Publication date: October 2015
21st Century Schizoid Men – A Young Person’s Guide To King Crimson (Redux)
In 2012, Robert Fripp – genius-savant guitarist and leader of King Crimson – announced his formal retirement from the music business. The fact that he made this announcement in an interview with the Financial Times says all you need to know about Fripp’s state of mind at the time – so all-consuming had his long-running battle become with the music industry over rights and money that he felt unable to make music itself. From now on, it was all going to be about business.
Yet here we are in 2015, with a series of much-anticipated European live dates from King Crimson (their first in over ten years) about to happen. So why the surprise volte-face? It seems that, while Fripp had managed to resolve many of those business issues, the period of relative tranquillity that followed didn’t sit well with him. Something was tugging at his sleeve and whispering in his ear about unfinished business of a different type. In short, the restless, mercurial spirit of King Crimson wouldn’t leave him alone.
It wasn’t the first time this had happened. Practically from day one, King Crimson has been a band pulling in multiple directions, constantly at breaking point as it probed the outer reaches of what was permissible in rock. Created out of the ferment of the late ‘60s psychedelic scene in London, King Crimson fused the technical proficiency and discipline of the classical tradition with the fiery experimentation of modern jazz. The result was unlike anything anybody had ever heard before. Not only was it apocalyptically intense, but compositionally also capable of both grandeur and beauty.
Initially hailed as “the new Beatles”, their 1969 debut album ‘In The Court Of The Crimson King’ comprehensively demonstrated that their ambitions stretched well beyond even those of the Fab Four. Encompassing jagged, savagely-distorted riffs, duelling brass and Mellotron, folky melancholia and thunderous overtures, this was the album that both defined and set the benchmark for the nascent progressive rock scene. And yet King Crimson’s initial line-up had imploded within a few months of the album’s release, with Fripp emerging as the driving force behind the band’s sometimes bewildering series of transformations over the following decades.
Now in their 47th year of operation, King Crimson are perhaps more in demand than ever. Quickly divorcing themselves from the clichés and indulgences of prog rock, the band have come to represent the triumph of constant re-invention and intellectual ambition in popular music, and have had a profound impact on artists such as David Bowie, Radiohead and Nirvana.
What follows is a look at ten of the key songs in the King Crimson back catalogue, identifying their various styles and highlighting those elements that have made the band an avant-rock institution over the years.
1) “21st Century Schizoid Man” (from ‘In The Court Of The Crimson King’, 1969)
The song where it all began. Contemporary audiences’ ears might have started to adjust to heavier sounds thanks to the likes of Hendrix, Cream and Led Zeppelin, but this was something else… An opening fanfare of imperial brass and shrieking guitar cuts to a harsh one-chord riff over which a robotically-distorted Greg Lake delivers the immortal lines, “Cat's foot, iron claw / Neurosurgeons scream for more / At paranoia's poison door / Twenty first century schizoid man!” What the fuck??!
If proof were needed that the Utopian gestures of the late 60s had been well and truly crushed in the dirt, then this was it, a synapse-blasting onslaught of boundary-wrecking jazz rock that’s somehow both austere and strangely groovy. The crunching verse/chorus would be epochal in itself, but there’s also that swinging instrumental break in the middle, its rapid accelerations and sudden stops an exercise in gleeful precision that leaves the listener feeling giddy and disorientated. King Crimson’s signature tune to this day, “21st Century Schizoid Man” captures all of their defining qualities in a single song: the ability to harness non-rock instrumentation in inventive and powerful ways; the use of individual proficiency to achieve dynamic and dramatic effects; the sparing deployment of striking imagery; and an appreciation of what makes music exciting beyond being merely impressive.
2) “Epitaph” (from ‘In The Court Of The Crimson King’, 1969)
However, King Crimson’s debut album wasn’t just a scorched earth assault on the traditional blues rock order. There were also extended passages of real emotional depth, with “Epitaph” being a prime example. It’s an epic composition that rages at the gods without becoming overwrought, a poignant updating of Wilfred Owen’s "Anthem for Doomed Youth" for the Vietnam generation. Peter Sinfield’s fanciful and allusive lyrics could sometimes strain for meaning on the band’s early albums, but “Epitaph”’s depiction of the senselessness of war is genuinely poetic and affecting.
Against a massive roll of timpani, Fripp plays a beautifully sad guitar line that belies his image as some kind of cranky mad scientist. There’s a drop-down to an eerie pre- or perhaps post-battle silence, broken only by a stark, double-tracked snare and Lake’s weary vocal: “The wall on which the prophets wrote is cracking at the seams / Upon the instruments of death the sunlight brightly gleams.” The moment when the song moves into its mournful middle section with a huge swell of Mellotron is profoundly moving, and clearly shows the influence of the great Romantic composers. This is the first of King Crimson’s big, slow-burning ballads, with similar tracks in the future including “Exiles” (‘Larks’ Tongues In Aspic’) and “Fallen Angel” (‘Red’).
