01 October 2009

The Reign Of The Crimson King

13 Tishri - Year 5770

Along with other many other landmark albums reaching their 40th anniversaries this year (Abbey Road, Let It Bleed & Aoxomoxoa, to name just a few), is King Crimson's debut. In The Court Of The Crimson King is often called the first true expression of the genre that would subsequently be called "progressive rock" or "art-rock". Prog-rock, which started as a mainly English phenomenon, was melded together from psychedelia, European classical strains and even a bit of outre jazz. The idea was to subvert the usual three-minute constraints of a pop chart single, which had already been stretched and even broken by psychedelic music - but progressive bands continued the experimentation. Adding in virtuoso performances, themed poetic/fantasy lyrics and multi-part suites (that sometimes took up entire album sides)..prog-rockers hoped to make rock-and-roll as legitimate an art form as jazz, classical..or even folk and blues. They seemed to see Blonde On Blonde, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn as standard-bearers for a new kind of rock, only one that didn't really have a name at the time.

The band that recorded "In The Court..." consisted of a few chancers from the Bournemouth area, a woodwind player they met, and a good-looking young bass player from Poole. Most of them were barely out of their teens. Robert Fripp, the guitar player, Michael Giles, the drummer and Peter Giles, bassist - had recorded one album as Giles, Giles & Fripp, which was released to some underground acclaim in 1968. Peter was replaced by Greg Lake (out of psych outfit The Gods) and Ian McDonald joined the band, playing keyboards and wind instruments. They practised hard and gigged for six months, then entered Wessex Sound Studios for about ten days between June and August 1969. They were originally to be produced by Tony Clarke, who had guided The Moody Blues through their psychedelic excursions on In Search Of The Lost Chord and On The Threshold Of A Dream. The sessions with Clarke broke down and the boys were essentially left alone to produce themselves (rumour has it that Lake did most of the production work himself).

A friend of Fripp's, Barry Godber, painted the striking images that would become the album artwork. Sadly, he passed away some months after the album's release. The screaming face on the front is said to be "The 21st Century Schizoid Man" and the smiling face on the inside of the gatefold sleeve is either referred to as "The Wizard" or "The Crimson King". Gatefold sleeves became de rigeur after "Sgt. Pepper.." and especially for progressive rock albums after "In The Court.." was released.

The band had already previewed the material in their live sets. They had a short residency at the Marquee Club in London and they had also been one of the support acts for The Rolling Stones' free concert at Hyde Park in July 1969 (along with Third Ear Band, Family, Battered Ornaments and a few others). Their set was fairly short, but they managed to wow the crowd with their alchemic blend of styles. "In The Court.." was released by Island Records in October 1969. The band began to fragment soon after an American tour, which soured McDonald and Giles on the prospect of long-term touring. The original line-up split at the end of 1969, leaving Fripp to continue on with the K.C. name. He offered to leave, instead of Giles and McDonald, but they both agreed the group was "more his than theirs". Lake also left, to join The Nice keyboardist Keith Emerson and Crazy World Of Arthur Brown/Atomic Rooster drummer Carl Palmer to form prog 'supergroup' Emerson, Lake & Palmer, in 1970. He did agree to help out on the follow-up to "In The Court..", In The Wake Of Poseidon.

The music? If you've never heard the album..the tunes range from the near-heavy rock of 21st Century Schizoid Man to the gentle balladry of I Talk To The Wind to the kitchen-sink prog of the title track. The important thing to remember about this record, it seems to me, is that it's a true band effort--contrary to the belief that Crimso was Fripp's band from the very start. Lake's vocals, McDonald's exemplary flute and sax-playing and Giles's almost martial drumming all contribute to the tunes. Peter Sinfield, the band's lyricist and light-show operator, provided some complimentary baroque and mock-profound words for Lake to sing. Fripp himself proved a wonder, if a little unsteady, on his trusty Gibson six-string. He became a new sort of guitar-hero - the understated egghead. Contrast him with Jimmy Page, Alvin Lee, Hendrix, etc. and his unwillingness to strut and act the showman is miles away from the others. His playing relies little on the blues roots of most other rock guitarists of the day and even when he attempts some jazzy noodling in the center section of Moonchild, it doesn't sound like what one would expect as 'jazz'.

In a live setting, the band were even more of a monster, with "21st Century Schizoid Man" sounding ever more sinister than the studio version..and yes, they were able to do all of the stop/start rhythms. If you haven't heard any of the shows from 1969, check out the Epitaph set, released in the late 90s. There's also a Collector's Club disc, which features one of their Marquee sets from July 1969.

After "In The Wake..", Fripp really did become Crimson's guiding force, with an ever-changing line-up helping him to release records at the vanguard of prog-rock. The 1973-1974 line-up of Fripp, Bill Bruford (ex-Yes), John Wetton (ex-Family and Mogul Thrash) and David Cross nearly matched the 1969 roster for brilliance, especially on the Larks Tongues In Aspic album. Fripp finally split Crimson for good early in 1975 and went into session work for the likes of David Bowie and Brian Eno. He reformed Crimson in the early 1980s and then again in the mid-1990s, while balancing those incarnations of the band with a solo career. The future of King Crimson is unknown, but there may be one more reformation. I don't think it will be of the 1969 vintage, though. That one's left to the recordings and the memories of the band members and the audiences who were lucky enough to be there.

Discipline Global Mobile, Fripp's label that he set up in the early 1990s, are commemerating "In The Court.."s anniversary with a 2-CD set, a CD & DVD-A set and a massive boxed set, with 5 CDs and a DVD-A. The boxed set is rumoured to be packaged in a 12"X12" case...pretty much LP-sized--like Mike Oldfield's Ultimate Tubular Bells set, released earlier this year. You can find the details of the various versions here. I think I'm going to go for the box, myself. Steven Wilson, of Porcupine Tree, helped R.F. with the re-mixing. There's also re-issues of Red and Lizard soon to be available..and the rest of the 70s Crimson albums should be re-issued in the coming months. Summon back the firewitch, it's time to hang out in the court of the Crimson King again!

1 comment:

Singing Bear said...

Fabulous homage to a truly ground-breaking album. Oddly enough, even though I was not conscious of the anniversary, I checked out the Hyde Park footage of the title track only today - synchronicity!