Long Live the King (Crimson)

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MY previous columns on Genesis and Yes seemed to go down well with discerning readers, so here’s a look at another pillar of the progressive establishment, the mighty King Crimson.

Led by the brilliant Robert Fripp, Crimson combined psychedelia, jazz, classical music, folk and rock in a heady mix which has continued to inspire the band’s dedicated followers for half a century.

Fripp, son of an estate agent, was born in Wimborne Minster, Dorset, on May 16, 1946. At the age of ten he received a guitar for Christmas and ‘almost immediately I knew this was going to be my life’. He joined his first band, the Ravens, at 15, with his school friend Gordon Haskell on bass. He then played with a jazz trio before taking up with The League of Gentlemen, a rock and roll outfit. In 1965 he started his A-levels at Bournemouth College, where over the next couple of years he met future collaborators Greg Lake, John Wetton and Richard Palmer-James.

In 1967 Bournemouth drummer Michael Giles and his bass-playing brother Peter placed an advert seeking an organ-playing vocalist to join their group. Despite being a non-singing guitarist, the 20-year-old Fripp answered the ad and persuaded them to hire him. Giles, Giles and Fripp made a few unsuccessful singles and the wacky LP The Cheerful Insanity Of . . . whose opening track North Meadow reveals Robert to be already something of a wizard on the axe.

The Gileses finally got their organist when Ian McDonald was recruited on keyboards, woodwind and reeds. He in turn brought in his friend Pete Sinfield as a roadie and lyricist. Peter Giles then left to be replaced on bass and vocals by Fripp’s chum Greg Lake. In early 1969 the band became King Crimson, a name suggested by Sinfield. A crimson king is one who oversees unrest and bloodshed – at the time there was widespread opposition to US involvement in Vietnam. At McDonald’s suggestion the band bought a Mellotron, the keyboard instrument that replicated the sound of an orchestra, as used heavily by the Moody Blues. And they began to develop their own idiosyncratic style. In Sinfield’s words, ‘If it sounded at all popular, it was out. So it had to be complicated, it had to be more expansive chords, it had to have strange influences. If it sounded, like, too simple, we’d make it more complicated, we’d play it in 7/8 or 5/8, just to show off.’

The band’s live debut in July that year was a small gig – the Rolling Stones’ free concert in Hyde Park in front of an audience of up to half a million. Others on the bill were Screw, the Third Ear Band (bet that got ’em up and dancing), Family, the Battered Ornaments, Roy Harper and Alexis Korner’s New Church. Fripp’s main recollection of the event was that the weather was nice.

In the Court of the Crimson King was released in November on Island Records, at the time the hub of rock creativity. Its striking cover, an anticipation of Andy Murray’s expression after winning a key point at tennis, was painted by a computer programmer named Barry Godber, who died shortly after the album came out. Pete Townshend of the Who described it as ‘an uncanny masterpiece’ and it shot to No 5 in the UK LP charts.

The first track, 21st Century Schizoid Man, was a revelation with its gargantuan brass and guitar riff, distorted vocals and rapidly changing time signatures. Despite being later praised by Tony Blair, who loved the guitar solo, it was a hugely influential piece hailed as a landmark in progressive music. By contrast, the hippyish I Talk to the Wind is a much more delicate affair. Back to high drama for Epitaph, which begins with Fripp’s sinuous guitar set against soaring mellotron and continues for almost nine brilliant minutes with themes including Mars, Bringer of War, from Holst’s The Planets.   

Over to side two, and the 12-minute Moonchild followed by the magnificent title track. What an achievement. Rolling Stone magazine in 2015 described it as one of the greatest prog albums of all time, second only to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. I’d put it at first. Sadly, I have been unable to provide links to the original tracks as they are not available on YouTube for reasons best known to Mr Fripp. Some versions are posted, with extra commentary.

After a fraught US tour, McDonald, Giles and Lake quit the band leaving Fripp as the only musician, along with Sinfield, who learned to play synthesisers. Together they recorded a second album, 1970’s In the Wake of Poseidon, with the Giles brothers hired as session men along with pianist Keith Tippett and saxophonist Mel Collins. Elton John was considered as guest vocalist but in the end Lake agreed to sing, taking the band’s public address system as payment. Poseidon, I feel, suffers by comparison with its predecessor but still has its moments, especially the lovely Cadence and Cascade sung by Gordon Haskell, who came in after Greg left to form Emerson Lake and Palmer. Longest track is the 11-minute instrumental The Devil’s Triangle, which again features themes from Holst’s Mars.

Haskell, who had played in the band Fleur de Lys with Bryn Haworth, and Collins were then persuaded to join ‘permanently’, with drummer Andy McCulloch, and Crimson’s third album Lizard was released before the year was out. This again featured as a session man Tippett, who resisted repeated overtures to join the group, along with a brass and woodwind session of Mark Charig, Nick Evans and Robin Miller. Jon Anderson, from Yes, was brought in to sing on Prince Rupert Awakes, first part of the 23-minute title track which made up the whole of Side Two.

By this point Fripp had taken on keyboards as well as guitar. Lizard, jazzier than its predecessors, was less commercially successful reaching only No 29 in the UK charts compared with top five positions for the other two. Haskell and McCulloch didn’t like it, preferring a less complex approach, and were on their bikes. Haskell quickly made an album of his own, It Is And It Isn’t, and went on to enjoy a long solo career.

McCulloch was replaced on drums by Ian Wallace. Bryan Ferry auditioned as vocalist but the position was filled by Boz Burrell, who had met Fripp when both performed in Tippett’s massive jazz project Centipede. Rick Kemp was hired as bassist but left after two weeks and later joined Steeleye Span. Rather than find a replacement, Fripp and Wallace taught Burrell to play bass from scratch, and a willing and able pupil he proved.

In late 1971 came Islands, the last album to feature Sinfield’s lyrics before Fripp gave him the bum’s rush and became undisputed leader of the band, although he preferred to be described as ‘quality control’. While it is regarded by many as Crimson’s weakest album so far, it has two of my favourite passages by the group. The first is Fripp’s amazing, percussive guitar break on Sailor’s Tale and the second is a long and beautiful cornet solo by Mark Charig at the end of the title track.

After a tour to promote Islands, which produced the mediocre, badly recorded budget live album Earthbound, Fripp decided the rest of the band did not fit in with his new ideas, drawing less on American rock influences and more on stark European music such as the work of Hungarian composer Bela Bartok. The result was a fresh band and radical sound, about which more next week.

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