When King Crimson’s debut album In The Court Of The Crimson King was released, they’d been together less than a year. The original lineup — Robert Fripp on guitar, Greg Lake on bass and lead vocals, Ian McDonald on reeds and keyboards (including lots of Mellotron), and Michael Giles on drums — sounded like no other band around at the time. They had a uniquely dark style that fluctuated between surging, epic psychedelia with elements of jazz and classical and a softer side dominated by Mellotron and flute. Their songs were more like collages, jumping from section to section and transitioning from stomping proto-metal to almost string quartet-like austerity to blaring jazz-rock and back again. As a consequence, they made an impression almost immediately, with Jimi Hendrix and the Who’s Pete Townshend both praising them as one of the most exciting acts around.
The band’s first rehearsal was on January 13, 1969; on April 9, they made their live debut at a club called the Speakeasy. A month after that, on May 6, they recorded a BBC session, and in June they began recording ITCOTCK. On July 5, they got a major break, opening for the Rolling Stones at a free outdoor concert in London’s Hyde Park, which drew a crowd some have estimated at a half million. At the end of July, they returned to the studio and finished the album. It was released on October 10, 1969, exactly 50 years ago today, and is considered one of the most influential progressive rock albums of all time.
Three of the five tracks on In The Court Of The Crimson King are among the best in the band’s catalog. The opener, “21st Century Schizoid Man,” starts with a massive, crunching riff played in unison by Fripp on guitar and McDonald on sax before Lake begins declaiming the apocalyptic lyrics through a distorted speaker over a single grinding chord. But after two verses, the song speeds up and turns into a manic jazz-rock explosion, with Giles’ machine-gun drums underpinning twin overdubbed saxes and wild keyboard excursions. Eventually, the massive riff reappears, and Lake delivers one more verse before the whole thing rises to a crescendo of screaming noise.
“Schizoid Man” is easily King Crimson’s best-known song. It’s been covered by a stunning range of artists, including Ozzy Osbourne, Gov’t Mule, Voivod, April Wine, Norwegian industrial metal act Shining, post-hardcore legends Rorschach, and Japanese jazz pianist Ai Kuwabara (who played only the middle section), and Kanye West sampled it for his song “Power.” It remains their encore to this day, sometimes getting stretched to the quarter-hour mark.
“I Talk To The Wind,” one of two soft, jazzy ballads on the album, is also one of the weakest tracks. Lake has a very nice voice, but nobody’s really delivering much on the instrumental side. King Crimson worked with Moody Blues producer Tony Clarke early in the process of making ITCOTCK, and I can imagine him really liking “I Talk To The Wind.” But “Epitaph,” the third track, is exactly the opposite, a stunningly powerful epic featuring gentle acoustic guitars, Mellotron strings, steadily ticking drums, and what might be Greg Lake’s greatest vocal performance ever.
The second side starts with the twelve-minute “Moonchild,” which is the record’s low point. It starts off as a ballad, pretty enough if even more sparse than “I Talk To The Wind,” but after two verses it dissolves into an extended passage of improvisation in the “no, after you” mode. Fripp, McDonald (on keyboards and later vibes), and Giles toss fragmentary ideas back and forth, but nothing ever congeals, and did I mention it’s twelve minutes long?
The album ends with “The Court Of The Crimson King,” which is another epic in the mode of “Epitaph.” Lake declaims the verses, and as each one ends, the Mellotron comes surging in along with wordless “ah-ah” background vocals. (There’s no chorus as such.) McDonald’s keyboards — and later his flute — are the dominant instruments; Fripp’s guitar lingers in the background, while Lake’s bass provides a strong but fluid foundation, not unlike what Geezer Butler would soon be doing in Black Sabbath. It seems to come to an end after seven minutes, only to pick back up after a short flute interlude for an instrumental reprise.
The original lineup of King Crimson didn’t survive 1969. They embarked on a US tour in the fall, and by December, Lake and Giles had informed Fripp of their desire to quit. Their final shows were at the Fillmore West in San Francisco; one of them is preserved in full on the four-CD Epitaph box set, which also includes their early BBC recordings.
