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McDONALD & GILES (Japanese Atlantic 18P2-2852) [1970]

It's fascinating, if somewhat fruitless, to speculate on what might have happened, had events taken a different turn. What if, say, Ian McDonald and Michael Giles had not quit the original King Crimson at the end of their U.S. tour, in December, 1969? Their leaving prompted Greg Lake to leave soon thereafter (to join Keith Emerson in ELP), and left Robert Fripp holding the bag that was King Crimson.

Fripp's choice was to let King Crimson Mk.I run its course by recording the next two Crimson albums as studio-sessions, there being no live and functioning band of that name until 1972. Consequently, IN THE WAKE OF POSEIDON and LIZARD, the second and third Crimson albums, continued the basic structure and nature of the first album. But what would have happened if McDonald, Giles and Lake had stayed for at least a second album? What would that album have been like?

We have one clue, and it is the 1970 album Ian and Mike made after leaving Crimson. Significant portions of it had been rehearsed in the fall of 1969 by King Crimson, and Robert Fripp has gone on record describing McDONALD & GILES as half of the second King Crimson album, as it was originally planned.

So let's take a look at this album which might have been a part of King Crimson's history had its creators stayed in that band:

I met and interviewed Ian McDonald when Foreigner made its debut late in the seventies. In the interim McDonald had done relatively little on record, although he produced (and added a few sax bits to) albums by T Rex, Fruupp, Fireballet, Wolf and others. He told me that making McDONALD & GILES had taken a lot out of him, alluding to a nervous breakdown following its completion.

The core band on the album is a trio made up of Ian on a wide variety of instruments (guitar, piano, organ, saxes, flute, clarinet, and zither, plus "sundries") and vocals, Mike on drums, percussion and vocals, and Peter Giles on bass. This is effectively the same lineup as that of King Crimson's precursor, Giles, Giles & Fripp (THE CHEERFUL INSANITY OF GILES, GILES & FRIPP), with Fripp out and McDonald in. Augmentation comes from "strings and brass on 'Birdman' and 'Suite in C' arranged and conducted by Mike Gray," and guest musicians Steve Winwood and trombonist Michael Blakesley.

The album opens with "Suite in C; including Turnham Green, Here I Am, and others." It was written during and after King Crimson's U.S. tour, "in Detroit, Los Angeles and Earls Court between December 1969 and February 1970" by Ian (both words & music). Steve Winwood, then at the early height of his career, contributed organ and piano solos to the "Turnham Green" section. This piece has virtually nothing in common with the music of King Crimson, but does not suffer in comparison. It draws instead upon the British music hall tradition, and perhaps American stripper's music, heavy on the backbeat in sections, employing hand-claps, and rhythmically quite different from Crimson as well. (This is as much Mike Giles' album as it is Ian McDonald's; his drumming is incredible throughout and has no peer.) The melodies are warm, almost "good-timey" and utterly lacking the doom-ridden qualities typical of Crimson. The production has subtle psychedelic touches, and the lyrics are slyly seductive ("Come along with me / We can have some tea / Brewed by me for thee my love / Come inside and you will see/ Come inside and you will see"). The piece is a suite, as the title implies, and moves among several melodies, lasting over 11 minutes.

"Flight of the Ibis" has music by McDonald and words by B.P. Fallon. A short, song-length piece, the music is "the original melody for 'Cadence & Cascade' [which appeared on the second Crimson album] written in Spring 1969 with new words from Beep." In other words, in the splitup of Crimson, Fripp got to keep Sinfield's lyrics for "Cadence & Cascade," but had to supply a new melody, while McDonald took the melody and had to have new lyrics written. In an alternate reality in which Crimson did not split up we'd have heard McDonald's melody to "Cadence & Cascade" on Crimson's second album.

Even shorter (less than three minutes) is "Is She Waiting?" written entirely by McDonald "in Earls Court in the summer of '69, between [Crimson] gigs." A lovely tune, it would undoubtedly have appeared on a Crimson album had McDonald stayed with the group.

Side one of the original LP closed with Michael Giles' composition, "Tomorrow's People -- The Children of Today." It is on this track that Blakesley contributes his multitracked trombone, giving the piece a brassier sound. Giles had started the piece in 1967, undoubtedly for Giles, Giles & Fripp, but completed it in 1970, post-Crimson. It is stronger and more ambitious than most of Giles' contributions to the G,G & F album and works well here.

Side two of the LP was given over entirely to the almost-22-minute "Birdman," whose full title is "Birdman; involving The Inventor's Dream (O.U.A.T.), The Workshop, Wishbone Ascension, Birdman Flies!, Wings In The Sunset, Birdman -- The Reflection." The piece was a collaboration between McDonald (music) and Peter Sinfield (lyrics). Sinfield had been Ian's friend, whom Ian introduced to Giles, Giles & Fripp when he joined that band in 1968. It was Sinfield who gave the band its new name, "King Crimson," and wrote the majority of King Crimson's original lyrics (and continued to do so through the fourth Crimson album, ISLANDS). "Birdman" was "mostly written in the spring of 1968, apart from the Flying bit which was done in 1970. Original idea by Peter Sinfield." That is, most of the piece precedes Peter and Ian's entrance into the band that would become King Crimson. Crimson rehearsed at least parts of the piece (a few bars of the "Slowly Up, Then Slowly Down" section appear in King Crimson's live performance of "Trees" on the LIVE AT THE MARQUEE CLUB 1969 album, reviewed elsewhere here), and Fripp has indicated that it had been planned for the second Crimson album at that point.

The piece is a delightful fantasy about a dotty inventor who dreams of flying and builds the wings that allow him to achieve his dream. Very English, and very optimistic -- unlike most of Crimson's material. The melodies soar, and this piece is the climax, both artistically and emotionally, of the album. It and "Suite In C" provide very strong bookends to the album as a whole, which is even more apparent on the CD version, which of course plays continuously from the first track to the last.

Consider how this music would have impacted King Crimson, had it been used on Crimson's second (and maybe third) albums: To begin with, very little of it sounds Crimsoid in the sense that we have come to think of Crimson's music. It lacks the dark, ominous side of Crimson entirely, but builds on pieces (on the first Crimson album) like "I Talk To The Wind" and "Moonchild" (McDonald compositions). Fripp too used the melodic side of Crimson (his "Peace -- A Theme" runs through the second Crimson album, both opening and closing it), but "Birdman" would have been a considerable departure for Crimson with its whimsical lyrics and joyful melodies. The funky rhythms used in portions of both "Birdman" and "Suite In C" would also have been new for Crimson.

The sense I have is that had the first King Crimson remained intact through at least the second album, there would have been an obvious and ongoing evolution away from the approach of the first album. Moods would have lightened and the band might have achieved a very different (if no less important) reputation by, say, 1971. Would this have been an improvement over the King Crimson which in fact existed then? Impossible to say -- but different, surely.

In any event, here in this time-line we have both King Crimson and McDonald & Giles to enjoy. This album is unique; there was no followup (although rumor has it there may be a new album from McDonald soon, and Mike Giles will be on it). It is impressive and highly enjoyable in its own right. But -- it is available on CD only as a Japanese import, released in the late 1980s and still available in some stores' import bins. It's well worth searching out if you've never heard it. I recommend it highly.

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