Favorite Songs By Favorite Bands #13: King Crimson

Today’s installment of the chronologically-structured Favorite Songs By Favorite Bands series finally carries us into 2020 (and maybe beyond). The path to getting here was a long and circuitous one, both within these articles and in real-time real life. With this as a capstone piece, I can see that some listening and interpretative themes have emerged and been explored over the course of the series, several of which now fittingly serve as the structural warp and weft in my personalized King Crimson tapestry. Which is quite beautiful, and large. Let’s give it a look-see, shall we?

I first became aware of King Crimson during my weird years at Mitchel Field, 1976 to 1980, in which time the group were not an ongoing concern, nor ever expected to be so again. I came at them obliquely via the activities of several bands featuring their alumni, first and most prominently Emerson, Lake and Palmer, whose 1971 album Tarkus was and remains a favorite. (If you’re in the mood for a deep dig into why I so appreciate that and so many other classic progressive rock albums, you might enjoy my popular March of the Mellotrons piece). I first heard Tarkus in the listening room at Nassau Community College’s library; that campus was based within repurposed military buildings on Mitchel Field when we first moved there, then in what seemed like a space-aged new complex built before our eyes over the next couple of years. I will admit to being first attracted to Tarkus solely because of its most astounding warmadillo record sleeve. Marketing matters.

As I further explored the ELP catalog, I noted that the live version of Tarkus‘ title suite on Welcome Back, My Friends, to the Show That Never Ends – Ladies and Gentlemen (1974) ended differently than the studio version, with a bonus movement called “Epitaph.” Being a credits nerd, I read that this supplemental piece was composed by “Lake / Fripp / McDonald / Giles /Sinfield.” The first name was Greg Lake of ELP, duh, and I knew the last name was ELP lyricist Pete Sinfield. The other three, I didn’t recognize at first, but eventually I figured out that those credits represented the first incarnation of a group called King Crimson, and that the song “Epitaph” had appeared on their 1969 debut album, In The Court of the Crimson King. (Thinking back today, I presumed that I might have tumbled to that fact through one of the amazing Pete Frame’s amazing Rock Family Trees, but his very useful “Crimson and Roxy” broadsheet wasn’t published until 1979, which was too late. So I don’t know how I figured that out. Oh, how confusing and haphazard things were before the Internet!)

Having become aware of King Crimson, it seemed like they were suddenly inescapable in my musical world, though I had not yet knowingly heard them. (I know that’s an alien concept for younger readers, who have always been able to hear whatever piqued their curiosities, instantly). Foreigner issued their immensely popular debut album in early 1976, and member Ian McDonald had been one of those “Epitaph” players and co-composers. I quite liked fellow rock radio mainstays Bad Company, whose bassist, Boz Burrell, was also a Crimson alumnus. I read a long article about Steeleye Span at some point that explained that their bassist, Rick Kemp, had been slated to be Crimson’s four-string man before withdrawing at the last minute, freeing up the slot for Burrell.  I got into Yes (the band), whose founding drummer, Bill Bruford, later became a Crim. I saw a band called UK open for Jethro Tull, and their brilliant bassist-vocalist, John Wetton, was also a Crimson alumnus. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

A further significant prod pointing me Crimson-ward came while sitting in my bedroom listening to WLIR (92.7 FM), which was a truly brilliant radio station in terms of its free-form programming at the time. A very weird song with words about a “baby on fire” began to ooze out of my speakers one night, and I was transfixed, most especially when one of the most insanely different and exciting guitar solos I’d ever heard sprawled out over several minutes of the song’s run. I would easily cite that as one of the most memorable moments of my radio listening career. It truly moved and astounded me. Thankfully, the DJ did ID the track on the air when it had run its course (sometimes that didn’t happen, cue again “confusing life before the Internet”): it was called “Baby’s On Fire,” it was by Brian Eno, and the guitar solo had been played by Robert Fripp, the alumnus who trumped all other King Crimson alumni as the only member to have served throughout the band’s brilliant, tumultuous 1969-1974 run.

