This one is a favourite. Recorded at one of Crimson's final gigs before Fripp put the band into storage in 1974. Though I had heard Crimson albums in the early 70's this was the first one I bought back in 1975. I didn't know much about the band and found the album cover, like the others I knew; Lizard, In the Court of the Crimson King and Larks' Tongues in Aspic didn't give anything away about what the band looked like.
I loved the glossy album cover. The womans hand holding the metal bar with the bands name and album title stamped on the front was very appealing for some strange reason. Who came up with the idea? On the back were hands (the same woman's?) holding a Kirlian photograph of a hand. What was it all about?
It's easy to forget that Crimson were on Island records along with Emerson, Lake and Palmer. USA had the classic pink palm tree label.
Musically, this album had excellent versions of material from Larks' Tongues in Aspic and Starless and Bible Black. In particular, Lament and Easy Money had fine guitar solos. In fact, Easy Moneys mid section solo is amongst Fripp's best. The way it builds up to an exhilarating crescendo, where it sounds as if Fripp has run out of fretboard is spine tingling. But the highlight is the improv, Asbury Park. This is perfect and is my desert island disc Crimson track. Though The Great Deceiver box set showed that the foundations of this improv were laid in earlier pieces, by the time the band got to Asbury Park, the telepathy between the band was such that everything came together to produce an instrumental that sounded more composed than improvised. The combination of guitar, bass, mellotron and drums were all in perfect unison. Absolutely sublime!
The first CD version I had was a bootleg, which was just taken from a needle drop vinyl copy. Eventually a proper CD version taken from the master tapes was released as part of the 30th anniversary series, which also included some bonus tracks. This was originally released as a mini LP papersleeve edition, though it had a gatefold sleeve which the original LP didn't. The version I have is the HQCD Japanese papersleeve version, which is based on Simon Heyworths 30th anniversary remaster. The sleeve does replicate the glossy single sleeve of the LP version and even has a replication of the light blue Island insert sleeve. The booklet is the same as the 30th anniversary edition, though it does also include lyrics.
Another point are the overdubs by Eddie Jobson. Not sure on the reasoning behind this. Maybe the mix wasn't sufficient in the violin and piano department. I have heard the original mix, without the overdubs and prefer the USA version. Maybe that's just familiarity, but Fripp's mix decisions for USA did make a better album. Though The Great Deceiver box set and subsequent archival live releases have presented better live Crimson from that period, USA is the first and is still a special album to me.
Addendum on 3/8/13. Panegyric are releasing a 40th Anniversary edition of USA in October. It will be a CD/DVD package and will include a new hi res mix of the album by Fripp/Singleton as well as the expanded 30th anniversary edition and the original concert without overdubs.