Twenty or so years ago, an online contact told me, “If you like Blue Öyster Cult, you’ll like King Crimson.” Well yes, I do like BÖC. I’d never heard of KC, so I picked up a two-disc “best of” album, listened to it once, and shelved it. Apparently, I wasn’t that impressed.
Recently, I looked up the band again and watched some live performance videos. What a difference twenty years makes! I suppose back then I wasn’t prepared to appreciate the sharp lyrics; the complex, subtle music; indeed, the whole artistry that is King Crimson. Short version: I’ve changed my mind.
It’s hard to summarize this band. Maybe this works:
If you threw Stravinsky, Bartók, jazz, classic rock, metal, and various works of literature into a big pot, covered it, turned the heat way up, and waited for the explosion, the ceiling would be repainted in KC.
Well, I said it was hard.
I’m neither an accomplished musician nor a music critic. My musical experience largely ended in high school, where I was a fairly good trombonist in our concert, marching, and jazz bands. I know little of theory or composition. Still, a deep dive into KC’s music reveals genius. Take this 2016 performance of Starless, which lasts over twelve and a half minutes and is worth every second:
But let’s rewind to 1969. In that year, King Crimson was born in January, opened for the Rolling Stones at Hyde Park on July 5th, released their first album, In the Court of the Crimson King, in October, and had their first personnel change in December. This set the pattern for a strange history of departures, arrivals, and long hiatuses, during which nearly every album featured a different lineup of musicians. Guitarist Robert Fripp remained the only constant throughout. KC is perhaps less band than vision — Fripp’s vision, and a persistent one. Even when he wanted it to, it wouldn’t let him go.
In the Court of the Crimson King opens with a KC classic, the strangely prescient “21st-Century Schizoid Man,” a song who’s studio incarnation lasts nearly seven and a half minutes. That’s typical of KC songs. The album consists of only five tracks, three on side one, two on side two. The shortest is the six-minute “I Talk to the Wind,” the longest the twelve and a quarter minute “Moonchild.”
“21st-Century Schizoid Man” wasn’t at all about the 21st century. Rather, it blasted the Vietnam War, which by 1969 had become hugely unpopular, sparking protests, violence, and a plethora of iconic songs. The sparse lyrics, written by Peter Sinfield, present stark, frightening images. It has but three short verses, each invoking the horror of war, each capped with the song’s title.
Today, as was we wade hip-deep through the swamp of a very different sociopolitical landscape, I’m struck by how apropos these half-century-old lyrics are. A reference to napalm notwithstanding, images of politicians burning in fires of their own making while innocents are raped and children bleed seems frighteningly now. Read them literally, and you stumble through the devastation of (for example) Syria. Read them figuratively, and you become mired in (among other things) the obstinate confusion of government shutdowns and Brexits. Either way, this protest against another time’s war hits astonishingly close to home.
More remarkable still, the lyrics close by fingering materialism and greed as the forces underlying these horrors:
Nothing he’s got he really needs
Twenty first century schizoid man
[“21st Century Schizoid Man” (2004 original master edition) lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group]
Could there be a better description of a culture in which all value is measured monetarily, where we don’t so much own things as are owned by them and the corporations that feed our selfish desires?
Musically, this song has never quite stood still. King Crimson incorporates improvisation both on stage and in the studio, with live performances frequently being where they excel. Here’s a December 2015 performance of “21st Century Schizoid Man” that stretches to nearly eleven minutes.
Opening with power chords and wailing guitars, the song unfolds in fairly typical rock fashion until the break between the second and third verses. Then the music takes over, transforming from frenetic rock to equally frenetic jazz saxophone solo. A drum solo follows, then we shift back to jazz and eventually return by slightly roundabout route to the rock theme. The transitions are so smooth you almost don’t realize what’s happening. And then the singer belts out the third verse, and the song finishes in a crescendo of controlled chaos.
Clearly this isn’t your typical rock band. They play complex songs with unparalleled virtuosity. Watch Fripp’s fingering in certain songs, and you’ll see just how good and versatile he is. They bend and stretch music in ways few others do. Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson does so with his flute pyrotechnics, but KC takes the whole band along for the ride.
That’s what makes them so remarkable but also what kept them from popular success. KC songs aren’t quite danceable, are often too long for radio play, and require some investment from listeners. It’s been said that probably only the original 1969 lineup had a shot at topping the charts, but that group only lasted the first year of the King’s (so far) fifty-year reign.
Yet they’ve proven influential. They were among the first prog-rock bands and inspired Genesis, Yes, and Rush, among others. They spun off Greg Lake to Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, Ian MacDonald to Foreigner, and Boz Burrell to Bad Company. Other former KC members landed in other bands or toured with top artists.
Not bad for a band often shrugged off by critics and never much able to climb the charts. And that first song from fifty years ago . . . it’s creepy how well it still fits.