KIng Crimson Red Album Cover

Cover of ‘Red’. From left to right - John Wetton, Bill Bruford & Robert Fripp

Originally released on the 27th of September 1974 on the Island label, cat. No. ILPS 9308.

Robert Fripp – Guitar, Mellotron
John Wetton – Vocals and Bass
Bill Bruford – Drums & Percussion

Guest Musicians
Mel Collins – Soprano Sax
Ian McDonald – Alto Sax
David Cross – Violin
Robin Miller – Oboe
Mark Charig – Cornet
Unknown (!) – Cello on ‘Red’ (?) and ‘Starless’

Side 1, Track 1 – Red
Side 1, Track 2 – Fallen Angel
Side 1, Track 3 – One More Red Nightmare
Side 2, Track 1 – Providence
Side 2, Track 2 – Starless

This album was recorded slightly under a cloud. Although they didn’t know it when they started work on it circa 7th July 1974 at Olympic Studios in Barnes, London, they had performed their last ever gig with this line-up only 6 days previously. Since then, David Cross had left the band for a variety of reasons (avoiding being asked to leave). Also, during the making of ‘Red’, Fripp stated that he would not be “…offering an opinion on the music…” which Wetton and Bruford put down to him throwing a moody, but it later turned out to be more serious than that. Initially, a lot of the work was done by Wetton and engineer George Chkiantz. Despite that, the remaining trio (once Fripp was mentally back on board) made an album of stunning brilliance, making Fripp’s decision to break up the band (3 weeks before the album was released) puzzling at the time. A major criticism of the previous two releases (by the rock press) was the band’s inability to transfer the power of their live performances onto vinyl. ‘Red’ put that right in no uncertain terms.

The ‘Unknown’ guest musician entry requires some explanation. Fripp or Wetton felt that cello was required on a couple of tracks. It transpired that in an adjoining studio, a group of musicians were recording muzak for lifts, department stores, airports, etc. However, due to Musician Union rules, these recording sessions were limited to two hours in length; one poor cellist was unaware of this ruling and turned up an hour early. Crimson ‘borrowed’ him, but failed to take his name, for payment of the session fee and for credit on the album. The identity of this cellist is still unknown to this day. John Wetton put it about that Mark Charig contributed cello anonymously, but this has since been refuted.

The album opens with the title track, “Red”, the Crimson version of Heavy Metal, but with far more intelligence and subtlety. An unusual time signature is repeated throughout the piece, interrupted by a rhythmical section that was repeated later in “VROOOM VROOOM” on the “THRAK” album. It was a good idea in 1974 and time didn’t diminish its quality of use 20 years later. The raw power of “Red” certainly captured the energy of Crimson’s live work, documented on the “Great Deceiver” set. If Crimson had not broken up, it would have been difficult to see how they would have performed this live, as it needs 2 guitarists. Nonetheless, it is exceptional.

“Fallen Angel”, about a teenager involved in street crime, seems to have been built from two very contrasting tunes – a ballad-like piece interspersed with a murderously heavy riff. Crimson have done this trick before, but not as brilliantly as this.

“One More Red Nightmare” MAY hark back to the Giles’ brothers old band, Trendsetters Inc. who had a single called “Nightmares in Red”, but I could be wrong. It’s another track composed of two distinct ideas – one with vocals and one instrumental. The vocal section seems a little rushed to me, with Wetton struggling to keep time, but the instrumental passages are highly melodic, give opportunities for Mel Collins (I think) to stretch out. The end piece is actually the tape running out during the recording – they elected to keep it!

“Providence” is a repeat of the idea, started on “Starless and Bible Black”, of taking a live track and processing it in the studio. In this case, ‘Providence’ was an improv recorded at the Palace Theatre, Providence, Rhode Island, USA on the 30th of June 1974 (The complete rendition can be found on “The Great Deceiver” set). On this track, David Cross is referred to as a ‘guest’ musician, as he had left the band, but still required a credit. When I first heard this back in 1974, this track mystified me, as it was so at odds with the rest of the material – it still is to some extent. The sleevenotes gave no indication of its origin, which wasn’t revealed, at least to me, until I bought “The Great Deceiver” in 2004. When I first heard “Providence”, I hated it. I just thought of it as noise. It wasn’t until much later when I partly ‘understood’ the concept of an improv that I came to appreciate it a little better. Cross provides some tasteful violin work, but the piece really gets going when Bruford provides a rhythm. Wetton is powerful in the extreme, but the rest of the band doesn’t pick up on it. The piece is noticeably truncated.

“Starless” is a helluva way to finish an album and, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, a helluva way to bring the first major phase of King Crimson to a close. Crimson had accumulated a number of ‘power ballads’ (as I call them), such as “Epitaph”, “In the Wake of Poseidon” and “Exiles”. All pale into comparative insignificance when put up against “Starless”. The initial section, initially created by Wetton and lyricist Richard Palmer-James, caresses the mind with a simplistic beauty, and it’s the Mellotron that does it. “Starless” had been performed live for the preceding 6 months or so, mainly in the USA (NEVER in the UK, unfortunately). However, a tiny re-write to the live version was needed, which worked. The next section (referred to in “The Great Deceiver” booklet as ‘The Tension Section’) is a bit of a disappointment, as it drags on a bit with its monotony, particularly from Fripp. However, when it ends, all hell breaks loose, with Mel Collins or Ian McDonald (I can’t tell which) to the fore, giving it everything he’s got, before they both play in unison. “Starless” ends with a repeat of the initial section but with the rhythm section playing at twice the tempo. Again, the Mellotron makes the flesh crawl, even now, over 35 years later.

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