It’s no exaggeration to say that the months after the completion of Lizard were some of the bleakest in King Crimson’s short but turbulent history. Although Crimson had imploded once before, the difference between 1969 and the winter of 1970 was that Fripp himself wasn’t sure if even he would continue with the band this time.
With the future hanging in the balance, as Mel Collins continued to audition potential candidates, (“I was just trying to hang on to the gig myself!” laughs Collins), help arrived in the form of Keith Emerson who suggested to Fripp that one of his lodgers, Ian Wallace, fill the vacant drum stool.
After months of struggle, the new Crimson line-up at last took shape when newly recruited singer Boz Burrell took up a bass guitar that had been left behind by Rick Kemp who had quit KC to join Steeleye Span. With the entire band in despair at the prospect of going through another round of punishing auditions, Fripp seized the moment and decided to teach Boz the Crimson repertoire note by note. “Boz was thrown in at the deep end” recalls Collins. “Ian Wallace and I didn’t appreciate how much Boz was suffering until much later. Boz was having terrible traumas. I understand that now. Crimson wasn’t really a natural fit for him. To be singing and playing that difficult material was an amazing feat.”
Yet Burrell overcame his doubts and began winning over the crowds that packed into the various venues around the UK as Crimson took the road once again.
Not all of the musical ideas written at the time were properly developed. One piece - utilising motifs that would later appear as elements of Larks’ Tongues In Aspic Pt.1 and Lament - had been tried out during September both in concert at The Marquee and in the studio (presented here as A Peacemaking Stint Unrolls), but would have to wait until the next line-up to come to fruition. This required recycling older pieces with Drop In (from the ’69 line-up) becoming The Letters, whilst Song of the Gulls was developed from Suite No.1 from Giles, Giles & Fripp’s 1968 album.
Although Command Studios wasn’t the best (London’s underground tube trains could be heard rumbling beneath) it was cheap and could be had at short notice. This suited Crimson who essentially recorded the album in a series of guerilla-style raids in between their gigs around the UK.
The bulk of Islands was recorded in this way during September, with most of the overdubbing and mixing completed in early October. “It is difficult to convey the level of exhaustion during this last week” explains Fripp. “I’d get home about 3-4 in the morning from the studio, pull out a pencil and write orchestral parts for Song Of The Gulls, before getting to bed anywhere between six and eight. Up around ten to leave for the studio for noon. The final night began around 18:00 and never ended for me — Peter bailed in the early hours and I carried on. Richard Williams came in to listen to the playback/run-through the following late morning, then the van arrived after lunch. I got in, fell asleep, we drove to the first show of the tour, and I woke up shortly before we arrived.”
The final night that Fripp refers to was the same evening that overdubbing on Sailor’s Tale was finished.
“The solo was, and is, from some other world” notes Fripp. “Technically, the right hand could only have been developed by someone familiar with the banjo. My connection to this was through Don Strike (his old guitar tutor in Bournemouth). Other references would include Sonny Sharrock (notably with Herbie Mann) and the idea of Peter Townshend’s flailing. And maybe a subversion/perversion of early Scotty Moore, with echo delay, at the Sun sessions. But none of this seems relevant somehow. Late at night, faced with a solo to be played, for which there was no solo available, something happened: a young guitar player was confronted by necessity. And then something remarkable happened…”
There are many stand-out moments on this curiously schizophrenic album; Formentera Lady’s laid-back sunny dreamscapes (Peter Sinfield’s lyrics inspired by his recent holidays in the Balearic islands); the free-jazz tussle within The Letters’ chilling melodrama; the skewed, mutant blues guitar licks and raucous sax of Ladies of the Road; the genteel classic music climes of Song of the Gulls; the emotional reverie of the title track.
If Lizard represented a wild party between rock the UK jazz scene, Islands was more akin to a gentle gathering. Though he’s woefully under used on Formentera Lady, Harry Miller was one of the most gifted bassists of his generation who at the time of this recording was founding his own independent record label, Ogun. Along with Keith Tippett’s delicate additions on the title track comes his cornet player, Mark Charig, whose free-flowing cornet playing (backed by Fripp’s folksy harmonium) lends a poignant warmth to the stirring coda.
However, it’s the Sailor’s Tale which arguably overshadows everything here. The solo makes a break with the symphonic and jazz-inspired leanings of previous albums, clawing its way into a spikier, fractious metal-edged territory. It’s the sound of Fripp hammering out a new map of where he wanted to explore next.
When it came to remixing for stereo and 5.1 from Islands multi-track tapes in 2009 and 2010, Steven Wilson found that although there were limitations with the way some of the acoustic instruments had been recorded, he was nevertheless impressed by the vitality of some of the sounds captured and the performances therein.
“Ladies of the Road is fantastically recorded. That bass drum when it comes in is great - you can hear the whole skin rattling and I love that!” Wilson is also fond of the guitar solo on that track. “It’s almost like a complete negation and contradiction of everything that guitar players are supposed to do. It’s primitive in the sense that it has nothing about it that a) you could associate with the standard blues scales which most guitarists were using at the time, and b) there’s nothing about it which is traditional musicianship. It’s almost like a primal scream of a solo; almost child-like.
I always thought of Lizard and Islands as being of a pair in a way but when you sit down and start working with the tapes, you realise they are completely different things, mainly because of the economy and the space in the recording of Islands. It has a quite, stately beauty and elegance about it that you do appreciate the more you hear it.
With Islands you’ve got the two tracks at either end of the record which are very spacious and jazz-like, and then you’ve got probably the most macho thing King Crimson ever did in the middle of the record followed by an orchestral piece! It’s possibly the most diverse record they ever made.”
Sid Smith, March 2010
Taken for the 40th anniversary edition