Starless And Bible Black, King Crimson's sixth studio album was released 46 years ago today. This was no ordinary studio album, however, as Sid Smith explains in this detailed look at the background and making of the record.
Had you talked to Robert Fripp, Bill Bruford, David Cross or John Wetton in the days after the release of Larks’ Tongues In Aspic in March 1973, the chances are they would have smiled, nodded their heads in the right places as fans they encountered heaped praise upon it and would have talked about how it represented a step forward for the band. Yet behind the public facade, the members of King Crimson were less than enamoured with the results of their time during January and February in Piccadilly's Command Studios. “Collapse Studios more like. That’s what we used to call it” shudders John Wetton recalling the time the band was waiting for the in-house engineer to execute a particularly crucial edit on Easy Money. “Back then it was all done with razor blades and very expensive multi-track tape. We were having a cup of tea and were nattering away, looking up occasionally wondering why he hadn’t done the edit and he was standing there with a tape round his neck and the razor in his hand. Somebody asked him if he’d ever done an edit before and he said no. The four of us leapt across the room and grabbed the razor blade from him.”
To be fair to the hapless engineer the razor blade incident was actually the least of Crimson’s worries while making the fifth King Crimson studio album. They were down about their inability to adequately capture the power that they’d collectively generated when travelling up and down the universities, Top Rank suites and municipal halls of the UK during the winter of 1972. Despite the many inventive moments peppered throughout LTIA, the feeling in the camp was that whatever magic had touched them in concert had been curiously absent throughout the sessions at Command.
Putting a brave face on their combined disappointment by the time the album hit the shops, the quartet was already on their way around the UK, Europe and in mid-April, the USA. This marked the beginning of a long-term strategy designed to break King Crimson as a major act in the States but such a gruelling road journey was not without consequences. The band that returned to the UK in July ’73 was not only tired after 60 gigs but in dire need of new material to refresh the setlist and prepare for a new album. Reconvening after a three-week holiday, spirits and tempers were still frayed. What had been a welcome break for some turned out to be a busman’s holiday for Fripp who’d emerged from his Dorset cottage with Fracture, The Night Watch, and Lament. As the group worked flashes of bad temper burst like summer lightning. According to Bill Bruford, Crimson’s writing processes were exercises in “excruciating, teeth-pullingly difficult music-making. The tunes that Robert has written all the way through such as Fracture, these are good and, had there been greater output from Robert, we'd have got on quicker and faster. Robert's always done this. He's started off these bands with one-and-a-half tunes that point the general direction, and Fracture would have been one of them."
“I was never given the time to write” counters Fripp. “The band had a three-and-a-half-week holiday. I had three days. I recall on another occasion saying to the band that I needed time to write, rather than just continuing to rehearse. Bill, in a school-masterly and rather grudging fashion, would only agree if I really would do the writing as opposed to what he implied was goofing off.” The gnawing antipathy that became a defining characteristic of Fripp and Bruford’s subsequent professional relationship first surfaced in these rehearsal sessions, sewing the seeds of the band’s demise a year later. Another factor that would destabilise Crimson was the pressures and antics of the rock‘n’roll circus lifestyle the band encountered as a result of constant touring. Wetton recalls in Italy a young woman, chaperoned by her heavy-looking brother turning up at a sound-check demanding that the bass player marry her! Only diplomacy and a hasty get-away avoided what promised to be a messy scene. Another gig had the PA system’s power cables pulled causing a near-riot which was only averted thanks to the forceful intervention of Crimson’s road crew. Financial corruption and scamming was a near-daily occurrence. Again in Italy, a promoter deliberately under-reported the numbers in the sports stadium thus reducing the band’s cut of the gate receipts in his favour. In refusing to go on stage until the promoter’s numbers tallied with what the band were seeing out in the packed venue, such brinkmanship was as much a part of the band’s repertoire as say Fracture and just as difficult and complicated.
That they were able to apply themselves to both formally written material and what might be termed spontaneous compositions says something not only about their ability to remain focussed as well as their collective constitution. While plenty of rock bands of the day filled their sets with instrumental music, perhaps with the exception of Can, these usually boiled down to extended solos over relatively straightforward blues-based changes. Even away from jamming-orientated groups, the rhythmic and harmonically complex improvisations Crimson specialised in between the winter of 1972 and their break-up in 1974, drew more upon the atonal and abstract vocabulary of contemporary classical music as a reference point than any of the prevailing trends in the scene. While Crimson may have been contemporaries of ELP, Genesis and Yes, etc., as Fripp puts it “King Crimson were nothing like the other bands of its generation. More accurately: the other bands, all more popular, liked and commercially successful, with their own triumphs and failures, were nothing like King Crimson.”
