Numerous line-ups, countless stylistic swerves – there is more than one King Crimson. Described as “a way of doing things” by co-founder and guitarist Robert Fripp, the adventurous group has been inviting audiences to leave their preconceptions at the door for more than 40 years. As three albums (In the Court of the Crimson King, Lizard and Red) are reissued in the form of CD/DVD-A packages with bonus tracks and video footage, David Davies looks back on the Crim’s long, strange journey.
As an opening statement of intent, it still takes some beating. To begin, a good few seconds of silence; is this ever going to get going? Then an ominous drone, weaving this way and that. Finally, a full-on drum/sax attack opens up the piece proper, and the listener is pinned to the metaphorical wall by ‘21st Century Schizoid Man’. Radical then and scarcely less so now, the opening track on King Crimson’s 1969 debut, In the Court of the Crimson King, is a pinnacle of progressive rock music in the very best sense of this subsequently much-discredited term.
Evolving from cult trio Giles, Giles and Fripp, King Crimson Mk1 took shape in late 1968 with a line-up comprising guitarist Robert Fripp (who was to be the band’s only constant member through its many phases), drummer Michael Giles, bassist/vocalist Greg Lake, multi-instrumentalist Ian McDonald and lyricist Peter Sinfield. Impressively, the band soon crystallised an inimitable approach, characterised by an emphasis on fiery instrumental interplay and sometimes disorientating jump-cuts in time signature and mood.
Like several of the initial line-ups, however, KC Mk1 was not destined to be long-lived. Indeed, by the end of 1969, the original band had played its final shows, ushering in a new phase of uncertainty in both sound and membership. In the Wake of Poseidon, Lizard and Islands have their moments, but lack the consistency of that remarkably confident debut. Members came and went, but finally, by 1972, the second ‘classic’ line-up – Fripp, bassist/vocalist John Wetton, drummer Bill Bruford, violinist David Cross, percussionist Jamie Muir and lyricist Richard Palmer-James – had fallen into place. Beginning with Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, KC appeared to have a renewed sense of focus: long instrumental sections had certainly not been dispensed with, but they tended to be in the service of more conventionally melodic structures. Starless and Bible Black was dramatic and cohesive, but it was a slimmed-down trio of Fripp, Wetton and Bruford that cut this period’s enduring masterpiece. Metallic in texture, tightly-honed and powerful, 1974’s Red should be part of every discerning collection.
Keen to pursue other interests and disenchanted with some music business practices (still a recurring theme of his fascinating online diary in 2009), Fripp elected to disband King Crimson in September 1974. In the following seven years, he took an extended break from music, collaborated with Brian Eno and recorded a diverse solo album (1979’s Exposure), before re-employing the Crimson name in 1981 for a new group initially known as Discipline. Comprising Fripp, Bruford and Americans Adrian Belew (guitar, vocals) and Tony Levin (bass), the new Crim sounded very different from its ’74 predecessor. Pared-down, nay skeletal avant-funk-rock dominated on the new line-up’s first album, Discipline (1981), and its follow-ups, Beat (1982) and Three of a Perfect Pair (1984). The first of the trio remains an essential purchase: ‘Frame by Frame’ and ‘Matte Kudasai’, in particular, mark out the boundaries of a new KC soundworld every bit as original and seductive as its immediate predecessor. In by-now-familiar fashion, another lengthy lay-off preceded the next bout of activity. 1995’s 'Vroom' EP and Thrak album – made with the ’81-84 line-up, but augmented by drummer Pat Mastelotto and bass/Stick player Trey Gunn – heralded an emphatic return-to-heaviosity. Thrak, in particular, is thrilling, contrasting melodic – albeit highly unusual – pop-rock songs (‘People’, ‘Walking On Air’) with some of the band’s heaviest material in aeons (the sand-blasting title track).
This ‘double-trio’ line-up proved to be uneconomic, however, and ultimately gave way to the ProjecKts: various small assemblages of KC musicians flexing their muscles away from the bosom of the mother group. The full band – minus Levin and Bruford, who had finally left for good to concentrate on his jazz career with Earthworks – reunited in 2000 to record The ConstruKction of Light and then, in 2003, The Power to Believe. Gunn left at the end of 2003 (to be replaced by a returning Levin) and, once again, the remaining members dispersed to pursue various ongoing solo projects. A brief reunion in 2008 – ostensibly to mark KC’s 40th anniversary – brought a new fifth member (the brilliant Porcupine Tree drummer, Gavin Harrison) and a series of US performances that were widely acclaimed for their imaginative reworkings of old favourites. As yet there is no word on more substantial activity, but the recent shows indicate that – whatever might or might not happen in the future – this is one group that will never be content to go gently into that good night.
The 40th Anniversay CD/DVD-A Series In The Court Of The Crimson King and Red are available now, Lizard is available on Oct 26th from DGM/Panegyric. For more on King Crimson – and to read Robert Fripp’s online diary – visit