Writing about them feels a bit like writing about the history of (Progressive) Rock in general, because they have been producing among the most important, innovative and iconic albums of the last 40-odd years.
They have not been around – since their formation in 1968 – as an everlasting, unmovable and unchangeable setting. On the contrary, they have been on and off the stages and recording studios with something like 8 different line-ups.
The only true constant and (musical) focal point has always been the “crafty guitarist” Robert Fripp. His undeniable genius and firm (benignly tyrannical?) musical guidance has always been the trademark of KC and conversely, nowadays one would not possibly conceive anything by King Crimson without Fripp’s hand some way or another in it, either.
Many would see these 8 line-ups as completely different groups, or “phases” or whatever. I resolved to see them as a natural evolution of the (musical) ideas of and around Robert Fripp, whom in turn attracted or necessitated different companions during his long creative journey from 1968 to the present day.
To complicate things even more, King Crimson also has existed and still exists as “ProjeKCts”, a sort of spin-off formation, where Fripp is invariably the center and moving force, around whom the other performers orbit in a more or less steady fashion. Fripp himself described ProjeKCts as being a ‘research and development’ lab for King Crimson.
Another factor adding complexity to an hypothetical discussion about the band as a whole, is that in some cases King Crimson may have performed live with a different line-up than it was using at the time for its studio recordings, which of course doesn’t help a little bit in straightening things out.
I’m not really interested in being the historian or biographer of the band and I’m even less interested in all the minute facts about the single King Crimson players, even when they have contributed – directly or indirectly, singularly or all together – to something like the most significant 1500 albums of the whole musical history of the last 50 years (yeah, this incredible figure appears to be the total musical contribution of all the people who played at one moment or another with King Crimson… not an easy feat to emulate, I’d say).
I’m not one of those stuffy historians who place more importance in knowing exactly on what day and year something happened, by whom it was done or said, at what age and where exactly… I’m interested in what happened and what was its meaning. All the rest is just accessory bits of knowledge that you can find anywhere else.
Nonetheless, it’s interesting to have a kind of ‘mental picture’ of who played what during the years, especially for the most notably productions of the band: its studio masterpieces.
Knowing that the bass on In the Court of the Crimson King is played by Greg Lake (yes, the later ELP one…) while on the band’s second In the wake of Poseidon it was Peter Giles (the same very Giles of the eclectic and whimsical Giles, Giles & Fripp band) who delivered the bass lines might not be a terribly important thing to know, but it may explain why you can intuitively trace a certain difference in the use of the rhythmical counterpoints on both albums, that is: two different bass players, with very different interpretations of Fripp’s “guidance”.
Therefore, here is an adaptation of the excellent image published on the KC’s article on Wikipedia (to the person, whom I unfortunately do not know, armed with the immense patience to put it together, goes my eternal gratitude).
I don’t know if it is 100% accurate, but from what I read, it should be…
Just click here to get it in full size view.
According to the folktales in rock-land, it all started when brothers Peter and Michael Giles advertised a position for an organist-singer to enrich their new project. The answer came from Mr. Fripp, a guitarist-who-did-not-sing.
Despite the incongruity of the reply, they enlisted Fripp and together, they formed the trio Giles, Giles & Fripp, producing the not totally disagreeable album The cheerful insanity of Giles, Giles & Fripp. The album failed to make it to the charts, but earned the formation a certain visibility, if not popularity.
When the Giles brothers decided to add some more ‘body’ to their sound, the trio recruited multi-instrumentalist Ian McDonald, who in turn brought along his girlfriend Judy Dyble (former Fairport Convention singer) and his friend annex song-writer, roadie and art-strategist Peter Sinfield.
Fripp in the meantime, intended to give the band a deeper sound, shifting the playground towards the more complex metrics of jazz and improvisation, rather than staying with the whimsical pop-song style of the original Giles, Giles & Fripp trio. Therefore, he suggested to have his friend Greg Lake join in order to replace either Giles or himself.
This little political maneuver had the desired effect – by Fripp in the first place, though in principle the outcome was not unwelcome to Giles himself – and so Peter Giles left the scene and Greg Lake replaced him.
It was Pete Sinfield’s idea to buy a Mellotron, which will be the start of the band’s – Fripp’s in particular – interest for everything technologically new in music-land. The idea behind this was to achieve an incredible sound complexity, also sustained by Sinfield’s idea that “if it sounded like any other mainstream band, it was not worth playing it at all”…
When also Ian McDonald’s girlfriend had left (both Ian and the band alike), the first King Crimson incarnation was a fact.
The rest…, is just history.
In 1969 their debut album, In the court of the Crimson King, comes out. It is at the same time an immediate success and it will remain – after almost 50 years – one of the most iconic and acclaimed albums of the modern musical history.
This album is nothing like what was being played by the most rock bands during the 60’s. It amalgamated sounds coming from classical music, jazz, modernist, progressive and psychedelic rock, folk, Victorian music and more.
All the tracks can be at least defined as edgy, dark and incredibly daring, both in composition as well as in their technical execution.
