Boz Burrell would probably be appalled to hear it, but ever since I learned of the former King Crimson and Bad Company bass player's death earlier this afternoon, the song that's been stuck in my head is "Islands," the title track from King Crimson's fourth studio album. Issued in 1971, it's hardly the band's best work. But neither is it the wobbly disaster that it was so often made out to be back in the early '80s, when I was first getting to know the group's catalog.
The first King Crimson lineup -- Robert Fripp, Ian McDonald, Greg Lake, Michael Giles and Peter Sinfield, the one that recorded In the Court of the Crimson King -- had fallen apart somewhere near the end of its first American tour in 1969, a victim of youthful angst and too much success that came too quickly. McDonald and Giles announced their resignation somewhere in California. Lake stuck around long enough to record the second album, In the Wake of Poseidon -- a wan copy of the debut, for the most part -- then accepted an invitation from Keith Emerson to form a group that went on to define prog-rock excess and bloviation.
Left to their own devices, Fripp and Sinfield eventually assembled a new working band, with Fripp's old friend Gordon Haskell on bass and vocals, the tremendously gifted Mel Collins on woodwinds and mellotron, and Andy McCullough on drums. This lineup recorded Lizard, arguably King Crimson's most baroque creation, and certainly, given a phalanx of hired horns, its jazziest. But Haskell, a soul singer at heart, couldn't stomach the thought of continuing in this vein, and left the band before it could play a single gig. Fripp and Sinfield were once again back at square one. Auditions for a new singer-bassist commenced; one vocalist who failed to make the cut was Bryan Ferry, whose subsequent band Roxy Music signed with King Crimson's management.
Raymond Burrell, a relatively unseasoned scenester who didn't know how to play bass when his path crossed with Fripp's in 1971, probably wasn't the right man for the job, and he likely knew it. (His motivations for taking the gig will now forever remain his own, sadly; he was the sole former member of any King Crimson incarnation who refused to speak with biographer Sid Smith, author of the admirable 2001 biography, In the Court of King Crimson.) Burrell signed on as vocalist, and when a suitable bassist failed to materialize, Fripp took it upon himself to teach Burrell how to play the instrument.
Going by the name "Boz" only, Burrell made his live debut with King Crimson at Frankfurt's Zoom Club on April 12, 1971; Mel Collins and drummer Ian Wallace completed the band. A tape of the gig, which was recently made available for purchase in download format by Fripp's DGMLive.com website, reveals little sense of hesitation; Burrell might have been uncomfortable with some of Sinfield's toothier lyrics, such as the phantasmagorical "Cirkus," but that didn't stop him from giving it his best shot. More straightforward, grittier songs such as "Get Thy Bearings," "Pictures of a City" and the band's signature number, "21st Century Schizoid Man," seemed to present no difficulty. (Ironically, Smith's book reveals that Burrell was so disspirited by the debut that he nearly quit on the spot; walking around Frankfurt the next day, he happened into a cricket game and somehow regained his courage. The remaining three nights of the engagement, also available via DGMLive, grew stronger one by one.)
As a vocalist, Burrell possessed neither Lake's epic grandiosity nor the dusky machismo of John Wetton, his eventual replacement. His voice was light, plain and true, and no other Crimson singer before or since has sounded more convincing in blues-based material. Of course, that seldom mattered in any King Crimson before or since (although it has once again become something of an issue in the current Adrian Belew-fronted era). Similarly, Burrell's bass playing wasn't as skilled or ornate as that of anyone else who has held the position, but it was never less than solid and appropriate, a center of calm in the midst of the band's flashier players.
Much of the material that eventually turned up on Islands was played in on British dates in early 1971, which probably accounts for why the band already sounded so tight. The languid, ostinato-driven "Formentera Lady" revealed the influence of Miles Davis's modal jazz, simmering along at length until climaxing in overblown contributions from Paulina Lucas, a soprano from the Sadlers Wells Opera. The track segues into "The Sailor's Tale," an inexorable instrumental with a torrid, Sonny Sharrock-inspired guitar solo from Fripp, and a highlight of live shows from the period. "The Letters," a reworked version of the unrecorded 1969 song "Drop In," features some of Peter Sinfield's most utterly grandiose lyrics:
With quill and silver knife
She carved a poison pen
Wrote to her lover's wife
"Your husband's seed has fed my flesh."
As if a leper's face
That tainted letter graced
The wife with choke-stone throat
Ran to the day with tear-blind eyes.
How Burrell got through that one was anybody's guess; what's more, he spits a later line ("Impaled on nails of ice") with a terse fury that still provokes a chill.
