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King Crimson

+ {Giles, Giles & Fripp}

For the more astute ageing hippie, prog-rock probably started and finished with the likes of groups KING CRIMSON, CARAVAN, SOFT MACHINE and PINK FLOYD: years 1968 to 1974 – full-stop. Captained by guitarist/Mellotron-ist ROBERT FRIPP, in all their revolving-door idiosyncrasies and subsequent incarnations, KING CRIMSON were the thinking man’s rock cake, way ahead of their time and in a zone all of their own. But for the experimental nature of their albums (they released seven studio sets in their prime period), the Bournemouth-formed band just might’ve surpassed the likes of fellow English progsters, YES, GENESIS or EMERSON, LAKE & PALMER.
In essence, KING CRIMSON came about in early ‘69, out of the shadow of GILES, GILES & FRIPP (aka drummer/singer Mike Giles, bassist/singer Peter Giles and guitarist Fripp); the Giles siblings were seasoned campaigners in the business having got to vinyl with The Dowland Brothers (1961-63), Trendsetters Limited (1965), The Trend (1967) and offshoot, The Brain (the latter’s pastel-rock platter, `Nightmares In Red’, flopped for CBS that May). From the equally rare League Of Gentlemen alumnus, Fripp arrived on the scene in August ‘67, plucked from obscurity by the Giles’ while performing in a hotel lounge ensemble, while the addition of accordionist, Doug Ward, was minimal due to sustaining injuries in a road crash.
GG&F signed a deal with Deram Records, releasing the now-rare Michael Giles-scribed singles, `One In A Million’ and `Thursday Morning’. Drawing inspiration from jazz, classical and folk in the quirky mould of “Barrett”-esque PINK FLOYD or the BONZO DOG BAND, the eclectic and trippy THE CHEERFUL INSANITY OF GILES, GILES & FRIPP (1968) {*6} was dismissed by all but the few psych-heads. Divided into two side-long song cycles, “The Saga Of Rodney Toady” on one, “Just George” on the other, studio session players (including Nicky Hopkins on keyboards) helped them along the way. KING CRIMSON disciples might well baulk at the twee, pastoral delights of the record, but with several listens one can hear a shape and prog-rock pattern emerge from at least, `North Meadow’ and the Fripp pairing of `Suite No.1’ and `Erudite Eyes’.
Duly augmented by Ian McDonald (on reeds and keyboards) and former FAIRPORT CONVENTION singer Judy Dyble, the quintet recorded a few sessions, but it was clear that a new direction was needed to fit in with the transitional turn-over from psych to prog; this was enabled when road manager/stage organiser, Pete Sinfield, took on the task to become the group’s “outsider” lyricist.
Also recruiting Mellotron man McDonald full-time (Peter became a solicitor’s clerk) and ex-GODS singer/bassist Greg Lake (Dyble joined TRADER HORNE), the 4-piece KING CRIMSON exploded on to the scene via an inaugural gig on 9th April 1969 at the Speakeasy Club in London. On 5th July, Fripp and Co supported The ROLLING STONES at Hyde Park’s free concert in front of over half a million people – and interested party: Island Records.
The resulting debut album, IN THE COURT OF THE CRIMSON KING (1969) {*10}, was a masterpiece and raced into the UK Top 5 (US Top 30). Fusing experimental prog-rock and neo-classical styles (the Mellotron-friendly MOODY BLUES and The NICE might not have been amused), KING CRIMSON took the genre to a new level, its deeply gloomy and darkly gothic overtones bringing a new meaning to word, heavy. And who could forget the scary-face cover art provided by Barry Godber? From the onset of the visionary `21st Century Schizoid Man’ opening salvo (incorporating `Mirrors’), and into Greg’s horizontal piece, `I Talk To The Wind’, Sinfield’s apocalyptic words were immediate in their impact on the listener. `Epitaph’, `Moonchild’ and `The Court Of The Crimson King’ presented paragon after paragon; delightful one minute, dynamic and detached the next. A truly great record worthy of inspection by even the most discerning music fan.
