An Old Person’s Guide to King Crimson, Part One

Paul R. Potts

23 Mar 2023

Hello Dear Readers,

I got a little momentum going with my last newsletter so I am going to try to keep it going. Yesterday I received a couple of used CDs in the mail, purchases from eBay. They both contain tracks recorded at some of King Crimson’s live shows from the mid-nineties. I’ll come back to the CDs in a moment — well, OK, that moment may actually be a number of days. But first I’d like to share part of an e-mail message I wrote to a friend after seeing King Crimson perform at the State Theater in Minneapolis on June 16th, 1995. So, for a moment I’m going to release my tenuous grip on the present and, like Billy Pilgrim, become unstuck in time, which seems to be my normal, preferred mental state.

Unstuck in Time 1: King Crimson in 1995

King Crimson’s opening act was the California Guitar Trio, who were pretty good. King Crimson did all of THRAK and most of Discipline. Now that they are a sextet, Tony Levin is only playing Stick on a few songs, but he and Trey Gunn (the new Stick player*) did an improvised duet on stick that was truly amazing. Adrian Belew (who has lost an amazing amount of hair) played two custom fretless stratocasters, one in fluorescent orange, one in fluorescent yellow. Robert Fripp sat in the center of the stage way in the back and didn’t move an inch during the whole show, except to play his guitar. He was lit by these weird spots with colored grids on them, like some kind of strange statue/deity watching over the band. (Apparently that is the effect he wanted.) Every time we heard sounds that clearly couldn’t have come from any of the instruments on stage, we knew that they were his contributions. He played a Gibson clone with a Roland guitar synthesizer pickup, the latest version of Frippertronics (using all-digital delays instead of actual tapes for looping), and Mellotron.

Our seats were good for seeing the band but not great for sound; we were on the far left of the stage, right in front of the speaker cabinets, so we heard mostly the left channel.

This show got me interested in Stick, so I arranged a demo with our local Ann Arbor Stick dealer, Steve Osburn, at Oz’s music. They have a new location on Packard. I had a brief lesson and then got to play around on the Stick for about an hour. It is a very strange instrument. It has no body, just a long set of frets, and covers 5 1/2 octaves. It goes from below a standard bass to above the range of a guitar. There are two sets of strings, which are usually arranged with the bass strings going from high to low towards the middle of the board, then the treble strings going from low to high. You play it with both hands directly on the fretboard and you don’t pick or strum, you tap like Eddie Van Halen. The string tension is much looser** than on a guitar so this is easier than it sounds. Steve Osburn… plays lounge jazz on the thing.

I’m now considering buying a Stick, but I want a custom one. The standard color scheme looks like 1972, like a shingle on a duplex on the Old West Side or something. I feel it is my duty to learn to play the Stick. Before I buy one I need to learn how to play separate bass and melody lines by tapping, so I tuned my guitar to resemble a portion of the Stick and have been practicing on that. It’s not going terribly well…

*OK, calling him a Stick player may be a bit controversial. Technically he plays a tapping instrument called a Warr guitar. Warr guitars were roundly disliked by many of the Stick players on the Stickwire mailing list in the 1990s, as “knock-offs” — though not “cheap” knockoff, as they are far from cheap — of Emmett Chapman’s innovative instrument designs. I’ll just say that I love Chapman’s designs, but if no one ever bought a “knock-off,” the only electric guitars would be made by Fender and Gibson.

**Looking back, I’m not sure that my statement, “the string tension is much looser than on a guitar,” is actually correct. I am pretty certain that shorter-scale guitars, such as Gibson Les Paul with a scale length of 24.75 inches, have lower string tension than longer-scale guitars, such as the Fender Stratocaster with a scale length of 25.5 inches. At least, this is true when tuning the same gauge of strings to the same pitch. This is one of the reason why very short-scale guitars with 22.5-inch scales are considered student models; the looser strings don’t produce as much in the way of clarity, sustain, and harmonics. Most Chapman Stick models use a 36” scale length. This does seem like it would require a much higher string tension, but the commonly used string sets are thinner, which reduces the tension somewhat.

I had to look up that e-mail message, because it’s 2023 and I was just listening to disc 2 of King Crimson’s two-CD live album Vrooom Vrooom, featuring tracks recorded to DAT tape right from the soundboard, during their 1995 and 1996 tours.

Strangely, I remember almost nothing about the 1995 show, which by all rights should have been a big and colorful experience in my memory. So I wanted to see what I had to say, if anything, back then. It strikes me as very odd, now, that my description of the show is so “flat.”

I know now that I was shortly to be formally diagnosed with major depression, and I think that helps explain it; the world was quite “flat” to me in those days. It’s got a little more texture and color now; I haven’t met the criteria for major depressive disorder for a number of years now, but I know that I’m never really very far away from that “flatness.”

It’s very frustrating to think that I spent many years of my adolescence and early adulthood in a state ranging anywhere from mild dysthymia to anxiety to full-on severe depression complete with obsessive thoughts of self-harm. It’s equally frustrating to know now that there are a lot of simple, non-pharmaceutical interventions that might have helped me, incuding such simple things as taking a daily magnesium supplement or adding back the traditional healthy fats that my mother and I had carefully removed from my diet in the eighties and nineties, following the standard medical advice at the time. I don’t know if they might have helped me enough to avoid the necessity for the side effect-heavy prescription SSRIs, but it seems possible.

Unstuck in Time 2: Chapman Stick

Back before I had a Stick, in the early 1990s, I re-tuned my guitar to ascending 5ths and descending 4ths and tried to figure out how play the bass and melody lines to Vince Guaraldi’s instrumental “Linus and Lucy,” from his album A Charlie Brown Christmas. “Linus and Lucy” was famously part of the animated special A Charlie Brown Christmas. A Charlie Brown Christmas was first broadcast on December 9th, back in 1965, two years before I was born, and which was a regular part of the run-up to my childhood Christmasses.

I never got very far with “Linus and Lucy,” in part because a guitar just isn’t designed to be played using the cross-hand tapping technique that works well on a Stick, but I did prove to myself that I could learn to play independent parts with my left and right hands — well, at least very simplified independent parts.

I did eventually buy a 12-string Stick, properly called a Chapman Stick. I bought a used instrument made of Purple Heart wood from a guy I met on the Stickwire mailing list, driving several hours across the state with a certified check, to go get it.

Unstuck in Time 3: Playing the Stick

Looking forward in time a bit, I was to play Stick on and off for a few years; I attended a Stick seminar, and met Greg Howard and Bob Culbertson, and a few other Stick players. I never really got very far with Stick. For a while I played it on several songs with the Life Teen house band at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Ann Arbor.

That was fun, and I loved the deep bass tones I could get out of the Stick together with chords in the guitar range, although I never played particularly complicated parts. All musical endeavors eventually come to an end, though; our little band was disbanded. At some point, I sold the Stick back to Stick Enterprises, who presumably refurbished and resold it. I think I may have sold it for what I paid for it, so in a sense, I just borrowed the instrument itself from the universe, for free.

It’s been quite a few years, and I’d like to play Chapman Stick again before I shuffle off this mortal coil. I’ve made some substantial progress as a musician since then, in more ways than one, but particularly in my ability to sing whie accompanying myself, and would like to experience again the inspiration that a different instrument provides, setting aside the question of whether said inspiration really leads to great things, or not.

I’d like to try either Stick Bass or 10-string Grand Stick, both of which have wider string spacing than the 12-string Grand Stick, more like a guitar. The narrow string spacing of the 12-string Grand Stick is the one thing I never really liked, or fully got used to, especially when shifting back and forth, as I did, between guitar and Stick. So, when money allows, I plan to order a new instrument from Stick Enterprises. Although Emmett Chapman died recently, it appears that the company is continuing to manufacture instruments. There is a long lead time, but that’s nothing new, which is one of the biggest reasons that I originally bought a used instrument.

