January 22, 2012

King Crimson

"I've been here and I've been there and I've been in between"


King Crimson are a rock band founded in London, England in 1969. Often categorised as a foundational progressive rock group, the band have incorporated diverse influences and instrumentation during their history (including jazz and folk music, classical and experimental music, psychedelic rock, hard rock and heavy metal, new wave, gamelan, electronica and drum and bass). They have been influential on many contemporary musical artists and have gained a large cult following, despite garnering little radio or music video airplay. 

Though originating in England, King Crimson have had a mixture of English and American personnel since 1981. The band's line-up (centred on guitaristRobert Fripp) has persistently altered throughout their existence, with eighteen musicians and two lyricists passing through the ranks; though a greater degree of stability was achieved later in their history, with Adrian Belew having been a consistent member since 1981. 

The debut line-up of the band was influential but short-lived, lasting for just over one year. Between 1970 and 1971, King Crimson were an unstable band, with many personnel changes and disjunctions between studio and live sound as they explored elements of jazz, funk and classical chamber music. By 1972 the band had a more stable line-up and developed an improvisational sound mingling hard rock, contemporary classical music, free jazz and jazz fusion before breaking up in 1974. They re-formed with a new line-up in 1981 for three years (this time influenced by new wave and gamelan music) before breaking up again for around a decade. Since reforming for the second time (in 1994), King Crimson have blended aspects of their 1980s and 1970s sound with influences from more recent musical genres such as industrial rock and grunge. The band’s efforts to blend additional elements into their music have continued into the 21st century, with more recent developments including drum and bass-styled rhythm loops and extensive use o f MIDI and guitar synthesis. 

King Crimson's existence has been characterised by regular periods of hiatus initiated by Robert Fripp, and their current status is ambiguous. Despite online diary posts from Fripp suggesting that he does not feel a powerful desire to work within the King Crimson context, he and other members continue to work within the context of related "ProjeKCts" (an ongoing succession of spin-offs from the main band initiated in 1997, of which the latest example is the song-based "Jakszyk, Fripp and Collins"). 

If prog rock ever lied at least a pair of miles away from your interests, you're simply bound to get at least a couple of King Crimson albums (and one of them certainly got to be In The Court Of The Crimson King), just because listening to a King Crimson album is like listening to the very soul of progressive rock. Here was a group that managed to get away with writing totally de-personalized music - music that didn't seem to come from anybody in particular and didn't belong to anyone in particular. If we're speaking of de-personalized music, Pink Floyd is usually the most obvious candidate that comes to mind. But Pink's lack of human identity was totally artificial, caused by Roger Waters' dislike of the musical press more than of anything else. The actual music was always highly personal, especially the later albums. Same goes for most of the Reverends of art and prog rock - Jon and Ian Anderson, Peter Gabriel, Greg Lake, all of these guys were great but, dang it, they were guys, with their own worlds and psychologies.King Crimson, on the other hand, was a band in the pure sense of the word - despite its 'revolving door' structure. Come to think of it, definitely because of the revolvin' door structure! Robert Fripp was their musical 'director', but he wasn't much of a composer - his only principle seems to have always been that of putting the music before the composer. And this is the only moment that unites all of King Crimson - from the silly, lightweight pre-Crimson Giles, Giles & Fripp and right to their last crazy sonic experimentations of the Nineties. You might accuse King Crimson of pretentiousness, pomposity, complexity for the sake of complexity and everything, but 'self-indulgence' is the only of the standard epithets that sounds somewhat lame when applied to King Crimson music - because it has no 'self'. It's totally abstract, personality-free, soulless, if I might say so. Even Yes didn't go that far. Maybe it has something to do with jazz music as one of the band's strongest influences: I've always thought of middle and late period jazz as highly esoteric, 'restricted' music with little spiritual filler but a lot of undeserved gall, and the same can be really said of King Crimson. However, they're actually better - sometimes, because the band never felt itself as restricted as even the most professional and talented jazz players; King Crimson have changed quite a lot of images throughout their career. 

Of course, there's also a bad side to this lack of face: much too often, the band engages in boring 'art for art' sequences, resulting in the fact that, along with some of the greatest rock moments, they are also responsible for some of its most unbearable ones: whereas Fripp always thrived to be at the front line and would soak in any new influences, he was, and still is, always famous for also disregarding the conventional rules of melody to such an extent that quite a solid batch of the band's catalog can only be accessible to real diehards. But at least their tenure is totally unique among prog rockers, and if you can't help hating art rock but would like to be able to cure yourself of your attitude, King Crimson is the best candidate for you. It's unfortunate that the band never really had any big financial success (as far as I know, their debut album is their only serious sell-out); on the other hand, it saved their music from being overplayed and you can't diss them like you diss your Dark Side Of The Moon - that is, the only reason being 'I'm sick to death of it'... 