Just as this new beginning emerged, KING CRIMSON found themselves in turmoil when both Ian and Mike (who would become McDONALD & GILES) wanted out of the band due to extensive US tours. This in turn, led to the talented Greg taking up the option to join supergroup, EMERSON, LAKE & PALMER; Fripp and Sinfield left unceremoniously without a proper band to complete their expectant live shows and sophomore set. Persuaded to sing on the weird and not-so-wonderful `Cat Food’ single (which featured on Top Of The Pops), but not the set’s folky ballad `Cadence And Cascade’ (Fripp’s former school-chum, Gordon Haskell, had taken that role), Greg Lake received PA equipment as payment in lieu. The incoming Peter Giles (from GG&F) took his place as bassist, while drumming parts were put down by his exiting brother, Mike. Eventually, with augmentation from other session men, Mel Collins (sax) and Keith Tippett (piano), concept album IN THE WAKE OF POSEIDON (1970) {*8}, finally emerged. Signalling a move towards avant-jazz territory, the set received mixed reviews (mainly from a Stateside prospective), but it still managed to break into the UK Top 10; Top 40 over the pond. The Mellotron was master here, Fripp having to develop its credible presence on mind-blowing `Pictures Of A City’ and the haunting, Holst-“Planets”-inspired magnum opus, `The Devil’s Triangle’.
With Haskell and Collins upgraded to main members (Tippett remained on board as an integral guest), the KING CRIMSON bandwagon kept a-rolling in the form of third album, LIZARD (1970) {*7}. Fripp’s Bournemouth-born buddy, Andy McCulloch, was drafted in on drums, but only on this occasion. Every bit a jazz-fusion set as well as retaining its prog appeal, it didn’t quite match its doom-laden predecessors in quality or commerciality (it bubbled under the US Top 100). As usual, the exotic and experimental were swapped for the conventional, and singer JON ANDERSON (of YES) duly fitted in to the set’s side-long title track interpolative, `Prince Rupert Awakes’. Aficionados of the group were treated to wig-outs through, `Cirkus (including Entry Of The Chameleons’) and `Indoor Games’.
In early 1971, the addition of singer/reluctant bassist Boz Burrell and the equally efficient drummer Ian Wallace, complimented KING CRIMSON as a live unit (they played first gigs since 1969), and once again some overtly oblique MILES DAVIS-esque rhythms were felt on fourth album, ISLANDS (1971) {*5}. Despite garnering great moments in the raucous `Ladies Of The Road’ and the instrumental, `Sailor’s Tale’, all but the purist Crimson fanatics were behind this self-indulgent work. An ill-advised live outing from the period, EARTHBOUND (1972) {*3}, had all the traits of a bootleg (even Island issued it on their budget subsidiary, Help), its straining sounds on extended improv versions of “Schizoid Man” and an old B-side, `Groon’, were uneven and on feedback overload.
Nevertheless, Fripp was a cool character, and his wait for another definitive KING CRIMSON line-up came later in ’72 as wild-man percussionist Jamie Muir was drafted in, alongside former YES sticksman, Bill Bruford; jointly superseding STREETWALKERS-bound Wallace. Not content with one major change, the overhaul was near-completed when the keenly-sought John Wetton (ex-FAMILY) replaced Boz who chose BAD COMPANY as his next vocation. David Cross (on violin) stepped in for Mel Collins (to CAMEL), while a new lyricist was found in Richard Palmer-James (ex-SUPERTRAMP); Sinfield signed a deal as wordsmith for Italians, P.F.M.
The transformational LARKS’ TONGUES IN ASPIC (1973) {*9} was served up just as disinterest among their loyalty was spreading. Easily their most creative since their glorious debut, Fripp let his musicians shine out in all departments (even in each mainly group compositions), while their was melody to their madness on the likes of the bookended two-part title track, the bluesy `Easy Money’, the pastel-jazz of `Book Of Saturday’ and the ghostly `Exiles’.
