Review – Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets

Friday 6 May 2022

O₂ Apollo Manchester

Nick Mason’s band are more than just an echo of the past

*****

Pink Floyd’s drummer Nick Mason announced that the band shared a stage in Manchester with Jimi Hendrix 55 years ago in 1967. It seems unlikely that the original band will ever tour again, not least because the band would no longer be complete – keyboard player Rick Wright went to the great gig in the sky in 2008. After curating the exhibition Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains at the V&A in 2017, Mason was worried that he would spend the rest of life as a branch of English Heritage, lovingly tending to a past that had happened decades before. Instead, he started a new band, Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets, to play some of Pink Floyd’s music. He deliberately avoided playing any music from the band’s classic run of albums that began with Dark Side of the Moon in 1973. Instead, he decided only to play songs from the early Syd Barrett era, and some material from the later albums after David Gilmour joined the band. The most recent album the band now perform is Meddle from 1971, including for the first time on this tour the epic 20-minute track Echoes which provides the title of the tour.

Mason is the only member of Pink Floyd to play in his Saucerful of Secrets band, although bass player Guy Pratt did play with the band in the 1990s after original bass player Roger Waters left. Gary Kemp from Spandau Ballet sings and plays guitar – at one point Mason joked that Kemp had expected to play with Roger Waters and that Mason himself had expected to play with Tony Hadley. Lee Harris, previously of Ian Dury’s band The Blockheads plays guitar and composer, multi-instrumentalist and producer Dom Beken is on keyboards.

It would have been tempting for the band to be a high quality tribute band, like The Australian Pink Floyd who last played at the Apollo in November 2021. They give audiences the chance to hear classic Pink Floyd songs live, played to a very high standard. But Mason’s band offer something different and fresh, bringing new life to music that is over 50 years old. The songs are delivered with propulsive enthusiasm, sometimes approaching joy. None of the band members attempt to recreate the exact sound of the original band – except Mason himself who is playing his own parts. Whilst they are respectful to the original songs, the other band members add their own touches, often subtle but always inspiring. Guy Pratt provides lovely, melodic basslines and can also drive the band to be deliciously funky at times. He also provides heartfelt vocals. Gary Kemp brings his acting skills to his vocals, colouring the sound to match each song. He’s also a fine guitarist. Lee Harris on guitar is a superb player, bringing his own style rather than merely copying David Gilmore’s soulful string-bending or Syd Barrett’s eccentric playing. Dom Beken contributes excellent keyboard solos that are more blues-tinged than the jazz stylings of Rick Wright.

The highlight of the first set was a tightly-constructed series extracts from the Atom Heart Mother suite from the 1970 album of the same name. It was bookended by If from the same album, a beautifully delicate ballad on which Kemp and Pratt shared vocals, which includes the incredibly moving line ‘If I go insane, please don’t put your wires in my brain.’ The highlight of the second set was Echoes, which forms side two of Meddle. This is a fascinating track in the original Pink Floyd catalogue, the first time they had successfully created a long-form prog track after the departure of Syd Barrett, pointing forward to the new style that would mature of the next album Dark Side of the Moon. Nick Mason’s band at times turned it into a psychedelic track so that fitted perfectly with the other songs in the gig. There was a wonderfully funky swagger to the passage around six minutes in, and near the end a lovely, spacious guitar jam. Another second-set highlight was the instrumental Interstellar Overdrive, which the original band played in Manchester in 1969. Guy Pratt said Manchester is his favourite city – his son is at university here – and for a brief moment he and Lee Harris improvised around another song associated with Manchester, Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart.

The Encore began with a lively version of See Emily Play, and a melodic Saucerful of Secrets. The final track was Bike which ends with the words,

I know a room of musical tunes…

Let’s go into the other room and make them work

Rather than sitting at home curating his past, Nick Mason has decided to go into the other room, and make early Pink Floyd songs work again.

