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Live at the Marquee, 1969, Collector's Club 1

In 1969 King Crimson were a young, unproven and, just one of dozens of striving new British "rock" bands. On July 5th the band opened for the Rolling Stones in Hyde Park (London), and blew the audience away. Robert Fripp wrote in his diary that day, "Standing ovation. Mammoth success, of importance which will take time to appreciate." It was a major milestone. Robert Fripp was sent a cassette of that performance by a fan, and says "someday, I might find [it] in an unmarked box."

In the meantime, a bootleg tape of King Crimson's performance the following night, July 6th, has turned up. Probably made with a small cassette recorder with a built-in voice-quality microphone (mono, of course), it was subject to severe overload distortion on the louder musical passages, and, in its original form, was barely listenable.

Robert Fripp and his engineer and co-producer, David Singleton, have labored mightily to improve the sonics to the extent possible, and have released the results as the first of many subscription-only CDs for King Crimson fans. For this they have created the D.G.M. Collectors' Club.

I think much of the credit for this endeavor must go to the Internet. The Internet has supported a vigorous King Crimson fan site, Elephant Talk, and its Elephant Talk Digest, to which many post on the regular basis, including until recently Robert Fripp himself. ET has served as a useful forum, and helped launch the Collectors' Club, which now has some 1,300 paid subscribers. This summer [1998] Robert Fripp took over the DGM site (a separate site, until then used solely to promote the Discipline Global Mobile record label) to begin posting nearly daily journal entries. These have been interesting and illuminating and have given Fripp a podium for a variety of subjects close to his heart -- including the establishment of the Collectors' Club and the serious questions surrounding Whither Crimson in the new millenium. He has also used it to respond to personal mail and a variety of comments and queries posted to ET -- including my own. Interestingly, an edited (but extensive) compendium of his journal entries have been included in the booklet for this first Collectors' Club release -- for the benefit of those subscribers who lack access to the Internet.

The purpose of the Collectors' Club is to serve diehard fans with archival Crimson material, much of it of dubious ("bootleg") sound quality. Club releases are deemed to be too limited in their appeal to be marketted to the general record-buying public. But for those of us who are hardcore Crimson fans, serious collectors, or just eager to hear more music from a long-gone band, this release and those to come are Godsends.

And Live at the Marquee 1969 is an excellent case in point. One must be sufficiently dedicated to the music to listen past the noise and subpar recording quality. And if one does, one will be richly rewarded. For on July 6th King Crimson was a band freshly energized by its Hyde Park success the day before. One gets a feeling of triumph, of vindication from these performances. The playing -- especially by flautist/saxophonist Ian McDonald -- burns with an intensity never captured in the recording studio. The band was at this point riding a rising wave -- and realised it.

The four-CD EPITAPH covers some of the same territory in terms of period and material -- with better sonics overall -- but there is fresh material on this album, most obviously the first recorded live performance of "I Talk To The Wind." And there is a most unusual "bonus track" which I'll get to shortly.

The (recorded) set begins with "21st Century Schizoid Man," which was and remains King Crimson's "theme" and encore oldie. Here the central solos vary from the recorded version somewhat, and give the first indication of just how hot the band was that night. We actually join the piece in mid-word of the opening lyrics -- possibly because the recorder had just been turned on.

This is followed by "Drop In," a very early version of the melody of "The Letters," which appeared, with lyrics by Peter Sinfield, on the fourth King Crimson album, the 1971 ISLANDS. Here it has different lyrics, and Sinfield gets no credit. The lyrics of "Drop In" were in fact by Robert Fripp and they were rather hippiesque and jejune and lacked the malice implied by Sinfield's later lyrics ("The Letters" were written with "a poison pen"). This earlier version is the only one Ian McDonald played on, of course (Mel Collins played the saxes on ISLANDS), and he brings a breathy but fierce tenor sax to this performance that radically redefines it. In places one can actually hear hints of Eric Dolphy in Ian's playing.

"I Talk To The Wind," McDonald's collaboration with lyricist Sinfield, gets a strong performance. The melody of this piece is one of the strongest in Crimson's original repertoire. It has the lasting power of Gershwin's "Summertime," and deserves to be the same kind of "standard," although it has yet to achieve this status. (For a modern performance of "I Talk To The Wind," with Ian again handling the flute, listen to Steve Hackett's 2-CD album, THE TOKYO TAPES, with John Wetton on bass: Camino Records CAMCD15, recorded in 1996.)

"Epitaph" appears also to begin in mid-performance, during the funerial "march" segment. One hears the tape come up to speed. This piece, as much as "Schizoid Man," defined the early Crimson sound, and was a direct precursor to the similar piece, "In The Court of the Crimson King." Both are Mellotron-based.

