Popular Culture 20101029: King Crimson Part I

One of the more influential bands to form in the late 1960s in the United Kingdom was King Crimson.  Unlike The Who, The Beatles, and The Rolling Stones, all of which formed in the early 1960s, King Crimson did not really form until 1968, about the same time that Deep Purple Mark I formed.

Also unlike the bands just mentioned, King Crimson pretty much was “owned” by Robert Fripp, contrary to disclaimers made by him from time to time, especially after their first record.  As a matter of fact, except for Deep Purple, the other bands mentioned had a remarkably stable lineup for years, only death or dissolution of the bands changing things very much.

Fripp was born in May of 1946 and is still with us.  Because of the constantly shifting lineup of the band, it has many connexions with other, better known ones.  As a matter of fact, let us hear the title track from The Court of the Crimson King before we go further.  Perhaps you will recognize the voice of the lead singer.

It is a long piece, but well worth listening to closely.  (I had a friend who was a DJ and called songs like this, Lela, Stairway to Heaven and similar long cuts s*** records because they ran long enough to go to the restroom).  From the very beginning, it is obvious that King Crimson is not just another rock band.  As many of you know, I hold The Who to be my favorite band, but this style is so different and so well done that it is hard not to appreciate it.

The lead singer is none other than Greg Lake, best known from Emerson, Lake, and Palmer.  He also was lead singer for Atomic Rooster for a while.  Both of those bands have been addressed or at least mentioned previously in this series, so if you are interested in them just look up the archives.  “Popular Culture” is a tag for every one.

The band were (note that I use the British convention of the plural for a collective noun) formed in 1969 and disbanded in 1974.  During that time, there were at least 24 members for an ostensibly five person band.  I am not aware of this much turnover for very many bands.  I shall pay particular attention to this, because the members who came and went had tremendous influence on other bands, and I find the connexions fascinating.

The first lineup had Fripp playing guitar and mellotron, and Ian McDonald playing mellotron and woodwinds and some backing vocals.  McDonald later went on to become a founding member of Foreigner.

Peter Sinfield wrote most of their lyrical parts (he was not a very accomplished musician, so he mainly wrote and did stagehand duties).  He left the band and ended up writing songs for Emerson, Lake, and Palmer for years.

Greg Lake played bass and sang lead vocals, and as we already know left to form Emerson, Lake, and Palmer.  But there are even more connections than that.  Lake played bass during a single concert for a band called Asia, Carl Palmer’s band post ELP.

Michael Giles played drums.  Giles was in a band that Fripp was also in that predated KC, called Giles, Giles, and Fripp, along with his brother Peter Giles.  Peter left after KC formed.

This lineup lasted for exactly one album.  I have glossed over many of the connexions that those founding members have with other well known bands, but I like to keep my pieces under 5,000 words of people’s eyes glaze over trying to read them.

The lead song on this first record is 21st Century Schizoid Man, a rather innovative piece.  In places it almost sounds like some of the work that the marvelous Frank Zappa did.  Here it is:

Their next record was In the Wake of Poseidon, which is a very nice album,, released in 1970.  It does sound a lot like the first one, due in part to Greg Lake singing.  However, Lake had already left to band to form ELP, but sang the studio tracks anyway (in return for the KC sound system to use for ELP).

Peter Giles (from Giles, Giles, and Fripp) replaced Lake as bass player, Mel Collins replaced Ian McDonald on woodwinds, and Keith Tippett replaced McDonald on keyboard.  Collins later went on to play with the likes of Dire Straits, Eric Clapton, and The Rollings Stones, amongst others.  Tippett later went pretty much jazz so there is not a lot of rock connections, but he has played with the likes of Phil Collins, Brian Eno, and Manfred Mann.

Here is the title track for this record:

One of the things that I really like about King Crimson is the heavy use of mellotron.  For those of you who do not know, a mellotron is essentially an extremely complex tape player activated by a keyboard.  Since the tapes can be recordings of essentially any instrument, a mellotron can sound like any instrument, except the tone is unique, so violins do sort of sound like violins, but it is easy to recognize that they were produced by a mellotron.  After you have listeded to these three pieces, you will know what I mean.

Mellotrons were extraordinarily difficult to keep in repair, and only a few bands used them.  The Moody Blues used it extensively (Mike Pindar was actually a mellotron technician), and Rick Wakeman used one a lot.  He even had one set for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir!  I wrote a piece on the Big Orange about mellotrons a couple of years ago.

