King Crimson is a British musical group founded by guitarist Robert Fripp and drummer Michael Giles in 1968.
musical style has typically been categorized as rock and roll, progressive rock and math rock. Though its membership has
fluctuated considerably during its lifetime, the band continues to perform and
record music. The name King Crimson
was coined by Peter Sinfield
as a synonym for Beelzebub, prince of
demons; according to Fripp, Beelzebub is an anglicized form of the Arabic phrase “B’il Sabab”, meaning “the
man with an aim”.
considerable amount of King Crimson's
history consists of the various personnel changes that have occurred within the
group. Throughout its history, Robert Fripp has been the only consistent
member, although he has stated that he does not consider himself the band’s
leader, necessarily. To him King Crimson
“is a way of doing things”, and the musical consistency that has persisted
throughout the band’s history, despite frequent rotation of its members,
reflects this point of view.
King Crimson has found little success in the way of radio
or music video presence, but they have a vast
discography, tour frequently, and have one of the most devoted followings of any contemporary musical
Robert Fripp and Michael Giles began discussing the
formation of King Crimson in November
of 1968, soon before the breakup of the short-lived and unsuccessful band Giles, Giles,
and Fripp. The first musician to be added to the lineup was
singer-guitarist Greg Lake, who was
to play bass and sing. Lyricist Peter Sinfield and composer Ian McDonald
were soon recruited, and thus the first incarnation of King Crimson was born.
in January 1969, the group rehearsed for the first time. The group’s
high-profile premiere took place at the famous free concert in Hyde Park, London, staged by The Rolling Stones in July 1969.
The first King Crimson album, In the
Court of the Crimson King,
was released in October.
King Crimson went on tour through England, and later the United States, performing
alongside many contemporary popular musicians and musical groups, including Iron Butterfly, Janis Joplin, The Rolling Stones, and Fleetwood Mac. Tensions and musical
differences within the band eventually reached a limit, however; Ian McDonald
and Michael Giles left the band in December 1969 to pursue solo work. In 1970,
they recorded the McDonald and Giles
studio album. McDonald went on to be a founding member of Foreigner
King Crimson's lineup fluctuated tremendously during the next few years. The
remaining trio of Fripp, Sinfield, and Lake
persevered for a short while, releasing the single Cat Food/Groon in
March of 1970. During this time, material was being developed for King Crimson's second album, In the Wake of
Poseidon. Woodwind player Mel Collins came on board, and bassist Peter Giles appeared on several tracks. Greg Lake
departed in April to form Emerson, Lake
and Palmer, leaving King
Crimson without a vocalist until Gordon Haskell took over singing, in
addition to playing bass, for the band’s third album, Lizard. Andy McCulloch played drums for the album,
with Jon Anderson of Yes appearing on one song. Haskell and
McCulloch left just before the release of Lizard, leaving King Crimson as a rock band without a singer, bassist, or drummer.
began auditioning. Drummer Ian Wallace
and vocalist Boz Burrell were
selected, but after more than two dozen potential bassists had come and gone,
Fripp decided simply to teach Boz to play bass. Burrell maintains that he was
chosen because he preferred the more “twangy” Rotosound brand of strings. In
the midst of the lengthy tour that followed, the band released Islands
in 1971. At the end of that year, King Crimson parted ways with long-time
member and lyricist Peter Sinfield, who then hooked up with old friend Greg Lake,
and became the primary lyricist for Emerson,
Lake and Palmer. The remaining members
undertook a tour the following year, with the intention of disbanding
afterwards. Recordings from this tour were later edited by Fripp to become the Earthbound
after the Earthbound tour, Collins, Wallace and Burrell left King Crimson to form a band called Snape, with British blues legend Alexis Korner. Fripp once again began
looking for new members. The first to join was improvising
Jamie Muir, whom Fripp had been considering
as a possible member for some time. Next came vocalist and bassist John Wetton; formerly of the band, Family, and one of
Fripp’s college acquaintances. Wetton had been under consideration for the
previous lineup of the band, but that proposition had fallen through. Now that King Crimson was starting over from
scratch again, the opportunity was ripe.