At this point, the band’s dynamic lineup begins to take the upper hand and for the next studio album, In the wake of Poseidon, the formation changes again. Greg Lake had left but will return just to sing on one track, as well as both Giles brothers, who will also come back to play for the studio recording.
Entirely new will be the gifted jazz pianist Keith Tippett and the versatile saxophonist Mel Collins.
It’s incredible how much the mere definition of the simple word ‘critic’ has assumed a negative quality by the way some people feel compelled to talk about pretty much everything, but when In the wake of Poseidon came out, some backbiting critics said that it was nothing more than a fawning copy of In the court of the Crimson King. I prefer to see it as something that could not possibly be compressed together with the previous album in one single (actually double) product without misrepresenting the geniality of both.
It’s almost as saying that it is a wrong thing if you can recognize a composition by Bach by just listening to some parts of it, as if Bach had the obligation to sound nothing like himself for any new symphony, cantata or requiem he may compose, just to prevent the critics to say that his work was too similar to the previous one to be original or musically valid… what a crock!
At this point, Fripp and Sinfield had so many new ideas for an upcoming album, but actually no personnel to make it with, mostly because quite a few people could not be reconciled in playing that kind of music that Fripp & Sinfield saw as the only logical progression for KC.
And that is the reason why the next Lizard saw the light after the usual shuffling, deletion and addition of musicians, until Fripp was satisfied with the direction that the new formation could and would take (under his firm leadership, of course).
On Lizard, KC’s music turns one more corner and goes tangentially towards the jazz avant-garde and experimentation, while at the same time it brings strong classical and chamber orchestrations into the mix.
Because of this incredible new appearance, Lizard was not a great success at the time and the band lost not only a considerable part of its fans, but also – once again – a good part of its musicians, who could not recognize themselves anymore within the new musical perimeters.
Once again, Fripp and Sinfield will have to patch a new ensemble together and after many changes, interviews and considerations, they succeeded in getting a band together that was destined to last through the next few productions.
At least, so they thought…
By 1971, this new formation put together the new Islands album, by many described as the warmest King Crimson album.
I’m not sure what they exactly mean by that. Probably because the album doesn’t evolve into the sometimes strident and convoluted forms of improvisation like Lizard, but stays to the perhaps dreamier and softer side of musical exploration.
This is not a change of direction either, just like the best theorists are always trying to explore both sides of every new idea, Fripp and Sinfield are always inclined to explore both ways and, where possible, to amalgamate the variations into a single product.
At this point, the bomb exploded: the previously so seemingly harmonious duo Sinfield-Fripp will disintegrate because of basically divergent ideas about the type of music that King Crimson would be going to produce in the coming years. Fripp himself described the process as a kind of “quality control” that tried to ensure that KC would still play the “right kind of music”.
Fripp’s infexibility will alienate him even further from the other band members and will be the cause of squabbles and fights about contractual obligations and so on.
It is under this type of pressure that the band performed their tours, of which the live album Earthbound is the sole testimonial.
Already during all this, Fripp was already recruiting new people from the pool of jazz and improvisation music and revising at the same time the instrumental setting, abandoning woodwinds and brasses in favour of a violin.
This was the bedding upon which Lark’s tongues in aspic saw the light.
The album and the whole new musical direction seems to be the first one that can lift itself from under the shadow of In the court of the Crimson King, in the way that this album cannot possibly be compared with the previous ones in the quality and extension of the improvisations, the new sound that Fripp gives to his guitar, or the myriad of percussion and “found” instruments that are used to create effects and atmospheres that could have not been possible before because of the so different musical extractions of KC’s past members.
King Crimson’s face has changed completely and the next Starless and Bible black is again a refinement of what had started with the previous album. The tracks have mostly been recorded during live performances, but then painstakingly remastered until they evolve into studio-quality sound and crispness.
The music is even more complex, though it follows all the canons laid down by the musicians in Lark’s tongues in aspic.
Once again, a musically frustrated musician is going to leave the formation: David Cross was more and more struggling to get his violin through what Fripp will call “A flying wall of sound” when describing the way of playing of the other members.
Reduced now to a trio, KC will compose the new album Red. Despite the character of the music, more in line with the previous production than ever, Fripp was not 100% involved – on a musical-mental level in any case – in its creation, because he had been going through a severe spiritual crisis that distracted him from the practical creation of the album, leaving the other two members more in control.
During the recording of Red, quite a few members of previous KC’s incarnations will com along to play on one or more tracks, like Cross himself (his part being a previous recording during a Live performance), or Marc Charig, Mel Collins and Ian McDonald.
All together, the most extraordinary track on the album (in my humble opinion, that is) remains the wonderful Starless, with the typical KC mellotron intro, the middle part full of abstract but powerful improvisation and the final one in the purest hard and savage rock and back again to a coda echoing of the best KC’s early forms.
