The fact that there is even a King Crimson in 2015 is beyond any doubt incredible. Hell, the reunion in 1981 was fairly improbable, as was the reformation in 1994. But the action around the band in the last six months-full US tour, box set of unreleased material going back to 1969, live album on Cd and vinyl of the 2014 tour? It beggars description that this is happening currently, and is astonishingly well planned and executed. Why such a level of surprise? The main reason is Robert Fripp. As noted in the title, he is batshit crazy. A genius? Certainly. One of the most influential rock musicians of the last fifty years? Absolutely. But behind the thin veil of normalcy, Fripp bubbles away like the crazy friend you had in middle school, who when you meet again at a class reunion decades later has gone from eccentric to just plain weird. Of course your friend from middle school didn’t tour the world several times over and play some of the most cutting edge music to thousands of fans each night. That is why Fripp has been able to glide through mostly unquestioned by the masses. Before we begin, a quick recap of some of the more notable ‘eccentricites’
Now don’t get me wrong, nobody is perfect. Everyone has their own little quirks. And to his credit, Fripp has been quite forthcoming on his own shortcomings. What can be annoying is when Fripp imposes his quirks upon you, and leaves you no choice except get on board or leave. Cracks in the facade could be traced back to the origins of the band, but the real damage appeared in the 1974 tour. Even his own tour diary leading up to the final show in Central Park June 1974, Fripp admits that he is alienated in his own band, and now eats his meals alone while the rest of the band eats at a table across the restaurant. The hints he drops in his diary indicates this is pretty much a result of his increasingly strange and borderline OCD behavior. Fracture on Starless and Bible Black is a nice sonic picture and strong hint of the paranoia and disintegrating hold on reality for a character that appears anonymous but is more likely autobiographical. King Crimson in 1974 was not a waning proposition but an increasingly powerful one. The album Red, the final one of this lineup, contained newly returned founding member Ian McDonald, composer and co-writer of all five songs on the landmark debut album, 1969’s In the Court of the Crimson King. Marc Charig, a cornet player from the albums Lizard and Islands had returned as well. It seemed as if all the eras of King Crimson were folding together, and the result was a stunning masterpiece of hypnotic heaviness, a proto metal progressive album, the first of its kind. But suddenly, the band was no more. Fripp had decided to break the band up. Not only was the rock world stunned and angered, the band members were even more upset. Drummer Bill Bruford was informed of the band’s just announced demise during an interview with a journalist and wept openly at the news. Extreme? Not really. This was a band that had scaled the heights of rock music, and pushed boundaries further and further, literally redefining genres with each song. Bruford wasn’t the only one in tears. No good reasons for breaking the band up were offered, and even those close to the band thought it was inexplicable. But then some information snuck out. Fripp had perhaps fled to Dorset on an extended spiritual retreat. Later, stories circulated that his then current girlfriend, a practicing witch, had convinced him that the world was going to end soon, and they retreated to an island to wait for the end and go out in style. This would seem to be something that would actually break the band up. Why tour and work when you could relax in luxury and meditate on the end of humanity? Luckily the witch was off by at least five decades in her prediction, but at least this one is understandable, if not easily explainable.
To come closer to the current times-Fripp on a solo tour hit my town in 1998. He was dreadfully put out by flash photography. He had been known to bail on shows on this tour if one flash went off in the crowd. At this show, a single flash in the balcony 30 minutes in caused him to slowly turn his gear off, and exit the stage without a word. He had to be coaxed back. (After that show, a friend saw him eating alone in a huge restaurant window. He took a large flash photo that lit up the window like a movie screen. Fripp may have lost five years of life in that moment). I saw him at a Projeckt 2 show later in the year, and saw him dressed in a scarf and overcoat (it was about 85 degrees that night), and I yelled “Hey Mr. Fripp, great show!” He saw he was recognized, and quickly scurried away. In 2012, Fripp threw a large online tantrum and said he was quitting the music business over the way labels have handled the Crimson catalogue. While some of his points are valid, he signed contracts in a music business that operated in a certain fashion. He was well aware of what he was getting into . But in the new millenium, large diatribes would appear online and even in the fanclub live cds booklets excorciating the major labels as devils. Some agreed, most were embarrassed for him. Fripp can certainly turn a phrase when he’s got his dander up, and these intractable tracts are highly recommended to read at least once.
