King Crimson: A 21st Century Guide

Part 1: 1969-1974

King Crimson burst onto a musical scene that was replete with experimentalism, the addition of new levels of musicianship and a blending of stylistic elements in rock and popular music. Just as the global political, cultural, and social climates were engaged in heady change, so was the musical landscape. Interestingly, jazz music also underwent a similar stage at this time, and crossover between jazz and rock was increasingly the norm.

The behemoth of progressive (‘prog’) rock was about to be invented and defined, as usual by a music press and industry that had a vested interest in the ‘next big thing.’ But in 1969, King Crimson, Yes, and a fledgling Genesis were developing in ways that still paid tribute to the music which proceeded true prog rock: heavy guitar vibes a la Hendrix, and a nice helping  of psychedelia.

Court of the Crimson King album cover by Barry Godber
Art of the Album: In the Court of the Crimson King by Barry Godber

“Since 1992 it has again been possible to discuss without whispering the music of 1969-1976,” Crimson founder Robert Fripp recently opined in liner notes to the collection The Night Watch. “But I offer no apology for the transparently pratty music played by young dopes wearing satin.” Which is interesting considering that the group’s debut, with typically future-medieval lyrics by Peter Sinfield, would seem the very definition of what Fripp is disparaging here. “I don’t think I was really part of the progressive scene,” he says.  “I was just playing music in that period.”

Despite the fact that a great deal of the music played by the original Crimson lineup of Robert Fripp/Ian McDonald/Greg Lake/Michael Giles/Peter Sinfield was, indeed, part of the progressive scene, there is no question that the entity that is King Crimson, has transcended that initial identity and a good many others besides. The band has thrived on personnel changes and as a result, on musical change as well.

While more ‘successful’ (at the time) prog rock acts such as Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer solidified their sounds and approaches and then repeated them consistently until a change in musical styles forced them to reconsider their approaches, King Crimson has changed personnel, and even disbanded for lengthy periods of time, only to re-emerge when there is, in the words of Fripp himself, “Crimson music to be made.” That music rarely has much in common with the music created by the lineup of musicians which preceded the current one, though post-millennial editions of the group have begun to sound, at times, alarmingly similar.

Mach I: 1/13/69—12/69

Michael Giles (drums) and his brother Peter (bass) sought to put together a sort of power trio in late 1967. Robert Fripp responded to their advertisement for a singing organist, resulting in the group Giles, Giles, and Fripp. Their lone LP, The Cheerful Insantiy of Giles, Giles, and Fripp, is jazzy and sometimes reminiscent of the Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd’s psychedelic pop. The album was not particularly well received and the group began to morph almost immediately.

Fripp brought in Ian McDonald, a multi-instrumentalist and composer who played keyboards and a variety of woodwind instruments. Also coming along was lyricist Peter Sinfield, with whom McDonald had been writing songs. The group was complete with the replacement of Peter Giles by Greg Lake, a singer-guitarist who Fripp had known for many years. The group invested in a Mellotron, which was a large expense at the time, but which helped create a distinctive orchestral sound that added a profound dimension to the group’s sonic landscape. Essentially a keyboard-driven primitive sampler, the instrument allows brief (8 second) sound samples to be played back by a tape head when a key is depressed. The group used the instrument to great effect on the title track of their debut recording In the Court of the Crimson King.

While In the Court of the Crimson King contains many elements of what would come to be defined as the prog rock sound, it is an undeniably beautiful album that, while still influenced by the psychedelic imagery of the time, contains a much darker, edgier overall view, which Fripp has come to call the ‘bleak Crimscape.’ Sinfield’s lyrics are influenced by the occult, the life of Frederick II (The Crimson King), and the poetry of Robert Blake, among other influences. Indeed, like Blake, Sinfield seems to have constructed not just a set of lyrics to each song, but something of an entire mythology that overrides the debut album as well as the following albums for which he wrote lyrics: In the Wake of Poseidon, Lizard, and Islands.

King Crimson performing ’21st Century Schizoid Man” in Hyde Park, 1969. The group was supporting the Rolling Stones.

The album’s opening track is the ferocious “21st Century Schizoid Man” which features a heavy guitar riff doubled by blasting saxophones and suggests the development of heavy metal/hard rock/grunge. Lake’s studio-processed vocals are spitting and fragmented. It’s an extremely aggressive opening number that ends in a blast of free jazz-inspired jamming. It is followed by the delicate “I Talk to the Wind” and the magisterial “Epitaph.” This track concluded the vinyl album’s first side. It has been suggested that Crimson King’s first side addresses modern concerns, while the second takes us into the distant past\, with past and present illuminating each other. “Epitaph” is, in this construct, a link between the two, concluding with the following stanza:

Confusion will be my epitaph.
As I crawl a cracked and broken path
If we make it we can all sit back
And laugh.
But I fear tomorrow I’ll be crying…

The second side contains two lengthy tracks. “Moonchild” is an unusual tune, with lyrics that suggest an eerie love song between an entity devoted to the moon and one devoted to the sun. Instrumentally it features a lengthy improvisational section that once again brings a free jazz aesthetic to bear on the music. The album concludes with the regal “Court of the Crimson King,” replete with obscure yet symbolic Sinfield lyrics and gorgeous, Mellotron-heavy music.

