King Crimson - Biography
It would not be an overstatement to say that King Crimson is one of the longest-living and most influential British rock bands ever. The band has been in existence on and off for 40 years and has been the very definition of progressive rock, both in the way that its members spearheaded a movement in the late 60's and early 70's of rock bands, stretching the bounds of what constituted a “rock album” and also in the way that they have stretched and changed the sound of the band itself over the course of the decades.
The only constant member throughout the many line-up changes of King Crimson is guitarist Robert Fripp. Many times Fripp has said that Crimson is not his band, but rather an entity that he helps guide. Regardless, it was usually Fripp who decided when the band would exist and what direction they were to take.
The original members of King Crimson came together out of the remnants of a light-hearted psychedelic trio called Giles, Giles and Fripp. After that group split up, guitarist Fripp and drummer Michael Giles joined with bassist and vocalist Greg Lake, multi-instrumentalist Ian McDonald and lyricist Peter Sinfield to form the first version of the group. In 1969, the year the band formed, they started a three month residency in London at the Marquee Club and word quickly spread through the music community about this strange band that had this huge, orchestral sound and complicated song structures. One reason for their big sound had to do with the use of the Mellotron, a keyboard instrument that was the forerunner of sampling keyboards. The band was scooped up as the opening act for The Rolling Stones at their celebrated Hyde Park free concert in London in the summer of 1969, and the exposure to thousands more music fans set the stage for the band to go into the studio.
In The Court Of The Crimson King (EG) was released in October of 1969 to rave reviews from critics, fans and other musicians. It's mix of the Mellotron's orchestral sound, free jazz sax playing, nimble drumming, and Fripp's sharp and distorted guitar, which was highly influential, as were the extended song structures and lack of adherence to standard rock verse-chorus-verse architecture. The band embarked on tours of England and America and wowed audiences on both sides of the Atlantic, but tensions within the band were such that the original line-up of the band split by the end of the year.
Ian McDonald and Michael Giles were the first to leave, leaving just a trio of Lake, Fripp and Sinfield. The band soldiered on, releasing the single “Cat Food” and preparing for a second album. During the early part of 1970, Greg Lake departed to start Emerson, Lake and Palmer. In The Wake Of Poseidon (EG) was released in 1970 with the remaining duo being joined by woodwind player Mel Collins, singer Gordon Haskell and bassist Peter Giles. The album was in many ways an extension of the sound explored on the first album and it helped keep the band in the spotlight during its multiple member defections. Haskell was also a bass player, and took over both bass and vocal duties for what was to become the band's third album, Lizard (1970 EG). The band also gained Andy McCulloch on drums. Crimson's third album was more obtuse than the first couple of albums and veered much more towards free jazz and 20th century classical influences.
The shuffling of the King Crimson deck was far from over. New members McCulloch and Haskell left the band before Lizard was even released. Fripp and Crimson auditioned new members and eventually decided on adding vocalist Boz Burrell and drummer Ian Wallace to the line-up. Rather than recruiting another member to play bass, Fripp decided to teach Burrell to play and the band quickly took up touring again and recorded their fourth record, 1971's Islands (EG). The album referred back to the more heavy-Mellotron sound of the first two records. During this time, Crimson parted ways with lyricist Pete Sinfield, who had also contributed synthesizer and light design during periods of the bands life.
It's important to note that all of this band member shuffling, touring and recording of four albums had taken place within about 3 years. Fripp and the rest of the band agreed to do an American tour and then Fripp’s plan was to break up the band at tour's conclusion. Live recordings of this tour were later released as the poorly-recorded album Earthbound (2002 Virgin), and showed a band that seemed to be losing direction. Wallace, Collins and Burrell all left the band after the tour; Burrell later found fame as the bassist in Bad Company.
Robert Fripp decided to give the band another chance, and set about finding new members. He recruited former Family bassist and vocalist John Wetton, free-form percussionist Jamie Muir, violinist and keyboardist David Cross and Yes drummer Bill Bruford to join the new King Crimson, also adding Wetton's friend, lyricist Richard Palmer-James, as an auxiliary member in the same capacity that Sinfield had held earlier.
The band came together well, touring through 1972 and recording King Crimson's next album, Lark's Tongue In Aspic (EG), which came out in early 1973. The band had a much heavier sound than previously and definitely benefited from the new members’ previous band experiences and musicianship. Unfortunately, the band saw the departure of Muir after injuring himself on stage, and carried on as a quartet. This version of King Crimson had an almost improvisational understanding of one another, often flying off on extended jams of established songs throughout their many concerts during the period. Using this strength, the quartet recorded the next King Crimson album almost completely live. Starless And Bible Black (EG) came out in early 1974 to good reviews from critics and music fans alike, and furthered the band's image as a group that may have fathered the term progressive rock, but also kept moving on in their own unique direction.
