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Tuesday, May 22, 2018

King Crimson: Beat


1) Neal And Jack And Me; 2) Heartbeat; 3) Sartori In Tangier; 4) Waiting Man; 5) Neurotica; 6) Two Hands; 7) The Howler; 8) Requiem.

General verdict: Not a lot of progress here, but the band manages to stay sufficiently in touch with their own past and the musical future to keep things interesting.

The worst that could be said about the early Eighties lineup of King Crimson is that, unlike any previous lineup of King Crimson, this particular quartet never managed to progress far beyond the formula once it had been established. While both Beat and Three Of A Perfect Pair un­doubtedly have their share of great songwriting moments, most of the time they seem to be taking stately strolls across territory that has already been meticulously staked out and explored. Perhaps such was the price for maintaining, even for a short while, the unity of four immensely talented people, each of whom had his own well-carved stylistic preferences: in such a configuration, disrupt the «disciplined» balance even a little, and everything might fall apart (which it eventually did anyway, but at least the Belew-Levin-Bruford lineup made it without leaving a single genuine artistic dud in their footsteps).

Nowhere is this continuity and stability more evident than in the opening angular guitar lines of ʽNeal And Jack And Meʼ which seem to be picking up from exactly the same spot where ʽDis­ciplineʼ had left us (I had a bootleg CD edition once that packed both albums on the same disc, and I almost failed, upon first listen, to notice that the first LP had ended and the second one had begun). If a better musical equivalent of the «if you like this, you will definitely like this...» tagline exists, I have yet to locate it. But without the element of surprise, it is obvious that Beat could only compensate by being able to further refine and polish and expand all the details pre­viously invented on Discipline — and I am not sure of its ability to do that.

The title of the album was allegedly inspired by Jack Kerouac, or, more accurately, the up­coming 25th anniversary of the publication of On The Road — hence a lot of subtle and unsubtle refe­rences to the Beat movement in the song titles that you can easily look up on Wikipedia if you are not an expert on the movement yourself. However, it would be hard to imagine a Fripp-led band to simply produce a musical tribute to anybody, much less a bunch of beatniks, and so the word here refers to multiple things at once — the musical beat, of course, which these guys were now taking to new heights, and even the ʽHeartbeatʼ, which happened to be the title for the album's only single, one of the poppiest things this lineup ever did, and even accompanied with a musical video to boot (most of which consisted of mugshots of Adrian looking at sexy ladies: believe it or not, even in King Crimson people sometimes continue to have sex drives).

From a certain point of view, this makes Beat a conceptual album, but it is hard to concentrate on the meanings and artistic implications behind the concept when the actual music walks this odd thin line between innovation and stagnation. The only composition on the album that does not have a direct stylistic predecessor on Discipline is the closing number, ʽRequiemʼ — but that is because its direct stylistic predecessors hearken back to an even more distant past: Fripp's and Belew's solos here, largely improvised and set to an old Frippertronics loop, are reminiscent of Robert's improvising style that he had worked out with the 1973-74 lineup, while the rhythm section, instead of finding itself locked into a tight groove as it usually does, seems on the verge of falling apart throughout the track. It is essentially King Crimson's equivalent of the Stooges' chaotic ʽL.A. Bluesʼ from Funhouse, except that this time the chaos is being brewed by seasoned professionals who typically pride themselves on order and discipline. It is perhaps not so sur­prising that it was the argument over this particular track that nearly brought the band to a pre­mature end in mid-1982.

That said, there is almost nothing on Beat whose «second-hand» or even «third-hand» nature would make the composition in question unendurable or unenjoyable. Perhaps the band does occasionally stutter on the poppier elements: ʽTwo Handsʼ is one of their lesser ballads, a mood piece similar in style to ʽMatte Kudasaiʼ, but less precisely shaped up and without any mind-blow­ing tricks such as Belew's heavenly guitar tone (he does play a fairly cool «Morse-code» style guitar solo). But ʽHeartbeatʼ, on the other hand, is an insanely catchy pop classic; it is often written off by fans as a cheesy attempt to infiltrate the commercial market, but whoever really wants to get into this era of King Crimson should always remember that Adrian Belew is one of those rare guys who have equal respect for all things avantgarde and all things pop (just look at his solo career), and be ready to embrace both of these sides on the same album. Besides, in a way ʽHeartbeatʼ is only reintroducing the same intertwining notions of starry-eyed romanticism and melancholic desperation that were a part of King Crimson's art from the very beginning: with a bit of an effort, I could even imagine Greg Lake singing "I remember the feeling of the rhythm we made, the rhythm we made..." with the same visual images in mind that he may have expe­rienced while recording ʽI Talk To The Windʼ, no matter how much musical distance actually lies between these songs. A bit of sorrowful tenderness never hurt a KC record.

