King Crimson: Discipline US LP 
- Elephant Talk
- Frame By Frame
- Matte Kudasai
- Thela Hun Ginjeet
- The Sheltering Sky
1981 was a heck of a year for music. One of the shocks that it held for me was the shocking re-emergence of a band I’d only ever gotten into a few years earlier during my “Prog Phase.” In 1978 I was on a Prog tangent but didn’t manage to get too deep before I was distracted by the emerging Post-Punk phenomena. Nevertheless, while listening to FM Rock that year, I’d heard King Crimson [guess which track] and made a bee-line for that first album. While the mellotron antics of the title cut pointed to a group like The Moody Blues, the toughness [to put it mildly] of jazz damaged tracks like “21st Century Schizoid Man” didn’t reflect any previous parts of my musical diet. A few years later I bought a copy of “Starless + Bible Black” and found it to be my favorite KC album of the several I’d heard.
By 1979, I was all over Robert Fripp’s first solo album, the still amazing “Exposure.” Fripp was experiencing a vast lateral shift that saw his approach to Art Rock having a greater congruence with Post-Punk rather than the dying dregs of Prog. He even guested on Blondie records! Even so, the idea that he would ever re-form King Crimson was fairly inconceivable since the man gives off a rather severe aura. How could he ever backslide into a King Crimson reunion?
Ever so gently, it seemed. The new Crimson had begun their life as “Discipline” but over time, the band convinced Fripp that this was not just a new group, but new growth from the King Crimson root. Master drummer Bill Bruford had played on the last three KC albums. Bassist Tony Levin was known to Fripp by his playing on the first three Peter Gabriel albums. The wildcard was second guitarist and vocalist Adrian Belew, who came to prominence when Frank Zappa plucked him out of a hotel lobby and then it seemed everyone wanted a piece of him. Sessions and tours with Bowie and Talking Heads cemented his credentials and he was the busiest guitarist of this period as previously recounted here.
A friend gave me the “Discipline” album as a Christmas present and it’s been an astounding album from the first play to this very morning. To this day I can hear “Frame By Frame” and forget to breathe. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The album kicks off with “Elephant Talk” and from the moment the needle hit the PVC it was apparent that this was a King Crimson that wasn’t looking backward one iota. The opener reflected recent Talking Heads more than anything, due to the presence of Belew; fresh from that band’s acme “Remain In Light.” But vocally, he resembled David Byrne. Enough so that the rest of the Heads had asked Belew to front the band instead of Byrne. Belew correctly discerned that such an offer was very dangerous, so he wisely demurred.
“Elephant Talk” offered a newly funky Crimson that one could almost dance to if one wanted. Levin’s Chapman Stick work first graced my ears on the previous year’s jaw dropping Peter Gabriel album, so I was more than ready to hear him cut loose without any restraint. Bruford’s rhythmic fills were as ever, cut like fine diamonds. This was the sound of a band who had taken a look at their competition [primarily Talking Heads and Japan] taken stock and proceeded to blow them out of the water as only they could.
If “Elephant Talk” showed a loose and funky side of the group, then “Frame By Frame” burnished the group responsible for “Red” and “Lark’s Tongues In Aspic” to a brilliant sheen. Fripp’s propulsive guitar figure seems more like a tightly sequenced synthesizer with his inexorable leads speeding along with a series of sixteenth notes that Bruford punctuated with tattoos of drum fills that pummelled and roiled the surrounding music like torrents of staccato quicksilver. At abrupt points in the song, the tempo shifted suddenly to touch base on straight 4/4 time before soaring off into wilder tangents again. I can’t emphasize just how powerfully this track affects me. It’s still my favorite King Crimson track to this day.
After the tour-de-force of “Frame By Frame,” “Matte Kudasai” comes as a gentle zephyr of a tune. I can’t recall the band sounding this relaxed before as Fripp’s guitar lines keen like gliding seagulls. A track like this shows that it’s not all exotic time signatures and hundreds of notes per minute for this band. The islands of lyrical beauty are necessary to give respite to the turbulence elsewhere. As a friend puts it, the punishment/reward ethos of Kind Crimson!
Well after that reward it was time for some punishment. “Indiscipline” sounds of a piece with “Red’s” most intense moments. The track began as a subtle buildup of percussion before turning on a dime into a wildly hurtling beast careening through the city at full speed; ignoring the screams of the pedestrians. The lyrics that Belew recites were taken from a letter his then wife had sent him during the recording period regarding a painting that she had just made. When he stops reciting the lyrics, the track ramps up to breakneck pacing in less than a heartbeat. Managing to be both playful and intimidatingly intense at the same time.