At this point, Fripp announced that KC finally had “ceased to exist” and therefore it was “completely over for ever and ever”. Only a posthumous live album (USA) will come out, though the recordings were actually past live performances. Only years later, it became known that around the publication of Red, Fripp had tried to interest the Producers for a Fripp-free King Crimson and that his suggestion had been completely rejected. This may explain why then Fripp took the ultimate step and disbanded KC completely in September 1974.
The musical universe had to remain deprived of KC for a few years. Fripp will at first leave the musical scene completely while concentrating on his spiritual crisis, but he will gradually return to music as a session man with David Bowie, Brian Eno and Peter Gabriel. Towards the end of the 70’s, he will produce his first solo album Exposure, forming soon after the rather short lived – but nonetheless very interesting – band The League of Gentlemen.
It was just when planning for a new album with The League of Gentlemen, that Fripp actually made a 180 degrees turn and formed a new band. Initially, that was not to be called King Crimson at all (though eventually, it will). This time he even dared to share guitarship with another musician: Adrian Belew, who had been a key performer with Talking Heads, David Bowie and frank Zappa, just to name a few.
The formation was initially called Discipline, but as soon as they came back from their first tour (with The Lounge Lizards), they decided to ditch the name and take again the trusted one of King Crimson, while Discipline became the name of their next studio album.
With the name, the music also changed, perhaps under Belew’s influence matured under the wings of Talking Heads’ new-wave sound, added to the own new-wave experiences that Fripp had explored in his Exposure and with the short-lived The League of Gentlemen.
The sound in Discipline is modernized and polished, though as soon as you hear the first guitar bars, you cannot fail to recognize the hand of the Master. Fripp is in incredibly good shape and his idea of “Rock Gamelan” take form from the very first couple of bars of the initial track “Elephant Talk”.
Other little jewel, which somehow doesn’t sound at first as KC but is totally Fripp from begin to end is “Matte Kudasai”.
The rhythms are fast-paced and complex, while the guitars textures weave complex rhythmic patters with arpeggio’s, virtuous fretting and incredibly gifted texturing and in this Fripp is perfectly matched by Adrian Belew, whose eclectic source of instruments and excellent technique not only enriches but also complements His Mastership Excelsior Fripp.
Finally, it seems that the formation is destined to hold and the second album Beat sees the light in 1982.
The music remains fast-paced and electrifying, with Fripp and Belew inspired by the writers and poets of the “Beat Generation”.
Once again, difficulties between Fripp and the rest will make the situation unstable, but all musicians will do their utmost best to straighten up their differences and produce a new work, Three of a Perfect Pair, which will be a compromise between the more pop-oriented members of KG and the experimantalists.
In fact, the album is divided into a ‘left side’ whit a more melodic and ‘pop’ content and a ‘right side’, where the music soars and evolves into improvisations and the more complex textures that we were used to hear from the band during the mid-seventies.
But of course, KC would not be KC if everything went along the same tracks forever and once again Fripp will dissolve KC.
This hiatus will last for something like ten years.
During this period, Fripp will concentrate on guitar teaching, developing a complete new method that he will call ‘Guitar Craft’ and experiment on alternative tuning, which will become integral part of the Guitar Craft Method.
In the meantime, he will start a close collaboration with David Sylvian (from the famous band Japan). The collaboration will be loose but constant and a few very interesting albums will be produced, like Darshan, Approaching Silence, Damage and The First Day.
During this decade Fripp will not abandon the experimentation, but he will ply it into new forms, which will in turn converge into the ‘Ambient’ universe created by Brian Eno insead of going towards the dissonant world of the free-jazz and dodecaphonic music. All this will mature into His Guitarsip’s full and extended theory of Frippertronics.
In Frippertronics, the guitar is explored through arrays of digital loop machines, delays, synthesizers, computers and whatnot, creating a complete universe within the existing musical universe of Fripp’s musical conceptions.
Eventually, the King Crimson itch hit Fripp again and he wanted to resurrect KC again as a ‘double trio’, with two guitars, two basses and two drums, which according to him was providing a way to explore a different type of King Crimson music.
From this formation, several albums will see the light, like Vrooom, B’Boom, Thrak and Thrakattak.
Each one of those albums collects valuable materials, which warp the KC’s universe into the modern music era, while on the other side, the basic exploration of themes remains typical of the “old school KC”. Maybe that is more correctly defined as “the-Robert-Fripp-way-of-making-music”, than a synergistic effort of all 6 musicians.
Eventually, the sextet will prove to be cumbersome to manage, move, tour and the collective ideas don’t seem to be prone to get into a coherent musical producs and therefore the whole KC will actually disappear (forever? temporarily? until when?) and Fripp & Co. will opt for a complete new name and solution: the ProjeKCts.
But of course, His Guitaring Majesty Fripp the First could not leave KC for too long: in 2013 he announced King Crimson’s return to life in a new form: a 7-headed line-up, stating that “this is a very different reformation to what has gone before: seven players, four English and three American, with three drummers. The Seven-Headed Beast of Crim is in Go! mode”.
We will see (and hear)…