Larks' Tongues In Aspic, King Crimson's fifth studio album was released 50 years ago today. The record marked a radical departure from everything they’d previously done. With guitarist Robert Fripp as the only survivor from the original line-up, the new line-up featuring the heat-seeking work of ex-Yes drummer Bill Bruford and the virtuoso bass work of ex-Family bassist John Wetton, who also took on vocals, presented a breath-taking tour of killer riffs, jaw-dropping dynamics, and poignant ballads. Featuring pastoral, Vaughan Williams-style interludes from violinist David Cross, this line-up also embraced a spikier sound that was both willing to rock out as well as explore and experiment with unorthodox textures and atmospherics thanks in part to eclectic percussionist, Jamie Muir.
Here's the background on the making of the album as originally featured in the liner notes for the 40th Anniversary edition of the album, released in 2012.
When Boz Burrell, Mel Collins, Ian Wallace, and Robert Fripp walked off the stage of the Municipal Auditorium in Birmingham, Alabama on April 1st, 1972, another chapter in King Crimson’s frequently turbulent history had come to an end. With Burrell, Collins, and Wallace staying on in the States to form Alexis Korner’s band, Snape, even before the guitarist returned to London there was speculation as to what the guitarist might do next. “Fripp & Hiseman May Form Band” ran the headline in the New Musical Express.
Although that partnership failed to go beyond an exploratory discussion between the principals, Fripp busied himself during the Summer of ’72 sifting through the cassette tapes of what would become Earthbound and sounding out potential collaborators. One name suggested to him by Melody Maker writer Richard Williams was Jamie Muir. The drummer and percussionist had been working primarily with the Music Improvisation Company alongside Evan Parker, Hugh Davies, and Derek Bailey, who had also been a member of Pete Brown’s Battered Ornaments. Fripp and the percussionist got together as Muir observes “to see if there was a basis for us working together. I remember I was playing some really fast and furious blow-outs, from a drummer’s perspective it was the Tony Williams / Billy Cobham type of thing. It was fairly energetic stuff and I think we enjoyed ourselves. He didn’t say right then and there ‘OK you’re in’ but I think he said he’d give me a ring.”
Although Fripp and Bruford had discussed working together since Crimson supported Yes earlier in February in Boston, it wasn’t until May that the pair undertook some exploratory jamming at Bruford’s house. “We went into my music room and Robert said: ‘If I played this what would you play?’ Apparently, I must have done the right thing because eventually, he suggested that we do some more!" recalls Bruford. “I hadn’t up until that time thought of asking [Bill] because as we all know, he had a good gig with Yes,” Fripp told NME’s Tony Tyler. At this stage it was by no means certain the King Crimson would be resurrected. Yet it was while a guest in the Bruford household, and sitting in the bath no less, that the notion of a two-drum line-up came to Fripp. “I suddenly thought ‘Well, Bill’s a lovely drummer but he’s perhaps a little too straight for some things...Then I thought of this nut Jamie Muir whom I’d just met, and I thought, well Jamie’s a great drummer but he’s not really straight enough for some of the things I’d like him to do. Now, while I was sitting in the bath...I suddenly had this vivid idea to use the two of them...and it seemed so right.”
The next piece of the Crimson jigsaw was Fripp’s old friend, John Wetton, who’d been previously asked about joining Crimson when the Islands-era band was coalescing in 1971. It hadn’t felt right back then but after several months with Family, the bassist was ready to move on. “One day the phone rang and Robert said ‘I’m round at Bill Bruford’s (he lived around the corner from me in Redcliffe Gardens) and we’re discussing the possibility of doing something. Do you want to pop around?’ So I did. I remember Bill came to the door with a carrot in his hand! I thought it felt good as soon as we started talking and so we put the ball in motion. I was actually in the studio with family still working on Bandstand and Bill had been working with Yes doing Close To The Edge. It wasn’t a jam or anything. We just sat and talked about what we wanted to do.”
