History in the making.
Giles, Giles and Fripp (1967-1968)
"The Giles Brothers were looking for a singing organist. I was a non-singing guitar player. After 30 days of recording and playing with them I asked if I got the job or not – joking like, you know? And Michael Giles rolled a cigarette and said, very slowly, 'Well, let's not be in too much of a hurry to commit ourselves, shall we?' I still don't know if I ever got the job."
—Robert Fripp on signing up with Michael and Peter Giles
In August 1967, drummer Michael Giles and his bass-playing brother Peter, who’d been professional musicians in various jobbing bands since their mid-teens, advertised for a singing organist to join their new project. Robert Fripp – a guitarist who did not sing – responded and the trio formed the band Giles, Giles and Fripp All three musicians were originally from the Dorset area.
Based on a format of eccentric pop songs and complex instrumentals, Giles, Giles and Fripp recorded several unsuccessful singles and one album, The Cheerful Insanity of Giles, Giles and Fripp. The band hovered on the edge of success, with several radio sessions and a television appearance, but never scored the hit that would have been crucial for a commercial breakthrough. The album was no more of a success than the singles, and was even disparaged by Keith Moon of The Who.
Attempting to expand their sound, the group then recruited the multi-instrumentalist Ian McDonald on keyboards, reeds and woodwinds. McDonald brought along his then-girlfriend, the former Fairport Convention singer Judy Dyble, whose tenure with the group was brief and ended at the same time as her romantic split with McDonald (she would later resurface in Trader Horne).
More significantly, McDonald brought in lyricist, roadie and art strategist Peter Sinfield, with whom he had been writing songs – a partnership initiated when McDonald had said to Sinfield, regarding his 1968 band Creation, "Peter, I have to tell you that your band is hopeless, but you write some great words. Would you like to get together on a couple of songs?" One of the first songs McDonald and Sinfield wrote together was "The Court of the Crimson King".
Fripp, meanwhile, had seen the band 1-2-3 (later known as Clouds) at the Marquee. This band would later inspire some of Crimson's penchant for classical melodies and jazz-like improvisation.
By this point, Fripp's dissatisfaction with Giles, Giles and Fripp's lack of focus had come to a head. Feeling that he no longer wished to pursue Peter Giles' more whimsical pop style, he recommended his friend Greg Lake (a singer and guitarist) for recruitment into the band, with the suggestion that Lake should replace either Peter Giles or himself. Although Peter Giles would later sardonically describe this as one of Fripp's "cute political moves", he himself had become disillusioned with Giles, Giles and Fripp's failure to break through, and stepped down to be replaced by Lake as the band's bass player, singer and front man. At this point, the band morphed into what would become King Crimson.
The first incarnation of the band was said to have been "conceived" on 30 November 1968 and first rehearsed on 13 January 1969. The name King Crimson was coined by lyricist Peter Sinfield as a synonym for Beelzebub, prince of demons. According to Fripp, Beelzebub would be an anglicized form of the Arabic phrase "B'il Sabab", meaning "the man with an aim" (although it literally means "with a cause").
Shortly afterward, the new band purchased a Mellotron (the first example of the band’s persistent involvement with music technology) and began using it to create an original orchestral rock sound which would be an overwhelming influence on the nascent progressive rock movement. At this point, McDonald was King Crimson’s main composer (albeit with significant contributions from Lake and Fripp), while Sinfield not only wrote all the lyrics but designed and operated the band’s revolutionary stage lighting (and was therefore credited with “sounds and visions”).
King Crimson made their live debut on 9 April 1969, and made a breakthrough by playing the free concert in Hyde Park, London, staged by The Rolling Stones in July 1969 before 650,000 people.
In The Court Of The Crimson King (1969)
The first King Crimson album, In the Court of the Crimson King, was released in October on EG Records, described by Fripp as "an instant smash" and "New York's acid album of 1970" (notwithstanding that Fripp and Giles claim that the band never used psychedelic drugs). The album received public compliments from Pete Townsend, The Who guitarist, calling the album "an uncanny masterpiece."
King Crimson’s music drew on a wide range of influences provided by all five group members, including Jimi Hendrix, romantic- and modernist-era classical music, folk, jazz, military music (partially inspired by McDonald’s stint as an army musician), ambient improvisation, Victoriana and British pop. All of this was executed with a precision and complexity previously unheard of in rock music, with Sinfield’s dense and melodramatic lyrics (heavily loaded with dense imagery, allusion and self-conscious poeticisms) completing the package. The sound of the album has been described as setting the "aural antecedent" for alternative rock and grunge; whilst the softer tracks are described as having an "ethereal" and "almost sacred" feel.
It was definitely a break from the blues-based hard rock of the contemporary British and American scenes, presenting a more Europeanized approach which blended antiquity and modernity. Music reviewer Annie Gaffney has written that King Crimson were credited with starting the entire progressive rock movement that was popular in the early 1970s.
After playing shows in England, the band embarked on a tour of the United States, performing alongside many contemporary popular musicians and musical groups, and "astounding audiences and critics" with their original sound.
However, creative tensions were developing within the band. Michael Giles and Ian McDonald, still striving to cope with King Crimson’s rapid success and the realities of life on the road, became uneasy with the band’s direction. Although he was neither the dominant composer in the band nor the front man, Fripp was very much the band’s driving force and spokesman, leading King Crimson into progressively darker and more intense musical areas. McDonald and Giles, now favoring a lighter and more romantic style of music, were becoming increasingly uncomfortable with their position.
To Fripp’s horror, both McDonald and Giles resigned from the band during the California tour. In order to salvage what he saw as the most important elements of King Crimson, Fripp offered to resign himself. McDonald and Giles apparently declared that the band was “more (him) than them” and that they should therefore be the ones to leave.
The original line-up played their last show together in San Francisco at the Fillmore West on 16 December 1969. (Live recordings of the original King Crimson’s concerts were eventually released twenty-seven years later in 1996 as the double/quadruple live album Epitaph).