How I found Steven Wilson

Steven Wilson is known as ‘The most successful British musician most people have never heard of’. So how did I find him? (updated April 2022)

Steven Wilson and Nick Holmes at a book signing in Manchester in April 2022

In February 2009, Steven Wilson did something uncharacteristically violent; he destroyed five iPods. He shot the first one, smiling ‘wow’ when he hit it first time, but sensibly wearing ear defenders. He took a blow torch to the next one, wearing a mask that might be worn by a member of a heavy metal band (a new look for Slipknot?) or perhaps by a professional welder. The third iPod was murdered by Steven wielding a hammer; walking away from the scene of the crime in a smart black suit, he could be a star of a Scandinavian drama. In the fourth crime scene, Steven drives over the ipod in a small blue sensibly-priced car; to make sure it’s dead he stamps on it.  In the fifth crime scene, Steven takes a sledge hammer to his final victim.

These crimes against technology didn’t lead to an appearance on Crimewatch; no reconstruction was necessary as all the incidents had been filmed for YouTube. The first video did attract nearly 58,000 views (as at October 2019). Each video ended with a reference to an album called Insurgentes. Maybe he was just promoting the album? 

In 2015, I found out about Steven’s activities when I was researching a radio programme I was making. I was looking for a musician who was passionate about high quality sound. Neil Young was a possibility as he was developing a new device called a Pono (yes, without an r in the middle) to play back high-quality music files. I reached out to Neil (or his people) but presumably he was washing his hair (there is quite a lot of it). After a bit more searching, I found another hirsute musician called Steven Wilson. I had never heard of him, but I was intrigued by his crimes against iPods and also the things he was saying in interviews then, 

Unfortunately for me, I live in a world where download and streaming culture are here to stay; iPods are the dominant form in which people listen to music. I can no longer kid myself that people are listening to vinyl records at home or 5.1. There is a small group of audiophiles that have always listened to those things, and of which I am a part, but the majority of people listen to music streaming on their laptops or on MP3s on their iPods; I have to accept that, I can’t cut myself off to it, but I don’t have to like it, and I still think that it’s a very poor substitute for a high quality experience. 

I have never smashed any iPods but I shared Steven’s passion for high quality music reproduction. My Presenter and I duly went to Steven’s house to interview Steven. My Presenter had never heard of him either, but then my Presenter hasn’t heard of most of the people we interview. 

Steven opened the door of his house. He wasn’t wearing any shoes. I found out later that this was A Thing for Steven but at the time I didn’t think it odd that he asked us to remove our shoes – we had walked through the garden to get to the house and obviously he didn’t want us to get mud on his carpet. 

Steven was charming and articulate, and spoke passionately about his love of high-quality sound. He used a striking analogy; listening to a low-quality MP3 file compared to listening to a high-quality file was like looking at a work of art reproduced as a jpeg compared to going to an art gallery to see the original painting. He was quietly persuasive, firm in his views but gentle and thoughtful in delivery. 

I went back to the studio to edit and mix the programme which involved listening over and over again to the same bits of audio; and then listening to them again. I wanted to put in some of Steven’s music to illustrate the style. His most recent album then was the intriguingly titled The Raven That Refused to Sing and Other Stories (true fans call the album simply The Raven). It sounded like a concept album from the 1970s such as Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination, or Tales from Topographic Oceans.  I found out later that Steven had set out to write a 1970s-style concept album, which was fine with me…not only did I buy Dark Side of the Moon on vinyl, then cd, then on cd again for the 30th anniversary, then on remastered cd, but I also bought a triple live album by Yes called Yessongs. The latter sounded if it was recorded on wet socks (which is maybe why Steven doesn’t wear any) but the musicianship is amazing and it introduced me to long form rock music, otherwise known as Progressive Rock. 