For Fripp, a new venture offered the possibility of traversing the musical divide which had opened up after the break-up of the '69 line-up. With Bruford feeling he’d gone as far as he could with Yes, it was a chance to extend his creative vocabulary. As far as Wetton was concerned there would finally be an opportunity to develop as a singer and composer, a role he was firmly denied as a member of Family. By the time that three-way conversation had taken place in Redcliffe Gardens, Fripp had already been invited to see a band called Waves rehearsing in the basement of the cafe on the Fulham Palace Road at the behest of David Enthoven. Although the band failed to catch EG management’s attention, violinist David Cross was invited by Fripp to do some playing. “Robert said he was interested in doing what he called an Indian type album and asked if I’d be interested in playing with him and Jamie Muir” recalls Cross. “The first time I met Jamie was when I turned up at his flat to play and we spent a couple of hours there having a jam, trying some ideas with just guitar, violin and percussion.” On Wednesday 19th July Bruford and Wetton broke the news of their decision to quit Yes and Family. “We had to co-ordinate the whole thing,” says Wetton. I remember calling Bill from Olympic Studios to wherever he was and agreeing to tell our respective bands. London was like a village then and everyone knew everyone else and if something happened in a recording studio, like in Olympic where I was recording, it would very quickly get to Advision, where Bill was recording. So we had to do things at the same time." David Cross also received a call from Fripp. “He said he was setting up another session but this time with Bill and John and he asked me to come along and he wanted to see what would come out of that. It was that afternoon that the project became King Crimson. There was a discussion as to what it would be called but eventually, by the end of the day it was agreed that we’d call it King Crimson.”
“King Crimson was the ideal for me because it was a rock band and it had more than three brain cells” recalled Jamie Muir. “I was very much more an instrumental style of musician rather than being song based and there weren’t many other bands that I would have been any good in. I was extremely pleased and I felt completely at home with the Crimson.” On July 22nd the new line-up made front-page news of Melody Maker: Yes Man To Join Crimson ran the headline. "The New King Crimson rehearsed quietly this week - with Yes' Bill Bruford on drums alongside leader Robert Fripp." It wasn’t until the end of August after Fripp had completed his work as producer of Matching Mole’s Little Red Record that the new Crimson started working in earnest. Wetton recalls that the early rehearsals outlined the bones of tracks such as Easy Money and Book Of Saturdays (then called Daily Games). Fripp also ran the bare bones of an idea that he’d first tried out with the Islands-era line-up, and which would be later titled Larks’ Tongues In Aspic - a phrase coined by Jamie Muir but appropriated by Fripp.
There was a conscious decision to break away from the old Crimson repertoire. Whereas Boz, Mel, and Ian had to a certain extent been hobbled by the necessity of playing material fashioned by previous line-ups, this version of Crimson carried no such baggage. Although groups such as The Mahavishnu Orchestra and Can integrated improvisation into their setlists, it’s hard to think of any other rock band operating at the time who took that blistering mixture of calculated risk and blind faith as far as it could go. “There were long stretches where anything could happen and frequently did” laughs Wetton. “A lot of the time, the audience couldn't really tell the difference between what was formal and what wasn’t because the improvising was of a fairly high standard. It was almost telepathic at times. You’d automatically know what the other person was going to do and when they were going to do it. Extraordinary. Those kinds of things don’t happen very often.”
Until now, the only visual record of Muir performing has been a short extract of the band performing Larks’ Tongues In Aspic” for the Beat Club programme in Bremen. However, with the full session now released for the first time as part of this release, we can, at last, see this Crimson in full flight. Muir stalks around his exotic percussion rig, an avant-garde court jester ferrying the sounds and sensibilities of free jazz to the world of the rock band. “I always remember I had an urge to get Robert to let his hair down because he was very controlled in the way he played,” says Muir. “At the TV gig, I really tried and tried to provoke him.”
It’s interesting watching the complete video to see how much eye contact plays a part in determining the force and direction of the music. “I was an absolute nervous wreck during that TV recording” admits Cross. “I can remember thinking ‘well, I’m going to be found out now’. Looking somebody in the eye means you’re furiously sending messages out and receiving them back. It can be quite terrifying for some people to do that kind of improvising, and you need a certain degree of mutually shared experience and be quite comfortable with the people in order to be able to do that. Somehow it was safer to look John Wetton in the eye than it was to ignore him and be out on your own.” Returning to the UK, the band announced a huge UK tour that kicked off on November 10th in Hull and ended at Portsmouth’s Guildhall on December 15th. Never before had Crimson undertaken such an expansive domestic tour taking in 27 towns and cities, with only five days off. With Earthbound, released in June on Island’s budget label imprint HELP being the most recent but hardly the most representative album, when the tour began, none of the audience could have been prepared for what they saw and heard. With nearly half of the set given over to extended exploratory workouts, this new King Crimson was undoubtedly the most challenging and uncompromising line-up to date.
Opening their concerts with the then-unreleased Heavenly Music Corporation (recorded with Brian Eno just two months previously) playing over the PA, the five-piece Crimson took the audience on a dramatic tour of some of rock music's most extreme environments. Blasted with slabs of skull-crunching riffs, raked with hybrid polyrhythms, taunted by abrasive bouts of atonality and occasionally soothing ballads, audiences were frequently stunned by the encounter. On top of the musical assault, Jamie Muir’s visual theatrics compounded the wonderment so many experienced. It wasn’t just the punters who were shocked by Muir’s performance art-antics of throwing chains about the place and spitting blood whilst glowering at the audience. “Jamie’s onstage persona never manifested itself in rehearsals” recalls Cross. “I could have died when I first saw him start his antics on stage for the first time. I thought it was wonderful but we had no idea he was going to do it – it was completely out of the blue.”
