After ravishing Pink Floyd & Genesis, I have been ever hungrier for more and more quantities of Prog. The 70’s prog bands – love ’em all, with no special preference for one band over another. But if not bands, then some albums have a way too special place in my heart. And for that, the band gets a step ahead of the others. So here’s the bold statement of the day- ‘In The Court Of The Crimson King’ is the best prog album of all time. Period.
When discussing the bands from the 70’s, I’ve noticed a problem I encounter every time. These bands have had a long history, progressing (pun intended) through with different sounds and eras, that may not even sound like the same band anymore. I may completely be in love with one era of a band, and may loathe another era of the same band. And King Crimson is one band that has taken it to the limit. Robert Fripp, the driving force of Crimson, has had a compulsive need to change the sound of the band, every few years. And to achieve that, he also very often, changed band members, changed the format of the band, and whenever he felt that the band had nowhere to progress at the moment, he put Crimson on hiatus.
King Crimson was formed in 1969, from the remnants of a little known band in England, called ‘Giles, Giles & Fripp’. It included brothers Peter Giles & Michael Giles on bass and drums respectively, and Robert Fripp playing guitar. After an album out, and not much success to go with it, Robert decided to take control. He replaced Peter with bass player/singer Greg Lake. (Remember ELP..?) Then he brought in multi-instrumentalist/songwriter Ian McDonald. (Have you heard of Journey..?) And the final piece of the puzzle, was lyricist/visual designer Peter Sinfield. Yes, King Crimson is the only band that I have heard of, where a lyricist (just a lyricist, not playing any music) is counted as an official member of the band. (Learn something, rookies).
Before 1969, prog must have been a confusing term. A kinda-strange mixture of Sgt. Pepper, psychedelia, baroque pop, long songs and A Whiter Shade Of Pale. So the King dropped their prog bomb. The first time the world encountered proper prog, was at a Rolling Stones concert, when Crimson opened for them. Soon, their first album was out- In The Court Of The Crimson King. The heavenly voice of Greg put to fantastic and surreal lyrics of Peter Sinfield is what hits home first. Then there is Ian McDonald everywhere on the album- saxophone on 21st Century Schizoid Man; flutes on I Talk To The Wind and the title track; and mellotron (an ancestor of your modern keyboard synthesizers) all across the album. His mellotron sure sounds as huge and awesome as a modern symphony orchestra. Greg’s bass runs here and there throwing surprisingly beautiful melodic bass lines at unexpected turns. And the drumming of Michael Giles- I think this album is the best drumming album of all time in any genre. I could just listen to the drums here and go on a trance. To be honest Fripp, on this album, seems like the weakest member of the band, even though he plays great (on both acoustic & electric), but he has been outshined by the amount of ear-gasms brought forth on this album by the other four band members (yes I’m counting Peter Sinfield too). And also check out, the album art by Barry Godber. Quite a mind-f**k.
Then immediately, a curse started working on our King. After the 1st album, the band was in shambles with almost all the members leaving. Only Fripp and Sinfield were left. For the sophomore, they requested his previous band members and a few others to come and record, but the songs were never performed live, due to the lack of a band. In The Wake Of Poseidon (1970) features the hands (or larynxes) of Michael Giles, Greg Lake (only vocals), Peter Giles (bass), Keith Tippet (piano), Mel Collins (saxophone/flute) and Gordon Haskell (vocals on Cadence and Cascade). On this one, Fripp himself did all the mellotron works that Ian McDonald had been doing previously. Maybe not as good as Epitaph and The Court, but he got it through, to make us feel great. If you’re not too careful, you may not even notice. Amidst all the confusion, Robert and Sinfield still managed to create another masterpiece. This time around, the album art was even better. An artwork called ‘The 12 Faces Of Humankind’ (1967) by Tammo De Jongh. I could just look at the art (both the front and back form the complete 12 faces), while listening to the music and be lost over my head. All the emotions that humans can ever face have been represented in the painting, and equally complemented by the music and lyrics.
Then happened the first noticeable sound change by Fripp. The awesome and huge sounds of mellotrons on the 1st two albums were ditched (boo hoo hoo hoo). Robert did play mellotrons on Lizards (1970) but its not quite the same. Also, this is the first album, where Peter Sinfield has pushed a little extra harder, as he also had a go on the synthesizers, and also some album sleeve. Mel Collins, Keith Tippet and Gordon Haskell continued on their roles, with Andy McCulloch & Tony Levin filling in on drums and bass. Also features some classical musicians on woodwinds and on one track is Yes’s Jon Anderson singing. On this album, Fripp has mostly played acoustic guitar, and may just be the best performance by Fripp throughout the earlier albums. I’m telling you, after listening to the first two albums, you may hate this one. But after several listenings, you’ll like it (if not love it).