From the start of 1970 until mid-1971, King Crimson remained in a state of flux with fluctuating line-ups, thwarted tour plans and difficulties in finding a satisfactory musical direction. This period has subsequently been referred to as the "interregnum" - a nickname implying that the "King" (King Crimson) was not properly in place during this time. In retrospect, this interruption in career momentum can also be seen as the reason why King Crimson never attained the commercial heights of Genesis, Yes or Emerson, Lake & Palmer (all bands that had been profoundly influenced by King Crimson’s initial work).
In The Wake Of Poseidon (1970)
Greg Lake was the next member to leave, departing in early 1970 after being approached by Keith Emerson to join what would become Emerson, Lake & Palmer. This left Fripp as the only remaining musician in the band, taking on part of the keyboard-playing role in addition to guitar. To compensate, Sinfield increased his own creative role and began developing his interest in synthesizers for use on subsequent records.
Lake agreed to sing on the recordings for the band's developing second album In the Wake of Poseidon (negotiating to receive King Crimson's PA equipment as payment). Eventually, he ended up singing on the band's early 1970 single "Cat Food/Groon" and on all but one of the album’s vocal tracks. The exception was "Cadence And Cascade", which was sung by Fripp's old school friend and teenage band mate Gordon Haskell. At one point, the band considered hiring the then-unknown Elton John (on spec) to be the album's singer, but decided against it. Other former members and associates returned - as session players only - for the Poseidon recordings, with all bass parts being handled by Peter Giles and Michael Giles performing the drumming. Mel Collins (formerly of the band Cirkus) contributed saxophones and flute. Another key performer was jazz pianist Keith Tippett, who became an integral part of King Crimson's sound for the next few records (although Fripp offered him full band membership, Tippett preferred to remain as a studio collaborator and only performed live with the band once).
In the Wake of Poseidon was moderately well received on release, but was criticized as sounding very similar in both style and content to the band's debut album (to the point where it seemed like an imitation). With the album on sale, Fripp and Sinfield remained in the awkward position of having King Crimson material and releases available, but not having a band to play it. In considerable desperation, Fripp persuaded Gordon Haskell to join permanently as singer and bass player, and recruited drummer Andy McCulloch, another Dorset musician moving in the West London progressive rock circle (who'd previously been a member of Shy Limbs and Manfred Mann's Earth Band). Mel Collins was also retained as a full band member.
Both Haskell and McCulloch joined King Crimson in time to participate in the recording sessions for the band's third album, Lizard, but had no say in the writing of the material. Fripp and Sinfield, now effectively equal artistic partners, had written the entire album themselves and had also brought in a squad of jazz musicians to help record it - Keith Tippett, cornet player Marc Charig, trombonist Nick Evans and oboe player Robin Miller. Jon Anderson of Yes was also brought in to perform vocals on one song ("Prince Rupert Awakes") which Fripp and Sinfield considered to be outside Haskell’s range and style.
Lizard featured much stronger avant-garde jazz and chamber-classical influences than previous albums, as well as Sinfield’s upfront experiments with processing and distorting sound through the VCS3 synthesizer. It also featured Sinfield’s most complex (or frustrating) set of allusive lyrics to date (including a coded song about the break-up of the Beatles) with almost the entire second side taken up by a predominantly instrumental chamber suite describing a mediaeval battle and its outcome. The album is still described as being an "acquired taste".
Lizard was definitely not to the taste of the more rhythm-and-blues orientated Haskell and McCulloch, who did not enjoy the sessions and rapidly became disillusioned. Growing tensions came to a head when Haskell quit the band acrimoniously prior to the release of the album. He had realized that not only would he have no creative input for the foreseeable future (and would be playing material that he had no sympathy for), but would be required to sing through distortion and electronic effects. McCulloch also quit immediately afterwards: he would join Arthur Brown's band and would become the drummer for Greenslade in 1972.
Fripp and Sinfield returned to the arduous process of auditioning new members. Ian Wallace – a former band mate of Jon Anderson - became the new drummer and was soon joined by singer Raymond "Boz" Burrell, who’d previously worked with his own band Boz People, released a few obscure solo singles and at one point had been tipped to replace Roger Daltrey in The Who. (Boz was chosen over others who had auditioned including Bryan Ferry and even King Crimson’s then-manager John Gaydon),
Bassist-singer John Wetton (ex Mogul Thrash) was invited to join the group in mid-1971 but he declined, accepting a place in Family instead, although he kept in touch with Fripp. Rick Kemp was eventually selected as the new bass player but turned the band down at the last minute. Once again faced with limited choices, Fripp taught Boz to play the bass rather than start the search all over again (Boz had not played bass before, but had played enough occasional rhythm guitar to make learning the instrument easier).
In 1971, King Crimson undertook their first tour since 1969 with the new line-up. The concerts were well received, but the drug-free and intellectually-inclined Fripp began to find himself at odds with the more rock-and-roll lifestyle (and musical inclinations) of the other members and began to withdraw socially from his colleagues. The tension spread to the rest of the band, but the band completed the tour intact.
Later in the year King Crimson recorded and released a new album, Islands. The band's warmest-sounding record to date, it was strongly influenced by Miles Davis’ orchestral collaborations with Gil Evans and had a loose thematic connection with Homer’s “Odyssey”. It also showed signs of a stylistic divergence between Sinfield (who favored the softer and more textural jazz-folk approach) and Fripp (who was becoming more drawn to the harsher instrumental style exemplified by the Mellotron-and-banjo-technique-guitar piece “Sailor’s Tale”). ‘Islands’ also featured the band’s one-and-only experiment with a string ensemble (“Prelude: Song Of The Gulls”) and the raunchy rhythm-and-blues-inspired “Ladies Of The Road” - by far the closest representation of the band’s live style, and probably the only track which the whole band liked. A hint of trouble to come came when one unnamed member of the band allegedly described some of the more delicate and meditative parts of Islands as “airy-fairy shit”.
