They say, if you invent a better mousetrap the world will beat a path to your door. I think there is some truth in that, but it has to be a much better mousetrap. Fortunately, there are a few examples of products that are so desirable that they hardly need to be promoted at all: the Morgan sports car, the Apple iPhone, the Gucci handbag. King Crimson performances are like that, especially their live concerts.
I first heard King Crimson back in the days before Woodstock – about a month before, actually, at the free Hyde Park concert in July 1969. That was the one headlined by the Rolling Stones but, for me, King Crimson stole the show. The Stones’ performance was OK and the other bands played well enough, but only King Crimson filled the open-air arena with sound. When I went home that day three songs stayed with me: 21st Century Schizoid Man, In the Court of the Crimson King and Epitaph, all from the King Crimson set.
King Crimson is a difficult band to blog about. The band was formed in 1968 and is still going today. (They have just announced a UK tour starting on 31st August 2015.) There have been several distinct lineups over the years and with every change of personnel their musical style changed. The band’s history is complicated enough to warrant two charts on the King Crimson Wikipedia page: one showing the personnel changes and another showing who played which instruments on which albums. I won’t try to summarise that here.
For me there have been two King Crimsons: the band as it was from 1968 to 1974 when they released 7 albums before splitting up, and then the various lineups from when they re-formed in 1981 to the present day. In the early years King Crimson helped to define the progressive rock genre along with Genesis and Yes. Using guitars and keyboards the prog rock bands created big, expansive walls of sound reminiscent of classical works – a kind of intellectual rock music.
King Crimson‘s music has always been complex. Yesterday I listened to an interview with Jakko Jakszyk, the second guitarist, in which he mentions playing Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, a track from the earlier period; he was playing alternate bars of 10 and 11 beats while the rest of the band were playing in a 7 time. That’s mind-blowingly complex!
The Crimsons’ compositions from 1981 onwards were, if anything, even more complex to my ear. At the same time each song was fairly short and improvisation was largely absent. Those tracks sound like rhythmically and harmonically complex pop songs rather than the grand orchestral synthesiser pieces characteristic of the prog rock era.
There’s more to King Crimson‘s music than I can describe here – much more. There really is no substitute for listening to them. Unfortunately, it’s very hard to find anything online that we can play legally without buying it first. There are no King Crimson tracks on Spotify, presumably because the band’s management company (DGM) hasn’t done a deal with Spotify. There are a few cover versions of King Crimson tracks on Spotify and 30 second previews are available on the DGM web site. (You may have to register with DGM to hear those.)
Here are a few links to covers of early period Crimson to get you started:
If you are willing to spend a tenner to explore the King Crimson canon I recommend the 2 CD compilation The Condensed 21st Century Guide to King Crimson (1969-2003). And if you’ve ever wanted a sports car, a high-tech gadget, a fashion accessory or a better mousetrap something by King Crimson, my band of the year 1969, will fit beautifully with your aspirations.
Update, 28 May 2015: There are a large number of King Crimson tracks on myspace.