Progressive History: A Year with the King Crimson Collectors’ Club

King Crimson have never been known for playing things by the book — rather, they’d write the book first, in their own set of glyphs, play by it, and then switch to a different language at the first opportunity. The King’s 30-year reign has seen styles change and line-ups come and go with only guitarist Robert Fripp as a feature common to all of them, but a remarkably loyal audience has remained throughout — and for the most dedicated core of that audience, the King Crimson Collectors’ Club was set up by Crimson’s record label Discipline Global Mobile in 1998, to release specially-produced CDs of rare live material and studio out-takes. Club members pay their yearly fees up front and receive CDs roughly in two-month intervals, and edited boxed sets of three Club CDs each are later also published on the Japanese market, so those non-members who missed out on the first year of releases might still be able to find them as expensive imports — new subscribers might also be able to get their hands on individual previous releases, however.

The Club is another of Robert Fripp’s clever ploys to be part of the music industry, but avoid working by its rules (or, to extract more money out of the audience’s pockets, depending on your point of view): starting with “ethical” record label DGM itself, which by now has racked up a respectable number of quality releases from artists as diverse as former Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones and modern string ensemble Mr McFall’s Chamber, then establishing the Collectors’ Club, and finally the emerging DGMlive stable of online music delivery ventures (see my recent article in PopMatters), Fripp and DGM have gradually positioned themselves amidst a growing number of alternatives to mainstream, big-name labels that have relatively little interest in the music itself. All of these ventures, but the Club in particular, take the opposite approach of marketing directly to a clearly-defined small but highly active group of followers which can now easily be addressed through its central Internet resources such as the DGM Web site itself, or King Crimson mailing-list Elephant Talk. In doing so, the label places a considerable amount of trust in the continued interest of its fans, of course, and also relies on their trust in return: only with a sufficient number of prior subscriptions could the Club itself come into existence — their up-front fees pay for the production of the Club CDs. Judging by the apparently gradually growing numbers of Club subscribers, and the overall satisfaction with Club releases that emerges from members’ comments on Elephant Talk and elsewhere, it appears that the trust in both directions has been justified.

The first year of releases provided a mainly historical overview over various live incarnations of King Crimson — its six volumes covered over 25 years of performances.

Volume 1: Live at the Marquee 1969

Considering the original line-up of King Crimson recorded only one one studio album and had relatively few additional compositions, the band’s live exploits are already extensively documented by the Epitaph 2- or 4-CD sets, really, and so volume one of the King Crimson Collectors’ Club won’t be essential for anyone but serious Crimson collectors — even more so because its sound quality is less than thrilling, despite Fripp’s and Singleton’s best mastering efforts; this is from a 30-year-old audience tape, after all. (Live at the Marquee‘s sound is a little worse than that of Epitaph volumes three and four.)

Nevertheless, it does contain the only officially released live version of “I Talk to the Wind”, as well as what may be the most powerful rendition of “Mantra” (later to become the intro to “Exiles”) released so far, inexplicably appearing uncredited as a lengthy introduction to “Travel Weary Capricorn” (and slightly marred by sound problems in the noisier parts). The following improvisation also sees the band shine on occasion. Probably the most interesting part of this CD is also its sonically poorest, however: a 19-minute work-in-progress called “Trees”, recorded at a different show, which features parts of the “Birdman Suite” that Ian McDonald and Michael Giles would include on their McDonald & Giles album after leaving King Crimson, and which also includes a proto-version of “Pictures of a City” (the Epitaph set includes two versions of this piece at a later stage of development, then called “A Man, A City”). The sound here is poor and worsens towards the end, though, which is why “Trees” is flagged only as a bonus track to the CD.

Volume 2: Live at Jacksonville 1972

Much like the previous line-ups of King Crimson, the band that recorded the Islands album was relatively short-lived — and preceding the much-loved Fripp/Wetton/Bruford Crimson of the mid-’70s, this band, including Fripp, bassist and singer Boz Burrell, drummer Ian Wallace, and the well-travelled Mel Collins on saxophone, is perhaps the most overlooked of the Crimsons. (That Fripp has publicly and repeatedly disowned its live release Earthbound doesn’t help, either.) Such neglect is unjustified, as Live at Jacksonville shows: Collins in particular is in excellent form here. In fact, in comparison with the widely bootlegged show in Boston one month later (which includes several hot solos from Fripp as well as the two instrumentals “Groon” and “Earthbound”, both of which are sadly absent here), Fripp takes a remarkably restrained backseat role here — he is frequently heard providing the Mellotron backdrop for Collins’s solos rather than playing guitar. This may lend credibility to his insistent claims that he isn’t Crimson’s band leader.

Such restraint also comes at a price, however: again compared with Boston in particular, the band botch the transition between “Formentera Lady” and “Sailor’s Tale”, which crucially requires a shredding performance from the guitarist. And speaking of restraint: you might feel the urge to fast-forward through the eight-minute drum solo at the end of “Sailor’s Tale”. The concluding version of “21st Century Schizoid Man” is very good, though (it features a strong Fripp solo as well as Collins’s interesting and energetic take on the material), and sonically, too, this CD is quite adequate — much better than the first Club CD, and certainly better than comparable bootlegs.

Volume 3: The Beat Club Bremen 1972

Considering the 1973-4 live 4-CD boxed set The Great Deceiver, soon to be re-released, can hardly be improved upon in terms of performance and sound quality, and the recent 2-CD set The Nightwatch adds another essential live recording of the mid-’70s KC formation to the DGM catalogue, it’s just as well that CC volume three takes a slightly different approach to what might have been the most adventurous touring line-up of the band: it documents the so far almost untapped 1972 band which featured Jamie Muir and David Cross as equal contributors, before they were gradually sidelined by the Fripp/Wetton/Bruford power trio. Muir’s percussive interventions are particularly in evidence here, and his role in relation to Bruford’s drums is somewhat similar to that later played by Bruford himself in relation to co-drummer Pat Mastelotto in the ’90s double trio. Cross’s violin also appears more up-front than in later years.