If the reclusive and prolific session guitarist Fripp wanted to experiment beyond the limits and expectations of KING CRIMSON, then he could divulge his passions through his FRIPP & ENO outings, “(No Pussyfooting)” (also 1973), the first of two ambient collaborations with the former ROXY MUSIC synth-man; the other (“Evening Star”) arrived a few years later.
Maintaining a certain commercially-viable cult appeal on both sides of the Atlantic (and further afield), STARLESS AND BIBLE BLACK (1974) {*9}, the same line-up (minus Muir who became a Tibetan monk) saw out another genuinely classic album. From its layers of jam-friendly improvs, structured on their manic live outings around the globe; the opener `The Great Deceiver’ matched only by other vocal piece, `The Night Watch’ (inspired by Rembrandt’s painting). The instrumental side two encapsulates the edginess of the Crimson crescendo; the lengthy title track and its lone accomplice, `Fracture’, sprawlingly brooding and ominously obtuse at every angular rhythm.
Disillusioned at being told to play keyboards rather than his violin (at least on stage), Cross withdrew his labour and sought out other ventures. The remaining trio of Fripp, Wetton and Bruford (plus guest appearances from messrs McDonald, Collins, Cross and ever-present cornet-player, Mark Charig) dispatched their final studio set, RED (1974) {*8}. As consistent and, in part, elegiac as their previous efforts, the five extended pieces on show (`One More Red Nightmare’ and `Starless’), all impressive and as intense as ever. Pity then, it heralded the break-up of the band, having done the deed as “dinosaur” bands were hitting a big bang. The posthumous, USA (1975) {*7} – recorded mostly at Asbury Park’s Casino with then-member, Cross – brought the show to an untimely close.
FRIPP duly moved to New York and worked with PETER GABRIEL on his first three albums, at the same time lending his expertise to BOWIE’s “Heroes”. In 1979, FRIPP released his debut solo album, “Exposure”, a record which featured many of his close friends handling vocals (GABRIEL, HAMMILL, etc.). The following year, his instrumental set “God Save The Queen/Under Heavy Manners”, developed his patented brand of electro-experimentation, dubbed “Frippertronics”, while recordings were spread through the short-lived project/band, The League Of Gentlemen.
In 1981, Fripp re-formed KING CRIMSON (at first as Discipline), enlisting vocalist/guitarist Adrian Belew, bassist Tony Levin and the returning sticksman Bill Bruford. An entirely different entity and proposition, several years in the wilderness and the advent of new wave/punk had produced the band on a plateau away from the confines of prog-jazz. This time around, it seemed TALKING HEADS, solo ENO or The POLICE were Bob and Co’s template for the transatlantic Top 50 album, DISCIPLINE (1981) {*7}. A strange cocktail of hypnotic, jerky rhythms and funky beats, it was miles from the old KING CRIMSON (with the exception of `Indiscipline’), as they ploughed through maniacal tracks like `Elephant Talk’ and `Thela Hun Ginjeet’.
BEAT (1982) {*7} followed their alt-rock-meets-pop-mainstream formula, and it seemed that Fripp had found a band that could stay the course, although comparisons to TALKING HEADS over-rode the diversities and rhythms of their energetic, stop/start interplay; `Neurotica’, `Heartbeat’ and `Waiting Man’, produced the best results. The rather presumptuous, THREE OF A PERFECT PAIR (1984) {*5}, drew the second phase of KING CRIMSON to a conclusion, wrapping up a productive and commercial period for the outfit via a third part of `Larks’ Tongues In Aspic’.
During this halcyon period for KC, the guitarist collaborated on two albums, “I Advance Masked” (1982) and “Bewitched” with veteran POLICE guitarist Andy Summers (also ex-ERIC BURDON & THE ANIMALS), whose long career could stretch as far back as Fripp’s. Meanwhile, Fripp was settling down to domestic life with actress/singer, TOYAH, whom he issued an album in the late 80s. Further collaborations included recordings with DAVID SYLVIAN, ORB offshoot, FFWD, and BRIAN ENO.
