Saturday, November 5, 2016

Discipline - The return of King Crimson, 1981

The shock of the new - that's how it felt to behold the reformed King Crimson in 1981.
 

Six years previously, Robert Fripp called a halt to the band, which by then was just a three piece with John Wetton on bass and vocals and Bill Bruford on drums. They were at the peak of their popularity, but that was part of the problem for Fripp. They had become like a conventional rock band and he didn't want that. The closer they got to the mainstream, the less comfortable he became.

He wasn't idle in the immediate aftermath, and indeed as Bowie's go-to guitarist from Heroes to Scary Monsters (1977-80) he made his mark on the mainstream in any case.

In 1981, news came through that Fripp had a new band. Me and three bandmates, all big Crimson fans, bought tickets for the first gig in London, May 1981 at Her Majesty's Theatre, Haymarket.

They were called Discipline. We had no idea what to expect but we hoped they would play some old stuff. We certainly didn't expect it was going to be a life-changing experience, in the sense that this new band was making music from the future, and their influence would endure into KC’s music to this day.

So Discipline started off the concert playing a new track (called Discipline as it turned out) and the first thing that struck me was the rhythm, a hypnotic pulse driven by Bruford's electronic drums, but with a distinctive bass. This was the first time that most of us had ever seen a Chapman Stick, and wielded by the (nowadays) acknowledged master of the instrument, the distinctive dome of Tony Levin.

Then all hell broke loose! The band launched into Thela Hun Ginjeet. We were pinned back by the dual onslaught of Fripp and new lead guitarist Adrian Belew producing all manner of sonic fireworks. Bruford attacking his kit with staccato rolls. This was most people’s introduction to Belew and none of us had ever seen anything like it. This must be what it was like to see Hendrix doing the Star Spangled Banner or the swoops, swirls and explosions of Machine Gun with the Band of Gypsies.

Each new track was distinctive, from the "this is a dangerous place" storyline of  Thela Hun Ginjeet to the sheer shimmering beauty of Matte Kudesai, or the interstellar soundscape of The Sheltering Sky.

Vintage footage of 'Discipline' playing Thela Hun Ginjeet

They played some old too. Red was tucked into the set early on and they played Larks Tongues part 2 as an encore. But to be honest, they seemed tame in comparison to the new stuff. Like Elephant Talk, a bizarre but compelling statement of the new Crimson, which many people now feel surpassed the classic albums of the 70s.

King Crimson on US TV in December 1981

Soon afterwards, an almost inevitable name-change, from Discipline to King Crimson, took the band into a highly successful period, artistically and commercially, that has sustained right up to the latest line-up, which still owes much to the inventiveness of the 1980s version.

Everyone has their favourite period of Crimson and there have been so many different phases. But 35 years on from this particular gig, I can still remember how we were blown away by this new music.