R.E.M.: Voice of Harold
The first time I heard “Voice of Harold,” which is a version of “7 Chinese Bros.” from R.E.M.’s second album, Reckoning with completely different lyrics, I assumed that it was simply a joke by the band. But it turns out that the story is a bit more interesting.
I’ve always had a sense that, like many great artists, Michael Stipe was a bit high maintenance. (It turns out that Mike Mills, is, too—he took exception on Twitter to something that I wrote on another blog about The Baseball Project). Apparently, when the band was working on Reckoning, which was recorded after a long, exhausting tour, Stipe was having a bad day, and his attempts at laying down vocal tracks for “7 Chinese Bros.” were inaudible. Don Dixon, one of the producers (and a fine songwriter in his own right), was killing time, poking around the studio, and was on a ladder when he found a pile of albums that had been tossed away. He pulled one off the top and threw it down to Stipe, hoping that it would inspire him.
That album, The Joy of Knowing Jesus, by the gospel group The Revelaires, would have been totally forgotten, had Stipe not started singing the liner notes on the back of the cover over the music for "7 Chinese Bros.” Done in one take, Stipe essentially sings, word for word, the laudatory notes written by the wonderfully named J. Elmo Fagg, described as the “Founder and Leader of the Blue Ridge Quartet for 23 years.” A few times, Stipe starts singing on one line, then jumps to the next line, and back again, because he was cold reading the small print and probably lost his place. He even sings the production and art direction credits and the catalog number (“LST 390”).
For some reason, it is charming. Like many of the band’s lyrics at the time, the fact that they sometimes made no sense is immaterial to the reality of the mood they created.
I’ve been a fan of this band for many years, almost as long as it was possible to hear their music in New York, and although I knew that they were from Georgia, I initially never really thought of them as a “Southern” band, in the way that bands like the Allman Brothers or Lynyrd Skynyrd flaunted their Southern roots and used stereotypical Southern symbols and imagery. But as time went on, it became more obvious that R.E.M. came from a different Southern tradition, one of mystery and kudzu and fog, of outsider art and eccentricity. Much of which can be seen in their early album covers.
And maybe that is why “Voice of Harold” resonates. It connected the band to the gospel tradition, and the liner notes that Stipe somehow shoehorned into the music are oddly religious, evocative and proud—for example—
Chill bumps appear and I am frozen in the web
They weave as they reveal their innermost selves
With the outpouring of their hearts
According to Dixon, after doing this take, Stipe was able to successfully record the vocals for “7 Chinese Bros.” I don’t know if The Joy of Knowing Jesus is, as the esteemed Mr. Fagg asserts (and Mr. Stipe repeats), “a must.” But to fans of R.E.M., “Voice of Harold” sure is.
|The modern Eno.|
|The early Eno.|
[purchase pretty much every recorded note from King Crimson at their shop]
It is not every day that you get to see Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor speak and then, a few hours later, get to see Supreme Guitarist Robert Fripp perform. But that was my day a couple of weeks ago. First, I attended the dedication of my law school’s beautiful new building and got to hear Justice Sotomayor speak, for the second time this year. Then, I met three college friends for dinner followed by a King Crimson concert. It was a pretty special day.
I’ve previously written about my history with King Crimson, so I won’t repeat it here. It has been a very long time since I have seen them, and to be fair, I probably would have passed on trying to get tickets except that my friend Bill offered to order them for the four of us, as part of a birthday celebration. The chance to hear Crimson again with some old friends, and without having to go through the trouble of actually trying to order the tickets was irresistible.
Our theme for the next two weeks is Musical Chameleons—artists whose sound has changed over their career, and King Crimson certainly qualifies (but this does not). During the concert the other night, between some of the songs, they played recorded excerpts from interviews, manipulated to mock the interviewers. I actually found that to be a mean thing for them to have done. If you don’t want to be interviewed, don’t do interviews. And as someone who has interviewed musicians, especially ones that I liked, it is hard to do without asking some bad questions, and I thought that highlighting a few clinkers was, at best, uncharitable. I suspect Mr. Fripp would not like it if a DJ found some miscues during his performances, and played a loop of them. But I digress. One of the interview snippets essentially asked Fripp about the changing sound of Crimson over the decades, and he responded simply that was because “there were different men in the band.”
To some degree, that does explain the varied sounds that have been released under the King Crimson name. The orthodox canon identifies eight separate lineups for the band (with only Fripp as a constant), but even that is an approximation, because during many of these periods there was still a revolving door. Click on the links throughout this post to get a sense of the variety of music released under the Crimson banner.
