestly can't remember the last concert I attended but it had to be 15 years ago or more. I've been to classical concerts and symphonies since then, but nothing in the pop or rock vein (although I do kick myself for missing Sigur Ros when they were here five or six years ago).

My last one was Dylan, five or six years ago. We don't get that many interesting ones around here. I'm a little sorry that I passed up Nightwish several years ago, mainly out of concern for my hearing. I doubt I will regret passing up Judas Priest a few weeks ago.

Just realized that it's not the first three Police records I like, it's 1, 2 and 4. It's nos. 3 & 5 that have the hits that I'm not crazy about. Not sure how I messed that up.

Astonishing! I would never make such a mistake. :-)

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