King Crimson in the '80s

I was not always a fan of prog ("progressive") rock. In its early-to-mid 1970s heyday I was in fact dismissive of it: pretentious, over-complicated, sacrificing good songwriting for an emphasis on virtuosity not really suited for rock music. In short, it seemed to be trying to be something that rock music isn't and shouldn't be: of interest on purely musical grounds, where it was never going to be able to compete with jazz and classical. It was twenty years later that I gave it a second look, for a non-musical reason: my then-adolescent children had gotten interested in popular music (i.e. rock) and I was trying to steer them away from the uglier stuff. 

That didn't work, but it did change my mind. That is, my basic criticisms were justifiable and remained intact, but I enjoyed the music anyway, which led me to listen, in most cases for the first time, to Yes and King Crimson, and to develop quite a liking for them. There were a few others, but I only made a point of hearing most of the 1970s work of those two. And of them, KC seemed to have had the most interesting post-'70s career. 

But that's not really fair. Yes was a band with a fairly consistent lineup and a very consistent sound, at least through their first decade, and seem to have faded away after that, with the exception of one commercially successful and reportedly very atypical album in the early '80s. King Crimson, on the other hand, has not been a proper band at all through much of its fifty-plus years, but rather the ever-changing musical project of Robert Fripp, in which he has included various other musicians as suits his interests and purposes. It's been the exact opposite of consistent lineup and sound--Fripp tended to disband the group, at least partially, after every album or two, and reassemble it, at least partially, and go off in a somewhat different musical direction.

As a band, King Crimson was officially dead as of about 1975. But after half a decade or so Fripp revived the name for a group  of instrumental virtuosos consisting of himself, guitarist Adrian Belew, bass player Tony Levin, and drummer Bill Bruford (formerly of Yes). This band recorded three albums, Discipline (1981), Beat (1982), and Three of A Perfect Pair (1984). 

I would suppose that fans of progressive rock in general and King Crimson in particular were disappointed in these. One of the hallmarks of prog is long compositions with a lot of virtuoso instrumental work, and, despite the very high level of technical skill of all four players, that's not what these albums are. Most of the songs are in fact songs, of fairly typical pop song length, of a piece, with little instrumental stretching out. But that doesn't mean they're simple. They're not great songs as such--you don't come away humming them, or moved by the combination of words and music. But they're interesting. Rather than the complex twists and turns more typical of prog, or the basically simple and repetitive chord changes and beat of most pop, these songs have a static sort of quality--complex, and shifting slowly rather than driving forward. If I felt more confident of my technical understanding of music I would try to describe that more precisely. 

But I can say with confidence that one fairly constant feature is the use of complex repetitive hyperactive guitar figures that slowly shift rhythmically. I find it very hard to follow them for very long. I think I've got it and then suddenly it's wait, where did the accent go? "Frame by Frame," from Discipline, is a good example.

The bass and drums are also doing a lot of complicated things with rhythm there. It's as if the whole emphasis on complexity which characterizes the progressive rock concept is focused on rhythm. Basically, this band invented "math rock" (from Wikipedia) : "a style of alternative and indie rock with roots in bands such as King Crimson and Rush. It is characterized by complex, atypical rhythmic structures (including irregular stopping and starting), counterpoint, odd time signatures, and extended chords. " A week or so ago I found a YouTube video in which Adrian Belew explains this sort of thing, the way the guitar parts shift in and out of phase, so to speak, with one player starting one of these figures, the other playing it but with one note left out, and so on, so that the beat begins to float. But I just spent thirty minutes looking and can't find the video now. 

All this may seem a long way from the long and elaborate suites so often found in '70s prog. But if you listen to "21st Century Schizoid Man," the very first track on the very first KC album, In the Court of the Crimson King (1969), you find that the connecting thread is very clear. 

To call a work of art "interesting" is sometimes to damn with faint praise, at least on my part. And the word does pretty well summarize my opinion of these three albums. But I mean it quite literally. This is not my favorite music, but it is in fact interesting, interesting enough to return to now and then. There seems to be a consensus among critics and fans that the chronological sequence of the three albums is also the sequence of their quality, the first (Discipline) being the best. I agree with that. But if one likes the style at all, they're all worth hearing. 

A group consisting of Belew, Levin, Steve Vai (a name known to anyone interested in rock guitar), and Danny Carey, drummer of the band Tool, is doing a tour under the name BEAT performing this music. They're not coming anywhere very near me, but if they did I'd go. 

Two Bleak House Dramatizations

Both are from the BBC, naturally, and are serials made for television, each running roughly eight hours in total. The first was made in 1985, the second in 2005. Both are worth seeing, but all in all I think the second is superior and the best choice if you're only going to watch one.

The 1985 one, like the Dombey and Son dramatization I mentioned recently, took me back to Sunday evenings in the '70s and '80s watching PBS's Masterpiece Theatre. Comparing those with more recent similar efforts, you can sort of see the improvements in technology and, probably, financing. Visually, for instance, Bleak House 1985 is often less sharp, clear, and bright than Bleak House 2005. (I think I'll refer to them just as "1985" and "2005" for the rest of this post.) This is especially true in outdoor scenes, especially in London, where it actually is effective: the creators apparently wanted to portray the city as extremely dim and murky (which is certainly consistent with the book), and they succeeded. The slum called Tom-All-Alone's is nightmarish, as such places probably were in reality.

