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Bringing it all back home:

The 21st Century Schizoid Band
plays Bilston Robin 2, 09/19/02





(i) I walk a road, horizons change

 

To the journeyman passing by, Bilston ceased to exist long ago - absorbed by Wolverhampton to the North and Birmingham to the South. Too near to the motorways to be at peace and too far from London to be chic. The Victorians built the goods and chattels for a great Empire here, until the Empire started to export them back to the motherland better, faster and cheaper. What do working people do then? Adapt and survive.

I was born and raised in Wolverhampton less than five miles away, and to me Bilston still exists, proud and distinctive. There is real working pride in this town that doesn't suffer fools. The pretentious and the fey are likely to be given a good tongue-lashing. But they know how to have a good time, too.

 

Which is why I am sitting in the Robin 2 club, a converted Victorian school room. Brightly painted, and cheerful. I arrive early, at the same time as a delightful young man with the tiniest strip of a beard and electric blue painted fingernails. I'm the support band he announces to the man at the door. I'm not, so he gets let in and I don't (don'cha just hate it when that happens?). Later on he plays ambient Frippertronic sound loops into what looks a network server and the Bilstonians chatter happily over the top and buy more ale. Still, its a living. And he does get to see the band every night.

 

Instead, I get to drink Banks's Mild ale in the Noddy Holder bar. Noddy, the top-hatted-frontman for Wolverhampton pop icons Slade, is high culture in the Black Country, famous for Ozzie Osborne, Roy Wood and Robert Plant.

 

 The audience are all Simpson's characters. The comic book guy is buying beer at the bar. There goes Side-Show Bob. Dr Hibbert is discussing philosophy with Ned Flanders, 'I tell you ELP recorded Trilogy before Pictures at an Exhibition'. And there goes Lenny and Karl practising their air guitars to the Pink Floyd that the DJ plays. I'm there, too, Professor Frink, taking notes in the corner. Except that we all are more than that. To see, you have to look in a new way, deeper than our stereotypes. The same is true of King Crimson.

 

 

 

(ii) The tournament's begun

 

This hall is used to seeing tribute bands: ordinary guys pretending to be legends. Tonight is different: legends are pretending to be ordinary guys. Ian McDonald, far-right, clearly visible behind a single small keyboard. The days of progressive keyboard-excess are fortunately over. Peter Giles behind Ian, half hidden in shadows, but certainly heard. Deep, dark, notes sliding and bending over impeccable drumbeats. Michael Giles, centre back - controlling, never a beat missed, restraining the powerhouse, setting the time and the tides. Mel Collins, stage left. Ian's symmetrical partner, complementing, embellishing, empowering, enabling. Enabling Ian to relax and enjoy himself. When Ian relaxes, he smiles and his immense talent bubbles to the surface.

 

And Jakko. He's not pretending to be anyone but himself. In doing so, he covers the bases occupied by Fripp, Lake, Boz and Haskell with such ease that you forget them and watch him. He's smart and funny with the punters. Bilston loves him, for he gives them as good as he gets (and, boy, does he get some ribbing about his physique). The man next to me roars his approval at his jokes, and snaps away with his pocket camera. "That Jakko - 'im alwight, 'im am". Would that other past Crim guitarists were able to be so relaxed.

 

 

(iii) The purple piper plays his tune, the choir softly sing

A man, a city, roars by with the power of the M5 motorway. Bilston understands, feels, and approves. This is no tribute band. These guys have paid the bills and made the journey. You can see it in their eyes - feel it in their widening smiles. They, and we, see that it was always meant to sound like this. Cat Food: tricky to sing, tricky to play keyboard, but Jakko and Ian warm to it - and the phrasing and timing are perfect. Close your eyes, imagine the young lyricist writing furiously before the ideas vanished. Imagine the creative tensions as the various parts came together. And try to forget the political tensions that almost pulled it apart. Enjoy it for what it is: a song for daring young things who did not yet know the limit of what they had.

 

(iv) Three lullabies in an ancient tongue

 The sounds of the different players combine - legends forgotten, these guys are going for it. The lyrics crown their achievements.

