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King Crimson: Live in Newcastle, December 8, 1972

John Kelman By

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"Never say never," or so the old adage goes. When it comes to music, there are two more that should be added: "farewell tour" and, most certainly as it relates to King Crimson's Live in Newcastle, December 8, 1972, "the complete recordings." This, the 48th in the veteran group's King Crimson Collector's Club series of archival releases, turns out not just to be an unexpected addition to the group's Larks' Tongues in Aspic (Panegyric), but belies that fifteen-disc, 2012 40th Anniversary Series box set, which was subtitled "The Complete Recordings" on the opening page of its enclosed 36-page booklet.

But it's a minor quibble. The truth is, this five-piece version of a brand new lineup, making its first public appearance just two months prior on October 13, 1972 and its last a mere five months later, was King Crimson's second shortest-lived incarnation next to the 2008 twin-drummer lineup (which performed a mere eleven dates in four cities, leaving no studio recordings and, effectively, no new music).

The remaining members of the Larks' Tongues band continued as a quartet for another fifteen months before being summarily shut down in September, 1974 by the group's only remaining co-founder, guitarist Robert Fripp, following the recording of King Crimson's final studio album of the '70s, Red (Island, 1974, reissued Panegyric, 2009). But with only seven live recordings from the quintet's 46 concerts included in the 40th Anniversary Series box (plus a very poor quality bonus eighth as a download), and a full five of those seven shows sourced from audience bootlegs, it's terrific news, indeed, that the band, still road-testing its new material in the final months of 1972, was in the habit of making cassette recordings off of the soundboard. Far from the high fidelity possible today, these soundboard recordings were, nevertheless, of sufficient quality to allow the band to continue honing its new repertoire prior to going into the studio.

Live in Newcastle, December 8, 1972 is, indeed, a major find: a soundboard recording that's a major addition to the documented legacy of this short-lived five-piece lineup that, alongside Fripp, ex-Yes drummer Bill Bruford, ex-Family bassist/vocalist John Wetton and violinist David Cross, featured the fur vest-clothed, blood capsule-spewing and inimitably creative percussionist, Jamie Muir. Exceptionally well-restored, it reveals a great deal more about just how extraordinary this band was, even if only for such a short time.

Muir left King Crimson after its March 31, 1973 show, a mere eight days after the release of Larks' Tongues in Aspic (Island Records, 1973). While the four-piece formation that remained would prove to be amongst the band's most-loved (until, that is, its current, slightly shifting format, which has been touring since 2014), recordings from the full quintet remain amongst the holiest of Crimson holy grails.

And for good reason. As superb as the Larks' Tongues quartet would ultimately prove to be in performance (and as well-documented, generally from much better sources, on two mega-box sets from Panegyric in 2013 and 2014 respectively, The Road to Red and Starless), Muir brought not just a visual "X factor" to the group but a musical one as well, his not-to-be understated contributions during his brief tenure with Crimson still felt well after his departure, with the percussionist exerting a lasting influence on Bruford, who added the role of percussionist to his extant position as the group's drummer after Muir's departure.

Live in Newcastle, December 8, 1972 stands out amongst the relatively few recordings from the Larks' Tongues quintet.

First, while still a relatively low-fi recording (call it "mid-fi," perhaps), it's still the best-sounding live recording from this group to date, with surprising clarity and delineation, given its source and age.

Second, it's the only known recording—barring the Hull Technical College date from November 10, 1972, included in the 40th Anniversary Series box—that features the entire Larks' Tongues in Aspic album in its running order, albeit with an incomplete version of the set-closing "Larks' Tongues in Aspic Part Two," which cuts off about halfway through.

Along with every track from Larks' Tongues in Aspic, two lengthy improvisations demonstrate the group's ability to draw music from the ether while, at the same time, connecting one song to the next. The first is embedded between a particularly lovely version of the miniature vocal piece, "Book of Saturday," and the powerfully symphonic "Exiles." The second is bookended by a lengthier, nine minute-plus look at the album's most eminently rocking "Easy Money" and the whisper-to-a-roar, improv-heavy "The Talking Drum," which segues into an incomplete "Larks' Tongues in Aspic Part Two," rendering the set almost completely continuous, barring a brief break for Fripp's announcement after the set-opening "Larks' Tongues in Aspic Part One" and another (with no announcement) following "Exiles."

Together, these two improvisations occupy 32 minutes of the CD's 72-minute run time, and demonstrate this quintet's far freer approach to extemporization, again largely thanks to Muir, who'd already established himself in the British free jazz scene, collaborating with guitarist Derek Bailey, electronics specialist Hugh Davies, saxophonist Evan Parker and vocalist Christine Jeffrey in the Music Improvisation Company, whose sole, eponymous album was released by a nascent ECM Records in 1970.

Road-testing the emerging album's worth of material over a full 32 live performances before committing it to tape for Larks' Tongues in Aspic, the group was still working on nailing down formats and arrangements even at the relatively late date of Live in Newcastle, December 8, 1972, its sixth-to-last show before heading into the studio for two months in early '72. But it was inching closer and closer.

