Tag Archives: violin

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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Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2014, Part 4 – San Geronimo – Red House Painters

Anthony Koutsos used to have one of the most thankless jobs in popular music: he was Mark Kozelek’s drummer in Red House Painters.

Thankless because Red House Painters songs were long and slow. Very long and very slow. Often with no dynamic shifts at all, or with only a barely perceptible rising intensity. Playing them was an exercise in self-abnegation. Drummers that don’t have a tendency to push the tempo a little over the course of a long, slow song are rare. Drummers who don’t push the dynamic either, and who are happy to play for two or three minutes without a single fill, they’re even rarer. Anthony Koutsos is not a one-off in rock & roll, but he’s pretty close.

By the time the Red House Painters cut Ocean Beach in late 1994, Koutsos had been occupying Kozelek’s drum stool for five years, during which time he’d patted and rimshotted his way through several Kozelek epics – Medicine Bottle, Down Colorful Hill, Katy Song, Funhouse, Mother, Evil and Blindfold – some of the slowest, darkest, most intense songs in the alternative rock canon (seriously listen to Funhouse. It ain’t the Stooges).

How did he do it? Well, the only thing I can think of, as a part-time drummer (unfortunately, very part-time at the moment), is that Red House Painters songs often had pretty cool drum parts, distinctive rhythmic patterns that belong definitively to the parent song (what do I mean? Well, think of, say, Ringo’s drum part on the verses of Come Together. Ever heard that exact part in any other song?). Anthony Koutsos did this kind of thing frequently, only at 16rpm, and quietly, which is actually quite an achievement. Listen to his patterns on the drum versions of Mistress and New Jersey, the Katy Song lick in the verse that misses out the second backbeat, causing the song to feel like it’s turning around upon itself every two bars. These drum tracks are distinctively Koutsos’ own – belonging to these songs and these songs only – and if he needed motivation to remain in a band that forced him to play slow and quietly all the live-long day, that would probably be enough.

San Geronimo was his big moment on Ocean Beach, and it’s one of my favourite Koutsos parts. By this point in the Red House Painters’ career, their music had begun to open up a bit and was no longer so intense and claustrophobic; by the standards of, say, Medicine Bottle, San Geronimo is almost breezy.

Underneath a tapestry of chiming and semi-distorted guitars, Koutsos keeps time on his toms, laying off the snare drum until the stuttering pre-chorus section, during which the interplay between his drums and a guesting Carrie Bradley’s violin first establishes itself. It’s a neat lesson in how a drummer can provide a supporting base for a song and leave room for a little push in the choruses without turning the song into Smells Like Teen Spirit. And frankly, I’m a sucker for using a rack tom in lieu of the snare. Radiohead’s Let Down, Talk Talk’s The Rainbow – a lot of my favourite songs do it.

But Koutsos’ best moment comes in the half-time middle section, where he and Bradley take over. The rest of the band play the changes on the one and sustain them but otherwise let Bradley’s harmonised violin line duet with Koutsos’ ride cymbal and snare fills. It’s a beautiful, weightless little passage, the most pretty to be found on any Red House Painters record. Kozelek’s songwriting was always passionate, but the Red House Painters’ delivery of it had always previously been chilly. San Geronimo, though, is earthy and warm. Bradley’s violin is like gulls calling on a late summer’s day, and Koutsos gets the tasteful, simple little instrumental section to show how crucial he’s been to the band’s music all along.

After RHP broke up, Koutsos continued to play drums with Kozelek in Sun Kil Moon while building a real-estate career in San Francisco. He’s made of stern stuff, then, even if you now hate him on a point of principle.

red house painters
Red House Painters, Koutsoson right in hat and shades