To understand why I was so fascinated with the Stick, and with King Crimson, we have to go back further, sliding “back” to other things that, in my head, exist not so much on a timeline, but in a big tangled ball of threads; as the tenth Doctor says:

People assume that time is a strict progression from cause to effect, but actually from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint, it’s more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff.

I would disagree with that statement in one way: from my subjective standpoint, it’s pretty confusing as well.

Unstuck in Time 4: King Crimson on Fridays, or, Five Minutes that Changed my Life

Back in 1981, on December 4th, this happened — King Crimson performed live on the late-night variety show Fridays. I had just turned fourteen. It’s fair to say that seeing this live performance irrevocably expanded my understanding of music, introducing me in a gestalt flash to more things that I feel I can even itemize. They included the inimitable sound of the Roland Jazz Chorus amplifier, Adrian Belew’s wild-ass playing with feedback and strumming his strings above the guitar’s nut, Bill Bruford’s Indonesian Gamelan-inflected percussion, and last but not least, the Chapman Stick, played by the stoic, bald, and mustachioed Tony Levin. In my opinion, Belew’s pink suit, Levin’s mustache and suspenders, Fripp’s jacket and tie, and Bruford’s yellow shirt from that evening should all be in the Smithsonian.

In my memory a lot of things happened, but I don’t know if I can sequence them correctly. I had a copy of King Crimson’s album Discipline, but I don’t recall owning it as a vinyl record, only a compact disc. So that must have been four or five years in the future, relative to KC-day, Crimsageddon, which was 15 years, 11 months, and 25 days after the debut of The Charlie Brown Christmas Special, as the linear time-crow flies.

Unstuck in Time 5: “Doctor Diamond” Live

Something else that happened was this: I found, at an Odd Lots store in Harborcreek, PA, or possibly a McCrory’s in the Millcreek Mall in Erie, PA, a copy of a genuine bootleg King Crimson album, called “Doctor D” Atlanta 6/23/73. I probably sold that record along with a number of others when I was in between jobs and trying to raise a little money. No doubt it is a pretty scarce and valuable collectible now.

There are a number of great tracks on this record. I think most of them were taken directly from the official studio album Larks’ Tongues in Aspic. But there’s a bonus track, stuck in the middle of the B side — a live performance of “Doctor Diamond,” listed on the bootleg vinyl album as “Doctor D.”

The recording of “Doctor Diamond” featured on this record is now available on the bonus DVD-A of the 40th Anniversary release of Starless and Bible Black. It’s the same live recording, including the terrible hum from the PA system and the moments where John Wetton’s microphone cuts in and out.

“Dr. Diamond” doesn’t exist on any of King Crimson’s thirteen official studio albums; it was a track they only ever performed live. It does exist on the live 4 CD set The Great Deceiver. It’s a bit difficult to decipher all the lyrics, but they start out something like this:

I'm the driver of an underground train  
Chaos in the streets above, to me it's all the same  
I shake your houses, then I'm gone, keeping time down here below  
I could drive my train to hell, and not a soul would know

Doesn’t that describe the experience of being a touring musician? Don’t a lot of touring musicians drive themselves to hell?

You can listen to that fuzzy live recording on YouTube here. Give it a listen and maybe you’ll understand why I think it’s one of the best live performances I’ve ever heard, despite the technical flaws. It’s got everything that made the Starless and Bible Black-era lineup of King Crimson so exciting: blues-infected vocals, jazzy, intricately interlocking bass, guitar, percussion, and violin, and a spooky, menacing momentum that must have been unbelievably exciting to experience live.

Re-listening to that recording of “Doctor Diamond” recently, for the first time in forty years (give or take a year; I don’t recall exactly when I acquired “Doctor D”), set off a minor firestorm of remembrance in my brain. Suddenly I was holding that bootleg “Doctor D” record sleeve again. I hadn’t even remembered that record in decades, but there it was; the recording that spoke to me. I could remember the artwork on both sides of the jacket. I couldn’t remember the name of the album, but was able to find with some web searches.

And, abruptly, it’s 2023 and I still have no idea how I got here, but here I am — the driver of an underground train — my weird, idiosyncratic experience of life, feeling unstuck in time. My personal train has spent a lot of time in a sort of purgatory, a gray and overcast hell-lite, and it does seem like most other souls never really knew, as I kept the time down here below.

There might yet more wibbly-wobbly bits to tease apart, more spoilers, or, if you will, breadcrumbs to follow, in my “juvenilia,” my early writing, hand-written in a paper journal that I’ve still got in my possession, or on a surviving page from the fanzine Tapadance. I did take a quick look through a few old writings, but didn’t find anything King Crimson-related.

If I ever find, in my old writing, anything I wrote about King Crimson, I will add it to the archived version of this newsletter.

Maybe it’s just vanity, but I want to get all of it online before my timeline comes to its subjective end. I’ll have to drive my train to those long-abandoned stations to poke around in the wind-blown debris another day.

About the Name

Older King Crimson flirted with gothic imagery, and the name itself has been construed as a reference to Satan. But Peter Sinfeld has gone on record saying that he took the name from the song, “The Court of the Crimson King.” The lyrics to that song I won’t paste in here, but I’ll just say they are kind of what you’d expect for a song that was one of the founding documents of progressive rock: pretty, bombastic, fantastic, vaguely medieval, baroque — intriguingly, describing scenes frozen in tableau rather than an unfolding story. Remember that the subtitle of In the Court of the Crimson King is An Observation by King Crimson, as if the album was a record of a tour through hell, the chronicler riding past the scenes, as if touring a Potemkin village in a palanquin.

Sinfeld said that “…it isn’t the devil, it isn’t Beelzebub, but it’s… arrogant, and it’s got a feeling of darkness about it, and Gothic.”

Or — hear me out here — melancholic?

Robert Fripp has described the famous cover painting as a depiction of the song “21st Century Schizoid Man”:

The face on the outside is the Schizoid Man, and on the inside it’s the Crimson King. If you cover the smiling face, the eyes reveal an incredible sadness. What can one add? It reflects the music.

The word “schizoid” has sometimes been used as a synonym for “schizophrenic,” but I think Robert Fripp was too smart to conflate the two. According to Wikipedia, Schizoid personality disorder:

is a personality disorder characterized by a lack of interest in social relationships, a tendency toward a solitary or sheltered life style, secretiveness, emotional coldness, detachment, and apathy. Affected individuals may be unable to form intimate attachments to others and simultaneously possess a rich and elaborate but exclusively internal fantasy world.

Of course I can’t diagnose him with anything in particular, nor would I want to, but I do wonder — was this “observation by King Crimson” also a confession by Robert Fripp, a description of his life experience, and what drives him? He’s talked at length about what a miserable experience it is for him, to work with each incarnation of King Crimson. But he keeps doing it! I can identify, actually — I found it incredibly stressful to practice and prepare to play with the church band, or to record songs for a songwriting contest. But yet, I felt driven to do it, and I feel prouder of that work than I do of just about anything I’ve done for pay over the decades.

Reading the lyrics today, it seems to me that the driver — the artist, perhaps? — above all wants to to engage in communion, to share experience, with his audience. The last few lines of “Doctor Diamond” go:

I am the driver of an underground train  
Climb aboard, just climb aboard, your loss is my eternal gain  
Squeeze your precious body in, before I quickly close the doors  
Riding in the smoky dark, your life is mine, my life is yours

Doesn’t that describe the experience of sitting in the audience, listening to a wild progressive rock set, in a smoky club in the early 1970s?

