On King Crimson’s despatches from the rabbit hole

The Further Listening series

“On January the 13th 1969, King Crimson was born, in the basement of the Fulham Palace café, on the Fulham Palace Road, in London…it was a Monday”.

And on the 10th of October 1969 King Crimson released their debut album ‘In the Court of the Crimson King’…it was a Friday. It was a debut that would retain a reputation, longevity, and brand recognition that would extend well beyond anything that Robert Fripp subsequently achieved with King Crimson and its revolving door of clientele. Musos across the spectrum of fandom regard ‘In the Court of the Crimson King’ as a near perfect album.

From the breakneck intensity of ‘21st Century Schizoid Man’, the lighthearted whimsy of ‘I Talk to the Wind’, the heavy solemnity of ‘Epitaph’, the ethereal entropy of ‘Moonchild’, and the epic bombast of the title track, every moment fits so snuggly that the album almost looks like five self-contained instances of musical inevitability.

The debate as to whether this was the first progressive rock album is frankly moot. For all the dense musicality that British prog artists were throwing out during this period, nothing quite sounded like this. But for King Crimson, as with any band that emerges fresh faced on a debut with such a fully realised vision, every subsequent step would be graded on an impossibly high curve.

After a successful round of gigs in support of the album both in the UK and US, the line up immediately collapsed around Fripp, with Greg Lake going on to form the “Lake” of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and remaining members Michael Giles and Ian McDonald both departing due to creative differences. But the album had already solidified King Crimson’s status as both the disaffected godfather of progressive rock and its black sheep in an already pretty crowded field of contenders.

From then on they were not a band in the traditional sense. Steered by the quintessentially soft spoken music nerd in Robert Fripp, the direction King Crimson took after ‘In the Court of Crimson King’ was so wildly different from anything Yes, Genesis, Gentle Giant, Camel or any prog band of the era were doing that it may be misleading to even refer to King Crimson as a progressive rock band full stop. Although in the literally descriptive sense the “progressive” tag is entirely appropriate, this was a very different beast to the popularist prog of the day.

Out of their run of albums in the early 1970s, only the immediate follow up ‘In the Wake of Poseidon’ followed the debut’s lead, and as a result is often unfairly dismissed as a collection of ‘In the Court of the Crimson King’ offcuts. It’s certainly true that it suffers from a similar malaise to The Doors’ ‘Strange Days’, an album equally overshadowed by an iconic debut and equally positioned as the love starved younger sibling. But ‘In the Wake of Poseidon’ is still a dense and challenging work of experimental music, even if it falls short as far as taut structure and immersively powerful theatre is concerned. But as with any critique of their work, we must remember the curve we are grading on.

By the early 1970s they were flirting with an early form of noise rock. This breed of jazz informed dissonance smashed against neoclassical chamber music and dark soulful ballads is sometimes rather unhelpfully referred to as “art rock”. Brass, violins, mellotron, woodwind, cello, whistles, and all manner of percussive mayhem were deployed across these soundscapes, all bizarrely contextualised in phantasmagorical arrangements. It remains a concoction that some find hard to swallow, and only solidifies the debut’s reputation as somehow above King Crimson the entity.

A run of four albums were to follow ‘In the Wake of Poseidon’ from 1970 through to 1974. ‘Lizard’, ‘Islands’, ‘Larks’ Tongues in Aspic’, and ‘Starless and Bible Black’. Members would come and go, but no complete line-up was to survive from one album to the next. Although this hampered their ability to perform live, concerts were forthcoming, including tours of the US and television appearances. Watching the footage from this era one gets the impression of musicians pushing themselves to the absolute limit of both their abilities and artistic credibility.

At the centre of it all was Robert Fripp. In apparent defiance of heavy rock mores, he would play guitar seated, staring intensely at his bandmates, only occasionally glancing at the fretboard as he slowly ground rock conventions down into an artefact of sound in a state of constant flux, formed not from riffs but musical sentences, paragraphs, novels. This single minded rumination fed into an idiosyncratic stage presence that seemed to challenge the overblown swaggering live personas of his contemporaries.