A ‘live in the studio’ mono recording for German TV show Beat Club, this 45-minute CD contains no full concert, but consists mainly of a 30-minute improv piece, “The Rich Tapestry of Life”, which, though occasionally meandering and clearly the work of a band still growing together (they would record their first album Larks’ Tongues in Aspic some months later), contains some moments of brilliance — especially a sublime Cross/Fripp duet eleven minutes in. “Exiles” and an abbreviated version of “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic I” complete this CD, and also profit from the five-piece line-up — Muir in particular adds a new dimension to “Larks'”.

Volume 4: Live at Cap d’Agde, 1982

Up until recently, the live efforts of the excellent 1980s reformation of King Crimson had been documented only in bootlegs and semi-official concert videos, and only DGM’s recent Absent Lovers double-CD release provided a full-length, full-quality glimpse of the band on its last, 1984 tour. To this KCCC volume four adds a recording from 1982’s Beat tour. While the format of this recording (it contains only 60 minutes’ worth of material, 24 of which have already been available as part of the The Noise — Live in Frejus video) might invite some criticism from serious collectors, the quality of the music included here makes it easy to overlook such complaints. “Waiting Man” opens with the customary Bruford/Belew drum duet; “Thela Hun Ginjeet” in the version presented here includes Belew’s taped narration of his New York mugging experience; and “Matte Kudasai” is its usual sweet self. The highlight of the show, however, is a nine-minute version of “The Sheltering Sky” that provides ample room for outstanding solos from both guitarists. Following such excellence, “Neil and Jack and Me” seems something of a letdown, but “Elephant Talk”, which closes the Cap d’Agde part of the CD, gives the band another opportunity to ham it up, and they certainly go for it.

The remaining three tracks — “Indiscipline”, “Heartbeat”, and “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic II” — from the Frejus show the following day are of similar high quality (this version of “Indiscipline” might quite possibly be the best released so far from the 1980s band), but instead of this previously released material I sure would have liked to have seen some live excerpts from the 1981 tour, which hasn’t been documented in official releases so far — something for a future release, perhaps (DGM are inviting fans to send in any bootlegs they have, for future Club releases)? Still, this is a fine volume with a strong selection of tracks.

Volumes 5 & 6: On Broadway 1995

The last two releases of the first year of the Collectors’ Club were combined into a double-CD, in order to document a full concert of the 1990s version of the band. There is already a range of live recordings of this line-up available in various formats — the 1995 ‘official bootleg’ B’Boom, the excellent THRaKaTTaK (a collection of live improvs edited into a seamless whole), the live DVD Deja VROOOM, which makes great use of the multiple viewing angles and other features offered by DVDs, and the recent Internet-only release Live in Mexico City, but as far as live releases from this formation go, Live on Broadway is perhaps the pick of the bunch. Assembling it from a five-show residency at New York’s Longacre Theatre in 1995, its editors could select the best performances rather than having to rely on a single night, and this clearly shows in the quality of the music included here.

I can only pick out a few highlights from the nearly two hours of music on these volumes, but Adrian Belew’s stunning stunt guitar solo on “People” — not usually a standout track from the ’90s Crimson — deserves special mention, as do Tony Levin’s inventive bass rumblings on “Red”: this may be one of the first times where John Wetton’s shadow doesn’t loom large in the background on this track. Bill Bruford is outstanding as usual on “Indiscipline”, too. The most remarkable moment of this release, however, is the excellent transition from “THRAK” to “Neurotica”, which works so well it’s almost unnoticeable until you’re way into the song. There’s still no “21st Century Schizoid Man” on this CD (it would be revived for live duty only some time later, as evident from Live in Mexico City), and the bonus “Fearless and Highly THRaKked” track (previously released on THRaKaTTaK), out of context here, seems patched on, but nonetheless, for me this is the best live release from the ’90s double trio so far (Live in Mexico City is great, too, but much shorter than On Broadway.)

Generally, then, this first year of King Crimson Collectors’ Club releases has been quite encouraging — while playing it relatively safe by focussing on popular as well as on so far un-covered live versions of the band, DGM have released a wealth of quality material which will still take some time for fans to digest fully. The real test is only about to follow, though: having covered mainstream Crimson history by now, where will the KCCC go next? Some first indications are available: volume 7 provides an excellent insight into the King Crimson off-shoot ProjeKct 4, and the contents of volume 8 — out-takes from the VROOOM recording sessions —, which have just been announced, should also make collectors’ mouths water; after that, perhaps the best thing to do is to expect the unexpected… King Crimson followers should be used to that.

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Axel Bruns spent the last five years studying English at the University of Queensland. His particular interest is in the field of Cultural and Communication Studies, with a special focus on new and emerging media. Combining this with his love of Progressive Rock, he has finished a thesis on the use of Internet discussion fora by the subcultural community of Prog fans; he is currently working on a thesis which aims to introduce and analyse the emergent genre of Resource Centre Sites on the Web.

Axel Bruns is also a co-founder and a Production Editor and Webmaster for M/C – A Journal of Media and Culture, the University of Queensland’s award-winning Web-based journal which crosses over between the popular and the academic, attempting to engage with the ‘popular’, and integrate the work of ‘scholarship’ in media and cultural studies into our critical work. It is a journal that is set to be a premier site of cultural debate on the ‘Net. Bruns has published a number of articles in M/C.