I wasn’t really a fan of the 1971/2 version of King Crimson. The previous incarnation of the band, featuring Greg Lake and Ian McDonald, had produced the Mellotron-drenched classic “In the Court of the Crimson King”, while the later 1973/4 band with Bill Bruford and John Wetton came up a trio of classic albums full of frantic improvisation. In between these two lineups came the two rather directionless studio albums recorded with a revolving cast of musicians, “Lizard” and “Islands”, both of which I find pretty much unlistenable.
With this live release, “Ladies of the Road”, perhaps it’s time to reassess this version of the band. Recorded on the 1971/2 world tour, it sees Robert Fripp joined by saxophonist Mel Collins, Boz Burrell on bass and vocals, and Ian Wallace on drums. With the Mellotron that had earlier defined their sound pushed into the background, the focus here is on Fripp’s guitar and Collin’s sax.
Unlike every other King Crimson live release (of which there have been a great many), this isn’t a record of any single show; instead it’s a compilation of the best takes from a whole tour. Indeed, the lack of any mention as to which songs where recorded where suggests that Fripp has spliced together some numbers from bits recorded on different nights; a technique used a lot by the late Frank Zappa.
Disk One features a set that draws heavily from “Islands” and “Lizard”, but the powerful live version of songs like “The Letters”, “Formentera Lady” and “Cirkus” are vastly superior to their studio counterparts. We still get a couple of songs from the Greg Lake incarnation, “Pictures of a City”, and of course, “21st Century Schizoid Man”. I’m not sure of the blues jam version of “In the Court of the Crimson King”, perhaps it’s just as well it’s but 46 seconds long.
Disk Two is an extended “Up yours!” to all those the music journalists that hate solos. It’s a 45 minute epic version of “21st Century Schizoid man” created by knitting together the middle solo sections from eleven different live takes to form a seamless and relentless sax and guitar solo.
Fripp was to disband this version of King Crimson at the conclusion of the tour; while this album highlights some very energetic playing, the American blues/jazz direction the other three were heading in was at odds with Fripp’s own chosen course. A year later, a new, radically different King Crimson was to appear, but that’s another story entirely.
Oh, and the song “Ladies of the Road” isn’t actually on the album.