The lineup of King Crimson has at times changed drastically from album to album. Original lead singer and bassist Greg Lake left the group - as did lyricist Peter Sinfield - and went on to fame with Emerson, Lake & Palmer in 1970, replaced by Gordon Haskell, Boz Burrell, and, briefly, Jon Anderson of Yes. Also from Yes came drummer Bill Bruford, who joined King Crimson in 1972 and became one of the more enduring members. For the next three years, Bruford and Fripp were joined by future Asia frontman John Wetton. With comparatively few additional musicians, these mid-1970s albums and performances showed a more raw and stylistically focused - though still improvisational - King Crimson. In 1974 the band split temporarily. 

In 1981, bassist Tony Levin and guitarist/singer Adrian Belew joined Fripp and Bruford in a band initially called Discipline. Changing the name back to King Crimson, the four released a trio of studio albums which preserved the classic heavy and improvisational sound, but also embraced 1980s musical influences and technologies. 

In 1984 the band split up again, then re-formed in 1994 with former Mr. Mister drummer Pat Mastelotto joining forces with and later replacing Bruford. This lineup included bassist Trey Gunn - playing warr guitar and chapman stick - forming a “double trio” of two guitarists, two bassists and two drummers. In between KC commitments, various combinations of the members convened in different “ProjeKcts”:ProjeKct One, ProjeKct Two, ProjeKct Three, ProjeKct Four, and ProjeKct X, with Robert Fripp describing them as “fraKctals” of the band with the purpose of “research and development”. 

2000-2003 saw a new incarnation of King Crimson, without Bruford and Levin, which culminated in the album The Power to Believe and a concert tour. Trey Gunn left the group afterwards, but Fripp and Belew announced that they would meet in 2007 and think about future KC music. Tony Levin agreed to replace Gunn on bass/stick. 

A new King Crimson line-up was announced in late 2007 and scheduled for rehearsals in 2008, consisting of Fripp, Belew, Mastelotto, Levin, and Gavin Harrison of Porcupine Tree. In August 2008 the band set out on a brief four-city tour in preparation for King Crimson’s fortieth anniversary in 2009. A short time thereafter, on 20th August 2008, DGMLive (a web medium for Fripp to release live recordings) issued a download-only release of the August 7th, 2008 concert in Chicago. The show reveals a drum-centred direction but the set list, consistent with the rest of the tour, contains no new material or extended improvisation. However, many of the pieces from the back catalogue receive new arrangements, most notably the renditions of “Neurotica,” “Sleepless”, and “Level Five”, all of which are given percussion-heavy overhauls, presumably to highlight the return to the dual-drummer format. More recordings from the New York shows are scheduled for download soon as well. There has been talk of more King Crimson shows in 2009, but nothing definite has arisen yet. 

In 2008, Steven Wilson began remixing the studio catalogue into 5.1 Surround Sound for possible future release. 

Despite its many changes, King Crimson has retained a consistent sound and atmosphere, largely as a result of Fripp’s signature guitar work. Though they have not had a commercial success since their first album, the band has one of the most devoted followings of any musical group. Their live albums outnumber studio albums by a wide margin (some of them being “official” bootlegs), and there are more than enough ex-members to fully staff the ‘classic’ KC revival group known as 21st Century Schizoid Band. 

Album/CD's in KCTunes Catalog:


Musical style and influences

Music sourced from outside the rock canon

The band's music was initially grounded in the rock of the 1960s, especially the acid rock and psychedelic rock movements. The band played Donovan's "Get Thy Bearings" in concert, and were known to play The Beatles' "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" in their rehearsals. However, for their own compositions, King Crimson (unlike the rock bands that had come before them) largely stripped away the blues-based foundations of rock music and replaced them with influences derived from classical composers. The first incarnation of King Crimson played the Mars section of Gustav Holst's suite The Planets as a regular part of their live set and Fripp has frequently cited the influence of Béla Bartók. As a result of this influence, In the Court of the Crimson King is frequently viewed as the nominal starting point of the symphonic rock or progressive rock movements. From its earliest years King Crimson also initially displayed strong jazz influences, most obviously on its signature track "21st Century Schizoid Man". The band also drew on English folk music for compositions such as "Moonchild" and "I Talk to the Wind".