Back in the radio studio, I was listening again and again to the title track of The Raven That Refused to Sing; there was something really haunting about Steven’s delicate vocals, and the repeating piano motif which kept switching from major to minor and back again. One of the joys of working in radio is that sometimes you can just sit in the studio and listen to good music on decent loudspeakers just for the pleasure of it and nobody can tell you off as it’s part of the Day Job. So I did…and realised that I found the piece very moving. Something about the sparse lyrics and the repeating piano chords spoke to me, 

Sing for me, 
Sing for me.
You can come with meYou can live with me. 
Heal my soul, 
Make me whole.

As the poet William Wordsworth once wrote, it felt like ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’. There was something of the Romantic Poet in Steven’s music. 

On the table in the smart little waiting room in Steven’s house there was a coffee table with a single item on it – a copy of the latest issue of Prog magazine. It’s possible that it had a picture of Steven on the front; I can’t remember now but I found out later that he has been on the cover a few times. Sometimes, reading Prog magazine every month as I now do, it seems to me that he is seen as the saviour of  prog rock, preventing it from becoming a comfortable branch of the nostalgia industry through all the remasters and reissues; why buy one remastered cd when you can buy a box with 12 cds of slightly different versions and multiple out-takes and live recordings? Why buy any new music at all? (I confess I am as guilty of this as anyone else of my generation; I admit that I turn first to the re-issues pages in the music magazines I read, but I have never spent £400 on a Pink Floyd box set). 

Before meeting Steven, I discovered that he had a healthy side-line in remixing classic prog albums. I bought one of these and was relieved to discover that he had made excellent work on an album that I had always enjoyed musically but could barely listen to because the sound was so piercing. As were leaving his house, I thanked him for making a great album so good to listen to at last. I should point out that I tend to avoid letting interviewees know that I am a fan of their work; the objective journalist in me tells me that I should keep a professional distance. Also, I have never forgotten a line from the Peter Hammill song, Energy Vampires about the extreme view some fans have of their heroes 

Excuse me while I suck your blood,
Excuse me when I phone you,
I’ve got every one of your records, man, 
Doesn’t that mean that I own you? 

I'm not selling you my soul
Try to put it in the records
But I've got to keep my life my own

When fans suck all the energy from their heroes, it can lead to the kind of extreme alienation that Roger Waters experienced, leading him to spit at a fan and build a wall (and write a Wall). I can confirm that Steven Wilson didn’t spit at me. 

While in his home studio (not like your average home studio – it had high quality speakers, an original Mellotron and the a guitar pedal board the size of a small car) I was intrigued to see that the record that Steven was remixing on the day we met him was not by some Prog Hero, but by Tears for Fears. When his last album To the Bone came out later that suddenly made a lot of sense. He said 

My fifth [solo] record is in many ways inspired by the hugely ambitious progressive pop records that I loved in my youth. I grew up listening to a lot of very smart pop records by artists like Kate Bush, Talk Talk, Peter Gabriel, Prince, Depeche Mode, Tears for Fears, The The. 

So at that time he saw himself as a progressive artist, but was he the King of Prog Rock as some people have viewed him? When I asked him if he saw himself as a Prog Rocker, his answer was more interesting than the question. He said he saw himself as a story teller, whose records were not a collection of 10 three-minute songs, but long form narratives, like a film or a novel. 

That was a good answer. It’s sometimes helpful to put music into a neat little box (like the little instructions to record shop staff on the back of records that used to say File under Progressive Thrash Metal etc.) But I was pleased that Steven didn’t want to be categorised. All he wanted to do was re-invent himself with every record he made, an ambition that is rarer than it should be, although no doubt David Bowie would have approved. 

It’s strange how music can find you sometimes, rather than you actively seeking it out. I found Steven Wilson’s music by accident, too. You could say it was Fate, but I wouldn’t believe you. I could put in one of my favourite quotes about Fate from John Lennon here 

Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans 

It turns out that the original quote is attributed to someone else who may have been called Allen Saunders. I may never Google anything again, to save future disappointment. 

In any case, I was making other plans when Steven Wilson (or at least his music) came to find me, 

Heal my soul
Make me whole 

Now, you should stop reading this for the next 10 minutes or so, to give you time to listen to The Raven that Refused to Sing. It’s on all the major streaming services, and also there’s a beautiful animated video on YouTube, made by Jess Cope from Owl House Studios.

