King Crimson

In Memoriam – John Wetton

On “days like these” I “lament” that I have “nothing to lose.” Vocalist, bassist, and all around Progressive Rock musician extraordinaire, John Wetton, passed away this January 31st. Only “Providence” can explain why we shall hear his innovative bass lines and stellar vocals “nevermore.” I wish someone would “hold me now.”

I’ve been listening to Mr. Wetton’s music for over “thirty years.” Whenever I had “time kill” “in the dead of night” I’d pass the time listening to his live work with King Crimson. Upon discovering the band’s live box set, The Great Deceiver, I’d never felt both so inspired and intimidated by a fellow bass player. I’d marvel at the myriad different arrangements to the classic “Easy Money.” His improvs would rival those of any jazz musician. His capability to push the boundaries of an already revolutionary genre exhibited the scope of his proficiency.

Mr. Wetton’s innovative approach to the bass guitar could only be rivaled by legendary Motown session man, James Jamerson. Like the latter, he chose an early 1960s Fender Precision Bass as his means of expanding the instrument’s traditional boundaries.

In an encomium to the legendary Motown session man, bassist Anthony Jackson explained the three components of genius:

  1. Original style.
  2. The technical proficiency to execute that style.
  3. The persistence to push that style onto an unreceptive world.

For that reason, Mr. Wetton earned a place in music history among the likes of music’s luminaries. Yes, he even deserves to be ranked with James Jamerson.

While a laudable achievement in itself, Mr. Wetton even expanded pop music into an art form. The most memorable musical moment of my life occurred the first time I listened to Chasing the Dragon. Like many of his fans, the band Asia served as my first exposure to his talents. This 1994 live album opened with “Heat of the Moment.” Instead of the high power rock anthem I knew, Mr. Wetton performed it as an acoustic ballad. I never could’ve imagined delivering it this way. His slow somber vocals gave the track a new character. To my amazement it even sounded much better than the original.

As a performer who spent most of his career playing progressive rock, many of his songs are unfamiliar to the larger public. It’s truly a shame that more people haven’t been exposed to such outstanding tracks as “Rendezvous 602”, “Battle Lines” and the greatest instrumental track ever recorded, “Red.” The eponymous UK album is still one of the best recordings released in any genre.

What King Crimson fan doesn’t hear John Wetton’s lugubrious vocal from “Starless” run through his/her mind while watching the setting sun?

            Sundown. Dazzling day. 

            Gold through my eyes.

            But my eyes turn within; only see

            Starless and Bible Black.

            This seems a fitting epitaph for those of us who adored his music.

I extend my deepest condolences to Mr. Wetton’s friends, family and fans.

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In Memoriam – Epitaph: Greg Lake

Confusion will be my epitaph

As I crawl this cracked and broken path

If we make it we will all sit back and laugh

But I fear tomorrow I’ll be crying.

From “Epitaph” by King Crimson. Lyrics by Peter Sinfield

 

Today Progressive Rock fans shed tears at the loss of a legend. One can only react with confusion that for the second time in 2016 a member of that paragon of progressive power trios Emerson, Lake and Palmer has left us. On December 7th, Greg Lake passed away less than a month after celebrating his sixty ninth birthday.

It is ironic to write that the music scene will not be the same following his passing. The music scene has not been the same since he entered it. We first heard Mr. Lake’s extraordinary talents on King Crimson’s eclectic masterpiece, In the Court of the Crimson King. The 1969 album sounds ahead-of-its-time even today. That’s a remarkable observation for a record originally released almost fifty years ago.

Mr. Lake’s vocals augmented Crimso’s innovative style; and the band’s repertoire provided him with myriad opportunities to display his capabilities. He added soft crooning to the ethereal “I Talk to the Wind” and haunting vocals to the lesser known “Moonchild.” His somber rendition of “Epitaph” brought the disillusionment in Peter Sinfield’s lyrics to life. That’s quite a challenging task with words this powerful.

The wall on which the prophets wrote

Is cracking at the seams.

Upon the instruments of death

The sunlight brightly gleams.

Mr. Lake’s vocals made King Crimson a Classic Rock icon. His bass playing made the band legendary. During “21st Century Schizoid Man” he, guitarist Robert Fripp and drummer Michael Giles performed the best instrumental jam ever recorded. He anticipated Heavy Metal bass lines through his thunderous bottom end on the live staple “Mars, the Bringer of War” from Holst’s The Planets. The origins of progressive rock came about through the melding of classical music with hard rock in tracks such as this one.

Mr. Lake achieved more musically during the two albums he recorded with King Crimson than most could in several lifetimes. Had he retired following his all-too brief stint with the band, he still would have assured his place in music history. To the delight of Progressive Rock fans, he harbored higher aspirations.

Mr. Lake joined up with keyboardist Keith Emerson and drummer Carl Palmer. The three established a veritable Prog Rock super group. In addition to entertaining audiences with his singing, bass playing and even his proficiency with the guitar, he used the opportunity to showcase his songwriting skills. Cuts such as “Lucky Man”, “Still You Turn Me On” and “From the Beginning” showed that even “serious” musicians could resonate with mainstream rock audiences.

Mr. Lake had the misfortune, to use that word loosely, of working with poet Peter Sinfield. In addition to writing for King Crimson, he also penned the words to ELP’s tour-de-force “Pirates.” Because of the man’s talents Mr. Lake’s skill as a lyricist often gets overlooked. But who doesn’t recognize the opening to “Lucky Man”?

He had white horses

And ladies by the score

All dressed in satin

And waiting by the door.

Oh, what a lucky man he was.