Bill Bruford was next to sign up, choosing
to leave the commercially successful Yes
for the relatively unstable and unpredictable King Crimson. Bruford himself was more interested in artistic
pursuits, and the framework of King
Crimson appealed to that sensibility in him. Finally, violin, viola and
keyboard player David Cross
was selected to flesh out the sound of the new band. With Pete Sinfield gone, a
new lyricist was needed. John Wetton recommended his old friend Richard
Palmer-James, who got the job.
began in late 1972, and Larks' Tongues
in Aspic was released early the next year, and the group spent
the remainder of 1973 touring Britain,
Europe, and America.
era of King Crimson demonstrated a
kinship with the nascent heavy metal music then developing mainly in
the United States and the United Kingdom. Fripp’s guitar playing was
loud and aggressive, and Bruford’s propulsive drumming meshed with Wetton’s
often powerful bass guitar.
left the group early in 1973, and during the lengthy tour that followed, the
remaining members began assembling material for their next album, Starless and
Bible Black. By early 1974, the album was finished. Most of the
album was recorded from live performances in 1973, with only two full tracks (The
Great Deceiver and Lament) and part of another track (The Night
Watch) being studio productions, a fact that emphasizes King Crimson's essentially live nature.
Fripp never felt that recordings of any sort were adequate to capture the
atmosphere and energy of a live performance. Another recording of live gigs, USA,
was recorded soon afterwards but not released for another year.
Cross’s place in the group, meanwhile, was coming under pressure. His role as a
violin-player had been more important in the earlier days of this version of Crimson, but as the music progressed —
and got louder — he increasingly felt his contribution was unheard and
sidelined: reduced, as he once said, to being just the electric piano player.
He went, leaving the remaining trio to record Red.
Red included former appearances by Robin Miller on
oboe, Marc Charig on
cornet and former King Crimson member
Mel Collins on soprano saxophone. Cross appeared on Providence,
recorded in its namesake in Rhode Island.
Ian McDonald also returned as a session musician on alto saxophone, with plans to rejoin as a
full-time member. Fripp, increasingly distracted from Crimson by the writings of the mystic George Gurdjieff, even spoke of being
replaced by McDonald. This was the second time in the band’s history that Fripp
considered leaving the group to continue without him.
Red line-up never toured, however; two months before the album’s
release, Robert Fripp announced that King
Crimson had ceased to exist. “King
Crimson is completely over for ever and ever,” he said. It seemed that King Crimson was to end in Red;
instead, it was the end of an era.
in 1981, Fripp and Bruford began considering the formation of a new group, to
be called Discipline. The two spent
some time searching for a bassist, but had little success in recruiting one
until Tony Levin stopped by. Levin was known for
his session work with John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Peter Gabriel and others, and would have
been one of Fripp’s first choices had he known Levin was available. King Crimson had its bassist.
this time, Fripp called up guitarist Adrian Belew, who was on tour with Talking Heads. Fripp had never worked
with another guitarist in the same band, so the decision to seek a second
guitarist was highly indicative of Fripp’s desire to create a sound completely
unlike King Crimson. Belew, for his
part, was flattered. He would join immediately following his tour with the Talking Heads.
rehearsals and initial recorded sessions in 1981, Fripp began suspecting that
this new band really was King Crimson,
despite his decision to call it Discipline.
The other members concurred, and so King
Crimson was reborn. The group released a trilogy of albums: Discipline,
Beat, and Three of a
Perfect Pair. Belew was responsible for the vocals, as well as
almost all of the lyrics on the three albums. Also, with Belew, King Crimson for the first time had a
lyricist who was also a performing member of the band.
version of King Crimson bore some
resemblance to new wave music,
possibly as a result of Belew’s tenure with Talking
Heads, often considered progenitors of the genre. Fripp intended to create
the sound of a “rock gamelan”, with an
interlocking rhythmic quality to the paired guitars that he found similar to Indonesian gamelan ensembles.
Three of a Perfect Pair, King
Crimson disbanded for several years. Fripp entered into a series of legal wranglings
with his management, and this occupied much of his time, but resulted in the
development of Discipline Global Mobile, a company through which King Crimson and various side projects
and archives have emerged.