On the next album, Islands (1971), Crimson have retained only Mel Collins & Keith Tippet. Members are like a merry go round for Crimson. It’s a headache to even try and remember which member played on which album. But the album sounds kinda-nice, and has a very big influence of Romantic/Classical era Classical music. Not as good as the earlier ones, but still okay. But on their next, Robert made a bold move forward. He fired all the members, (including Peter Sinfield), and started afresh. The new line-up included David Cross (violins/mellotron), John Wetton (bass/vocals), Bill Bruford (drums, who had just quit Yes, after their masterpiece Close To The Edge). The final piece was a free improvising percussionist Jamie Muir, who had to his port folio, playing with Derek Bailey (one of the most famous free improvisers). Larks’ Tongues In Aspic (1973) had a much more experimental sound, with lots of free improvised sections (led by Muir). This is probably one the most experimental yet very typically Rock album of all time. But Crimson could never be constant. Muir was left out for their next album Starless And Bible Black (1974), and Cross was left on their next and final album Red (1974). On Red, Robert had pretty much lost all interest, and the music was mostly led by Bruford and Wetton. Robert knew there was not much ground that Crimson had left to go to now. Hence ended the first and greatest era of the band, as Robert disbanded King Crimson.
In the 80s, Robert reformed Crimson with Bruford, Tony Levin (bass/chapman stick) & Adrian Belew (guitar/vocals, previously of Frank Zappa’s band). This era of Crimson used the modern sounds and styles of the days- great productions, pyro-techniques, instrumental virtuosity, and new wave. This line up released 3 albums- Discipline (1981), Beat (1982) and Three Of A Perfect Pair (1984). Though they are amusing, and entertaining to an extent, I cannot quite take them seriously to be King Crimson’s music. With this era, they kick-started what is called neo-prog that comes with good production, instrumental virtuosity, and all other things that I am not so fond of. The same stuff that 90s bands like Dream Theater took to their ultimate extremes. And what Fripp & company did later in the 90s and 2000s, (I dare not call it King Crimson anymore), are continuing to be in the same vain.
The first era of Crimson has influences from Psychedelic Rock (Happy Family), Classical Music of the Romantic Era (especially with the mellotrons – The Court Of The Crimson King), avante-garde/free improvisation (Moonchild), with occasional hard rockers (21st Century Schizoid Man, Pictures Of A City), ballads (I Talk To The Wind, Cadence And Cascade, Lady Of The Dancing Water), 70s style virtuoso playing (21st Century Schizoid Man, Cat Food, The Devil’s Triangle, Indoor Games) and of course, the epic prog tracks (all the tracks of the 1st album, In The Wake Of Poseidon, Lizard). They have the ability to take a listener through all variations of human emotions (even more so with the album arts). From the ethereal, to energetic, to humourous, to ponderous, to sad, to confused. It’s all there in the first 5 Crimson albums (upto Aspic). I get lost in my own head, everytime I listen to any of these albums. Awesome melodies especially on the flutes (either McDonald or Collins), and always great drumming that keeps you wanting ever more quantities of Crimson.
R.I.P. Greg Lake & John Wetton
- In The Court Of The Crimson King (1969)
- In The Wake Of Poseidon (1970)
- Lizards (1970)
- Larks’ Tongues In Aspic (1973)
- 21st Century Schizoid Man [including ‘Mirrors’], I Talk To The Wind, Epitaph [including ‘March For No Reason’ & ‘Tomorrow And Tomorrow’], Moonchild [including ‘The Dream’ & ‘The Illusion’], The Court Of The Crimson King [including ‘The Return Of The Fire Witch’ & ‘The Dance Of The Puppets’] (The Court Of The Crimson King- 1969… in other words- the whole album)
- Peace- A Beginning, Cadence And Cascade, In The Wake Of Poseidon, The Devil’s Triangle, Peace- An End (In The Wake Of Poseidon- 1970)
- Happy Family (loud headphones recommended for this track,… it’s CRRRAZY), Lizard (Lizard- 1970)
- Formentera Lady, Prelude: Song Of The Gulls, Islands (Islands- 1971)
- Larks’ Tongues In Aspic- Part I, Book Of Saturday, The Talking Drum, Larks’ Tongues In Aspic-Part II (Larks’ Tongues In Aspic- 1973)
- Three Of A Perfect Pair (Three Of A Perfect Pair- 1984)
Fav. Album Covers:
- In The Court Of The Crimson King (Barry Godber)
- In The Wake Of Poseidon (The 12 Faces Of Humankind – Tammo De Jongh)
- Larks’ Tongues In Aspic
Other Bands/Artists To Check Out:
Pink Floyd, Genesis, Emerson Lake & Palmer, Yes, Rush, Camel, Jethro Tull,
Soft Machine, Miles Davis (late 60s & early 70s era), Frank Zappa,
Ludwig Van Beethoven, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Bela Bartok
I do not own the copyrights to the image used. Got it straight from google. Since I am not commercializing this article (at least not yet), I’m guessing no one will want to sue me.