Following the next tour, Fripp ousted Sinfield (with whom his relationship had deteriorated) claiming musical differences and a loss of faith in his partner’s ideas. Sinfield would go on to release a solo album, Still (featuring all of the current and previous members of King Crimson apart from Fripp) and then reunited with Greg Lake by becoming the principal lyricist for Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Many years later, he would achieve great success writing pop songs for Bucks Fizz.
The remaining band broke up acrimoniously in rehearsals shortly afterwards, due to Fripp’s refusal to incorporate other members’ compositions into the band’s repertoire. (He later cited this as “quality control” and an attempt to ensure that King Crimson was performing the “right kind” of music.)
The band was persuaded to reform in order to fulfill their 1972 tour commitments, with the intention of disbanding afterwards. Recordings from this tour were later released as the Earthbound live album, noted and criticized for its bootleg-level sound quality and a style which occasionally veered towards funk, with scat singing on the improvised pieces. This was a flagrant sign of the musical rift between Fripp and all three of the other members, the latter of whom were attempting to steer the band back towards a rooster rhythm-and-blues style in open defiance of Fripp.
Despite these problems, relationships across the band gradually improved during the tour to the point where Collins, Burrell and Wallace offered to continue with the band. However, Fripp had already decided to entirely restructure King Crimson with a new musical direction which he felt was entirely unsuited to the current band, and was already recruiting new members.
Having spent a long time being critically overshadowed by the preceding and subsequent lineups of King Crimson, the “Islands” lineup of the band benefited from positive reappraisal in the mid-2000s following the release of several live archive releases (including the double live set Ladies of the Road and various King Crimson Collectors Club recordings) and reassessments by Fripp and other band members. Fripp would subsequently mend his damaged relationships with Wallace and Collins, although not with Burrell.
The third major lineup of King Crimson was radically different from the previous two and the interregnum work, being both the first without saxophone or woodwind and the first to embrace active improvisation as a major musical element
Fripp’s first new recruit was the free-improvising percussionist Jamie Muir, who had previously worked with Sunship and Derek Bailey. In the first of King Crimson’s “double drummer” lineups, he was paired with former Yes drummer Bill Bruford, who had chosen to leave the commercially successful Yes at the peak of their early career in favor of the comparatively unstable and unpredictable King Crimson. Fripp also finally secured John Wetton as King Crimson’s singer and bass player (recruiting him directly from Family) and the lineup was completed by David Cross, a relatively unknown violinist who doubled on keyboards (Fripp had encountered Cross through work with music colleges).
With Sinfield gone, the band recruited a new lyricist, Wetton's friend Richard Palmer-James (the former rhythm guitarist for Supertramp). Unlike Sinfield, Palmer-James’ contributions to King Crimson were confined to lyrics only. He played no part in artistic, visual or sonic direction, and would never appear on stage with the band (sending his lyrics to Wetton by post from his home in Hamburg).
Rehearsals and touring began in late 1972, with the new band’s penchant for improvisation (and Jamie Muir’s startling wild-man stage presence) immediately gaining King Crimson some excited press attention. A new album Larks' Tongues in Aspic was released early the next year. It was the first King Crimson record to demonstrate Fripp’s dominant compositional vision (without either the template of Ian McDonald's songwriting and arrangements or the influence of Sinfield’s elaborate conceptual lyrics and references) and in that sense was the first King Crimson record to escape from the shadow of the debut album.
Larks' Tongues in Aspic (1973)
Larks' Tongues in Aspic was notable for its revolutionary sound and a use of dynamics that was extreme even by King Crimson standards (exemplified by such pieces as the two-part title track), which was a significant change from what King Crimson had done before, and drew from influences as diverse as Bartok, the free music scene, Vaughan Williams and the embryonic heavy metal sound. Muir’s freewheeling approach to percussion and “found” instrumentation (utilizing everything from a prepared drum kit to bicycle-horn bulbs, toys, bullroarers, gongs hit with chains, foley-style sound effects and a joke laughing-bag) permeated the record and revolutionized Bruford’s own approach to percussion. Wetton’s loud, crisp and overdriven playing style provided King Crimson’s most distinctive bass playing to date, while Fripp’s guitar playing had taken on a wiry and aggressive character previously seldom heard in the band’s studio recordings. There were some nods to the past in the band’s continued use of Mellotron (mostly for the melodic ballads), but the band now had more of a small ensemble sound (partly down to Cross’ solo violin) and the emphasis was now moving towards the instrumentals.
Following more touring, the group became a quartet in early 1973 when Muir suddenly departed. This was initially thought to have been due to an onstage injury (a dropped gong landing on his foot during a gig at the Marquee)
Twenty-seven years later it was revealed that Muir had gone through a personal spiritual crisis and had had to immediately withdraw from the band, who themselves had not been told the truth about the situation by their management. Bruford took on additional percussion duties to compensate for the loss of Muir.
Starless And Bible Black (1974)
During the lengthy tour that followed, the remaining members began assembling material for their next album, Starless and Bible Black, released in January 1974, earning them a positive Rolling Stone review. The album built on the achievements of its predecessor, precariously balancing improvised material with careening heavy-metal riffs and songs that recalled both the Beatles’ White Album experiments and aspects of Miles Davis electric fusion. Two-thirds of the album was instrumental, including Fripp’s climactic motto perpetual composition “Fracture”, the atonal sound painting of the title track and the delicate “Trio”, a hushed and wistful improvised melody featuring Wetton on bass, Cross on violin, Fripp on flute-Mellotron and Bruford notoriously contributing “admirable restraint” (by having sat with his drumsticks crossed over his chest throughout the piece, understanding that the music did not require him to add anything).
Most of Starless and Bible Black was recorded from live performances, but after careful editing it was presented as another studio album. Careful listening to the album reveals live acoustic dimensions and faded-out applause. Fuller documentation of the quartet’s live work was revealed eighteen years later on 1992’s four-disc live recording The Great Deceiver, and again on 1998’s double live album The Night Watch (which revealed the original source tapes for much of the material on Starless And Bible Black).