The 1981 reunion of the band brought in even more elements, displaying the influence of gamelan music and of late 20th century classical composers such as Philip Glass, Steve Reich, andTerry Riley. For its 1994 reunion, King Crimson reassessed both the mid-1970s and 1980s approaches in the light of new technology, intervening music forms such as grunge, and further developments in industrial music, as well as expanding the band's ambient textural content via Fripp's Soundscapes looping approach.

Compositional approaches

Several King Crimson compositional approaches have remained constant from the earliest versions of the band to the present. These include:

the use of a gradually building rhythmic motif. These include "The Devil's Triangle" (an adaptation and variation on the Gustav Holst piece Mars played by the original King Crimson, based on a complex pulse in 5/4 time over which a skirling melody is played Mellotron), 1972's "The Talking Drum" (from Larks' Tongues in Aspic), 1984's "Industry" (from Three of a Perfect Pair) and 2003's "Dangerous Curves" (from The Power to Believe and the Level Five EP).

an instrumental piece (often embedded as a break in a song) in which the band plays an ensemble passage of considerable rhythmic and polyrhythmic complexity. An early example is the band's initial signature tune "21st Century Schizoid Man", but the Larks' Tongues in Aspic series of compositions (as well as pieces of similar intent such as "THRaK" and "Level Five") go deeper into polyrhythmic complexity, delving into rhythms that wander into and out of general synchronisation with each other, but that all 'finish' together through polyrhythmic synchronisation. These polyrhythms were particularly abundant in the band's 1980s work, which contained gamelan-like rhythmic layers and continual overlaid staccato patterns in counterpoint.

the composition of difficult solo passages for individual instruments, such as the guitar break on "Fracture" on Starless and Bible Black.

pieces with a loud, aggressive sound akin to heavy metal music.

the juxtaposition of ornate tunes and ballads with unusual, often dissonant noises (such as "Cirkus" on Lizard, "Ladies of the Road" from Islands and "Eyes Wide Open" from The Power to Believe).

the use of improvisation. Ascending note structure (i.e. "Facts of Life", "Thrak")

King Crimson have incorporated improvisation into their performances and studio recordings from the beginning, some of which has been embedded into loosely-composed pieces such as "Moonchild" or "THRaK". Most of the band's performances over the years have included at least one stand-alone improvisation where the band simply started playing and took the music wherever it went, sometimes including passages of restrained silence, as with Bill Bruford's contribution to the improvised "Trio". The earliest example of an unambiguously improvising King Crimson on record is the spacious, oft-criticised extended coda of "Moonchild" from In the Court of the Crimson King.

We're so different from each other that one night someone in the band will play something that the rest of us have never heard before and you just have to listen for a second. Then you react to his statement, usually in a different way than they would expect. It's the improvisation that makes the group amazing for me. You know, taking chances. There is no format really in which we fall into. We discover things while improvising and if they're really basically good ideas we try and work them in as new numbers, all the while keeping the improvisation thing alive and continually expanding.

King Crimson violinist David Cross on the mid-'70s band's approach to improvisation.

Rather than using the standard jazz or blues "jamming" format for improvisation (in which one soloist at a time takes centre stage while the rest of the band lies back and plays along with established rhythm and chord changes), King Crimson improvisation is a group affair in which each member of the band is able to make creative decisions and contributions as the music is being played. Individual soloing is largely eschewed; each musician is to listen to each other and to the group sound, to be able to react creatively within the group dynamic. A slightly similar method of continuous improvisation ("everybody solos and nobody solos") was initially used by King Crimson's jazz-fusion contemporaries Weather Report. Fripp has used the metaphor of "white magic" to describe this process, in particular when the method works particularly well.

Similarly, King Crimson's improvised music is rarely jazz or blues-based, and varies so much in sound that the band has been able to release several albums consisting entirely of improvised music, such as the Thrakattak album. Occasionally, particular improvised pieces will be recalled and reworked in different forms at different shows, becoming more and more refined and eventually appearing on official studio releases (the most recent example being "Power to Believe III", which originally existed as the stage improvisation "Deception of the Thrush", a piece played onstage for a long time before appearing on record).

Influence on other bands

King Crimson have been influential both on the early 1970s progressive rock movement and numerous contemporary artists.

