The 1984 model of King Crimson was radically different from the one that had first emerged in the late 1960s. It was still a band capable of delivering passages of jaw-dropping instrumental flashes, but there was a looseness, even levity, to their new material and on stage performances.
As Bill Bruford comments under this live footage of Elephant Talk on his YouTube channel, “Contrary to some in the commentariat, it wasn’t all doom and gloom in King Crimson. This was a fun time in the band.” And he’s right – this is unmistakeably the sound and sight of a band enjoying themselves, rather than sweating with concentration not to mess up a tricky time change.
Taken from a show recorded 28 April 1984 at Tokyo’s Kan-i Hoken Hall, and originally released on laserdisc as Three Of A Perfect Pair – Live In Japan, Elephant Talk is one of King Crimson’s key tracks from this period, its combination of tightly wound avant funk, head spinning guitar effects and absurd lyrics creating a myriad of new possibilities for progressive music. It was the set closer that night, and the band are clearly having a ball playing it.
It begins with Tony Levin tapping out the riff on the giant fretboard of his Chapman stick, and somewhat improbably, the audience are clapping along. Resplendent in high-laced wrestling boots, the shaven-headed rhythm king stands with legs akimbo as though wielding some futuristic weapon.
But it’s the gawky, ever-grinning Adrian Belew who grabs the attention centre stage, ducking and jiving as he spits out the song’s nonsense lyrics with glee. As Bruford remembers, “Belew was in great form, turning in a handsome performance with a great guitar break. Often, he’d turn back to his amp to get some feedback out of it, and as the thing howled and complained, Adrian would look up at me and give me a wink as if to say, ‘What did you think of that?’”
For his own part, Bruford is happy to sit back and calmly drive the song forward with just his gongs for company. To his left, band leader Robert Fripp looks on benignly from his high stool, the hint of a smile on his lips, even if it does look like he’s dressed in paramilitary garb. While Belew’s solo is an incredible series of shrieks and wails, Fripp wrings a sound out of his guitar like a swanee whistle being strangled, as though both men are engaged in a friendly competition to make their instruments sound as beguilingly strange as possible.
With a final trumpeting from Belew, the song ends to rapturous applause from the audience, some of whom have been dancing at the front. Fripp even briefly dons his cream suit jacket to acknowledge their cheers. The band look and sound like they’re operating at peak level, once again in rock’s top division…
But of course, this being King Crimson, it couldn’t last. Three months later in Montreal, internal tensions had arisen to scupper their progress, and Fripp declared the band was no more. It would be another ten years before Crimson rose from the dead once again.
But if proof were needed of how shockingly good their ‘80s incarnation was, just take a look at the clip below: