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KING CRIMSON: Beat Club Bremen 1972, 1972 (D.G.M. Collectors' Club #3)

I can well remember the stunned surprise with which I listened for the first time to King Crimson's LARKS' TONGUES IN ASPIC. The title was bizarre enough, but the opening track, "Larks' Tongues in Aspic, Pt.1," was superb -- and on levels King Crimson had not previously attained. There was a level of musical maturity and ambition which surpassed the first four (five, if you count EARTHBOUND) Crimson albums. And something else had taken place: a shift in the nature of the music.

From the beginning, King Crimson's music had been story-telling music, which is called programmatic music. It was also Romantic, in the classical music sense of that word. But with LARKS' TONGUES that changed. The music stopped telling stories. It became abstract -- more nearly pure music. (Music, in human evolution, started as functional music: music to do things -- tasks, ceremonies -- by. Modern dance-oriented music remains closest to this kind of music, and if it has a beat and you can dance to it, it's functional. Music evolved into entertainment via story-telling music, and eventually became art music, valued for itself alone -- music qua music.)

A great mystery seemed to underlie "Larks' Tongues in Aspic, Pt.1" -- a mystery not solvable by reference to the lyrics (there were none) or any sense of a specific story. There was only that confounding title to go on, with its hints of Chinese decadence -- or maybe of British Imperial decadence -- and whatever could be gleaned from the music and the strange snatches of voices (as if taken from a short-wave radio -- which they may have been) which popped up in places.

The album had also unveiled a new band, with only Robert Fripp remaining from the earlier Crimson. He was joined by David Cross on violin and Mellotron (the band had two Mellotrons, so Fripp and Cross could play them simultaneously), John Wetton (formerly of Family) on bass guitar and vocals, Bill Bruford (formerly of Yes) on drums, and Jamie Muir on "percussion and allsorts." Muir came out of the avant garde, and brought with him a sense of the larger world of music -- that world which exists beyond rock and beyond pop music, where music is one of the arts. "Jamie was far too intelligent and well-balanced a human being to stay with the group for long," Fripp says of him in the liner notes of the Collectors' Club release number three. Indeed, he left the group in mid-February, 1973, after performing with it for only about half a year. He joined the group in the studio to complete the recording of LARKS' TONGUES, but was in fact by then no longer a performing member.

Which is what makes this release so historically important: it is the first, and thus far only, live recording with Muir. All subsequent live recordings by the 'Larks' Tongues' band are by the remaining quartet without Muir.


So what did this "percussionist" add? African thumb pianos to the opening of "Larks' Tongues Pt.1," to begin with. But Muir also "cheerfully bit on blood capsules while releasing chains whirled around his head and which had, a moment before, been flailing sheets of metal; then falling in an effusive and bloody fashion upon his drums to propel the group and his co-drummer Bill Bruford through the next piece of orchestrated mayhem. ... All this dressed in animal skins. He also took up 40-60% of group resources in space and time," according to Fripp. He added an ineffable quality to the group and taught Bruford a great deal about subtlety. (Muir's "allsorts" included mechanical laughter, bird calls, whirring objects that sounded like gnats, and a very wide variety of percussion oddments.)

On October 17, 1972 the band went to Germany to perform on the Beat Club TV show in Bremen. The band was reasonably well recorded -- in mono -- and video-taped. (One could wish for the video.) This was "the first formal performance of this Crimson," Fripp says, making the recording of even greater historical significance to fans and collectors.

Only three pieces were performed: the nearly 30-minute "Improv: The Rich Tapestry of Life," a nearly 8-minute "Exiles" and the nearly 7-minute "Larks' Tongues in Aspic, Pt. 1". This adds up to less than 45 minutes total, and there is less music than that. The opening improvisation, for example, is preceded by a full 2 minutes and 38 seconds of setting up -- enough time for a short song. "Exiles" is virtually the same length as the recorded version on LARKS' TONGUES, but "Larks' Tongues Pt. 1" is only half the length of the album version, leading some Crimson enthusiasts to wonder if the version on this release has been cut short. (It doesn't sound like it, however. I suspect the piece -- credited to the group, while "Pt. 2" is credited solely to Fripp -- continued to grow on its way to the studio.)

The music performed that day is in some respects embryonic when it is compared with the album versions, and it lacks the finesse and polish of a studio recording, since this was a live, all-in-one-take shot. I found myself impatient with the "Improv" on first listening; it wanders haphazardly and one senses at different places that some of the musicians are casting about in a search for ideas, or waiting for a theme to jell. But repeated listenings reveal a number of nice bits. At one point David Cross plays a flute, reminding us of Ian McDonald and Mel Collins in earlier incarnations of Crimson. And throughout Muir embellishes with sly touches. Fripp, tentative at first, eventually smokes -- reminding us of why we feel about him as we do.

"Exiles" is interesting for the fact that it opens differently than the album version (and subsequent live versions) does. It opens with a melodic line which will be familiar to those who have heard EPITAPH, the LIVE AT THE MARQUEE 1969 CD, or any bootlegs of early Crimson, although it was never used on any album. It's the opening melody of "Mantra/Travel Weary Capricorn," and it's a bit odd to hear it in this context. I guess Fripp was still trying it out to see if it fit or was useable at this point. It was obviously abandoned soon thereafter. (The LARKS' TONGUES version opens with ominous and atonal sounds that evoke the wailing of lost souls. After a minute and twenty seconds of these a bass line arises, which is an inverted and dark variation on the "Mantra" line, and is recapitulated later in the piece.) That opening line appears to rise immediately out of the "Improv" that precedes it, and lasts almost two minutes into the piece until giving way to the familiar melody and vocal.

"Larks' Tongues in Aspic, Pt. 1" despite its truncated length seems to have all the essential elements of the longer version, but trails off into silence for ten or twelve seconds, after which we hear people talking and breaking equipment down for several seconds more -- a total of almost half a minute following the end of the piece.

I suppose these "bookends" to the album's music are there to tell us that this is all there is -- nothing was edited out, either from the beginning or the ending. But they also mean the musical part of the album is shorter than you think -- by at least three minutes. And although 41 minutes is not particularly short by LP album standards (that's a bit over 20 minutes a side; 18 is more typical), it's short for both modern CDs and for the previous Collectors' Club releases -- which typically lasted an hour or longer (a typical set or concert length). Still, if that's all the music that was performed and recorded, there's not much sense bemoaning its length. It's unique.

Fripp remarks of the recording of the LARKS' TONGUES album, that "I received a postcard from [Muir] not long afterwards with a Muir-collage mounted on the front -- 'All part of the rich tapestry of life.' He was departing for a monastery in Scotland, where he spent the next few years." He lent that descriptive line to the improv's title, and may have been influential in Fripp's own decision to disband Crimson and join a monastery of his own for a few years in late 1974.

"The show ended with Jamie emptying a sack of leaves on the studio floor," Fripp notes. I'd love to see that on video tape. In the meantime, there's the April release due soon: King Crimson's 80's incarnation, with Tony Levin, Adrian Belew and Bill Bruford, live at Cap d'Arge in 1982.

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