The Kinks

The Kinks - band

It was 1963 when the Beatles’ She Loves You sparked my road to musical Damascus moment. For the next two or three years the Beatles were the benchmark for every song I heard on the radio. Only the Rolling Stones challenged them for the honour of the Crotchety Kid’s ‘best band’ rosette. But there was another group at that time that sounded a lot like the Beatles, if I’d only known it. It was The Kinks.

If you doubt that The Kinks were a lot like the Fab Four when they were formed in 1964 listen to their second single, You Still Want Me, and tell me this couldn’t be an early Beatles track. That song passed me by at the time but another Beatlesque song, You Really Got Me, became a number one hit on the UK charts and it made The Kinks a third contender for my best band badge in the autumn of 1964.

You Really Got Me and the follow-up single, All Day and All of the Night, which reached number 2, were both up-tempo beat group songs typical of the Mersey scene in the early sixties. There was no hint that The Kinks would develop their own unique style until their next single, Tired of Waiting for You, spilled out onto the air waves at the start of 1965. The new song was less frantic and more melodic than before and it had a rocking bass line that invited the swaggering gait of a young Errol Flynn¹. The Mersey beat had been given a new direction.

The Kinks released another six singles and an EP in 1965. Three of the singles charted in the UK top ten: Set Me Free, See My Friends and Till the End of the Day, and all three were quintessentially Kinks songs. The band had found their own magical island in the sea of popular music styles and for that I’m giving them Crotchety Man’s Band of the Year award for 1965.

The Kinks - albums 1 to 4

The Kinks issued another two dozen or so singles between 1966 and 1970 when Crotchety Man lost track of them. They included some dazzling jewels: Dedicated Follower of Fashion, Sunny Afternoon, Waterloo Sunset², Death of a Clown, Days and the rib-tickling Lola.

The writing credits go almost exclusively to Ray Davies who formed the band that became The Kinks with his brother Dave in 1963. The brothers were brought up in the north London suburb of Muswell Hill along with their six older sisters. There they were immersed in music of a wide range of styles from the music hall songs of their parents to the jazz and rock ‘n roll records that their sisters preferred. And that goes a long way to explaining the smorgasbord of musical styles evident in The Kinks material.

By the time the band had been named The Kinks and had a recording contract the lineup was Ray Davies (lead vocals, rhythm guitar), Dave Davies (lead guitar, backing vocals), Ray’s friend Pete Quaife (bass, backing vocals) and, recruited via an ad in Melody Maker, Mick Avory (drums, percussion). It was that quartet that recorded almost all the tracks familiar to Crotchety Man. In 1969 Pete Quaife was replaced by John Dalton on bass and there were further personnel changes in subsequent years. Ray and Dave Davies, though, provided the backbone of the band for the whole of its 32 years of active existence.

The Kinks - albums 5 to 8

The Kinks was a very English band. The lyrics were often about the English way of life, telling stories with a self-deprecating detachment that only the Brits manage to carry off. The mix of Merseybeat, music hall and folk music neatly complemented the wit of the words. If you can imagine a cross between early Beatles and the Bonzo Dog Do Dah Band you’ll get an idea of what makes The Kinks both unique and special.

It’s hard to over-play the impact of The Kinks on the music of the 70s, 80s and 90s. There is general agreement that Ray Davies and his band influenced rock groups such as The Who,  mod revivalists like The Jam, punk bands like The Clash, some new wave bands and the Britpop bands Blur and Oasis. It can even be argued that their influence can be seen in some of the American psychedelic groups (The Doors, Love, Jefferson Airplane, for example).

And, inevitably, The Kinks also influenced the Beatles. After hearing the early morning chant of Bombay fishermen Ray Davies penned the mysteriously oriental-sounding See My Friends. It was this track that is supposed to have prompted the Beatles to use a sitar on Norwegian Wood, the first time that instrument had been heard on a pop record.

Notes

  1. If Errol Flynn is now lost in the mists of time for you, think of Puss In Boots from the Dreamworks animated movie instead.
  2. Waterloo Sunset was a Track of the Week in November 2015.

Bob Dylan

When it comes to Bob Dylan, Crotchety Man came late to the party. He had raved about House of the Rising Sun (by the Animals), adored Blowin’ In The Wind (by Peter, Paul and Mary) and swooned over Mr. Tambourine Man (by the Byrds). He was moved by The Times They Are A-Changin’, With God on Our Side and Just Like a Woman. But, somehow, he never connected all these records with the Bob Dylan name. It wasn’t until Lay Lady Lay at the end of the sixties that he began to appreciate just how many great songs Dylan had written and recorded.