Like many of their contemporaries, phase three of KING CRIMSON reunited in ’94 (phase two, plus Trey Gunn and Pat Mastelotto), issuing a series of studio sets kicking off with the mini-CD VROOOM (1994) {*5} and the full THRAK (1995) {*6}. With prog-rock back on the agenda, many of the “Thraks” carried over, but generally it was a good group outing; `Coda: Marine 475’, the NIRVANA-like `Dinosaur’ and other heavies, the best of the bunch.
“Thrak”-orientated recordings duly spurted out willy-nilly, while “The ProjeKcts” (aka KING CRIMSON in disguise) filtered through in quick procession in numerical transition.
The new millennium boasted new material through THE CONSTRUKCTION OF LIGHT (2000) {*5}, an experimental vision for Fripp in his new-found KILLING JOKE-meets-MINISTRY aplomb. Confusion set in as fans were beset with album after album of remixes (and even FRIPP solo sets), and what did constitute a fresh set? Embracing the fad for treated vocals, and a record that also featured some of the most aggressive material of the band’s career on `Larks’ Tongues In Aspic Part IV’, the mini-CD sampler, HAPPY WITH WHAT YOU HAVE TO BE HAPPY WITH (2002) {*5} was industrious, or even industrial.
The complementary THE POWER TO BELIEVE (2003) {*6}, meanwhile, collected the cream of the recent release – including the startling `Eyes Wide Open’ – with exclusive material such as `Elektrik’ and the title track in four segments. ROBERT FRIPP and his “Cirkus” of Frippertronics would succumb to solo ventures and the odd collaboration. R.I.P. KING CRIMSON – well, no, as Mel Collins, Gavin Harrison, Jakko Jakszyk, Bill Rieflin, Pat Mastelotto and Tony Levin were behind Fripp on a concert reunion CD/DVD of sorts, LIVE AT THE ORPHEUM (2015) {*7}, recorded the previous autumn. Consisting of one fresh Harrison-scribed piece, `Banshee Legs Bell Hassle’, it resurrected decades-old classics, `One More Red Nightmare’, `The Letters’, `Sailor’s Tale’ and `Starless’. Add to this, another collectors’ club concert double-set, LIVE IN TORONTO, NOVEMBER 20, 2015 (2016) {*8} – recorded at the Queen Alizabeth Theatre – KING CRIMSON had no better excuse to further expose how truly committed and mind-blowing they still are.
Not content with giving er… glimpes of Crimson, a re-imagined 3-CD/Blu-ray/bonus-DVD performance was subsequently undertaken on the all-encompassing RADICAL ACTION (TO UNSEAT THE HOLD OF MONKEY MIND) (2016) {*8}. It suited both the band and an audience, who’d heard only previous older-type versions of their timeless masterpieces. Split into three themed discs (audience inaudible throughout), the courteous KING CRIMSON crew take the power back by way of Disc 1: “Mainly Metal”: `Larks’ Tongues In Aspic Part One’ to `Part Two’, Disc 2: “Easy Money Shots”: from `Peace’ to `A Scarcity Of Miracles’, and Disc 3: “Crimson Classics”: featuring the best of `Red’ and `In The Court Of The Crimson King’ albums. Whether long-time fans were happy to once again empty their pockets while awaiting a “comeback” studio album – surely in the pipeline? – well, the jury was out.
Until that glorious day, an EP (`Heroes: Live In Europe 2016’), dedicated to Fripp’s recently departed buddy, BOWIE, was issued the following June. Further boxed-up concert pieces, LIVE IN CHICAGO (2017) {*8} – for all intents and purposes an “official bootleg”, LIVE IN VIENNA, December 1, 2016 (2018) {*7} and MELTDOWN: Live In Mexico City (2018) {*7} guaranteed tidal waves of adoration or ambiguity.
© MC Strong 1994-2006/GRD // rev-up MCS Nov2012-Sep2018

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