By this time, the band was once again beginning to divide into performance factions. Musically, Fripp found himself positioned between Bruford and Wetton (who played with such force and increasing volume that Fripp once compared them to “a flying brick wall” ) and Cross (whose amplified acoustic violin was increasingly being drowned out by the rhythm section, forcing him to concentrate more on keyboards). An increasingly frustrated Cross began to withdraw musically and personally, with the result that he was voted out of the group following the band's 1974 tour of Europe and America,. playing his final performance in Central Park in New York.
The remaining trio reconvened to record a new album, which would be called Red. Unknown to the other two, Fripp (increasingly disillusioned with the music business) had been turning his attention to the writings of the mystic George Gurdjieff, and experienced a spiritual crisis-cum-awakening immediately before the band entered the studio. He would later describe his experience as having seemed as if “the top of my head blew off.” Although most of the album material had been written, the transformed Fripp retreated into himself in the studio and “withdrew his opinion”, leaving Bruford and Wetton to direct most of the sessions.
In spite of this, Red proved to be one of the strongest and most consistent King Crimson albums to date. It has been described as "an impressive achievement" for a group about to disband, with "intensely dynamic" musical chemistry between the band members that resulted in a record "aggressive and loud enough to strip the wallpaper off your living room wall". Opening with the harsh, tritone-based instrumental which gave the album its name (and which has remained in the band’s live set ever since), the album also featured two relatively short and punchy Wetton-led songs, a last look back at the period with David Cross (via the live improvisation “Providence” from the preceding tour) and the majestic twelve-minute “Starless” (which acted, in effect, as a potted musical history of the band from Mellotron-driven ballad grandeur via intense improvisation to savagely structured metallic attack and back again). The album also included guest appearances by former members and collaborators. In addition to Cross’s appearance on “Providence”, Robin Miller and Marc Charig returned on oboe and cornet for the first time since Islands, and both Mel Collins and Ian McDonald played saxophones on “Starless” (at one point, duetting with each other via overdubs).
With one of their strongest albums ready to promote, King Crimson’s future prospects looked bright, and talks were underway regarding Ian McDonald rejoining the band. However, Fripp - still processing his spiritual crisis - did not want to tour as he felt that the "world was coming to an end" and was in any case becoming discouraged by both the working relationships in the band and by the realities of high-profile rock band activity (which he increasingly saw as overblown and detrimental to both musicians and audience).
Two months before the release of Red, Fripp announced that King Crimson had "ceased to exist" and was "completely over for ever and ever", The group formally disbanded on 25 September 1974. Much later on, it was revealed that Fripp had attempted to interest his managers in a Fripp-free version of King Crimson (consisting of Wetton, Bruford and McDonald) but had been turned down.
A posthumous live album, USA, documenting this version of King Crimson's final tour of the United States, was released in 1975 to critical acclaim[, reviewers calling it "a must" for fans of the band and "insanity you're better off having".
Technical issues with some of the original tapes rendered some of David Cross' violin parts inaudible when mixed in 1974, so Roxy Music’s Eddie Jobson was brought in to provide studio overdubs of violin and keyboards. Further edits were also necessary to allow for the time limitations of a single vinyl album. (The album was reissued with two extra tracks, “Fracture” and “Starless”, in 2005.)
Following the assembly of USA, the band went their separate ways. While McDonald joined Foreigner, Wetton would have stints in Roxy Music and Uriah Heep before reuniting with Bruford in UK and eventually becoming front man for Asia. Before and after his UK stint, Bruford would play with his own jazz-fusion band (also called Bruford) and drummed for Genesis on their first post-Peter Gabriel tour.
Fripp, meanwhile, would toy with the idea of going into the priesthood but would ultimately opt to become a “small, mobile intelligent unit” and embrace a solo career which saw him move to New York City, where he would collaborate with Brian Eno, Blondie, Talking Heads, The Roches and Daryl Hall among others, as well as further developing his Eno-inspired tape loop system of Frippertronics. He would also make striking guitar contributions to the albums of David Bowie and Peter Gabriel (even joining the latter on tour) and hone his abilities as a producer.
In 1979, Fripp released his first solo album Exposure (sometimes described as "an art-rock Sergeant Pepper"). Mixing songs with Frippertronics, and spiky instrumentals with tape cut-ups, the album featured guest performances by assorted Fripp collaborators and contemporaries including Brian Eno, Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins, Darryl Hall, Peter Hammill, Terre Roche and Barry Andrews. Notably for the future, several of the bass parts on the album were played by Peter Gabriel's bass player of choice - Tony Levin - who was known as "one of New York City's most sought-after studio musicians". Levin had played bass for Peter Gabriel, Paul Simon, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, and many others. Fripp - who'd previously worked with Levin both on Gabriel’s first three albums and on a 1977 tour - considered him to be a “master” player.
A second solo album, God Save The Queen/Under Heavy Manners, was released in 1980, blending Frippertronics with New Wave/funk rhythms in a fusion which Fripp referred to as "Discotronics". The album featured contributions from David Byrne, Busta Jones and Paul Duskin.
In 1980, Fripp re-emerged with his “second-division beat band” The League of Gentlemen, a collaboration with Barry Andrews (XTC, Shriekback), Sara Lee (Gang Of Four, The B-52's) and successive drummers Johnny Toobad and Kevin Wilkinson. Although short-lived, The League Of Gentlemen further developed a dominant Fripp playing style of highly-disciplined and interlocking rhythmic arpeggios, something which he had first pioneered in King Crimson during 1973 (with “Fracture”) and which would inform his next step.
By 1981, Fripp had opted to fold The League of Gentlemen in favor of a project that was more artistically and commercially ambitious. At the time, he had no intention of reforming King Crimson. However, his first step was to contact Bill Bruford and ask if he wanted to join a new band, to which Bruford agreed.