Looking back, I think this was partly because the record-buying public here in the early sixties listened almost exclusively to the BBC’s Light Programme, which broadcast popular music and other forms of light entertainment. Until 1964 there was simply no viable alternative. If you were lucky you could get passable reception tuned in to Radio Luxembourg but, in most parts of the UK, this was an immensely frustrating experience.

So everyone listened to the BBC, which hadn’t shaken off its public school, upper class beginnings and seemed to regard the Light Programme as the runt of the litter. It was as if the writers of popular songs were merely failed poets and second-rate classical composers, not worthy of any mention by an august institution like the British Broadcasting Corporation. If the plebs wanted to buy a record all they needed was the title of the song and the name of the recording artist. And that’s all we got. We fans of pop music were starved of the information we needed to make the connections.

The advent of the off-shore (‘pirate’) radio stations changed all that. Radio Caroline brought a breath of fresh air, but reception was still rather poor. Then, in December 1964, the south east corner of Great Britain started to receive nice clear broadcasts from a ship anchored in international waters off the coast of Essex, within sight of the town of Frinton-on-Sea. Radio London had landed… docked… anchored itself to the airwaves and, in between its signature jingles  that jangled out “Wonderful Radio London” in excruciating multi-part harmony, it was just… wonderful!

For the next two years or so Crotchety Man feasted on a newer, fresher kind of pop music, gorging himself on as much of Big L’s output as he could fit into his life as a schoolboy living with his brother and parents in a small south London council flat. The adults commandeered the Sunday lunchtime slot for Family Favourites on the BBC but the kids were allowed to tune in to the pirate station at other times provided it wasn’t too loud. We borrowed Dad’s reel-to-reel tape recorder, dumped hours of John Peel’s broadcasts onto tape and listened to it over and over again.

But Bob Dylan wasn’t centre stage on pirate Radio London, either. They played his songs along with all sorts of other pop and underground music but, as far as I remember, he was never singled out for special attention. All the excitement was in the Flower Power haze of psychedelic rock music. Well, that and anything else that was out of the ordinary and tickled the fancy of John Peel, Kenny Everett and the other DJs.

Then, in August 1967, Radio London closed down. The government had made it illegal to supply any unlicensed off-shore radio station with music, advertising, fuel, food or water from the UK. It was one of the saddest days of Crotchety Man’s adolescent years. Radio Caroline continued broadcasting, getting its essential supplies from the continent, but it wasn’t the same. Neither the music nor the reception was up to Big L standards and problems with the business and technical operations meant that Caroline suffered several periods when it went off-air. Giving up on Caroline, Crotchety Man’s ears went into a long period of mourning.¹

Bob Dylan - Three Albums

By this time Bob Dylan had transformed himself from a fairly conventional folk singer to a song writer of exceptional flair and originality but there was still no radio station in England that could provide a natural home for his songs. A few of his singles made the charts and were played on pop music stations like the BBC’s Radio 1 but the bulk of Dylan’s output remained hidden away on albums, out of the reach of a working class school kid whose pocket money wouldn’t stretch to exploratory purchases. Friends had albums of blues-influenced and psychedelic rock but, sadly, none were into Dylan.

So, for many years I missed out on a lot of Bob Dylan‘s music. Eventually, though, the Lady of the House² added half a dozen Dylan CDs to our combined collection, which together form a rather patchy summary of Dylan’s extensive repertoire.

Listening to those albums I find that several of his tracks from around 1964 and 1965 have seeped into my soul: Blowin’ In The Wind, The Times They Are A-Changin’, Mr. Tambourine Man, Like A Rolling Stone. This was the time when Dylan was known for writing protest songs (and no-one did it better than him) but even then there were some intensely personal songs and others with a splash of sardonic humour. Those few songs from the mid-sixties stand out in my memory but, of course, there are lots more great songs in the Bob Dylan canon (Gotta Serve Somebody, Everything Is Broken, Jokerman, for example).

Dylan’s contribution to popular music is immense. He has written some of the most enduring songs in the history of recorded music. He has found words that touched the hearts of his contemporaries and were taken up by civil rights activists. He continued to write and perform when many of his early fans called him ‘Judas’ for using electric instruments. And he has been making new recordings now for over 50 years. In all that time Bob Dylan has never been constrained by conventional ideas of genre or trapped by the red tape of commercial contracts.