1991, Fripp invited former Japan lead singer David Sylvian to front a new King Crimson lineup that would have also
included Chapman Stick player and Guitar Craft alumnus Trey Gunn. Sylvian declined the offer, yet
the three musicians composed and toured together in 1992. When the trio went
into the studio to record, former Peter Gabriel drummer Jerry Marotta
was brought into the fold. An extremely 'Crimsonesque' CD, entitled The
First Day was the result of their recording together and the disc was
released in July 1993. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Fripp made the future King Crimson lineup known for the first
time: Fripp, Belew, Levin, Gunn and Marotta. Fripp, Gunn and Marotta had
already convened in early ‘93 to throw some musical ideas around. The results
of this gathering between the three were the seeds to future Crim tracks, “Vrooom”
and “One Time”.
the autumn of 1993, Sylvian and Fripp went out on tour to promote The First
Day. Marotta had prior commitments as a session drummer, but was still
expected to become the drummer for the planned reunion of Crimson in January of 1994 (as was even written in the Sylvian /
Fripp tour book that was printed in August of 1993). Former Mr. Mister drummer
Pat Mastelotto had auditioned for the spot
vacated by Marotta and won the job, even beating out original Crimson drummer Michael Giles. Sylvian / Fripp went on the
road for the remainder of the year. Meanwhile, Marotta made it known to Tony Levin that he was not going to take
part in the reformation of Crimson after
all, due to the lucrative session and production work that was coming his way.
Levin and Belew lobbied Fripp to ask Bruford to return to his old band, but
Fripp and Gunn already had the highly impressive Mastelotto in mind for the
job. Eventually both drummers were brought in to the band.
has stated that he “envisioned a double trio” back in the fall of 1992, but
that is obviously not quite accurate when actual events are taken into account.
The “double trio” formation of King
Crimson was not a planned event, being more of a compromise. Bruford was
brought in to appease the two former members, as well as a majority of the
band’s audience. To many fans, it couldn’t have been Crimson without Bruford, and when the inclusion of Marotta was
first announced, there was significant derision toward the idea. The same
treatment would most likely have been accorded to Mastelotto as well, had
Bruford not been asked to rejoin his former band. Harsh words between Fripp and
Bruford were often exchanged in print interviews throughout the late eighties.
Even though he and Fripp did not get along as well as they once had, Bruford
was tacked on at the last minute. The compromise was made.
King Crimson was re-formed as a sextet in 1994. This “double trio” formation released
a few CDs in the mid 1990s: VROOOM (1994), THRAK
(1995), and THRaKaTTaK
(1996). The new King Crimson sound was something of a mixture of “Discipline”-era
complementary guitars with the heavy rock feel of 1974’s Red. Staging
and rehearsing the sextet was an expensive proposition, however; this, combined
with the level of experimentation within the band, soon contributed to its
the late 1990s, Discipline Global Mobile operated as a distinctly
artist-friendly label, and featured not only the works of King Crimson, but also of many Crimson
side projects. ProjeKcts One, Two, Three, and
Four, each a splinter group (a “fraKctalisation”, according to Fripp) of King Crimson, released various
recordings, demonstrating the improvisational
musical high-wire act that the constituent musicians are able to produce.
1998, DGM created the King Crimson Collector's
Club (KCCC), a subscription-based service that released a live recording
(originating from soundboard or bootleg recordings) every two months.
the ProjeKcts' task was completed,
Bruford quit the band, and Levin let his active involvement in King Crimson rest until further notice;
this left Belew, Fripp, Gunn, and Mastelotto as the next line-up. Their first
studio effort was The
ConstruKction of Light (2000),
accompanied by another album, Heaven and Earth, which was released
under the name ProjeKct X. Heaven and Earth was
edited together by Mastelotto from material recorded during the rehearsal and
recording period of the studio album.
the economic reversals of 2000 and 2001, DGM ceased acting as a general label
and artist’s blog site and refocused its energy on King Crimson. A lengthy The
ConstruKction of Light tour was followed by another tour opening
for the band Tool and the Level
Five tour that served to write, rehearse, and evolve new pieces for the
next album. In 2003, the album The Power to
Believe was released and the band toured in support of it.
late November 2003, Trey Gunn announced his departure from the band. Both
Robert Fripp and Tony Levin reported that Levin will become active bassist of King Crimson again. The current line-up
thus is Adrian Belew, Robert Fripp, Tony Levin and Pat Mastelotto. A 2005
interview with Belew revealed that the band was on a brief hiatus, and planned to return to studio work in September 2007.