Fripp then contacted guitarist and singer Adrian Belew, who had previously worked with David Bowie and Frank Zappa and whom Fripp had met when his then-band Gaga had supported The League of Gentlemen. Belew was, at the time, a major collaborator with Talking Heads both on record and on tour. Fripp had never been in a band with another guitarist before (other than his stint in Peter Gabriel's 1977 touring band), so the decision to seek a second guitarist was indicative of Fripp's desire to create a sound unlike any of his previous work. Belew (who agreed to join the new band following his tour commitments with Talking Heads) would also become the band’s lyricist.
Having decided against selecting Bruford’s colleague Jeff Berlin as bass player (on the grounds that his playing style was “too busy”), Fripp and Bruford resigned themselves to a long search. To Fripp’s surprise, Tony Levin arrived on the third day of auditions, and completed the band. Fripp confessed that, had he known that Levin was available and interested, he would have selected him as first-choice bass player without auditions. In addition to his bass-playing contributions, Levin introduced the band to the use of the Chapman Stick, a ten-string polyphonic two-handed tapping instrument of the guitar family which had both a bass and treble range and which Levin played in an "utterly original style"
Fripp named the new quartet Discipline, and the band flew to England to rehearse and write. They made their live debut at Moles Club in Bath on April 30, 1981 and went on to tour the UK, supported by The Lounge Lizards.
The Sheltering Sky (1981)
By October 1981, the four members of Discipline had made the collective decision to ditch their original name and to reactivate and use the name of King Crimson.
The new version of King Crimson bore some resemblance to New Wave music, which can be attributed in part to the work of both Belew and Fripp with Talking Heads and David Bowie, Levin's work with Peter Gabriel, and Fripp's work on Exposure and with The League of Gentlemen. With this new band, described by J. D. Considine in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide as having a "jaw-dropping technique" of "knottily rhythmic, harmonically demanding workouts", Fripp intended to create the sound of a "rock gamelan", with an interlocking rhythmic quality to the paired guitars that he found similar to Indonesian gamelan ensembles.
Belew’s striking arsenal of guitar sounds – utilizing a broad range of electronic effects and unorthodox playing styles – was another new component of the band. It enabled Fripp to concentrate more on complex picked arpeggios while Belew provided a counterpoint including animal noises, industrial textures, demented lead guitar screams, backward envelopes and insectoid chatter (although Belew was more than capable of handling his share of the cross picked gamelan patterns). Within the rhythm section, Levin brought elements of contemporary urban styles to the bass lines, while Bruford experimented (at Fripp’s behest) with a cymbal-free drum kit. Although King Crimson’s trademark Mellotrons were no longer present, Fripp’s rich and overdriven lead guitar breaks provided a link to the past (with the new band also having turned in animated versions of “Red” and “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part 2” during the original Discipline tour).
As with previous incarnations of the band, the new King Crimson lineup also embraced new technology which in turn informed the music – in this case the Roland guitar synthesizer, the Chapman Stick and the Simmons electronic drum kit.
The Discipline album (1981)
The first album by the new lineup was 1981’s Discipline, an immediate benchmark for the new sound and still considered to be one of the band’s finest records. The songs were short and snappy by King Crimson standards, with Belew’s pop sense and quirky lyrical approach a surprising contrast to previous Crimson grandeur. The music incorporated additional influences including post-punk, latter-day funk, go-go and African-styled polyrhythms.
While the band’s previous taste for improvisation was now tightly reined in, one of the album’s two instrumentals (the serene “The Sheltering Sky”) had emerged unplanned out of group rehearsals. The noisy, half-spoken/half-shouted “Indiscipline” had been partially written in order to give Bruford a chance to escape from the strict rhythmic demands of the rest of the album and to play against the beat in any way that he could.
Discipline was followed in 1982 by Beat, which was both the first King Crimson album to have been recorded with the same band lineup as the album preceding it and the first not to have been produced by a member of the group,
The album had a loosely-linked theme of the beat generation and its writings, reflected in song titles such as "Neal and Jack and Me" (inspired by Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac), "The Howler" (inspired by Allan Ginsberg’s “Howl”) and "Sartori in Tangier" (inspired by Paul Bowles). Fripp had asked Belew to read Keroauc's novel On the Road. for inspiration, and the album was peppered with themes of travel, disorientation and loneliness. While the record was a noticeably poppier version of the Discipline template (and contained the limpid ballads "Heartbeat" and "Two Hands", the latter with lyrics by Belew’s wife Margaret), it also featured the harsh, atonal and entirely improvised “Requiem”, which was more reminiscent of the left-field work of King Crimson circa Starless And Bible Black.
The recording process of Beat was fraught, with Belew suffering high stress levels over his duties as front man and main writer of song material. On one occasion, he clashed with Fripp and ordered him out of the studio. (Fripp would later sardonically comment “So much for my being the leader of King Crimson”). Differences were soon resolved, however, and the band toured again, followed by a recuperative time-out during which Belew recorded a solo album.
Three Of A Perfect Pair (1984)
Reconvening to record Three of a Perfect Pair in 1984, the band found the compositional process hard and this time had difficulty reconciling the disparate musical ideas of the four members. They ultimately opted for a “two-sided” album consisting of “the left side” - four of the band’s poppier songs and a melodically instrumental - and a “right side” of experimental material which ranged from extended and atonal improvisations in the tradition of the mid-70s band to a third tightly-structured episode in the “Larks’ Tongues In Aspic” sequence.
The “left side” songs had a loose lyrical theme (this time the workings of the brain, from dysfunction to dream, and its impact on life) while the “right side” had more of a preoccupation with technological society (from the lengthy instrumental "Industry" to the Sprechstimme piece “Dig Me”, sung from the viewpoint of a scrapped automobile) and saw the band experimenting with more mechanistic sounds. (The 2001 CD re-master of the album added “the other side”, a collection of remixes and improvisation outtakes plus Levin’s tongue-in-cheek vocal piece “The King Crimson Barbershop”).
The last concert of the Three Of A Perfect Pair tour (which was also the last concert played by the 1980s lineup) was recorded and subsequently released in 1998 as the live album Absent Lovers: Live in Montreal.
