49 years ago today Earthbound was released. Appearing on the budget HELP label and costing just £1.35 the album captured the first and final tour of the Boz Burrell, Ian Wallace, Mel Collins, and Robert Fripp line-up.
The court of King Crimson was not an especially easy place to be in January 1972. Following the departure of Peter Sinfield in December 1971, the remaining quartet had intended to spend time presenting and working on new material. However, when Fripp rejected a composition by Mel in what everyone else regarded as a high-handed, insensitive manner, the band imploded with Collins storming out followed by Ian and Boz. In truth, the band had come to the end of its creative life at that point.
When he heard the news from Fripp, a highly agitated David Enthoven, Crimson’s manager at the time, persuaded Fripp that Crimson was contractually obliged to return to the States in February. Enthoven managed to cajole the others into returning. Against all their better judgement the band reunited and continued to prepare for another trek to America. Fripp believes the band was deceived. “David told us that the tour had been booked and we were contractually liable; so, we had to go ahead with the tour. But a group that breaks up isn’t able to tour. The same situation was repeated in 1974 following the break-up after Red.”
Amidst industry rumour and press speculation, and not a little resentment and hurt flowing between them, Mel, Boz, Ian, and Fripp crossed the Atlantic together for the final time to play 32 shows.
On tour, the atmosphere lifted considerably and they became looser both socially and musically. With Sinfield no longer around, Burrell felt able to refuse to perform songs with lyrics he felt to be unsingable, ie Formentera Lady and The Letters, and the band began to stretch out into a bluesy,funk territory.
This caused some raised eyebrows, as Ian Wallace recalled. "Alexis Korner was opening up, we were in the middle and Humble Pie were closing and for our encore I got up on stage, looked up and shouted to Mel and Boz ‘12-bar blues in G’ and I remember Boz looking at me saying ‘You can't do that!’ and I said ‘Watch me’ and I started up and everybody joined in. Fripp on the other hand sat on his stool with his guitar round his neck with his hands on his lap looking down, tight-lipped and never played a note. Alexis Korner and Humble Pie and everybody backstage freaked out. "
In his sleevenotes to the Live At Jacksonville 1972 KCCC release, Fripp writes: "Improvisation has played an important, even critical role, in all Crims. This live Crimson was more a jamming than improvising outfit." Wallace takes umbrage at this description, which implicitly downgrades the band. Responding to the criticism in his notes for the KCCC release Live At Summit Studios, Wallace argues: "I think we improvised rather well, improvisation being the creation of a fresh vocabulary of notes and tones over a previously constructed format. Just like jazz musicians would play the 'head' of a standard and then solo around the chord sequence."
Listening to the relevant Club releases and the mainstream live album Earthbound, one is struck by the force of the performances. This band’s rendition of 21st Century Schizoid Man from Earthbound has a seething, blistering quality which is at least equal to anything which the previous incarnation managed and indeed compares well to the version which followed it. The principal differences can be measured in the improvised tracks such as Peoria, Earthbound, Summit Going On and on the Earthbound version of Groon which, at around 5:30 into the track, sounds like another band trying to rip its way out of the shell of Crimson.
These pieces clearly demonstrate the conflicting gravitational forces which would have inevitably pulled the band apart. Fripp already had Yes drummer Bill Bruford in his sights as a possible band member; he had also approached Jon Hiseman, although nothing came of that. Yet, as the tour progressed, the majority of the band were enjoying themselves immensely and Wallace recalls talking to Fripp about the possibilities of carrying something on after the tour. "Everybody started getting along well and the Summit gig is toward the end of the tour and I do remember that Boz and I went to Fripp and said to him that we'd like to carry on but he was already making his plans and was already talking to Bill (Bruford) and so it was over. It could have gone on and we were all up for that and maybe that's where some of Boz's bitterness lies because, at that time and at that moment, Boz really wanted to carry on. We had so much fun on that tour and I know Robert did. The three of us didn't want to break up."
Fripp was doubtful. “Could it have gone on? The question is: could this band have played Larks’ Tongues In Aspic? Not in terms of, did they have the technical ability to play it? But, was this a music they would have picked up and run with? The growing difficulty for me was that I had ceased to believe in the band, but not in Crimson. That is, I ceased to believe that this particular formation could ‘give voice’ to Crimson (with or without Peter). Clearly, the musicianship is always at least excellent, and frequently outstanding. For all of Boz’s technical limitations, purely because of his little time on the instrument, his musicianship and sheer love of music is never in doubt."
Having discharged their legal obligations, Burrell, Collins, and Wallace stayed on in the States playing with Alexis Korner, while Fripp returned to London to start sifting through the soundboard cassettes recorded during the tour.
In April, the press reported Fripp saying that the live album release would be “almost certainly the last from the band”. Other reports also suggested Fripp and Jon Hiseman, along with bassist Mark Clarke, might form a trio to emerge phoenix-like from Crimso’s ashes.