First-wave progressive rock bands such as Genesis and Yes were directly influenced by the band's initial style of symphonic mellotron rock, and many King Crimson band members went on to other notable bands: Greg Lake to Emerson, Lake & Palmer; Ian Mcdonald to co-found Foreigner; Boz Burrell to Bad Company and John Wetton to the supergroups UK and Asia (the latter of which also drew members from Yes, ELP, and The Buggles). Some aspects of the work of Emerson, Lake & Palmer can be seen as Greg Lake's attempt to continue the early work of King Crimson. The veteran Canadian hard rock/progressive rock band Rush cites King Crimson as a strong early influence on their sound (drummer Neil Peart specifically credits the adventurous and innovative style of original King Crimson drummer Michael Giles as a very important influence on his own approach to percussion).

Latterday progressive rock bands also cite King Crimson as an influence. These include Porcupine Tree who, as with Tool, have invited King Crimson (this time, in the form of ProjeKct Six) to play as their support band. Progressive/heavy metal rock band Between the Buried and Me are heavily influenced by King Crimson, covering the song "Three of a Perfect Pair" on their 2006 album The Anatomy Of, as are Primus, whose Les Claypool routinely opened his 2002 tour concerts of Colonel Les Claypool's Fearless Flying Frog Brigade with a cover of the song Thela Hun Ginjeet. Progressive metal band Dream Theater included a cover of King Crimson's "Larks Tongues In Aspic, Pt. 2" on disk 2 of the special edition of their 2009 release, Black Clouds & Silver Linings.

King Crimson's influence extends to alternative rock bands of the 1990s and 2000s. Nirvana are known to have been influenced by King Crimson as a result of Kurt Cobain having mentioned the importance of the Red album to him. Tool are widely held to have been heavily influenced by King Crimson, with their vocalist Maynard James Keenan even joking on a tour with them that "Now you know who we ripped off. Just don't tell anyone, especially the members of King Crimson." Los Angeles punk band Bad Religion quotes the lyrics of "21st Century Schizoid Man" in their hit single 21st Century (Digital Boy). Steve Steele, mentioned in an interview that King Crimson was a prime influence on his songwriting and arrangements, and in a biography,he cites that other than traditional literary sources, Richard Palmer-James (King Crimson's lyricist from 1972–1974), is one of the only lyricist he credits as having a personal impact.

King Crimson have frequently been cited as pioneers of progressive metal. Members of both Iron Maiden and Mudvayne have cited King Crimson as an influence. The angular, dissonant guitar patterns associated with Fripp’s distinctive approach are also evident in the music of Thrash-Metal pioneers Voivod, especially in the band’s mid-period work. Voivod also did a cover of "21st Century Schizoid Man" on their 1997 recording Phobos.

King Crimson have also provided source material and inspiration for hip-hop and dance music acts. Rap star Kanye West sampled King Crimson's "21st Century Schizoid Man" on his 2010 single "Power" and British hip-hoppers The Brotherhood used a prominent sample from "Starless" to open their debut album. British techno/house music act Opus III covered "I Talk to the Wind" on their 1992 album Mind Fruit and released the track as a single.


Greg Lake, 1978

King Crimson has had 18 musicians pass through its ranks as full band members. Many others have collaborated with the band at various points in lyric-writing, the studio and in live performance. Most of the musicians who have been members of King Crimson had notable musical careers outside the band, to the extent that it has been calculated that there are over fifteen-hundred releases on which members and former members of King Crimson appear.


Robert Fripp has been the sole consistent member of King Crimson throughout the group’s history. He has stated that he does not necessarily consider himself the band's leader and instead describes King Crimson as "a way of doing things". Fripp has also noted that he never originally intended to be seen as the head of the group. However, Fripp has strongly dominated the band’s musical approach and compositional approach since their second album (albeit with other members tending to write the more song-oriented elements, to the point where other members have left the band because of creative frustration – notably Ian McDonald, Gordon Haskell and Mel Collins).[citation needed] Trey Gunn, who played with the group between 1994 and 2003, has stated that "King Crimson is Robert’s vision. Period."

