Published 26 April 2017
King Crimson – 10 of the best
(You can read this article online here - which is worth doing for the comments alone... This is an edit of a previous article that had already appeared - albeit in French - in Rock & Folk.)
Arriving at the back end of the utopian 60s, Robert Fripp and co launched a scorched-earth assault on rock that left a lasting mark on music history
1. 21st Century Schizoid Man (1969)
The song that began it all. Contemporary ears might have started to adjust to heavier sounds thanks to the likes of Hendrix and Cream, 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!”
If proof were needed that the utopian gestures of the late 60s had been trampled into the dirt, then this was it: a synapse-blasting onslaught of boundary-wrecking jazz rock, somehow both austere and strangely groovy. The crunching verse/chorus is astonishing, 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 giddy and disorientated.
King Crimson’s signature tune to this day, 21st Century Schizoid Man captures all their defining qualities: non-rock instrumentation used in inventive and powerful ways, technical proficiency harnessed for dramatic effects, striking imagery sparingly deployed. Most importantly, it shows an appreciation of what makes music exciting rather than merely impressive.
2. Epitaph (1969)
King Crimson’s debut album, In the Court of the Crimson King, wasn’t just a scorched-earth assault on the traditional blues rock order. There were also passages of real emotional depth, and Epitaph is 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 era.
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 affecting. Against a roll of timpani, Robert Fripp plays a beautifully sad guitar line that belies his image as some kind of cranky mad scientist. There’s a drop-down to a tense pre-battle silence, broken only by a stark, double-tracked snare and Lake’s weary vocal. But it’s the moment when the song moves into its mournful middle section, with a gigantic swell of Mellotron, that packs the biggest punch.
3. Cat Food (1970)
It’s not all doom and gloom in King Crimson’s world – there’s a lithe and playful side to their songwriting that is often overlooked, and it’s epitomised by Cat Food, the single from their second album. With the band having effectively fallen apart after their debut, Fripp persuaded the former members to help make another record, with this snarky half-cousin to the Beatles’ Come Together the highlight.
Over a slinking bassline, Lake delivers Sinfield’s witty critique of consumerism with 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 clip of the band playing this song on Top of the Pops, Lake’s good looks and the band’s mod-meets-Victoriana image suggesting an altogether different trajectory from the one they ultimately took.
4. Ladies of the Road (1971)
There’s another side to King Crimson which is underappreciated: the self-mythologising swagger of being in a big-name band, something more readily associated with the likes of Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple. King Crimson’s take may be 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 salacious atmosphere as new singer Boz Burrell plays the part of a stoned lothario, delivering a stream of politically incorrect lyrics. (Interesting to note that Fripp preferred vocalists with a little grit in their voices – a sharp contrast to 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 with which he’s become associated, and by the end, Burrell has practically transformed into Robert Plant.
5. Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part One (1973)
By 1973, Fripp had completely reconfigured the band once again, bringing together a group of players that he hoped would fulfil his vision of an intelligent, improvisational rock band. Improvisation had always been an important part of King Crimson’s sound, but Fripp had become increasingly interested in it as a primary method of composition. (Though as incoming drummer Bill Bruford noted, this was far from an easy process – in his former band Yes, every tiny detail had been debated and discussed whereas in King Crimson, “almost nothing was said”.)
The title track of their fifth album would act as a statement of intent around this new manifesto. It starts with a percussion sequence 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 the song together. A spooky section of violin throws the listener into limbo, challenging us to stay the course, but 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, we’re just not exactly sure what.
6. The Night Watch (1974)
The band’s next album, Starless and Bible Black, would be based almost entirely on live jamming, although with its skilful edits and overdubs, it wasn’t always easy to tell. 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.
It begins with a gradually ascending sweep of melody, lush and mechanical, before John Wetton’s soulful, weather-beaten voice brings to life what is essentially a condensed art history lesson (courtesy of the band’s latest lyricist, Richard Palmer-James). It pivots around a swooning guitar motif, which Fripp then betters with one of his most lyrical solos. It’s not a conventionally structured song but it leaves you feel as though you’ve just heard a brilliantly read short story.
7. 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, and its title track is a magnificent opener that plunges the listener into a world of fear and loathing.
With Fripp sometimes barely functional during the recording sessions, the brutal, grinding riff that drives the song remorselessly along feels like a direct line to the guitarist’s id. The angular and dense sound that the band achieve on this track is the epitome of a new kind of heaviness in music, with the originators of both math rock (Slint, for instance) and prog metal (the likes of Tool) forever in its debt.
8. Starless (1974)
Just as any best 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 learned along the way.
The eerie 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 midway through draws on the controlled restraint learned during innumerable hours of improvisation. And 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 to come.
9. Thela Hun Ginjeet (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. Having 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 that Fripp likened to Indonesian gamelan music.
Discipline is one of the definitive art rock albums of the 1980s, and the band’s new sound is best showcased in Thela Hun Ginjeet. Its fast, rhythmic guitars, funky bassline (courtesy of Tony Levin on the 10-string Chapman Stick) and clattering tribal percussion from the returning Bruford create a super-kinetic vibe, 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”).
10. Happy With What You Have to Be Happy With (2002)
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. Having been a major influence on the more cerebral end of the industrial/grunge/metal scenes, the band showed they could 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 “I’m going to have to write a chorus!” before delivering one in a style that’s the vocal equivalent of the gamelan arpeggios of the 80s, wringing quadruple meanings out of the word combinations. Dripping with angst, King Crimson showed they were still more than capable of reflecting the turbulence of the times, just as they’d first done back in 1969.