Three of the kids are outside in the yard again, all swinging together on the play structure for the first time this strange, strange season, and it fills me with joy to watch them.

An Old Person’s Guide to King Crimson, Part One: 1981-1984

As I described above, I’ve been aware to King Crimson and their music to one degree or another for a long time. However, my exposure to the band’s studio albums had been, primarily, to just a couple of albums that I owned: Discipline and THRAK, and that “Doctor D” Atlanta 6/23/73 bootleg.

But over the past couple of years, I’ve gradually accumulated copies of all their other studio albums from various eBay sellers. I’ve got them all now, and in nice remixed and/or remastered editions, with bonus material. I’ve listened to them all now. Granted, some of them a lot more times than others, but this exercise of reviewing them is a good excuse to listen to them again.

There’s a saying about Gene Wolfe’s novels which I think is also applicable to King Crimson’s albums: “One can never read a Gene Wolfe novel; one can only re-read a Gene Wolfe novel.” While I loved some of their material immediately, a lot of it, especially the more avant-garde improvisations, take some time to fully absorb and appreciate.

I still have a lot more to learn, but I feel like I’m getting to the point where can, finally, belatedly, start to engage with the King Crimson’s entire catalog of studio albums to date, and talk about them in ways that aren’t completely uninformed or reactionary.

Some Observations of King Crimson

I have a few initial observations which I don’t claim to have originated, but I think it’s important to keep them in mind as you and I consider the various studio albums together:

Let’s consider the first observation.

King Crimson is Not Exactly One Band

I think one must keep this in mind when reading any “listicle” that attempts to rank the various King Crimson studio albums, because these articles treat the entity “King Crimson” as a static entity that has produced 13 studio albums, whose albums can be easily compared and ranked.

In my view, this is a big mistake, for several reasons. One simply shouldn’t put very different albums by very different bands into a kind of competitive ranking like this. It risks making it seem like the albums that are ranked the lowest by a particular reviewer are actually bad, and not worth your time; but see my second point, below. The inherent subjectivity here becomes obvious when one notices that the rankings, written by different reviewers, differ wildly. I’ve noticed this even when talking to friends; a King Crimson album I love the least may very well be a friend’s favorite, and vice-versa.

I think it is possible to do meaningful comparison of the groups of albums put out by the various versions, or configurations of King Crimson. This is, strictly speaking, impossible with some of the configurations, which released only one studio album, but they are often at least fairly close to another configuration. Comparing albums and songs put out by very divergent versions of the bands can presumably also be done, but I think it becomes considerably harder, as one has to look for more abstract commonalities and differences. I won’t attempt it now. I might attempt it when I’ve studied, and written about, the different incarnations of King Crimson more extensively.

The 1980s lineup of King Crimson as Robert Fripp, Bill Bruford, Adrian Belew and Tony Levin put out three albums, Discipline, Beat, and Three of a Perfect Pair. It’s meaningful to see these three records in sequence as forming a “story arc” in the life of one particular incarnation of King Crimson, and therefore to compare them. The changes over time are easy to notice. I think one can also compare these albums with THRAK, since the 1990s configuration had many of the same members. But it is harder to compare, say, Lizard or Islands to THRAK, as they are so different — in personnel, in instrumentation, in lyrics, and in aesthetic choices — as to make such direct comparisons feel meaningless.

Mostly. A King Crimson recording can always surprise you! What a thrill it was to hear, recently, the most recent configuration of the band play “Islands,” the song, from Islands, the album. This performance is captured on the terrific live album Music is Our Friend: Live in Albany and Washington, 2021. The most recent configurations of King Crimson have not actually released any studio albums, but have instead roamed far and wide through King Crimson’s enormous back-catalog, making old songs new again.

Let’s consider the next observation:

There Arent’ Any “Bad” King Crimson Albums

This one might sound pretty hard to swallow, so let me clarify a bit; much hinges here on the what we mean when we describe a studio recording as “bad.” To me, “bad” studio recordings may meet one or more of the following criteria:

There aren’t King Crimson studio albums that meet the first two criteria. How about the third? Well, this is more subjective, and as I review the eighties trilogy below, I’m going to point out that one album of the three does not inspire me nearly as much as the other two. But even the less stellar studio albums contain, in my view, flashes of inspired, wonderful, and innovative music.


King Crimson’s Best Albums are Live Albums

Founder and “anti-leader” Robert Fripp seems animated and driven mostly by the joys and satisfactions that come from live performance, rather than studio work. I can’t speak to every one of his band members, but I would bet that most of them feel the same way. Fripp has been very explicit about this in recent interviews, indicating that the band would get into trouble when they weren’t performing in front of audiences:

With Crimson it… has always been complex, always problematic and always very demanding. If you would like a band to break up, have writing rehearsals. What you do when you hit that problem is you get on the road. Then you introduce an audience into the situation, music comes to life and you’ll keep going.

This seems to play out in the studio albums. Most of the studio album tracks that are the very best are the ones that were recorded in either a real live performance in front of an audience, or “live-ish” settings in the studio, where the band performed together in continuous takes. By comparison, material that the band recorded using isolated tracks assembling the tracks together only in the mix, tend to seem lifeless by comparison. This is not an ironclad rule, but it seems to hold true in most cases. It’s the reason that, in addition to the thirteen studio albums, I am gradually acquiring King Crimson’s best live albums.

King Crimson in the Eighties: Red, Blue, and Yellow

I’m going to start off the process of reviewing the studio albums by comparing three albums which ought to be a little more comparable than the others: Discipline (1981), Beat (1982), and Three of a Perfect Pair (1984). The album covers are mainly red, blue, and yellow, although I doubt this was planned in advance.

This trilogy of albums is the work of King Crimson, the four-piece, eighties version of the band, with Robert Fripp, Bill Bruford, Adrian Belew, and Tony Levin. Prior to coalescing in this form, there hadn’t been a band called King Crimson for seven years.

When Matt Smith’s Twelfth Doctor is ready to burst into radiant light and regenerate, he tells clara that he “will always remember when the Doctor was me.” Do you think the members of King Crimson thought something similar, when each incarnation reached its end?

I plan to also review a live album from this era, Absent Lovers: Live in Montreal, which captured the very last show of their 1984 tour. As it turned out, there wouldn’t be a band called King Crimson again until 1994, when a slightly different band emerged.

Discipline (1981 Album)

The whole album is available on YouTube, if you’d like to listen along while you read.

Discipline is one of the first King Crimson albums to blow my mind, and it is still blowing my mind over 40 years later. It’s still an amazing album, intense, aggressive, soaring, beautiful, poignant, and hypnotic. There are several compositional and performative elemnts that recur across several songs, so I want to discuss them separately:

Interlocking Cyclic Guitar Figures

In several songs, Fripp and Belew play intricate guitar figures, using clean tones on their amplifiers. These figures are often very fast and cyclic. They mesh together like turning gears for several repetitions, and then one of the “gears” slips a tooth — usually, Fripp drops a single note from the pattern, and then the combined figure is instantly transformed into a slightly different figure, with no pause at all. This technique is raised to its highest level in the final track of the album, simply called Discipline.

The time signatures and counting involved here are mind-boggling. Learning the figures is monstrously difficult. I am able to play some of the slower, simpler cyclic figures, and I’ve played around with recording Fripp and Belew’s parts and playing them back together. In other words, I’ve done a little bit of what this guy did. That’s fun and inspiring. But I can only play the easiest parts. As the songs move along, the patterns inevitably shift to double time, or introduce big jumps across strings, and leave me behind. These figures, involving constant string-skipping, are very difficult. The technique come out of Fripp’s early mastery of flat-picking; he studied classical guitar, but decided early on that he would like to play all the notes with a pick, rather than with his fingers.

