King Crimson is one of the most important bands in the history of music. It pioneered a new genre of music, and has repeatedly broken new musical ground. Every single one of King Crimson’s musical innovations has been hugely influential on a wide range of bands and artists.
King Crimson was founded in 1968, and laid the foundation for the prog rock genre with its debut album, In The Court of the Crimson King, which also contained prototype heavy metal. King Crimson has since incorporated influences from 20th century classical music, folk music, African music, jazz and free jazz, funk, new wave, gamelan, pointillism, minimalist, ambient, psychedelic rock, industrial music, electronica and even drums ‘n bass and techno.
In the 54 years since its inception, King Crimson has gone through countless personnel changes, with guitarist Robert Fripp as the band’s leader and only continuous member. New line-ups of King Crimson often played in a musical style that’s completely different than that of previous incarnations.
The many different incarnations of King Crimson, and the radically different kinds of music each incarnation played, resulted in an oeuvre of stunning diversity. It warrants breaking up our discussion of King Crimson in two videos. In this blog we look at the period 1968 – 1974. In part two we’ll look at the band from 1981 until today.
The origins of King Crimson can be traced back to Wimborne Minster, a small town in Dorset in south-west England, where Robert Fripp was born in 1946. His parents gave him a guitar on December 24, 1957, when he was 11.
Fripp’s early musical influences were unusually wide-ranging, and included jazz musicians like Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker, Elvis’ guitar player Scotty Moore, and a little later Django Reinhardt, Jimi Hendrix and classical composers Antonín Dvořák, Béla Bartók and Igor Stravinsky. The music and production concepts of The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band also were of particular interest to him.
Fripp played in various bands during his formative years, including The Ravens and the jazz band Majestic Dance Orchestra. In 1967, he joined forces with two brothers, drummer Michael Giles and bassist Peter Giles. The trio moved to London, and recorded one album at Decca Studio number 2 called The Cheerful Insanity of Giles, Giles and Fripp (1968), which contained whimsical folk and psychedelic pop.
When Giles, Giles and Fripp failed to find success, Peter Giles left, and was replaced by bassist and singer Greg Lake, a friend of Fripp from their Dorset days. Saxophone, flute and keyboard player Ian McDonald also joined, and he introduced Peter Sinfield, a computer programmer and a poet.
BIRTH OF KING CRIMSON
The quintet of Michael Giles, Greg Lake, Ian McDonald, Peter Sinfield and Fripp decided to call itself King Crimson on November 30th, 1968. Their first rehearsal took place on January 13, 1969, in the basement of Fulham Palace Café in west London.
The band spent three months working hard at writing and practicing new material, and made its debut at London’s Speakeasy club on April 9, 1969. On July 5th, the band performed at a free concert in Hyde Park in central London, as support act to The Rolling Stones. By the time King Crimson had ripped through an incendiary and high speed version of their song “21st Century Schizoid Man,” half a million mouths were agape, and everyone in the audience knew a spectacular new act had arrived.
By this point, King Crimson had signed a management and a record deal with EG Management, and was working in its debut album, recorded during July and August at Wessex Sound Studios in North London, to 1-inch 8-track, with Robin Thompson engineering.
Unusually for the time, King Crimson produced the recordings themselves. They were aware that the sound of the Mellotron was crucial, and Ian McDonald repeatedly overdubbed the keyboard instrument, and also his saxophone and flute, sometimes using five generations of tape to achieve the depth of sound they were after.
IN THE COURT OF THE CRIMSON KING
In The Court of the Crimson King was released on October 10, 1969. Helped by the startling cover, painted by computer programmer Barry Godber, it climbed to number five in the UK albums chart and number 28 in America.
Over the years, In The Court of the Crimson King has become universally recognized as a masterpiece. One critic has written that it “blew the doors off musical convention and cemented these quintessentially British innovators’ place in rock history for all time,” and another called it “maybe the most influential progressive rock album ever released.”
In The Court of the Crimson King is in some respects a tale of two albums. “21st Century Schizoid Man” is a piece of spectacular protoheavy metal that contains many of the characteristics that would be at the heart of much of King Crimson’s later music. Most of all there’s the sheer visceral power of the track. Other pieces on the album used the Mellotron extensively, and incorporated gentle folk, symphonic rock, and free jazz.
King Crimson had set the world of music alight in 1969. It was a stunning achievement but soon tensions and cracks started to show. McDonald and Giles left the band at the end of 1969, after their first US tour. Fripp later explained that the band had entered “a “transitional period, during which it was important for King Crimson to remain alive.”
The period has been called “interregnum,” and lasted from the beginning of 1970 until the middle of 1972. During these years three albums were recorded, In The Wake of Poseidon, Lizard (both 1970) and Islands (1971). Fripp and Sinfield were the two main members, with the guitarist writing all the music, and the latter the words.
In The Wake of Poseidon was again recorded at Wessex Studios, with Tony Page and Robin Thompson engineering. Greg Lake had by this stage agreed to join Emerson, Lake and Palmer, but after Fripp turned down two unknown singers, one called Elton John and the other Bryan Ferry, Lake agreed to sing most songs as a special guest. The music on In The Wake of Poseidon lacks the visceral power of “21st Century Schizoid Man” and contains music with predominantly classical, folk, and jazz-rock influences. Lizard was also recorded at Wessex Sound, with Robin Thompson engineering, and the music is very much a development of the previous album, and Jon Anderson of Yes sings one track.
The band’s third album, Islands, was recorded at Command Studios by Andy Hendrikson. The music on Islands again has strong jazz, classical, and folk influences. In June 1972, King Crimson’s first live album was released, Earthbound, featuring the same band as on Islands.