After Three of a Perfect Pair King Crimson disbanded, relatively amicably. Belew would later refer to the band taking a break which ultimately lasted for ten years.
During the next eight years, Levin would return to sessions (as well as ongoing work with Peter Gabriel) while Bruford would form the electro-acoustic jazz band Earthworks (with future British jazz stars Django Bates and Iain Ballamy). Both maintained their association as a bass-and-drums team, working together on David Torn's notably Crimsonic 1986 album Cloud About Mercury and as the rhythm section for the short lived Yes reunion project Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe.
Belew would pursue a diverse sessions and solo career plus work with the guitar-pop quartet The Bears and a return stint as David Bowie’s tour guitarist. He would also score a surprise MTV hit with his 1989 single “Oh Daddy”.
Fripp, meanwhile, moved straight from King Crimson into forming the Guitar Craft music school in 1985. An integrated exploration of performance, composition, discipline and lifestyle, Guitar Craft was based around the acoustic guitar and Fripp’s own New Standard Tuning, drawing strongly on the philosophies of Gurdjieff and J. G. Bennett as well as the Alexander Technique, and led to a large-scale acoustic performing group called The League Of Crafty Guitarists.
In 1989, Fripp formed a new electric art-rock band with singer Toyah Willcox, whom he had married in 1986. Called Sunday All Over The World, the band also featured drummer Paul Beavis and Chapman Stick player Trey Gunn (one of Fripp’s Guitar Craft students, who had also been one of the players in The League Of Crafty Guitarists). Sunday All Over The World was a short-lived project and only released one album, 1989's Kneeling At The Shrine. However, it did have the effect of further consolidating Fripp's working relationship with Trey Gunn, who would go on to work on virtually all of Fripp's projects for the next fourteen years. One of the first of these was the Robert Fripp String Quintet (for which Fripp and Gunn were joined by three of Fripp's other students, the California Guitar Trio). The Quintet toured America and Japan during 1992 and 1993 and recorded an album in 1993 called The Bridge Between.
Since 1985, Fripp had also worked sporadically with former Japan singer David Sylvian. In 1991, Fripp invited Sylvian to become the lead singer for a possible reformation of King Crimson. Although Sylvian declined the offer, he and Fripp formed a duo project under their own names which resulted in the 1993 album The First Day with a rhythm section of Gunn and former Peter Gabriel drummer Jerry Marotta. For the tour and the subsequent live album Damage, former Mr. Mister drummer Pat Mastelotto took over on drums. (Original King Crimson drummer Michael Giles had also auditioned.)
Prompted by a serious falling out with his management company and record label EG (due to the latter’s alleged financial mismanagement and failure to pay its artists) Fripp also established his own record label Discipline Global Mobile. This would have a strong impact on future business and projects for both King Crimson and other related projects. In 1998, DGM would launch the King Crimson Collector's Club, a service that regularly releases live recordings from concerts throughout the band's career, many of which are now available for download online.
At some point in the early 1990s, Adrian Belew visited Fripp in England and strongly expressed his interest in playing in a reformed King Crimson. Following the end of his tour with David Sylvian, Fripp began restructuring the band, bringing Belew and Levin back from the 1980s band while adding Trey Gunn on Chapman Stick and Jerry Marotta on drums. In the early stages of planning, Marotta was replaced by Pat Mastelotto.
The last addition to the lineup was Bill Bruford as second drummer. Fripp explained the unexpected sextet arrangement by claimed to have had the vision of a “double trio” (two guitarists, two bass/Stick players and two drummers) to explore a different type of King Crimson music. Bruford, however, would later assert that he had lobbied his own way into the band (believing that King Crimson was very much “his gig”) and that Fripp had come up with the philosophical explanation later.
The "double trio" convened for rehearsals in Woodstock in 1994 and released the EP Vrooom in the same year.
The new King Crimson sound featured elements of the interlocking guitars on Discipline and the heavy rock feel of Red., with a greater use of ambient electronic sound and ideas from industrial music. In contrast, many of the songs (mostly written or finalized by Belew) displayed stronger elements of 1960s pop than before (in particular, a Beatles influence). As with previous lineups, new technology was used for – and informed – the music. In this case, the technology was MIDI (used extensively by Fripp, Belew and Gunn), to which Gunn would add the Warr Guitar (a tapping guitar instrument with which he would replace his Chapman Stick post-VROOOM).
The apparent twinning of instruments was in fact used less than initially suggested. Using Soundscapes (the greatly expanded digital successor to Frippertronics) Fripp's guitar began to take more of a textural and ambient role in many pieces; while Gunn’s Stick or Warr Guitar, rather than staying in the bass register with Levin, covered a proportion of the guitar arpeggios as well as producing experimental and distorted sounds and triggering MIDI sounds. The main use of twinned instruments was in the drumming, with Bruford initially taking on a more exploratory role over Mastelotto’s steady beat (although this was soon replaced by a more equitable sharing of roles).
The revived band would make their live debut in Buenos Aires in 1995 (recorded for the live album B'Boom: Live in Argentina, released in August of the same year). In addition to a large body of new material, the band played three mid-70s pieces (“Red”, “Larks’ Tongues In Aspic Part 2” and “The Talking Drum”) and six songs from the 1980s repertoire (predominantly from Discipline).
"What does THRAK mean? The meaning of THRAK - and I'll give you two definitions - the first one is: a sudden and precise impact moving from direction and commitment in service of an aim. And again, it's a sudden impact moving from direction, intention and commitment in service of an aim. The second definition is: 117 guitars almost hitting the same chord simultaneously. So, the album THRAK, what is it? 56 minutes and 37 seconds of songs and music about love, dying, redemption and mature guys who get erections."
—Robert Fripp's tongue-in-cheek press release for the Thrak album
King Crimson released their next full-length studio album - Thrak - in April 1995, containing revised versions of most of the tracks on Vrooom. Thrak was described as having "jazz-scented rock structures, characterized by noisy, angular, exquisite guitar interplay" and an "athletic, ever-inventive rhythm section", whilst being in tune with the sound of alternative rock musicians in the mid-1990s.