as noted, has described King Crimson
as “a way of doing things”, and also as “an experiment in organizing anarchy”. Over a period of 35 years, and
many changes in membership, configuration, and instrumentation, King Crimson has maintained a kind of constancy
in its musical vision rare among long-lived bands.
music of King Crimson was obviously
grounded to some extent in the rock of the 1960s, and especially the acid rock and psychedelic music movements. The first King Crimson frequently played Donovan Leitch’s “Get Thy Bearings”, and
were known to play the
Beatles’s “Lucy in
the Sky with Diamonds”.
where bands like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones played more
sophisticated forms of American rock, Crimson
attempted to “Europeanize” what had previously been an essentially American
form of music. To a great extent, they stripped away the blues-based
foundation of rock music and replaced it with a foundation based in the modern
European symphonic tradition. Though they cast a wide net, two names in
particular seem to have had a powerful influence on Crimson's music.
Gustav Holst is the more obvious of the two
on the surface. The first incarnation of King
Crimson played the Mars section of Holst’s suite The Planets as a regular part of their
live set. The influence of Bela Bartok is subtler, but has been
referred to many times by Fripp and other band members, and seems more
pervasively present in the band's overall musical repertoire. As a result of
this influence, their first album is frequently viewed as the nominal starting
point of the symphonic rock
or progressive rock
have two equal and opposite complaints about each new album or incarnation of
the band: either they say that it's nothing like the King Crimson they know and love, or they say that it's exactly like
what has gone before, and nothing new has been added. The apparent
contradiction can be resolved by understanding that, while King Crimson constantly creates new sounds and new pieces, several
themes remain constant from the earliest versions of the band to the present.
most obvious of these themes is composition by the use of a gradually building
rhythmic motif. The Holst Mars that the first King Crimson played is a clear example of this, a complex pulse in
5/8 time with strings and winds — or, as played by King Crimson, mellotron — playing a
skirling melody above. This piece transformed into “The Devil’s Triangle” on
the In the Wake of Poseidon album, and was followed by many other forms,
from “The Talking Drum” in 1973 all the way to “Dangerous Curves” in 2003.
second theme that has remained constant throughout the career of King Crimson is an instrumental piece,
often embedded as a break in a song, in which the band plays a passage of a
rhythmic complexity that would almost challenge a group of classically trained
musicians working with a conductor. King
Crimson's single best-known song, “21st Century
Schizoid Man”, is an early example of this. Their series of pieces
collectively titled Larks' Tongues in Aspic (also including pieces of
similar intent, “Thrak” and “Level Five”) go deeper into polyrhythmic complexity, delving into
rhythms that wander into and out of general synchronization with each other--to
the point where the listener is frequently unable to even count the main
measure beats--yet through polyrhythm synchronization all finish together. (Occasionally these pieces fail onstage; Fripp
refers to these failures as “train wrecks”.) Perhaps the apex of rhythmic
complexity in the King Crimson
repertoire was the trilogy of early 1980s albums, which contained gamelan-like
rhythmic layers, and continual staccato patterns overlaying each other (a
case-in-point being “Neal and Jack and Me” from Beat).
themes harder to document clearly include the composition of insanely difficult
passages for individual instruments (especially Fripp’s guitar --notably “Fracture”
on Starless and Bible Black); pieces with a loud, aggressive sound not
unlike heavy metal music;
and the jarring juxtaposition of pretty tunes and ballads with weird, often
the beginning, King Crimson
performances featured improvisations, in which the music can, and frequently
does, go anywhere. Improvisations can be imbedded in composed pieces, like 21st
Century Schizoid Man or Thrak, but most Crimson performances over the years have included at least one
stand-alone improvisation, where the band simply started playing and took the
music wherever it went, sometimes including passages of improvised silence (as
Bill Bruford’s contribution to the improvised Trio). The earliest
example of an unambiguously improvising King
Crimson on record is the spacious, oft-criticized (as self indulgent)
extended middle-section of Moonchild from the first album, in which the
composed parts act as bookends to the improv.
most jazz and rock improvisation or jamming, these sessions are rarely in any
sense blues-based. They vary so much in sound that King Crimson has been able to release several albums consisting entirely
of improvised music. Occasionally, particular improvised pieces will be
performed in different forms at different shows, becoming more and more refined
and eventually appearing on official studio releases (the most recent example
being Power to Believe III, which originally existed as the stage improve,
Deception of the Thrush).