King Crimson in 2017, a look back at what got us here-the fuck ups and nimble twists, and a look at two current concerts on this tour. Does all this Radikal Action show that the Monkey Mind is still crazy, or crafty like a fox?
King Crimson in 2017. Just that idea is remarkable considering the perilous courses charted by King Crimson mk1 (the Greg Lake era, where Crimson was an equal partners band still), mk2 (the jazz influenced era, where Fripp and session musicians made up Crimson) and mk3 (the cutting edge Wetton/Bruford/Fripp/Cross era). Each of those bands crashed and burned, mostly at Fripp’s behest, after a two year stretch. Yes, two years is all any of these line ups lasted. Fragile was the word for Crimson band stability. Yet in five years, King Crimson created a body of work in seven albums that still reverberates strongly through the corridors of power in the rock n roll world to this day. This was groundbreaking shit when it came out, it was still groundbreaking two decades later, it is still groundbreaking today, four to nearly five decades after their release. Let that sink in for a minute.
In the Court of the Crimson King is the one that got the attention and still does, but smarter fans and savvier critics knew better. The real deal was Crimson Mk3. Heavy Metal magazine (formerly Metal Hurlant in France) in their December 1979 issue had a highly recommended article on King Crimson’s Lark’s Tongues in Aspic album, which had been released in early 1973. It posited the idea that King Crimson was so far ahead of their time that it would easily be fifty years before critics could come to grips with that album not as a rock release, but as a major musical milestone, a monument in the sand that future musicians would look back upon as an achievement unlike any other in rock music, a la Beethoven or Mozart’s lesser masterpieces. Perhaps it would be closer to one hundred years. Hyperbole or heady and prescient praise? Well here we are 44 years after Lark’s Tongues hit the shelves, and it remains a fairly unchallenged masterpiece in the rock canon. (That Lark’s Tongues borrowed very heavily from Bartok string quartets and Stravinsky’s Rites of Spring was something that seemingly eluded that original author at the time does not diminish his original point-this record is essential and far reaching in scope). Starless and Bible Black dropped the eccentric percussionist Jamie Muir (whose batwing costume and propensity to puke fake blood frightened the band and provided inadvertent inspiration to Kiss), while Red saw Lizard’s Marc Charig and founding member and principle songwriter Ian McDonald return to the fold. King Crimson was set up for another round of success. All three albums are visionary and pushed the edge of rock music to boundaries folks didn’t even suspect existed. Alas, ’twas not to be, as Robert Fripp pulled a schizophrenic disappearing act and Mk3 evaporated in the morning mist, much to the consternation of the fans, music press and the band itself. “Is Fripp crazy?” started to get asked in many circles. There was no consensus on the answer to that. Fripp layed low.
Mk1 1969-1970 Mk2 1970-1971 Mk3- 1973-1974
Round Two; Pentatonia, Meet Neurotica
“The Drive to 1981” and “The Incline to 1984” were announced in the liner notes of Fripp’s first solo album, Exposure, in 1979. These seemed to be a pair of three year plans for the future. Ambient music, pop music, and a strangely named dance band (the League of Gentlemen) comprised the first set of the plan. The League band is the one where Fripp once famously berated the audience to “stop staring at my fingers. This is a dance band, I suggest you dance!” But contained in the songs was a structure that repeated itself from song to song: a highly disciplined hypnotic pentatonic scale style that wove itself into most every song. This ended up being a hint as to what was coming next in the Incline to 1984-Discipline.
1981 brought a new band into existence for the next phase: Discipline. With Bill Bruford from Mk3 on board as drummer, Zappa and Bowie alumni Adrian Belew on guitar and noted jazz iconoclast Tony Levin on the new bass-like instrument the Chapman stick-crowds began to froth. Audiences recognized that this was a new iteration of King Crimson before Fripp himself did, but it wasn’t long before the moniker Discipline was retired and King Crimson Mk4 hit the floorboards. Unlike previous versions of the band, this one stuck very close to the interlocking pentatonic patterns approach of Discipline for all three of the albums in this run. They released the trio of stylistically similar albums, Discipline in 1981, Beat in 1982 and Three of a Perfect Pair in 1984.