That’s incredibly difficult to do, but he did it, and his flat-picking technique remains something that differentiates him from most guitarists. Most guitarists, even world-class professional musicians, can’t play these pieces note-for-note. Belew could, impressively, keep up with Fripp. I think in the most recent configuration of King Crimson, guitarist Jakko Jakszyk plays somewhat simplified parts to accompany Fripp, and I don’t blame him one bit.

Why did Fripp take on flat-picking as his personal discipline? This is difficult to explain, but I think I get it; in a nutshell, I believe that Fripp doesn’t see any difference between musical practice and spiritual practice. The difficulty is in some ways the point; technique itself he views, I think, as something akin to walking meditation, if one were walking on a tightrope in front of an audience. This kind of thing is very difficult to perform live and requires a degree of concentration and precision — of discipline — that one rarely sees in rock music. It’s fascinating to listen to, as accompaniment to some truly magnificent and soaring songs.

It’s hard to imagine the interlocking patterns coming directly out of improvisation, but I suspect that the single patterns may have begun as improvisations, and Fripp and Belew then used recording loops as a compositional tool, which brings us to:


Robert Fripp originally used reel-to-reel tape machines as an improvisational, compositional, and performance tool, as a way of creating lovely, pure chord tones that cycled and evolved slowly over time. You can think of Frippertronics as a way of playing cyclic figures on a slow time scale, while Fripp’s flat-picking technique allowed him to play much faster cyclic guitar figures, sort of similar techniques on two very different time scales.

Why this method? On guitar, the physical constraints of the fretboard make it hard to play certain “wide” chords that are easier on a piano keyboard, and even if you find a working fingering, closely spaced notes tend to interfere with each other, harmonically, producing some chord sounds that are not as pure and beautiful as those one can form on a piano or synthesizer. Frippertronics was a way to bypass this, and build up ethereal chords note-by-note.

On Discipline, Frippertronics is always kind of an adjunct to songs, used as accompaniment. On the later albums in the trilogy, though, it is more up-front, especially in a beautiful track that didn’t make it into the third album of the trilogy, so I’ll write more about it when we get there. And there are also numerous other albums that Fripp worked on that feature Frippertronics; I have one of them on my to-listen pile now, a famous collaboration with Brian Eno called No Pussyfooting. But again, all in good time.

Belew’s Lonely Rhinoceros

While Fripp was developing Frippertronics, Belew was developing his own wild guitar sounds, involving wails of carefully-controlled feedback, sizzling bursts of static, heavy use of the whammy bar, and various chorusing and warbling effects. He actually continued working on solo projects while working with King Crimson — an impressive feat. Here you can hear a track from his solo album, Desire of the Rhino King called, “Lone Rhinoceros.” I really enjoy Belew’s solo work; it takes a more light-hearted approach to songwriting. Belew also wrote all the lyrics to the Discipline album, which, I have read, led to a dispute with Fripp over Fripp’s egalitarian approach to distributing both credit and cash. But I know very little about that history, except that for whatever reasons, Belew was not part of the most recent incarnations of the band.

Tony Levin’s Stick and Bass

Tony Levin has an amazing résumé as a musician; he has contributed to hundreds of albums, and many live tours, including those of Peter Gabriel, while he is not widely known as a rock star in his own right. His work on this trilogy is indispensable; his playing always supports, never overshadows, the other parts, and he’s always innovating to support the songs: I find it astounding how rarely his parts sound similar to one other.

Bill Bruford’s Gamelan-inflected Percussion

Finally, Discipline just wouldn’t be Discipline without Bill Bruford’s amazing and tasteful percussion. I have no personal expertise in percussion, so I’m not very good at describing what it is that he does, but suffice it to say that he and Levin really do work as a unified “rhythm section,” propelling the songs forward. There isn’t a lot of flashy soloing, but there are a lot of fills and off-the-beat sounds that add real “ear candy” to the mix. On the live recordings we get more opportunities to hear Bruford solo, and they’re always fantastic.

On to the songs!

“Elephant Talk”

The album opens with a spooky, compressed, chorused Stick riff played by Levin, with the rest of the band jumping in abruptly in lockstep. In “Elephant Talk,” Levin holds down the song on Stick, along with Bruford, for most of the song, while Fripp and Belew’s guitar parts are constantly changing and interacting. There aren’t a lot of the interlocking cyclic figures on this song — Fripp and Belew tend to either play in unison, or trade solo parts in a more traditional jazz structure. On the solo breaks, Fripp the magician pulls some quite freaky guitar synthesizer tones out of his magic hat (I think he’s using a Roland GR-300), while Belew tortures his amplifier and effects pedals.

“Elephant Talk” is one of the songs they performed on the TV show Fridays, as it is of a more conventional pop-song length, and has lyrics. It’s a bit more accessible, as King Crimson goes.

It’s a bit of an aside, but Belew making “shush” noises into his microphone, introducing each burst of his slashing “wang/chung” chords (with a down-up strum pattern), reminds me just a bit of the hooky repeated guitar riff from the Beatles song “Come Together.” I think the Beatles were an occasional inspiration to King Crimson, at least in some specific ways, since superficially King Crimson songs rarely resemble Beatles songs; Fripp eschewed “dance hall” pop music structures in favor of his attempts to cross Jimi Hendrix with Bartók.

“Frame by Frame”

This song opens with some of Fripp’s fast, intricate cross-picking, and then we hear the first of many of the interlocking guitar loops with Belew. The musical sounds in this song differ wildly; there are beautiful, soaring harmony vocals, and also bursts of wild noise, as well as some mad percussion, but it keeps returning to the interlocking figures and harmonized vocals. Later in the song Levin’s chorused bass tones become deep pedal notes that raise the song up a notch, from underneath. I don’t think this can be performed entirely live, as some of the musicians must trigger samples. This remains one of my favorite King Crimson songs of all time, and contains some of the best playing on the whole album.

“Matte Kudasai”

After the frenetic “Frame by Frame,” we get a nice breather — a beautiful ballad driven by a slow, ambling bass line, played on a conventional electric bass rather than Stick, clean arpeggios from Belew, and soaring, violin-like tones from Fripp. I think Levin may sneak in some low, murmuring vocal harmonies here and there. This song really puts Belew’s prettier singing on a stage in a way that the previous tracks don’t, but it remains an ensemble piece. Again, this is one of my favorite King Crimson songs of all time. It may be my favorite song on the album, depending on what sort of mood I’m in.


The peaceful, easy feeling can never last very long when King Crimson is concerned, and it doesn’t! The next song is extremely unsettled, at least in part because Fripp plays in 15/8 over a 4/4 drum pattern. The song opens with some off-kilter bass and drum bits. Then, the rhythm section churns through a thrashing series of chords, while Belew’s guitar wails and soars. As soon as we think maybe this is an instrumental, the instruments stop abruptly and we have a spoken verse on top of some uneven bass pulses — almost a rap — with an ominous guitar from Fripp fading in — and then we’re back to the thrashing, but with Fripp’s guitar going berserk on top. After another spoken verse, Belew and Fripp both pile on to the thrashing rhythm, until the song crashes to a sweaty halt. It’s not my favorite song, but it’s very enjoyable.