Robert Fripp was dissatisfied with the second incarnation of King Crimson, and wanted to move the band into a more aggressive, avantgarde and rock-orientated direction. He disbanded the group in May of 1972, and immediately made several phone calls to form a new band.
First on his shortlist was avant-garde percussionist Jamie Muir, who had worked with jazz-rock guitarist Allan Holdsworth and avant-garde guitarist Derek Bailey. Next up was John Wetton, who Fripp knew from their Dorset days, and who had worked in Family. Fripp also managed to convince Yes drummer Bill Bruford to abandon the successful prog rock band and switch to King Crimson. To eliminate the jazz leanings of the band, Fripp decided to go without a horn player, and instead recruited classically-trained violinist and keyboardist David Cross.
The new quintet started rehearsals on September 4, 1972, and played its first gigs in October 1972. Fripp was extremely happy with the music of this new line-up, and widely declared that the “magic” of King Crimson had reappeared. The live performances of the group were intense and impactful. Muir made a particularly big impression, with his wild stage antics and extensive range of percussion instruments.
In January and February of 1973, the quintet went to Command Studios in London to record its first record, which was self-produced and engineered by Nick Ryan. The resulting album, Larks’ Tongues In Aspic, was spectacular. King Crimson had finally produced an album as good, if not better, than its debut.
The two title tracks, “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part One,” and in particular “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part Two,” became the blueprint for an abrasive, almost atonal, avant-garde rock style, usually written by Fripp, that has become one of the main characteristic of King Crimson. By contrast, “Book of Saturday” showed the polar opposite: a tender, gorgeous ballad of the highest quality, sung by Wetton.
During a gig in February of 1973, a gong fell on Muir’s foot, and he was sufficiently injured to be unable to continue to play live. A week after the release of Larks’ Tongues In Aspic, Muir left the band and went to live in a Buddhist monastery in Scotland.
Given the band’s spectacular performances, Fripp hit on the idea of basing a new studio album on their live performances. The resulting album, Starless and Bible Black, was released in March 1974, and is mostly based on live recordings from 1973, in Amsterdam, Zurich and Glasgow.
Only two tracks, “The Great Deceiver,” and “Lament” were entirely recorded at Air Studios in London. The ballad “The Night Watch” was partly recorded at Air and partly live in Amsterdam. The entire album was edited and mixed at Air, with George Chkiantz engineering.
The music on Starless and Bible Black is a development of Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, with “Fracture” another piece of abrasive, wholetone avant-heavy metal, and “The Night Watch” another sumptuous ballad, with an exquisite guitar solo by Fripp. He commented many years later that “Fracture” “remains one of the hardest pieces I have ever played in public.”
Around the time of the release of Starless And Bible Black, cracks were beginning to show in the third incarnation of King Crimson as well. Violinist David Cross expressed his frustration with losing the onstage loudness battle with the other instruments, and complained that “most of our improvisations come out of horror and panic.”
King Crimson Mark 3 played its last concert on July 1, 1974, in Central Park in New York, days after the live recordings for another live album, USA, which was not released until 1975. David Cross left the band immediately after the tour, and on July 8th, 1974, Fripp, Wetton, and Bruford went to Olympic Studio 2 in London to record another album, with engineer George Chkiantz again at the controls.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the tense circumstances, the resulting album, Red, became arguably the highlight and defining achievement of King Crimson’s entire career. Similar to on Starless And Bible Black, one live track was included, “Providence,” recorded on June 30th, 1974, in Rhode Island, with David Cross on violin.
The other four tracks were all recorded at Olympic studios. Fripp has communicated on several occasions that Red is one of the few if only studio albums that really conveys the power of Crimson as a live band. The immense power of the band is immediately and fully realized on Red’s opening title track. By contrast, “Fallen Angel” and “One More Red Nightmare” are more traditionally melodic, and feature the reintroduction of wind instruments like saxophone, cornet and oboe.
However, the highpoint of the album, and arguably of King Crimson’s entire oeuvre, is the 12-minute long closing track, “Starless.” Featuring Ian McDonald and Mel Collins on saxophones, and Julian Lloyd Webber on cello, the track starts with a melancholy ballad in G minor, in the vein of “Book of Saturday” and “The Night Watch,” featuring a Mellotron, and a majestic instrumental theme played by Fripp.
The ballad transitions into an instrumental section that and gradually builds in intensity, until dramatic return to the earlier majestic theme, played on saxophone this time. The track is a masterpiece of melodic inventiveness, suspense, and in gradually building up to an astonishing climax. Red has been called “progressive rock’s finest hour.”
Just before the release of Red in October, 1974, Fripp announced the end of King Crimson. The guitarist took a three year hiatus from the music industry, and then played on albums by David Bowie and Peter Gabriel, before reforming King Crimson in 1981.
Fripp’s Discipline Global Mobile label has over the years released a significant number of boxed number of boxed sets with material from the 1968-1974 era, with a heavy emphasis on the 1972-74 band. This started with the release of the 4-CD boxed set The Great Deceiver in 1992, which contained live performances from 1973 and 74, and The Night Watch in 1997, with the entire Amsterdam concert from which much of Starless and Bible Black was taken.
In 2012, 2013 and 2014, DMG released three 40th anniversary edition boxed sets that cover the 1972-74 incarnation of King Crimson, containing a whopping 64 discs in total. The boxed sets are called Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Starless and The Road To Red.
The arc that spans from “21st Century Schizoid Man,” the first track on band’s first album, released in 1969, to “Starless,” the last track on Red, released in 1974, encompasses many remarkable creative achievements that changed music, and that continue to be a strong influence on music today.
© 2022, Paul Tingen.