World tours, decent album sales, and glowing critical reviews made the band the envy of their peers. In the prog rock world, many of their contemporaries were flailing. Yes had done well with Owner of a Lonely Heart in the charts, but was that even really Yes? Genesis had become increasingly irrelevant after a last gasp with 1980’s Duke and a warning of things to come with 1981’s Abacab. The Moody Blues had abdicated whatever influence they had in the late sixties. Other extant prog luminaries like Mike Oldfield, PFM, Camel and Caravan were trying out pop formulae. Rush, often lumped in but never really a prog band was showing strong signs of falling off a musical cliff. Asia? ‘Nuff said. Most other influential prog rock bands had already folded up shop (ELP, Gong, Can, Soft Machine, Gentle Giant, Gryphon, National Health, Pink Floyd, UK). King Crimson stood alone at the end of 1984 as not only the last relevant prog era band still standing, but the only one that was still cutting edge, still making statements that made others take notice. Maybe even still ahead of the curve. Things looked pretty good. It wasn’t hard to predict what Fripp would do next- he called a halt to the proceedings and broke the band up.
What is the Opposite of an Incline?
The ecstatic response Crimson received in 1981 was world wide. After a decade off, the reunion prefaced by the EP Vrooom that showed up in 1994 was greeted by long time Crimson fans with…well it definitely was enthusiasm, but few were really surprised. Bruford, Belew, Fripp and Levin had once again reassembled right where they left off in 1984. The sound was not that much different: pentatonic tapestries wove shifting melodies that underpinned Belew’s plaintive wail. “I am a dinosaur” he wryly sang on the debut of Crimson Mk5, THRAK. The album sounded like the word, or as Fripp put it “…the meaning of THRAK is: 117 guitars almost hitting the same chord simultaneously”. He added “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.” The addition of Trey Gunn on Stick and Pat Mastellotto on drums in 1994 had expanded the 80’s version to a sextet. Things sounded busy yet familiar.
Like the previous incarnations, this one traveled a three album arc. One huge difference though-multiple lineup changes and a timeline that took from 1994 to 2008 to wrap up this incarnation, fourteen years. Now remember, from In the Court of the Crimson King to Red-mk1, mk2 and mk3-when Crimson was creating masterpieces on a weekly basis, was less than six years in length. Factor in the hiatus from 1974 to 1981 and we are still only at fifteen years from 69-84. Fripp expanded and contracted the band several times during the tenure of Crimson Mk5.
Bruford’s exit in 1997 left a large hole in the band as one of the last foils to Fripp, someone who could look him in the eye and tell him that he was plain wrong-musically that is. Fripp had become annoyed with Bruford’s chaotic approach to drumming, a seemingly scattershot style that Fripp felt conflicted with the precise mathematical interplay of the guitars. Bruford was spot on in his response : “it was held that the other musicians *couldn’t* keep time, so they employed this guy called a drummer to do it for them…we have to assume that by now that Robert Fripp can keep time. And if he can’t, well, that’s tough.” Bruford had “once called him an amalgam of Stalin, Gandhi and the Marquis de Sade”. He’s someone who would intimately know given the four decades of work together. Exit Bruford permanently.
Shortly after, Levin went on indefinite hiatus. This reduced the band once more to a quartet-Fripp, Belew, Mastelotto and Gunn, with the two long term member’s absence palpably felt. This move coincided with a noticeable stagnation in the band sound, resulting in the sporadically interesting album The Power to Believe in 2003. By now, they had been mining the interlocking guitar pattern style for 22 years, had put out (read: recycled) Lark’s Tongues in Aspic several times as parts 3,4 and 5 over the years. Visionaries were needed as things began getting a bit stale. Fripp opened up the windows to air out the room, and out flew Gunn and in flew a returning Levin and a new drummer Gavin Harrison of Porcupine Tree. This resulted in a 40th anniversary tour in 2009 that continued over familiar ground and there was a perception that the band was treading water. The band’s cutting edge reputation was now being written about in less than friendly terms, and phrases like “cutting edge” were now preceded by words like ‘once’ and ‘formerly’.