Examples of the band’s efforts to integrate their multiple elements could be heard on the complex post-prog songs “Dinosaur” and “Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream” as well as the more straightforward “One Time” and the funk-pop inspired “People”. Instrumentally, the album featured a couple of clear descendants of the driving “Red” (“VROOOM “and “VROOOM VROOOM”), the drum duet “B’Boom”, the savagely displaced and rhythmatic “THRAK” and a couple of brief solo Soundscapes from Fripp. The album also featured the brief return of Mellotron to the band’s sonic palette.
During 1995 and 1996 King Crimson continued to tour. The band released the challenging avant-garde live album Thrakattak in 1996, which consisted entirely of concert improvisations (from the midsection of performances of “THRAK”) digitally combined into an hour-long extended improvisation.
A more conventional live recording from the period was later made available on the 2001 double CD release Vrooom Vrooom, as was a 1995 concert on the 2003 Déjà Vrooom DVD.
Although musically exciting, the Double Trio was expensive and cumbersome to run, which in turn led to insecurity. In mid-1997, the band gathered for rehearsals in Nashville which came to a compositional impasse. At this point, the friction between Fripp and a particularly exasperated Bruford effectively ended the latter’s time as a King Crimson member.
This, plus the lack of workable material and coherent group ideas, could have broken the band up altogether. Instead, the six members opted for an alternative solution - the ProjeKCts.
Rather than split up absolutely, the six musicians of the Double Trio decided to work in smaller "sub-groups" (or "fraKctalisations", according to Fripp) called ProjeKcts. This enabled the group to continue developing musical ideas and searching for Crimson's next direction without the practical difficulty and expense of convening all six members in one place at once.
The various ProjeKCts played live in the USA, Japan and the UK and released a number of recordings which were in many respects similar to the Thrakattak album, demonstrating the improvisational musical high wire act that the constituent musicians were able to produce. The ProjeKCt albums were described by music critic Considine as "frequently astonishing" but also as lacking in melody, and thus too difficult for the casual listener.
As with previous King Crimson Endeavour’s, the ProjekCts embraced new technology – in this case, Mastelotto’s electronic drum loop devices, Trey Gunn’s MIDI-triggered “talk box” and the new electronic Roland V-Drums played by Mastelotto and Belew. (Significantly, Bruford declined to play the V-drums despite Fripp’s request).
* ProjeKct One (Fripp, Bruford, Gunn and Levin) was assembled for a four-night stint in London. The band took on an entirely improvised free-jazz direction and was primarily led by the more jazz-inclined Bruford and Levin (who, for this project, favored acoustic drums and upright bass respectively). This can also be seen as Bruford's final attempt to work within a King Crimson context.
* ProjeKct Two (Fripp, Gunn and Belew) explored more Crimsonic instrumental structures with plenty of MIDI triggering and virtual instrumentation (such as impossible piano lines played via MIDI guitar) plus the unusual and stimulating element of Belew playing electronic drums rather than guitar. The music was generally more light-hearted and humorous than most King Crimson-associated material.
* ProjeKct Three (Fripp, Gunn and Mastelotto) explored similar territory to ProjeKct Two but was a much faster-paced experiment driven primarily by Mastelotto’s multi-layered electronic rhythm approach (which drew extensively on high-speed drum and bass and electronica)
* ProjeKct Four (Fripp, Gunn, Mastelotto and Levin) explored similar territory to ProjeKct Three (although it actually preceded ProjeKct Three into action) - however, the presence of Levin on bass and Stick resulted in a much fuller "live band" sound and a more driving avant-rock approach.
A fifth band, not named as a ProjeKCt but in certain respects feeding into the same inspiration, was Bruford Levin Upper Extremities (BLUE) in which the rhythm section of Bruford and Levin worked with guitarist David Torn and trumpeter Chris Botti in order to play a particularly Crimsonic form of jazz-rock. (BLUE can also be seen as a development of ideas explored on Torn's 1986 album Cloud About Mercury, for which Bruford and Levin had been the rhythm section and Mark Isham had played trumpet and keyboards.)
Various King Crimson members have continued to create new ProjeKCts to the present day, as and where necessary. The latest of these has been ProjeKct Six (consisting of Fripp on guitar and Soundscapes and Belew on drums, bass and guitar) which played four shows in the north-eastern United States in 2006, opening for Porcupine Tree One of these shows was postponed due to the sudden death of Adrian Belew's long-time friend and engineer, Ken Latchney.
By the time the ProjeKcts came to end, Bruford had entirely quit King Crimson work to concentrate on Earthworks. Levin’s session career commitments (mostly to Peter Gabriel and Seal) were also obstructing future King Crimson activity and he therefore withdrew from the band. Fortunately, this fitted into Belew’s preference for a smaller unit, while Fripp also stated that he still considered Levin to be a King Crimson member, albeit for now an inactive “fifth member”.
The remaining four active members of King Crimson - Belew, Fripp, Gunn, and Mastelotto - continued with the band, sometimes referring to themselves as the “Double Duo” in a tongue-in-cheek reference to the previous line-up. Although it featured two-thirds of the previous band’s personnel and no new members, this incarnation of the band would be strongly distinct from the Double Trio and was effectively a different, rather than reduced, lineup.
The altered membership and the experience of the ProjeKcts led to changes in role. Gunn's work in King Crimson moved more towards a bass player’s role (he would supplement his low-end Warr Guitar playing with work on the baritone guitar and Asbury silicone-string bass), while Mastellotto made a much greater use of electronics. Once again, new technology was employed (the electronic V-Drums and rhythm-loop machines used for the ProjeKCts) and Belew would entirely embrace Fripp’s New Standard Tuning on guitar.