The out-of-the-gate game-changing "Larks' Tongues in Aspic Part One"—its introduction bringing Muir's bells and other percussion together with guitar and violin harmonics, and Bruford's textural cymbal work—has largely been whipped into shape by this time, but Fripp is still looking for just the right mix of compositional construction and improvisational forays. The technically challenging, rapid-picked and angularly conceived guitar part first introduced during the third section of this eleven-minute, episodic blend of crunching, metallic power chords, pastoral violin passages and many other ideas in-between, is repeated, here, during the following passage before heading off into more spontaneous territory. This contrasts with the studio version, where the guitarist overlays an intensifying build of increasingly rapid-strummed chords, a logical extension and expansion of the similar technique used during Fripp's now-iconic, skewed banjo-inflected guitar solo during "Sailor's Tale," from Islands (Island, 1971, reissued Panegyric, 2010).

It's an incendiary reading of the composition that seems to effortlessly shift from subtle delicacies to ear-bursting grooves, the latter driven hard by Wetton's heavily distorted, positively massive bass lines, Bruford's instantly recognizable snare and Muir's reckless percussive contributions. The album's start-stop introduction to Cross' delicately oblique, largely a cappella solo has yet to emerge at this point, though the violinist's feature, which turns into a duet with Muir, is closer to but, in the spirit of improvisation that underscores virtually the entire performance, still not a precise mirror of what would ultimately appear on the studio recording. Here, Muir's cascading, harp-like dulcimer strums gradually join with Cross for the simple, Oriental-sounding melody that signals the composition's final section, as it gradually builds towards the familiar, climactic conclusion.

It may be a brief announcement at just over a minute, but before launching into "Book of Saturday" (still, at this point, titled "Daily Games," and delivered with both pastoral beauty and a hint of melancholy) Fripp takes the time to compliment the Newcastle audience, introduce what came before and what is to come next as the group "proceed[s] to attack culture yet again," following "a small demonstration of Mellotron tuning," and how the set will conclude. At the same time, Fripp is compelled to draw attention to a rather vocal member of the audience, thankfully inaudible in this recording.

This may have been relatively early days in the group's half century existence, but Fripp was already drawing a line in the sand with respect to how an audience can either inspire or distract. "My, my, what a nice crowd they have in Newcastle," his cadential remarks begin, before turning more pointed. "To the gentlemen who so kindly passed those killingly funny remarks at the beginning, may I say thank you sir, you're really a scream," Fripp gently yet acerbically adds, before concluding his introduction with: "To the gentleman with the loud voice: your indulgence sir, thank you." It's a relatively small but telling decision to include this introduction, as it could just as easily have been edited out.

But back to the music. As the under three minute "Book of Saturday"—with Wetton's first vocal of the set and Fripp's beautifully arpeggiated solo—reaches its conclusion, it segues seamlessly into "Improv I." Beginning as a lovely, melodic feature driven by Bruford's soft kit work and Muir's fluid yet unpredictable percussion injections, Fripp's lyrical, clean-toned playing is augmented by Wetton's blend of rhythmic anchor and melodic foil. Cross improvises, too, but largely in the background, though it's impossible to know whether this is by intent or the result of the front-of-house mix and where the recorder was in the hall.

The three-chord set of changes that spontaneously emerge gradually lead to an accelerating bass solo that reveals Wetton as a fine bassist for the group, albeit one with a more limited vernacular as compared to Fripp, Cross and, even, Muir, when he is employing tuned percussion like xylophone or wood blocks. As the tempo slows again, Fripp introduces the silkily sustaining tone he first unleashed on the world during his fiery solo on "21st Century Schizoid Man," the opening track to King Crimson's (music) world-changing debut, In the Court of the Crimson King (Island, 1969, reissued Panegyric, 2009).

Slowly morphing into a backbeat-driven, xylophone-colored and wah wah-heavy solo from Cross that again accelerates in tempo, as Fripp engages with Cross with greater virtuosity, the 14-minute improvisation builds climactically and yet, in its final minute, dissolves as it magically finds its way to the intro of "Exiles," where Wetton, not always the most pitch-accurate of singers, delivers a particularly compelling vocal performance.

With Crimson's earlier albums, also including In the Wake of Poseidon (Island, 1970, reissued Panegyric, 2010) and Lizard (Island, 1971, reissued Panegyric, 2009), strongly featuring Mellotron, it's no small significance that "Exiles" is the first tune on Larks' Tongues in Aspic (and, for that matter, Live in Newcastle, December 8, 1972) to utilize the tape-loop driven keyboard instrument that allowed the group to incorporate a breadth of symphonic sounds.

Mellotron also features significantly on "Easy Money," but not until Fripp's lengthy solo section, with Cross' keyboard work supporting the guitarist's gradually expanding, intervallic-leaping and, at times, blues-informed phrases. The instrumental section, nearly three minutes longer than the studio version, also demonstrates how much Muir brings to the group, as he layers all manner of percussion instruments and "allsorts" (meaning: just about anything he could find capable of being shaken, swirled, struck or dropped) over Bruford's unshakable anchor with, again, the deeply intuitive sounds of surprise. As ever, Muir both responds to and further encourages Fripp and the entire group as it builds to a high-volume peak that's brought back to the final verse by Wetton's (unfortunately) pitchy scatting.

