Monday, 7 February 2011

Why I Love King Crimson

King Crimson are one of my favorite bands - up there with The Beatles, Voivod, Carcass, Celtic Frost, Smiths, Bad Brains, Radiohead etc

Do I love everything they do? No, not really although I admire it. Fripp has often referred to Crimson as "a way of doing things" - its the attitude of relentless experimentation and knowing when to stop. Finishing after 3 great albums both with the Wetton/Bruford/Fripp (Cross/Muir) line up and again with Levin/Bruford/Belew/Fripp line up in the 80's. Each album a progression and something new.

I remember getting Red on CD when I was about 18, me and my mate John got the train down to London from Northants and spent the day going round all the record shops - there were loads then - Tower, Virgin, HMV and all the Berwick Street ones. It was awesome, you couldn't get anything like Crimson or Voivod or the Mahavishnu in the early 90's where we lived, pre web. It was impossible, so we used to go down to London to stock up.

Anyway I got Red and loved it - that Bruford/Wetton line up were amazing - the improv stuff on the Great Deceiver box set is very cool (although I thought it was crap when I first heard it). The title track with the whole tone riff is wonderful and the bass sound is genius - incredible really. Starless was the song that really got me, it took me a while to get it but now its my favorite - 14 minutes of it, when the melody comes back in at the end I struggle to hold back the tears (the live version is even better).

After that I got In The Court Of The Crimson King - I didn't really get it. I know its an important record but I never really got it in the same way as the later stuff. It has grown on me though. It must have been amazing in the context of 1969.

The next album I purchased was Thrak when it first came out, this was the first one I heard with Belew on vocals. Its brilliant, one of my favorite Crimson albums and the first time I'd heard the interlocking guitar style they had developed in the 80's. The title track superbly invokes Red but for me the best song is Belew's Dinosaur, a genius pop song - its like the Beatles suddenly developed a love of the whole tone scale. The double trio was also a remarkable idea really innovative and one of the reasons it holds up to much deep listening, over and over again.

My last major Crimson discovery was the 80's stuff with Discipline, Beat and Three Of A Perfect Pair. This is now my favorite Crimson era. The way they used multiple time signatures and minamalist tactics without ever becoming boring is inspirational. Frame By Frame off of Discipline includes so many ideas in it, more than most bands have in entire albums. The Abscent Lovers live album from this era is spectacular and a personal favorite of Bruford''s.

The ability to stop and move on and truly progress is vital to all the KC line ups and is truly "progressive rock" - rock music with the ambition and the need to progress. Bloody brilliant!

For more info on Crimson - Sid Smiths book on the subject is wonderful and I believe its being re-issued soon.

While I was writing this I asked a few of my clever Twitter friends for quotes to go with the post - here they are:

"that band changed my life!" @thesidsmith

"intellectual rigour matched with peerless playing AND spiritual questing. And the only band that truly scared my cats" @chrisHDjones

"King Crimson has for many years been a major influence on me; it would be difficult to overstate the effect of the band's sound and approach had on my own compositional style. and their approach to group improvisation was very inspiring. Coming from a jazz & contemporary classical music background I could immediately relate to their musical & harmonic concepts. Even their technological approach was an influence... 80's era Crimson was built around something Fripp called a "Small mobile musical unit" - an esthetic I aspired heavily to when putting together the first version of "Neil Alexander & NAIL" (just called NAIL at that point) and when redesigning my keyboard rig around a single keyboard worn on a strap. After many years of giant multiple keyboard setups & mixers, it was a bit of a revelation, and a system I continue to use for my own performances." - Neil Alexander

NAIL - the 1st incarnation (on Bandcamp):

Neil Alexander & NAIL: video of "(At The) Water's Edge" at Moogffest 2007 demonstrating the "small mobile musical unit" concept in trio format.

"I love King Crimson because they remind me to keep moving forward whilst kicking ass no matter what" Sean Hollenhors

"I dare someone to name a more challenging and artistic pop group than 80's era King Crimson. Adrian Belew wrote and sang beautiful, catchy pop melodies over the maelstrom of aggressive, interlocking riffs supplied by Robert Fripp and Tony Levin. Even though they were influenced by The Beatles, Frank Zappa, Balinese gamelan music and the prog-rock that came before them, this incarnation of King Crimson had a completely unique sound."

John Anealio

Sci-Fi Songs Album
Wired Magazine's GeekDad Guitar Teacher

"That band opened my ears to what is possible by doing the seemingly impossible." @noforker

"Discipline is a Vehicle for Joy

The argument often leveled at prog is one of a bloated, overwrought, smug behemoth. And lets face it, in the topographic tales that flow from under the cape of Wakeman or the knife wielding bravado of a Hammond bashing Keith Emerson, it's a convincing and obvious argument.

