The young person's guide to King Crimson

Wednesday, Jun 3 1998
One glorious Saturday morning in the spring of 1974, my friends and I rode our bikes downtown to the record store/head shop. The typically cynical fat-guy employee (every record store/ comic-book shop has one) saw me looking over an Eno album.

"Hey, man," he sneered, "what are you doin' with that? I can move equalizers up and down, too. But there," he snarled, pointing at King Crimson's Starless and Bible Black, "that's music!"

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So I plunked down my $2.99. And, since that was my first King Crimson album, it's probably why I believe the 1972-1974 Crimson lineup was the best, and proof of the James Bond Theory: Whichever James Bond film you saw first will always be your favorite. I mean, my nephews think Pierce Brosnan is the best Bond, closely followed by Timothy Dalton, with Sean Connery rating a "That guy's okay."

I immediately went out and bought the remainder of the Crimson catalog, and I've had to defend myself ever since. See, there's a grand, time-honored critical tradition of trashing progressive rock. Suddenly, though, these groups and this loosely defined genre have become respectable, many a rock critic confessing to having enjoyed the music in his/her youth. But, as Crimson's Robert Fripp so intelligently points out, "This too shall pass."

King Crimson has also been called "thinking person's metal," the subtext being anybody who likes any other metal doesn't think. Hey! I like early Sabbath. And I really like King Crimson. I'm not even sure why I like it so much, but isn't that how music's supposed to work when it's been stripped of all the fancy packaging? In this age of "product," many people wonder how music so unconventional and experimental as the Crimson of the early '70s was ever released by a major label in the first place. Today, music is basically designed to reinforce lifestyles (always have your car stereo loud when you're at the gas station so people will know how cool you are for what you're listening to) and identities ("I'm a gangsta!" "I'm a sensitive guy!" "I'm a moderately aware, hip pre-teen girl!"). It's disgusting.

That Crimson's adventurousness in the '70s was allowed to flourish relatively unhindered owed to the record companies' pre-downsizing business styles; these were the days of coke budgets, and the labels were rolling in dough - they had no choice but to trust the damned longhairs. In 1998, there's a very different explanation for the continued existence of King Crimson: the band's hardcore yet ever-expanding fan base, and its own record label, which allows Crimson to do whatever the hell it wants to do.

Now through 1999 (Crimson's 30th anniversary) will see several archival King Crimson releases. Three of the most recent ones document the range and intensity

of this essential band, who've done as much to obliterate genre boundaries as any group in pop history.

The first King Crimson album, In the Court of the Crimson King, was huge in sound, and its impact on rock was vast. It's hard to comprehend today how weird this music seemed when it was new. From the creepy machine sounds at the start to "21st Century Schizoid Man" and on through the title song, it was surreal; totally unlike anything that had come before, it became a blueprint for prog-rock, and a big, big influence on metal. Many consider this trailblazing 1969 edition of the band the only real King Crimson, and as that particular lineup released only the one LP, a recent archival live release, Epitaph, which dates from that era, fills a void.

Culled from a variety of sources, from mono cassette bootlegs to unreleased masters, the set opens with a fairly thin-sounding "21st Century Schizoid Man," but the sound quality rapidly improves, thanks to state-of-the-art digital salvaging. There are seven previously unreleased songs and two complete live shows, including a clean mixing-board recording of a 1969 Fillmore West show; and two of the BBC studio cuts ("Epitaph" and "In the Court of the Crimson King") come from shimmering original masters. There are also two brilliant live versions of the epic set-closer "Mars" from Holst's "The Planets Suite"; plundered by many a rock band since (including Metallica), these versions are definitive.

Crimson was among the few bands in the '60s to tour with the Mellotron (an early analog sampler), and on Epitaph that most un-rock & roll of instruments proves to be one formidable, screaming hard-rock weapon. Crimson's heavy use of the Mellotron also indicates that even the earliest editions of the band were interested in the possibilities of technology as well as improvisation. That interest has gone hog-wild on the band's 1996 live-edits disc THRaKaTTaK and the recent ProjecKt Two (a Crimson splinter jam-group album whose plethora of otherworldly sounds, produced solely by stringed instruments, truly takes the ax into the '90s).

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