Favorite Bands: King Crimson

I had a little trouble with this one. They’re so damned weird that they’re hard to describe. Robert Fripp describes his 43-year-old band as more of a way of doing things than an actual band. Hell if I can figure out what that way is. They are constantly morphing, with Fripp the only member to be in all the line-ups. Beyond that, there are only three consistent members through most eras. Early on, it was lyricist Peter Sinfield (who later fed words to Greg Lake, another Crimson alum, in Emerson, Lake, and Palmer.) From the early seventies through the 1990’s, it was ex-Yes man Bill Bruford on drums. Since 1980, it’s been Adrian Belew.

Many people make fun of Yes or Deep Purple for the huge amount of personnel changes they’ve gone through over the years, but King Crimson could populate a small town with the number of people in that band.

Like other bands of such longevity, Crimson has several phases to its career. In the beginning, they recorded the progressive rock album, In the Court of the Crimson King, featuring the aforementioned Lake on bass and vocals and lots and lots of mellotron.  The album is a classic, often in people top twenty rock albums of all time, sometimes top 10 depending on how laden your choices are with heavy metal and punk. It even found its way into Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, spawning the evil Crimson King of the later volumes. During this era, there was Fripp. And 3/4 the male population of the UK who could play an instrument. Fripp hit a home run with Court, then spent the next three years trying to duplicate it.

By the way, that skinny fellow on the sax? That’s Foreigner co-founder Ian McDonald.

In late 1972, early 1973, Fripp started doing shorter compositions and drifting toward heavy metal, dragging his prog sensibilities kicking and screaming with it. He teamed up with John Wetton (later of Asia) and Bruford. In short order, this version of Crimson put out three studio albums, each more conventional than the last, but then again still bizarre in their song structure. For one thing, Fripp fell in love with polyrhythmic beats and that strange, almost flute like style he has of playing his guitar. On the first album, Larks Tongue in Aspic, parts 1 and 2 of the title suite appear, with part 3 appearing in the eighties and 4 in the 2000’s.

Yes, that’s Fripp on the mellotron. There are large sections of Crimson albums where he doesn’t play a note on the guitar.

And then Crimson broke up in 1974. Or rather Fripp was done with it. Then, in 1980, when forming a band called Discipline, he decided his collaboration with Bruford, Belew, and bassist Tony Levin was actually King Crimson. This line-up was avant garde with a punk flair to it. (Hey, Belew was the other guitarist and vocalist.) Discipline was punk given over to free form jazz improvisation, which spawned the album’s most memorable track, “Elephant Talk.” (“Chit! Chat! Chit! Chat!”) This was followed up by Beat, which was a Crimsonesque tribute to Kerouac and his cohorts. “Neurotica,” which sounds like a subway set to Bruford having a seizure on the drums, features Belew on a rapid-fire beat rap about the bizarre carnival of a city in the middle of the night. They capped off this era in 1984 with the schizophrenic Three of a Perfect Pair. Side 1 is a series of almost radio-friendly songs. Side 2 is…  Well, I think it’s Tony Levin trying to invent industrial techno with “Larks Tongues in Aspic Part 3” as the exclamation point.

While looking for a live video of Crimson in the 80’s, I ran across this mashup of “Neurotica” and the 1927 movie Metropolis, which I thought made a cool image.

And then Fripp decided he was done again. Belew talked about doing an album with Levin and Bruford (which Scene Magazine in Cleveland suggested could be the Cream of the 1990’s), and Fripp openly discussed a Frippless King Crimson. Neither one happened.

But then in 1994, we find a new version of Crimson, this one with an ever-shifting line-up, only Fripp and Belew as the consistent members. It looks like the roundabout version of Crimson in the late sixties/early seventies and sounds much like the Discipline-era of the 1980’s. They go through a double-trio period, lose Bruford, lose Levin to a long hiatus, and obtain Trey Gunn, who is like Levin on steroids. Levin and Gunn are shining examples why anyone who disses bass players is too stupid to live. (Hmm…  So that’s why Mick and Keith don’t get along anymore. Bill Wyman.)

Their last album was 2003’s The Power to Believe which has the oddly normal sounding “Happy to Be With What You Have to Be Happy With,” the title of which is harder to type than it is to say. Fripp and Belew insist that 1.) Levin has since returned and 2.) the band has not broken up. Maybe that’s because Fripp has said he was done before, and then a few years later, finds a reason to play again. And with Belew pretty much entrenched in the band after over 30 years, he can’t resist coming back to it, either.

Will they make more music?

If Fripp has to. We may even see the Frippless Crimson. But it would require Adrian Belew’s presence to work.


One thought on “Favorite Bands: King Crimson

  1. It’s a live revue! Random animal parts! Now playing nightly, here in Neurotica!

    I played the damn grooves out of that album in college. Thanks for the retrospective.

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