Progressive rock has always existed where humour and sublimity meet. Any music that makes a point of following ideas and concepts through to their absolute limit with such relentless perseverance will inevitably end in absurdity. But despite Fripp’s intensely sober stage persona, he has always maintained a great sense of humour about himself and his music. It is not art, he claims, but rather a craft to be plugged away at over hours of daily practice, and through a process of constant honing and refining one may stumble on something that could be called artistic experience, almost by happenstance.

But across these four albums one can still hear a diversity of voices harvested from the talent of the British progressive rock scene. To some, this means that for all the intriguing experimental avenues these albums take they are wildly inconsistent both in style and quality. Others look at it a different way. King Crimson became a sounding board for rock music’s most experimental impulses. A creative space safely squirreled away from progressive rock’s ever swelling publics, demanding their pound of flesh in easily recognisable styles and brands. King Crimson were the bridge between rock’s dramatic maturation in the early 1970s and esoteric noise art.

Drummer Bill Bruford climbed into this space in 1972 after leaving Yes. His account of joining such an arena – dominated by the vice like grip that Fripp maintained over his project – is particularly telling. Musicians were discouraged, nay forbidden, from bringing their own pre-existing style to the table. They must instead develop a new style, one exclusive to King Crimson, one to be played in no other context but King Crimson. Those that were unable to achieve this were shown the door, those that stuck it out added fuel to the fire of Crimson’s increasingly insalubrious attitude toward accessibility.

But for fans wishing to assign a retrospective teleology to this plethora of creative non-sequiturs, the final album in the first incarnation of King Crimson and the only truly worthy successor to ‘In the Court of the Crimson King’ came in October 1974 in the form of ‘Red’. Within serious music circles where King Crimson fandom is the stock in trade, there is a tendency to overplaying the weaker aspects and excessively gush over the strong. ‘Red’ is second only to the debut in the amount of hyperbole that comes its way, but it is fair to say that there is a visceral, vital quality that runs through this album lacking on its predecessors.

If the ‘Lizard’ through to ‘Starless and Bible Black’ run could be described as a sounding board, a series of musical suggestions and hesitant expeditions into unmapped territory, ‘Red’ was the terrain now fully charted with its own sense of scale and topography. Fripp’s penchant for dissonance is on full display, alongside the usual free flowing attitude to time signature and key, but all is self-contained in a wonderfully uncanny world of dark mirages, nightmarishly angular chambers, and lamentations that bleed into full blown nihilism by the closing number ‘Starless’. This was a dark, mature, all too sober iteration of the progressive rock project that once again dated much of the competition almost immediately. It was also the funeral dirge for this era of King Crimson, as line-up changes and a growing disillusionment with the music industry finally took its toll.

By 1981 Fripp was ready once again to revive the project, reuniting with Bruford, and – in a first for King Crimson – recruiting a second guitarist in Adrian Belew, who would also take up vocal duties. Tony Levin – who had previously worked with Peter Gabriel – joined on bass. In another first for King Crimson this line up was fixed in place for a solid three album run. And in the final and perhaps most controversial first for the band, they would face the pop demons head on and ride the waves of accessibility.

Unlike pop turns from the likes of Yes and Genesis however, King Crimson retained a brainy technicality that make the three albums of the early 1980s in ‘Discipline’, ‘Beat’, and ‘Three of a Perfect Pair’ critical darlings to this day. Gone was the angular, disjointed, and at times anomic Crimson of the early 70s, in were elements of funk, new wave, post punk, and afrobeat. Prima facie the Talking Heads comparison makes sense, a connection only solidified by Adrian Belew’s vocals similarities to David Bryne. But although the parallels are not without merit, these albums inhabited their own world, both unlike anything Crimson had done before and utterly distinct from even the most highbrow aspirations of early 80s new wave and are often referred to as foundational math rock. 

