For the first time ever, a King Crimson lineup would completely hold together long enough to record more than one album, a true miracle. Beat is also one of the few Crimson albums that sort of has a concept, this time a tribute to the Beat Generation of the 50s. All those references went over my head aside from the very obvious stuff in the opening Neal and Jack and Me — I’ve never read Jack Kerouac, but I understand that the references go further than that just from reading about some of those connections online.
Concept aside, Beat continues the interlocking guitar lines and the mix of experimental and pop sense of Discipline. It’s also a step down from Discipline. Maybe that was to be expected considering that every track on the previous album was a winner, but my feeling is that Beat is a lot more uneven than its predecessor. Even those two “pop” and “experimental” aspects of this 80s Crimson that were so intertwined in Discipline feel as though they’ve been unwound somewhat, so that while the mix is still here, it’s not blended in quite the way it was before.
There are just a couple of songs that I feel do blend those sides of Crimson, and they also happen to be my favorites (and also all on the first side of the album.) Waiting Man combines a distinctive and hypnotic drumbeat with a great delivery from Adrian Belew, and Sartori in Tangier is a memorable instrumental with some of the flavor of Discipline in it. I also like “Neal and Jack and Me” as an opener, though it’s not the absolute best 80s Crimson would come up with — that would be the opener to their next album. But man, that ending section really works nicely.
Every other song on Beat either falls definitively into the “pop” or “experiment” slot, and out of those five, I only really like one. Heartbeat is about as close as King Crimson ever got to being a top 40 pop band — it’s a straightforward 4/4 love song, and I’ll set aside my pretensions here and say it’s a good one. The fact that this wasn’t a pop hit in 1982 is a shame, though maybe it’s a blessing in disguise that it was never overplayed so that I don’t have to hear it every time I go to the grocery store. (Then again, the grocery store doesn’t play good 80s pop/rock, only stuff that I disliked at first and have grown to completely hate like “Sussudio” and “Heaven is a Place on Earth”. Please, expand your fucking playlists, you corporate drones!)
But then the second side of Beat is a major dropoff in quality from the first. The Howler is rough and ugly without much of an aim (kind of reminds me of “The Mincer” off of Starless and Bible Black in fact, both for that and the similar title) and Neurotica is just too damn neurotic for me to enjoy and without much else to recommend it aside from the chorus. Even the softer Belew song Two Hands doesn’t quite work for me, though I see the more romantic types enjoying it. And considering my favorite romance is Saya no Uta, that might say a lot about just how romantic I am.
That leaves the closer Requiem. This instrumental seems to be among the most controversial pieces in King Crimson’s catalog. Understandably so: it sounds like one of 70s Crimson’s improvs in the 80s sound, and as with a lot of those pieces, it gets equal love and hate or at least disinterest. But while it’s not my favorite track on the album, I do get something out of “Requiem” that I don’t get out of some of Crimson’s other improvs. This one feels like an eruption, building up slowly into its climax near the end of the track after which it slowly fades away. Sounds suitably mournful for a piece titled “Requiem” too, though who it’s a requiem for, if anyone, I’m not sure. Probably not for the band, since they’d be around for a while longer in this form.
But then, “Requiem” has the same problem some of Crimson’s wilder pieces have: I have to really be in the mood to identify with their dark, jagged, rough atmospheres. I just happen to be in that sort of mood more often than I’d like. I guess this music isn’t meant for very happy people, is it? Then again, Adrian Belew is optimistic enough to balance things out — just go back to that first side if “Requiem” isn’t your thing.
So Beat is all right. Still a good album on balance, but certainly not the one to start with the 80s lineup of the band in my opinion. Though if you have a friend who’s really into 80s pop and they haven’t heard any Crimson yet, consider sending them a link to “Heartbeat” — it really could fit onto that Vice City radio station, the one that starts with playing “Billie Jean” (and now that I think of it, wasn’t “Owner of a Lonely Heart” in there too? I wonder if that game eventually led some kids to get their minds expanded with Close to the Edge and Relayer. It all comes back to 70s prog in the end!)
And before I move on to the final album in the 80s trilogy (and spoilers there I guess) I have another bonus track to highlight. Absent Lovers is another instrumental, one I’d never heard until going through this full relisten, and I like it more than half of the tracks on the album proper. So why didn’t it make the album? Just as with “Dr. Diamond” on Starless, it’s a mystery.