They are the most enigmatic band in the history of rock. I actually have a hard time calling much of their music rock. Maybe because only a smattering of their songs owe any allegiance to the blues. Perhaps “Ladies of the Road,” of which lyricist Peter Sinfield says was inappropriate for 1972, never mind 2022, “but here we are.” Other than their first two albums, no two efforts sound alike. And its final lineup never recorded a studio album.
I’m speaking, of course, of King Crimson. There are a number of bands who can boast never making the same album twice. Pink Floyd, for one. The Beatles. U2. But while every album by those groups sounds different, you can hear the throughline. It’s not a stretch that the band forced to relegate Ringo to tambourine on “Love Me Do” in 1962 also did Abbey Road in 1970. In fact, it still carries through their solo work, even if today it’s just Paul and Ringo. You can easily identify a U2 or Pink Floyd song without ever having heard it. Same with Rush.
There’s no obvious throughline with King Crimson. But a throughline exists. To find it, you have to understand the mercurial, once-dictatorial, now pathologically self-deprecating Robert Fripp, the band’s only constant member.* Fripp described King Crimson as “a way of doing things.” It’s not how the music sounds. Even George and Ringo tapped in to a peculiar type of sound during and after the Beatles. (And Pete Best even picked up on it when he resumed his music career in the 1990s.) I never quite understood what he was talking about beyond having different instruments playing different time signatures. Not until I watched the movie In the Court of the Crimson King, which featured interviews with every then-surviving member of Crimson in its history.
The best explanation came from Gavin Harrison, part of Crimson’s final line-up, dubbed the Seven-Headed Beast. This line-up featured three drummers in front of the band. Harrison said, with each drummer playing a different time signature, they all had to count while playing to make sure certain beats hit at the exact same time. And it’s not just the drums. For 1995’s Thrak, Fripp augmented the 80s lineup of Adrian Belew, Tony Levin, and Bill Bruford with bassist Trey Gunn and drummer Pat Mastellotto (still with Crimson at its final gig in 2021.) Levin, who switched between bass and Chapman Stick for his parts would play bass while Gunn played Warr guitar, a similar instrument to the Stick. They would alternate. And they had to make sure certain notes were synced perfectly. So did guitarist Belew and his replacement, Jakko Jakszyk. Belew once demonstrated how that worked in an interview by recording Fripp’s part on “Frame by Frame” into a loop. Then he would play back the loop and play his own part over it. What I thought was a single monotone note played by one of them was actually a both players hitting it at the same time, then going off in their own directions between beats.
Sound complicated? Well, Crimson is an acquired taste. Most people come to Crimson through one of three albums: 1969’s In the Court of the Crimson King, 1974’s Red, and 1980’s Discipline. If the standard progressive rock fare of Yes, Genesis, and Floyd are your cuppa, go with Court, still one of the all-time classics. Metal heads would prefer Red, part of Bruford’s first tenure in Crimson and featuring John Wetton, later of Asia fame. Discipline arose from Fripp’s forays into CBGB’s and prompted him to lure Levin from Peter Gabriel and poach Belew from the Talking Heads. The band’s final studio album, The Power to Believe (unless you count the Fripp, Jakszyk, and Collins effort, Scarcity of Miracles) bares zero resemblance to In the Court of the Crimson King. Court is one of those albums you can get high off of just listening to it on heavy-gauge vinyl in the dark with no chemical assistance. Power is Fripp and Belew leaving the CBGB’s vibe far in the past and making fun of pop cliches.
To get Fripp, you almost have to watch the 50th anniversary film In the Court of the Crimson King – King Crimson at 50. If you approach the film as a version of The Office set in a rock-and-roll band with Fripp as a smarter David Brent or Michael Scott, you get Fripp. A number of people have called him out for saying “The problem doesn’t lie with me; it lies elsewhere,” when explaining why he gets frustrated his vision never fully comes to fruition. This is a man who responded to a complaint on Facebook by interjecting in a command thread, “And Fripp is a pompous, self-absorbed monster who’s sold out.” Jakko, whom wth the late Bill Rieflin, are Fripp’s favorite players, said fellow Crimsonite Gavin Harrison had a great line when Jakko first joined the band. “Don’t worry. You’re irreplaceable. Just like the last guy.”
Many of the members have said Crimson is not the most pleasant group to work in, but Tony Levin simply shrugs and says, “Here’s what Bob’s doing, and here’s how I play off of him.” He is the most workman-like of everyone who’s ever been in the band. Belew does voice hurt that he was out of the band after 30 years and jokes, “I noticed after I was done that I lost my hair.” Place that in context with watching him play, and you get that Belew sees Fripp as a beloved brother with whom he has a complicated relationship. Crimson is more important to Fripp than Fripp himself is. While he was annoyed with Greg Lake and Michael Giles quitting, he says Ian McDonald broke his heart. Later, he would suggest to his label that McDonald join Wetton and Bruford in a Frippless Crimson. Wetton and Bruford picked up on the idea, along with potential recruit Eddie Jobson, and had Allan Holdsworth take over, calling the new group UK.
But Fripp, for all his grumbling, craved consistency. The so-called Islands line-up was his first attempt to form a permanent Crimson, only to have saxophonist Collins storm out. But Bruford stayed for twenty-two years through two hiatuses. Levin, with a leave of absence in the 2000s, hasn’t left since 1980. Belew remained Fripp’s preferred partner in crime for almost 30 years, is still playing Crimson’s music, and, after an epic round of margaritas with Fripp to clear the air, became “Eighth Man Inactive” of the Seven-Headed Beast. (Meaning, if last year’s final gig is not the end, then we may see Belew back, maybe even with Jakko.) Bruford’s one-album partner, Pat Mastellotto has sat behind the Crimson kit since 1995.
But the Seven-Headed Beast (at one point, Eight-Headed when the ailing Bill Rieflin returned for his final performances without ousting his replacement) is the lineup where Fripp is happiest. Their only single is a live cover of Bowie’s “Heroes,” a non-Crimson song he’s most proud of. He did a Sunday Lunch cover with wife Toyah Wilcox and gets a boost from Belew’s bands, who insist on performing it. The Beast is Fripp tying up Crimson in a bow. Singing and sharing guitar duties are Jakszyk, whom Fripp treats almost like a son. At one point, Jaksyk explains he doesn’t imitate Lake, Gordon Haskell, Boz Burrell, Wetton, or Belew because he became a fan of Crimson at age 12. It’s in his musical DNA. Fripp corrects him and says, “No, it is your musical DNA!” This lineup is intended to explain the purpose, method, and entity that is King Crimson in one set, which is never the same set night to night.
It’s not easy being in King Crimson. It’s not easy to listen to King Crimson.
But so worth it to do either.
Or, if your name is Jakko, both.
*Editor me is screaming bloody murder at that sentence. He can get over it.