King Crimson

TrackAlbum
She Is LoadedThe Cheerful Insanity Of
Giles, Giles And Fripp
CD
21st Century Schizoid ManIn The Court Of The Crimson King
The Court Of The Crimson KingIn The Court Of The Crimson King
Cadence And CascadeIn The Wake Of Poseidon
Tomorrow's PeopleMcDonald And Giles
Easy MoneyLarks' Tongues In Aspic
The Great DeceiverStarless And Bible Black
One More Red NightmareRed
Elephant TalkDiscipline
Sleepless [Bob Clearmountain mix]Three Of A Perfect Pair

King Crimson photo 1

King Crimson c.1969: Ian McDonald, Michael Giles, Peter Sinfield,
Greg Lake, Robert Fripp

 

 

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King Crimson playlist

 

 

Contributor: Marc Fagel

Like every teenage boy back in the 70s and 80s, I went through the obligatory progressive rock phase. I was already deep into a classic rock obsession by the time I got to high school, my sixth grade discovery of the Who around ’77 setting me on a course of trying to get my arms around as much rock history as I could. The Beatles and Stones, the Kinks and Pink Floyd, the Byrds and Neil Young – I just ate it all up. Inevitably, my backward-looking journey led me into prog (or art rock, or whatever you want to call it).

I’ll admit that the band’s 1969 debut, In The Court Of The Crimson King, was something I bought based at least in part on the cover art. I hadn’t heard a note of the music – the local classic rock stations steered clear of the band – but that garish clown face beckoned me from the used record store.

And it was great, downright revelatory. It was a bit like the Gabriel-era Genesis albums I had also started discovering around that time, but even more boundary-pushing, a blend of jazz fusion and classical guitar and hard rock and, more than anything, some simply gorgeous, highly melodic tunefulness. Opening track 21st Century Schizoid Man bordered on the frightening, a killer, nearly proto-metal riff and Greg Lake’s otherwise gorgeous pipes distorted beyond recognition; while the closing The Court Of The Crimson King was the definitive art rock track, sweeping in scope with portentous keyboards, sweeping choirs, Lake’s entrancing vocals intoning the mystical lyrics of lyricist Peter Sinfield, and unpredictable instrumental breaks. The three songs in between were nearly as great, the album ridiculously consistent from start to finish, certainly one of the most essential albums of the genre. More than anything, it sounded like a true band effort.

That band effort didn’t last. By the second LP, 1970’s In The Wake Of Poseidon, co-founders Ian McDonald and Michael Giles were gone, leaving King Crimson in the hands of guitar virtuoso Robert Fripp (where it would remain for the next half century); Lake would stick around long enough to finish (most of) the album before heading off to Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Still, while the album lacks the debut’s originality, coming across like a bit of a rehash, it retains enough magic to make it one of the band’s more worthwhile efforts. Interestingly, my favorite song on the album, the lovely Cadence And Cascade, wasn’t even sung by Lake, but rather by replacement Gordon Haskell. (Later CD reissues appended an alternate version with Lake on vocals; it’s superior, though Haskell’s take was pretty great as well.)

Later that same year, Crimson put out a third album, Lizard, and by this time – with Lake long gone – the formula wasn’t really working. Some of the prog rock baggage – the bombast and pretension – started to show, particularly on the side-long title suite, which, frankly, I don’t think I’ve made it all the way through in the nearly 40 years since I bought the album. Haskell’s vocals weren’t bad (he did a better job than Yes frontman Jon Anderson, who sang part of the title track and did not help matters); but the material at times felt cloying, though there were some playful enough bits on tracks like Cirkus and Indoor Games.

Meanwhile, having departed after the first album, McDonald and Giles teamed up to release an eponymous album in 1971. I personally find it a much more worthy successor to Court, and I can only wonder what might have been had they stuck around for a true sequel. As a vocalist, Giles was no Greg Lake, but the songs themselves are great, mostly catchy pop tunes stretched out with arty instrumental passages into complex suites. Tomorrow’s People is the most immediate of these, a perky verse with fun percussion; but opener Suite In C is no less entertaining. The album also includes Flight Of The Ibis, essentially the same tune as Cadence And Cascade but with different lyrics. Alas, the duo only lasted for a single album.