3) “Cat Food” (from ‘In The Wake Of Poseidon’, 1970)
But it’s not all doom and gloom in King Crimson’s world. There’s a lithe and playful side to their songwriting which is often overlooked, as epitomised by “Cat Food”, the single from their second album. The band might have effectively fallen apart, but Fripp persuaded the former members to help make another record, with this slinky half-cousin to the Beatles’ “Come Together” being the highlight. Over a sinuous bassline, Lake sings Sinfield’s pungent and witty critique of consumer society with real panache: “Everything she's chosen is conveniently frozen / Eat it and come back for more!"
Instrumentally, the star of the show is guest pianist Keith Tippett, who drops jazzy, atonal clusters of notes throughout, in a similar vein to what Mike Garson would do with David Bowie a few years later. There’s a fantastic piece of footage on YouTube of the band playing this song on ‘Top Of The Pops’, Lake’s popstar good looks and the band’s mod-meets-Victoriana image suggesting an altogether different trajectory from the one they ultimately took. Other subversive grooves would include “Happy Family” (‘Lizard’), “The Great Deceiver” (‘Starless And Bible Black’) and “Elephant Talk” (‘Discipline’).
4) “Ladies Of The Road” (from ‘Islands’, 1971)
Another side to King Crimson which is overlooked is the self-mythologizing swagger – more usually associated with the likes of Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple – that comes with being in a big name band. King Crimson’s take is more mocking than aggrandising, but it’s definitely there on tracks such as “Ladies Of The Road”. Fripp’s lazy, meandering playing creates a deliciously laid-back atmosphere as new singer Boz Burrell delivers a stream of politically incorrect lyrics like a stoned lothario. (Interesting to note that Fripp preferred trad rock-sounding vocalists compared to some of the more affected performers of the prog era.) There’s some rasping, predatory sax from Mel Collins and slapback echo added to Burrell’s voice before an incongruous lullaby of a chorus recalls the Beatles once again. Fripp’s tottering, teasing guitar is a million miles from the more angular sound he’s associated with, and by the end, Burrell has practically transformed into Robert Plant. Further examples of this type of strutting meta-rock include “Easy Money” (‘LTIA’), “One More Red Nightmare” (‘Red’) and “ProzaKc Blues” (‘The ConstruKction Of Light’).
5) “Larks’ Tongues In Aspic pt 1” (from ‘Larks’ Tongues In Aspic’, 1973)
By 1973, Fripp had completely reconfigured the band once again, bringing together a group of players that he hoped would be able to fulfil his vision of an intelligent, improvisational rock band. Improvisation had always been an important part of King Crimson’s sound (for instance, see “Moonchild” on their debut), but Fripp had become increasingly interested in it as a primary method of composition. (Though as incoming drummer Bill Bruford recalled, this was far from an easy process – in his former band Yes, every tiny detail had been debated and discussed; in King Crimson, nothing was said.) The title track of their next album would act as a statement of intent around this new manifesto.
It starts with a tuned percussion sequence that’s reminiscent of Terry Riley’s early experiments in systems music, before the urgent pulse of a violin fades up. Fripp’s guitar swoops in the background, before exploding out of the speakers with a slow-twisting colossus of a riff. The complex Mahavishnu Orchestra-like section that follows feels looser and less planned than before, Fripp’s guitar running amok like a crazed tailor trying to stitch it all together. But then a spooky section of violin throws the listener into limbo, challenging us to stay the course. Our reward is a superb coda that pivots on a sonorous fuzz-bass motif as a TV rants in the background. It feels like something significant has happened, but we’re not sure what, which makes us want to listen again. Other inspired improvisations include “Fracture” (‘SABB’) and “Asbury Park” (‘USA’).
6) “The Night Watch” (from ‘Starless And Bible Black’, 1974)
Next album ‘Starless And Bible Black’ would be based almost entirely on live jamming, but skilful edits and overdubs meant that this wasn’t always obvious. It also showed that improvisation didn’t necessarily mean wild excursions into the musical outfield – it could also produce intimate, finely-detailed songs such as “The Night Watch”, which takes its title from the Rembrandt painting of the same name.