I tried to find that song at the Nassau Community College library, but it wasn’t there, so I was forced to hunt it down and buy it at a record store at the Roosevelt Field Mall instead. It came from a 1974 Eno album called Here Come The Warm Jets, which had one of those cover images capable of making a 1970s teenage boy embarrassed when presenting it to the female clerk at the counter, ahem. But I had to have it, short-term shame be damned. It was a truly brilliant record, one of my all-time favorites to this day, and I played it and (most especially) “Baby’s On Fire” over and over and over again in the months and years ahead.

I finally heard my first full King Crimson record around that time, too. It was the live 1975 album USA, released after the final incarnation of the band (Fripp, Wetton and Bruford) had ceased operations. (Violinist David Cross was also a member of the Crim when USA was recorded, but his live parts were over-dubbed for the USA release by UK and Roxy Music’s Eddie Jobson, Cross having apparently been sonically over-powered during the original performance by the muscle and volume of his band mates). I have weirdly specific memories of hearing the album for the first time, at the home of an older Mitchel Field kid who owned the record. I can see where his house was, I can see his bedroom, I can see him, I can see myself listening to and discussing the record while reading the liner notes, I can remember listening to Fleetwood Mac’s “The Green Manalishi (With the Two Prong Crown)” a few times just before we spun USA (there were mind-altering substances involved), but I just can’t for the life of me remember the dude’s name. I owe him a debt of gratitude, but I guess it doesn’t matter in the bigger scheme of things, because USA itself got the job done by finally, actively tuning me into King Crimson as I band I must attend to and collect.

The first LP of theirs I purchased was Starless and Bible Black (1974), and I acquired their other extant studio discs in the months that followed. As is often the case with me, I most liked the “wrong” albums at first: the aforementioned Starless and Bible Black (which confusingly does not include one of their best known songs, “Starless,” which features that album’s title in its soaring chorus) and 1973’s Lizard. Conventional wisdom, then and now, would cite the 1969 debut, Red (1974) and Larks’ Tongues in Aspic (1973) as the era’s highlights. I adore all of them now, but probably still listen to some cuts from those original two favorites more than I do anything else in their catalog. Because me. Because weird.

Since King Crimson were fallow in the late ’70s, I also began exploring other Fripp and Eno offerings, working my way through their releases (together and/or apart) with David Bowie, Roxy Music, Peter Gabriel, their duo projects, and their solo catalogs. I found Fripp’s work at the time to be particularly fascinating not only for the music he was making and the ways in which he was making it (his “Frippertronics” guitar and tape processing techniques were particularly revelatory), but also for the philosophizing around his work that often appeared in the music press and in the liner notes of his records. He clearly thought deeply about what he was doing, and he clearly had a plan: “The Drive to 1981.”

The end stages of that era found Fripp assembling a quartet called Discipline, which featured Crimson/Yes alum Bruford and Americans Tony Levin (bass, Chapman Stick) and Adrian Belew (guitar, vocals). At some point in their early live and recording processes, Fripp felt the spirit of King Crimson moving over the waters, and Discipline was renamed as the next/new installment in the Crimson story, the group’s original name being repurposed as the title and title track of their 1981 album, Discipline, which I received for Christmas that year. It was brilliant, though very different from any prior incarnation of the band. I obsessed over it for much of my senior year in high school (along with XTC’s catalog), often dropping clever inside cites and quotes into articles I wrote for the school’s newspaper, for which I was features editor. Does it count as a joke if nobody knows you’re telling it?

Robert Fripp’s thinking, seeing, and writing over the years about what constitutes, and what does not constitute, King Crimson are unique, distinctive, and provocative. (He was a very early online diarist, as I was, “blogging” before there was a term for it, so it has generally been easy to follow what he’s doing, and what he thinks about it). To boil a big body of thought and writing down to a short explanation here, Fripp understands King Crimson to be an elemental force that exists beyond the tangible, day-to-day experiences of any of the players within the group, Fripp included. When King Crimson music needs to be created and heard in the world, a King Crimson band emerges, maybe fully capable of delivering the music King Crimson offers, or maybe not. When King Crimson music does not need to be created and heard, its human enablers go about their business in other ways, until the organizing elemental calls them together again, through a moment of seeing in Fripp’s consciousness.