Their capacity to pull off near-telepathic feats of music-making was coming to its peak and coincided with their decision to go to the expense of taking a mobile multi-track recording desk on tour in order to capture the band in full aleatoric flight. Despite being the fourth gig from the end of the tour, and the band’s disposition as "long-term and deep down tired", as David Cross puts it, when they start playing long after midnight at Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw on November 23rd, 1973, King Crimson tapped into something quite remarkable, utilising an extraordinarily assertive of Fracture, and two improvisations; the pastoral Trio, centred around the delicate interplay of David Cross’s plaintive violin and Fripp’s Mellotron-triggered flutes, and the brooding, pensive air the title track of the seventh King Crimson album, Starless And Bible Black. Wetton regards it as a shining example of one of their finest improvisations. It highlights David Cross's other role in King Crimson as a keyboardist. Primarily a texturalist, he skilfully utilises the Mellotron and electric piano to offer a palette of rich tones in a style that’s far removed from other more well-known keyboard exponents of the era with dark timbral blotches bleeding and seeping underneath the radiant, swirling guitar lines.
“Well I didn’t have a lot of technique and I wasn’t a solo player,” says Cross on turning what might appear to be a disadvantage to his favour. “That gave me an opportunity to get into the middle of the music and yes, I enjoyed that. What was liberating about that was something to do with the process of listening, being able to change so much by the movement of one note which is what you can do when you’re generating harmony. It’s quite a big job and you’ve got a lot of power in terms of mood-changing and that kind of thing. I think it was something I did relish actually...it was a good role to have within that context where the other roles were so strongly defined by the others in Crimson.” For years it was assumed that this track, filled with intricate changes of mood and pace, was another carefully written composition.
Remembering their failure to adequately capture their animating improvisatory spirit on Larks’ Tongues In Aspic, the group’s policy of recording shows had paid them a handsome dividend. In January 1974 they set up base camp at George Martin’s AIR studios, sifting through the spools of live tapes selecting candidates for inclusion not only from Amsterdam but Glasgow and Zurich. With the audience applause edited out, it’s impossible to tell the difference between what is live and the three studio tracks which completed the album. The dividing line was further blurred when vocals and other overdubs were grafted onto The Mincer, originally an improv from Zurich now transformed into an intriguing, unconventional approach to songwriting.
“What I felt at the time was that almost anything you conceived of, provided you believed in it and went for it, could work; things could be as simple as you liked or as a complex as you liked and it was perfectly OK to hold those different positions within the course of one performance” explains David Cross “We don’t always have to be all complexity or depth. We can have fun, it can be chaotic, it can be very simple and moving. Actually The Mincer is a good example of combining all those things together. I love the vocals and of course, the bass and drums are working in a sneaky groove but Robert and I were on a much more disturbed journey to what John and Bill are on; Robert and I are all over the place - it’s quite bizarre, and then when the vocals come in they are so beautiful...the track brings together all these different perspectives into one place.”
Only several years after the album’s release and King Crimson’s demise was the live nature of the record revealed. The secrecy surrounding its origins might also have resulted from the musician’s knowing that record companies paid a reduced royalty rate on live albums. If you were to ask King Crimson fans to name their favourite 1970s album by the group the chances are the bulk of them will say Red with Larks’ Tongues In Aspic coming in not far behind. Indeed both charted in Prog magazine’s 100 Greatest Prog Albums Of All Time reader’s poll at number 12 and 30 respectively. It’s easy to understand why that might be; these were the discs that spawned the quintessential KC tracks; the crunching bruise of Larks’ Tongues In Aspic Part 2, the malevolent Red and of course, the poignant, moving, Starless.
While John Wetton accepts Red’s primacy, he also passionately believes Starless And Bible Black has been unfairly passed over by Crimheads. “It’s light years ahead of LTIA. The great stuff is starting to emerge on Starless And Bible Black but it’s an album that seems to be pretty much overlooked by most people. It’s viewed as a fairly insignificant album and its got some bloody gems on there, absolutely packed with them. For me it shows us moving into another dimension as far as being a band is concerned. We’d found our feet, we’d been on the road for the best part of a year. We knew what we wanted to do and we were getting creative. Not only is the album chronologically the bridge between LTIA and Red but it’s also a bridge in many more ways. We were getting more experimental, trying different recording techniques, really screwing with the system, removing applause from live tracks so they sound like studio tracks - the exact opposite what people do today where they add applause to a studio track and pretend it’s live. We’d removed the audience because that was the only way we could get the atmosphere we were after. Before Red we could never recreate that power in the studio, it just wouldn’t happen. You’re in a sterile environment whereas on stage you’d got all that air and people and you’d got the energy. But by the time we got to Red, we did it.”