TALK, IT’S ONLY TALK

I

In 1974, Robert Fripp broke up the band he co-founded in late 1968, one of the most innovative and restless to achieve widespread success. King Crimson’s final release in this period was Red, arguably one of the band’s finest and most consistent and certainly one of my favourites.

II

In April 1981, Sounds magazine reported the formation of Fripp’s new band, featuring the 1973-4 Crimson drummer Bill Bruford and two Americans. A modest tour was announced. 

The band was named Discipline.

III

In May, The Times newspaper gave a positive review of a performance by Discipline, noting that in addition to new material, the band performed pieces by the League of Gentlemen and King Crimson.

IIII

In a brief and somewhat circular statement in September 1981, Mr Fripp explained (after a fashion). “The musical movement of which King Crimson was a founding force,” he pontificated, “went tragically off course, and Crimson was the only group with the intelligence to withdraw when its usefulness was over.”

It sounds frightfully pretentious, but his argument was basically that the innovations and explorations made possible by incorporating elements of jazz, folk and composed music (so-called Classical) into rock had peaked, and little was to be gained by continuing along this flattened trajectory. Hence the lay off of King C, which Fripp amusingly refers to as an “interregnum”.

IIIII

But the world had changed, punk had exploded then largely petered out, a decade had ticked over, fashions had got even worse… in sum, it was “a world very different from seven years ago”.

“There is,” Robert Fripp asserted, “useful work to do which requires a powerful instrument. And so King Crimson has returned to active service.” [Cover notes for the 2001 thirtieth anniversary re-issue]

IIIIII

Thus King Crimson was re-incarnated, with Fripp and Bruford being joined by Tony Levin (playing the devilishly demanding Chapman Stick as well as traditional bass) and Adrian Belew (guitar and vocals). 

The name Discipline was retained as the album title, and on 22 September 1981 a very different King Crimson record hit the stores.

IIIIIII

It was a shock, on first listen. Gone was the virtuoso soloing, gone were the dramatic swathes of sound. As I sat staring at the cover, it occurred to me that it was a striking representation of the music: a complicated yet beautiful interlocking mandala-knot on a blood-deep background.

IIIIIIII

Then, as I delved into the lyrics of the opening track, “Elephant Talk”, there was another surprise. Humour. On a King Crimson record! 

I hadn’t noticed this immediately due to the shock of hearing an American voice singing out front of this most British of bands. Made even more confusing by the echoes of Talking Heads’ David Byrne in the delivery (and, for that matter, musically).

IIIIIIIII

Talk, it’s only talk

Arguments, agreements, advice, answers

Articulate announcements

It’s only talk…

Talk, it’s only talk

Babble, burble, banter, bicker bicker bicker

Brouhaha, balderdash, ballyhoo

It’s only talk—backtalk

IIIIIIIIII

There is a frenetic energy to Discipline, but ordered. Disciplined. Flurries of well-drilled notes, dancing in complex concatenation with Bruford’s meticulous drumming. 

They didn’t get on that well, Mr Fripp and Mr Bruford. The CD booklet (30th anniversary edition) includes an excerpt from Fripp’s diary wherein he fulminates (politely) about how to get the drummer’s drummer to play less. While in his autobiography, Bill refers to his erstwhile employer as “one part Joseph Stalin, one part Mahatma Gandhi, and one part the Marquis de Sade” (p, 147).

IIIIIIIIIII

As I got more deeply into this deceptively direct music I could hear the influence of American minimalism. There is extensive use of fast-picked arpeggios, glinting and spinning like speeding star-knives. Glimpses of Philip Glass, of Terry Riley; a kind of intricate rock minimalism with a double-helix heartbeat of baffling velocity. 

It is “a music of punctuation, circling and stasis that vies with detailed variation” (Hegarty and Halliwell, p.177).

IIIIIIIIIIII

Fripp had been listening to more than 20th Century composition. He became fascinated with the group sound of Javanese gamelan orchestras, and strove to get his quartet to capture something of the interlocking parts of that south-east Asian music, a communal rather than individual expression. The gap between this new music and mid-70s prog is now immense. This is a completely different kind of progression.