"Travel Weary Capricorn" is, like Donovan's "Get Thy Bearings" (which he wrote for Crimson), a staple of their early playlist which never made it onto record. Here it opens with a Mike Giles drum solo and moves into a gradual exposition of the melody (sometimes separately credited as "Mantra") by the guitar, eventually joined by the flute. The piece builds until the lyrics are eventually sung, and then it mutates into a heavy, quasi-free-jazz performance that owes much to "Schizoid Man." This eventually gives way to a long improvised segment which includes quotes from TV themes, "Nola," and "Etude No. 7," introduced by what sounds like a hornpipe dance by McDonald on sax. This "Improv" is credited as a separate track, but segues directly from "Capricorn."

"Mars" in turn, segues directly out of the "Improv," beginning with the "Bolero" rhythm from the guitar, over which it sounds like McDonald and others in the band are tooting penny-whistles before the Mellotron joins the guitar to build the theme. "Mars" is of course from Holst's "The Planets," and was another staple of the 1969 Crimson in live performance (there are four performances on EPITAPH). All of the live performances of "Mars" thus far available (on EPITAPH and here) vary considerably from each other; it was obviously a modal platform for improvisation according to the mood of the moment. Here, in a celebratory mood, the performance is particularly manic, building to a siren's banshee-like wail (unique to this performance among those I've heard) at its apocolyptic conclusion. "Mars" was clearly a formative influence on Crimson; it inspired later Crimson compositions (by Fripp) such as "The Devil's Triangle" on the second album, IN THE WAKE OF POSEIDON, and "Lizard" on LIZARD, the third album.

That concludes the (recorded) set at the Marquee Club. But not the 71+ minute album. The last eighteen minutes are devoted to "Trees," recorded at Fairfield Hall on October 17th, 1969. Bad as the sound was on the tape from the Marquee, this one is worse. Fripp judged it a -2 on a scale of 0-10, and Singleton was able to improve it only to a 0. But this tape is unique (thus far) in its content: three segued pieces, one of which I'd never heard before, the other two embryonic versions of later pieces, one never recorded by Crimson. The piece opens with a wordless vocal harmony over the Mellotron. This in itself was rare for King Crimson, which was not much into vocal harmonizing. The Mellotron takes the lead and duets with the guitar. Then the vocal harmonies are reprised. All this has the feeling of a complete song, perhaps "Trees" itself. But following that vocal reprise there is a short segment of the "Slowly Up and Down" portion of "Birdman," the epic piece by McDonald & Sinfield which ended up occupying the second side of the MCDONALD & GILES album, made after McDonald and Giles had left King Crimson. I had heard that Crimson had been "working on" "Birdman" in 1969, playing parts of it in live performances, but this is the first recorded evidence. The opening vocal-harmony section may be a discarded part of "Birdman;" it is vaguely similar to the actual McDonald & Giles opening of that piece. The "Slowly Up and Down" riff quickly segues into a long instrumental piece which at that point had no name or lyrics, but which would become, with lyrics written on the band's first trip to New York City, "A Man, A City" (performed at the Fillmore East on November 21st, roughly a month later), and "Pictures of a City" on IN THE WAKE OF POSEIDON, Crimson's second album. This long piece begins to mutate into something else -- perhaps an improvisation -- when the tape abruptly ends.

One can hear from this album that the early live King Crimson had essentially two musical tracks it pursued. One was the hard-and-heavy "Schizoid Man" approach, which was duplicated in "A Man, A City" (the riffs are in places almost indistinguishable). The second was a prettier, more melodic side, exemplified by "I Talk To The Wind," but present also in "Travel Weary Capricorn." "Epitaph" and "In The Court" were "Mars"-like attempts to blend the two. In live sets the band tended to alternate the two approaches, which made a lot of sense. The connective threads were improvisations, often used to link written pieces together seamlessly.

One wonders if they had any idea at the time of the importance of what they were doing. The booklet with this CD publishes a number of photos of the young band in performance. What might strike most people, more familiar with Robert Fripp's buddha-like stance on a stool, are the pictures of him on his feet, and grinning, obviously enjoying the hell out of the performance. Ah, youth! And there is another photo, of the original band, taken on March 15th, 1997, on the release of EPITAPH. Middle-aged men, looking more like bankers or stockbrokers, Greg Lake quite jowly.

So how can you get this CD, if this review intrigues you? I'm not sure you can, because I don't know how many copies were pressed in excess of the initial subscription of 1,300. But it seems likely that at least a few copies remain. The CD was released in October, 1998. But you can download a copy from the DGM Live Library

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