King Crimson – the Rocking Road to Red

RoadToRedWith Behemothic box sets now the order of the day, and even albums you’ve never been that crazy about meriting multi-disc packages that scream “buy me” when you sight them, there has never been a better time to be a completist collector.  Or a more expensive time, but we won’t get into that now.

From the seven discs and three slabs of vinyl with which David Bowie taunted fans of Station to Station, to the “here’s absolutely everything Dylan has ever released apart from the bits we’re saving for later” set that Sony just dropped on our feet, early entrants into these stakes – Pink Floyd, with meager five or six disc surveys of single LPs; the Who, who couldn’t even be bothered to remix all of Quadrophenia for 5.1 – are looking almost restrained by comparison.

But still, everyone has a long way to go if they are to catch up with King Crimson, who have just followed last year’s thirteen disc recreation of Lark’s Tongue In Aspic with a back-breaking twenty-four disc survey of Red, not only preserving their final album, recorded following the tour, but their final US tour as well. (Many of the earlier European dates are also available, as downloads from Fripp and co’s own website.)

Twenty of the discs recount every halt on that 1974 outing (or, at least, every one from which a decent recording has survived), and if the Lark’s Tongue box disappointed with the generally bootleg-quality nature of the sound, The Road to Red will leave you breathless.  Only one of the shows suffers from even a suggestion of the old microphone in the back row syndrome (disc five, from Fort Worth), and that’s been cleaned up enough that you really only notice if you play the shows back to back.

All of the others were recorded either direct from the desk, or via a mobile studio (the band’s USA live album hails from this same tour), and anybody lured to this era of the band by past releases from this stash (the Great Deceiver box set, the downloads on the band’s own website) will know that leaves us open to some of the most breathtaking improv an energetic playing of Crimson’s entire career.  Again and again and again.

So many moments fascinate; minor deviations from familiar sequences that leave your ears dangling over a precipice of anticipation; will they go this way, and all will be as before? Or will they break out in a whole new direction and change the entire mood of the moment?  The improv at Fort Worth, that almost becomes “Exiles.”  A skull crushing solo that slices the Quebec “Lament” in two.  An apparently bad-tempered Oklahoma show, where Wetton’s bass sounds like a swarm of seething bees.

No “off nights” have been tinkered with, no bad notes have been repaired.  This is warts and all from the edge of your seat, but whether Crimson are soaring (the final New York show, their last gig ever, is astonishing from start to finish), or deep in the dungeon, there’s not another band on the planet to match them.  Early on in the booklet, the possibility is raised that one more tour, and King Crimson could have been as big as Pink Floyd, and commercially that might be true.  Musically, however, chalk and cheese have more in common than they do, and the idea of Crimson, in this mood, bestriding the charts like Colossus…. well, let’s just say it would probably have postponed Punk Rock.

Twenty discs, sixteen shows, 145 tracks, and it doesn’t matter that the set list scarcely deviated from night to night, lengthening or shortening according to the band’s position on the bill.  Nor that the band was in fact promoting Starless and Bible Black, with the leviathan of Red still unwritten in their future.  This line-up probably couldn’t have played the same song even remotely the same if you’d put them on American Idol and told them to mime to a Celine Dion b-side.  Robert Fripp is, of course Robert Fripp.  But John Wetton, David Cross and Bill Bruford are demonic co-conspirators as well, all capable of heading off on such vibrant passages of exploration and energy that even when you know exactly what they’re going to play (the occasional encores of “21st Century Schizoid Man,” for example), there’s usually something in the mix to surprise you.

It’s an awful lot of music to digest, of course, and even more to play favorites with – to the point, almost, when you’re grateful that the band rarely played for more than fifty or so minutes every evening.  Imagine if Springsteen or the Dead tried a project of this magnitude – twenty discs would barely cover the first three nights of the tour.  And imagine, on those nights when Crimson weren’t the headliners, being the poor sods who had to follow them.  The booklet recalls the evening when British Glam Rockers Slade topped the bill, and could barely get started for the boos from the Crimson faithful.  Finally, Slade vocalist Noddy Holder had had enough.  “If you don’t like it, you can all go take a shit,” he announced.

Other bills placed Crimson onstage with Robin Trower, Golden Earring, ZZ Top, Ten Years After, Steeleye Span, Procol Harum, the Strawbs… and some nights worked better than others.  But from the occasionally discordant strains of ”The Great Deceiver” with which the band opened most nights, through the tangled morass of mystery and suspense into which “Starless” and “Lark’s Tongue” were nightly contorted; through the wryly titled improvs that highlight almost every disc, and onto the likes of “Exiles” and “Lament,” this is the ever-shifting sound of a band at the very peak of its existence.

Indeed, a few days in its company (because that’s how long it takes to listen to the whole thing) leaves you not only reaching back to the Lark’s Tongue bramble, but hoping that future Crimsonite peregrinations will include the line-ups and tours that preceded it.

Personally, I’ve always had an incredibly soft spot for Earthbound, the supremely low-fi bastard son of the band’s official catalog, recorded in early 1972 in the aftermath of Islands, and deprived of a US release because Atlantic Records really didn’t fancy wasting vinyl on a muddy, murky cassette tape recording.  Soft enough to dream of a twenty-four CD box set recounting that adventure?  Maybe….

Oh right, twenty-four discs, and we’ve only mentioned twenty, so far.  Discs one to twenty are the live shows; disc twenty-one comprises a sparkling new mix of the Red album itself, handled by Fripp and serial Crimson remasterer Steven Wilson; the DVD disc twenty-two reiterates that, rehabilitates USA and then offers two mixes of the Asbury Park show from which it was drawn; and the final two discs are blu-rays that repeat all that, revisit four live shows, and then haul out sundry other Red-related odds and ends (the original UK vinyl, a past remaster, some out-takes and live cuts).   All essential listening from an audiophiliac angle, but if it’s the music alone that you care for… dwenty discs.

Add on another in the growing collection of booklets drawn from both Fripp’s old diaries and new interview and musings, LP-sized prints of the Red and USA covers, postcards and assorted other ephemera; wrap it all up in a very snazzy looking black box set; and set a retail price that, though high, still barely charges you $10 per disc.  Meaning, although Crimson are not everybody’s pot of tea, you’re still not likely to find a better cuppa this year.

A prodigious writer, fierce music lover and longtime record collector, Dave Thompson is the author of over 100 books, including Goldmine’s “Standard Catalog of American Records 1950-1990, 8th Edition” as well as Goldmine’s “Record Album Price Guide 7th Edition , both of which are published via Krause Publications and are available at www.krausebooks.com 

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