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Lean years for prog (part 2)

Citizen Smith

At the start of the third year Jim and I went to see Barbara Thompson at the Tramshed and, to Jim’s surprise, he knew the violinist in the band, Pete Hartley, with whom he’d been to school in Birmingham. This proved to be an easy opening for a chat with Barbara Thompson herself during the interval. Next up was Jethro Tull at the Royal Albert Hall on their A tour, which had sold out so quickly that the only tickets we could get were standing in the gods, where the awful sound quality had a long-lasting effect on my opinion of the venue. The material from the new album was under-par and not even an Eddie Jobson solo on the Hall’s organ could redeem the performance. It was hardly the best of gigs, so it’s a good job that the tickets were only £1.75.

The following week was a cosy stand-up affair at the London School of Economics featuring The League of Gentlemen, Robert Fripp’s pared-down New-Wave band. In retrospect, I’d list this gig as one of the most important I’ve ever attended. Fripp disbanded King Crimson in 1974 to take time out of the music business and reassess his place within it. His return to action was as a session guitarist for Peter Gabriel in 1977, appearing on the album Peter Gabriel (Car) and also playing live under the pseudonym Dusty Rhodes. Fripp decamped to New York and worked as a producer, as a guest guitarist and performing Frippertronics in small venues, and devised a three-level manifesto which he called ‘The Drive To 1981’, the third part pertaining to ‘personal discipline’. He also defined three categories of activities, three ‘divisions’ where experimentation like Frippertronics was in the third division and unlikely to provide a living. The first division had two faces: achieving a level of success in mass culture, or achieving the pinnacle of popular culture through the exchange of ideas and playing with the best musicians. The League of Gentlemen was regarded by Fripp as somewhere between the third division and the second, a band that could gain professional respectability but one unlikely to allow the musicians to make a living without serious graft.

According to the sleeve notes on their eponymous album The League of Gentlemen played 77 gigs though only 71 are listed, the last one being the LSE show on 29th November 1980. The notes also reveal that the band’s commitment to work together ended on 4th December. Anyone going to see some form of reincarnation of Crimson would have been very disappointed. This sound was angular and immediate, what I thought of as dance music for a new decade, when it eventually got going. The pedal board that allowed him to produce Frippertronics soundscapes and paint-stripping guitar solos decided not to function, however much the road crew coaxed and cajoled it. The crowd were getting restless but I can only imagine that Fripp himself was less than happy with this piece of defunct electronics. I think that one or more of the components were by-passed to allow the show to proceed. Fripp’s next venture would feature the more reliable Roland guitar synthesizer along with the rapid, circular guitar patterns that helped define the League of Gentlemen sound.

My intention had always been to get out of a university hall in my final year and this was achieved just before the Christmas break. Eric, an old associate from Barrow, had moved to London to study low temperature physics and anti-bubbles on a full-time Masters Degree course at Chelsea College, and along with Jim we settled on a flat for four in Streatham, a modern low-rise block called Beechcroft Close and something of a financial burden as there were just the three of us living there. In contrast to Loring Hall, Streatham had excellent public transport connections and Eric was quite content to drive us around in his battered blue Mini, providing us with 24 hour access to the West End. I became a member of The 100 Club and we’d park free of charge just behind Oxford Street on our trips to see bands, the first of which were a reunion of Back Door (featuring Colin Hodgkinson), and Allan Holdsworth in a quartet called Plough playing some complex and challenging music on successive Mondays. Barbara Thompson had become something of a favourite, so the next gig on the agenda was Paraphernalia at King’s College Student Union.

Perhaps the most interesting gig of this period was Discipline at Her Majesty’s Theatre. Pre-internet, we used to get the London listings magazine City Limits (Time Out’s more radical sibling) where I saw the show advertised. A glance at the line-up suggested tickets would be hard to come by: Fripp, reunited with Bill Bruford, Tony Levin who I knew from Peter Gabriel albums and Fripp’s solo album Exposure, plus (for me) the unknown quantity of Adrian Belew on second guitar and vocals, but I managed to acquire tickets in row D of the stalls. I accepted this wasn’t King Crimson, but it was genuinely thrilling to see what appeared to be a move in the right direction.