Since then, Fripp has brought members in and tossed them out again, frequently disbanding King Crimson entirely, then restarting it again a few years later. Other than the debut, their most popular albums are the ones they made between 1972 and 1974 — Larks’ Tongues In Aspic, Starless And Bible Black, and Red — during which the group went from a quintet to a quartet to a trio. They started up again in 1981, making three albums of arty prog-funk with Adrian Belew as vocalist, second guitarist, and co-leader, Tony Levin on bass, and Bill Bruford (a veteran of the ’70s incarnation) on drums.
Some people like King Crimson’s ’80s work. I hate it, mostly because I find Belew insufferable. At their absolute best, on a song like “Frame By Frame,” they were doing the same thing as Talking Heads, the Police, or early ’80s Rush, but not as well as any of them. After 1981’s Discipline, 1982’s Beat, and 1984’s Three Of A Perfect Pair, they split up, and Fripp didn’t launch another version of the band for a decade.
In 1995, Crimson re-emerged as a double trio (two guitars, two bassists, two drummers), before stripping down to a quartet in the 2000s. The music they made during this period — on the albums Thrak, The Construkction Of Light, and The Power To Believe, and various EPs and live recordings — was noisier and more industrial, verging on metallic at times. They even opened for Tool on a nine-date West Coast tour in 2001. Their audience seemed to be shrinking, though, and in 2010 Fripp pulled the plug again.
In late 2013, he got the itch to make Crimson music again, but in what he described on the band’s extraordinarily detailed website as a “very different reformation to what has gone before: seven players, four English and three American, with three drummers.” The band he formed included saxophonist Mel Collins, who’d last played with them in 1971; bassist Tony Levin, who’d been around since the early ’80s; vocalist and second guitarist Jakko Jakszyk, who can sound uncannily like previous Crimson singers Greg Lake and John Wetton; keyboardist William Rieflin, formerly of Ministry, among other bands; and Pat Mastelotto, Jeremy Stacey, and Gavin Harrison on drums. That lineup, with a few minor changes (Reiflin is currently on hiatus from the group, following his wife’s death in August of this year), has existed ever since, making it one of the most stable versions of King Crimson ever. They perform music from the band’s entire history, including often neglected albums like In The Wake Of Poseidon, Lizard, and Islands, revamping songs in ways that effectively make them entirely new and leaving plenty of room in each night’s set for improvisation.
I saw them at the Count Basie Theater in Red Bank, NJ in 2017, and came away with the impression of having seen a particularly sharply dressed jazz band interpreting King Crimson material. Reports are that they’ve only gotten better in the two years since. Their current 50th anniversary tour is receiving rave reviews.
At the show I saw, saxophonist Mel Collins, who’d originally played with the band in 1970 and 1971, took as many solos as guitarist and bandleader Robert Fripp, and the drummers set up loping, tumbling, swinging patterns. Most of the time, one of them would be the primary rhythmic driver, while the other two offered accents and comments. At certain points, they’d all bash out a cymbal pattern in unison, pumping the energy level up. The songs were radically reworked in new arrangements and juxtaposed in a surprising and illuminating manner, putting pieces from the early ’70s alongside ones from the mid-’90s.
Fripp has also been treating diehard (and wealthy) fans to a series of lavish limited edition box sets that document the various versions of the band exhaustively. These contain between 15 and 27 discs of music each, rolling up every scrap of live and studio music from each era with elaborate liner notes and rare photos, and they cost a couple of hundred bucks each. The next of these will be a “complete 1969 recordings” set, for which the tracklist and price have not yet been revealed.
It’s hard to say how much longer Fripp will keep King Crimson going. He’s 73, after all. So is Tony Levin. Mel Collins is 72, and the other guys are all in their late fifties or their sixties. But as astonishing as it may seem, 50 years into their existence, King Crimson are having a Moment. 2019 may be the best possible time in 45 years to be — or even become — a King Crimson fan.