Observing King Crimson
By ProgBlog, Sep 6 2015 10:44AM
My introduction to King Crimson came towards the end of their 70s prime, between the releases of Starless and Bible Black and Red (both 1974.) At that time I could only delve into their past, their stunning debut In the Court of the Crimson King (1969) being next to entrance me, though their self-inflicted demise also yielded personal favourite USA (1975) and the retrospective compilation A Young Person’s Guide to King Crimson (1976.) I can’t remember why I never bought a copy of Young Person’s but I assume it’s because brother Tony and I had already embarked upon getting hold of the original albums; I do remember being impressed with its brilliant cover (by Fergus Hall) though I wouldn’t get to see the booklet included with the double LP for another couple of years when Jim Knipe acquired a copy.
As far as getting to see them play live, I couldn’t imagine it ever happening. I managed to witness Fripp’s presence, as Dusty Rhodes, when I went to see Peter Gabriel during the tour for his first solo album at the Liverpool Empire, April 1977. Fripp’s continuing emergence from ‘retirement’ for David Bowie’s Heroes (1977) sparked some interest despite my disdain for Bowie material up to that point but as far as I was concerned his return to form was as producer and guitarist on Peter Gabriel II (Scratch, 1978) which included the excellent Exposure, subsequently re-recorded for his own solo album Exposure (1979.) This release wasn’t in the same league as Crimson but Breathless (which we christened ‘Green’) hinted at ’74 Crimson. Fripp’s residency in New York and his work with a number of the local artists seemed to influence his next move, the almost-punk League of Gentlemen that Jim and I saw at the LSE in November 1980.
Meanwhile, I’d been following the fortunes of Bill Bruford and though I didn’t start collecting albums that he’d graced as a guest drummer until a few years later, releases from his own band Bruford and the first UK album were must haves. The reunion of the 72-74 Crimson rhythm section was a cause for celebration and if the original line-up of UK had managed to stay together they might have prolonged the golden era of prog; the material on UK (1978) reflected progressive rock from three or four years earlier but sounded new and different, hinting at jazz rock rather than symphonic prog. Sadly, there was no hint that the Bruford- and Holdsworth-less incarnation would change direction so drastically for Danger Money (1979) where despite some excellent music the song structure included far too much uninspiring verse-chorus-verse chorus form. I went to see UK at Imperial College, London in March 1979 and saw Bruford, in a double-headliner along with Brand X at London’s Venue in May 1980.
It was an incredibly pleasant surprise to hear about the formation of Discipline, though I regarded the inclusion of two Americans with a degree of trepidation. I was well aware of the talents of Tony Levin but not at all acquainted with the pedigree of Adrian Belew. I needn’t have worried because Belew’s on stage antics fitted the feel of the music; joyful, fun, infectious and somewhat difficult to categorise. I found it difficult to figure out which guitar was doing what and some of the noises I’d have associated with Fripp’s guitar playing seemed to come from Belew. The fast circular picked style that featured in some of the League of Gentlemen material had been refined so that when the two guitarists played together it was like tying and then unravelling some highly complex knot – the logo that was to appear on the cover of Discipline (1981) by Steve Ball was very apt. The inclusion of some of the later 70s King Crimson music should have been a clear signal that this group was about to become the next Crimson. Theoretically, I didn’t get to see King Crimson until September 1982 when they performed at the Hammersmith Palais on the tour to promote Beat (1982.) Now used to the sound of this version of Crimson, the music seemed more accessible than on its predecessor but the final release from this Crimson, Three of a Perfect Pair (1984) contained more challenging and experimental pieces. Unfortunately, this material was not toured in the UK and the next time I got to see them was after their break-up and reformation at the Royal Albert Hall in May 1995.
I was fortunate to have an academic email account in the early 90s and was an avid reader of Elephant Talk, the King Crimson e-letter lovingly put together by Toby Howard. I’d pretty much given up on musical journals apart from the odd Q which had sufficient interesting content to make it worthwhile buying, so it was through ET that I picked up on Fripp’s work with David Sylvian, going to see them at the RAH in December 1993 where I found the music to have a very dreamlike quality, largely due to the very hi-fi nature of the soundscapes. Vrooom (1994), the EP love-letter from a new-look Crimson, signalled that progressive rock, or at least acts that were classed as prog, were no longer anathema. The Discipline-era band was augmented by Pat Mastelotto (drums) and Trey Gunn (stick), both of whom played with Sylvian and Fripp. This taster release from the so-called ‘double trio’ incorporated the best of the previous incarnations of the band; there were very strong hints of Red-era Crimson and the adult pop-funk that I apportion to the pen of Adrian Belew had matured very nicely. The full release, Thrak (1995), though making Vrooom almost redundant, did not disappoint and that live show, on Bill Bruford’s birthday, was one of the best gigs I’ve ever attended and my feelings were transmitted to the ET readership when I submitted a short review.
At this time I really couldn’t get enough Crimson and went off to see them when they took in London on their next tour at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire in July 1996, the only UK date on the THRAKaTTaK tour. This was another great show in a not-so-good venue and where I picked up my copy of the just-released THRAKaTTaK live CD.
It seemed that tensions within the band may have been a little strained and perhaps members shouldn’t have read too many ET entries. In search of possible direction and allowing time for individuals to pursue other avenues the group divided up into different ProjeKcts. This was a fertile period for the band and for the Crimson imprint DGM, including the tight-knit Crimson community Epitaph and The Nightwatch playbacks that I attended in London in March and September 1997 respectively; I even provided a home-made date and walnut cake for the former. When the band reconvened for The ConstuKction of Light (2000) it was minus Bruford and had become somewhat heavier. This was quite evident during their performance at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire on July 3rd 2000, a gig that I didn’t particularly enjoy, standing downstairs in a crush between the stage and the bar.
I think I’m right in saying that the current tour, with a line-up of Fripp, Levin, Mastelotto, Mel Collins, Jakko Jakszyk, Gavin Harrison and Bill Rieflin, will include the first UK dates since 2000 and will amount to the first UK tour since 1982. I’ve continued to collect bits and pieces from Crimson-related musicians since I last saw them, including Live at the Orpheum (2015) which serves as a brief introduction to this formation with its three drummers.
I’m really looking forward to Monday!