Now back to current times. Apparently unconcerned he promised to quit the music business altogether forever, Fripp reformed King Crimson. This was pretty astounding, as the band had run its course by 2009, and was repeating themes created in 1981 with Adrian Belew for the past few decades. Whenever Crimson feels stale, it’s time for a change. Everyone expected that was it for the band when he folded up shop at the end of the 2008 tour. A revamped line up raised some eyebrows as it was noted that Belew wouldn’t be part of this incarnation.The tour was preceded by the Elements box, sold only at shows and the Crimson website. I was expecting it to be a primer for new fans, and was astounded to find two cds of previously unreleased material. Some of the stuff was insanely rare-Greg Lake singing Cadence and Cascade? Fripp assured us that this never happened, yet here it is in all its delicate beauty. Eight of the fifteen tracks on the first disc are songs proper, the remaining seven are snippets and snapshots of rejected guitar solos and such. The first disc contains only material from the 69-74 version of Crimson, barring the interspersed tracks of the 2014 rehearsals, five ‘songs’ totaling six minutes-a bit light on what they could have offered to preview this line up. Cirkus from 1971 is a genuine treasure. Disc 2 is the modern era Crimson-1981 to the current day. The prize on this disc is a recording of Manhattan (later known as Neurotica). It is a vivid picture of someone standing in NYC surrounded by the hustle and bustle of sirens, horns and cacophony that bring them to the edge of a nervous breakdown. I had witnessed this played live in 1982 and felt the original had been completely stripped of its power in the final lp version and lamented the loss of the original–but now overjoyed at its return. Another treasure is the band in rehearsals working on a particularly complex part of music and not quite getting it right. Belew exclaims “this shit is hard!” at the end. A nice insight to what the band goes through to get to their seamless endpoints. The set is only marred by the inclusion of two songs from the dreadfully soporific and mostly unlistenable Scarcity of Miracles, an album that preceded the reunion and brought Jakko Jakszyk into the Crim fold.
This brings us to the fall tour of 2014. Although I have been a die hard Crimson fan since the late 70’s, somehow I didn’t have many high hopes for this tour. The Scarcity of Miracles had a paucity of ideas, and if this was a preview of the new direction–then it was time to bury the carcass and be done with it. I went to the fourth show of the tour, and hadn’t looked at the set list. The band lineup was an augmented version of scarcity-Fripp, Mel Collins (from the Islands days) on sax, Jakko on guitar and vocals, Tony Levin returning once again on bass, and then….three drummers? Pat Mastelotto, Bill Rieflin and Gavin Harrison lined up front and center across the stage-band behind on risers. Mastelotto had been Crimson’s drummer since 1994 (he started in the MTV staple band Mr. Mister) and Harrison had been in Crimson for a cup of coffee in 2008. He has been Porcupine Tree’s drummer since 2002. Rieflin seemed an odd choice-Ministry, Pigface, Nine Inch Nails, Revolting Cocks, KMFDM were his staple gigs-but a long term stint in REM showed him to be versatile at least. In concert, Bill was a wise choice-professorly in demeanor, and subtle in execution.
The evening opened with a cringe-worthy nod to Robert’s obsession…bootleg recording and photography. In a recorded skit between him and the other members of the band, they danced around the concept of ‘being in the moment’ to discourage any picture taking or recording. Although this was meant to be clever, it had all the authenticity of your teachers in sixth grade putting on a skit to keep you from smoking. Eye rolling led to a vow to actually take pictures of the show against their will, much like the wide eyed sixth grader watching his teachers play and saying “dammit these assholes are actually going to drive me to trying a cigarette” It hadn’t been a thought until the awkwardness of the opening tape entered its third minute of preaching. When will this guy learn? (illegal show pix above)
I was very glad I had not glimpsed a set list before the show, because what we had in store was monstrously unexpected. Crimson was never a band to delve into back catalogue or do anything remotely close to a greatest hits show. A tinkling of kalimba and sundry percussion came up as the lights went down. All three drummers worked busily to make a very quiet tapestry of sound. I seemed to be the only one who noticed this was a song–“HOLY SHIT! They are opening with Lark’s Tongues in Aspic Part One!” I yelled out in the darkened theater. This song had not been played on stage in forty years, I was ecstatic. Next up was Pictures of a City from In the Wake of Poseidon, a tune not played since 1972. What was going on? Songs from Lark’s Tongues, Red, Islands, In the Court of the Crimson King? This was not what I expected at all. The band was flawless in execution, although those who were watching closely could see that Fripp sitting quietly on the side had off loaded many of his guitar parts to Jakko, but this was fairly indistinguishable in the long run. The only damper was a drum solo by Harrison in the middle of 21st Century Schizoid Man (aside: There has never been a drum solo proper in this song, why now? And….there are 3 drummers, he is the only one to get a solo? First Steve Wilson is allowed to remix Crimson’s albums and now the Porcupine Tree drummer gets a solo? Do these guys have dirt on Fripp? Ugh) The show was flawless, perhaps the best I had seen the band since my first show in 1981. I wished that I had gone to the previous shows, but was glad that I had seen this one, even more glad I hadn’t glanced at a set list. So where does that leave us in 2015? Lots of complaints, even more delights.
In the long run, all of Fripp’s perceived oddities and eccentricities, however annoying, are essentially coming from the right place. And that place is fueled by a passion for music that many of his contemporaries are sorely lacking. No band in the history of rock has remained relevant as long as King Crimson. That is a weighty statement there. Nobody has managed this. And the sole reason for Crimson’s being able to stay a light year or two ahead of the competition all comes back to Robert Fripp’s single minded devotion to principle and perfection. So batshit crazy or batshit genius? Grab a bunch of Crimson albums, hell grab all of them. Lock yourself into the soundroom and let it fly, and you decide.
Update 2017: read about Crimson’s 2017 tour here