With Mel Collins rejoining King Crimson 42 years after leaving it as full-time member and 40 years after making his studio contribution to the epic track Starless I thought it appropriate to revisit some of his work within the band.
Islands is the album that emerges at height of Collins’ involvement with Crimso. It was recorded and released in late 1971.
I first listened to the album while acquainting myself with the King Crimson back catalog in the summer of 1996. I believe this was on my father’s vinyl copy. This was neither the first nor the last King Crimson album I would absorb that summer.
The current line-up’s inclusion of Collins along with Jakko Jakszyk clearly signals that after 40 years of the band largely ignoring the repertoire of anything pre-1974 they may be interested in exploring it in more detail.
As we wait for the new tour to arrive, it’s wonderful to play fun parlor games trying to guess at what material from Collins-era Crimson may be interpreted by a seven-piece, three-drummer band.
As a backdrop to that, let’s revisit Islands.
The Album — A Through Listening
For this exercise I’m listening to the wonderful, evocative 5.1 surround sound mix by Steven Wilson.
King Crimson albums have always had a distinct beginning. Islands is no slouch in this department. The opening song, Formentera Lady, begins with a guest spot from South African jazz bassist Harry Miller. He bows out the vocal melody before being joined by new band member Boz Burrell on vocals.
Miller’s contribution, and later the vocal stylings of Paulina Lucas as a kind of Homeric siren, were always the stand-out elements of this piece for me. To be honest for many years the early few minutes of this track didn’t do much for me. The lyrics are too forced—the music a little too … hmm … thematic? I’m not a very good music writer. ☺
But in later years (and with the help of Wilson’s mix) I’ve grown to love it. I’m not an impartial admirer of Crimson’s work. I can find value and worth in everything from Model Man to Indoor Games to the 700th performance of One Time or Easy Money.
So, here in the opening of Formentera, the interplay of Collins’ flute, Tippett’s piano, and Fripp’s acoustic guitar to support the vocal melody are quite a treat. But boy-oh-boy, things really get interesting around 5:25 when Boz begins his ghostly vocal improv.
Collins sax enters and moves to the center in the surround mix and slowly builds in mania. Wallace is producing a wonderful cacophony of percussion all around. Paulina Lucas enters as does a violin. Has that player ever been identified? Someone used from the Song of Gulls sessions? Well whatever it is, this second half of the track has always been the meaty part for me. And it flourishes in surround sound.
Collins is right at the heart of it. I would love if #KC2014 found a way to incorporate this improv / extemporization into their set.
Formentera of course epically transitions in a gripping fashion into Sailor’s Tale probably the defining piece from the album. Much has been written about Sailor’s Tale, in particular Fripp’s right hand thrashing solo.
Wallace’s tarantella drum piece along with Burrell’s bass line drives the piece along, and we’ve got these wonderful competing-solos-as-duet from Fripp and Collins. Two fantastic players. It makes me so excited that they’re playing together again. [Sidenote: Their work together on No-Man’s Flowermouth album from 1992 is a buried treasure that all Fripp fans NEED.]
One criticism I have of the Wilson mix is putting Fripp in the center channel and putting Collins in the surrounds. This balance favors Fripp to the listener’s ears (at least in how my living room is configured and speaker levels are set). It backgrounds Collins in a way in the mix.
Then there’s Fripp’s hacking / slashing solo…. what more can be said? Well in my view Sailor’s Tale is the place in KC recording history where it seems RF seems comfortable stepping to the fore as a player. Certainly his contributions to Schizoid Man and Pictures of a City show that he’s not shy from taking center stage. But for the bulk of the previous two albums, and about half of Islands, Fripp is content to let other players present his writings. With Sailor’s Tale, Fripp is not only presenting a very clear composition but stepping into it and contributing to it in a way that only he can.
This, for me, is one of the clear directional steps that leads towards the work he would do with Bruford, Cross, Muir, and Wetton over the next 2–3 years after the Islands group disbanded.
After Sailor’s Tale is done having its way with us the first side of the album closes out with The Letters. Another piece that was a throwaway for me for a long time. In 1997 when DGM released the Epitaph box set it was revelatory to hear that good chunks of The Letters had been lifted from a 68/69 piece called Drop In with vocal credits to Fripp.
The Letters has some interesting thematic elements, and is really served well by the surround mix of Wilson’s. I mean, crikey, you can hear the pads on Mel’s sax snapping like he’s sitting in the room with you!
But man oh man, there’s only so much a re-mix can do with a song that has this Edgar Allen Poe-ish lyric.
Ladies of the Road — the misogyny and racism made me wince even when I was 18/19. The lyric hasn’t aged well BUT I can forgive a lot with all the fun there is to be had in this track. I love the way Burrell and Wallace just ride the backbeat. I mean they are RECLINING throughout this.
Collins sax. Raunch. That’s the only word. Fripp’s solo? MOAR RAUNCH! ALL THE RAUNCH! The backwards guitar and mellotron. Lovely! I wish there were more of it.
Prelude: Song of Gulls. Not really a Crimson piece. A Fripp piece. That Oboe solo. Oh. My. Dear! Heart-achingly beautiful. When the Metropole Orkest interpreted Fripp’s soundscapes work into orchestral performances I’ll never understand why they didn’t include this as an encore. It so deserves to be performed more.
The title track returns to the format used during the Lizard recording of relying largely on session musicians. Tippett returns and shines. Never forget this is the same mad man on Cat Food and Happy Family. Charig is there on Cornet. This is the forgotten Crimson ballad in my mind.
So, let’s play that parlor game. What from the Islands-era might make it into #KC2014?
Well, RF posted a brief video on his Facebook page that showed Bill Rieflin playing a bit of the Sailor’s Tale intro. It’s a clear front-runner for material that is just begging to get a re-visit from the 69–74 era. And you can easily see how it could grow to give room for seven players to do interesting things within it.
As I mentioned, I’d love if some kind of thematic improv for the back half of Formentera could be cooked up to lead into Sailor’s but we shall see.
Listening to some of the Islands line-up live work, it’s clear that Groon was a reliably fun track for that group on stage. Again there’s potentially room for a seven-piece to do something with that work, but I think it’s unlikely.
I’d love to hear Jakko sing Drop In (as opposed to taking on The Letters). There’s lots there for Collins to do in a call-response with Jakko’s voice. It would be quite a surprise I think for the audience, but a little hard to imagine this seven piece band doing that walking, jazzy section interlude. Man it would be a great showcase for Collins though….
But as they say… we shall see.
Next time, dear reader. We’ll discuss King Crimson’s sense of the Theatrical.