During the recording of Red
, an exhausted Robert Fripp announced to his stunned fellow members that King Crimson was over. The group however did a final tour across the States before splitting up and going in their own directions. In effect, USA
promptly became a must have for fans, and it’s still a precious one nowadays, especially for historical reasons. At the time, USA
was their first and last official live recording ever released in the 70's. On top of that, it took nearly 20 years before King Crimson would release some more live performances from the Larks' Tongues in Aspic
was performed in summer of 1974 at the Casino, Asbury Park. In 2005, three bonus tracks were added for the 30th Anniversary Edition: ‘Fracture’
and the short 30-second intro track ‘Walk on...No Pussyfooting’
, which promptly flows into Larks’ Tongues in Aspic II
. Since USA
came out, at least two more live albums from the same lineup have been made available, with a larger selection of tracks and a much better sound quality. Examples of these live collections are The Night Watch
,and The Great Deceiver
(including a bunch of brillant improvs), covering 2 and 4 discs, respectively, both being grandiose and essential to cover this precious era. With the three albums that preceded USA
, a live album was surely going to be a massive experience. A good live work has to contain the highlights of a group’s career, and that’s a hard thing to accomplish with a KC album that lasts around 40 min. (67 min, bonus included). The set list is very good, the only gripe being the lack of some essential songs. With the exception of the timeless '21st Century Schizoid Man'
, King Crimson's first three albums are deliberately completely ignored, which is obviously disappointing, but acceptable.
The lack of Red
classics such as 'Fallen Angel'
or 'Another Red Nightmare'
is logically a result of the fact that sadly, no tour was done for the album. On the other hand, 'Starless'
has multiple versions in most of their live outputs, which is easy to see why: penned by John Wetton, the song already existed during Starless and Bible Black
recordings, but the band revised and improved it for the best, saving the legendary song for Red
. An improved version of the studio jam 'Providence'
is also found on live album The Great Deceiver
. The fact that ‘The Talking Drum’
which, during performances always led into 'Larks Part II
', was not included on this is strange, but soon forgotten because the version of the song found here is one of the best they ever did. Once you get over the short, almost inaudible intro, the track sounds towering. Its intro is crushingly heavy, and the performance is utterly jaw-dropping from start to end.
The major weak point to USA
is the aforementioned underwhelming audio quality. While acceptable, it still doesn’t help the record, back then an essential live album. For instance, technical issues with some of the original tapes rendered some of the David Cross’ violin parts inaudible when mixed, so Eddie Jobson (Roxy Music
, Curved Air
) was brought in to provide studio overdubs of his violin on ‘Larks Part II’
and ‘21st Century Schizoid Man’
The position of this album in King Crimson’s discography was pretty significant. In a way, it was like the missing link that allowed them to offer hope for possibly continuing one day, which they luckily ended up doing. Their hiatus came to an end 7 years later, with what is generally viewed as the 3rd KC era, consisting of remaning 70’s members Robert Fripp and Bill Bruford, and the addition of bass man Tony Levin (Peter Gabriel
) and rhythm guitarist/lead vocalist Adrian Belew (Talking Heads
). After a period outside of the music industry, Fripp returned to work on solo projects and many other contributions. Same for Bruford who've started to flirt with jazz fusion. In late 70s John Wetton joined Bill Bruford, Alan Holdsworth and Eddie Jobson to form UK
. In early 80s, Wetton have started a supergroup project called Asia
. Violonist David Cross led his own band in the mid 80s. Former King Crimson’s members have guested on his solo projects.
When you’re lucky enough to own the Anniversary edition of USA
, it proudly contains a fantastic version of 'Starless'
. The absence of the famous alto and soprano saxophones is hardly noticeable, courtesy of violonist David Cross, who is covering it with his skillful fiddling. The rhythm department is even more powerful than the original, and Fripp's guitar is chilling, more insistent, more piercing here. 'Fracture'
is pretty similar to the original version: played safely, but effectively. There is no need to say that these musicians have stunning technical proficiency.
The timeless ‘21st Century Schizoid Man’
also offers an interesting twist, in that Ian McDonald's hysterical sax solo is replaced by Cross’ violin. 'Exiles'
is THE version of the track if there is one to get, thanks to Mr. Cross. The intro is a good indicator on their intention to upgrade the song a notch. 'Exiles'
is followed by a well done improv simply called 'Asbury Park'
. The sound is at times harsh and metallic, with John Wetton's powerful yet intricate bass lines providing a solid background for Fripp's angular guitar excursions. Bruford's drumming, stellar as always, is unfortunately somewhat swamped by the bass in the mix, particularly during this track and on ‘Lament’
as well. But again, this can be easily forgiven. Wetton and Bruford are a solid rhythm section, and they once again show off their improvisation abilities. ‘Asbury Park’
may sound neat and polished for an improv, but after all, KC are experienced in it.
The whole band once again proves that it’s possible to build captivating improvisations working together, unlike the traditional method which mostly featured one musician at a time. The intro Bruford does for 'Asbury Park'
is especially great, and Very reminiscent of the one he performed in Genesis
’ song 'I Know What I Like'
, from the live album Seconds Out
. Wetton is a beast troughout the album, and Fripp is perfectionist, 'tightly chaotic' and inspired as per usual. ‘Easy Money’
has an energetic, punched beginning but its second part drags in a kind of improv, which slightly breaks the momentum of the album. ‘21st Century Schizoid Man’
could very well be one of the very greatest versions of the song ever. As said, Cross does well in filling the lack of the crazy sax of McDonald as heard on ITCOTCK. The only weak point in this one is the vocoder veil over Wetton’s voice. His muffled vocals aren't anywhere near as good as Greg Lake's, and although the improved heavy sound of the instruments suits this 'Larks' Tongues'
-era fine, this leads to a much reduced focus on Ian McDonald's crazy sax (ITCOTCK). It's a really good live version, and a most interesting alternative to the classic one.
All in all, any serious KC fan should own this album, as it offers the opportunity to hear the band at the top of their game, coming to a memorable, but temporary end. The newcomer will need to give their three Larks-era albums a listen for the better experience, and if you didn't listen to the classic ITCOTCK yet, well, it's about time. Red
was an impressive achievement for a group about to disband, USA
is an important document into the King Crimson’s discography in a very similar way.