Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Thirty Years On, King Crimson’s Discipline Retains Its Power

King Crimson, Discipline. Released September 22, 1981.

In the Jewish community, a boy comes of age at his bar mitzvah, which typically occurs at age 13. For me, that was 1976. Disco was at its height and bad fashion was the only fashion there was. But at 13, I didn’t care so much about the rather desolate cultural landscape into which I was thrust. At 15, however, I did begin to care. In just those two years, the insipid simplicity of disco was replaced by the inspired simplicity of New Wave. But simplicity was not where my head was at. I’d begun doing certain things recreationally and my brain was excited by more complex and sophisticated music.

By 1979, I was firmly a fan of “progressive rock,” most specifically the music of bands such as Gentle Giant, King Crimson, Yes, Pink Floyd, ELP, The Moody Blues, Jethro Tull, Genesis, and Rush. These bands would more or less align themselves with the credo that appeared in the liner notes of Gentle Giant’s second album, from 1971: “It is our goal to expand the frontiers of contemporary popular music at the risk of becoming very unpopular.” Applying instrumentation not typically found in rock music (such as violin, cello, and flute), technology (such as synthesizers and various new gizmos), lengthy compositions, and album-length concepts, progressive rock was never radio-friendly, though some groups like Yes, Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull, and Rush did manage to become quite popular, often through a somewhat more accessible tune edited for radio that managed to slip through the programming gatekeepers.

Unfortunately, 1979 was not a great time to enter this genre. Gentle Giant was working on its final album, continuing a recent trend of ever more commercial-sounding releases. King Crimson had disbanded in 1974. Yes lost its singer and keyboardist following a creative nadir of an album called Tormato. Pink Floyd was riding high with The Wall, but significant personnel changes were on the horizon, as they were with The Moody Blues and Jethro Tull. ELP was gone. Rush was doing well on the radio, which to some extent cut into their prog cred, and an exciting new band called U.K., comprising two ex-members of King Crimson, broke up after only two albums and two tours.

So it was that I turned my back and ears on the current music scene and instead became obsessed with the music of 1967-75. To this day, my younger colleagues consider me “the ‘70s guy.” Even when entering college in the fall of 1981, I was decidedly anti-anything that had to do with ‘80s music or fashion. There was, however, one thing that helped me bridge the gap between the past and the present: the sudden and surprising reappearance of King Crimson.

Unbeknownst to me, guitarist Robert Fripp, the group’s leader and only constant during its initial run from 1969-74, had approached drummer Bill Bruford, who had been in the last incarnation of the band, which lasted from 1972-74 (and on U.K.’s first album, as well as being the original drummer of Yes and serving short tour stints with Genesis and Gong), with the idea of doing a project together. Fripp, who had been working with the likes of David Byrne, Peter Gabriel, Brian Eno, and Daryl Hall, wanted a somewhat funkier drum sound, with less emphasis on cymbals. Bruford had just gotten a Simmons electronic drum kit. Together, they began to sketch out a sound.

Bassist Tony Levin, who had played on Fripp’s first solo album and was a mainstay of Gabriel’s band, was recruited, as was Adrian Belew, an innovative guitarist who had brought interesting sounds to Frank Zappa and the Talking Heads. These two additions were notable in that they were the first Americans to be members of King Crimson (though the band was not yet called that), and they brought with them a host of electronic goodies: Levin the Chapman Stick, and Belew an assortment of pedals and gizmos that enabled him to mimic the sounds of wild animals. Not only that, but never before had another guitarist slung his axe alongside Fripp, an acknowledged master of the instrument.

Fripp dubbed the band Discipline and they began gigging as such. Eventually, Fripp concluded that this band was, in fact, the reincarnation of King Crimson. The name was minimally more marketable (though the band had its cult following, it had been seven years since they last were heard from), but more significantly, it raised the expectations for the outfit.

From my dorm at college, I heard that a new King Crimson album – titled Discipline – was afoot and even more exciting, the band was set to play at the college that spring. I couldn’t imagine what the new Crimson would sound like. My friend Marc, back home in Newton, Massachusetts, bought the album before I did and we listened to it together for the first time over the phone. It was unlike anything we had heard before. Yes, there was a Talking Heads rhythmic influence, the production values were of its time, and it was unquestionably progressive. But the front line of Chapman Stick and the twin interweaving guitars created a unique sonic jigsaw that could only have come from something called King Crimson, even as it distinguished this edition from all previous ones.

I bought the album as soon as I could and played it often. I became very familiar with the seven cuts. But as the concert approached, I began a relationship with that album unlike anything I have ever had with any other recording.

I was a member of the student group that produced and promoted concerts on campus, and one of my responsibilities as a Publicity Department volunteer was to set up a record player on a table on the Campus Center Concourse and play the records of artists who were appearing, give out information, and answer questions. Typically, I had other volunteers I would schedule for when I had classes, but at this time for some reason I can no longer remember, extra hands were hard to come by. Therefore, I manned the turntable for long stretches over a three- or four-week period.

What this meant was that I heard Discipline in full probably four or five times a day for weeks. The first interesting aspect to that is that I never became sick of it. There always seemed to be new things to discover in it. The other thing is that I found the varying tempos and timbres of the album seemed to match perfectly the rise and fall of activity within the Campus Center. In between classes, students would rush through with a cacophonous din of conversation, shoe clacking, and the beeping rustle of retail transactions all around me. But then it would clear out and serenity would take over. Fast, slow, loud, soft, organic and electronic, Discipline had it all, and it truly became my soundtrack for that period of my life.

Ultimately, the concert came and it was a glorious experience. In the meantime, 1981 also saw Rush come out with its masterpiece album, Moving Pictures. In 1982, Asia, a supergroup comprising exp-members of Yes, King Crimson, and ELP, debuted to much commercial acclaim. Yes rocketed to the top of the pyramid in 1983 with 90125. It seemed progressive rock was back with a vengeance. But when Crimson disbanded again in 1984, the genre again appeared on the verge of extinction. Groups still plied their trade, but more often than not the music was a series of trade-offs between the echoes of the glory days and a more commercial, current sound that alienated as many old fans as it did win new converts.

But that’s as may be. The fact is, for 30 of my 48 years, King Crimson’s Discipline has been an album of unique emotional and visceral power for me, one that is by turns terrifying and tranquil, and as complete as it is complex. To Robert Fripp, Adrian Belew, Tony Levin, and Bill Bruford: Thank you.