Their next album was titled Lizard, and in interesting in a number of ways.  It was released in 1970 as well.  First of all, Jon Anderson from Yes sang the vocals in Prince Rupert Awakes, his only contribution to KC.  Yet another connexion with other bands.  Here it is:

This is the first movement of the title track, and here are the rest of them.  They get pretty long, but are interesting.  The next movement is Bolero:  The Peacock’s Tale:

The next part is The Battle of Glass Tears:

Lizard ends with Big Top:

As you can see, King Crimson is not your typical band.

For this record, Gorden Haskell had replaced Peter Giles on bass and Lake on vocals.  Haskell was more into jazz and did not last with the band, and went on to mainly jazz work later in life, so not too many connexions with rock after KC.

Michael Giles left after Poseidon, and was replaced with Andy McCullough on drums.  McCullough also played for Manfred Mann (a second KC member to do so), and most notably from my point of view for The Crazy World of Arthur Brown (I have covered that band in this series).  Interestingly, Atomic Rooster’s keyboard man, Vincent Crane also played for Brown, and Greg Lake performed with Crane in Atomic Rooster.

Islands was released in 1971, and includes these personnel changes.  Boz Burrell (now deceased) replaced Haskell on bass and vocals.  He had played with the core members of Deep Purple for a little while, but is best remembered as one of the founding members of Bad Company.

Ian Wallace replaced McCullough on drums for this work.  Wallace became pretty much a session drummer later and worked with just about EVERYONE.  He toured with Dylan, Clapton, Orbison, Crosby, Stills, and Nash, just to name a very few.

Here is the title track for Islands:

Larks’ Tongues in Aspic was released in 1973 and the band by then had a completely different lineup except for Fripp.  Richard Palmer-James replaced lyricist Peter Sinfield (a founding member) who had left to go with ELP.  Palmer-Jones is best remembered as a founding member of Supertramp, a hugely successful band.

John Wetton replaced Boz Burrell on bass and vocals.  Some of the more well known bands that Wetton has been associated with include Roxy Music, Uriah Heep, and Wishbone Ash.  Lots of connexions!

Bill Bruford replaced Ian Wallace on drums.  You might remember Bruford from that little known (LOL!) band Yes.  The got a second percussionist by the name of Jamie Muir.  Just after the release of the record, he entered a monastery for years.  He returned briefly to music for a short time, and now is fairly keep himself whilst he paints.

Keith Tipplet left and was replaced by David Cross on keyboards, and Cross also played violin.  He is sort of obscure, but has had several solo and collaborative projects, and many members of KC, including Fripp, have played with him.  Interestingly, he is now an academic lecturing in music education in the UK.

The title song was split into two parts, beginning and ending the record.  Note the interesting percussion effects, mostly due to Jamie Muir.  Here is part 1:

And here is part 2:

This sounds very much like a Zappa influence as well.

Their next record, Starless and Bible Black, released in 1974, is remarkable that the exact same lineup from Larks’.  Well, that is not quite true, since Muir has headed off to the monastery by then.  This is said to be a satirical work.  I shall let you make your own judgment from the title song:

This is getting a little too experimental even for me!

Their next record, Red, was released in 1974.  Ian McDonald returned for this album to play woodwinds.  Since there are no new personnel changes, there are no new connexions.  Here is the title track:

I think that this song, Starless, is a better one than Red is, but that is just my opinion.

Well, I am worn out from doing all of the research and writing necessary to produce this piece.  This is sort of a timely place to stop, at least for this evening, because Fripp disbanded King Crimson after Red.  It stayed disbanded until 1981, pretty much a record for a band to be in hiatus and then reform.  But that will have to wait until the next installment.  The pieces that I chose are some of them so long that if you listen to all of the music, it will take you some time to get through this installment.  If there is enough interest, I shall continue with KC next week.

I believe that one thing is clear:  King Crimson has had a huge impact on modern rock, and continues to have.  It is almost miraculous that only two members that formed the band from the 1968 - 1974 era have died.  I do not know if it was clean living or what, but that is remarkable.  I would enjoy your comments as well as your favorite pieces from this band.

Warmest regards,


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  1. some of the most progressive music ever?

    Warmest regards,


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