Speaking of intimidation, Side two of the album began with the pummeling grove of “Thela Hun Ginjeet,” wherein a shaken Belew recounted a street run-in with the threatening denizens of the city outside of the confines of Notting Hill Gate studios in London. Fripp got him to recount the tale to the engineers while making a recording on the sly of the still shaken singer. Appropriately enough, the title is an anagram for “Heat In The Jungle.” Shards of Belew’s guitar vie with Bruford’s serrated knife drums while Fripp steamrolls the song forward with his propulsive, trancelike lead lines.
After the peak of intensity on “Ginjeet,” the album dialed down the intensity with the long, languid instrumental of “The Sheltering Sky.” I swear that this track was the impetus for Sting to write the flaccid “Tea In The Sahara” on the last Police album, two years later. The guitar synths that Summers used on the latter can’t help but point back to this far superior tune.
Though this lineup of King Crimson persisted through to 1984, they didn’t come close to matching the level of accomplishment on this album, though “Satori In Tangier” on “Beat” manages the trick capably enough. The group then scattered for a decade before reincorporating in a massive “double trio” lineup in 1994 which added Trey Gunn and Pat Mastelatto to the roster that recorded “Discipline” thirteen years earlier. That tour was the first time that I managed to see King Crimson and I was pleased to hear that they performed most of this album still in their set. Hearing “Frame By Frame” live is nothing I’ll soon forget. And my wife won’t forget going to a concert where [for once] there was a huge line outside of the men’s restroom but no waiting at all at the ladies rooms!
– 30 –
Monk, you’re on a roll. KC were certainly not the first ’70s art-rock (or prog) artist to embrace New Wave instrumentation and techniques (others being Bowie, Gabriel, Rush, Alice Cooper, etc), but they have to be considered one of the most successful in doing so. I just recently listened to this album, mainly to play the title song for my son to hear. It is great fun, while being impossibly complex and like nothing else out there. Despite Belew’s flurry of activity in ’81, it wasn’t until KC that anyone got to hear his lyric-writing and vocal abilities*. He is THE perfect foil for the serious, tight upper-lipped Fripp. Before the arrival of Belew, the last thing anyone would accuse KC’s music of having would be a sense of humour. Come Discipline, they got it in spades, but could still crush your skull when they wanted to. Back to Belew…the man is one of the most unique talents of the past 40 years. (* Now that I think of it, he did sing lead on some tunes w/ Zappa on the Sheik Yerbouti album, “City of Tiny Lights” being my favorite).
Discipline is like nothing else, yet very much a reflection of an artist in tune with the time and himself. Fripp is important for being a bridge artist between the excess of the 70’s and the renewal of Post Punk into the early 80’s. Exposure is amazing. Discipline could not exist without it. Belew reflects the breaking down of walls in the new KC. Levin and Bruford provide strong foundation. This version of KC spoke to the possibilities for Fripp. The future would see him become a respected elder statesman to the likes of Sylvian, The Beloved and Future Sound of London.
It has to be mentioned that the first League of Gentlemen album, which finally came out at the beginning of 1981, has to have had a great deal of influence on the reforming of King Crimson. Fripp was, by then, very confident that he had a new direction and something more for KC to contribute.
Though I’d heard some early King Crimson, Discipline was the first record I bought and really listened to, and man are you bringing back some good memories. “Frame by Frame” and “Matte Kudasai” I think of as one suite in my mind, but you’re absolutely right about the effect. And “Elephant Talk” was quite the calling card opener for this new band.
Grrrr, now I’m wanting to listen to it but it’s not with me. I’ll have to content myself with the 1:30 samples on the iTunes Store … that and memories …
One of my all time favorite records. The recent reissues finally brought it up to scratch, aural-wise. The original 80’s EG CD which I had for years is absolutely awful – tinny and harsh in that 80’s way. The other two albums in the trilogy are pretty good too. I’m not as big a fan of Beat, but Three Of A Perfect Pair has some powerful moments. The “industrial zone” bonus tracks of 3OAPP are pretty hardcore.
jsd – I still have the original 1st pressing of TOAPP so no bonus tracks for me… Yet! “Discipline” completely rocked my 1981 world and as soon as “Beat” came out [what seemed like only six months later] I jumped on it immediately. Apart from “Satori In Tangier,” it sort of passed me by. It plays a lot better today. I have a laserdisc of “Three Of A Perfect Pair – Live In Japan” that has an incendiary performance of “Tangier.” Fripp almost falls off of his stool on that one!