‘Discipline’ may be the most highly regarded, adopting the role of ‘Red’ in this era owing to its integration of concept, vision, variety, and conceptual unity. Belew’s soaring guitar tones that imitated the calls of animals were the perfect contrast to Fripp’s mathematically tight arpeggios. The follow up ‘Beat’ as undoubtably the poppiest of the trio. But many radio friendly songs are spread across these albums, Bruford’s complex rhythmic acrobatics alongside the bizarre lyrics of Belew marked even ‘Beat’ apart as an odd duck of curiosities. The gloves well and truly came off for ‘Three of a Perfect’ released in 1984 however. The opening “left” side frontloads the album with more quirky, catchy, layered pop numbers, only for the “right” side to tail off into trademark Crimson experimentation.

But the signs of another flag in creativity can be found in that word: “trademark”. For listeners used to the full fat abrasive jazz of the early years, the new wave era tends to catch one off guard. But over time, the vibrant polyrhythms, soaring and utterly novel vocal melodies, and pulsing Chapman Stick bass work all mesh into a perfect entity of challenging and addictively accessible music. The problems set in when this iteration of King Crimson attempted to indulge their experimental impetuses head on by the second half of ‘Three of a Perfect’.

The album lurches violently toward the ambiguous, off the wall noise that Fripp was known for, yet achieves this in a manner that was paradoxically colour-by-numbers. They had become, if later than their fellow progsters, a little too close to formulaic for comfort in spite of their explicitly freeform ethos. And we are once again left with music that is still exceptional when considered in the wider context of the pop environment of the early 1980s, but grading ‘Three of a Perfect Pair’ on the Crimson curve leaves it coming up just short perfection.  In 1984 Fripp disbanded King Crimson for a second time.

But the 1990s were not to be left without a Crimson incarnation. Belew was not ready to call it quits back in 1984, and by the early 1990s he floated the idea of a reformation to Fripp. This bore fruit in the form of the ‘VROOOM’ EP released in 1994, quickly followed by the full length ‘THRAK’ in 1995. Boasting a mixture of the older dissonant jazz style and the rock-solid grooves of the 80s incarnation, it’s hard to know what to make of this material.

On the one hand the case could be made that we are getting the best of both worlds. Belew’s off the wall lyrics are front and centre (he even narrates life as a dinosaur on the six minute Primus-esque romp that is ‘Dinosaur’), as is a juiced up version of Fripp’s tinny guitar tone as it circles and meanders around clusters of chords and notes that feel like they should be melodies but are anything but. Yet on the other hand, although it would be deeply unfair to say that there were signs of Crimson revivalism creeping in, there’s no getting away from the fact that ‘THRAK’ is in part a revamped and modernised rerun of ‘Red’.

The production is heavier, the noise segments are noisier, the clashing crescendos are all the more intense, and there is a marked and welcome 90s quirkiness bleeding into the formula. But we are still left with the impression that this is a collection of B-sides. It is probably overstating it to say that this is a flat tour of familiar beats as the music is still remarkable by any normal measure.

Whatever question marks lingered over ‘THRAK’ are quickly put aside when we consider ‘The ConstruKction of Light’ released in 2000. After struggling with follow up material to ‘THRAK’, Fripp created the ProjeKts, describing them as a research and development space for new Crimson material, a series of improvisations amongst the different members of this incarnation. In part this was designed to turn the constant churn of clientele into a boon rather than a curse.

The freeform jams that came out of the ProjeKts were expected to provide the foundational material for a new King Crimson release. And in true Crimson style, the album that followed in ‘The ConstruKction of Light’ had absolutely no connection to the ProjeKts at all. Instead, we get what is possibly the strangest album in their entire discography.

An electronic drum kit sits beneath a band that sounds like it’s trying to play knock offs of the Spin Doctors, but Fripp’s guitar is pretty intent on waging war on this endeavour by spitting forth an array of outrageous screams, undulating arpeggios and scale runs that feel like blues trying to turn itself inside out. If there’s one thing that can be said of this era of Crimson, they make the quirky alternative rock popularised in the early 90s look like bland drivel by comparison. Fripp’s intimidatingly unhinged playing on ‘The ConstruKction of Light’ is only matched by Belew’s casual attitude to stanza and cadence. 