Some may find such sentiments precious or pretentious, but I love and respect them, as I do the very tangible actions that Fripp has taken as a human channel for a spiritual essence in bringing his personal work (which I believe he perceives as distinct from, though empowering of, his professional work as a guitarist) into the world to inform and inspire others. First and foremost among such manifestations were his long-running Guitar Craft courses, which formally ended in 2010, though their focus and philosophy has continued to unfold in years hence, with Fripp at work as I write today on a book called The Guitar Circle. I count him as one of the greatest thinkers and writers about the experience of being a working musician (Pere Ubu’s David Thomas is another such inspiration for me), so I can’t wait to score a copy when it is released.

In terms of the (physical) King Crimson, that Fripp-Belew-Bruford-Levin line-up lasted about three years, and issued three albums, and then King Crimson flew away again. It returned in the mid-1990s and lasted again until about 2004, with three studio albums released in that run under the King Crimson imprimatur, along with a variety of shows and projects under the “Crimson ProjeKCts” rubric, which fractalized what was then a six-member ensemble into various experimental and exploratory units. I first experienced Robert Fripp in person (along with Belew and ’90s member Trey Gunn) at a ProjeKCt Two concert in Albany in 1998, and it was a deeply moving experience.

I caught King Crimson “proper” for the first time in 2008 during a brief tour by a short-lived line-up of the group who never recorded in the studio together. Following that tour, Fripp found himself ever-more deeply embroiled in distressing legal and financial battles related to negligent and/or criminal artist mismanagement and illegal file-sharing of the back catalogs of Crimson and a variety of other artists, his wife, Toyah Wilcox, among them. (Beyond the many other things that I admire about Robert Fripp, his openly and oft-stated admiration for and adoration of his life’s greatest partner resonates very strongly with me, being similarly blessed to share such a primary partnership, and also being candidly and regularly open about how important that relationship is to my well-being and fullest enjoyment of life). At some point around 2010, Fripp was so defeated by the ugliness and chicanery of the music business that he announced his retirement as a working musician. That was sad news to me, though I understood how it came to pass, and respected the decision.

But, then, sometimes the saddest parts of a story have to happen before the best parts can be unveiled. In this case, Fripp and his long-time business partner David Singleton achieved unexpected successes and settlements in their various legal battles that provided some restitution for prior malfeasance, and cleared some paths forward for various issues and reissues. Singleton and Fripp have managed Discipline Global Mobile (DGM) together since 1992, building a uniquely structured record label and production company model while strictly hewing to five business aims, stated with typical Fripp directness and panache thusly:

  • The first aim of DGM is to help bring music into the world which would otherwise be unlikely to do so, or under conditions prejudicial to the music and / or musicians.
  • The second aim of DGM is to operate in the market place, while being free of the values of the market place.
  • The third aim of DGM is to help the artists and staff of DGM achieve what they wish for themselves.
  • The fourth aim of DGM is to find its audience.
  • The fifth aim of DGM is to be a model of ethical business in an industry founded on exploitation, oiled by deceit, riven with theft and fueled by greed.

With the psychic burdens of litigation and financial skullduggery lifted, Fripp’s inner antennae began to perceive King Crimson moving in the world again as a living beast, and not just as an historical figure, lovingly preserved through a variety of exceptional DGM remixes and remasters of the studio catalog, and a rich assortment of “Collectors’ Club” releases of concert recordings from throughout the band’s career. Fripp’s moment of seeing, when it finally came, was not just of Any Old Beast, but of a specific Seven-Headed one: a drum trio of Pat Mastelotto, Gavin Harrison (both alums of earlier Crims) and Bill Rieflin (a personal favorite from my Wax Trax! fanboy phase, and a long-time friend of and collaborator with Fripp and Toyah) would form the group’s front-line, while Fripp, Levin, reeds-man Mel Collins (veteran of 1970s Crimson) and singer-guitarist Jakko Jakszyk (who had appeared prominently on a Crimson ProjeKCt album called A Scarcity of Miracles in 2011) would form the back-line. As planning and rehearsals unfolded, it was also divulged that this Crim would be the first ever to select and perform songs from across the entire body of the band’s catalog, including works that had never been played on stage to date.

