Search This Blog

Sunday, February 9, 2020

King Crimson: Epitaph


CD I: 1) 21st Century Schizoid Man; 2) In The Court Of The Crimson King; 3) Get Thy Bearings; 4) Epitaph; 5) A Man, A City; 6) Epitaph; 7) 21st Century Schizoid Man; 8) Mantra; 9) Travel Weary Capricorn; 10) Improv: Travel Bleary Capricorn; 11) Mars.
CD II: 1) In The Court Of The Crimson King; 2) Drop In; 3) A Man, A City; 4) Epitaph; 5) 21st Century Schizoid Man; 6) Mars.

General verdict: As perfect a document of the original bandʼs live sound as possible — echoes of that old, old, old King Crimson from the hippie era.

The one major historical document of the original King Crimsonʼs awesomeness on stage, Epitaph comes in two varieties — a regular two-disc set for the average consumer, such as yours truly, and an expanded four-disc monster for the fully loyal vassal, which can be obtained via DGM. The main two discs are packaged with proper respect for the average consumer: they contain tracks from three different events (four live recordings for the BBC, three from shows at the Fillmore East, and ten from the Fillmore West) with a nice sprinkling of previously unheard and occasionally non-overlapping compositions. The only performances to be captured thrice are ʽ21st Century Schizoid Manʼ (which should be alright with everybody) and ʽEpitaphʼ proper (not so alright, since its symph-prog nature leaves little room for improvisation or any other type of sonic maneuvering). If you do opt for the 4-disc version, though, remember that there will be no further surprises — also, the sound quality of those recordings, from the 9th National Jazz and Blues Festival and the Chesterfield Jazz Club respectively, seems to be inferior.

In any case, what we have here is two hours of live greatness from the original KC, dating both from before the release of In The Court (BBC recordings) and after (the American shows). Predictably, the band performs all three major epics from that album, though not ʽI Talk To The Windʼ and not ʽMoonchildʼ (the former omission is quite curious, the latter may have been deemed either way too quiet for the live performance or way too demanding even from the 1969 brand of listener). Additionally, we have here early previews of ʽPictures Of A Cityʼ and ʽDevilʼs Triangleʼ from In The Wake Of Poseidon, the former still under its earlier title ʽA Man, A Cityʼ and the latter still being honestly called ʽMarsʼ and featuring a slightly different main riff (Holstʼs estate allegedly prohibited Fripp from releasing ʽMarsʼ itself, so he had to mutate the melody sufficiently enough and retitle the composition).

Tracks that did not see any studio release at all are predictably inferior, but still instructive. ʽGet Thy Bearingsʼ from the BBC set is a Donovan track from Hurdy Gurdy Man which they likely adapted for a while due to lack of their own original material — a bluesy/jazzy little vamp with  serious sax presence, giving Ian McDonald plenty of room to stretch out, but, honestly, rather anticlimactic when sitting next to ʽ21st Century Schizoid Manʼ. ʽMantraʼ is a quiet short piece, dominated by Frippʼs soft folksy-jazzy guitar picking and McDonaldʼs recorder, almost like something the Grateful Dead would produce in the middle of a jam session and, consequently, probably a nice gift for Fillmore West residents. From there, it segues into an even jazzier ʽTravel Weary Capricornʼ and its improv counterpart, ʽTravel Bleary Capricornʼ, which, for some reason, features Robert trying his hand at flamenco guitar — not to be taken too seriously, as hinted at by the fact that he begins it by quoting the intro to ʽBungalow Billʼ from the White Album (again, a touch of humor that shows the old spirit of Giles, Giles & Fripp was still flickering).

Finally, you get to hear the moody jazz number ʽDrop Inʼ, with its memorable, but not very pleasant (because offkey!) acapella introduction by Lake; the song tries to establish an aura of resigned melancholy, but ends up rather meandering and unfocused — no wonder it was shelved by the original band, only to resurface later as ʽThe Lettersʼ on easily the least inspired album of King Crimsonʼs early years. Not sure if the Fillmore audiences were really excited about this number — now maybe if Lake decided to sing "why donʼt you just drop out" instead of "drop in", they would have felt slightly more at home with this one...

