Tag Archives: Asia

Starless – King Crimson

It’s not a controversial opinion to suggest that the greatest betrayal of artistic first principles in the popular music canon is that of Jefferson Airplane/Starship in its 20-year journey from White Rabbit to Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now. But when considering the risk to musical credibility of chasing a fast buck, there seems to me to be an even more salutary tale: the fact that John Wetton, who co-wrote and sang Asia’s Heat of the Moment, earlier in his career also co-wrote and sang Starless, the final track on King Crimson’s 1974 album Red.

Red was the last album that King Crimson made during its first run (band leader Robert Fripp would call time on the group just before the record came out; he’d spend the next few years as a guitarist and producer for hire, doing fascinating things with David Bowie, Blondie, Peter Gabriel, Talking Heads and Daryl Hall). Red was made by a core 3-piece of Fripp, Wetton (bass and vocals) and Bill Bruford (drums). The record’s instrumental palette is widened in places by Ian McDonald’s alto and Mel Collins’s soprano saxophones on Starless, and by cello, violin and oboe elsewhere, but primarily Red is a guitar album. And if you’re a fan of Robert Fripp’s playing, that’s a very good thing indeed.

The album’s twin pillars are its first and last tracks: the title track and the aforementioned Starless. Red (the song, not the album) I won’t dwell on long except to recommend it thoroughly. Built on an angular, grinding guitar riff of Fripp’s, it’s the sound of a band transforming itself into some kind of infernal tank, heavy enough to roll over any obstruction, each semitonal shift like the changing of gears of a monstrous war machine.

Starless is a formally more complex piece, in three sections. The first is essentially a ballad, written and sung by Wetton. It’s carried by Fripp’s meditative minor-key Mellotron chords and lyrical guitar melody, originally played by violinist David Cross. After Cross left the group at the beginning of the sessions, Fripp inherited and adapted it. The song had been tried out for the previous year’s album (eventually called Starless and Bible Black, despite the absence of the song that had inspired the title), but hadn’t really caught on with Fripp and Bruford at first.

The revived Wetton composition was paired with an evil-sounding bass riff by Bruford in – what else? – 13/8 time. Never let a prog drummer write your tunes unless you enjoy counting. This riff underpins a long improv section that forms the second third of the song, with the last section comprising a double-time freakout for soprano sax and guitar, which finally resolves into a reprise of Fripp’s opening theme (also now in double time).

But to describe it in terms of its structure doesn’t really get at what makes Starless so affecting. Let’s come at it another way and discuss it in terms of mood, emotion, text and subtext.

Starless’s text seems straightforward enough: it’s a song about being so mired in sadness that nothing can penetrate it:

Sundown dazzling day
Gold through my eyes
But my eyes turned within
Only see
Starless and bible black

This is not uncharted territory for pop music. It’s where Paint it Black lives, of course, and on a deeper level much of the later work of Nick Drake, too. But Starless seems to be working on a bigger canvas than either of those precedents. The song’s musical subtext constantly obtrudes and eventually takes over. Starless presents an apocalyptic, blasted-heath landscape, where something unimaginably terrible, possibly something world-ending, is about to happen.Such a vast song has to be about more than one man’s personal pain

How else to interpret that long middle section?

It begins with Wetton’s bass and Fripp’s guitar, while Bruford plays assorted percussion. Wetton plays that threatening-sounding 13/8 bass riff in C minor while Fripp plays a G note across two strings (he’s fretting the G string at the 12th fret and the B at the 8th, producing two Gs with slightly different tones and picking them alternately). Then as the riff switches to F, Fripp plays a discordant Gb, then back to G when the riff returns to C. This sequence repeats, and the tension starts to build via a long held G (major or minor? Neither Wetton nor Fripp is spelling that out yet).

How long can anyone play just two notes? If you’re Robert Fripp, quite a long time. Eventually he begins to climb upwards in pitch and intensity, and soon Fripp is playing oblique bends with a thicker, more distorted tone. Wetton’s bass is, likewise, now truly distorted. Once Bruford joins in on full kit, and particularly once he switches to the ride at about 8.30 and begins playing less abstractly, the cumulative effect goes a long way beyond tense into hysterical, with Fripp’s guitar positively shrieking.

It’s impossible to overstate the evocative power of this 5-minute middle section. It sounds like the war machine evoked in the album’s opening track has returned with evil in its heart. The final freakout is, if one wants to follow this interpretation through, the apocalypse itself, and while any musical evocation of the eschaton is bound to come up short, Starless (even in its title) gets closer than just about anything else.

Few rock bands were going to places like this in 1974, certainly not King Crimson’s English progressive contemporaries. Red, and Starless in particular, is timeless. It still sounds like tomorrow. The tomorrow after which there will be no tomorrow.

King+Crimson+Red
Red-era King Crimson: Bruford, Fripp and Wetton

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Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime – Beck

The original Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime was by the Korgis, a group formed out of the remains of Stackridge, a 1970s prog band. The Korgis, then, in 1980 were a little too old, a little too bald, a little too paunchy for their new wave suits. They were far from the only group shedding their old fanbases and trading in student union worship for mainstream acceptance (at this point, Gabriel and Collins were already huge stars, Fripp was producing Daryl Hall and playing guitar for Bowie and Talking Heads; in two years Asia would have the best-selling album of the year). But still, even in times that were sympathetic to their cause, the Korgis were made to be forgotten. Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime hit big (number 5 in the UK, number 18 in the US) and still gets radio play, but no one remembers who made it, and everyone has their own favourite version, often not the original. The song, sounding like an alternate path John Lennon may have gone down for Double Fantasy if he hadn’t consciously turned his back on the future to retreat into his own past (Just Like Starting Over, with its Sun slapback, is nothing more than pastiche), is ideal for cover versions. It’s been done as breakbeat house by Baby D, as adult-contemporary dance-pop by Yazz and by Italian rock singer Zucchero (a typically over-the-top reading). The song is almost a blank canvas.

Beck cut it with Jon Brion for 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It starts out with him alone at the electric piano, singing in his deepest, most mournful register. The bass and electric guitars slide in almost unnoticed, joined by a drummer at the first chorus. The drums are muffled, damped, it’s very seventies. All the bells and whistles of the Korgis’ version (the delays and echoes on the piano and voice, the electric sitar playing the riff at the end of the chorus, the icy synths that play the three-note hook in the chorus) are gone: we get strings instead. The prankster Beck of 10 years before is nowhere to be seen. He’s playing the straightest of bats. He sounds invested in what he’s singing.

Jon Brion, it has to be said, lets the side down a little bit. Listening to this, it’s small wonder that Aimee Mann and Fiona Apple had ended their partnerships with him by this time – he’s on autopilot. The song’s said all it really has to say by around 2.30. But instead of wrapping things up, we get three minutes of The Jon Brion Show: every analogue keyboard, every guitar pedal, every fairground noise in his collection is pulled out of the cupboard and strewn over the studio floor. There’s not an idea here he hasn’t already worked over past the point of diminishing returns on Mann’s Bachelor No.2 and Apple’s When the Pawn… A carnival-esque soundworld was not what was called for here. Some attention to the mood of the song proper would have been infinitely more desirable.

I’m sure Beck had some input into the long instrumental coda, and he’d sung the song so well that that the record finishes with plenty of money in the bank. Perhaps, too, if you hadn’t heard Jon Brion’s other work, you could find his work here charming, or moving, or compelling. I find it a little bit redundant; it takes over and spoils the mood. Beck’s reading of the song, though, is excellent.

beck

This is Beck

Brion

This is Jon Brion