“Thela Hun Ginjeet”

This song relies on an elaborate series of looped and distorted guitar figures, and I’m honestly not entirely sure who is playing what. Fripp’s part, in 7/8, weaves in and out of sync with the rest of the band, playing in 4/4. Levin’s punchy bass riffs along with Bruford’s steady drumming really drive the song along — this track contains some of the best drumming on the album — as we hear Belew tell us a story, punctuated with wild guitar soloing, but always returning to the looped figures and the chorus vocals.

“The Sheltering Sky”

We take another breather. This is another relaxing instrumental song, with wonderful chorused bass tones from Levin, clean chorused guitar chords from Belew, hand percussion, and some of Fripp’s wildest guitar synthesizer sounds presiding over everything. It’s quite long, at over eight minutes, but I don’t think it overstays its welcome, as it is constantly evolving. As it concludes, all the anxious soloing gradually melts away, and we’re just left with the beautiful hand percussion, which stops — there are no fade-outs (or, as I think of them, “cop-outs”), to be found on this album!


This is it, the grand finale, and the album’s tour de force. The drum pattern is in 17/16. The guitars riff against each other in 4/4, 5/8, 9/8, 11/16, 14/16, 15/16, and 20/16. It’s monstrous and gorgeous, impossibly complex and soothing. Every time you feel like you’ve started to get a handle on how the interlocking patterns work, they shift; they change key, a note is dropped, a gear slips, and it sounds different. Since it’s an instrumental, this track succeeds in simultaneously conveying the impression that every musician is critical to the success of the composition, and also that none of them are more critical than others.

I still find the notion that any band could perform this song live to be somewhat preposterous, but yes, these beautiful bastards did it!

The Album as a Whole

When compared to this group of three, this album is the best. In fact, it’s one of King Crimson’s best albums across the entire history of the various lineups. The albums Larks’ Tongues in Aspic and Red could be considered “better” albums by some metrics, but mostly they’re just different. This is a desert island disc, an indispensible record by any measure.

In fact, all the tracks are so consistently good that it’s hard for me to decide which songs are my favorites. If pressed, I’d say that I don’t love “Indiscipline” quite as much as the other songs, even though it’s really fun. If pressed, I would say that the middle part of “The Sheltering Sky” could be a bit shorter. If pressed, on some days I might say that “Frame by Frame” is my favorite, but on other days I might choose “Matte Kudasai.”

The song “Discipline” itself, despite being such an amazing achievement, is not really my favorite song. I think it was, when I was considerably younger, but these days I think I get more emotional content from music than I used to, “Discipline” mostly conveys exuberance and concentration. It still fascinates me; “Discipline” is so complex that over forty years later I am still hearing new details in the song that I haven’t discovered before. I guess I’ll leave it like this: I really love “Discipline,” the song, but my appreciation of it is more intellectual than emotional, where by comparison the other tracks do a lot more to get me “right in the feels.” The way this whole album blends technical and emotional approaches to music is what makes Discipline so great.

Beat (1982 Album)

If you’re following along at home, again, you can hear the whole album on YouTube.

I’m having some difficulty being fair to the second and third albums from this early-eighties configuration of King Crimson. I’ve listened to Discipline so many times that it is very familiar, and that familiarity may, I admit, bias me in favor of it. I feel like a baby who divides people into “mom” and “not mom.” These albums are all “not-Discipline,” so it’s hard for me to be objective. I have to remind myself that if I had heard Beat or Three of a Perfect Pair first, at an impressionable age, I might have different biases.

Even trying to be as fair-minded as I can, when listening to Beat and Three of a Perfect Pair, I often find myself feeling like these albums contain leftover tracks, that were cut from Discipline. That’s not actually true, from what I know of the history of the material on this album and when it was written; the songs were written by a group that had changed, in part due to their experiences with Discipline, and had different artistic intents.

The components that make up these songs haven’t really changed all that much — the lineup is the same, and the instrumentation is mostly the same, with the notable exception that Bruford uses more electronic drums on the later albums. So let’s dive right into the songs.

“Neal and Jack and Me”

We start with our interlocked, cyclic guitar part and a tight, narrowly focused bass groove. The title refers to beat writers Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac. The song may be told from the point of a view of a car the two of them used on a road trip. I’m not sure the car entirely works as a narrator, and I find the imagery to be frustratingly vague, rather than poetic. This is a decent song, but in my view it doesn’t quite live up to tracks like “Frame by Frame” on _Discipline. I feel this is true despite Belew’s admirable, impassioned vocal performance — at times he sounds like he’s trying to tear right out of the mix. The song’s emotional weight actually gets weaker rather than stronger as it goes on, because we hear the line “Neal and Jack and me — absent lovers, absent lovers” repeated so many times.


This seems like a fairly conventional rock love song; the only thing really unconventional things about it are the guitar tones, which are gorgeous. The lyrics are lovely:

I need to hear your heartbeat, heartbeat  
So close, it feels like mine  
All mine  

I remember the feeling  
My hands in your hair, hands in your hair  
I remember the feeling  
Oh, the rhythm we made, the rhythm we made  

I need to land sometime  
And feel your heartbeat, heartbeat  
Right next to me, right next to me

That’s all the lyrics there are; they’re just repeated. Belew’s vocal performance is good, and the solo breaks are good, but the whole song just feels just a touch too slow and repetitive for my taste; it doesn’t make me feel as much as it should.

“Sartori in Tangier”

Next up we have an instrumental. I hear some of the same sounds used in “The Sheltering Sky,” but this piece is faster, with a punchy bass groove that builds up as the musicians come in. Really, I like it quite a bit. It’s one of the best songs on the album.

“Waiting Man”

We have hand percussion again and, I think, Levin tapping out a series of chords on Stick along with a bass part. Is Fripp playing anything on the first part of track? It seems difficult to tell, but in the second half I think I hear Fripp engage in an intricate jamming figure with Levin, and then Levin continues playing bass tones only while Belew takes a solo. The rhythmic figures are very nice, and propel the song along. I’d call it perhaps the second-best song on the album.


Now we have a chaotic piece again, a bit reminiscent of “Thela Hun Ginjeet.” This has a rapid-fire spoken word verses, in which Belew compares city life to life in the jungle, and sung choruses. It’s quite funny:

Good morning
It's 3 a.m. in this great roaring city full of garbage eaters  
Ravaging parking spots beneath my plaza window  
I see cheetah in their tight skins and tired heels  
All-night hippo in the diner crossing the street  
Swarthy herds of young impala  
Flambastic gibbon, even a struggling monza  
And over there that brilliant head ornament on that Japanese macaque  
But look closely at the hammerhead hand in hand with the mandrill  
It's a sight you're unlikely to see anywhere else on the planet

The tight parallel ascending and descending guitar figures are very nice. To my ear it doesn’t quite achieve the panicked energy of “Thela Hun Ginjeet,” but it’s certainly engaging. I’ve heard Robert Fripp describe this as his favorite song on Beat. It’s not quite my favorite, but it’s definitely one of the best.

“Two Hands”

Now we have something a bit odd, that combines the hand percussion feel of “The Sheltering Sky” with the impassioned, introspective vocals of “Matte Kudasai.” The lyrics of this song are quite fascinating, because it starts with a beautiful and erotic description of a couple:

Oh, they're touching  
They're touching each other, they're feeling  
They push and move  
And love each other, love each other  
They fit together like two hands, two hands

Then it gets… well, a bit weird. The lyrics seem to describe the person watching:

I am a face  
In the painting on the wall  
I pose and shudder  
And watch from the foot of the bed  
Sometimes I think I can feel everything

It’s not that uncommon for poems and songs to describe the subjects of paintings. But how often are they written from the perspective of the subject of a painting, watching the outside world? So, the lyric definitely gains some points for originality. It’s an interesting portrayal of an artist recording the world but not able to actively participate in it. Either that or it’s a polite way for the narrator to reveal himself to be a pervy peeping Tom. Or why not both? I report, you decide!

