Tag Archives: Ian McDonald

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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I Think He’s Hiding – Randy Newman

It’s been a busy couple of weeks, with extra days at work and such, and I’m going to be even more pushed for time over the next week or so. I’m heading home tomorrow morning to sunny Essex for the always-excellent Leigh Folk Festival so my usual Sunday post is going to have to be early. Next Friday I’m heading to Umbria with Mel for a long weekend of hilltop villages and awesome food. I’ll post something on Wednesday or Thursday before I go, but then you’ll be on your own until the following Wednesday or Thursday when I’m back and settled back into a normal working routine. In the meantime, I’m aware I’m falling back on favourite artists I’ve written about before, but it helps me to keep up a reasonable pace if I can write about something I’ve already listened to many times and digested properly. And any great artist deserves whole books, not just a couple of blog posts! I could write about some of these folks every week for a year, although I don’t know how many of you would still be here if I did.

Randy Newman has no heir in popular music. He stands alone. There may be songwriters who are funny, some who have his sense of the grotesque (Tom Waits owes his post-Swordfish career to just one Newman song: Davy the Fat Boy); there are people who can write orchestra movie soundtracks, others who can write one-off title songs to order. Newman can do it all. And of the funny songwriters, there’s none funnier, not Steely Dan, not 10CC, not Terry Allen, not Warren Zevon (perhaps the closest rock has come to a second Randy Newman, though he had nothing like the musical range of the original), and certainly not those who explicitly set themselves up as comic songwriters.

As the late Ian McDonald argued, Newman’s first album, from 1968, finds him already fully formed as an artist. The control of the orchestra was there. The talent for satire was there. The compression of meaning and incident into viable rock lyrics was there. It won him the instant admiration of his peers. They all seemed to appreciate that this guy was doing something they couldn’t, and many tried recording his songs. Harry Nilsson, who didn’t need to take songwriting lessons off anyone, cut a whole album’s worth.

But his songs defy those who would cover them. As good as Newman’s words are on paper, they come alive in performance, but only his performance can bring them to their full potential. As croaky and ungainly as his voice may be on a technical level, he’s alive to every possibility of the phrasing and delivery in the words he writes.

In the early seventies, Clive James wrote a series of columns about rock music for Cream magazine, concentrating mainly on lyrics. He tackled Dylan, the Beatles, Sandy Denny, the Band, Randy Newman and Van Morrison among others. His highest praise, in terms of lyrics, was reserved for the Band’s Robbie Robertson and Newman. I’ll leave the analysis to him: he’s covers it all, more clearly than I could.

Consider I Think He’s Hiding: Newman has got his attentive absorption of cliché and his definitive sense of order both working at once. The clichés, delivered in a voice strangling with piety, create a world of pin-brained religious fear and smug certitude. The redeemer, alias the Big Boy, is called upon to return and sort the elect from the damned. But underneath the cretinous invocation of the holy name, Newman’s irony is subversively at work. ‘Come on Big Boy,’ sings the narrator: ‘Come and save us.’ There is a flurry of melisma on the word ‘save’, giving an idiotic air of devotions confidently sung in church or synagogue. ‘Come and look at what we’ve done,’ he adds, and we can hear Newman’s own judgements coming to the fore – he isn’t entirely impressed with mankind’s achievements. But there’s a capper: ‘With what you gave us.’ So the fault’s the Big Boy’s. After all, it’s the Big Boy who’s claiming to be omnipotent.

James is not going overboard here. Everything that he finds in the lyric is in there, and that’s a hell of a lot of content. Most impressively, Newman’s not beating us over the head with 10-dollar words; there isn’t one word in the verse he quotes with more than one syllable.

Newman’s solo albums would never again be as orchestrated, as 1940s-sounding, as his debut; from his second album onwards, he’d work within an idiom that more obviously had something to do with rock music. Yet his lyrics would remain as sharp for at least a decade, slackening only at the end of the seventies. And even after that, he retained the power to shock and surprise, as on, for example, Trouble in Paradise’s Christmas In Cape Town, another in a long line of devastating anti-racism songs. I’ve written about that album elsewhere. Click here for more Newman talk.

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