The 17-minute improvisation that follows quickly dissolves into a solo feature for Muir, who employs everything from, amongst many other things, drum kit, horns, spinning toys and swinging chains to strange laughs, a large metal sheet and all manner of tuned metal and wood. A drum solo follows, but is clearly still Muir in its complete and utter abandon, though Bruford begins to join in, as does Wetton, first with a repeating two-chord phrase but, ultimately, greater freedom as both Cross and Fripp engage in some unanticipated Mellotron interplay, Cross soon moving to violin as the entire band takes off with an accelerating pulse.

Building to the kind of funk-heavy groove that often defined many later quartet improvisations, "Improv II" continues to demonstrate the Larks' Tongues quintet's greater volatility, its sheer capriciousness an immutably defining quality. The previous Islands touring band was often defined by similar free exchanges, but between Muir and Fripp's broader language and their connection to the British free jazz scene—the guitarist recruiting a number of free jazz guests on the Crimson trifecta of Poseidon through Islands while producing, amongst others, Keith Tippett's massive ensemble project Centipede and its two-LP Septober Energy (Neon, 1971), as well as the pianist's more intimate but still unfettered Blueprint (RCA, 1972)—this lineup far outpaced any other Crimson lineup (including the subsequent quartet) when it came to astonishing and impossible to anticipate states of change. Only the current lineup, as different as it is, approaches the Larks' Tongues in Aspic quintet in terms of both consistent excellence and, albeit in a subtler fashion, improvisational/interpretive strength.

With Muir's odd vocalizing, from growls and grunts to howls and yowls, bringing "Improv II" to a near-whisper, the piece segues into "The Talking Drum," The percussionist's hand-drumming setting the pace for Wetton to gradually assume the instrumental's familiar bass line. "The Talking Drum" is almost two minutes shorter than the ultimate studio version, but still manages to build to the searing conclusion of melded violin harmonics and guitar screeches that segue into the anthemic instrumental, "Larks' Tongues in Aspic Part Two."

While plenty energetic, the only shame about Live in Newcastle, December 8, 1972 is that "Larks' Tongues in Aspic Part Two" cuts off right before Cross' solo. Still, the familiar crunch of Fripp's overdriven guitar defines both the "A" section's higher volume and shifting meters and the "B" section's brief respite, before it builds back to fierier energy.

Muir's protean contributions are, once again, a demonstration of this group's greater extemporaneous versatility and improvisational élan. If anything, Live in Newcastle, December 8, 1972 is the best example, to date, of why this particular Crimson lineup is held in such high esteem by so many fans. While completely different than the four albums that came before, Larks' Tongues in Aspic, and the profound chemistry of the five musicians that created it, may represent a more consistently visible demonstration of Fripp's growing prowess as a guitarist.

While any real examination of the King Crimson's first four albums reveal a guitarist already extended well beyond the limitations of most guitarists connected to the rock world, Larks' Tongues in Aspic and its follow-up, Starless and Bible Black (Island, 1974, reissued Panegyric, 2011) and the mind-boggling closer that still challenges even the most accomplished six-stringers with "Fracture," render crystal clear that Fripp was, even at this relatively early stage in his career, a guitarist occupying a rarefied stratum alongside precious few others.

But as much as Larks' Tongues in Aspic was a clear revelation of Fripp's eminently impressive yet still-evolving talents as guitarist, composer, conceptualist and bandleader, it was the profound chemistry of everyone involved that made it such an artistic (if, at the time, not entirely commercial or critical) success. Still, it was Muir's relentless "X factor" that made the studio album what it is. Now, with the best sounding live recording to date, Live in Newcastle, December 8, 1972 further elucidates Muir's inestimable importance in this nascent ensemble. The quartet would go on to extensive touring and a reputation as one of King Crimson's best lineups, with Live in Newcastle, December 8, 1972 leaving but one question: where might this group had gone had Muir decided not to leave?

It's an absolutely essential addition to King Crimson's expanded discography of live recordings released since Fripp first curated and issued the four-disc box set of performances by the Larks' Tongues quartet, The Great Deceiver (Virgin, 1992, reissued DGM Live, 2006). But, just as importantly, King Crimson's staggering quintet performance on Live in Newcastle, December 8, 1972 suggests that the phrase "the complete recordings" can often be incorrect...and, here, in the most superbly glorious way possible.

Track Listing: Larks’ Tongues in Aspic Part One; RF Announcement; Book of Saturday; Improv I; Exiles; Easy Money; Improv II; The Talking Drum; Larks’ Tongues in Aspic Part Two.

Personnel: Bill Bruford: drums; David Cross: violin, mellotron; Robert Fripp: guitar, mellotron; Jamie Muir: percussion, drums, "allsorts"; John Wetton: bass, vocals.

Title: Live in Newcastle, December 8, 1972 | Year Released: 2019 | Record Label: DGM Live

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