IIIIIIIIIIIII

It’s not all phase-out-of-phase loops and electric power. “Matte Kudasai” is dreamily beautiful in the way Fleetwood Mac’s “Albatross” is beautiful. Sustained, whispering notes over a gently swaying rhythm…

She waits in the air

Matte Kudasai

“The Sheltering Sky” on side two is also serene, mysterious, and gorgeous.

IIIIIIIIIIIIII

Don’t drift off in peaceful waters. “Indiscipline” lurches and charges like a psychotic rhinoceros, interrupted—aggravated, even—by Belew’s declaimed, almost hysterical vocal. Fascinatingly, this dense-spacious Rubic’s Cubism of a piece was performed often by the 2016 touring King Crimson, with the words being sung to an actual melody. Strange and unusual.

This is a dangerous place

(“Thela Hun Ginjeet”)

Bill Bruford’s percussion is breathtaking. The whole is menacing.

IIIIIIIIIIIIIII

I carried it around with me for days and days, playing little games, like not looking at it for a whole day, and then… looking at it, to see if I still liked it… I did!

(“Indiscipline”)

I’ve been waiting fifteen years for a clean vinyl copy of Discipline to replace the one I surrendered for the first CD release. The official re-issue was on 15th June 2018. You can well believe I was quick to get the PayPal account ticking over.

It sounds fabulous, and looks great. The ‘knot’ is even embossed. Swoon.

IIIIIIIIIIIIIIII

Final random thoughts…

Check your historical baggage if you can, and enter the world of Discipline. Prepare to be astounded.

The more I like an album, the longer it takes to write about it. This one took a long time.

Progressive rock is not a style. It’s an attitude, an approach to music.

IIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII

References

Beyond And Before (2011) Paul Hegarty, Martin Halliwell (Continuum, NY)

Rocking The Classics (1997) Edward Macan (Oxford University Press, London)

Bill Bruford: The Autobiography (2009) Bill Bruford (Jawbone, London)

Discipline (1981 / 2018) King Crimson (Vinyl, Discipline Global Mobile, KCLP8)

Discipline (1981 / 2011) King Crimson (CD, Panegyric, DGM0508)

27 comments

  1. […] Section 1 of The Path to Discipline […]

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  2. […] Section 2 of The Path to Discipline […]

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  3. Enjoyed this a lot Bruce. Total brilliance. Love this era of Crim more than any other.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can understand that, Scott. It’s easy to imagine that some of the later prog-metal bands found inspiration in this powerful yet exacting music.
      Some of the later live albums that include material from the three major phases are dizzying yet wonderful – I particularly love the version of “Indiscipline” from Vienna 2016.

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  4. Very informative piece, and much appreciated. I have listened to Discipline full through this morning and am honestly surprised at how excellent it is. Guess I’ll be adding another era to my Crimson holdings. I think something dumbly holding me back has been my inability to connect to some solo Belew the couple times I’ve very shallowly dipped my toes in.

    An aside: A current touring version of Soft Machine is coming through here soon, co-billed with The Levin Brothers. I hadn’t really even thought about going, but after watching some live Discipline-era video clips, I think a Tony Levin experience may be a thing worth having.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m not a huge fan of Belew’s singing style (or songs, for that matter) but somehow the whole thing works — especially on this, but also on the subsequent “Beat”. Glad you’ve found some Discipline, Vic.

      I can’t imagine who is playing in Soft Machine in 2018!

      (5 minutes later…)

      OK. Research reveals this line-up: John Etheridge (guitar), Theo Travis (sax, flute, Fender Rhodes), Roy Babbington (bass guitar), John Marshall (drums). Members 1, 3, and 4 of this grouping were core to the jazz-rock era Karl Jenkins line-up. The Soft Machine 50th anniversary tour. Holy shit.

      I reckon I’d spring for this, especially after I corrected my misread from Louvin Brothers to Levin Brothers.

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      1. Just to be clear, I would have been first in the line for the Louvin Brothers, no prodding necessary!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Even ahead of Mephistopheles in the queue?

          Liked by 1 person

        2. {he’s not real}

          Liked by 1 person

  5. Nice, I have been trying to truly come to terms with this album since the afternoon sitting in Peter Coleman’s bedroom after school. I finally got a copy this year again and have been making the monthly foray into it ever since. It’s good to know some of the background, especially the other pieces about the early soloish albums leading to discipline, there may have been some purchases that happened recently.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Context certainly helps sometimes, as does unhooking from our expectations of what a band ‘should’ sound like. I was shocked when I first heard this but it has definitely been a ‘grower’. Hope it follows that trajectory for you too, Neil.