Anyway, what really matters, of course, is not how many hitherto concealed lesser tunes we manage to recover on Epitaph, but precisely how well they are able to do ʽ21st Century Schizoid Manʼ. Of the three versions, the last one (Fillmore West) has the best sound quality, although Robertʼs guitar solo is oddly thin, almost as if the shadow of Jefferson Airplane and Quicksilver Messenger Service hang so persistently over the place that Fripp was involuntarily accomodating his feedback-drenched, jazz-avantgarde style to the psychedelic droning philosophy of the West Coast. Nevertheless, this is what makes the piece great — even in its very first year of existence, they were able to offer fairly different intepretations. And, just like the studio version, these live performances sound relatively unpolished — the drummer, the sax player, the guitarist all make occasional mistakes throughout the songʼs fast tempo, and their equipment, though probably decent enough by the standards of ʼ69, is insufficient to carry out a massively overwhelming attack on the senses the way it would be able to just four or five years later. Still, it compensates for this with sheer enthusiasm and excitement — always great to hear a masterpiece played right at its very inception, rather than at a stage when it becomes bearded and fossilized.

Lake does a great vocal job on ʽSchizoid Manʼ, too, even without any distorted effects on the vocals — except where the studio recording gave us the creepy perspective of a half-synthetic robo-human, these live versions rather express the organic terror of a rebellious human being, which is a bit more common but also fairly relatable. Unfortunately, ʽEpitaphʼ and ʽIn The Courtʼ, two epics that are way more vocally demanding, lay bare Gregʼs biggest weakness — he has a hard time correctly holding all the right notes and playing bass simultaneously, so those of you with perfect pitch will find yourself cringing every now and then; plus, there is really not that much to do to these songs on stage, other than try as hard as possible to reproduce their studio Mellotron-based depth. The Mellotron actually gets a real hammering on ʽMarsʼ, the one track here that manages to be more aggressive than its final studio realization — perhaps because there was little room for subtlety on stage, and under McDonaldʼs heavy fingers the poor instrument howls, screeches, and agonizes in ways comparable to the Hammond organ agonizing under Keith Emersonʼs knives. Then again, we are talking about an homage to the God of War here.

On the whole, it is safe to say that this was probably far from the best live incarnation of King Crimson — way too rough for the bandʼs general standards — but obviously a unique one. Here, the young and relatively inexperienced King Crimson are still very much a Sixtiesʼ band, with elements of the late Sixtiesʼ jam culture, psychedelia, and folksiness that would be gradually wiped out, one by one, as Fripp would lead them into an entirely new decade of completely new values. But they are already making great music, and you are already getting acquainted with Frippʼs philosophy of «discipline»  and... well, in a way it is just a very symbolic record: the sound of King Crimson, the ultimate intellectualʼs wet dream, maturing and developing (and being fairly well received) at the Fillmore, the ultimate turned-on hippieʼs den. 


  1. If anyone still needs to be convinced that I'm a cultural barbarian: my favourite version of 21st Schizoid Man is from King Biscuit Flower Hour 1981 (released in 1995), with Gary Moore on guitar ....

  2. First ever comment from a long time reader. Apparently this review got mentioned on the DGM site in their latest artice posting :)

  3. Robert trying his hand at flamenco guitar?
    I think you'll find that said flamenco guitar on both this AND The Beatles 'Bungalow Bill'is actually the one and the same sample from the Mellotron library.
    No Fripp or one of The Fabs on guitar!

    1. Uncredited post about flamenco, from myself

    2. Yes, thanks for the correction. But he DOES play some Spanish guitar on 'Travel Bleary Capricorn', otherwise the inclusion of the sample would have made no sense at all.

    3. Is it possible that Lake is playing any of that acoustic guitar?

  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  5. This is an interesting review. This was a band of guys who were young. Not inexperienced, but very new to this new frontier of this style of music.

    That being said, they all go for live playing with energy, gusto and fearlessness! Mistakes will always be made when playing ferally and without a safety net. As Miles Davis once said, there are no wrong notes. You are only a 1/2 step away from the correct note.

    The most astonishing thing about KC Mark I is that the drumming of Michael Giles was easily on a par with icons such as Mitch Mitchell, Ginger Baker, John Marshall and even to a degree Keith Moon.

    Fripp's incredible depth of chords/modes/and a desire to break the rules was fabulous.

    Greg Lake was mostly a Guitarist in his time. Playing Bass was not in my opinion his main instrument. He was very good, but not a natural Bassist as was Peter Giles. I have often wondered if Peter was the Bassist, Greg the Vocalist, and the rest of the guys made up KC Mark I, what that group would have been like. A taste of this is shown on "The Wake of Poseidon", which is a very heavy, killer LP.

    The fact that DGM and Robert put out "Epitaph" shows what this band was at that unique time. I personally find the 4 CD box set nothing short of brilliant.