Resurrection of the Crimson King
As noted previously here, Fripp is a bit of a crazed musical force, self destructive and visionary in the same breath. He retreated into some fairly intractable diatribes online, culminating in his sudden self avowed quitting of the music business in 2012. This was perceived by many as a large hissy fit-likely triggered by Kanye West using 21st Century Schizoid Man as a sample in a song and having a huge hit with it. His interview at the time about this retirement can be read here. (click to expand the text below the link) So when Fripp announced in 2013 that King Crimson was reforming, well people were taken by surprise. This time the band was based on a 2011 project Fripp had done with Jakko Jakszyk, former Crimson reedsman Mel Collins, Tony Levin and Gavin Harrison. While skirting close to easy listening or Crimson lite, it laid the foundation for a new page in Crim history.
The tour in 2015 was a fairly interesting proposition. Gone were two decades of Belew/Fripp guitar interactions, and in was a set that drew heavily for the first time in their career on the early stuff. In the Court of the Crimson King, In the Wake of Poseidon, Islands, Lark’s Tongues were all represented. Although Fripp had offloaded some of the weightier guitar tasks to Jakko, his presence on many songs was still felt. Seated in the back corner of the stage, one could be forgiven for mistaking him for a turn of the century accountant sitting in for an evening. Three drummers lined the front of the stage. It was an evening of musical inspiration-stripped of the normal frills accompanying most shows like lighting rigs and video screens, this tour was about the music. Reviews were glowing.
2017 Tour of America-King Crimson Live in Boston and Albany
The current tour saw some semi-confusing lineup changes for those not paying attention. Percussionist Bill Rieflin had departed the band in 2016 for reasons unknown, but had returned for this tour, but departed the touring band before the tour started, yet stayed in the band as a member. But now suddenly was replaced by TWO musicians: Chris Gibson now occupied the riser on keyboards (something Rieflin did from behind his kit originally), and new drummer and session man Jeremy Stacey on full drum kit, something Rieflin hadn’t usually played-sticking more to percussion work. The ‘Seven Headed Beast’ is now a full octet. (Belew had gotten into a scrape with Fripp and was tossed in 2009; today they have made up and Fripp has allowed that Belew is now an unofficial 9th member of the band, awaiting a call up to the big leagues. Note that if Rieflin returns, this will bring the head count up to ten. Hmm)
Well how was it compared to last tour? The short answer is that there is a noticeable improvement in delivery, improvisation and general comfort level with each other onstage. I witnessed both a Boston show and an Albany show on this tour, and both were exceptional. The music was delivered in two sets. Boston had a tour record of 25 songs. Setlist here. This time around, Fripp was a much more active participant in the proceedings, taking back some guitar duties from Jakko, adding more mellotron here and there before switching back to electric banshee wails that are his trademark. Jakko is vocally very suited to the band. He is able to duplicate early Crimson with an air of authenticity-Greg Lake, Boz Burrell, John Wetton era tunes sounded very close to the original arrangements vocally. The Belew era was less convincing-Indiscipline’s strong spoken word portion now had a sing songy processed vocal arrangement that didn’t really work, though the instrumental portion of the song was still spot on. Mel Collins was once again a quiet force, able to reproduce the bellowing sax explosions of Ian McDonald’s work on the early material as well as his own riffs from Islands. One complaint that overlapped from the last tour is his soprano saxophone work can tend to put some of the Islands material (never thought of as an essential album) awfully close to Kenny G territory–the smooth jazz approach of Scarcity of Miracles album that seemed like the whole Crimson thing was on life support. Me? I’d flush most of the Islands album from the set. A Sailor’s Tale and The Letters were nice on the reunion tour to reinforce the ‘early material’ vibe, but nothing from that album really needed to be revisited. (historical note: the whole Islands band quit on Fripp in 1972 to form their own band due to his overbearing attitudes) Boston had some surprises-Cirkus and Lizard from the Lizard album were some out of the blue choices. Cirkus in particular was a highlight of the evening. Four songs from In the Court of the Crimson King also were crowd favorites, as was the rarely played encore of Heroes by David Bowie-a tune Fripp had laid guitar down on in 1977. The crowd was ecstatic.
