I start this column with a confession. For most of my life, I never felt a real connection to King Crimson.
Or Genesis, for that matter. Certainly not Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Van Der Graaf Generator has largely passed me by as well. I own every single studio album that all of these bands have released, along with a host of band members’ side projects. There is something slightly perverse about buying all of a band’s albums in the hope that they will make sense to you some day. But this `let’s wait and see’ approach has actually been successful for me in the past. I owned all of Yes’ albums between Fragile and 90125 before I had my ‘Yes moment.’ The gestalt shift moment was with Ritual, off …Topographic Oceans, after which most of Yes’ discography just fell into place. With Jethro Tull, it was the first instrumental section of Thick As A Brick that was my moment of revelation, after having spent a good amount of my pocket money (yes, this was back in those days) on obtaining at least half a dozen Tull albums.
My familiarity with several canonical seventies prog bands has therefore been on historical grounds- these are the bands that created and developed the genre, in the process influencing several of the contemporary bands with which I am obsessed. Which is why I was initially reluctant to spend nearly a hundred pounds to watch King Crimson at the Hackney Empire last September, but happy to part with even more to see Steven Wilson at the Royal Albert Hall three weeks later.
But that effort pales in comparison to the effort put in by Coshish drummer and Mumbai resident Hamza Kazi. A Crimson fanatic, Hamza gerrymandered the dates for a trip to England just to ensure he was at the show, procured a first row ticket and started queueing up a whole two hours before doors opened.
Suitably assuaged that the tickets had seat numbers on them, Hamza agreed to leave the queue and join me for a bite at a nearby restaurant, where we spent the better part of the remaining time till doors shooting the breeze about music. In our efforts to travel the world to see our favourite prog bands, Hamza and I are kindred spirits. We exchanged stories of our experiences- his, of flying to Japan, to see his favourite band, Tool, for the first time, mine of flying to New York to watch Dream Theater. We ruminated on the state of prog in India and compared notes on our favourite new bands. We discussed the direction of the upcoming Coshish album (longer songs, even more prog elements, much to my delight). And, inevitably, we spoke about Crimson. I dared not mention my indifference towards much of Crimson’s material. I chose instead to focus on common ground - Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Red and their debut album.
His palpable excitement at getting to see Crimson was contagious, and by the time we reached a natural cadence in the conversation and started to head to the venue, I was nearly as excited as he was. And rightly so- from the tentative yet studied opening of Larks’ Tongues in Aspic Pt. 1 to the earth-shaking conclusion of 21st* Century Schizoid Man*, there was something both wildly artistic and compellingly craftsmanlike about the show. Not a word was spoken on stage during the show, yet the show was none the worse off for it.
I have a friend who often asks me why I go to as many concerts as I do. Why I love live performances so much. For her, studio recordings usually present the most perfect realisations of songs- a live performance, she contends, is merely a copy, an imperfect imitation. My standard response has been to say that the appeal of the best kind of live performance is exactly in this imitation. The best performances imbue into a song a one-off feeling, never to be recreated, often the result of the larger dynamic space that a musician has to work with in a live setting, as compared to on a studio album recording. This had never been more apparent to me than at the Crimson show. Songs like Easy Money and Sailor’s Tale, to which I had been radically indifferent, were suddenly living, breathing and utterly riveting.
As we left the venue, one of the security guards turned to me and said that she was amazed that music like this existed. For the first time when it came to King Crimson, I agreed. Another point in favour of the `let’s wait and see’ approach. My Genesis albums now beckon me.