But this was also a step beyond where many fans were willing to follow. In rock’s first truly postmodern decade, its first truly postmodern band leapt too far into the great unknown even for dedicated followers of Fripp’s work. One yearned for the good old days when experimentation meant flirtatious time signatures and abrasive saxophone solos, not these grossly uncanny golems of dissonant blues/funk/noise.

But a reappraisal of ‘The ConstruKction of Light’ is long overdue. Twenty plus years on it sounds as fresh and weird as ever, with Fripp’s guitar work reaching inhuman levels of complexity. 2003’s ‘The Power to Believe’ could be read as a continuation/expansion on this direction. The production is heavier, the industrial influences creep further in toward centre stage, the surrealist loose grooves of Primus are even more unhinged. Having proved pivotal to the evolution of heavy rock and metal in the early 1970s, a constant reminder of what this music could achieve given a little daring, they were now harvesting influences from the genres they had a hand in fashioning and outplaying the youngsters at their own game.

Following many extended tours in the 2010s with yet another line-up, Fripp spent lockdown 2020 recording bizarre covers of popular numbers with his wife Toyah Willcox from their kitchen, once again displaying an ambiguous relationship with artistic seriousness. This was no doubt some lighthearted fun for fans to enjoy during the long COVID hibernation. But there was a deadpan undertone to their delivery that made the comedic tone hard to gauge. The audience is unsure whether it’s the butt or recipient of the joke.

We may be clutching at straws to find a metaphor behind the bizarre turns in Fripp’s relationship to his fanbase. But that fanbase has always prided itself on being privy to insider knowledge, a special access that lets them know that if there’s a joke, they’re in on it, and if there’s a deeper meaning, they divined it. King Crimson fandom is anathema to the undiluted fun of these kitchen jams.

It is a source of continuous frustration and enigmatic pride that – with the exception of the immediate follow up – King Crimson never once tried to recapture the magic of the debut. Of all the lessons we could wish to learn from Crimson’s many peaks and troughs it all comes back to that idea expressed by Bruford; dispense with anything you knew or did previously in order to develop a style that simply could not exist anywhere else. Crimson’s many flops were still miles ahead of the nearest competition precisely because the disciplined brain of Fripp was unable to accommodate anything less.

Call it sacrifice, or better yet discipline, but they never once explicitly cashed in or settled for more of the same. For that they were relegated to the category of “almost famous”, never achieving the mass appeal of their contemporaries. But a macro scale audience is a notoriously fickle entity. The shadows of ‘In the Court of Crimson King’ continue to linger over their discography. It’s a shibboleth of an album for musos. At once more serious and highbrow than the usual classic prog fodder, yet boasting an appeal that transcends time and genre and even the musicians that created it. It’s the classic rock album we name drop to let people know we’re serious. “Oh, sure you like Hendrix, Zepplin, and Floyd, but what about King Crimson?”.

This degree of fandom may be obnoxious to encounter. But for Fripp himself, it has solidified his legacy as an artisan of great integrity, respected from across the musical landscape by a class of listener that certainly won’t be going anywhere any time soon. Their position as a “graduation” band is now indisputable, the kind of listening experience one seeks out to open the door, and discover just how deep the rabbit hole of the weird really goes.

2 thoughts on “On King Crimson’s despatches from the rabbit hole

Add yours

  1. Great write-up mate. Much more up my street than much of the usual black metal oriented fare. Have you looked into Van Der Graaf Generator much? They were in many ways a parallel to King Crimson in terms of originality. Still making their unique brand of challenging music too. Both bands widely regarded as primary influences on Tool of course.

    On Bruford, I remember reading Fripp’s famous quote to him. he needed a drummer so approached him and said “I think you’re ready to join King Crimson now”.

    Another notable album from just after the Red era is the eponymous one by prog supergroup “UK” featuring Bruford and Wetton and also Allan Holdsworth (the guitarist’s guitarist).

    Liked by 1 person

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