I have started listening to the song on Spotify to as I write this, but I will stop now to listen properly. See you shortly… 

The comments about the song on YouTube suggest that it has created a river of tears in its listeners and viewers. I will pick only one, followed by an extract for the lyrics of the song 

My older sister died few years ago, so I can’t describe how it felt when I listened this masterpiece for the very first time, at some point it felt like the song was written for me.

Sister, I lost you, 
When you were still a child,
But I need you now,
And I need our former life.
I'm afraid to wake,
I'm afraid to love. 

The song ends with a very simple line on the piano. I can reach my piano keyboard from here to pick out the notes. They are easy to play, but also profoundly moving. 

That was a slight diversion; I hadn’t intended to stop and listen at this point, or to reveal the effect that Steven Wilson’s music can have, but I don’t feel embarrassed. Otherwise, as somebody once said (and you can spend an hour researching it if you want to find out who, and still not be sure who said it) 

writing about music is like dancing about architecture 

See you next time. 

Review – Van der Graaf Generator

The Bridgewater Hall, Manchester

Tuesday 22 February 2022

Prog rock band still generating sparks in Manchester over 50 years on

****

In one of those lovely disambiguations on Wikipedia, Van der Graaf Generator the rock band are not to be confused with the electrostatic machine the Van der Graaff Generator. Both are capable of creating electric sparks.

Founded 55 years ago in Manchester, the rock band fronted by singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Peter Hammill returned to Manchester – where they were formed in 1967 – with a mixture of more recent songs and some classics. The band were on hiatus for many years and at different times while Hammill pursued his solo career. Hammill’s back catalogue is massive – he has recorded around 50 studio albums as a solo artist and with the band. In the world of prog rock, perhaps only Steven Wilson has been as prolific, has maintained such a high standard of songwriting, and has remained as true to his own unique vision.

The latest line-up of the band features Hammill himself on guitar, keyboards and vocals and two members of the band who first joined in 1968, Guy Evans on drums and Hugh Banton on keyboards. Material was drawn mostly from the 60s and 70s and from this century, both from Hammill’s solo albums and the band’s records. When the band returned for an encore an audience member shouted ‘1976’ and Hammill smiled ‘earlier, actually’, going on to sing a sweet-voiced version of the anthemic Refugees from the 1970 album The Least we can do is Wave to Each Other.

Hammill came on stage wearing a loose-fitting white suit, looking like an avuncular housemaster from a minor public school who had just come off the cricket pitch. The capacious stage of the Bridgewater Hall, which can accommodate a full symphony orchestra, looked a little bare with only three performers and their equipment, and there was no light-show or video screens. All the drama was concentrated in the musical performances and the formidable but strangely moving songwriting.

Hammill’s voice is still a remarkable instrument, coloured by his phenomenal ability to act out a song. Sometimes it was conversational, sounding like the singer of a French chanson, at other times half-spoken like the sprechstimme used in German classical music in the early part of the twentieth century. At times it was pensive as in Do Not Disturb, at other times terrifying as in the cry that opened Nutter Alert; it was clear that Hammill has no intention of going gentle into that good night. Sometimes it was an instrumental texture, as in parts of Childhood Faith in Childhood’s End, going from a whisper to a roar in very short space of time.

Strong support to Hammill’s vocal was provided by drummer Guy Evans whose work was subtle, fierce, jazzy, military, busy, simple as required. Hugh Banton’s organ playing was bluesy, dreamy, contemplative, jazzy, funky, hymn-like. There was a remarkable range of tone, texture and dynamics from just three players. If there was the odd slip, absence from touring due to Covid was a good reason. Hammill announced Masks by saying that they had decided to play the song during the Covid lockdowns but were not sure if they could pull it off; spoiler alert – they could. The song took flight with a full prog instrumental passage and a wailing guitar. Poignantly, Hammill announced at the end of the concert that the band would not be able to meet the fans and do signings afterwards as they had to remain in a Covid bubble with crew. But despite the enforced lack of contact with the audience, the band had communicated through the music which was challenging, disturbing, cinematic, horrifying, intimate, dramatic, reflective, endlessly twisting and restless, always fascinating. And ultimately uplifting.