The only familiar point of reference was the inclusion of 21st Century Schizoid Man on the setlist, delivered as an encore, almost as a reward to the audience’s patience and trust. This was a radical risk-taking Crimson that during the course of a single concert opened so many portals to diverse and different destinations. Critical reaction to Crimson’s return to the live stage bordered on the ecstatic. The NME’s Tony Tyler described the “spiritual impact” of the group as being comparable to the first Crimson, predicting that this time the potential which Crimson had always had within its reach would, at last, be grasped. Ian Macdonald wrote in the same paper in December that Crimson produced at least half an hour of the most miraculous rock he'd ever heard, while Melody Maker’s Richard Willams extolled the virtues of their “90-minute barrage of phenomenal creativity”.
Inevitably perhaps, the real challenge facing this Crimson, as it had been for previous line-ups, was somehow bottling all that ferocious energy generated during the course of a concert and getting it down in a recording studio. After an initial stab at recording the quintet at Wessex studios, Fripp notes that “fairly quickly it became obvious that it wouldn’t work, particularly for a double drummer configuration. Wessex couldn’t find a drum sound whatever they did. And Command was always available at short notice!” The band was in Command Studios in London's Piccadilly Circus on Wednesday, January 1, 1973, much to John Wetton’s chagrin. “In command is one thing you definitely were not in that studio! Things were constantly blowing up, or they were losing bits. We had the engineer, God bless him, who’d never done an edit before. We were talking away over a cup of tea and he had instructions to take a certain amount of footage out of the front of Easy Money so we could move the first beat of the bass drum up. So we were sitting there and every now and then would ask how the edit was going. There he was with a razor blade in his hand and then after a while, he told us he’d never done an edit before. We were like ‘Fuck! Put that razor blade down!’ (laughs) Every day there was something going wrong like that.”
Interviewed during the mixing of Larks’ Tongues In Aspic, Bruford offered his thoughts views on the frenetic activity undertaken by the band to date “We specifically wanted to tour before making an album having only just met. For example, I knew of Jamie Muir’s position in contemporary music but I’d never met him...it was Robert’s idea to have Jamie and myself play together, and representing percussion through the ages...We’re all still getting to know each other. We’ve learned to play together on stage, now we are learning to play in the studio.” Looking towards the future, Bruford offered “ There’s a Crimson way of doing things you know. And it’s a fairly intense emotional relationship in the band...It’s exhilarating to be part of and could produce magical music that will change people.”
With work on LTIA finished, the band played two nights at London’s Marquee Club. After the first live performance of 1973, on February 10th, Jamie Muir unexpectedly quit. Faced with the band’s grueling tour schedule for the months ahead, Muir concluded a path to spiritual enlightenment was preferable. Leaving the group to follow his interests in Buddhism (something he’d been nurturing prior to Crimson), he informed EG management of his decision. Despite offering to serve a period of notice he was urged to leave immediately. The story put out at the time was that the percussionist’s absence followed an injury sustained on stage. "That was nonsense about my having injured myself,” says Muir. “I think I slightly sprained my ankle but then I did that nearly every night when I played. When I heard about what they'd said, I wondered why would anybody do that — what advantage could there be in not saying what actually happened? It didn't seem to make any sense to me at all, but then there were a number of things which that management did which didn't make any sense except perhaps to themselves." Though Muir’s departure marked the end of a brief but intensely fertile period, it also helped usher in the birth of another remarkable chapter in the band’s story.
Perhaps because of their general dissatisfaction with the sound achieved at Command, none of the musicians who recorded Larks’ Tongues In Aspic are especially comfortable about the finished results. “I look upon it as part of the journey to Red if you like,” says Wetton. “It didn’t really capture what we could do live. As I see it, there’s a very natural progression from Larks’ Tongues to Starless And Bible Black, which stretches out a bit sonically. By the time you get to Red, it’s all in full flight.” Echoing the meteoric trajectory charted by the 1969 incarnation, in just five short months five musicians from different backgrounds and influences distilled their collective experience to create a rock band that stood out and, largely, stood alone in the musical landscape of the day. “I think the music that came out of Crimson was purely a result of people being prepared to listen to each other even though they didn’t come necessarily from the same branch of the tree,” says David Cross. Jamie Muir puts it like this: “The essence of it was that we were still five musicians carrying with them their qualities and gifts and still trying to find a way of welding it all together into one distinct personality.”