Mr. Lake achieved the pinnacle of his lyrical abilities in “The Sage”; a track he added to the band’s version of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. The haunting opening stanza eloquently established the mood.

I carry the dust of a journey

That cannot be shaken away.

It lives deep within me

For I breathe it every day.

Like all progressive rock musicians, Mr. Lake always sought opportunities to expand the boundaries of his trade. During the late seventies, he experimented with an eight string electric bass guitar. He used it to full effect on Works Live. Since he couldn’t play both bass and guitar while on stage, the extra strings made the instrument sound like a bridge between the two. It gave early ELP classics like “Knife Edge” and “Tank” a fresh sound.

His musical peers showed immense respect for his skill with the instrument. It seemed fitting that the group which pioneered the “concept album” would invite Mr. Lake to join them. Following John Entwistle’s passing, The Who recruited him to play bass on their 2004 track “Real Good Looking Boy.”

Of course, Mr. Lake will best be remembered for his vocal talents. In addition to rock, he could sing jazzy tunes like “Show Me the Way to Go Home” and “Step Aside” with equal dexterity. He added an excellent Bob Dylan impersonation to ELP’s cover of “The Man in the Long Black Coat”, as well.

It’s sad that the person who wrote the Christmas staple “I Believe in Father Christmas” would pass away during the Holiday Season. I send my deepest condolences to Mr. Lake’s friends and family during this difficult time.

Just possibly, Mr. Lake wrote his own epitaph. For “The End” section of Pictures at an Exhibition he crafted the following lyrics.

There’s no end to my life   

No beginning to my death

Death is life.

Hail to the King

There’s only one king of rock and roll. Fans affectionately know him collectively as “Crimso”, others attach the more formal appellation King Crimson. I recently pulled The 21st Century Guide to King Crimson Volume One 1969 – 1974 out of my archives. Even listening to it now, I’m struck by just how original and innovative their music was in their heyday. You know a band was ahead of its time when hearing music they recorded over forty years ago you think it would revolutionize music if recorded today. There’s no greater example of that than the tracks from In the Court of the Crimson King.

King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp did an exceptional job remastering these cuts. When I crank songs such as “21st Century Schizoid Man” and “Epitaph” I feel like I’m in the sound booth with the recording engineer. The box has every song from the album, although the version of “Moonchild” is abridged. I’ve heard most of these songs on previous releases, but the sound quality on the box makes it well worth the expense alone.

The box also included five live tracks recorded by the same line-up that recorded Court. The true highlight for me was “Mars: The Bringer of War.” It’s a version of the first part of Gustav Holst’s The Planets performed by a rock band. The arrangement would’ve made the composer proud. The piece increased in volume throughout building to a loud crescendo at the end. I swear my house shakes when I play it at full blast. The “Mellotron” does not reflect its name the way this group utilized it. Keep in mind this is from a band substantially influenced by classical music theory. All this in an era before Heavy Metal came to prominence.

While these songs make the box set well worth the cost and time to listen to it: there’s much more. Fripp included a disc of studio material from the Fripp/Wetton/Bruford/Cross era of the band. This one has some of my all time favorite prog-rock masterpieces. Crimso classics such as “Red”, “Easy Money”, and “Larks Tongues in Aspic Part II” appear in their entirety. A shortened version of “Starless” is on there as well. The way the disc is mixed makes it so all the tracks lead into one another. I thought that a very cool feature.

As with the earlier incarnations of the group, this line-up also has a live disc dedicated to it. The true mother lode on that one is a live instrumental improv called simply “Asbury Park” after the location the band recorded it. Imagine if you will a hybrid of classical music, heavy metal, and funk. If you don’t think a group of musicians could pull this off, listen to this track. It really defines the essence of what “Crimso” was all about in the mid-1970s.

The only real criticism I have of this box is the same critique fans have of any compilation: I don’t agree with all the song selections. The compendium has four different versions of “21st Century Schizoid Man”; one studio and three live performed by various incarnations of the band. None are of the same quality as the version the original line-up performed, but I can understand why Fripp chose to include them. To this day it stands as Crimso’s signature song. On the piece from the Earthbound album, Fripp chose to excise Boz Burrrell’s vocals in lieu of the instrumental parts. (The late Burrell went on to play bass guitar for Bad Company. To be fair to him, he was a great musician, but he was a much more proficient bassist than rock vocalist. Then again, so was John Wetton.)

I really liked the inclusion of a live version of “Easy Money”. It’s certainly one of the best tracks in the King Crimson catalog. I just didn’t care for this hybrid version of two different performances. The band played the song regularly during the early to mid-1970s. Fripp had myriad other renditions to choose from. He included some great recordings of it on the 1992 box set The Great Deceiver. I’m not sure why he didn’t go with a more powerful recording here.

And my big complaint: some songs from The Great Deceiver appeared on this box. I can’t wrap my mind around why Fripp didn’t include “Doctor Diamond”. That song had a mind-twisting time signature even by King Crimson standards. Since The Great Deceiver is now out of print, I don’t understand why “Doctor” wasn’t added to this box. It would have truly enhanced the song selection.

I would strongly encourage any Progressive Rock fan to give The 21st Century Guide to King Crimson Volume One a listen. I recall reading an interview with John Wetton (Bass/Vocals 1972 – 1974 ) back in the late 1990s. He said that whenever he played at Progressive Rock Festivals he’d listen to the new bands and smile. He thought they sounded a lot like Crimso did back in the 1970s. Based on Mr. Wetton’s observation, I’d say why listen to the imitators? Why not pay court to the grand-daddy of them all, King Crimson?