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Wandering By Ear

Crimson Thread I, part one

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A note to begin with: I’ve divided up the storied career of King Crimson into many “threads,” each dealing with a particular historical period of the band. I did this because I wanted explore what was going on musically in and around the band in each of its distinctive periods (a total of seven to date, by my reckoning). This reflects my personal experience of listening to the band, reading liner notes, etc. This isn’t meant to be a rigorous biography or a thorough discography, just how I’ve come to understand the peculiar musical legacy of King Crimson. It might help folks who have just started to explore King Crimson, or have the core catalog and wonder what else is out there.

This first “Crimson Thread” weaves through King Crimson’s early “symphonic” period. This post focuses around the original line-up and the album In the Court of the Crimson King. The antecedents I’ve listened to are: The Cheerful Insanity of Giles, Giles & Fripp, and Giles, Giles & Fripp’s The Brondesbury Tapes. Of the two, I think The Brondesbury Tapes is of most interest. While The Cheerful Insanity of Giles, Giles & Fripp is the first record released by the nucleus of what would become King Crimson, The Brondesbury Tapes is a better document of how that nucleus came together and developed musically. Highlights from is include a cool early version of “I Talk to the Wind” sung by Sandy Denny, and early versions of “Why Don’t You Just Drop In” a song included in King Crimson’s live set, but was never recorded by them in the studio.

It was through Giles, Giles & Fripp taking on more musicians that the original King Crimson came into existence. Their debut album, In the Court of the Crimson King, is truly where things begin. With Giles, Giles & Fripp there are bits of snippy passive-aggressive nastiness in wry lyrics and spoken word interludes. However, the music remained rather polite. With In the Court of the Crimson King there is bite in the music itself, most notable in the lead track “21st Century Schizoid Man.” It seems that they broke away from any restrictive pop sensibilities and went for the jugular with each piece, with whatever mood or emotion anchored it: the aggression of “21st Century Schizoid Man,” the bleak uncertainty of “Epitaph,” the gloomy, mysterious pomp of “In the Court of the Crimson King.” Many have marked this album as the birth of progressive rock. While many also argue otherwise, it is a strange and wonderful beast worthy of attention on its own merits.

The companion live release, Epitaph, which documents live shows by the original line-up, gives a window into not only how these tunes went down on stage, but demonstrates how the band was developing new material, and how they reached back to some of the Brondesbury stuff to round out their set. Though, it must be noted that the sound quality of Epitaph is only so-so. It is really an archival release, which hasn’t been sweetened in a studio after the fact. Still, understanding King Crimson means getting some kind of a grip on what they did live. Between The Brondesbury Tapes, In the Court of the Crimson King, and Epitaph Volumes 1 & 2, the listener gets a great sense of how the original line up came to be, and what it was all about.

The original line-up fragmented after touring the United States. (In fact the second volume of Epitaph is a recording of their last gig in San Francisco. I like to think it melted the minds of the Bay Area hippies who were used to the likes of the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. ) This fragmentation is heard in three albums, all of which could be considered successors of In the Court of the Crimson King: King Crimson’s In the Wake of Poseidon, McDonald & Giles’ self-titled album, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s self-titled debut.

In the Wake of Poseidon comes across clearly as Robert Fripp's attempt to document as many of the musical ideas of the original line-up as he can. Tunes from their live set, such as “A Man, A City” and their mellotron-drenched interpretation of Holst’s “Mars,” are cleaned-up a bit and renamed for the new studio effort. While some departing members hung on just long enough to contribute in the studio, Fripp was still left to find musicians that could fill the holes in the line-up. The despite the shifting personnel, In the Wake of Poseidon remains a very cohesive album, with such a sense of continuity with In the Court of the Crimson King it actually invited criticism that the band was repeating itself. However, a key new element was added to the mix: Keith Tippett, whose initial contribution is modest, and while never actually joining the band, his jazz-oriented sound foreshadows King Crimson’s third album, Lizard.

McDonald & Giles’ self-titled record is as much a follow-up to In the Court of the Crimson King as In the Wake of Poseidon. Sonically, it’s as though the musical sophistication of In the Court of the Crimson King mixed with the sunny optimism of The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour. So what you have, in effect, is King Crimson without the menace, which still works surprisingly well. The album also includes a full-blown sidelong epic entitled “Birdman,” a piece at one time considered for development by King Crimson. I find the drumming on “Birdman” nothing short of brilliant, and alone worth the time and effort to investigate. Also, the song “Flight of the Ibis” is essentially the same tune as In the Wake of Poseidon’s “Cadence and Cascade” but with different lyrics and arrangement. So the divergent development from a common musical history is apparent, making the disc every bit as essential as In the Wake of Poseidon to people interested in this early phase of King Crimson.

While the Emerson, Lake & Palmer debut is in many ways its own beast, owing little to King Crimson in comparison to McDonald & Giles, it still has the vibe and feel of a successor to In the Court of the Crimson King. It goes for the jugular in the same way, willing to break apart pop limitations and blaze its own trail. Also, because the technology was essentially the same, the overall sound of the record is similar, if a bit more raw for its minimal personnel. Finally, there’s Greg Lake and his singular voice. His vocal approach is much the same, tying this record firmly back to his work on In the Court of the Crimson King. My favorite track off this one is the grand and sprawling “Take a Pebble.”

King Crimson's symphonic period continues with two more studio releases, Lizard and Islands. I'll catch up with those in another post.

Recap of suggested albums:
Giles, Giles & Fripp – The Brondesbury Tapes
King Crimson – In the Court of the Crimson King, Epitaph Volumes 1 & 2, In the Wake of Poseidon
McDonald & Giles – McDonald & Giles
Emerson, Lake & Palmer – Emerson, Lake & Palmer

Suggested playlist (approximately one hour):
“Tremelo Study in A major (Spanish Suite)” by Giles, Giles & Fripp
“Why Don't You Just Drop In (i)” by Giles, Giles & Fripp
“21st Century Schizoid Man, including Mirrors” by King Crimson
“Take a Pebble” by Emerson, Lake & Palmer
“Epitaph, including March for No Reason, and Tomorrow and Tomorrow” by King Crimson
“Birdman” by McDonald & Giles
“Peace - A Theme” by King Crimson
“Cat Food” by King Crimson

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Updated 03-09-2013 at 02:57 PM by notallwhowander

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  1. MudShark22's Avatar
    Good stuff not' !
  2. Sean's Avatar
    These blogs have a lot of potential! Nice work!
  3. notallwhowander's Avatar
    I appreciate the encouragement guys, thanks.
  4. Trane's Avatar
    Yaeh, it's a slow start for the blogs, but I definitely think it will pick up with a bit of time...

    Kudos to notall
  5. Duncan Glenday's Avatar
  6. Jerjo's Avatar
    When do we see part 2?