How I found Steven Wilson

Steven Wilson is known as ‘The most successful British musician most people have never heard of’. So how did I find him? (updated April 2022)

Steven Wilson and Nick Holmes at a book signing in Manchester in April 2022

In February 2009, Steven Wilson did something uncharacteristically violent; he destroyed five iPods. He shot the first one, smiling ‘wow’ when he hit it first time, but sensibly wearing ear defenders. He took a blow torch to the next one, wearing a mask that might be worn by a member of a heavy metal band (a new look for Slipknot?) or perhaps by a professional welder. The third iPod was murdered by Steven wielding a hammer; walking away from the scene of the crime in a smart black suit, he could be a star of a Scandinavian drama. In the fourth crime scene, Steven drives over the ipod in a small blue sensibly-priced car; to make sure it’s dead he stamps on it.  In the fifth crime scene, Steven takes a sledge hammer to his final victim.

These crimes against technology didn’t lead to an appearance on Crimewatch; no reconstruction was necessary as all the incidents had been filmed for YouTube. The first video did attract nearly 58,000 views (as at October 2019). Each video ended with a reference to an album called Insurgentes. Maybe he was just promoting the album? 

In 2015, I found out about Steven’s activities when I was researching a radio programme I was making. I was looking for a musician who was passionate about high quality sound. Neil Young was a possibility as he was developing a new device called a Pono (yes, without an r in the middle) to play back high-quality music files. I reached out to Neil (or his people) but presumably he was washing his hair (there is quite a lot of it). After a bit more searching, I found another hirsute musician called Steven Wilson. I had never heard of him, but I was intrigued by his crimes against iPods and also the things he was saying in interviews then, 

Unfortunately for me, I live in a world where download and streaming culture are here to stay; iPods are the dominant form in which people listen to music. I can no longer kid myself that people are listening to vinyl records at home or 5.1. There is a small group of audiophiles that have always listened to those things, and of which I am a part, but the majority of people listen to music streaming on their laptops or on MP3s on their iPods; I have to accept that, I can’t cut myself off to it, but I don’t have to like it, and I still think that it’s a very poor substitute for a high quality experience. 

I have never smashed any iPods but I shared Steven’s passion for high quality music reproduction. My Presenter and I duly went to Steven’s house to interview Steven. My Presenter had never heard of him either, but then my Presenter hasn’t heard of most of the people we interview. 

Steven opened the door of his house. He wasn’t wearing any shoes. I found out later that this was A Thing for Steven but at the time I didn’t think it odd that he asked us to remove our shoes – we had walked through the garden to get to the house and obviously he didn’t want us to get mud on his carpet. 

Steven was charming and articulate, and spoke passionately about his love of high-quality sound. He used a striking analogy; listening to a low-quality MP3 file compared to listening to a high-quality file was like looking at a work of art reproduced as a jpeg compared to going to an art gallery to see the original painting. He was quietly persuasive, firm in his views but gentle and thoughtful in delivery. 

I went back to the studio to edit and mix the programme which involved listening over and over again to the same bits of audio; and then listening to them again. I wanted to put in some of Steven’s music to illustrate the style. His most recent album then was the intriguingly titled The Raven That Refused to Sing and Other Stories (true fans call the album simply The Raven). It sounded like a concept album from the 1970s such as Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination, or Tales from Topographic Oceans.  I found out later that Steven had set out to write a 1970s-style concept album, which was fine with me…not only did I buy Dark Side of the Moon on vinyl, then cd, then on cd again for the 30th anniversary, then on remastered cd, but I also bought a triple live album by Yes called Yessongs. The latter sounded if it was recorded on wet socks (which is maybe why Steven doesn’t wear any) but the musicianship is amazing and it introduced me to long form rock music, otherwise known as Progressive Rock. 