It looked most strange on paper, sure, but boy oh boy did it work tremendously well in concert. Marcia and I caught the Seven-Headed Beast for the first time on September 25, 2014 at the Vic Theater in Chicago, having driven up from Des Moines (where we lived at the time) for a most excellent gig, and a most excellent urban experience that directly contributed to us moving to Chicago in 2015. The Crim later announced a show at the Chicago Theater for June 28, 2017, mere blocks from our apartment, but we had already booked a trip for that date to Amsterdam, so missed it. I eagerly awaited reports on the show, which the group unanimously stated was magical, perhaps the best they’d ever played. I swallowed a sob at not having been there, but was glad to learn soon thereafter that the DGM brain trust was so moved by the show that they re-arranged planned release schedules to issue the Live in Chicago album mere months later. It was, indeed, a brilliant show.

The next time King Crimson were in the States, they skipped Chicago, so we road-tripped up to Milwaukee and caught them there instead. Then, during our very last weekend in Chicago together (we moved back to Des Moines in 2019), Marcia and I caught the Crim at Roosevelt University’s Auditorium Theater, probably my favorite live music venue in the Second City. (My full review of that show is here). King Crimson (admirably, thankfully) forbid photography during their concerts, but at show’s end, ace photographer Tony Levin will lift and display his own camera to snap the audience, and that was the cue that we were free to make our own photos of the group as they took their bows. Here’s TLev’s photo of the crowd at the end of that show. Click to enlarge, and look carefully at the front row, just left of center. There’s a happy music nerd you might know there, along with his wonderful concert companion.

For our two most-recent Crimson shows, Marcia and I plumped for the “Royal Package,” which got us those great seats, along with pre-show remarks for a small group of attendees from Robert Fripp, David Singleton, Tony Levin (in Chicago) and Bill Rieflin (Milwaukee). We were surprised and pleased to see Rieflin that night, the final show of that Tour leg, because he had been unable to perform with the group for unstated personal reasons, having been replaced by the wonderful Jeremy Stacey as center drummer and keyboardist. The talks were gracious and informative, all around, further cementing the emotional and intellectual bonds that had, by now, fully elevated the Crim to the top of my personal musical pile, where they sit to this day.

Some time after the Milwaukee gig, we learned that Bill Rieflin’s wife, artist Francesca Sundsten had passed away. (She had created album covers and on-stage art work for DGM and for the Seven-Headed Beast, which actually grew an Eighth Head for a time, when Stacey drummed and Rieflin returned to focus solely on keyboards). We, and most, presumed that to have been the cause for Rieflin’s absence. Alas, earlier this year we learned that presumption to be wrong, as Bill also passed away after a long battle with cancer, which had bedeviled him since before Crimson’s re-rising in 2014. (Greg Lake, John Wetton, Boz Burrell and his ’70s battery mate Ian Wallace have also spun off this mortal coil during the course of my Crim Fan career). It was remarkable to see the out-pouring of love for Rieflin in the weeks that followed, not just from within the Crimson family, but across the wide swath of bands and fandoms he’d touched over the years while working with Ministry, Swans, R.E.M., Robyn Hitchcock, KMFDM, and many others. Quite a legacy. I am glad to have had the chance to see him when we did.

King Crimson were scheduled to tour again this summer, but, as with so many other things, a certain virus has laid waste to that undertaking. The calendar currently shows the tour rescheduled for 2021, so we’ll keep fingers crossed that the binding spirit of King Crimson holds its human vessels together until then, and that the pandemic abates to the point where they can safely share that glorious music from elsewhere with the world in which we all live. I’ll be ready for it, when and if it happens.