It begins with a gradually ascending sweep of Oriental melody, both lush and mechanical, before John Wetton starts to sing in his wonderfully weather-beaten voice the words of the band’s latest lyricist, Richard Palmer-James. Like a super-condensed art history lesson, Wetton delivers a multitude of syllables over a swooning guitar motif, which Fripp then betters with one of his most lyrical and beautiful solos. It’s not a conventionally structured song by any means, but by the end, you feel like you’ve just heard a brilliantly-read short story. Other delicate jewels in King Crimson’s crown include “Book Of Saturday” (‘LTIA’), “Matte Kudasai” (‘Discipline’) and “Walking On Air” (‘THRAK’).
7) “Red” (from ‘Red’, 1974)
King Crimson had slimmed down to the power trio of Fripp, Wetton and Bruford by the time they came to record what would be their swansong to the 1970s. But what a way to go out. ‘Red’ is a consistently intense album, with barely a chink of light in its dark, treacherous grooves. Its title track is a magnificent opener, immediately plunging the listener into a world of fear and loathing. With Fripp sometimes barely functional during the recording sessions, the brutal, grinding riff that remorselessly drives the song along feels like a direct line to the guitarist’s id, the musical equivalent of “the horror” from Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart Of Darkness’. The angular and dense sound that the band achieve on this track is the epitome of what I’ve previously termed “the new heaviness”, akin to science unlocking a hitherto untapped primordial force. “Red” practically invents a new genre, with the originators of math rock (Slint etc) and prog metal (Tool etc) forever in its debt. It would also be an inspiration for much of the band’s post-70s music too, such as “Indiscipline” (‘Discipline’), “Vrooom” (‘THRAK’) and “Level Five” (‘The Power to Believe’).
8) “Starless” (from ‘Red’, 1974)
Just as any overview of King Crimson must include “21st Century Schizoid Man”, so too must it feature “Starless”, both tracks neatly bookending their 70s’ studio albums. While “Schizoid Man” lays out the band’s essential qualities up front, “Starless” feels like a summation of everything they’ve learnt along the way. That eerie, mesmerizing Mellotron and guitar opening harks back to “Epitaph”, though the angry disillusionment has now turned into fatalistic reverie, with Wetton delivering his most emotive vocal. Fripp’s icy finger-picking and Bruford’s sinister barrage of percussion in the middle section draws on the controlled restraint learnt during innumerable hours of improvisation. And then the final detonation of manic jazz rock shows just how powerful King Crimson are in full flow, the seamless builds and breakdowns a masterclass in dynamics. “Starless” is the pinnacle of their first phase – yet there was more still to come…
9) “Thela Hun Ginjeet” (from ‘Discipline’, 1981)
After a period of spiritual retreat and working with the likes of David Bowie, Peter Gabriel and Brian Eno, Fripp put a new band together with guitarist and singer Adrian Belew – initially named Discipline, they soon reverted to King Crimson. Having previously distinguished himself as a player with Frank Zappa, Bowie and Talking Heads, Belew’s additional guitar changed the band’s sound significantly, with many of the new songs based on cyclical, interlocking arpeggios resembling accelerated systems music (Fripp also likened the style to Indonesian gamelan).
‘Discipline’ is one of the definitive art rock albums of the 1980s, and “Thela Hun Ginjeet” is a brilliant example of their new sound. Its fast, rhythmic guitars, funky bassline (courtesy of Tony Levin on the ten string Chapman Stick) and Bruford’s clattering tribal percussion create a super-kinetic vibe that’s loose yet tight at the same time, while the chanted title sounds like it’s from some new age self-actualisation ceremony (it’s actually an anagram of “Heat In The Jungle”). Belew’s confident vocalising – which recalls a punchier David Byrne – veers between strongly melodic and spoken word, his stream-of-consciousness self-interview about being in a “dangerous place” seguing into a very real confrontation with a group of Notting Hill Rastafarians. This new wave gamelan funk style would feature across all three of the band’s 80s albums – ‘Discipline’, ‘Beat’ and ‘Three Of A Perfect Pair’ – while those interlocking guitars would reappear on ‘The ConstruKction Of Light’’s title track.
10) “Happy With What You Have To Be Happy With” (from ‘The Power To Believe’, 2003)
After another extended hiatus, King Crimson reconvened in the mid-90s to produce three more albums (and various EPs) of dense, complex music – somewhere between nu-prog and technical metal – that drew heavily on their ‘LTIA’ to ‘Red’ period. Having been a major influence on the more cerebral end of the industrial/grunge/metal scenes, the band show they can play these young upstarts at their own game with the grinding riff pop of “Happy With What You Have To Be Happy With”. Cynical and aggressive, Belew complains that “I’m going to have to write a chorus!” before delivering one in a style that’s like the vocal equivalent of the gamelan arpeggios of the 80s, wringing multiple meanings from the words of the title. Dripping with post-millennial angst and confusion, King Crimson showed they were still more than capable of reflecting the turbulent atmosphere of the times, just as they had done back in 1969.