Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

King Crimson - USA

King Crimson

Released 2002 on Virgin
Reviewed by Red Lead, 19/01/2003ce

Apart from a fleeting earful of Crimso's debut album 'In the Court of the Crimson King' when I was very young, my first proper experience of the legendary band's output was via a lousy cassette copy of ‘USA’. This was in 1977, a few years after their sad demise and in the midst of the Punk explosion here in the UK. Being a teenager fed on a diet of mostly my older brother's LP's: T.Rex, Roxy Music, Eno and Bowie, I was in no mood for the angry but simplistic sounds of the Pistols et al. My trousers were too flared and my hair too long. I fed greedily instead on the infinitely-sustaining fuzztone of Robert Fripp and the growling angry beast that was John Wetton's bass. That crappy tape was just not enough, so I went in search of the original album. Alas, it had been deleted, but I eventually got a second-hand (Island) copy and basked in the scratched glory of it all. Years later, USA was re-issued on Polydor, so I bought another copy and experienced it all anew without the snap, crackle and pop. In the meantime, I had acquired the entire Crimson back catalogue on vinyl and had a distinct preference for the Wetton-Bruford-Cross-(Muir) incarnation of 1972-74.

In more recent years, Mr Fripp has been busily re-mastering, re-packaging and re-issuing everything KC ever released, as well as exposing us to stuff we never had access to before. The cunning old devil has steadily rolled out a succession of previously unreleased live recordings from his vast archive, usually with splendidly informative booklets of press cutting from that long gone epoch. For me, the most important release was 'The Great Deceiver', a four-disc box set of live recordings of my fave line-up, all re-mastered and digitally cleaned up. Droolsome indeed.

But, despite all these re-issues, USA was yet again unavailable. Just as I thought some ancient curse had been re-evoked, RF decides to give us USA: as a 24-bit re-mastered high-definition CD with two bonus tracks ('Fracture' and Starless') in a mini-gatefold sleeve, with the mandatory cuttings booklet. Phew! The sleeve's a beauty with extra Kirlian photos on the inside, but otherwise looks like a shrunken version of the original.

The sheer power and inventiveness of Crimson live is superbly captured on this album. 'Larks' Tongues In Aspic Part II' sounds a hundred times more effective here than on the original studio recording and sets the pulses racing. 'Exiles' is even more haunting in this incarnation, fusing bass, guitar, violin and mellotron together perfectly.

For the completist KC collector, USA is important because it's the only place to hear the storming semi-improv track 'Asbury Park'. This is the one that really hooked me into USA first time around. Fripp's fuzz guitar squeals and screams constantly for most of the 7minutes of the track without a break, whilst Wetton and Bruford cook up a storm. One of the best examples of Crimso’s live magic in my opinion and I’ve yet to hear any other guitarist emulate what Fripp does here. Track 5 is ‘Easy Money’. There are plenty of other live recordings available now of this famous ‘standard’, but this is special because of Fripp’s heart-rendingly beautiful solo, which takes up the bulk of the track. The inevitable ‘21st Century Schizoid Man’ rounds off the original ‘USA’, but on the re-issue, it’s followed by ‘Fracture’ and ‘Starless’. For my money, they don’t compete with other versions, but who’s complaining?

I’ve still got both my vinyl copies and can’t imagine parting with them. If I had to name a Crimson ‘Desert Island Disc’, I reckon this scratchless, matchless re-issue of ‘USA’ would be it.

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