Even though it has something of a weak ending (it fades out), this is my favorite song on the album, largely because of Belew’s vocals and the beautiful, strange, and evocative lyric.

“The Howler”

This is a complex song, but I’m sorry to say it really just doesn’t do much for me at all. Somehow, it just feels inert and lifeless, and then it fades out. I also just really don’t like the excessive use of 1980s chorus effects on the instruments. — it’s all laid on a bit too thick and I feel like the clean tones get buried. In my view it’s the worst song on the album, kind of a filler track, which is a shame.

“Requiem (Extended Version)”

I should clarify that I’m listening to the 2016 stereo mix of Beat, which is a little different than previous releases. On this version of the album, “Requiem” is just over twelve minutes long, while the original version is six and a half minutes long.

I think Steven Wilson made the right call to restore the full track. It consists of a long, lovely, hypnotic Frippertronics introduction. At about the halfway point, Fripp enters with an impassioned, gorgeous fuzz-tone guitar solo while the Frippertronics sounds continues. Bruford jumps in with percussion, Levin answers Fripp with some nearly atonal fretless bass, and it turns into a free jazz free-for-all for the whole band, before Levin and Bruford take us out of the jam session and it settles back into a pure Frippertronics fadeout. This really showcases Bruford’s improvised drumming, especially the beautifully recorded kick drum and cymbals.

“Absent Lovers (Instrumental, Studio Recording)”

This is a bonus track included only on the 2016 stereo mix. The name suggests that it might be an instrumental version of “Neal and Jack and Me,” but it isn’t. For a while it’s a sort of straightforward rock jam — well, about as straightforward as King Crimson gets — before breaking into a funky bass and drum section with Frippertronics founds floating above it. Then it kicks us back into the rock jam. On this track Bruford seems to be playing electronic drums, and their artificiality is a bit disconcerting. So, it’s worth listening to, but far from their best work.

The Whole Album

The rating for this album, compared to the rest of the group of three? 2/3. It’s disappointing compared to Discipline. It’s not a huge disappointment, since there are some good tracks. It’s worth listening to for “Sartori in Tangier,” “Waiting Man,” “Neurotica,” “Two Hands,” and “Requiem.” Had it been released as an EP or “mini-album,” containing just those five songs, it would feel a lot stronger, but not quite up to the level of Discipline. I’d say it gets about 80% of the way there.

Three of a Perfect Pair (1983 Album)

The last album of the eighties trilogy is available on YouTube here.

“Three of a Perfect Pair”

The interlocking figures are back, with Levin’s bass joining in, in a gorgeous, complex pattern. The vocal chorus moves slowly, which makes a nice contrast against the fast bass figure. The lyrics are layered right from the start, which is unusual. I like Belew’s singing on this song quite a bit. The bass sounds particularly tight and punchy in this mix. This song is as good as the best songs on Beat, despite fading out rather than ending. If it was the opening song on a whole album of songs that were as good, that would be one terrific album. Sadly, it is not.

“Model Man”

We have a groove going, with some falsetto singing and another punchy bass sound. But the weird vibrato on everything — is that varispeed on the whole mix? — is unsettling, along with the strange chewy, crunchy percussion. What is that percussion sound? Fingers on a snare, heavily compressed, or a wire brush? And I don’t like the mix itself; the vocals seem buried, and the artificial cymbals distorted, the whole thing weird and murky in my headphones. Levin is making a heroic effort here, and I’m not sure exactly what has gone wrong here, but something sure has; it’s a disappointing song.


This sounds like it could be a song by Gary Numan, or Talking Heads; it sounds like an extremely generic New Wave tune, with nothing really special about it that says “King Crimson.” There’s a popped funk bass and percussion line that propels it along, and some fat synth pads, but everything is awash in reverb, seasick wobbly guitar, and that strange vocal multi-tracking. I’m not even sure what the song is about, because the way the lyrics sound makes me uninterested in trying to figure out what they say. There’s just really not much here that I want to listen to, despite some interesting tones during Fripp’s guitar solo. Everything but the bass sounds overly distorted, and poorly equalized. It’s also too long, with a truly excessive fadeout. It might be interesting to hear a live version, stripped of some of the effects and layers, but at the moment I don’t even hear the bones of a good song in here.

“Man with an Open Heart”

I’m having a lot of difficulty finding anything positive to say, or even anything critical but insightful, about this song. Everything sounds like it is constantly being yanked out of tune by a whammy bar. There’s some tremolo as well that makes it sound like the tape is decaying. I’m quite sure it isn’t, but that seems to be an intentional sound. Maybe they thought it was an innovation at the time, but now it just makes me queasy to listen to. The electronic percussion is simply dull and unpleasant. Listening to this is a real “what were they thinking?” moment for me — not so much that they recorded it, because every band records duds occasionally, but that they released it.

“Nuages (That Which Passes, Passes Like Clouds)”

We have a strange instrumental here, with some very odd synthesized tones, over what might be Mellotron. The percussion and bass are heavily processed. There are several nice guitar soloes, along with what sound like they might be some of the odder world-beat Roland guitar synthesizer tones. They can’t entirely save the song, but they help make it more interesting, and at least I don’t have to listen to any weirdly detuned vocal choruses this time.


The five-minute “Nuages” instrumental is followed up by this seven-minute instrumental. We have some menacing bass tones with Fripp’s guitar synthesizer, and into this mix comes Levin doing some aggressive string-popping. We get some more menacing tones and a lot of percussion “ear candy,” and unfortunately the electronic drums are back, along with something that sounds like an electric drill. The track gets more enjoyable as we get further into it, with all kinds of sounds mixed in, but it still really drags. Levin’s bass parts are usually so much stronger than this, but as far as I’m concerned that whole string-popping part could be removed and the song wouldn’t miss it. Strangely, the noodling session doesn’t really end, but flows into a semi-spoken word improv song…

“Dig Me”

Spare me. This is just aimless, and awful; I’d call it nearly unlistenable, and I like free jazz and experimental music! If “Neal and Jack and Me” was narrated by their car, this song might also be narrated by the same car, which is now a corroded wreck lying in a junkyard, begging to be melted down. Even on the chorus, which gets a little more upbeat, there’s still a grim feel:

I'm ready to leave  
I want to be out of here  
I'm ready to ride away  
I don't want to die in here  
I'm ready to ride

I guess the song does succeed in one sense; it makes me agree with the narrator. It makes me feel ready to leave this album.

“No Warning”

We’ve got another instrumental. I actually love the percussion this time; the kick drum, cymbal, and snare sounds are magnificent, and I find some of the synthetic percussion sounds acceptable in this context. This track works pretty well, but it serves primarily as a lead in to the next track.

“Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part III”

The title references the two-part instrumental on King Crimson’s album Larks’ Tongues in Aspic from 1973. The song opens with some of Fripp’s legendary flatpicking, as he plays a line of unbelievable speed and complexity. Then we get a very nice section of off-kilter drumming, bass, and guitar, very tightly intertwined. It’s the best instrumental on the album. The only aspect of it I don’t really like are the artificial drum sounds that are present in some parts.