Perhaps the perfect antidote are King Crimson. Naturally the name resounds with a satanic grandeur and all too often the aloof air of Fripp's philosophical musings cloud peoples judgement. However Fripp's mindset has always been a refreshing, almost puritanical response to the crass, egocentric rock gods of the late 60's and 70's. His vision, while often bloody minded and stubborn, is borne of a need to let the purity of the music speak and shine through and to make every attempt to prevent this from being tainted by the ego of the artist.

This is indirectly illustrated most eloquently in two examples by the Crimson percussionist Jamie Muir. His quote instructing the 'bullish young formidable player' Bill Bruford that "You are there to serve the music, the music is not there to serve you". shows that Fripp - not withstanding his own prolific skill as a guitarist - was/is also an architectural band leader, cherry picking the finest musicians and cerebral thinkers. Muir came from a background in improvisational free jazz, playing alongside stalwarts of the field such as Derek Bailey. Adding this to the rock world is a stroke of genius cross pollination.

When Fripp asked him what he thought their latest recording sounded like, he took a moment to poise and then succinctly replied "It sounds like - Lark's Tongues in Aspic" at once preserving genius along with the Lark's tongues.

A definite lineage can be traced through a myriad of eclectic musical collaborators, from McDonald and Giles (their own album of the same era, well worth investigation) and Sinfled (likewise). To Keith Tippet, the aforementioned Bill Bruford, John Wetton, - Fripp specifically, with Eno, Hammill, Bowie, Gabriel and Sylvian outside of Crimson - to Tony Levin and Adrian Belew in the 80's.

The 80's found a 'Prog Dinosaur' taking on Talking Heads to make 'Progressive-Post Punk'. Played in a 'double trio' featuring the use of two...that's TWO Stick players! - This was certainly radical compared with the synth-lite pop/rock that most of their contemporaries turned to. Yes, Belew brought some pop tendencies to the songwriting, but Crimson were savvy enough to be able to filter this via their angular persona and pulsing rhythmic Frippertronics to great effect.

It is a testament to the band that the range of genres spawned directly or indirectly 'In the Wake of Poseidon' touch so many different areas. Red (one of my personal favourites) is frequently quoted as being a favourite of Kurt Cobain. The complex 90's Post-Prog is angular and mathematical, surely WARP could have been a contender as a suitable home for this output ? Touring in the Noughties with Tool! Even current hip darlings of the Rough Trade stable, Warpaint, had a song on their debut EP called 'Krimson' as a homage (most of their atmospheric, dreamy songs weighing in around 5/6 minutes allowing space for development - a definite prog, if not purely Crimson, inflection).

Naturally, there are some musical blind alleys that are to be expected with any vast body of recorded work, but on the whole, when it comes to a Gurdjieff inspired guitarist, literally sat in the driving seat, stage left, then discipline is a vehicle for joy."

© 2011 James McKeown

James McKeown

"I once attended a masterclass with Tony Levin - that man feels the bottom like no other." @mountaindan

and @valmor_pedretti asked me to include this brilliant clip form the BBC prog doc:


Matt Stevens

(a proud stealer/user of the Small Mobile Unit Concept) - one pedal/one guitar

Sorry if I missed anyone out - please add your thoughts on KC below in the comments. Thank you.


Unknown said...

I got into some prog stuff in my teens like Genesis and Pink Floyd. I think KC came later to me. Compact King Crimson was one of my first CDs and is a good introduction. I've also got THRAK and Absent Lovers which are excellent. Picked up the construKction of light 2nd hand. It doesn't seem as popular, but has some cool stuff.

The band has scary technique, but use it to serve the song. I tend to favour the Belew stuff. The early stuff sounds a bit dated, but I can understand it was radical in its time. I've heard that when they played 21st Century Schizoid Man at a Hyde Park festival it was greeted by stunned silence.

It's a shame Fripp stopped Prog'opolis playing his music. I'm sure he must have gained fans from the show.

Will said...

Aside from the music and the philosophy that I associate with Crim, I love them because they gave me a new way to think about playing. I even have to thanks them (well, trey Gunn) for my discovery of the Warr Guitar. That has changed my whole musical outlook. Great post btw.

Andy Long said...

Right up there with all my favourites too. KC is an adventure, you never know what's coming next. I love the time signature games and wild improv. Sinfield's lyrics were always incredible poetry too. For me the debut is my favourite, all the albums up to 1975 are regulars for me. The later stuff is an ever changing story but the twists and turns have always kept me enthralled.

Good choice.

We can talk more about this when you come down here for your gig.


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