Nick Bollinger confronts the 48-year history of prog-rock originals King Crimson.
It may seem like a cliche, but the late sixties was a time of ferment – in music as much as anywhere. Records like Sgt. Pepper and Hendrix’s Are You Experienced had shown that pop didn’t have to be simple in order to hold an audience; that the possibilities were as wide as your imagination. It was out of that moment that the music that came to be known as prog-rock was born. And chief among its architects was King Crimson.
King Crimson was the brainchild of an eccentric and technically accomplished guitarist from Dorset called Robert Fripp, who had played in jazz and rock’n’roll bands right through the 60s but - inspired by Hendrix and the Beatles - decided towards the decade’s end to create something of his own.
You could now hold up King Crimson’s 1969 debut In The Court Of The Crimson King as a kind of prog-rock primer. Does it rely on a high level of musical mastery? Check. Are the songs long? Do they employ elements of classical composition? Check, check. Is it difficult to play? Unusual time-signatures? Indeed. And when it comes to optional extras – florid lyrics, mellotrons, flute solos – it ticks those boxes as well.
For Fripp, though, that was just the starting point. And through various incarnations of King Crimson, along with numerous other projects - he’s remained a creative and individual force for five decades. In late 2014, after a long layoff, the now 69-year-old Fripp put the latest version of King Crimson together and took it out on the road. And in many ways it is an invitation to look back on all those years of work.
I’ll be honest: I’ve never been a big fan of prog-rock. It often reminds me of a remark supposedly made by George Bernard Shaw when he was told that the violin piece he was listening to was ‘very difficult to play.’ ‘Difficult?’ he said. ‘I wish it were impossible’. Still it’s hard not to be moved by this.
The double-CD set catches the current King Crimson in concert in Toronto last November and as a capsule of what this band is all about, it serves pretty well. It starts off, somewhat preciously, with the voice of Fripp himself asking us to put our cellphones away and refrain from photography; requests I’m sympathetic to in the context of a live concert, but which seem somewhat unnecessary listening in ones living room. But once the show gets going I can at least understand why the musicians wouldn’t want any distractions. This is a workout.
In a way, it seems Fripp has finally assembled the musical arsenal to realise his original ambitions. The latest version of the band has three drummers, no less – including former Ministry and Nine Imnch Nails drummer Bill Rieflin. Fripp once talked about the idea of ‘rock gamelan’: rock with the polyrhythmic complexity of Balinese gamelan music. Always obsessed with ways of shifting rock music off its traditional 4/4 axis, that’s undoubtedly what he achieves in thunderous tracks like the 43-year-old ‘Larks Tongues In Aspic’ or the recent ‘Level Five’.
The band is a hybrid of several previous line-ups and along with the more recent recruits, there’s bass player Tony Levin – a Crimson stalwart since the late 70s – and sax and flute player Mel Collins, who first played with the band as early as 1972. And it is like more than just uncharacteristic crowd-pleasing that leads Fripp to close the set with a trio of their best-loved – though rarely performed – tunes. ‘Starless’, in particular, always stood out as more than just a vehicle for virtuosity but as a fine piece of songwriting. Not all of King Crimson’s songs stand such scrutiny; especially those purple-piper Pete Sinfield lyrics on the first few albums. Perhaps Fripp saw all that lyrical stuff as a sweetener for listeners, something he could never really wait to get out of the way so he could break out the rock gamelan. Yet on Live In Toronto he embraces it all, from proto-metal to mind-bending polyrhythms; fey sixties poesy to furious funk. It’s a life’s work, singular, eccentric and generously shared.
Songs featured: 21st Century Schizoid Man, In the Court of the Crimson King, Red, Larks’ Tongues In Aspic Pt. 1, Level Five, Easy Money, The Construction of Light, Starless.
Live In Toronto is available on DGM/King Crimson Club.