Of those tracks that, like, actually mean business, my personal favorite is ʽSartori In Tangierʼ, for two special reasons: (a) Tony's Chapman stick part is fabulous — doom-like bass minimalism at its finest; (b) Belew has some major fun introducing Afro-Arab motives into the Crimson sound and dragging them through his array of filter effects. Both of these things deepen and perpetuate the KC mystery just a teeny bit beyond its usual limits, and I guess we could use more of that, but then I can also understand Fripp's possible reluctance to be pigeonholed into the «world music» trend (but what is a "Sartori", anyway? I realize that it refers to Satori In Paris, but is this just a typo or an intentional contamination with Sartre?). In comparison, odd-rockers such as ʽWaiting Manʼ, ʽNeuroticaʼ, and ʽThe Howlerʼ are more traditional — perhaps a bit more chaotic and a bit more heavy on the whole when compared to Discipline, but nothing we could not have expected from Fripp and his well-worn bag of tricks.

Overall, apart from the «commercial» ʽHeartbeatʼ that would become a regular staple in Adrian's live shows, Beat seems to have become the less remembered part of the early Eighties' trilogy: it has neither the freshness of Discipline nor the concentrated songwriting punch of Three Of A Perfect Pair where, so it seems, the band would lock into a more focused mode of intentionally writing something «for the ages». But the record is still worthy of repeated listens, and with such inclusions as ʽRequiemʼ it actually has a chance of becoming a personal favorite for all those who thought Discipline was too much of a sonic departure from the age of Red — and longed for their old «nightmare fuel» KC to make a glorious comeback. If so, this particular comeback is not particularly glorious, but it does a respectable job of occasionally reintegrating those old red nightmares into the herky-jerky New Wave-like funky sound.


  1. For me, this was my introduction to KC. Found at the bottom of a clearance bin in a department store. It remains my favourite despite my devotion to the rest of the canon. I never really considered that this and "Discipline" are virtually the same album. It's a good point and perhaps illustrates why this lineup had to change. Maybe?

  2. Don't know if the question of what satori means was for rhetorical effect, but since we're talking about KC making such an obvious allusion to Kerouac, it's worthwhile to know that satori refers to a (pop) Zen-ish flavor of spiritual revelation.

    Now unless Zen involves drunkenness and incontinence, I think of Kerouac as the opposite of Zen and incapable of anything like satori, no matter how much peyote and bourbon he was on. But it sure sounds more exotic and glorified than merely "stoned" or "drunk".

    Likewise, unless satori involves uninhibited indulgence in autistic-spectrum creative impulses, I think KC was just as confused about the allusions they made as Kerouac was. There is nothing truly "Beat" about Beat.

    Apart from the satori business, Satori in Tangiers does nothing but grate on me, even on Absent Lovers -- an album that improves upon just about every KC song it tackles. I look forward to THAT review.

    1. I know what satori means. The title is SaRtori, not Satori. That's what's causing trouble.

      And, for what it's worth, some of the most famous Zen schools involve plenty of drunkenness and incontinence. Somebody like Ikkyū could be a great role model for Kerouac.

  3. "Sartori" could also be a reference to the word "sartorial" - the Beats had a very distinct fashion sense.

    1. Enlightened fashion in Tangier -- that image makes sense for Crimson and the Beats. Hell, that could have easily been a line in a set of Sinfield's lyrics.

  4. Hello there. I'm a fan since the Only Solitaire days. Greate reviews as usual. For me, Beat seems like a tentative progress from Discipline, not a totally successful one and without the same cohesiveness from that album. Anyway, can you please change that (orange) color in veredict... it's almost impossible to read. Kudos from Brazil!