In this review, I look at the 40th Anniversary editions of two King Crimson live albums. I’ve been a fan of the USA album since before I knew where it stood in the KC canon. Earthbound, however, was never high on my listening list. Having launched into this adventure of rambling through the King Crimson discography, however, I was inclined to give it another go, especially as the notoriously lo-fi recordings are accompanied by an (expectedly cleaner) radio session, Live at Summit Studios, in this release. More on Summit later.

My favourite thing about Earthbound, recorded on the Islands tour in early 1972, is Boz Burrell’s voice. Being a fan of the classic mid-70s lineup that produced USA, Red, Starless and Bible Black, and Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, the limitations of Wetton’s voice always grated on me. With this in mind, however, these recordings also reveal in stark relief why leader Robert Fripp gave the Islands lineup the boot. Fripp himself had already moved on before they went on the road to meet contractual obligations. The other three members, Mel Collins on flutes and saxophones, Burrell on bass/vocals, and Ian Wallace on drums, are very loose in their playing and seem to want to be more of a boogie band than a progressive rock outfit. The original release consisted of 21st Century Schizoid Man, two improvs, a particularly sloppy Sailor’s Tale, and an extended jam on Groon, the instrumental b-side of the very jazzy Cat Food from 1970. The initial release of Groon was only about four minutes (four different takes can be found on the 40th Anniversary Edition of In the Wake of Poseidon), but on this tour, it was regularly extended past fifteen.

The CD portion of this release extends the initial album with Pictures of a City, Formentera Lady, and Cirkus. The DVD portion extends it further with Ladies of the Road, The Letters, and full versions of The Sailor’s Tale and Groon.

kc-eb-usa-back-smThe opening Schizoid man pushes the needle to the red in terms of both saturation and energy. While the structure remains the same, the improvisations in the middle exceed what is expected. Mel Collins’ sax work is intense, and marred somewhat by drumming that seems to be, possibly, part of a different song. Fripp ropes everyone back in with some searing runs. Boz’s treated vocals are more menacing that we hear in later versions, which is somehow appropriate.

Peoria lets us in with some bass/horn/drum interplay, but if Fripp’s guitar is in there, it’s very low in the mix. Sailor’s Tale fades in and closes out side 1. It’s the only song on Earthbound’s original release that also appears on the album they were touring, Islands. It’s a bit sloppy – and perhaps it’s this tendency to sloppiness that frustrated Fripp, but on its own terms it works.

Side 2 opened with another boogie-based improvisation, the album’s title track, notable for some interesting Mellotron work in its closing minutes. Strangely, it cuts off rather abruptly before the opening notes of Groon. In this rendition, Groon is a showcase for the noisier parts of Collins’ horn repertoire. Boz holds down the bottom end well enough, but it’s worth noting that he came into the band as a capable singer who was experienced with the guitar. The histories (i.e., Wikipedia) tell us that Fripp and Wallace taught him bass so they could get down to business. As such, he doesn’t stretch out on the instrument that much. With Fripp holding back in a lot of cases, that left the heavy lifting to Collins and Wallace. The extended drum solo allows Wallace to show off quite the talent. Eventually Fripp pulls it all back together with another blast from the Mellotron and trades licks with Wallace for a time. This might be the only point on the album where Fripp seems to be having fun. At least that’s what it sounds like to me.

The bonus tracks are what make this collection worth the price of admission. Tight renditions of Pictures of a City, Formentera Lady, and Cirkus. With these, we get representative samples of all four studio albums Crimson had released to date. Pictures is especially tight – the diminuendo is handled really well, and the listener feels that the band was actually working together as a practicing unit, not just an improvisational one. Formentera Lady is the real treat of these three bonus tracks. Boz had a really lovely voice when he tried and this song lets him make the best use of it. The flute work from Collins balances that voice nicely. And, yeah, the song dissolves into a bit of a racket, but while it lasts, the beauty of it is touching.

Cirkus, drawn from the same set as the title track’s improvisation, shows off a real mastery of the track. The Mellotron backing for Collins’ intense soprano sax solo is restrained enough that Collins can really shine. As a tacked-on bonus track, however, it’s quite odd to have it close out the album. Nearly as odd, I suppose, as the faded out Groon on the original release.

The DVD that accompanies this release of Earthbound has several sets of goodies. A further extension of Earthbound with, ah, here it is, extended versions of Groon (which includes the Peoria improv) and Sailor’s Tale, and recordings of Ladies of the Road and The Letters.

Ladies of the Road has always felt like the oddest song in the KC repertoire with its frank subject matter and Beatlesesque harmonies, and in the rendition here, seems more than anything to suggest where Boz would be going with his next band, Bad Company. The Letters is handled with more intensity than on any other version I’ve heard. The central instrumental section is off the charts. It’s also very cool to get the full versions of The Sailor’s Tale (with an insane drum solo and extended jam) and Groon which concludes (strangely) with a scat rendition of Silent Night. One can almost get why it was edited down, but it still ends quite abruptly.

