King Crimson: The Early Years

The late 1960s and early 1970s, was an interesting time in music. It was okay to like and enjoy many different genres of music (folk, hard rock, soft rock, country-rock, jazz, R&B, blues, classical) and suddenly find them blended together in unique and interesting projects. Look at the various musicians and groups that performed at Monterey Pop and Woodstock. Somehow they all fit.

I have written about King Crimson and Robert Fripp previously, so please be sure to check out those other blogs. This one goes in-depth over the studio recordings of the first iteration of the band (1969-1974).

King Crimson is a difficult band to define. It is a post-psychedelic, progressive rock band that combines elements of hard rock, improvisational jazz and ambient music into a unique layer cake of soundscapes.

I find King Crimson to be a challenging and often a baffling band to understand. The lineup of players changed with each album, with the exception of Fripp, the one constant through six decades.

Fripp had little interest in mainstream, commercial rock, that was boring and lacked challenge. Fripp preferred to play in the margins, where he was freer to change direction and intertwine threads of various musical genres. King Crimson is not for everyone. Don’t be fooled, the band has a loyal and devoted following, and I will be tarred and feathered for writing anything the least bit negative. Music should be enjoyable, and I often find I have to work at understanding and enjoying this band. You have to earn your appreciation of King Crimson’s music. How’s that for an intro!

In the Court of the Crimson King Released: October 10, 1969

One cannot say enough about this album, from the iconic cover art, to the frenetic and noisy jazz-rock playing. Rock music was morphing and blending with many genres of music in the late 1960s, and from this boiling cauldron of musical flavors came what is affectionately known as progressive-rock, which borrowed from classical, jazz, folk and psychedelic rock.

What was the first band that played progressive-rock? I do not know, but King Crimson was part of that first wave, and delivered a now-classic album, In the Court of the Crimson King.

The band consisted of Robert Fripp, Ian McDonald, Michael Giles, Greg Lake, plus lyrics from Peter Sinfield.

At this juncture, King Crimson sounded like a cross between Pink Floyd and the Moody Blues. Use of spacey-sounding Mellotrons and reed instruments, mainly by McDonald, provided a trippy and melancholy soundscape, along with ethereal lyrics written by Sinfield and sang by Lake.

There is not a bad song on the album. The title track and “21st Century Schizoid Man” pulsate with energy, while “Epitaph” is big and theatrical, and “I Talk to the Wind” is gentle and melancholy.

There is a textural richness in these songs, and a maturity and sophistication that is beyond a debut album. The Mellotron, reed and horns, and Lake’s rich voice make this an exquisite album.

In the Wake of Poseidon Released: May 15, 1970

At the end of this project, only guitarist Fripp and lyricist Sinfield remained. McDonald co-wrote two songs, Lake sang on several songs and former drummer Giles participated only as a paid session player. This would begin the changing lineups with Fripp the only constant.

In the Wake of Poseidon is a good, but not great album. It possesses the same vibe as it’s predecessor, but several things are evident. First, multi-instrumentalist McDonald is absent. Others play the Mellotron and sax, but McDonald deserves credit for his writing and arranging, as well as musicianship. Credit sax virtuoso Mel Collins for his contribution, he continued the slightly off-kilter vibe that McDonald introduced. Second, overall the songs are generally not as strong this time around. Third, listeners knew what to expect and the expectations were high. Even the cover art was not as striking.

This album would stand on its own if it didn’t have to rate next to In the Court of the Crimson King.

The distortion and fury are dialed down a notches, although In the Wake of Poseidon is still a noisy affair. “Cadence and Cascade” is a quiet acoustic guitar and piano ballad. Yes, a ballad. The title track would have fit in the prior album; moody Mellotron and soulful vocals by Lake.

The album wanders into jazz-fusion at times. “Cat Food” was released as a single, its more Frank Zappa than King Crimson with its jazz-improve style. “The Devil’s Triangle” sounds like “A Day in the Life” on LSD, very trippy and experimental. There are three songs with “Peace” in the title, short, gentle acoustic pieces.

The album cover depicts 12 faces of humankind.

Lizard Released: December 11, 1970

On the third album, vocalist/bass player Gordon Haskell and drummer Andy McCulloch joined, but for this album only. Collins remained, and other instruments were provided by session players. If there was any doubt whose band this is, that question is forever filled away: Robert Fripp.

This album has been called “unique” by many King Crimson fans. Yes, even King Crimson’s often indescribable sound can throw listeners a curve. Band members were often in the dark about where the songs were headed, given their parts to record to existing music, that later changed in the sessions. The music was more jazz-influenced and improvisational in style, incorporating elements of classical structure. Lizard is not a bad album, but the music meanders too much without payoff.

Even Fripp did not know what to think of the album. Forty years later, remix extraordinaire Steven Wilson went to work on remixing Lizard with modern technology for an anniversary release. “For the first time I have heard the Music in the music” Fripp said. I probably need a few more listens and a pint or three to find the Music.

“Cirkus” is the opening track, which makes me think of “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite” not just with the circus imagery, but the swirling sounds.

“Indoor Games” is a sax and guitar jazz improv type song. Haskell sounds similar to Peter Gabriel in early Genesis. “Happy Family” is all over the place; I wished Fripp/Sinfield let the rest of us in on the secret. “Lady of the Dancing Water” is nice, it hints at a more polished song somewhere inside.

The title song takes up the entire second side of the album as a suite of movements. The suite is rather enchanting, something one might expect to hear from Emerson, Lake and Palmer. I wish the rest of the album hit this mark.