Two days later, the Egg in Albany offered a different take on the band. The tiny venue has a capacity of just over 900 and is an acoustically designed amphitheater. Once again the crowd was warned in written and audio statements against photography, filming and recording. (one of the better bootlegs of the 2015 tour was recorded here, but Fripp’s minions diligently hunt it down and remove it whenever it pops up online.) Although the apparent attempt by Fripp is to enjoin us all to ‘remain in the moment’ and actively stay focused on the music, it is clear that this is evidence of Fripp’s long term paranoia that has hampered the ‘fun vibe’ for decades. Folks were ejected for taking a single picture, including a white haired gentleman from the front rows forced to leave during the last song. My seats on the aisle stage left top revealed a flaw in the design of the Egg-if any artist isn’t standing near the front of the stage, they tend to be cut off from view. With five members of Crimson on a podium at the back of the stage, fully half the band was cut off from view. Here is an approximate view (no Crimson onstage):
I moved to the standing room center quickly and had a good view for the show. This time the band took a while to get going. They opened with a drum solo showing off their new triple full kit attack. Nice technique, but Fripp should know better than to open a show with a drum solo. In fact most people would know not to open a show with a drum solo, but common sense often does not factor into decisions here. In fact there were FIVE count ’em five drum solos in the first set alone. Jesus. (Mastelotto took Harrison and Stacey to school btw-Stacey hung in there but Harrison was somewhat plodding in comparison). Back to back versions of Moonchild and The Court of the Crimson King kept set one from being entirely a wash. Set two picked things up instantly, no new disposable tunes, it was pedal to the metal. Setlist here. Lark’s Tongues part 1 and part 2 back to back? Fallen Angel and Starless? They hit the stratosphere right to the last clang of Easy Money.
Also of note in Albany were the “shooshers”. Some folks get vocally enthusiastic at shows, but this brand of anal retentives are hell bent on making everyone shut up. By loudly and continuously shushing at the first sign of anyone cheering….and not noticing that they are disrupting the proceedings as much as anyone. I saw one guy get out of his seat and walk ten feet to angrily admonish someone in the standing room to stop whooping. Another shoosher in the middle kept it up at the slightest instance of incidental noise. At his second insistent shoosh I was forced to spontaneously yell out a quick “faaaaackofffff’ which got quick approval of all in the standing room area. (I had witnessed the previous week at a Goblin show in Boston a fan TWICE move across the floor to get in a guy’s face threaten to beat the shit out of someone who was yelling enthusiasm at the Italian horror legends.) Message to shooshers: get over yourselves. People enjoy concerts in their own personal way.
21st Century Schizoid Man needs a Drum Solo In It Like Close to the Edge Needs a Grand Funk Railroad Commercial In the Middle of It.
Why is there a drum solo in this song? In view of the five drum solos in the first set, I had trouble keeping quiet and not going all ‘belligerent seventies New York style’ to show my disapproval. Seriously, this shit has to stop. The song doesn’t need it, never had it before, and smacks of gratuitous soloing–something that Crimson was always avowedly against. Does Gavin Harrison have dirt on Fripp? For he is the only one with a true drum *solo* in the whole evening. All other ones were interactions between the trio of drummers. Which leads us to….
The Ever Present March of the Quill Pig
Porcupine Tree. The band is becoming worryingly intertwined with King Crimson, which beckons the question above. I have been vocal in my opposition to Steve Wilson’s remixing of Crimson and other bands (read a quick take here), and began to question why Fripp was allowing Wilson to tamper with his work. Then Gavin Harrison of Porcupine Tree joins on drums. Now Steve Wilson’s solo album drummer Jeremy Stacey is in the Crimfold. What gives? One can be forgiven for thinking that these fuckers are aiming to take over Crimson on the sly. Maybe Steve Wilson is actually the one with dirt on Robert.
The Final Cut
As stated in the introduction, King Crimson in 2017 is a fairly unlikely event. A quick read of Fripp’s phoenix-like self immolations would lead one to think this could never be a reality, and yet-it is. I’ve seen the band three times since the reunion, and they are still going strong, with signs of actually becoming even more musically dangerous. And that my friends, is a good thing for all of us.