Back in the radio studio, I was listening again and again to the title track of The Raven That Refused to Sing; there was something really haunting about Steven’s delicate vocals, and the repeating piano motif which kept switching from major to minor and back again. One of the joys of working in radio is that sometimes you can just sit in the studio and listen to good music on decent loudspeakers just for the pleasure of it and nobody can tell you off as it’s part of the Day Job. So I did…and realised that I found the piece very moving. Something about the sparse lyrics and the repeating piano chords spoke to me, 

Sing for me, 
Sing for me.
You can come with meYou can live with me. 
Heal my soul, 
Make me whole.

As the poet William Wordsworth once wrote, it felt like ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’. There was something of the Romantic Poet in Steven’s music. 

On the table in the smart little waiting room in Steven’s house there was a coffee table with a single item on it – a copy of the latest issue of Prog magazine. It’s possible that it had a picture of Steven on the front; I can’t remember now but I found out later that he has been on the cover a few times. Sometimes, reading Prog magazine every month as I now do, it seems to me that he is seen as the saviour of  prog rock, preventing it from becoming a comfortable branch of the nostalgia industry through all the remasters and reissues; why buy one remastered cd when you can buy a box with 12 cds of slightly different versions and multiple out-takes and live recordings? Why buy any new music at all? (I confess I am as guilty of this as anyone else of my generation; I admit that I turn first to the re-issues pages in the music magazines I read, but I have never spent £400 on a Pink Floyd box set). 

Before meeting Steven, I discovered that he had a healthy side-line in remixing classic prog albums. I bought one of these and was relieved to discover that he had made excellent work on an album that I had always enjoyed musically but could barely listen to because the sound was so piercing. As were leaving his house, I thanked him for making a great album so good to listen to at last. I should point out that I tend to avoid letting interviewees know that I am a fan of their work; the objective journalist in me tells me that I should keep a professional distance. Also, I have never forgotten a line from the Peter Hammill song, Energy Vampires about the extreme view some fans have of their heroes 

Excuse me while I suck your blood,
Excuse me when I phone you,
I’ve got every one of your records, man, 
Doesn’t that mean that I own you? 

I'm not selling you my soul
Try to put it in the records
But I've got to keep my life my own

When fans suck all the energy from their heroes, it can lead to the kind of extreme alienation that Roger Waters experienced, leading him to spit at a fan and build a wall (and write a Wall). I can confirm that Steven Wilson didn’t spit at me. 

While in his home studio (not like your average home studio – it had high quality speakers, an original Mellotron and the a guitar pedal board the size of a small car) I was intrigued to see that the record that Steven was remixing on the day we met him was not by some Prog Hero, but by Tears for Fears. When his last album To the Bone came out later that suddenly made a lot of sense. He said 

My fifth [solo] record is in many ways inspired by the hugely ambitious progressive pop records that I loved in my youth. I grew up listening to a lot of very smart pop records by artists like Kate Bush, Talk Talk, Peter Gabriel, Prince, Depeche Mode, Tears for Fears, The The. 

So at that time he saw himself as a progressive artist, but was he the King of Prog Rock as some people have viewed him? When I asked him if he saw himself as a Prog Rocker, his answer was more interesting than the question. He said he saw himself as a story teller, whose records were not a collection of 10 three-minute songs, but long form narratives, like a film or a novel. 

That was a good answer. It’s sometimes helpful to put music into a neat little box (like the little instructions to record shop staff on the back of records that used to say File under Progressive Thrash Metal etc.) But I was pleased that Steven didn’t want to be categorised. All he wanted to do was re-invent himself with every record he made, an ambition that is rarer than it should be, although no doubt David Bowie would have approved. 