And while we’re on the topic, around the same time I discovered the McDonald And Giles album, I also tracked down 1968’s Crimson precursor The Cheerful Insanity Of Giles, Giles And Fripp, the initial collaboration between Fripp and Michael Giles (and Giles’s brother Peter, who also played on the first Crimson album and the McDonald And Giles LP). It has very little in common with what followed later; rather, it’s packed with shorter tunes that are quaint and quirky, with bits of jazz and classical guitar, most notably the amusing One In A Million, which sounds more like the psychedelic-era pop of Chad & Jeremy than King Crimson. Elements of the playfulness that popped up on McDonald And Giles can be found – the contemporaneous unreleased single She Is Loaded, appended to the CD reissue, has some clues about where the band was headed – but it’s more interesting for the novelty value in seeing how they’d started off than as an essential bit of musical history.

Turning back to the actual Crimson, their next effort, 1971’s Islands, was an improvement over Lizard. It’s largely quiet and jazzy, lacking any real centerpieces (though opener Formentera Lady is pretty enough, with some interesting guitar wonkery from Fripp); it’s overall less structured (but also less grating) than Lizard, better suited to background music than careful inspection.

 

Fripp returned with an entirely new band in 1973, poaching Yes drummer Bill Bruford and adding John Wetton (later of supergroup Asia) on bass and vocals. Their first album, Larks’ Tongues In Aspic, found Crimson reenergized, a solid slab of songs that finally lived up to the debut’s promise. Centerpiece Easy Money is a barnburner, a distinctive percussion hook that recaptures some of the menace of 21st Century Schizoid Man while adding some colorful jams. You’ve also got a lovely ballad in Book Of Saturday, the haunting, rhythmic slow build of The Talking Drum, and the riveting, hard-rocking instrumental title track that closes the album.

1974’s Starless And Bible Black suffers a bit by comparison, coming across more like leftovers — not surprisingly, as it’s largely composed of live jams from the Larks tour. (The later live release The Night Watch returns these tracks to their original context, and is a much more rewarding purchase.) But it did include The Great Deceiver, a cathartic new studio recording which stands alongside Easy Money as one of this iteration of the band’s better realized stand-alone tracks (some badly dated lyrics notwithstanding).

This version of King Crimson survived for one more album, rebounding nicely on 1974 swan-song Red, which sounds like the proper Larks follow-up. The opening title track picks up where that one ended, and there’s another rousing upbeat rocker in One More Red Nightmare. With a mere five tracks, it’s heavy on the jams, but sounds more rigorously composed and substantive than, say, Islands or Bible Black.

And that was it. Fripp grabbed his guitar and went home, spending the following years as a solo artist, producer and collaborator. (1979’s Exposure perfectly captures the broad work Fripp would do during this period, featuring collaborations with everyone from Peter Gabriel to Daryl Hall to the Roches.)

But we hadn’t heard the last of King Crimson. I still remember that night in 1981, staying up to watch Fridays (a short-lived late-night comedy show in the same mold as Saturday Night Live), and this bizarre-looking band came on stage with music far more interesting and alien than most of what these shows tended to book. Turns out Fripp and Bruford had formed a new band, snagging this tall, imposing, bald dude named Tony Levin on “the stick,” an odd bass variant; and the batshit Adrian Belew (who’d cut his chops with Zappa, Bowie, and Talking Heads) on vocals and freaky guitar sounds.

It was definitely one of those sit-up-and-gasp moments – they previewed Elephant Talk and Thela Hun Ginjeet from the new Discipline album, and I was at the local mall the next day buying a copy. And while those two are the obvious stand-outs (the former with Belew running through a few dozen alphabetical synonyms for “talk” over an unforgettable riff, the latter with Belew’s spoken-word late-night-mugging narrative over … well, another unforgettable riff), the album’s pretty solid all the way through, a dynamic blend of the old prog rock with some more contemporary new wave-tinged sounds Belew brought in from Talking Heads, their most essential piece of work since the 1969 debut.

Here’s that Fridays appearance:

 

This quartet endured for two more studio albums. Neither 1982’s Beat nor 1984’s Three Of A Perfect Pair could corral the same level of novelty and excitement, but each offered a few worthy tunes. (I’m partial to Sleepless off the latter, perhaps as close to a radio-friendly “pop song” as any version of King Crimson ever mustered.) As that episode of Fridays had established, this band was particularly strong live, and the posthumous double-live Absent Lovers, recorded in the band’s waning days, is simply phenomenal.

