I last saw UK at Imperial College in March 1979 when I was a student. That South Kensington show was the only UK gig on British soil before they were due to set off on a world tour, sometimes as the opening act for Jethro Tull, to promote their recently released second album, Danger Money.
Down to a three-piece, Eddie Jobson and John Wetton were joined by Terry Bozzio on drums, a former colleague of Jobson when he played with Frank Zappa. I was more concerned that the trio would not be able to perform the tracks from the first album than I was about the musical direction of the band. The recollections of both Bill Bruford and John Wetton largely agree that the departure of Bruford and Holdsworth was predominantly due to musical differences. I can’t have had the album very long before this gig, but although Carrying No Cross and The Only Thing She Needs are high quality prog, the title track, Nothing to Lose and Caesar’s Palace Blues were a bit too verse-chorus-verse-chorus for me, suggesting that the Wetton/Jobson axis was heading towards catchy AOR compared to Bruford and Holdsworth who seemed more purist. In retrospect I think you can see UK as the sonic link between old-guard prog and the slick AOR of Asia.
I remember that Wetton and Jobson were both wearing leather trousers for the gig – this must have been a UK uniform because the live photos on the subsequent live album Night After Night also show their leather-clad lower limbs. I was slightly disappointed that they didn’t seem very tight as a band, as though they’d not done too much rehearsing, though to be fair they were a trio playing complex music with parts originally written for guitar. John Wetton did pick up a white Stratocaster at one point, but I think this was for one of the Danger Money songs – great musician though he is, there really was no way he could even attempt to compete with Allan Holdsworth.
Now thirty three years ago, the most memorable thing about that gig was getting back to my hall of residence. I had to rely entirely on public transport to get around, and in those days performances never started on time. South Kensington tube station, the nearest station to Imperial College has a number of different entrances and a long tunnel that stretches to the Natural History Museum. By the time show ended the entrance to the tunnel was closed off, so I had to take the long way round at street level. I took the District and Circle line eastward to Embankment then ran to nearby Charing Cross station, but I had missed my last train. I managed to catch a late-running service to Lewisham and walked from there, arriving back at my hall of residence at about 3am.
Fast Forward to Thursday 24th May 2012. I emailed the venue on the day when I found out that tickets were only available at the box office. I’d rearranged on-call duties to make sure I could attend the gig so I was extremely pleased to be told that there were plenty of tickets available for general sale on the door, and no booking fee. Under the Bridge is an exceptionally smart venue as you might expect from the investment of a Russian oligarch and though it might have seemed odd to fans of UK who would have expected them to play somewhere like Hammersmith Apollo, it was a great venue with the right level of intimacy, somehow just right for the return of a premier-league prog act. The comparative sizes of the keyboard rig and drums at Imperial College and Under the Bridge were of note: The current set up was very pared-down relative to the equipment required at the height of 70s prog but the keyboard sounds themselves were authentic.
The show kicked off (slightly late) with Alaska and what I thought were a few bars of Time to Kill before moving into the entire In the Dead of Night suite. It seemed to me that John Wetton’s voice was a little strained at times, neatly covered with some effective echo, but he was always in tune and did manage to hit the higher notes. The Holdsworth guitar licks were beautifully recreated by Alex Machacek and Gary Husband was an inspired choice to fill in on drums, his performance throughout was brilliant, even though it was rumoured that he’d only had one day of rehearsal. This was followed by Thirty Years. The music on the eponymous UK album is pretty tricky, but it was all superbly executed, though Eddie Jobson did appear to have a couple of minor technical problems during the opening pieces. It seemed to me as though this was really an Eddie Jobson night (even though he couldn’t have done it with John Wetton.) He introduced the next number, his favourite King Crimson song, with thanks to John Wetton for enabling him to play this particular track and an anecdote about being asked to join a band with Fripp, Wetton and Bruford to be called The League of Gentlemen. They then performed Starless. This was where the venue may have revealed itself to be slightly unsatisfactory. Starless was very, very loud and there was some distortion just before the reprise of the melody at the end of the piece. Carrying No Cross (possibly the best track on Danger Money) came next, and then Eddie Jobson introduced his solo spot with a ‘thank you’ to members of the audience who had travelled thousands and thousands of miles to be there, a nod to Sonja Kristina (who was present in the audience) for giving him his first break in the music industry, and finally to members of his family who were present, including his 90 year old father. Bits of this solo were throw-away. It began pleasantly enough with piano but sort of lost direction. When he switched to violin he referenced Curved Air’s Vivaldi but the acoustics of the venue didn’t do the layers of sound any justice and it ended in a confused blur of effects. In contrast, John Wetton performing a solo acoustic version of Book of Saturday was clean and clear. The full band reassembled for Danger Money and the excellent Nevermore, the sleeper on the first UK album. Once again the band did full justice to this amazing track.
I was slightly disturbed when they concluded that with a group bow and promptly left the stage. I knew they’d be back for an encore but I thought they’d at least play Rendezvous 6:02 and possibly a full version of Time to Kill. After all, I’d just paid £38 for a ticket. Well, a fluorescent orange wrist band – I had absolutely no memento of the gig because I didn’t want a T-shirt, I possess all the albums and there was no tour brochure. I should have known better. Caesar’s Palace Blues was the encore when the band toured in the late 70s and that’s what they kicked off with when they returned to the stage. I certainly wasn’t expecting them to continue with The Only Thing She Needs (possibly the second best track on Danger Money) and finally finish with a piano and vocal duet of Rendezvous 6:02, my favourite track on Danger Money.
I’m pleased I got to see the show. This is music that needs to be played (there’s a few good guys who can play it right) and heard. It’s far, far better than almost all rock music around today and to have the two main protagonists performing this together once more, ably supported by fantastic musicians Gary Husband and Alex Machacek, was really something special.