It’s strange how music can find you sometimes, rather than you actively seeking it out. I found Steven Wilson’s music by accident, too. You could say it was Fate, but I wouldn’t believe you. I could put in one of my favourite quotes about Fate from John Lennon here 

Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans 

It turns out that the original quote is attributed to someone else who may have been called Allen Saunders. I may never Google anything again, to save future disappointment. 

In any case, I was making other plans when Steven Wilson (or at least his music) came to find me, 

Heal my soul
Make me whole 

Now, you should stop reading this for the next 10 minutes or so, to give you time to listen to The Raven that Refused to Sing. It’s on all the major streaming services, and also there’s a beautiful animated video on YouTube, made by Jess Cope from Owl House Studios.

I have started listening to the song on Spotify to as I write this, but I will stop now to listen properly. See you shortly… 

The comments about the song on YouTube suggest that it has created a river of tears in its listeners and viewers. I will pick only one, followed by an extract for the lyrics of the song 

My older sister died few years ago, so I can’t describe how it felt when I listened this masterpiece for the very first time, at some point it felt like the song was written for me.

Sister, I lost you, 
When you were still a child,
But I need you now,
And I need our former life.
I'm afraid to wake,
I'm afraid to love. 

The song ends with a very simple line on the piano. I can reach my piano keyboard from here to pick out the notes. They are easy to play, but also profoundly moving. 

That was a slight diversion; I hadn’t intended to stop and listen at this point, or to reveal the effect that Steven Wilson’s music can have, but I don’t feel embarrassed. Otherwise, as somebody once said (and you can spend an hour researching it if you want to find out who, and still not be sure who said it) 

writing about music is like dancing about architecture 

See you next time. 

Review – Red (1974) by King Crimson

John Wetton, Bill Bruford and Robert Fripp

Part III of How I learned to listen to King Crimson

King Crimson’s 1974 album Red is a challenging listen, partly because it refuses to be categorised. It’s progressive rock, heavy rock, proto-metal, jazz, contemporary classical, full of terrible beauty and actual beauty. The musicianship is of the highest order, but that makes it sound cerebral. Although it’s always driven by Robert Fripp’s fierce intelligence, and by Bill Bruford’s stunningly technical drumming and percussion, it’s topped off by John Wetton’s achingly raw vocals, and underpinned by his gorgeously melodic bass lines.

This review isn’t going to concentrate too much on the technical aspects of the music and the performances; I would rather try to convey some of its visceral and emotional impact. John Lennon said in his 1971 Rolling Stone interview, in response to the criticism that his lyrics to I Want You (She’s so Heavy) were too simple because they basically repeated the title of the song over and over again, said this

When you’re drowning you don’t say ‘I would be incredibly pleased if someone would have the foresight to notice me drowning and come and help me,’ you just scream.

So I will just scream; an appropriate reaction to King Crimson. As Robert Fripp himself said

My own response to King Crimson is one of quiet terror 

The opening instrumental track Red begins with an ascending figure on guitar, which sounds like a whole-half diminished scale.  This immediately tells us that this isn’t going to be a predictable album; in fact a short, conventional bridging chord sequence from one section of the song to another comes almost as a disappointment.

The crunching, dense double-guitar riff that follows continuously winds back in on itself, like the steps on an Escher staircase. Yet despite its dense atonality, this riff has a stark simplicity that makes it a surprising ear-worm, albeit a worm with sharp teeth (a safer way of clearing earwax than cotton buds; can it also clear brain wax?)There follows a dystopian, bass-led riff, reminding me of  Bill Bruford’s comment about King Crimson I mentioned in the first blog in this series.

In King Crimson…there was always a call for a sense of a threat of impending doom.

The keening, probing instrumental riff at the start of Fallen Angel shatters apart suddenly, leading to a lovely vocal from John Wetton, with mellow acoustic guitar, mellotron and oboe accompaniment.

A heavy riff enters, suspended in slow motion as the chorus begins, a cornet playing jazz stylings above.

A double guitar solo with oboe, baroque with heavy drums, then a moment of daylight.

