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!”
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).
Absurdly enough, the original King Crimson featured Ian McDonald, the same guy who later formed Foreigner! I'm a raging xenophobe when it comes to those guys, but I have to admit that his sax, flute and Mellotron betray eccentric musical genius. Singer-bassist Greg Lake's voice is powerful throughout, and his performances of “Epitaph” are actually moving. (Lake went on to found Emerson, Lake & Palmer, of course, but I'm not strong enough to defend them and King Crimson in the same article.) Intriguingly, Epitaph's liner notes list Fripp simply as “the guitar player”; Mike Giles, the first in a series of first-rate Crimson drummers, is both extraordinarily creative and precise. And while fifth Crimson Peter Sinfield's lyrics have long been dismissed by many as hippie drivel-doggerel, “Epitaph” stands up as a dramatic and foreboding piece of poetry, the words accentuating the delicious melancholy of the music.
Epitaph's 64-page booklet includes reminiscences from Crimson's members and, probably most objectively, the band's roadie. Gorgeous graphics, too.
By 1972, King Crimson had undergone a complete change of personnel, with only Fripp remaining from the original lineup. Former Yes drummer Bill Bruford came onboard; he was joined by ex-Family bassist John Wetton and a young violinist named David Cross. Three albums dominated by dissonant, crunching mayhem ensued: Larks' Tongues in Aspic, Starless and Bible Black and the exhilaratingly savage Red. Still habitual improvisers, open-ended and -minded, this Crimson was responsible for some of the most hair-raisingly snaggletoothed metal stomp-thud there ever was.
That lineup is featured on The Night Watch, a two-disc document of one complete show at the Amsterdam Concertbegouw in 1973, a Crimson milestone. This is the same show whose recordings (with the audience mixed out) were used the next year for over half of the classic aforementioned Starless and Bible Black. When I read this remarkable piece of Crim trivia, recently revealed by Fripp, I felt violated in the same embarrassing way I did when I learned that Miles Davis' mid-'70s live work was improvised. Here I thought I was listening to incredibly complex compositions by master composers, and they were just makin' it up! I didn't feel quite so stupid when I realized that the King Crimson of 1973 and '74 were magically telepathic in their live improvs, their songs seemingly materializing out of thin air.
If S&BB stands as King Crimson's finest achievement (and Crimson fanatics will no doubt want to debate me on that), The Night Watch is mandatory listening. It was a rather subdued concert (musicians don't play the same way when they know they're being recorded), and at times it's like music from the tomb: bleak, atonal, evil guitar – this edition of Crimson could be downright creepy. Yet the band was just as often simple and elegant, as on the emotion-drenched major-key improv “Trio.” The most plainly beautiful of Crimson's songs, it affirms the often forgotten merits of violinist David Cross. On this cut, Bruford (tellingly credited as a co-composer) understands the Ringo Theory: What a musician does not play is every bit as important as what he does play. Fripp's twisted, complex compositional style is at its finest on the suitelike, nearly symphonic “Fracture,” a mathematically precise, polyrhythmic rollercoaster of a guitar exercise, with Bruford radiant on bells. The performance ends with “21st Century Schizoid Man,” which, sorry to say, only confirms the right to ownership of the 1969 band. (To the typically drug-addled party-animal audiences of 1973, it was as obligatory as “Free Bird” was for Skynyrd.)
The Fripp-Bruford-Wetton Crimson was an ensemble capable of simultaneously brawny and genuinely avant-garde music, to which anyone fortunate enough to have heard them work out live will attest. Yet nothing could prepare one for the 1996 Crimson's THRaKaTTaK. Possibly the most non-commercial release ever by a “brand name” band, it features the current double-trio King Crimson (two drummers, two guitarists, two bass players). The entire disc consists of live instrumental improvisations sliced from the middle of the song “THRAK,” then edited together into new shapes and given rather Dada “song” titles. Incredibly complex time signatures come and go, overlap, link and disconnect, creating endless combinations of insane polyrhythmic enjoyment in a difficult Rubik's Cube of sound. A cursory listener might dismiss it all as mere atonal noodling, but in fact the musicians really are listening to each other, and much of the disc is actually quite placid. Listening to it again and again, it becomes a strange, swelling, organic piece, a sort of living, breathing beast. Ahead of its time and miles beyond anything comparable, THRaKaTTaK's futuristic sheen makes its relatives, such as Miles Davis' '70s electric improvs Agharta and Pangaea, sound like Boxcar Willie.
But then, this new Crimson music can't be separated from modern technological advances; the otherworldly soundscapes the band creates often appear to be emanating from instruments that have yet to be invented. They bulldoze their instruments into new forms with an array of electronic wonder devices, chiefly the Roland GR30 Guitar Synth, “Touch” guitars and an electric drill that guitarist Adrian Belew uses on his strings. Disorienting, stupefyingly realistic-sounding “piano duets” are betrayed as guitars only by the occasional sliding of notes or by Fripp's recognizably sawtooth riffs. Recording the improvs directly from the mixing console gives the final product a very compressed sound, with no room ambience or crowd noise, adding to the appropriately inhuman feel.
Hilarious reactions to THRaKaTTaK from bamboozled, usually young fans on the Crimson Internet newsletter “Elephant Talk” include one classic reviewer protesting its lack of “coherence.” He concludes, “Still, we get a poster of the band with the CD, so it's not all that bad.”
Finally, there's the video King Crimson Live in Japan, on which the double trio provides definitive, high-energy live versions of songs from Larks' Tongues through the 1995 Thrak. Sporting an impeccable sound mix, it's an excellent primer – and reveals who played what, and how.
All this Crimson music to digest (I anticipate that THRaKaTTaK will take years), and I can't help but slobber for more. Bring it on, Bobby, baby. We love ya.
CD-ROM-drive owners note: Many of the recent King Crimson issues are “enhanced” CDs. All are available in stores or by mail order. Get the scoop on all things Fripp and Crimson by writing to Discipline Global Mobile, Possible Productions, P.O. Box 5282, Beverly Hills, CA 90209. Phone orders: (213) 937-3194, fax (213) 937-9102. E-mail: DGMUS@aol.com.