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Thursday, March 15, 2018

King Crimson: USA


1) Walk On... No Pussyfooting; 2) Lark's Tongues In Aspic, Pt. 2; 3) Lament; 4) Exiles; 5) Asbury Park; 6) Easy Money; 7) 21st Century Schizoid Man; 8*) Fracture; 9*) Starless.

General verdict: A solid sample of the band's mid-Seventies live power, though fairly obsolete for the true fan.

These days, all (both) live albums that King Crimson released back in the day look pitifully pitiful and obnoxiously obsolete against the huge, painstakingly assembled, comprehensive box­sets such as Starless and The Road To Red — in fact, USA, a record originally assembled from two shows (Asbury Park, New Jersey, and Providence, Rhode Island) played on June 28 and 30, 1974, has by now been completely integrated inside The Road To Red, including the restoration of shortened tracks to their full running length (yes, now you actually get to hear how the improvisation on ʽEasy Moneyʼ got brought to a suitable conclusion, rather than just fade out). However, it is unlikely that I will be listening to those boxsets in their entirety any time soon, much less provide meaningful reviews for them — on the other hand, a short record such as USA is perfect as a representative sampler, and while it certainly does not disclose all the secrets of the Bruford-Wetton-Cross era King Crimson, it does a good job of capturing most of their good moments, coasting on some of the questionable ones, and omitting all of the bad ones. (My own edition — the 30th anniversary one — also adds ʽFractureʼ and ʽStarlessʼ to the original LP: very grateful for the latter, still in doubt about the former).

Since there was no tour for Red, most of the material here is taken from Larks' Tongues In Aspic, plus a live take on ʽLamentʼ and ʽSchizoid Manʼ as the obligatory crowd favorite — the only track from the original line-up to have survived into the math-rock age. For the typical symph-prog band, this would have probably resulted in a mere multiplication of entities; but King Crimson always seemed to grow an extra pair on stage, and with the sound quality finally being up to par (after the shameful Earthbound debacle), USA played its significant part in 1975, as a well-rounded epilogue to classic King Crimson, a band whose self-burial, it could be argued, was highly symbolic of the end of the Golden Age of rock music in general.

You do have to wait quite a bit, though. The first three tracks (not counting the brief atmospheric introduction, «loaned» by Fripp from his joint album with Brian Eno) are good, but not specta­cular — well, ʽLarks' Tongues In Aspic, Pt. 2ʼ is always spectacular, but I have yet to hear a version that would honestly kick the ass of the snappy studio original (largely because Fripp has never bothered to reproduce the poisonous tones of the guitar riff). Neither ʽLamentʼ nor ʽExilesʼ were fabulous songs to start with, and the live performances do not do much to save them; some­how, I feel that they were included primarily in order to raise the percentage of vocal numbers on the final record (sort of a parting gift to Wetton), although ʽExilesʼ has a stronger, fuller vocal performance from John here and a pretty guiding electric solo from Robert.

Things start really cooking on the second side, though. ʽAsbury Parkʼ is an improvisation, named after the venue where it was played, and now that I am relistening to it, I am pretty damn sure that this is the track that should have replaced ʽProvidenceʼ on Red in order to rid it of the last traces of imperfection. Although the funky groove of the track is far from the most complex pattern ever played by these guys, the groove itself is beastly, and Fripp plays some of his wildest passages here — launching into frenzied fits of shredding one minute, stretching out with psychedelic jazzy noodling the other, while the rhythm section is doing its own thang in proto-metallic mode. Compared to the improvisations on Earthbound, this is a completely different matter — tighter, heavier, nastier, even punkier, if I might borrow the term for a bit. (And I appreciate the truncated version, by the way: the full 12-minute performance has them unnecessarily going into free-form chaotic mode at one point).

Meanwhile, the truncated version of ʽEasy Moneyʼ annihilates the studio version, tightening it up, bringing Wetton's vocals more up front, putting extra fuzz on the bass, and, eventually, turning into a long, slow, meditative jam, with more of those howling guitar tones offset by Cross' Mellotron playing. I am not sure why they edited out the ending (perhaps Fripp felt that the LP side was running out of space already), but in any case, ʽEasy Moneyʼ is one of those vocal numbers that really came to life on stage rather than in the studio.

And, finally, the ʽSchizoid Manʼ thing. Since they did not have a brass section with them, and since David's violin was way too feeble-sounding for such heavy numbers, the burden is entirely on Fripp's shoulders here, and he gives the performance of a lifetime — the solo is positively smouldering, as he launches into head-spinningly speedy runs, turning that guitar into an atomic spinning top at times, before bringing the band to an even more frenetic noisy climax midway through the song. Nothing truly tops the apocalyptic siren calls of the original in terms of sonic depth, but in terms of sheer maniacal energy, this here is one of the best ever versions of this song, even by the generally high standards of the 1973-74 concert performances.

And back in 1975, it probably made sense that King Crimson would say its final goodbye to the world with the same song with which it originally said hello — and bringing it «up to eleven», no less. Overall, there was a sense of disillusionment in the air of 1974-75, a general feeling that the intellectual and spiritual ambitions of rock music might have somewhat overstepped its actual capacity for progressive development; and while bands like Yes, drawing most of their inspiration from idealism, were rather ill equipped to fight that feeling, King Crimson, especially in their post-Sinfield days, were the perfect vehicle to embrace it and let it explode them from within. They entered this life with a big fuck-you to humanity, and then they left it with the exact same fuck-you, only a bigger one. And with a guy as serious and inscrutable as Robert Fripp, nobody at the time could say for sure that this was not really the end of the road for KC.

Technical footnote: with Road To Red now available for Crimheads worldwide, I suppose the only — strange — reason for them to own USA separately is for the violin overdubs that were laid down in the studio by Eddie Jobson, presumably because Cross' parts were poorly captured; it is Eddie's, rather than David's, work that you hear on ʽLarks' Tonguesʼ and ʽSchizoid Manʼ, and I guess it fits in just as well as David's. On the other hand, I do not suppose that USA will ever get deleted out of the catalog, because there is still such a thing as judging a band's live potential by a well-rounded, economical live album, rather than the millstone of their entire touring history placed around your neck and usurping all of your private life.


  1. "(sort of a parting gift to Wetton)"
    Funny how everybody carefully fails to mention the band Wetton went to after King Crimson .... (his own explanation: after all the weird stuff he wanted to play some good straightforward rockmusic, even if Roxy Music paid better).

    1. Didn't he briefly play for Uriah Heep?

    2. The fact that you need to ask this question nicely illustrates my point (the answer is yes, of course - he recorded and coproduced the albums Return to Fantasy and High and Mighty, information that can be easily found on Wetton's own website).

    3. He also played for U.K., a band I know very little about other than the fact I was not impressed by two of their supposedly best songs when I checked them out rcently. (In the dead of night, mental medication)

  2. Technically, the original mix of USA (complete with Eddie Jobson overdubs) *is* available on "The Road To Red" - it's just only included on the audio-only DVDs that come with the set.

  3. I’m glad GS discussed “Asbury Park”, one of my favorite KC tracks, ever.

  4. "Asbury Park" is good, but perhaps an even better replacement for "Providence" on Red would have been "Dr. Diamond" (the version from the Mainz concert).