Tag Archives: progressive rock

Never Any Clapton, Part 4 – Starless by King Crimson

I’ve written about this one before, so please excuse me for returning to a favourite.

Once again, we must confront the Dark Lord of Skronk. Dare ye look upon his face a second time?

fripp

Oh yeah, Robert Fripp: the gentlemanly looking guitar torturer behind some of the finest uses and abuses of the instrument in rock music.

Every solo I’ve looked at over the years has had an emotional point. I’ve never been a fan of shows of virtuosity for their own sake. Robert Fripp’s playing on Starless radiates emotion, though the feelings being communicated are, to say the least, ambiguous.

The song begins in a minor key, with held Mellotron chords. Fripp plays a haunting melody over these chords, demonstrating his total control over tone and articulation. Every note has the right amount of sustain and vibrato. His choice of which string and fret to play the notes is equally precise and assured.

After three verses sung by Wetton (the main writer of this section of the song), the band drop out and Wetton plays a 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, long past the point where it begins to make the listener uncomfortable. Wetton and drummer Bill Bruford go through the sequence a second time, and it’s only towards the end of this repeat that Fripp starts climbing, semitone by agonising semitone, upwards in pitch. As he and Wetton begin to play with more volume and distortion, Bruford (the author of that bass riff) joins in. After another repeat of the full sequence, during which Bruford has kept things moderately quiet, playing games with backbeat placement and generally adding to the rising tension, the band finally abandon restraint and go at it hard.

Fripp plays oblique bends with a thicker, more distorted tone, Wetton’s bass is, likewise, now truly distorted, and Bruford switches to the ride, playing less abstractly and more like a conventional rock drummer (albeit one who can count odd-numbered beats in the bar), hitting hard and keeping things straighter. As Fripp goes higher and higher, the cumulative effect goes a long way beyond tense into hysterical, with Fripp’s guitar positively shrieking. Finally the tension breaks, and the band goes into a double-time section, with saxophonists Mel Collins and Ian MacDonald playing dueling solos.

What does it all mean, this eight minutes or so of profoundly uneasy music? In an earlier piece on this song, I commented that while the lyric was straightforwardly about a personal pain so deep that the singer becomes unable to experience any other emotion and is thus alienated from everyone around him, the music was working on a bigger canvas:

“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.”

I’d pretty much still go along with that. This music has an evocative power I’ve not heard anywhere else. I’m not sure whether any of what Fripp and co did here was improvised or whether it was all through-composed. I suspect the latter, but either way, it’s guitar playing of the highest order, so far ahead of what the band’s contemporaries were doing in 1974, it’s untrue. It seems scarcely believable that the day Starless was released, the number-single in the UK was Annie’s Song by John Denver, having taken over the day before from Carl Douglas’s Kung Fu Fighting.

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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

Turnham Green – Colorama

I should acknowledge upfront that I would never have heard this song if it hadn’t been written about by Pete Paphides in the Beside the B-Side blog he and Bob Stanley wrote very sporadically between 2010 and 2012. Possibly it’s not dead and just sleeping. I hope one day it comes back.

Woodwind, percussion, a sitar drone. When it starts, Colorama’s Turnham Green sounds cut from the same cloth as the Portico Quartet’s Life Mask, which I think I’ve written about here before. But the moody, free-time intro is actually an 80-second fake-out. When the song begins, it has two obvious precursors: in mood, it strongly recalls the sun-drenched psychedelia of Donovan in his Sunny Goodge Street phase, a whimsical, light psychedelia with just the merest hint of late-afternoon shadows; while in rhythmic feel (and in its chords too), it’s a dead ringer for Tim Buckley’s Strange Feelin’.

This sort of bucolic English acousticism – and for all that Turnham Green is self-evidently set at the point where inner London starts to bleed into Outer London, it is a bucolic song, and for all that Carwyn Ellis is self-evidently Welsh, it is an English song – was a staple of 1970s progressive/alternative music. EMI’s Harvest Records imprint, home to such artists as Kevin Ayers and Barclay James Harvest, was its ground zero, and Witchseason (Joe Boyd’s management/production stable) an important forerunner. This kind of music is somehow durable. It might disappear for a few years (the coked-up 1990s were an inhospitable decade for it), but it always seems to return, with a faraway look in its eye and a joint in its pocket.

I like the idea that there’s a form of music just floating out there on the breeze, ready to be plucked out of the air by any songwriter who reaches for it. Indeed, Turnham Green is not all that indicative of Colorama’s usual style, which is as likely to feature vintage monophonic synths as jazzy piano and strummed acoustic guitar. Sometimes Ellis’s work recalls the smashed and slightly scary Beach Boys of Smiley Smile. Sometimes Ellis is a Les Cousins troubadour. Sometimes he’s a Super Furry Doppelganger. Turnham Green, such a perfect little moment, sounds as if he just reached out his hand and found it resting there. And if it’s not quite of the same mood and feel as the rest of the band’s debut album (Cookie Zoo), I don’t think it says anything negative about Ellis to say that, at least early in Colorama’s journey, he didn’t quite know what he wanted to be. Stylistic consistency is overrated, anyway: the last refuge of the unimaginative.

Carwyn Ellis
Carwyn Ellis of Colorama, live in 2009