This week I grasp the nettle and deal with one of the bands that I have loved since I first heard their music in 1970. Yes, it is time to ask the question of Robert Fripp’s ever-changing, always different, often obtusely-difficult and long-lived many-headed Crimson Beast; What is the classic Crimson sound?
The image above is the current incarnation of the band, a three-drummer lineup which since 2014 has been ripping through the KC back catalogue, reinterpreting old songs, bringing new ways of playing and new ways of sounding and, importantly playing some old songs live for the very first time.
The genesis of this revived Krim comes from the recording and release of a 2011 album, A Scarcity Of Miracles, billed as being by Jakszyk, Fripp and Collins, i.e. Jakko Jakszyk, Robert Fripp and Mel Collins aided and abetted by Tony Levin and Gavin Harrison. It was described as a King Crimson ProjeKct, a label that has long been used for spin-off projects featuring various band members. All of the performers are now currently members on the latest lineup of King Crimson, together with Pat Mastelotto and Jeremy Stacey.
Anyway, what might we think of as Klassic Krim? I am sure that for a lot of people it means one or more of the following; swooping mellotron lines, doom-laden and fantastical lyrics, jazzy influences, snippets of modern European classical music, strange and obscure cover images, discordant juxtapositions of sounds, virtuoso musicianship, weird time signatures, Fripp’s seemingly endlessly-sustained guitar sound and a certain disregard for what anyone might think they ought to be doing. For others it might mean pretentious, po-faced, unlistenable progressive rock noise. Of course, it might be all those things at the same time, so where do we start?
In 1969, King Crimson sprang into being from the wreckage of Giles, Giles and Fripp, an unsuccessful attempt to make interesting music. The original line-up was Robert Fripp, Michael Giles, Ian McDonald and Greg Lake, with Peter Sinfield as both a writer of lyrics and a non-playing band member who did the lights. They released one album, often called the “the album that invented Prog” or some other journalistic nonsense. It is certainly true, though, that In The Court Of The Crimson King wasn’t really like anything else around in 1969. I am sure that it is probably the only KC album that many people have heard, and it certainly seems to be the source of the only KC track that gets anything like regular radio play. That track is, of course “21st Century Schizoid Man“, which I am sure that many will think of as the classic KC song. Of course, the album contains other candidates. Both “Epitaph” and the title track fulfil the requirements perfectly well, having lots of swooping mellotron lines, doom-laden and fantastical lyrics etc.
In what turned into a regular occurrence, the band split up after this first album, with several different musicians, notably Keith Tippett joining for the band’s second record, In The Wake Of Poseidon, which, like the first had swooping mellotron lines, doom-laden and fantastical lyrics and the obligatory strange and obscure cover. In many ways, it seemed like a clone of the first album. We might see”Pictures of a City” (occasionally on the setlist of the current incarnation) and the album’s title track as representing aspects of the classic sound. Again, the band fell apart and several new people featured on their third album, Lizard, although Keith Tippett featured again.
Lizard is a difficult album to love. Indeed, for decades, until it was remastered by Steven Wilson in 2009, Fripp often seemed to dislike the record and never played any of its music on stage. I am not sure that any of the tracks on it could be considered as Klassic. Of course, like any other Krim fanatic, I own it and play it.
The fourth KC album, 1971’s Islands obviously features a completely new line-up of the band. It also sounds completely different to what had gone before. It has jazz musicians (including Tippett), a soprano voice and a string orchestra. It still doesn’t sound like anyone else, though. What it hints at is where Fripp’s mind is heading for the future. With two tracks that also pop up in the current band’s setlists, “Sailor’s Tale” and “The Letters” plus the album’s title track, there are three possible contenders for some kind of Klassic status.
After Islands, Fripp and Sinfield parted company, and Fripp was once again without a band. I am not going to go into the ins and outs of why Robert Fripp and his band colleagues never stayed together for long, but it is clear that Fripp is not an easy man to work with and is a pretty dominant character with strong ideas what is and isn’t King Crimson. I’d say that it is his single-mindedness and vision that makes each version of KC “real” and vital. If you want to read more about this side of things there is an excellent history of the band by Sid Smith titled In “In The Court Of King Crimson” and there are some interesting observations on the subject in an autobiography written by Bill Bruford, who became the drummer in the next KC band.
I think that the 1972-74 incarnation of King Crimson produced the greatest Krim music in the band’s long history. Although the line-up that recorded Larks’ Tongues in Aspic lost a key member, percussionist Jamie Muir shortly before the album was released in March 1973, the core membership of Robert Fripp, John Wetton, Bill Bruford and David Cross went on to release Starless and Bible Black and Red in 1974, the latter album without Cross, who had been sacked after the 1974 American tour.
For me, this trio of albums is where the real classic sound lies, even though the sound itself gradually becomes harder, more jagged, more intricate and more metallic with each release. None of these albums sound like anything else that people were releasing in this period. Indeed, they still don’t. They epitomise the whole KC ethos. They still have swooping mellotrons, doom-laden and fantastical lyrics, jazzy influences, snippets of modern European classical music, strange and obscure cover images (apart from Red), discordant juxtapositions of sounds, virtuoso musicianship, weird time signatures and Fripp’s seemingly endlessly-sustained guitar sound, but they also have a richness and depth in the percussion and in the variety of instrumentation, plus a seemingly perverse desire to play music that is technically boggling in its complexity.
There are classics aplenty here. “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic Pts 1 and 2“, both instrumentals, define the blueprint for all three albums, and “Exiles” draws on the epic scale tracks of the first two albums augmented by a haunting David Cross violin melody which in many ways acts as a coda for all previous Crimson epics. “Easy Money” is another contender for the classic sound, but in a new way. It is hard, brutal even, but it shows the way forward. There are more instrumental tracks on the next album, two of which might be seen as classic. Both “Starless and Bible Black” and “Fracture” are the new sound personified, pointing the way to the sound on the third part of this album trilogy. With the exception of the live improvisation “Providence“, I would suggest that every track on Red, i.e. “Fallen Angel“, “One More Red Nightmare“, “Starless” and the title track are all definite Klassic Krim.
Of course, Red was the end of an era. The band was dissolved by Fripp and he went off to pastures new in New York. He reformed King Crimson 1981 and the band came back with a completely different sound and a new lineup, with only Bill Bruford retained. This version of the band saw the arrival of Tony Levin and Adrian Belew. Much as I love the music produced in the 1980s and 1990s by KC, I cannot in all honestly say that it represents the classic sound, mainly because it pretty much draws on and redefines what went before. I hear echoes from the past in much of it, even though the various permutations of members also produced some stunning new sounds.
So, for me, the classic sound of King Crimson comes somewhere from the 1969-1974 period. I knew before I started which track I was going to pick. I was lucky enough to see the band on tour in 2015 and when they played the track I am choosing I burst into tears.
It is THIS SONG HERE.