And so, with that, I move to the final listing of “Favorite Songs” for this series. As with The Fall, I have defaulted to the original studio recordings of each of these songs, though many folks may prefer different live interpretations. I’d mentioned the Live in Chicago album above as a particularly epic release from the current incarnation of the Crims, and I’d also cite Meltdown: Live in Mexico City (2018) as another great release, perhaps a perfect place to revisit or discover the group’s masterful canon. I must note that I have a special personal bond with one of the songs cited below: “The Night Watch,” which features a text by 1972-1974 lyricist Richard Palmer-James describing his encounter with and reflections on Rembrandt’s epic painting of the same name. I actually bear the opening line of that song as a tattoo on my left forearm. The photo below shows me sharing it with one of the master’s self-portraits in London:

I’ll probably do a brief epilogue post to this series just to organize some links and themes, but at this point today, let me offer you one final “Happy Listening!” exhortation, and also say “Thank You!” to those who have taken the time to share in this re-exploration of the the highest points of my lifetime of listening. I appreciate you.

#10. “Frame By Frame,” from Discipline (1995)

#9. “Cat Food,” from In the Wake of Poseidon (1970)

#8. “Sailor’s Tale,” from Islands (1971)

#7. “Elephant Talk,” from Discipline (1981)

#6. “The Great Deceiver,” from Starless and Bible Black (1974)

#5. “Cirkus,” from Lizard (1970)

#4. “The Night Watch,” from Starless and Bible Black (1974)

#3. “Starless,” from Red (1974)

#2. “21st Century Schizoid Man,” from In the Court of the Crimson King (1969)

#1. “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part Two,” from Larks’ Tongues in Aspic (1973)

Note #1: Click Here for an after-the-fact summary of this series, with a convenient listing of links for all articles contained within it.

Note #2: For those who stream your music, Marcia has created a Spotify playlist with all of the songs discussed in this series. Note that the browser embed link below is limited to 100 preview songs. We have confirmed that all 120 songs included in the series are available when you open the playlist in the Spotify app.

7 thoughts on “Favorite Songs By Favorite Bands #13: King Crimson

  1. Ha! A blogger of my acquaintance (who unfortunately died in a car accident last year) was startled when I suggested Cat Food as one of my favorite KC songs. Of course, In the Court of the Crimson King came out when I was 16, so prime time. But damn, that Discipline album blew me away. It was the source of conversation at FantaCo, the comic store where I worked- “I repeat myself when under stress” (X2.5)

    I know what I can do. Favorite songs of artists you picked that I didn’t pick but like. KC and Steppenwolf, for sure. BTW, I picked Steely Dan – written, but won’t post for a few weeks.

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    • “Cat Food” is a weird pop masterpiece with a legendary piano part! Keith Tippett, who played it, just died recently, alas. The last time I saw the Crim, they had added “Cat Food” to the setlist. Middle drummer Jeremy Stacey took the piano part. The crowd went berzerk at how good it was to hear it live!

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  2. Longtime reader, first-time commenter!
    I loved your “Favorite Songs” series these past few weeks. I’d say that the Crim is the first band that made me realize how awesome rock music can be. My dad and I are both musicians and recording nuts. He used to make mixtapes with a TEAC tape deck plugged into all sorts of crap. I remember when I was three, one tape began with Bill Pullman’s cheesy speech from Independence Day before segueing into “Red” from the recently-released Absent Lovers album. All I could think about was Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum escaping the mothership and walking through the Mojave like kings. I’ve loved the Crim ever since.
    May you and yours stay safe and be well!

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    • Thanks for de-lurking and kind words! You mention several things I love . . . “Absent Lovers” is, I think, the absolute best document of the ’80s Crim, just amazing performances, all the way through. I count myself as a connoisseur of different “Larks’ Tongues In Aspic” versions, and that one is one of the very, very best. Also Ye Olde TEAC . . . I got one of the their TASCAM Portastudios right when they first came out, and did lots of stuff much as your dad. I actually linked to one of those relics in the Napalm Death article: load up all the inputs and fiddle with the faders and see what comes out! And in re the way your brain puts things together and then you can never disentangle, I remember reading the “Gormenghast” books (faves of mine) for the first time right when Tull’s “Stormwatch” came out. The books were so engrossing that I couldn’t even be bothered to fiddle with the stereo, so that album played over and over pretty much continuously until I finished that hefty collection, which took a while. So sounds and ideas and images of them both are all mashed up in my mind to this day, and I can’t experience one without the other rising to my forebrain in parallel.

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