The original lineup produced the seminal In The Court of the Crimson King, and two other albums that are generally in the prog-rock mode, although with elements of metal, jazz and classical music mixed in. The video above is an under 3 minute, very folk/prog tune, from album three, Lizard (which, in fact, features a very different lineup than the prior two albums, so, maybe this is lineup 1A). The second lineup, a short-lived and misbegotten collection that included Ian Wallace and Boz Burrell, released only one studio album, Islands, which was even more influenced by free jazz, but also somehow included some rootsy rock, Beatle-esque harmonies and strings. Mark III, though, was a return to quality, and their studio output, Larks’ Tongue In Aspic, Starless and Bible Black and Red represented what may be the best Crimson ever. Fripp’s angular guitar, Bill Bruford’s brilliant drumming and John Wetton’s powerful bass and singing (along with excellent contributions from other musicians including percussionist Jamie Muir, violinist David Cross and reedman Mel Collins) resulted in a sound that contrasted harsh loud sections with beautiful, quiet ones.
For the first time, after this group disbanded, Fripp declared King Crimson to be over, and he went off to other projects. But after his collaboration with guitarist/vocalist Adrian Belew, Bruford and bass/Chapman Stick player Tony Levin, initially to be called “Discipline,” played some gigs, they decided that they should be King Crimson, Mark IV. This quartet, without changes, released three albums, the best of which was the first, Discipline, featuring an interesting mix of Fripp and Belew’s sometimes interlocking and other times screaming guitars, Bruford’s drumming, often eschewing cymbals, Levin’s unique bass and Chapman Stick, and Belew’s David Byrne-influenced singing. I saw this lineup during 1982 at Rutgers, at Princeton and again at the Pier in New York. And possibly again at the Pier in 1984, but maybe not—after all these years, memories begin to fade. By the end of 1984, this group, unequaled in Crimson stability, disbanded.
It was not until 1994 that Fripp reformed the band, at Belew’s request. After a bit of personnel shuffling, the fifth incarnation of King Crimson coalesced, featuring Fripp, Belew, Levin, Bruford, Trey Gunn, a second Chapman Stick player (and later Warr guitarist) and Pat Mastellotto as a second drummer. This sextet toured and released a few albums and EPs, with a sound that was a mix of the Discipline-era band, with the harsher elements of Red, and industrial and electronic elements. The “double trio” fractured into a series of smaller groups, called “ProjeKcts” to experiment with different sounds. At the end of the ProjeKcts period, Belew, Fripp, Gunn, and Mastelotto reformed as the Mark VI lineup, and released the difficult, dense and almost alt-metal The ConstruKction of Light and a second, more experimental sounding album, The Power to Believe. Following yet another hiatus, a seventh lineup, with Porcupine Tree drummer Gavin Harrison added to the quartet, played some shows, adding a heavier percussion sound to older songs, but released no studio albums.
Fripp, who had become very negative about the music business, rebuffed Belew’s attempts to again re-form Crimson, as did Bruford, who didn’t want to try, and fail, to recreate their prior glory. But apparently, the concept of King Crimson is irresistible to Fripp, who slowly morphed a number of other projects into a new, eighth band, featuring Fripp, Levin, Mel Collins, from the earlier years, three drummers, Mastelotto, Harrison and Bill Rieflin, who has played with bands as diverse as R.E.M. and Ministry and guitarist/singer Jakko Jakszyk, who played with Crimson alumni bands and Fripp.
And that is the group that I heard the other night, which was also a reunion for me and my friends, who had all seen the band together back in 1982.
The show was incredible, although for much of it, especially the beginning, I found myself appreciating what they were doing on a more intellectual than emotional level. Part of it, I think, was that the band was arrayed in a very unorthodox way—one that was very different from any prior King Crimson lineup, or, for that matter, any band that I had ever seen. The three drummers were in front, and the other four musicians were in a row, on a riser, behind them. Fripp sat in one corner, half turned away from the audience, with a guitar, a keyboard and a bank of equipment. As you can imagine, it was a percussive assault, which as a bad drummer myself, I certainly appreciated. But I really found it hard to get invested in many of the early songs, most of which were instrumental and unfamiliar. It was one of those situations where I respected and was astonished by what they were doing more than I was enjoying it.
But then, they kicked into “Red,” followed by another song from that album, “One More Red Nightmare,” and I was hooked. When they ended their set with “Larks’ Tongue in Aspic, Part Two” and the last song from Red, “Starless,” I was all in. And the encore, “21st Century Schizoid Man,” was exhilarating. I heard one guy say as we were leaving, “I’ve been waiting to hear that song live since I was 10.” The setlist covered a number of different Crimson eras, with the notable exception of the 1980s band that I loved, with an emphasis on the incredible third incarnation and a few more recent works mixed in. But through a clever selection of songs, cherry picked from various lineups, there was a unity to the sound that tied together the disparate music of the chameleon that is King Crimson.