The singer was most in his metier on "Ladies of the Road," the angular, lurching blues number that is this band's best-remembered contribution to the Crimson ouevre. Apart from Wetton, no Crimson singer could have delivered this kind of thing so convincingly:
Stone-headed Frisco spacer
Ate all the meat I gave her
Said would I like to taste hers
And even craved the flavour
Of course, Sinfield reverts to form with the next couplet:
"Like marron-glacéd fish bones!
Oh lady, hit the road!"
"Prelude: Song of the Gulls," an instrumental interlude, was a melody from a song by Fripp's pre-King Crimson band, Giles, Giles and Fripp, arranged for oboe and string orchestra. Quaint and pleasant, it nonetheless alludes to the guitarist's lofty ambitions. But the closing track, "Islands," is a gentle masterpiece: a simple ballad hymning the invisible threads that bind us even in isolation. Collins's rich bass flute, Sinfield's warm pedal harmonium, Keith Tippett's understated piano and Marc Charig's plainspoken cornet all contribute to this luminous meditation; Burrell's vocal delivery is ideal here.
According to Smith's book, it may actually have been Fripp's resentment of a 50/50 royalties split with Sinfield that poisoned the well for this fledgling Crimson; on tour, the guitarist became increasingly antisocial, even hostile. Added to this was the fact that for his young, inexperienced bandmates, America was a land of temptation -- and no one knew the consequences of cocaine yet. While Fripp abstained, his bandmates indulged, further egged on by their putative leader's distance. It led to a fraught atmosphere, from which glimmerings of genuine brilliance could only struggle to emerge.
For many years, the only official documentation of this band in concert was Earthbound, a live album issued in 1972. To call it desultory is to be generous; the album, recorded to cassette (!) during this Crimson's second American tour in 1972, has long struck me as deliberate sabotage on Fripp's part. True, it contains blistering versions of "21st Century Schizoid Man" and "Groon," two compositions that predate this particular group. As for the rest, a truncated version of "The Sailor's Tale" offers an adequate representation of this band's own book; the title track and "Peoria," on the other hand, are relatively empty blues-based jams that suggest this version of the group specialized in lumpish groove music. Fripp's own view of this lineup seemed clear from the album title, not to mention the shoddy packaging, scappy sound and bargain-basement pricing. (Proving that diehard fans love what they love, popular demand compelled Fripp to reissue a remastered but essentially faithful Earthbound in 2005.)
Bootlegs of this band circulated all along, presumably. But in the early '90s, the floodgates opened and a different story emerged. Collins and Wallace in particular benefitted from illicit documentation of King Crimson's 1971 shows in England and America, but even Burrell was revealed to be not merely competent but frequently inspired. Even if it's patently clear that he was never an ideal fit for this band, his performances gain a heroic element for the sheer vibrance and tenacity he brought to the effort...usually. Dates from 1972, such as those featured on Earthbound, paled by comparison, but then, that tour was probably doomed to fail: this Crimson had effectively broken up in January of that year, then regrouped due to contractual obligation. Small wonder that its performances, at least as we know them on record, are less than optimal.
By the end of 1972, Fripp was working with a new band -- David Cross, John Wetton, Bill Bruford and Jamie Muir, a phenomenal combination and the group on whose achievements much of King Crimson's current renown is based. From the official record, the transition from the Islands band to the one that recorded Larks' Tongues in Aspic seems inexplicable -- as if the band had somehow, Athena-like, burst forth fully formed from Fripp's noggin.
A thaw between formerly incommunicative former bandmates began when Fripp underwent the arduous, lengthy process of extricating King Crimson's recorded legacy from the hands of the band's former management during the '90s. Bridges long burned were rebuilt; in the process, a body of live recordings was reconsidered, polished and made available for mass consumption. What's eminently clear is that the group that most benefitted from a posthumous re-evaluation was the one fronted by Burrell.
A live radio broadcast performance taped in Denver, Colorado on March 12, 1972, revealed a band that could think and act on the fly, delivering a viable set without access to the mellotrons that were so much a part of King Crimson's sonic signature. That much had been revealed on bootlegs, but an official CD issue via the King Crimson Collector's Club offered more: a previously uncirculated cover of the Pharoah Sanders tune, "The Creator Has a Master Plan." Another KCCC release, recorded in Detroit on December 13, 1971, features a version of "In the Court of the Crimson King" served up as a dirty 12-bar blues. ("I'm here, and I've been caught with my Crimson Thing in my hand!" Burrell shouts impertinently, while Fripp plays the nastiest guitar spurts of his career-to-date.) The sanctioned DGMLive release of the April 1971 Zoom Club shows demonstrated to a general audience what bootleg collectors already knew: the King Crimson of Islands was playing a bit of material that ended up in "Larks' Tongues in Aspic, Part One" on its very first gig.
