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Music

The harrowing backstory behind the King Crimson album 'Discipline'

Although King Crimson are considered to be quintessentially English, their antenna has accrued American influences over the years, so it’s no surprise that the rebooted band hired an American singer to front the outfit. Adrian Belew seemed happy to sing for the progressive outfit, although he would find that the city of London wasn’t as progressive or as safe as he might have imagined it to be.

Responsible for the lyrical content on Discipline, Belew was given permission to borrow from his personal life, but if he had the chance to erase the backstory behind ‘Thela Hun Ginjeet’, there’s no doubt that he would, even if it meant missing out on one of the album’s most impactful pieces. 

“The Notting Hill Gate area of London at first glance seems like most semi-residential British neighbourhoods with an occasional store or pub among crowded rows of little huts the English call ‘houses'”, he wrote. “Only if you ventured down a side street might you detect the seedy underbelly where race riots had occurred in recent years and policemen had been killed. A naive American guitarist would likely have no knowledge of such events.”

Wandering the streets of London, Belew took a tape recorder around with him, in the hope that he might spot inspiration somewhere in the English capital. And while he was out walking, Belew claims he was harassed twice: Firstly by a gang, then by a group of police officers who would have been better off chasing the gangs who had made a move on the American musician. 

Feeling like a fish out of water, he told the tale to bandmates Robert Fripp and Bill Bruford, unaware that he was being recorded in the process. So, when you hear ‘Thela Hun Ginjeet’, what you’re hearing isn’t an affectation but the genuine howls of anguish from a singer recounting an event that shook him to his core. It’s a deeply truthful performance, although Belew must have felt a little crestfallen when he realised where the vocal stemmed from. 

Fripp is an avant-garde musician who tends to push for the esoteric from his musicians, which might explain why David Bowie used him on Heroes on many of the more dexterous tracks. Somewhere within the progressive jazz proclivities was a series of idiosyncratic chords that tested the patience of its audience. And when King Crimson got it right, as they did with their superb debut, the band really knew how to use surprise, scandal and shock in equal measure. 

But this was a strange move from the guitarist, and if he recorded someone’s thoughts without their complete consent today, he would probably be in big trouble. Clearly, Belew consented to the sample, and he is credited with the lyrics, but there’s something a little unnerving about the process, which might explain why it makes for such an interesting listening experience. 

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The iteration of Fripp, Bruford and Belew made another album together in 1982, entitled Beat. Bruford was beginning to experiment with electronic effects, which came into effect on Three of a Perfect Pair. Genesis, lauded by many as the most successful of the progressive rock outfits, had also started using electronic drums, which were used to haunting effect on ‘Mama’, arguably Phil Collins’ finest hour with the band. 

By the time they released Three of a Perfect Pair, King Crimson were savvy enough to put their elliptical material on one side of vinyl, and their more approachable work on the other, thereby giving listeners their choice of side to go to. And if listeners enjoyed the other side as much as the one they were listening to, all they had to do was flip it over. 

Discipline is a much more uncompromising effort, which makes sense, considering that it is in essence a meditative journey into the realm of pure consciousness. It thrived on creative spontaneity, even taking the time out to take a look at the world around them and saunter. But this taped conversation is a little insidious in its philosophy, firstly because it details an uncontested view of the world around the band, and secondly, it robbed Belew of a private conversation that should have remained in the studio alone. 

Belew was professional, even courteous about this indiscretion. Indeed, he happily performed the track live, and has written about the experience on his personal blog. Belew continued to work with Fripp and King Crimson until 2013. He remained one of the longest-serving members of the band, but Fripp was always the musical director of the outfit and felt that Fripp didn’t represent the values of the latest configuration. 

Belew also worked on the Nine Inch Nails Hesitation Marks record and continues to write as a solo artist. His work maintains a romanticism that recalls the blistering solos, and idiosyncratic conversations, he performed with King Crimson. 

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