Overall, I’d say that as a composition, Part III doesn’t quite up to the standard set by Part II, which is one of the band’s most justifiably famous instrumentals. There’s still a lot to love about this track. King Crimson, in a different configuration, would go on to record Part IV, in three parts, but not for another 17 years, and then they’d record Part V a few years later; sort of. They recorded a song which was called “Level Five” on the mini-album The Power to Believe, from 2003. In his diary entry from 2018, Fripp includes a photograph of a setlist, showing “LTIA 5,” and explains:

Larks’ Tongues In Aspic Part V has returned to its original title from the nom de guerre of Level Five; adopted to unseat expectation. Alternatively expressed, to unseat the hold of Monkey Mind.

But then, on the live album Music is Our Friend: Live in Washington and Albany, 2021, it was still called “Level Five.” I guess Fripp was still trying to “unseat expectation?”

As yet another aside, I like the electronic drums in “Level Five” a lot better than I like the electronic drums on LTIA 3. I think it’s because electronic drums improved a lot over the decades, and more modern versions are capable of being quite a bit more expressive and musical than those available in the early 1980s.

Bonus Tracks

There are six bonus tracks on the 2016 CD version of Three of a Perfect Pair. It seems like Steven Wilson and Robert Fripp must have gone through the old tapes with a fine-toothed comb, muttering to themselves “there’s gotta be something better here!” And I’m glad they did.

The first is a short song in barbershop quartet style in which four voices introduce themselves by singing “I’m Tony; I’m Billy; I’m Bobby; I’m Belew — we’re here to sing and play for you.” They’re actually all Tony. I have my doubts that Robert Fripp could ever be coaxed to sing into a microphone. It’s silly and I’m happy it was included.

The second is a song called simply “Robert’s Ballad,” and it’s a lovely little instrumental, only three and a half minutes long, the length of an ordinary pop song. The more I listen to this track, the more I like it. It features some beautiful guitar arpeggios, some high, whistling Frippertronics tones, a fretless bass tone, and some very delicate brushwork by Bruford. And it ends nicely! This song absolutely should have been included in the album. It would make a great closing song. replacing… well, replacing just about anything, but I would like “Dig Me” in particular to be voted off the island.

The third is an instrumental called “Shidare Zakura.” It’s short at only 2 minutes 41 seconds, more of a sketch than a full song, but also sounds better than most of the instrumental material on the album. It leads me to believe that a parallel, better instrumental album-within-an-album could have emerged from the Three of a Perfect Pair sessions, but sadly did not.

Next are three tracks called “Industrial Zone A,” “Industrial Zone B,” and “Industrial Zone C.” These sound like alternate takes of “Industry.” I don’t hear anything particularly special on the first track, although I do like it better than the version of “Industry” that made it onto the album. The third one, “Industrial Zone C,” at almost 16 minutes long, so it’s a bit of an endurance test, but it moves along and evolves over its entire run length, with a lot of interplay between the musicians. One will present a chord or a figure, and the others will react to it. I’ve listened to this one several times now and it keeps growing on me, so I’m especially glad this track was “rescued” for inclusion on this CD release.

Last Impressions

I’ve tried again and again to enjoy this album, but unfortunately every time I get past the opening song, the tracks that follow make me want to listen to something else. The running order of the album is odd. It was originally divided into halves corresponding to the album sides, absurdly called “The Left Side” and “The Right Side.” The “Left Side” contains four songs with lyrics, and “Nuages,” an instrumental. “The Right Side” contains four instrumentals. Robert Fripp said “the left side is accessible, the right side excessive.” I agree with his assessment of the “right side,” but in my view the left side has plenty of disappointment on offer as well. The whole album would be at least a bit easier to listen to, in my view, if the sequencing followed the usual approach of inter-mixing fast and slow, vocal and instrumental, hard and soft.

Out of the whole album, I find four of the original sequence of songs to be enjoyable. These are “Three of a Perfect Pair,” “Nuages (That Which Passes, Passes Like Clouds),” “No Warning,” and “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part III.” If I could, I’d promote “Robert’s Ballad,” “Shidare Zakuru,” and “Industrial Zone C” from the obscurity of the bonus tracks and make them album tracks. Then, we’d have a pretty good seven-track “mini-album.”

Maybe the “mini-album” version of Beat could be combined with the “mini-album” version of Three of a Perfect Pair to become a new release, featuring a blue-and-yellow cover, called, I don’t know, how about Four Beatniks with Perfect Hair? It wouldn’t be Discipline, but it would be a lot more fun to listen to!

My verdict on this album is that unfortunately it is by far the worst of the trilogy. If Beat is about eighty percent as good as Discipline, this album is only about half as good. It’s clear that this configuration of King Crimson was not experiencing much in the way of inspiration during these studio sessions. It’s too bad, but at least we’ll always have Discipline and Beat!

Bonus Review: Absent Lovers: Live in Montreal 1984 (1998 Album)

I just got this in the mail today and I’m excited to share my impressions. As I mentioned before, this live album captures, as well as a recording can, the last show of the 1980s King Crimson. So it’s both a culmination and a valediction for this particular configuration of the band.

“Entry of the Crims” and “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part III”

There’s an instrumental opening — on several of their live albums, the band plays something called “Entry of the Crims,” and it’s generally improvised, as a sort of warmup for both the band and the audience. The instrumental gets gradually more ominous and aggressive, and then the band launches directly into “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part III.”

In my review of Beat above I was not that kind to “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part III.” This live version is much more fun to listen to than the studio recording. Listening to this live album reminds me that Bruford’s electronic percussion can really diminish a song for me; the early-eighties synthetic drums just aren’t very musical, and their lack of dynamics can be off-putting. But fortunately, the rest of the band is playing so dynamically that I don’t mind it very much.

“Thela Hun Ginjeet”

From there they launch directly into “Thela Hun Ginjeet.” In this show Belew doesn’t do his verse narration. I’m not sure just why that is. He did it on the band’s live performance on the Fridays TV show. Maybe they decided it would be more fun to allow Belew to fully concentrate on his guitar playing? In any case, this is a very energetic version of the song. I like it, but I do kind of miss the narration.


There’s a brief break while Adrian tells the audience that this is the last tour of the show, and that they are recording. He encourages them to “make lots of joyous noise, have a good time, sit back, yell, scream, spill your beers, have a pleasant evening.” Then they launch into “Red,” from the album of the same name. Again, I wish I could unplug Bruford’s synthetic drums — they always trigger at the same very high volume, and their lack of dynamics really detracts from the song’s dynamics — but it’s a still great version of “Red.”

“Matte Kudasai”

The band (and the audience) finally gets to slow down for a few minutes, with a truly lovely rendition of “Matte Kudasai.” I kept thinking that the high-pitched guitar part is played by Fripp, but now I think it’s actually Belew; I think Fripp is playing the arpeggios, as well as some other parts. I guess that is a good illustration of how well they work together — sometimes it’s hard to even determine who is playing what!


Next up we have a live version of the “Industry” instrumental, which is a great opportunity to compare the album version to the live version. In short, I like the live version a lot more than I like the version on Three of a Perfect Pair. Levin’s bass riffs are equalized quite differently, and his popped notes sound a lot less aggressive. I still think the combination of synthetic drum fills and string-popping doesn’t work well. Levin, who played bass with Peter Gabriel, later came up with whole new techniques for bass playing, including the “funk fingers” — little wooden mallets stuck to his fingers — that we hear on Peter Gabriel’s song “Steam” from 1992. So I think this can be seen as a step in Levin’s development of his repertoire of bass sounds.

“Dig Me”

Adrian asks the audience “would you like some more of the weird stuff?” They answer, naturally, with enthusiastic applause, and the band plays “Dig Me,” which I feel is the worst song on the worst album of the eighties trilogy. Live, I can get a better sense of what they were trying to do with this song. It sounds considerably better, although I don’t think it’s ever going to be a favorite of mine.

