Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

King Crimson - Earthbound

King Crimson

Released 1972 on Island
Reviewed by Rust Phimister, 26/01/2009ce

Few bands' own fans have hated one of their idol's albums with quite as much venom as King Crimson's when confronted with the messy slab of dysfunction that is Earthbound. There is no denying how atonal, violent and ramshackle this, the band's first live album, is. It sounds, well, awful, as it was recorded straight to a cassette deck. No 8-track, remote studio cleanliness here. The instruments all blend together, the saturation is vicious and there are only five tracks. This is a brutal, brutal album, and the closest Crimson ever came to producing a metal opus. In volume and intensity, it rivals anything Led Zep, Sabbath or Free ever did. And in terms of reckless abandon, it's akin to the best of The Stooges, The MC5 or Neu!.

Earthbound came along at one of many crossroads for King Crimson. It remains an unanswered question as to just how many masterpieces Crimson could have created if they'd managed to get a stable lineup. As it is, they delivered a classic, must-have debut and several amazing, if inconsistent follow-ups, and this cow-pat in the poppy field. By Earthbound, that stunning debut album from '69 seemed a lifetime away, with only genius guitarist Robert Fripp remaining from the original lineup, and with tensions running at all-time high. Indeed, by the time the album was released, it seemed Crimson was gone for good, and that this was Fripp's last big "fuck you" to the world and to his ex-band members. Few albums have been born out of so much spite.

Gosh, I'm probably not selling this very well. Truth is, Earthbound is a "yes, but" album. Yes, the sound is messy. Yes, the band members hated each other. Yes, Fripp disliked the funky direction bassist/singer Boz Burrell and drummer Ian Wallace were taking the band. But, my God, it's a fucking slap in the gob from the word go. A good live album makes you want to have been in the audience at the moment of recording. I can confidently say that I have rarely wished I was somewhere with more vigor than in the mosh pit for the opening thunderstorm version of "21st Century Schizoid Man". It has to be one of the most intense moments in rock history. The crowd's cheering is immediately subsumed by an almighty burst of drums, sax and guitar and the guys are off, pummeling this prog classic into the ground with sheer reckless abandon. They basically wipe the floor with the original studio version, which sounds almost limp in comparison. Boz was never as good a vocalist as Greg Lake, but here his voice is filtered deliriously through a VCS3 synth, making him sound robotic and even more deranged than Lake ever did. Then the band launches into a transcendent jam. Fripp may have been all miserable by this stage, but you wouldn't guess it as he pours a pure molten solo, followed by Mel Collins' barnstorming sax break. The whole piece careers along at freight-train speed, before collapsing in on itself and shuddering to a grateful and chaotic halt, leaving the listener breathless.

The rest of the album was always going to struggle to maintain such energy, but they give it a fantastic shot. Do not expect a greatest hits live package. Two of the four remaining tracks are unique-to-this-album improvisations that showcase Wallace and Boz's taste for funk and scatting. Not outstanding, although "Earthbound" does feature some truly monumental guitar work from Fripp, who also lets rips on a screaming, free-jazz overload version of "The Sailor's Tale". Sadly, it's the shortest track here, and the audience is silent (I'd have been roaring my head off at such masterful playing) or obliterated, but it features some gorgeous Mellotron from Collins and one of Fripp's greatest solos. But the cherry on this bloated, sinister cake remains closer "Groon", expanded here (from it's origins as a non-album single) into a 15-minute mess that starts off normally enough, with some cool jazzy interplay, before each member sets about tearing it to bits, the culminating moment being when Wallace's drum solo is filtered into the VCS3. It's an almost disturbingly fraught cacophony, sounding so ragged and raw, as if they practically stopped caring, before Fripp swoops in with yet another screaming solo and the whole thing burns out before the piece is even over!

Like I say, the whole album is a mess: roughly recorded, incoherently edited, loud, raw and saturated to buggery. The anti-prog live album. But I am so grateful it's out there, permeating the stale atmosphere of 70s prog-rock with its proto-black-metal stench. For "21st Century Schizoid Man" and "Groon" alone this is a masterpiece of rampant rock and definitely worth tracking down. Fuck, it's cover was even aped by those masters of heavy psych, Acid Mothers Temple. Surely that's a guarantee of underground credibility?


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