Historically Earthbound has drawn flack for the distorted lo-fi quality of its sound - indeed Atlantic Records refused to release it at the time because of their concerns at the rough sounding quality. Released on Island Records’ budget HELP label for £1.35, the reviewers of the day took a rather upbeat tone in addressing the album’s qualities sonic and otherwise. “King’s last fling” was the Melody Maker’s headline and Richard Williams, with typical perception, said, “The impression you get is that the band is like a catherine wheel: bright and flashing but ephemeral and held together only by centrifugal force...the rough sound quality serves to add an extra dimension of immediacy which many have found lacking in Crimson’s oh-so-carefully constructed studio albums...what we have here, essentially, is a blowing album...” Under the banner “THE LAST CRIMSON, Tony Tyler at the NME wrote “This is very possibly the last King Crimson album and, as Fripp’s already done everything in the studio that could be done with this band, it’s fitting that Earthbound should be live...The main recommendation of this record is to Crimso heads who’ve never acquired the earlier stuff. The very existence of Earthbound is a subtle comment on the entire Crimso thing, and it encapsulates past and recent past pretty well. It’s good value and it shows why King Crimson have a part in musical history. It should be bought.”
Upon its release in June 1972, the album sold well and found itself in the unlikely company in the Mid-Price album charts, gaining the No.1 spot over the likes of Jim Reeves, Mantovani and the Pipes And Drums of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards. Ultimately, of course, the album, and to an extent, the Islands-era band, was overshadowed by the formation of a new King Crimson consisting of Fripp, John Wetton, Bill Bruford, David Cross, and Jamie Muir.
Until the establishment of the King Crimson Collectors’ Club in 1998, and later with DGMLive, the reputation of the Islands-era line-up rested on one studio album and Earthbound, with both largely overlooked and forgotten about, considered in some quarters almost as an aberration. Following the issuing of numerous live recordings through the Club, a more balanced assessment of the group has been possible. In his sleevenotes to the Live At Jacksonville 1972 KCCC release, Fripp writes: "Improvisation has played an important, even critical role, in all Crims. This live Crimson was more a jamming than improvising outfit." Ian Wallace took umbrage at this description, resenting what he saw as a downgrading of the band. Responding to the criticism in his notes for the KCCC release Live At Summit Studios, Wallace argued: "I think we improvised rather well, improvisation being the creation of a fresh vocabulary of notes and tones over a previously constructed format. Just like jazz musicians would play the 'head' of a standard and then solo around the chord sequence."
While undoubtedly appearing raw in comparison to its studio-based predecessors, Earthbound nevertheless contains inspirational performances, including to these ears, arguably the best version of 21st Century Schizoid Man. Fripp’s solo during the track is among his best of the period, and the incomparable roar of Collin's sax work on Groon is nothing short of rapturous. Indeed, the cathartic nature of Groon is further evidenced by Wallace's ferocious drum solo and the blistering display of barely controlled feedback at the end, as though Fripp was somehow attempting to close the lid on this particular Pandora's box of sonic terror. After its release, Fripp actively argued to have the album deleted, which suggests he regarded Earthbound as a lapse of judgement. Yet the record, arguably one of the very first ‘official’ bootlegs, attracted some loyal if unlikely supporters. In 2010 when Nick Cave’s Grinderman project was working on their second release they drafted in Robert Fripp as a guest player. “I wanted to work with Robert Fripp because he has done some of the most uniquely unsettling guitar work I have ever heard along with some of the most delicate and finessed” explained Cave. “I grew up listening to a lot of the King Crimson stuff. The vinyl copy of the phenomenal live album Earthbound is one of my most treasured possessions.” With the advent of the internet and the emergence of forums and message boards, fans could be found lobbying for its re-release, causing Fripp to wryly observe "Once anything is released it never goes away. And if it does, it will return."
As if to prove Fripp right, the current edition of Prog magazine has a feature on the Islands-era band. . .
In 2017 a new version of Earthbound featuring an expanded version of the original album on CD & DVD was released. Presented as a 2 x digi-pack format in a slipcase with new sleeve notes by King Crimson biographer Sid Smith along with rare photos & archive material. As a series of stereo only/low-fi recordings, a 5.1 edition was neither possible nor appropriate. However, also included on the DVD of this release is the full performance from Summit Studios, captured on the same US tour in 1972, appearing in both new stereo & quadraphonic mixes, providing the only live surround recordings of this line-up. This release also features 15 minutes of material not included on the original mail order only CD of Summit studios as issued by DGM in 2000. The DVD also features the Schizoid Men sequence from the Ladies of the Road live album & a transfer of a 1972 vinyl edition of the Earthbound LP. The double set also included an expanded 12 track version of the original 5 track album; the DVD features the 12 track expanded album in 24/96 hi-res stereo audio, and
also features the Summit Studios performance in a new stereo mix & in quadraphonic - the only surviving multi-track performance from the 1972 tour.
The DVD also features the album-length Schizoid Men sequence of edits of 21st Century Schizoid Men taken from the Ladies of The Road live album, and comes with a transfer of the original vinyl album, completing the audio selections.