I was in a car returning home from college the first time I heard “Elephant Talk,” track one on King Crimson’s 1981 album Discipline. The fact that I remember the circumstance attests to the startling freshness with which that band announced not just a new lineup but, really, an entirely new ensemble logic – a way of playing together. It has proven to be a sound with legs, a deep pocket that its originators and its borrowers have found fertile and productive ever since. Just ask Les Claypool.
Many novel sounds in rock do their shock business and then go away, failing to find purchase in the collective imagination. They succeed in being of their time – maybe even a few minutes out ahead of it – but not in being timeless; and nothing ages faster than the new. Sounds that are both new and somehow inevitable are the ones that stick around: more discovery than invention. King Crimson of the ‘80s struck one of those rare veins.
While Adrian Belew’s uncanny elephant imitation on guitar is that song’s signature, the first sound that you hear is its seed: a dissonant, accelerating polyphonic trill, breaking into a contrapuntal funk groove that seems to involve three or four independent lines, all played as one integrated part on a single instrument. The question that always attends something radically new, “What the Hell is this?” had formed in my mind even before the rest of the band came zipping in, fleshing out the rhythmic and harmonic implications of that alien opening figure.
It was our neighbor, the bassist Tony Levin, playing a Chapman Stick: a many-stringed fretted electric instrument designed to be played by tapping, thus opening the pianist’s world of two-hand independence to the string player. Levin is still the world’s most recognizable champion of the Stick. And he continues to extend the possibilities of that revolutionary Fripp/Belew/Levin/Bruford King Crimson sound. His project Stick Men, a trio with drummer and fellow Crimson alum Pat Mastelotto and guitarist (and Fripp student) Markus Reuter, will be performing this Sunday, April 29 at the Bearsville Theater in Woodstock.
Of course, King Crimson owes the arresting freshness of its ‘80s sound to much more than one curious instrument; in fact, Levin plays conventional four-string bass guitar on much of the material. But the Stick epitomizes the progressive rock myth of…rock progress. The Stick symbolizes everything that prog celebrates and covets: the dream of novel instruments and paradigm-changing interfaces requiring evolutionary technique. It is an instrument that you mount differently. It hangs futuristically on the body, promising a new experience. (The archetypal prog instrument would probably be one that you board.)
The Stick also speaks to a special sensitivity of prog rock: its intuitive feel for the dialogue, the developmental loop between technology and aesthetics. As backwards as it might seem, sometimes the engineers dictate the terms of the art to the makers, and not always for the better. Some of the most egregious examples of the tools driving the art come from the tech-rich ‘80s – gated reverb, electronic drums, FM synthesis – and these “new” sounds became the terminal earmarks of the era and the keys to the infallible carbon dating of the decade’s art. I can’t tell you how many good albums I would like so much better had they been recorded in the ‘70s or the ‘90s.
But the Chapman Stick was a technological agent of a leaner, meaner prog: percussive, agile, pointed. And that new King Crimson sound must also be read as a prog-rock survival adaptation. The days of airy castle rock were over. Yes and Genesis adapted by going pop with “Owner of a Lonely Heart” and “No Reply at All.” Fripp found a way to cut the progfat while staying true to the mathy intricacy that had always defined his sound: by connecting to what was happening on the artier fringe of New Wave, harnessing the tonal colors of the Police, the tribal kinetics of Talking Heads (with whom Belew had already played), the Spartan pattern study of Minimalism (which was hot around then) and – maybe just in my opinion – the jittery two-guitar interplay of Black Sea- and English Settlement-era XTC, which was the mirror image of King Crimson: a New Wave pop band chasing prog complexity.
But for prog bands, the pursuit of pop economy and pop values is always the rub: how to trap that wild, vivid ensemble innovation and groom it for the market; how, in short, to make it into songs when the sound itself doesn’t seem to point to that at all. Often, it doesn’t go well. You can try to find an abstract verbal analogue for what is going on musically: the breaking down and recombining of elemental language, as Crimson does in “Elephant Talk.” The effect is usually comic and innocuous.
Or you can try to articulate the various futurist philosophies and dystopian psychologies implied by the music. This is usually an awful choice, although it kind of works on Discipline’s “Indiscipline,” Belew’s lengthy monologue about the creative process that bears the stamp of Fripp’s well-documented interest in the awareness science of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky. Or you can throw a rap about supercolliders into the center of a long prog form, as Stick Men do with “Soup,” the title track of the first album.
In this regard, King Crimson lucked out. Adrian Belew’s is an inherently lyrical personality: funny, human, eccentric. It’s as if they pushed him out front with the charge to “make it songs,” and he did – rather brilliantly at times. Listen to “Frame by Frame” or “Matte Kudasai” from Discipline if you have never heard them: clinical examples of how to make gorgeous art song out of prog noodle.
Adventurous, predominantly instrumental rock music is a self-limiting genre commercially, cultic by nature. Its makers understand this. And if poor choices are sometimes made in the attempt to turn this wild music into song, so be it. It is hit or miss. I think that we need to be more understanding and not deny ourselves the very real, liberating pleasures of that sound. There is incredible passion, spirit and wit in the music of Stick Men, and you don’t need to be a prog geek to hear it and feel it.
Stick Men will perform at the Bearsville Theater on Sunday, April 29. The show starts at 8 p.m. and the doors open at 7. Tickets cost $20 in advance and $25 at the door. Visit www.bearsvilletheater.com. The Bearsville Theater is located at 291 Tinker Street (Route 212) in Woodstock.