Proving that the band's fractious history isn't entirely being retroactively whitewashed, however, a DGMLive release of a concert from March 6, 1972 in Pittsburgh -- not even a full week before the abovementioned Denver show -- fully reveals the manner in which this band was largely going through the motions in 1972. Despite numerous instances of excellence, in particular Collins's contributions to "Cirkus," this performance reveals more than the normal quota of warts -- most especially the repulsive vocals Burrell and Wallace supply in "Ladies of the Road," as well as their inane between-song banter. The public release of this recording reveals that Fripp remains a realist with regard to this quartet's relative merits -- certainly in 1972, the bad came with the good. Still, even so rough a show demonstrates how quickly Burrell had become a genuinely estimable bassist.
My favorite live recording of this particular King Crimson remains unreleased, even now: the band's late show at the Academy of Music in New York City on November 24, 1971. (It's on the bootleg CD Cirkus.) As I understand it, Procol Harum was the headliner; Yes opened and King Crimson was in the middle slot. It's the most apocalyptic show I've heard from this version of the band. It's as carefully a nuanced set as the band ever presented, but its climaxes are of Last Exit intensity: Mel Collins blows with a fury reminiscent of latter-day saxophone beasts like Peter Brötzmann; Fripp answers with acetylene-torch incandescence. Peter Sinfield's gargantuan VCS-3 synthesizer swoops and bombs clinch the deal. Were I a member of Procol Harum, I don't know that I could have taken the stage at all that night.
The end of this band came at the conclusion of the 1972 American tour; Fripp went home to England and summoned the Larks' Tongues band, while Collins, Burrell and Wallace took up with British blues guitarist Alexis Korner, perhaps the polar extreme to Fripp.
The punch line, I suppose, is that Burrell, a singer who didn't originally play bass, ultimately found his greatest fame as a bassist who didn't sing, alongside Paul Rodgers, Mick Ralphs and Simon Kirke in Bad Company. Eventually, that band also ran its course, and Boz Burrell faded from the public record, seemingly of his own accord. Collins went on to become one of England's most highly demanded session players (if you know the Wang Chung single "Dance Hall Days," you know Collins's soprano sax at least), while Wallace would play behind Bob Dylan and Don Henley. Both have recently participated in the 21st Century Schizoid Band alongside Ian McDonald, Peter Giles and former Level 42 guitarist Jakko M. Jakszyk, playing music from the first two Crimson working groups (1969 and 1971) with a handful of latter-day additions.
Burrell's aversion to lending his voice to the ever-continuing reweaving of the King Crimson mythos is certainly lamentable. Sid Smith posted some timely words on Burrell's passing on his blog, Postcards from the Yellow Room. (The recent photo posted just above, by Mark Marnie, is borrowed from Sid's site; I hope he won't mind.) Over at DGMLive, you can download free of charge an unreleased remix of "Ladies of the Road" that was prepared for but ultimately omitted from the King Crimson box set Frame by Frame, on a page that also includes remembrances from the band's fans -- including, I notice, latter-day prog-rock bassist Fred Chalenor.
As I said at the beginning, Boz Burrell might well have been appalled to have a King Crimson song serve as his epitaph. Even so, the lines that have been passing through my head (and I'm not the only one, to judge by that DGM tribute page) are these, penned by Peter Sinfield:
Beneath the wind-turned wave
Islands join hands
'Neath heaven's sea.
R.I.P. Raymond "Boz" Burrell, August 1, 1946 - September 21, 2006
Genesis - Archive 1967-1975, CDs 1 & 2 (Atlantic)
Robert Plant - Pictures at Eleven (Rhino; from the Nine Lives box set, out Nov. 14)
Giacomo Puccini - Madama Butterfly - Renata Tebaldi, Giuseppe Campora, Giovanni Inghilleri, Chorus and Orchestra of the Accademia di Santa Cecilia, Rome/Alberto Erede (Naxos); and Madama Butterfly, Act One - Renata Scotto, Renato Cioni, Alberto Rinaldi, Orchestra Sinfonica e Coro di Torino della RAI/Arturo Basile ("Unnatural Acts of Opera" podcast from Parterre Box)
John Adams - The Dharma at Big Sur*, My Father Knew Charles Ives - Tracy Silverman*, BBC Symphony Orchestra/John Adams (Nonesuch)
Robert Plant - The Principle of Moments (Rhino, from the Nine Lives box set, out Nov. 14)
King Crimson - Zoom Club, Frankfurt, Germany, April 12 and 13, 1971 (both DGMLive.com); Islands (Virgin); Cirkus (Scorpio; bootleg); Stanley Warner Theatre, Pittsburgh, PA, March 6, 1972 (DGMLive.com)