At the end of the song, someone from the audience actually shouts out the last line right before Belew speaks it, “stepping on” the line. What an asshole!

“Three of a Perfect Pair”

This live rendition of the title track from the third album of the trilogy is very nice, with some exciting soloes. I was a bit surprised that the band tries to replicate, live, the fadeout at the end of the studio version, as the interlocking guitar parts fade down before they stop.

Following “Three of a Perfect Pair” Bruford launches into a drum solo using a combination of acoustic and electronic drums, and the electronic drums remain just awful to listen to. But the band rolls immediately into the opening groove of “Indiscipline.”


This is a really fun live version of “Indiscipline,” with Belew really leaning into the spoken-word sections, and both guitarists going into full-on “berserker mode” on the guitar soloes. It’s amazing how Levin can carry the groove and keep the beat going just by tapping on Stick, even when Bruford puts down his drumsticks for a bit. This one is really a full-court press by the team working together at its peak. And that’s the end of disc one!

“Sartori in Tangier”

Disc two opens with a beautiful live version of this song from “Beat.”

“Frame by Frame”

This is one of my favorite King Crimson songs, and the gang does a very credible live version. I think that might be Levin singing harmony during the choruses? I can’t be sure. Fripp’s manic flatpicking drives whole sections of the song along, with the percussion actually following, rather than leading, and when Belew locks in and plays along, it’s amazing. I think Bruford must be triggering some synthesizer sounds, because who else has a free hand?

“Man with an Open Heart”

This is one of my least-favorite songs from Three of a Perfect Pair. Hearing it live unfortunately confirms that I just don’t really like this song. The band uses some of the same queasy tones live as on the studio album, and I really just don’t like the way they sound, or the lurching rhythm, or the indifferent chorus melody.

“Waiting Man”

I wrote in my review of Beat, above that this might be the second-best song on that album. This live performance makes me think that it could actually be the best. I think that on this recording I can more clearly hear what the intent was behind the song: which parts move fast, which parts move slow, and how the instrumental parts interlock with each other and with the vocal. The breakdown sections ramp up very nicely until we have a truly wild solo soaring and plunging over Fripp’s rock-steady arpeggios. The vocal sound captured on the live mics sounds quite hollow and reedy, which is unfortunate. But I still agree strongly with Belew when he comments “boy, that’s the best we’ve done that in a long time!”


This is another track from Three of a Perfect Pair, one which I didn’t rate highly. I’m happy to say that, like “Waiting Man,” the live version makes more musical sense to me. I feel like I can better understand the intent of the musicians, which seems to be embodied by the extreme contrasts they’re going for — between the slow verse vocals and the very heavy, fast instruments, and between the verse parts and the very sparse chorus parts, where all the instruments drop out except for the drums on the first pass.

On the second pass, Levin plays a super-fast bass sound. Then we’ve got Fripp holding down the chord changes while Belew again goes wild, even briefly throwing in some of his “loney rhinoceros” guitar sounds. The boys really rock right the hell out on this one. It’s a great illustration of how the band really was firing on all cylinders, at the same time that it was all about to come to an end.

Honestly, it was a lot to try to stuff onto tape, especially if they were trying to record a version that was a “live” as possible while in the studio. That may help explain why the recorded song is less successful than the live song; it’s possible that in this case they could have gotten a better studio recording by recording all the tracks separately, as “dry” (free of effects and reverb) as possible, and then post-processing them to try to get just the right level of effects. I’m hardly an expert at this, but I imagine this could have helped, at the possible cost of leaving the completed mix too clinical and lifeless. The real problem with this album track could have been something as simple as running out of budget and studio time.

“Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part II”

While the audience is likely still reeling from the sonic assault of “Sleepless,” the Crims launch into the 1973 instrumental from one of the best King Crimson albums. It’s interesting to hear what this configuration of the band does with the original song, which I know quite well; Belew plays the violin parts on squealing electric guitar. The parts where he and Fripp are playing in unison are simply gorgeous, then Fripp takes on a filthy, distorted chord progression, and it goes from pretty, to riding a speeding bullet train that may in fact be on fire. I get chills, listening to this live performance. Lovely!

The audience claps for a long time, so I suspect that the band ducked offstage to drink some water and take a few deep breaths, and the next three songs probably comprised the encore section of the show.


Adrian introduces this song simply by saying “Now I’d like to take seat over here by my pal Robert.” You faintly hear one of the Crims counting “two, three, four” and then Belew and Fripp begin their intricate dance in lock-step, with Levin and Bruford coming a bit later. I’ve listened to this several times now and I still find it hard to believe that they could play this live. The timing isn’t absolutely perfect through every moment of the song — I can hear just a little drift from the extremely fast rythm as they move through the sections — but it’s so very, very close. It’s got just a little bit of wabi-sabi — beauty in imperfection.


We’re almost to the end of the show. This is a slightly stripped-down version of the ballad from Beat. I find myself wishing they would have done Two Hands instead, but I’m sure this must have been a crowd-pleaser.

The audience claps rhythmically for a while, so I suspect the band walked off stage again, and we’re about to get a second encore.

“Elephant Talk”

Speaking of crowd-pleasers, the audience loved this one — a very energetic rendition of the song that the band performed live on Fridays in 1981. I just happened to see them live that evening, on broadcast television, 41 years and almost 4 months ago. I’m listening to them, sort of live, now playing the same song, in 1984, on an album that wasn’t released until 1998. Wibbly-wobbly, timey wimey!

After finishing everything above, I was reading through the booklet that came with the Live in Montreal CDs. I came across Robert Fripp’s production notes, and found that he had written the following:

Firstly, the live performance of music is in its nature ephemeral. This, it shares with gardening. However, our experience of what is, on the surface, a relatively brief event may resonate in our lives to profound and continuing effect. Simply put, music can reach over and change our lives directly and immediately. Our experiencing takes place in sequential time, but is not always governed by it.

Can I get an “Amen?”

That seems like as good a point in time to stop as any. Have a great week!

Addendum: The Noise — Live at Fréjus 1982

It’s May 31, 2023 and I happened to come across this live show on King Crimson’s YouTube channel. I enjoyed it so much I had to update this archived newsletter. I don’t know if the show will remain on YouTube indefinitely, but if it’s still there when you read this, I highly recommend that you watch it. It contains concert footage shot on film, and it’s a bit fuzzy, badly lit, and color-faded, but the audio quality is excellent.

In particular, I really enjoyed the extended version of “The Waiting Man” that opens the show. This is the best version of the song I’ve heard so far. It made a great opening song, and sounds much better than the album version, as the musicans join in one by one. It reminds me a bit of the way the Talking Heads enter one by one in the concert film Stop Making Sense. We see Belew play electronic drums along with Bruford, and they’re both practically dancing on stage. The normally reserved Tony Levin starts swaying in time with the music, and when Fripp finally joins in on guitar, seated as always, his expression unreadable. Was he amused, bemused, or annoyed by his bandmates’ public display of enthusiasm? It’s impossible for me to tell.

The instrumental “The Sheltering Sky” drags on a bit, but it’s nice to hear the band experimenting with different riffs rather than just playing soloes that match the recorded version, while the live versions of “Neal and Jack and Me” and “Heartbeat” also reveal how good these songs could sound live. The band must have felt that the show was going well, because their closer, “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part II” is an extremely confident and energetic take on that classic Crimson piece, with a lot of nice little ear-candy touches and wild soloing. And the audience was very enthusiastic, as can be heard in the video.

This show was previously available only on VHS tape. I would certainly pay for a Blu-ray if one were available, especially if there was more live material from this tour! Let’s hope that they will release one someday.

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