That pretty much ended my personal journey with the band – but not Fripp’s. From 1994 through the present, various versions of the band (sometimes more than one at the same time) have recorded and performed together. I’ve checked some of it out, and it’s by no means bad. It’s a little heavier and harder rocking at times, venturing into Rush-like territory, with infusions of electronics and free jazz; I’ve found some of the more recent live releases pretty freakin’ impressive, but I just haven’t spent enough time with the post-eighties material to offer an opinion. But there’s a wealth of it available on Spotify – Fripp’s disdain for online music made him one of the last holdouts, but the band’s work finally streams – so definitely check it out.

Here’s the 2015 version of King Crimson tackling Schizoid Man:

 

 

Discipline Global Mobile: record label co-founded by Robert Fripp

King Crimson facebook

Elephant Talk (archived) – on Robert Fripp and associated

King Crimson discography (Wikipedia)

King Crimson YouTube Channel

King Crimson biography (Apple Music)

Marc Fagel is a recovering lawyer living outside San Francisco with his wife and his obscenely oversized music collection. He is the author of the recently-published rock lover’s memoir “Jittery White Guy Music”. His daily ruminations on random albums in his collection can be seen on his blog of the same name, or by following him on twitter.

TopperPost #853

5 Comments

  1. Peter Viney
    Apr 6, 2020

    While my favourite period is 1972-74, with their three best albums, no King Crimson fan would dismiss the last 25 years. I dont think you “got” Starless, Red or USA at all. Sorry.

    • Marc Fagel
      Apr 7, 2020

      Hi, Peter. I appreciate your view. I won’t deny that my thoughts on the band are hardly “objective,” but rather intertwined with my emotional reactions. I discovered both the debut and Discipline as a young teen just starting to move beyond the classic rock bands I’d grown up on, so those eras will always be particularly poignant for me. I do love that 72-74 run, if slightly less so, though obviously it did not trigger the same engagement for me as for you. (Indeed, the KC albums in my collection that get the most play these days are probably the Great Deceiver box and the other live archive releases from that period, though the actual composed songs don’t give me the same thrill of the earlier albums.)
      And I concede I have not spent enough time with the more recent work. I do find with many bands I love who endure for many years — I’d cite more contemporary favorites like REM, Wilco, and Yo La Tengo here — I personally find it much harder to delve into later albums when you have such an attachment to a pre-existing body of work. The latest Wilco album drew rave reviews, and I like it just fine, but it’s hard for me to consciously decide to curl up with it when I could turn to favorites like Summerteeth instead. Just the way I’m wired (and I’m sure I’m not alone).
      I’m not holding myself as some sort of dispassionate expert here. Just a middle-aged guy with way too many records who loves this band in my own idiosyncratic way.

  2. Peter Viney
    Apr 10, 2020

    I’m biased, Marc, as the late John Wetton was a great friend, and lyricist Richard Palmer-James is my oldest friend – since we were four (and was a classmate of our host here). I saw King Crimson twice in 2018, as well as the David Cross Band and Richard Palmer-James solo.You should see the current three drummer line up- they are astonishingly good. The best I ever saw was when Jamie Muir was on percussion next to Bill Bruford in 1974. In fact, as the songs from 1973-74 go, the best versions I heard were the John Wetton Band, especially when he just used two acoustic guitars plus keyboards / flute and brought out the melody and lyrics. A great favourite is the cover of Starless by The Unthanks (which John loved). Try Book of Saturday Live in Poland re-hear it as a folk song.

    • Rob Millis
      Jun 17, 2020

      Some interesting observations and I knew Peter would have waded in before I even scrolled as far as the comments! I’m kind of with Peter but also not – I love Wetton as a bassist/frontman and he was the best they ever had, and Richard P-J certainly makes for a more palettable lyricist than Sinfield, but I don’t like David Cross and Jamie Muir and find both Larks and Starless aren’t my favourite; I’m a sax and mellotron KC man, both of which returned more on Red. I find I’m scattergun with KC, oddly enough, I don’t ever play the first LP anymore and my favourite moments are Cirkus, Indoor Games and Happy Family from Lizard plus side one of Red, with Ladies of the Road an isolated highlight. Of the latter I do struggle with the description here of Islands being described as light and jazzy with no centrepiece….

  3. Peter Viney
    Jun 17, 2020

    USA is for you if you love Red. There have been extensive archive reissues of the 1973/1974 band live and they were astonishing. e.g. the expanded 40th Anniversary set of USA. Jamie Muir I think had to be experienced live with the gongs being beaten with chains and the foaming blood capsules. He wasn’t in the band very long. Three Crimson bassists were local to me … Greg Lake, Gordon Haskell and John Wetton.

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