And the Summit Studios recording. This was a radio broadcast, so much cleaner than the direct-to-cassette recordings that make up the rest of the album. Pictures of a City is positively raucous and oddly followed by a sweet rendition of Cadence and Cascade on which Boz’ voice cracks a bit. Yeah, I know, that’s going to be my complaint about Wetton in the next section of this review. The guitar and flute work is sublime, however. Following, we get Groon, Schizoid Man, an improve called Summit Going On, a truly dreadful bit of comedy called My Hobby, Sailor’s Tale, and a take on Pharaoh Saunders’ The Creator Has a Master Plan.

Groon seems faster than the other versions on this release, and while Collins is really getting into the noisy possibilities of his horns, the whole piece retains a pretty coherent structure. The play between the bass and Mellotron in the mid-section is especially nice.

Schizoid Man is positively manic. Fripp seems to be wringing some serious emotion out of his guitar and the whole thing concludes in a grand freak out.

Summit Going On is a slow burning jazz improv which includes some of the scat-style moaning evident on the Peoria improv, and features the band in a serious groove.

It’s a shame they followed this up with My Hobby which is Wallace going off for 90 seconds in a comedy voice saying shit that’s not funny. Were it my band, I’d not have included it in the release, especially because the version of The Sailor’s Tale that follows is mostly well-rendered. Collins’ work in the opening section verges on the frightening, but following that, it’s Fripp’s showcase and he uses it. You can tell here that this is one of the precursors of the more complicated instrumental work of the next lineup. Its complexity presages tracks like Fracture and Red.

I’m really not sure what to make of their rendition of Pharaoh Sanders’ The Creator Has a Master Plan. Collins and Burrell dig into it admirably, but might have been out of his depth at the time. It’s possible Burrell wasn’t sure what key he should have been singing in. Once the band goes off in search of its own way through the piece, it becomes more interesting. The weakest aspect is when Burrell intones the mantra-like lyrics. The feeling is that he’s uttering the words because Sanders’ version features them, not because he feels them. As an extended groove, however, the band strikes gold.

The only overlap between USA and Earthbound is 21st Century Schizoid Man. Otherwise the track list draws from the three albums made by the mid-70s lineup, leaning of course on Larks’ Tongues and Starless and Bible Black because Fripp dissolved the band before Red was released.

This album is a little strange in that David Cross was in the band for the tour, but some of his work was overdubbed by Eddie Jobson. The violin work on Larks’ and Schizoid Man is credited to both. Lament, the only entry from Starless and Bible Black on the initial release is gorgeous, and Cross really shines on it.

Asbury Park is a tight improvisation that features a lot of Mellotron and really interesting interplay between band members. John Wetton’s bass holds the bottom end with Bill Bruford exhibiting trademark restraint. That fearless ‘let’s see where this takes us’ experimentalism was a great highlight of this lineup and makes Asbury Park one of the better improvs released in this period. The first of several reasons to go for the 40th anniversary version is that Asbury Park is expanded from seven minutes to almost twelve.

When USA was initially released Easy Money and the improv that follows it were a single track. In this reissue, there’s a point where Easy Money stops and the song evolves into something else, also intriguing and very different than the LTIA version.

The other reasons to grab this version are tight renditions of Fracture, the closing tour de force of the Starless and Bible Black album and Starless (from Red). My feeling is that any live rendition of Fracture makes a release worth buying (Live in Vienna, recorded in 2016 and released this year sold me on the basis of that alone, though it too is a great album), but this one is especially nice. That said, these two tracks are squeezed in before 21st Century Schizoid Man which closed the original release. Starless clocks in at nearly sixteen minutes, but about three of that is simply applause. For the sake of album continuity, I would have cut that down and moved on to the next track. There’s an idea that the crowd noise gives it more of a feeling of the wait between the last song of a set and the encore, but here it’s just a little annoying. It might also be trying to replicate the original UK LP of USA which embedded the last bit of audience noise in a locked groove so that the listener had to lift the needle. That said, it’s still a gorgeous rendition of the song.

My main issue with the live recordings from this period, and to a lesser extent with the studio work, is that Wetton’s voice wasn’t practiced enough to hit some of the highs or extended phrases that the songs demanded. This is especially true on Exiles, but the band is so together on these recordings that it’s a minor gripe.

I have a few mid-level complaints, I suppose, but I’ve listened to almost nothing but these two albums for about two weeks, and they reveal new bits to enjoy with each listen. One can wish that the band had been more conscientious with their recording techniques in 1972 so that we could get more of the experience the original listeners had, but these releases are a treat to listen to nonetheless.