Fripp’s pedal board was obviously unable to cope with the rigours of the musical direction he’d now embarked upon but Discipline subscribed wholeheartedly to new technological possibilities. Both guitarists employed Roland guitar synthesizers, Bruford played Simmons electronic drums and Levin played the Chapman Stick along with his bass. It was difficult to know what to expect. There was no album to promote at the time and this was not a line-up that would ever perform League of Gentlemen material. I couldn’t have imagined them playing any pre-74 Crimson material, so the inclusion of Red and Larks’ Tongues in Aspic part 2 in the set was a fantastic surprise. The new material was quite unlike anything I’d heard before, well almost. Mixed in with the progressive funk and gamelan were knotty guitar patterns extrapolated from some of the League of Gentlemen pieces. Belew’s Talking Heads influence was obvious and he was bouncing around and producing unimaginable sounds from his guitar. Their energy was phenomenal and the music which was, in effect, a new form, came across as infectiously joyous. It was therefore not so surprising that Fripp on deciding the music was suited to King Crimson changed the band name from Discipline to King Crimson.

The final gig of my time at Goldsmiths’ was an appearance by space rock/psyche outfit Here and Now at the Summer Ball. I’d avoided this annual event in my first two years but I was seduced by their Gong connection; Daevid Allen and Gilli Smyth recruited the band to perform with them as ‘Planet Gong’ between 1977 and 1978. The music was quite trippy, but I was most intrigued by the guitarist’s pedal board – the pedals were contained in an old wooden bakery tray and operated by hand at waist height!

I graduated to full time employment at the National Blood Transfusion Service Centre at Tooting in September 1981, having spent the summer lazing around Streatham. Tooting wasn’t a particularly beautiful area, though neither was Streatham; however it did have a number of things going for it. There used to be an independent record store on the right hand side heading from Tooting Broadway towards Tooting Bec on Upper Tooting Road where amongst other things I bought the rather obscure Jack Knife album, a 1978 collaboration between John Wetton and Richard Palmer-James, recorded in Munich over 10 days and featuring songs that the pair used to cover when they were in Tetrad together. I believe this shop was called Famous Music. The Woolworth’s, opposite Tooting Broadway tube station where Wolfie Smith would shout “power to the people” during the opening credits of the BBC TV series Citizen Smith (1977-80), had a remarkably decent record selection. I’d not been working for a full month when Discipline, the first of the reformed King Crimson albums was released and I bought that from Tooting Woolworth’s. Another feature of the store was the a bargain cassette bin and over time I picked up Caravan’s Better by Far; Zero Time by TONTOs Expanding Headband; Steve Hackett’s second and fifth solo albums Please Don’t Touch and Cured; Electric Savage by Colosseum II; the eponymous first Isotope album; Neil Ardley’s Kaleidoscope of Rainbows; and The Power and the Glory by Gentle Giant. I also indulged in a couple of reduced price 12” Asia singles with Roger Dean picture sleeves. It was in Woolworth’s that I became fascinated by Marillion’s Script for a Jester’s Tear which I frequently held in my hands but didn’t actually buy until relatively recently.

There was also a musical instrument shop on Mitcham Road which may have been called Session Music. This had a mark II Mellotron against the wall as you came in through the door and for a while, a white Mellotron M400 in the window. When I was a student I’d passed up a couple of chances to buy very nice second-hand Fender Precision basses which would have blown a term’s worth of grant, leaving me nothing left to live on and though I don’t regret the decision, it would have been rather nice to have owned one of those instruments. The M400 posed another problem. The asking price was around one month’s salary and though I’d recently acquired my first credit card, money was still tight. The deciding factor was the sheer impracticality of owning such a beast. How would I get it home? How would I move it around, not yet owning any form of vehicle or even being able to drive? Where would it be stored? ‘Home’ was a series of dodgy bedsits in and around Streatham, Balham and later Gypsy Hill. I wasn’t even in a band! One lunchtime I went into the shop and tried it out, playing the piano introduction to the I Get Up, I Get Down section from Close to the Edge on a strings setting, and variations on a melody line from Tangerine Dream’s live album Ricochet using the flute selection. Holding chords involved adding inversions and sevenths but the most incredible thing about it was the feel; it may have been heavy and clunky and you could feel the mechanism when you depressed the keys but it really was an awesome instrument. If owning it had been practical in any way I’d have bought it but it really wasn’t practical. In 1984 I bought a home electronic organ for £15 from a junk shop around the corner from my basement flat in Colby Road – I needed to solder some contacts to get all the keys to work and it sounded quite good when played through my fuzz-wah pedal – but this instrument, not quite as big as the Mellotron and about a tenth of the weight, had to be left behind when I did a moonlight flit from that particular flat, because it was impractical to take with me. Ten or so years later, some Mellotrons were on display at one of the King Crimson playback events at the Hotel Intercontinental, Hyde Park Corner. The asking price for a reconditioned instrument was of the order of fifteen times what I’d have paid.

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