King Crimson's Discipline is 42 years old today. A radical departure from anything previously released under the KC banner, it featured Adrian Belew, Bill Bruford, Tony Levin, and Robert Fripp and reinvented King Crimson for the 1980s, generating classic material that would become staples of the KC setlist for decades to come.
“THE NEXT STEP IS DISCIPLINE” proclaimed the legend scrawled into the run-out groove of the self-titled album by The League Of Gentlemen. Released in February 1981, it partially charted the short-lived career of what Fripp liked to call his “new wave instrumental dance band”.
However, when it came, the next step took many observers totally by surprise. Yet the ground that the newly revitalised King Crimson now occupied had been liberally hinted at, not least of which by The League Of Gentleman’s one and only album. Containing short, quirky, improbably catchy music layered with sampled conversations (itself an extension of techniques Fripp had utilised on 1979’s Exposure), the record was stamped with the unmistakable musical DNA that had been threaded within Fripp’s compositional approach since the early ‘70s.
No matter how disparate their context or setting, a certain unity ran through elements of tracks such as Larks Tongues In Aspic Part 1, Fracture, Talking Heads’ I Zimbra (from 1979s Fear Of Music and on which Fripp guested), and The Zero Of The Signified (from Fripp’s 1980 solo release, Under Heavy Manners). All bore the hallmarks of fast, cross-picked, cyclical guitar lines that rippled and leaped across the grooves of a rock-solid pulse.
Yet despite the littering of such clues, when released in September 1981, the boldness of Discipline’s taut outlines, coupled with the depth of harmonic and rhythmic ideas it employed, seemed light-years distant from the textures of Crimson past, wrong-footing some commentators and fans in the process.
“Sure, this is King Crimson. But we're not playing period pieces, we're not playing the old Crimson repertoire. It's a modern rock band playing in 1981 and I dare say that some traditional King Crimson fans might come out expecting us to go through the routines, music by old numbers, and will be surprised” he told Richard Grabel of Creem. “But if I'd followed King Crimson I would expect not to get what I expected to get.”
Though initially named Discipline, during the rehearsals that took place between February and April 1981, Fripp was instantly certain about the true nature of what he was hearing. “In the first week of rehearsal, I knew the band I was hearing. There was no doubt that the band playing was King Crimson”
Whilst there was a reassuring continuity with recent times past in the shape of Fripp and Bill Bruford, the Anglo-American nature of the band with the recruitment of Tony Levin and Adrian Belew, embodied and underlined the heady shock of the new and the desire to embrace change.
Though Bruford and Fripp had auditioned several hopefuls for the role of bassist (including Bruford’s talented bass player, Jeff Berlin), Tony Levin was always Fripp’s first choice. The auditions had only taken place because the guitarist had assumed that the ever-busy Levin would be unavailable. As Fripp noted in his diary, "Because Tony Levin is so busy it never occurred to me that he would be interested in a band, otherwise he would have been my first call."
Rhett Davies - the first external producer King Crimson worked with after Tony Clarke in 1969 (photo by Tony Levin)
“By the 1980s I was, in fact, moving away from being a 'session musician’” recalls Levin. “I had met Robert on the Peter Gabriel recording in 1976 and had been touring since then with Peter. That first recording with Peter was momentous for me in that it introduced me to the talent of both Peter and Robert. When scheduling was possible, I would, without hesitation, have joined any project that involved either. So it was the chance to make music with Robert that got me to the first 'rehearsal' of Crimson, back in 1981.”
What had attracted Fripp to Belew’s work? "The energy,” says Fripp. “I saw Ade first with Bowie at the Madison Square Garden on the "Heroes" tour I didn't play on and we met personally at The Bottom Line in New York when Ade went with David Bowie to see Steve Reich, and I was there to do the same independently.”
As well as finding one of the best frontman a group could have, Belew’s instrumental presence enabled Fripp to make the interlocking parts he’d envisaged and had been steadily working towards a reality. Perhaps the most telling example of this is Frame By Frame, whose phase-shifting pointillism draws heavily on Steve Reich’s minimalist aesthetic.
Belew’s ear for detail and his astonishing capacity to create elliptical solos of unorthodox and ingenious ferocity made his contributions to David Bowie, Frank Zappa, and Talking Heads so distinctive. In Crimson he was also given free rein to mine an unorthodox vein of expression in pieces across the galloping meter of Thela Hun Ginjeet, and the acerbic but playful Elephant Talk.
Matte Kudasai, whose instrumental origins date back to The League Of Gentleman, is perhaps also a nod to the poignant ballads of Crimson's past. Topped with Belew’s languid vocal melody, in recent years the tune has begun to enjoy a life beyond Crimson following its inclusion on albums by jazz vocalists.
The Sheltering Sky, first played as an improvisation within the walls of an ancient Dorset hunting lodge where the band initially rehearsed is a perfect example of where the sounds of the old world rub up against new technologies to eerie, and sometimes unsettling effect. With the ancient resonance of Bruford’s African slit drum, the soaring, trumpet-like sonority of the Roland guitar synthesiser, and the subterranean growl of Tony Levin’s Chapman Stick, it sits somehow aloof and apart from the period in which it was recorded. Even today, some 30 years after it was committed to tape, it remains utterly timeless.
More than anything, the album is an exhilarating convergence of imaginative and associative leaps of faith, a strange crossroads at which the likes of gamelan, minimalism, bright dynamic rock, inquisitive, experimental sensibilities, and phenomenal musicianship all meet to form something uniquely Crimson.
Although the framing concept might have come from Fripp in the beginning, Discipline is anything but the work of one person. The title track and its stylistic counterpoint, Indiscipline, are both a consolidation and a departure. Constructed from several different and independent lines, each one in itself quite fragile. Yet when all the strands are woven together the remarkable results are as strong as they are flexible.
Much like the knot-work relief that graced the spartan cover, Discipline is about the interconnectedness of ideas and experience harnessed together. Remove any one element of those threads and the whole thing will unravel. Whilst some of Crimson’s contemporaries had been content to either rest on their laurels or make a straightforward dash towards commercialism, every sinew of the Discipline-era group and its sound glistened with a dazzling freshness, a supple brilliance that effortlessly surfed the post-punk new wave zeitgeist whilst remaining consistent with its core guiding principals.
After making their live debut on April 30th, 1981 at Moles Club in Bath, under the name of Discipline, an excited Fripp noted in his journal “For me, this is the band I've spent four years getting ready for." Later he would note “...if all this band does is one album, it'll be worth it.” Just 19 days after that live debut and following a short tour, the band assembled in Island’s Basing Street studios to begin recording their first album together.
The next time they took to the road in October King Crimson had returned. "It was torturous going out as Discipline because promoters would immediately halve the money because nobody knew the name," explains Bruford. "I quite liked the name Discipline actually because I'm British and I knew what Robert was getting at with it, but when somebody told me it had changed to Crimson I thought ‘good’ because at least it removed one obstacle to the band's progress."
For Adrian Belew, whilst extremely proud of the permutations Crimson has undergone since becoming a member of the group, the Discipline era remains closest to his heart. “I think it was probably the best band in the world at the time! It was just the perfect line-up, and the perfect combination of things; heavy, light, fun, and dark. I just think there was something absolutely marvellous about that band. That first record we did is the proof. It’s still ground-breaking. It still doesn’t sound like anything else you’ve heard before. A 20-something kid can put that record on and think that it must have been made yesterday, and I still don’t understand how we did it!”