Most recent lineup

King Crimson is currently on hiatus, and the lineup of the band when they return is unknown. The most recent lineup was:

  • Robert Fripp — guitars, guitar synthesiser/MIDI guitar, Soundscapes, electric piano, Mellotron, keyboards, allsorts (1969–2009)
  • Adrian Belew — lead vocals, guitars, guitar synthesiser/MIDI guitar, electronic percussion (1981–2009)
  • Tony Levin — bass guitars, Chapman Stick, upright bass, synthesiser, backing vocals (1981–1999; 2003–2009)
  • Pat Mastelotto — acoustic and electronic drums and percussion (1994–2009)
  • Gavin Harrison — drums (2007–2009)

These musicians were part of the most recent proper King Crimson formation, which went on hiatus in 2009, but only Fripp is listed as a formal part of the latest ProjeKct – Jakszyk/Fripp/Collins, featuring former 21st Century Schizoid Band frontman Jakko Jakszyk (vocals, guitars, keyboards), early-1970s King Crimson/21st Century Schizoid Band saxophonist and flautist Mel Collins, and Fripp on guitar and Soundscapes (Levin and Harrison perform as the guest rhythm section). Historically, absence from a ProjeKct has not precluded a musician from continued participation in the next proper formation of King Crimson, although a ProjeKCt member or two typically drops off before the next formal King Crimson line-up is announced. Therefore it is, at current, unknown as to who will be in King Crimson if/when they regroup, and whether it will be a continuation of the last known King Crimson lineup or the current ProjeKct.

King Crimson timeline

1969 Fripp, Giles, Lake, McDonald, Sinfield

1970 Fripp, Giles, Lake, Collins, Sinfield

1970 Fripp, Haskell, Collins, McCulloch, Sinfield

1971 Fripp, Burrell, Wallace, Collins, Sinfield

1972 Fripp, Wetton, Bruford, Cross, Muir, Palmer-James

1974 Fripp, Wetton, Bruford, Cross, Palmer-James

1974 Fripp, Wetton, Bruford, Palmer-James

1974 (hiatus)

1981 Fripp, Belew, Levin, Bruford

1984 (hiatus)

1994 Fripp, Belew, Levin, Bruford, Gunn, Mastelotto

1998 (hiatus)

2000 Fripp, Belew, Gunn, Mastelotto

2004 Fripp, Belew, Mastelotto, Levin Inactive

2008 Fripp, Belew, Mastelotto, Levin, Harrison

Former members

Peter Sinfield — lyrics, synthesiser (1969–1971)

Greg Lake — bass guitar, vocals and tambourine (1969–1970)

Michael Giles — drums, vocals (1969–1970)

Ian McDonald — saxophone, clarinet, flute, mellotron, vibes, vocals (1969; 1974)

Gordon Haskell — bass guitar, vocals (1970)

Andy McCulloch — drums (1970)

Boz Burrell — bass guitar, vocals (1971–1972)

Ian Wallace — drums, percussion, vocals (1971–1972)

Bill Bruford — acoustic and electronic drums and percussion (1972–1998)

John Wetton — bass guitar, vocals, occasional electric guitar and piano (1972–1974)

Richard Palmer-James — lyrics (1973–1974)

David Cross — violin, viola, flute, mellotron, electric piano, keyboards (1972–1974)

Jamie Muir — percussion, allsorts (1972–1973)

Trey Gunn — Warr guitar, Chapman Stick, baritone guitar, Ashbory silicone-string bass, "talker" (1994–2003)

Additional/guest musicians and lyricists

Peter Giles — bass guitar on In the Wake of Poseidon

Keith Tippett — acoustic and electric pianos on In The Wake Of Poseidon, Lizard and Islands

Rick Kemp — bass guitar, played for two weeks in band prior to recording of 'Islands' and Boz Burrell's hiring

Mark Charig — cornet on Lizard, Islands and Red (from Keith Tippett Sextet and Centipede)

Nick Evans — trombone on Lizard and Islands

Harry Miller — double bass on Islands

Robin Miller — oboe on Lizard, Islands and Red

Paulina Lucas—soprano vocals (Islands).

Jon Anderson — guest lead vocals on Lizard (from Yes)

Eddie Jobson — violin and electric piano studio overdubs on USA

Margaret Belew—source text for "Indiscipline" (on Discipline) and lyrics for "Two Hands" (on Beat). (Margaret Belew was an artist and was also Adrian Belew's wife during the time of King Crimson line-up 4).

Personnel / album chart

Drums/PerxM. GilesMcCulloughWallaceBrufordHarrison
Bass/StickLakeP. GilesHaskellBurrellWettonLevin
Warr GuitarGunn

Main article: King Crimson discographyStudio albums

In the Court of the Crimson King (1969)

In the Wake of Poseidon (1970)

Lizard (1970)

Islands (1971)

Earthbound (1972)

Larks' Tongues in Aspic (1973)

Starless and Bible Black (1974)

Red (1974)

Discipline (1981)

Beat (1982)

Three of a Perfect Pair (1984)

THRAK (1995)

The ConstruKction of Light (2000)

The Power to Believe (2003)

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