One more defection was to come from the ranks -- David Cross left after the band toured Europe and the US in 1974, and that seemed to be the final straw that Fripp needed to end the band. The remaining power trio went into the studio to record its epitaph, 1974's Red (EG), and was joined by former Crimson members Mel Collins and Ian McDonald on saxophones, as well as Robin Miller on oboe and Marc Charig on cornet. McDonald even made overtures towards re-joining the band, but by this time Fripp had not only had enough of the responsibility of keeping a touring band together, but
also was tired of the music business as a whole. A final live album called USA (Atlantic), documenting the last tour, came out in 1975, but many of David Cross' parts were buried in the mix, and the band asked violinist/keyboardist Eddie Jobson to come in to the studio to overdub them. Robert Fripp announced in September of 1975 that King Crimson had “ceased to exist” and that seemed to be the end of the road for the influential band.
Robert Fripp spent the later part of the 1970's traveling and occasionally guesting on songs by the likes of David Bowie and Peter Gabriel, even producing Peter Gabriel's second solo album. He also put together a short lived band, The League Of Gentlemen, with former XTC keyboardist and future co-founder of Shriekback, Barry Andrews and future Gang Of Four bassist Sara Lee. After that band folded, Fripp wanted to form a band utilizing the influences he was absorbing from different ethnic musics, especially West African high life and Balinese gamelan, as well as some of the sounds and feel from new wave and post punk bands that were pushing musical envelopes at the time. The first step in putting this new band together would be to have an accomplished percussionist, so he contacted his former King Crimson bandmate Bill Bruford, and from there the pair recruited bassist Tony Levin, known for his work with Peter Gabriel. Levin was also a player of the Chapman stick, a multi-stringed instrument that could play both percussive bass and guitar parts. Fripp also had the idea of having a second guitar in the band, a first for him. Levin suggested Adrian Belew, who was currently touring with the expanded line-up of Talking Heads and had played previously with David Bowie and Frank Zappa. Not only did Belew have a strikingly strange and fluid guitar style, but he also was a singer. The four got together in early 1981, took the band name Discipline and started playing low key gigs, eventually touring with the Lounge Lizards supporting.
With two former members of King Crimson together in a new band -- including Robert Fripp who basically owned the Crimson name -- questions were raised as to whether the new band wasn't in fact a new version of King Crimson. Those questions were answered late in 1981 when the new band started calling themselves King Crimson and released the album Discipline (EG). The album had all the musicianship that fans of the old band could appreciate, but the new band had an interlocking rhythmic underpinning that was unlike anything Crimson had ever had, as well as a charismatic front-man and singer in Belew. The quartet worked well together and spent the next few years touring and recording two more albums together, 1982's Beat (EG)and 1984's Three Of A Perfect Pair (Warner Bros.). By 1984, the members were itching to move on to other projects, so the band name was retired once again. Belew released a series of solo albums, Bruford also released solo albums and worked in both the jazz and rock idioms, Levin did the same as Bruford as well as working again with Peter Gabriel, and Fripp founded the record label Discipline Global Mobile, concentrating on Crimson and related musical projects. Fripp also started a music school for aspiring guitarists.
After a ten year hiatus, the Crimson saga continued in 1994 with Fripp wanting to get the 80's version of the band back together, and to add additional musicians to the mix as well. It was decided that a “double trio” set up would work, that is, a sextet that doubled guitars, bass and Chapman Stick, and drums. Stick player Trey Gunn and drummer Pat Mastelotto were added to the band, and an EP VROOOM (Discipline US) and a full album THRAK (Virgin) followed in 1994 and 1995 respectively. The sound of the new Crimson was a melding of the hard attack and metallic guitars of the 1974-era quartet with the 80's band's interlocking rhythms. A double album of more improvisational material the sextet came up with appeared in 1996 as THRaKaTTaK. The new material appeared on Fripp's DGM label, and the label continued to release solo projects by the various band members throughout the end of the 90's, as well as projects with various configurations of the core band called ProjeKts One, Two, Three and Four.
During this period Fripp started going through live recordings of the various line-ups of the band and started releasing them to fans as limited cd runs via DGM called the King Crimson Collector's Club. The recordings continue to be made available to fans as downloads on DGM's website.
After another period of intense Crimson activity, drummer Bruford and bassist Levin decided to move on again to other projects and the line-up of Fripp, Mastelotto, Gunn and Belew continued on and recorded the albums The ConstruKtion Of Light (Virgin) in 2000 and the album Heaven And Earth (Pony Canyon) the same year under the name ProjeKct X. The dearth of releases showed a band that was very active in recording and improvising.
Crimson continued marching through the 2000's, and with its new quartet line-up intact, recorded another EP in 2002, Happy With What You Have To Be Happy With (Sanctuary), followed by a full album in 2003 called The Power To Believe (Sanctuary). After touring for the latter album, bassist/Stick player Trey Gunn announced that he was leaving the band. Belew and Fripp toured as a duo called ProjeKt Six during 2006, opening shows for the later-day progressive band Porcupine Tree. In early 2008 it was announced that a new version of King Crimson would be formed, consisting of Robert Fripp on guitar, Adrian Belew on guitar and vocals, Pat Mastelotto on drums, Tony Levin on bass and Chapman Stick, and Porcupine Tree's drummer Gavin Harrison on second drums. The crimson king rolls on.