The two are pretty different cinematographically, and I don't know how much of the difference is technological and how much a stylistic choice. I recall, watching 2005 when it was originally released (almost twenty years ago!), thinking that the way the faces of characters often filled the screen almost entirely was a little annoying, reducing or almost eliminating a sense of the space in which they existed. But on this viewing I didn't really notice that, which makes me think it's a change in style to which I've become accustomed in other works. There was one small but irritating thing in 2005 which I think was a sort of fashionable device at the time, perhaps, and I hope, out of fashion now. That's a way of doing transitions with a literal bang. We're switching from London to Bleak House, say: wide shot of house BANG; quick cut less wide shot of house BANG; quick cut to closer shot of house BANG. Then on into the actual scene. After maybe half the episodes I got used to it, but I did wonder why someone thought it was a good idea. Maybe appropriate in some kind of noisy hyperactive contemporary movie, but for Dickens?

Changes in acting style are also apparent. In general the approach in 1985 is a little broader and more blunt. It seems, on one level, more acted, or stagey, while 2005 is perhaps more subtle--but then I don't know enough about acting to talk about it intelligently in a general way, so I would do better to compare specific characters. 

Like any male of my age, I am an admirer of Emma Peel Diana Rigg, and so it pains me a little to say that she did not make as powerful a Lady Dedlock as Gillian Anderson, whom I had of course enjoyed as Agent Dana Scully in The X-Files, but whose ability as a more serious actress I had doubted. The big difference is that Gillian Anderson does icy very, very well, while Diana Rigg--whether by nature or by actor and director choice I don't know--is warmer and more openly vulnerable. I vaguely recall from my first viewing of 2005 that I thought Anderson's performance was a little weak compared to the others, and that her English accent seemed somewhat forced and not entirely real. Well, I didn't feel that way this time. A little stiff, maybe, is the worse I would say about the accent. I was very critical of it in her more recent portrayal of Margaret Thatcher, as well as in the crime drama The Fall in 2013. I don't know what to make of that--surely her accent didn't get less authentic over the past twenty years or so, as she has lived in England for much of that time (and lived there for a significant portion of her childhood). But anyway, applause to Scully Anderson for this performance.

Charles Dance as Tulkinghorn in 2005 is surely the ultimate. And I'm pedantic enough that when I use the word "ultimate" I mean it pretty literally. (I'm always annoyed when I see an advertisement for something like "the ultimate PC," something which will be more or less obsolete and certainly surpassed within months.) Not ultimate as in chronologically final, but ultimate in the sense of unsurpassable. I suppose someone someday might prove me wrong, but I just can't imagine a more convincing and effective portrayal of Tulkinghorn, nor one more in keeping with the character as he's portrayed in the book. The Tulkinghorn in 1985, Peter Vaughan, is fine, just not in the same league for mystery, menace, and intelligence.

Anna Maxwell Martin, as Esther Summerson in 2005, also seems more convincing to me than 1985's Suzanne Burden. And so on--as I look over both cast lists, I think 2005 takes first place in most instances. There are a couple of characters who don't seem all that effective in either one. Sir Leicester Dedlok doesn't have the mountainous snobbery and pomposity I imagine, but maybe what I imagine is impossible. Nor does either fully convey to me the noble generosity of his reaction to the family's crisis. I somehow think John Jarndyce should be more colorful than he is portrayed, but again, that may be my misreading, or at least eccentric reading. Slimy little Guppy is good in both. 

Anyone who watches as many British crime dramas as I do will immediately recognize Phil Davis as Smallweed in 2005, also a noticeably superior portrayal to 1985's. He's often played similar characters, irascible, hostile, and creepy.  

I won't bother picking over the choices each version makes in tailoring the narrative for this length and format. I did quarrel with some, but I don't recall thinking that they were unjustifiable. It must be a difficult task.

Here's the, or a, trailer. Not an especially good one, in my opinion. Notice that they say "Charles Dance vs. Lady Dedlok." I didn't realize he was that well known. You can hear the end of one of those BANGs as it begins. 


Andrea Schroeder Sings David Bowie's "Heroes"

In German: "Helden."

I never heard of Andrea Schroeder until a few weeks ago when I was looking for cover versions of this famous song. You know it, right? If not, click here.

I was never much of a David Bowie fan. I didn't care for the whole glam rock, sexually androgynous thing, but, more importantly, I just didn't care that much for most of his music. I had a slightly annoying conversation about this on Facebook around the time of Bowie's death. I said more or less what I just said, and several younger people explained to me that it was a generational thing, and I Just Didn't Understand. 

Nonsense. Look, y'all (I said): David Bowie was a bit older than me. It had nothing to with age and everything to do with musical taste. I heard Ziggy Stardust several dozen times while I was working in a record store, and never cared much for it, though I had liked his earlier album, Hunky Dory, quite well. And I never listened to him much after that.

But somehow or other I did hear "Heroes," a basically very simple song which seems to have a mildly addictive effect on a lot of people. And, maybe in part because it's basically simple, yet deeply appealing, it seems to lend itself to some very varied ways of performing it. And maybe also because of the lyric, with its odd combination of defiance and despair. "Yes we're lovers" but "nothing can keep us together." And:

Though nothing will drive them away
We can beat them, just for one day
We can be heroes, just for one day

You can read the English lyrics here.

I like covers of well-known songs which rework them substantially. Or rather I should say they interest me, as of course they're not always successful. This one, I think, works spectacularly well. I like it just as much when I'm not looking at the screen with the beautiful Andrea Schroeder gazing deeply into my soul eyes.

I must definitely hear more of her music. She's German, obviously, and AllMusic doesn't say a word about her, nor does Wikipedia, but her own website has some impressive recommendations. 

My next-favorite cover of "Heroes" is by the metal-ish band Motörhead, and as you might suppose it is night-and-day different. I don't recommend listening to this one immediately after Andrea Schroeder's. If at all. It's hard rock.

Lemmy Kilmister, 1945-2015, RIP. One wonders, if one is a Christian, where such an apparently purely heathen soul goes.