Islands Released: December 3, 1971

More lineup changes. King Crimson was now (for this album only), Fripp, Collins, bassist Boz Burrell (Bad Company), drummer Ian Wallace (Don Henley, Joe Walsh, Jackson Browne), and of course, Sinfield. This lineup had been on the road supporting the previous lineup’s recording. Things can be a bit weird in Crimsonworld.

All the tracks were written by Fripp/Sinfield or Fripp, and no offense to Fripp, but this is one of King Crimson’s weaker efforts. At the heart of this band is collaboration, not just in playing, but also writing. Fripp, for all his talent, does not have the commercial sensibilities of McDonald, Lake or Wetton.

Burrell was the lead vocalist. He is quite different from the other vocalists of this era. The entire album is a mix of styles, sometimes working, sometimes not.

“Formentera Lady” is a long, meandering piece with violin, woodwinds and female vocals. “Sailor’s Tale” is one of Fripp’s better solo instrumental compositions. “The Letters” starts as a jazzy ballad, then becomes loud and disjointed, before slowing down and dissolving into noise. “Ladies of the Road” is about the enjoyment of female groupies while on tour. Even a nice vocal section cannot save this tune, the nadir of King Crimson. “Prelude: Song of the Gulls” is a very nice, orchestrated song, sweet and upbeat. “Islands” features Burrell’s soft vocals, piano accompaniment, strings, flute and harmonium.

Larks’ Tongues in Aspic Released: March 23, 1973

There is nothing subtle about King Crimson at this point. Fripp is joined by John Wetton, Bill Bruford, David Cross and John Muir.

This is definitely a group now built around Fripp’s guitar. Wetton is a close second to Greg Lake as a vocalist and no slouch on bass. Bruford is the best in Crimson’s long line of percussionist/drummers. Muir joined to provide some rather unusual percussion.

“Lark’s Tongue in Aspic, Part One” begins the album, showing the band sort of tuning up. There are five parts spread over numerous albums. “Book of Saturday” is noisy, quickly shifting gears, followed by intense fretwork and percussion – all part of the unique King Crimson sound. “Exiles” is based around Cross’ string work.

Side two opens with “Easy Money”, a more accessible, more melodic song with Wetton’s inviting vocals. “The Talking Drum” is a return to a bluesy, rock grinding song. “Lark’s Tongue in Aspic, Part Two” is a riff-driven song, almost a duet between Fripp’s guitar and Cross’ violin.

Starless and Bible Black Released: March 29, 1974

The same lineup as the previous album, minus Muir. This album contained some studio-recorded tracks with some recorded on tour.

This is a very uneven album, again going more of the jazz-improv direction, with mixed success. This is probably my least favorite of the early Crimson albums. If you are expecting easy to recognize “songs”, you’ll be disappointed. The album requires patience and more than one listen. After a few listens, I get it. The songs are competent, expertly played, precise and mostly lacking an emotional connection. The lyrics are not thought-provoking, certainly not comparable to the better Peter Sinfield work of the early albums. Peter Palmer-James, formerly of Supertramp, takes over for Sinfield as a songwriter to assist the band.

“Lament” has the same dissonance and noisy feeling as the first album. “The Night Watch” is of the same vein, but actually sounds quite nice. Even Fripp can redirect his aggressiveness to present gentle, melodic music. “Trio” sounds very similar to “The Night Watch”, thanks to the violin along with Fripp’s guitar.

The artwork is rather disappointing compared to past albums where artistic imagination and stylish presentation mattered.

Red Released: October 5, 1974

This is the last King Crimson album before an eight year hiatus. Red had the most interesting lineup: Fripp, bassist/vocalist John Wetton (U.K., Asia) and drummer Bill Bruford (Yes, U.K.). This lineup dissolved prior to Red’s release. Wetton and Bruford would move on to form the progressive-rock band, U.K.

Aside from being a three-piece band, Fripp heavily overdubbed the recording and brought in some other musicians including former members Collins, Cross and McDonald.

The cover art is of the group, now a trio. It’s unusual for the band to be featured on the cover, and stylishly too.

The opening track, “Red”, is what I would call typical King Crimson, if there is such a thing. Crunchy and distorted instrumental, written solely by Fripp. “Fallen Angel” is less noisy, more of a power ballad, although that term had not been coined. “One More Red Nightmare” was written by Fripp and Wetton and sounds improvised.

Side two begins with “Providence”, recorded in concert. It sounds somewhat improvised, and hard to distinguished from other improvised work. “Starless” is a holdover from the last album as the band kept working on it. “Starless” is a melancholy song with Mellotron and sax, courtesy of former band members. This song could fit on an early Crimson album, although not of the same quality.

The band split, Fripp going on to play with Brian Eno, Peter Gabriel, Hall & Oates and many others.

Recently, founding member Ian McDonald, passed away from cancer at age 75. McDonald played a variety of instruments, including sax and Mellotron, which gave the music a rich atmosphere that made the first album immediately recognizable.

“When we made it — and I was basically at the forefront of the production — I wanted to make sure if I could deliver everything that went into the record would bear repeated listening and hopefully stand the test of time,” McDonald recalled during a 2019 interview with Ultimate Classic Rock.

Rest in peace, Mr. McDonald, job well done.

2 thoughts on “King Crimson: The Early Years

  1. Nice overview, Mike. I agree, Ian McDonald meant a lot to that classic first release, one of the greatest debuts in rock history. After he left, the band suffered, because although they had many talented instrumentalists, and Fripp’s guidance always kept things interesting, they lacked the melodic element that McDonald provided. If you haven’t already, check out the McDonald and Giles album. I like it better than any of Crimson’s later work. R.I.P. Ian.

    (I was a deejay in the mid-1980s and once talked with Fripp over the telephone. Quite a memorable, albeit short conversation!)

    Liked by 1 person

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