Mach II

While this edition of King Crimson toured both the UK and U.S., they morphed into a new band at the end of 1969. McDonald and Giles were less than happy with the band’s overall direction and the pressures of three months of touring the U.S. Lake also decided to leave, having been approached by Keith Emerson about forming a new band that turned out to be Emerson, Lake & Palmer.  However, Lake agreed to stay on long enough to record vocals for the group’s second album, In the Wake of Poseidon.


“I offer no apology for the transparently pratty music played by young dopes wearing satin.”

Robert Fripp

Poseidon is postulated to be the ‘water’ album to Crimson King’s ‘air’. It is, in many ways, a retreading of the first album’s territory, and if anything it ended up sounding better production-wise. It still relied heavily on the Mellotron, now played by Fripp and new sax player Mel Collins, who is generally thought to be the most standout talent from this lineup. Lake sang all but one song– the impossibly beautiful and delicate “Cadence and Cascade” was sung by Fripp’s childhood friend Gordon Haskell, who also took on bass chores. Pianist Keith Tippett appeared on the album, as well as on subsequent albums Lizard and Islands, but he turned down Fripp’s offer to officially join Crimson.

Lizard, Crimson’s third album, was recorded by this lineup, with Haskell and McCullogh (drums) walking out upon its completion. Haskell left unfinished the vocal work to “Prince Rupert’s Lament”, part of the concluding title suite, and Yes vocalist Jon Anderson was brought in to provide vocals on this number, a welcome addition to the group’s overall sound. While Lizard managed to forge a new sound for the group independent of the first two albums, it is the most ignored Crimson release, with Fripp himself pretty much refusing to acknowledge it on the box set 21st Century Guide to King Crimson. One reason for this may be that, while Fripp busied himself with putting together a new touring band Peter Sinfeld was left to put the finishing touches on the album’s sound and artwork, perhaps resulting in a non-Fripp approved product.

At the end of 1970 Fripp hired drummer Ian Wallace and vocalist Boz Burrell, who he also taught to play bass. Fripp, Burrell, Collins, and Wallace spent 1971 touring behind the album Islands. While that album was in many ways the weakest of the first four Crimson releases, it has its own charms and perhaps suffers unduly in comparison with its more famous predecessors. The group toured for the entire year and the album did fairly well as a result. Fripp asked Sinfield to leave the Crimson orbit, bringing this first era of the group to an effective close.

Mach III

It took until mid-1972 for Fripp to put together a new Crimson, but the new lineup proved to be more durable than the previous incarnations of the band. In addition, Crimson took a new direction that effectively separated them from the first group and gave them their very own identity.

First off, the group had a new lyricist, Richard Palmer-James, who, like Sinfield, did not play in the group. The instrumental lineup consisted of drummer Bill Bruford, who Fripp snagged from now-successful progressive band Yes, David Cross on violin and Mellotron, and John Wetton on bass and vocals.

King Crimson performing “Starless”

The sound of the group was edgier, with the Mellotron pushed farther into the background, and the often furious assault of Cross’ violin, Bruford’s virtuoso drumming, and Fripp’s rapidly developing signature guitar work made the group livelier and more interesting to audiences who were listening to the more accessible work of Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. In addition, Wetton was the group’s strongest vocalist since Greg Lake’s departure, often sounding rather like Lake. Palmer-James’ lyrics were still mystical at times, but much more contemporary and, ultimately, edgier.

The group’s debut, Larks Tongues In Aspic, reclaimed Crimson’s reputation as a cutting-edge and unique outfit, having little in common with the work of other prog rock bands of the time. While the more hippy-dippy, psychedelic aspects of the band had disappeared by the time of Islands, Larks Tongues In Aspic makes clear that those days are gone for good. The opening and closing “Larks Tongues In Aspic” (Parts I & II) are pile driving slabs of rock riffing interspersed with quieter sections. The seeds of Crimson’s eventual re-emergence as a completely different band in the 1980s are sown here as well.

There’s still a link with the Crimson past, though, in the Mellotron work. Though pushed farther back in the band’s sound, it still provides a link that lets you know it’s Crimson. So too does the band’s way with a ballad—“Book of Saturdays” could have come from one of the first two Crimson albums, but there is a new conception here overall that, while still heavy with progressive rock signposts, is leaner and meaner than before. The group toured extensively throughout 1973, and reconvened in ’74 to cut Starless and Bible Black, making it the most stable Crimson lineup up to this time.

Starless and Bible Black is a challenging recording that gives the lie to Crimson’s ‘prog rock’ label. The group here is exploring ideas that are very musically complex and could well have been the work of some of the more adventurous fusion groups of the time. Both fusion and prog rock were becoming formulaic, even though in many ways 1974 proved to be the heyday of the genre. The album featured lyrics about the devil (‘The Great Deceiver’), the difficulties of life on the road (‘Lament’), and a famous Rembrandt painting (‘The Night Watch’). Fripp’s concluding instrumental, ‘Fracture’ points the way toward the future, not only of Crimson, but of Fripp’s guitar work as well.

Cross exited the group in mid-1974 during the recording of the album Red, leaving Crimson to tour as a power trio. The album itself features contributions from Ian McDonald, Mel Collins, and Marc Cherig, all of whom had played on albums by the first-era Crimson. Red is a pretty good album overall, with the title track pointing again in the direction Fripp would eventually go with later models of Crimson.

In September 1974 Fripp disbanded this edition of Crimson, declaring that the group was finished. That turned out not to be the case, but no one could have guessed that then as Fripp busied himself with a variety of projects that put him in the underground of the music industry, turning him into something of a legendary and mysterious figure.

TO BE CONTINUED…

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