The heavy riff returns with distorted guitar above. Morse code guitar, with jazz cornet.

The track ends with a magisterial instrumental fade, a slow procession disappearing into the distance.

One More Red Nightmare is an epic journey, another red nightmare following the opening disturbing instrumental track Red. This has led to speculation online that King Crimson were frightened of Reds Under their Beds, but this song is about a dream of a plane crash, a ‘Pan-American nightmare ‘ (unless that’s the fear of Communism taking over the whole of the States?)

The track begins with a stop-start syncopated heavy riff, an ungainly broken animal limping through a desolate landscape, like the creature in WB Yeats’ poem The Second Coming,

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born

This riff is a precursor of what later became Progressive Metal, as practised by Dream Theater (see concert review here) and others such as Tool, the spawn of heavy metal and prog rock.

The whole song is unsettled and unsettling; the open vocal phrase seems to come in half way through a thought, breaking into a dream. The chorus suddenly appears like an unexpected guest at a wedding. John Wetton sings at the top of his range, at the top of his lungs and at the top of his emotions.

At one point, Bill Bruford’s off-beat drumming gives a sense of moving forwards and backwards at same time – just as in the song Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream, as mentioned in my review of Thrak, the previous blog in this series.

A rapid series of key changes and an endlessly questing bass line mean the song is tightly structured while still sounding free-form.

The track disappears suddenly like an old TV shutting down into a white dot – the Creator with the Remote Control shuts it off, just as the Beatles’ I Want You (She’s So Heavy) ends with white noise that suddenly becomes a white dot.

In the next track Providence we leave rock music behind; we are in the world of avant-garde classical music. A solo violin duets with and fights against ominous electronic and percussive noises.

A heavy bass line begins to assert control then drifts away again, jazz drumming takes a hold. A distorted introspective guitar line joins the fray.

John Wetton’s bass guitar tone is beautifully heavy, reminiscent of Chris Squire of Yes.

Constantly struggling to find a clear groove, the track never quite becomes funky in the way that some King Crimson tracks can. Then, without ever reaching any resolution, the music has gone. If it sounds improvised, that’s because it was recorded live, with the applause removed; or did the audience remain in stunned silence at the restless virtuosity they had just witnessed?

The lyrics for Starless contain the opening words of Dylan Thomas’s radio play Under Milk Wood, commissioned by the BBC and written twenty years earlier,

To begin at the beginning: It is Spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters’-and- rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea.

Strangely, the track didn’t appear in its natural home, the band’s previous album Starless and Bible Black.

After the the fretful avant-gardism of the previous song, Starless brings a real sense of musical release – like final major chords that appear like sparkling sunlight the end of sections of Messiaen’s St Francis of Assisi, such as the c major chord at the end of Act One of the opera.

The end of Act One of Saint Francois D’Assisse by Olivier Messiaen.

The opening section of the song has a true sense of inevitability, something very hard to create in any genre of music. This occurs when a melody and chord progression work together so well that it’s impossible for them to be conceived of in any other way. Think of Paul McCartney’s Yesterday, John Lennon’s Imagine or Bach’s Air on a G String.

The album version is excellent, but the much more recent YouTube version is absolutely gorgeous at the start, the guitar is more prominent and Jakko Jakszyk almost matches the raw emotion of of John Wetton’s original vocal

Starless (2016 version)

Of course this is King Crimson so the four-minute opening ballad is followed by section of equal length featuring a searching, intensely chromatic repeated guitar line above with a louche, syncopated bass line. It feels like being circled by a sleek wild animal, exciting and terrifying in equal measure. The guitar gets completely stuck at one point. Then suddenly, at nine minutes in the tension is released when the track flies off into a joyously jazzy flight of fancy. Nice. The once-louche bass line becomes more urgent.

The track ends with main theme restated briefly but less tranquil than before, almost cathartic. Another band would have repeated the whole of the opening section, but this being King Crimson you will have to seek your catharsis elsewhere.

See you next time.