These songs live. They are freed from the mausoleum. They soar, and sweat and swagger. These songs were meant to be played live in tiny clubs with perspiring walls. These songs were meant to make you feel rage and joy and pain and power. Songs of rebellion, to move you to act to change what you do not like; songs of youthful arrogance. You can change the world through political and social action. How could we have ever seen them in any other way?

There is a special intensity that is created when a Sinfield lyric sits on a McDonald tune. The synergy is peculiar to them and is greater than either can achieve alone.

Bilston feels this energy, which is tangible and memorable. People sing along to the lyrics of ITCOCK, they know Epitaph, I talk to the wind. They warmly applaud Let there be light.

'A contemporary McDonald/Sinfield song' notes Jakko, thoughtfully. Somewhere, in a parallel universe, there is a world where Sinfield and McDonald never went their separate paths, but grew together into one of the most formidable songwriting partnerships ever. Maybe it is too late to rekindle the furnaces, just as it is for Bilston town. Maybe the crucible cannot be relit. Perhaps, though, they owe it to each other to try.

They certainly owe it to Jakko, Mel, Peter and Michael. For this is a band with a future. The hope is real because the when performed live, the 'contemporary McDonald/Sinfield song' develops the same intensity as the famous older classics. This is the band to play McDonald/Sinfield, and we are the audience to hear the:

'Sweet music to hang our sorrows on. Let there be light. '

 

 

(v) In the court of the Crimson King

ITCOCK gives the Bilston people a shared memory: it bring us all back home to where we were when we first heard those mellotron chords.

Thirty years ago, less than five miles from this place, I shared Crim albums with my friends in the grammar school classrooms.

Here and now, the words are crystals reflecting the pure light of the music. Nothing is out of place.

I phone Peter Sinfield and send the sounds to his answerphone. Bringing it all back home.

We cheer: someone throws a peace sign. People are dancing; a man and a woman cuddle and kiss.

Formentera lady creates Spanish sunshine in the room. Starting with an extended bass solo by Peter. Bilston basks in the radiance, as Mel and Jakko supported by the rest show us what Peter intended when he wrote the song.

This is an extraordinary lyric - probably a major step in the development of Sinfield's craft, which opened up new avenues for him. An unfairly maligned lyric, too.

Yet, had the song been played live regularly, it would now be appreciated for what it is. A tone poem of elegance and warmth.

We cheer: we move and are moved by the music. Around the Crim classics fit the contemporary songs - Let there be light, Progress, If I could...The band is as comfortable with these as it is with the older Tomorrow's people.

This is a band for different songs. Imagine the sheer joy of watching them blow to Night people, or think of the passion that Jakko could bring to House of hopes and dreams. Tonight, I felt I heard the songs of the sea goat shaking in the domes.

Ladies of the Road, never have marron glace fishbones tasted better. And the anger of Mel's sax tears up the room. Feeding on the tensions, it fills the air, it fills the air.

I talk to the wind reveals the power of the McDonald/Collins pairing. They can copy, support and improvise around each other, and strengthen the whole sound of the reeds and the woodwind. People near me were asking for Under the sky. They wanted more, much more.

The changing social and political fortunes bring Epitaph a chilling resonance in the wake of September 11. And we fear that tomorrow we may be crying............The time is right to hear these old songs for the first time.

 

(vi) The yellow jester does not play

The talk in the Noddy Holder bar at the head of the evening was whether this band could manage without Fripp. By now the answer is as clear as the notes from Jakko's guitar.

Fripp is remembered, feted, but is not missed by this band. During the Birdman encore, I heard a new sound that the band could build on, pushing the past into the future, strong, modern and commercial. This band could become important again.

And finally to the song. We rocked on our heels to the power emerging from the Jakko-Ian-Peter-Mel-Michael superbeast.

The relevance is still there: the powerless are still in fear of the powerful, we still suffer the burdens of over-consumption, still live in the shadow of the war machine.

And the song is still fiendishly difficult to play - but Jakko, straining under the effort makes the home run and the band blow joyously behind him.

 

Bilston loved it - and stayed to chat and to say 'well done'. A proud town, distrusting the pretentious and the fey. But they embraced the 21st Century Schizoid Band.

Three days after the 21st century schizoid van headed for Cambridge, there was an earthquake, which measured 4.8 on the Richter scale, that spread across England and Wales. The earthquake was centred on Bilston. That's what I call leaving an impression!

~ Neil Ingram



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