The ConstruKCtion Of Light (2000)
King Crimson recorded their next album, The ConstruKction of Light, in Adrian Belew’s basement and garage near Nashville. The results were released in 2000 and proved to be the band’s most hard-rocking album to date. All of the pieces were metallic and harsh in sound (similar to the work of contemporary alternative metal bands such as Tool), with a distinct electronic texture, a heavy processed drum sound from Mastelotto, and a different take on the interlocked guitar sound which the band had used since the 1980s. With the exception of a periodic industrial blues (sung by Belew through a voice changer, under the pseudonym of “Hooter J. Johnson”) the songs were unrelentingly complex and challenging to the listener, with plenty of rhythmic displacement to add to the harsh textures.
The album also contained a lengthy fourth installment of the “Larks’ Tongues In Aspic” series and another piece – “FraKCtured” – which effectively rewrote the 1973 piece “Fracture”. Fripp argued that the original “Fracture” had been written for and interpreted by a specific group of musicians, and that in order to pursue a similar theme in 2000 it had been necessary to rewrite the music in accordance with the skills and personalities of the current lineup. This explanation, however, did not protect the album from criticism for apparently lacking new ideas.
Although the whole band contributed to arrangements, the basic material on The ConstruKction of Light was almost entirely composed by Belew (songs) and Fripp (instrumentals). To avoid creative frustration, the band recorded a parallel album at the same time under the name of ProjeKct X, called Heaven and Earth. This second album was conceived and led by Mastelotto and Gunn (with Fripp and Belew playing subsidiary roles in the band) and was a further development of the polyrhythmic/dance music approach seen earlier in the ProjeKCts. (The album’s title track was also included as a bonus track on The ConstruKCtion of Light). Like The ConstruKction of Light, Heaven and Earth was criticized for an apparent lack of new ideas.
King Crimson toured to support the records, releasing a live document of the results as the triple live album Heavy ConstruKction. This showed the band constantly switching between the structured album pieces and ferocious ProjeKCt-style Soundscape-and-percussion improvisations.
Among King Crimson' live engagements were shows opening for self-confessed Crimson disciples Tool in 2001. At one of these, Tool’s lead singer Maynard James Keenan joked onstage: "For me, being on stage with King Crimson is like Lenny Kravitz playing with Led Zeppelin, or Britney Spears onstage with Debbie Gibson."
Later in 2001, the band released a limited edition live EP called Level Five, which featured three new pieces. A version of “The Deception of the Thrush” (a ProjeKCt track now regularly featuring in the live set) plus the new tracks “Dangerous Curves” and “Virtuous Circle” suggested that the band was heading back towards a broader dynamic including quieter, more textural work.
In 2002, King Crimson released a new EP Happy with What You Have to Be Happy With. This featured eleven tracks (including a live version of “Larks’ Tongues In Aspic, Part IV”) and confirmed that the band were moving back towards greater diversity. Half of the tracks were brief processed vocal snippets sung by Belew, and the songs themselves varied between deliberately-dumb heavy metal, gamelan-ish pop, Soundscapes and more blues spoofing.
The Power To Believe (2003)
The two EPs both acted as work-in-progress reveals for King Crimson’s 2003 album The Power to Believe, which Fripp described as "the culmination of three years of Crimsonising" and which was possibly the most self-referential album of the band’s career. The album incorporated reworked and/or re-titled versions of “Deception of the Thrush” and four of the EP tracks, plus a 1997 Soundscape with added instrumentation and vocals, and also used lyrics from an Adrian Belew solo song (“All Her Love Is Mine”) as a linking theme across four songs. It did, however, confirm the band’s return to more diverse songwriting and instrumentation, with a greater reliance on space and Soundscapes and with Mastelotto using more ProjeKCt-style percussion textures. Songs such as “EleKCtric” fused 1970s, 1980s and twenty-first century Crimson styles and the album ran the gamut from metal to ambient.
Once again, the band toured to support the album, resulting in the 2003 live album EleKtrik: Live in Japan, recorded in Tokyo.
In late November 2003, Trey Gunn announced his departure from King Crimson. He would continue his active association with Mastelotto in projects such as TU and KTU, as well as leading his own band.
Tony Levin was subsequently reinstalled as King Crimson’s bass player, reconvening with Fripp, Belew and Mastelotto for rehearsals in early 2004. However, nothing followed on from this and while the band did not formally split it was placed on hold for another three years.
By this point, Fripp was continually reassessing King Crimson in view of his dislike of the music industry and what he saw as the unsympathetic side of touring. While this did not break up the band, it contributed to changes in approach.
During the four years of King Crimson inactivity, Fripp continued to nurture the Discipline Global Mobile label and to tour solo Soundscapes. Levin continued with sessions and his own Tony Levin Band. Belew embarked on another round of solo career activity (including work with his new Adrian Belew Power Trio); while Mastellotto continued his side work with Trey Gunn (mostly in the band TU) and others.
A new King Crimson line-up was announced in late 2007, consisting of Fripp, Belew, Levin, Mastelotto, and a new second drummer – Gavin Harrison (the band’s first new British member since 1972). Although best known as the drummer for Porcupine Tree (a position he continues to hold alongside his King Crimson work), Harrison had a formidable reputation as one of the best session drummers in the music industry and had had a long career including work with Level 42, The Lodge, Jakko Jakszyk, Sam Brown and innumerable others.
The new five-man lineup began rehearsals in spring 2008. In August of the same year, the band set out on a brief four-city tour in preparation for the group's 40th Anniversary in 2009.
Live, the band revealed an increasingly drum-centric direction but no new material or any extended improvisations. However, many of the pieces from the back catalogue received striking new arrangements (most notably the renditions of "Neurotica," "Sleepless," and "Level Five", all of which were given percussion-heavy overhauls, presumably to highlight the return to the dual-drummer format). On August 20, 2008, DGM Live issued a download-only release of the August 7th, 2008 concert in Chicago, with more recordings from the New York shows scheduled for availability in the near future.
More rehearsals and shows had been intended for 2009, but these were cancelled following scheduling clashes, and as yet there has been no word on anything further.
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