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  6. Frenetic discipline – a really intriguing oxymoron!
    Though my KC experience so far is limited to In The Court, I appreciated and enjoyed the roman numeral trajectory here that leads to their 1981 release.
    And I find that’s often the case: the more beloved a record, the longer it takes to put into words.
    The knot embossing is a swoon-worthy detail!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A while back I started compiling a list of “101 More Albums You Need…” etc and this was definitely on it.

      Oh, and thanks for noticing the tally mark Roman numerals. I quite enjoyed that look and am glad someone else did too!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ll enjoy seeing that list when it is released!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Sure! The problem was that I couldn’t get it under 300 albums!

          Liked by 1 person

        2. Which is a nice problem to have!

          Liked by 1 person

  7. pinklightsabre · · Reply

    Ah, that’s so lovely you can love a record like that, and it comes through in your writing. I like the way you broke up these passages, it helped move things along nicely. I never gave KC much time. I was ‘exposed’ through my dear friend Loren, and feel like I tried…enough. I agree on the record Red, though. It’s one of only about 50 records I have in my den. When the Belew came along, it threw me – and the 80s production quality, too. I think I bristled at that really clean sound, but to be fair, they always sounded pretty clean, didn’t they? Isn’t that a lot of the point? You would know. I’m going bye, for now.

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  8. I. Resolved to listen to some Prog_rock after reading your article
    II. Searched for Internet radio stations
    III. Was bewildered by choice
    IIII. Settled on most literal of station names
    IIII. Will listen in car
    IIII. Other drivers are advised to avoid driving in SE suburbs for the rest of the week.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha! Watch out motorists if DD goes Heavy Metal!!

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  9. I’ve started my aquaintance with KC when their ‘coloured’ phase was already behind them, so i’ve got all at once from my friends: Red, Island, Lark’s, On the court and the coloured ones. The difference between both periods is huge but very logical I woud say. Both are excellent! I agree with Mr Fripp that progressive rock (which I love) became regressive around 74 (it is still and there is many regressive rock bands as shining examples) and it was about time to seek progress elsewhere. I saw KC two times around The construkction of light tour and as I was hoping to hear some of my beloved old masterpieces. I, on the other hand, totaly supported the idea of not playing back catalogue. KC was still alive and still going ahead with phenomenal projekcts and thrakattak as examples of cutting edge music for another century. There was no time to rely on nostalgy when so much fresh and vivid music was going on at the moment. I haven’t seen them on last tour with old songs included and I’m a bit worrying aren’t they museum on wheels now. Is there still anything fresh and progressive in them?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It does help to see the different phases as essentially different band with the common thread of Robert Fripp. I recently got the 2016 live album (three CDs!) and I enjoyed it very much, despite it being something of a ‘museum on wheels’! Perhaps “historical progressive music” is an oxymoron? Still, it brings both you and I much pleasure, so maybe the terms are not so important, eh?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. iwarti · · Reply

        Different bands – yeah You may totaly see it this way. With the same adventurous spirit though – unleashing the forces of chaos to tame them back again. And I must say I would probably be delighted attending the KC museum on wheels 🙂
        You’re right the names aren’t necessary but sometimes they can be helpful or simply just fun to create ones – just like your ‘historical progresive music’ 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  10. Wonderful post, Bruce. You have a knack for choosing just the right words to describe a piece of music and this post is a shining example.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s very kind, Phil. I think I’ve shared before how writing about albums I really love can be difficult. It’s gratifying to hear back that something worth reading results. Thank you.

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  11. Struggled yesterday with repetition, over insistent drumming and vocals; rolled back today with Cannonball (live in LA, ’64); re-grouped this evening finding a French prog station for tomorrows drive

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Keep up the good fight, DD!
      Please forgive me if you are already on to this, but having a few listens to Terry Riley’s Rainbow in Curved Air would be a terrific and (hopefully) rewarding warm-up.

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  12. God stuff. I like this record and you are rekindling it with some extra umph!. Humor? No kidding with KC. When I went back in the vaults with Giles Giles & Fripp I found Roberts funny bone.

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