Bob Dylan - Van Gogh Ploughman

As Bill Clinton said when presenting the Kennedy Center Honor in 1997, “Bob Dylan has never aimed to please. He’s disturbed the peace and discomforted the powerful”. It is that determination to plough his own furrow that made it difficult for Crotchety Man to find him. Dylan has sown seeds in different fields and different lands, as a musician, a writer and a painter. In the field of music some crops thrived while others failed but Dylan himself never faltered. Like Crotchety Man’s collection, Bob Dylan‘s output is somewhat patchy but there are rare blooms among the staple crops and never too many weeds.

Bob Dylan takes my retrospective Artist of the Year award for 1964.

Footnotes

  1. That period of mourning lasted well into the Internet Age.
  2. The house is jointly owned but it’s Mrs Crotchety’s home – she just let’s me live here for a bit of company – like the cat.

The Beatles

the beatles - in colourFirst I want to make it clear that The Beatles isn’t one of my favourite bands. They made some terrific singles in the sixties but, overall, I think they have always been overrated. That said, they were the best pop band around in the mid-sixties and She Loves You was the song that prompted me to take a bit more than a casual interest in music.

Before The Beatles there were one or two exceptional songs on the radio that impressed me but nothing that presaged a whole new musical genre. Back in 1963, though, The Beatles were recording hit after hit after hit. That year they had four smash hit singles (Please Please Me, From Me To You, She Loves You, I Want To Hold Your Hand) and by the end of the year Beatlemania was in full swing. The Beatles wasn’t a band any more, it was a phenomenon. (I guess you could say they went from band to brand.)

the beatles - earlyIn some ways the deification of the Beatles was deserved. Please Please Me got to number 1 on every London music chart except the one used for retrospectively official statistics (Record Retailer), where it stalled at number 2. Their other three single releases that year all reached the top slot whichever chart you use. These weren’t just exceptionally good pop songs they were records with an enormously wide appeal. Lennon and McCartney’s music took on Elvis Presley, Cliff Richard and Roy Orbison, beating them all in both sales and release rate. Everybody was a Beatles fan in 1963.

Searching for ‘Beatles’ on Spotify produces just one album (The Early Tapes of the Beatles) and a few (probably ghastly) covers of Beatles songs. For the sake of completeness I listened to snippets from The Early Tapes. If you want to know what a second-rate Elvis impersonator sounds like backed by a late 50’s skiffle and rock ‘n roll band give it a whirl. Don’t indulge for too long, though; its rank cheesiness will give you heartburn and terrible nightmares. (You have been warned!)

If you want to listen to Beatles tracks you’ll find a good selection on YouTube. As a rule, I assume that YouTube videos violate copyright and I try not to provide links to them. But, in the UK, copyright on sound recordings lasts 50 years, so I don’t need to worry about that for any recording released before 1965. There are several Beatles playlists on YouTube; the one I like is: The Best of The Beatles. It has recordings from both before and after 1965 so please don’t blame me if some or all of the tracks have been removed when you play it.

the beatles - sketchIt’s hard to pinpoint what made the early Beatles compositions so appealing. At the time the critics put it down to the heart-rate beat and I suppose that was part of it; music that opens a teenager’s purse has to have a pulse. But there was more to it than that. To get played on the radio in the sixties there had to be a memorable tune and Beatles songs certainly had that. Then there was their sound – twangy electric guitars – very different from the staple fare of the session musicians or small orchestra backing most pop songs. The young were excited by a totally new sound while their parents accepted it as a more respectable variation on the rock-and-roll they danced to just a few years ago.

Later, as the years have gone by, I have come to appreciate some other things about the Beatles. The band must have learned their craft from some respected guitarists – you can hear it in their licks. They use the full repertoire of techniques, too: plucking, strumming, bending notes and stroking broken chords. Although based on conventional ideas there’s plenty of originality in Beatles songs, particularly in their harmonies. (The last ‘yeah’ at the end of She Loves You adds a distinctive major sixth, which isn’t in the rule book.)

In the final analysis, The Beatles recorded a lot of mediocre and dead duck tracks, especially later on, but many more of their songs still sound fresh and exciting. It may be more than 50 years ago now but no other artist can touch The Beatles for Band of the Year 1963.

Axis

It’s time to introduce you to the best band you’ve never heard of. I know you’ve never heard of them for two reasons. Firstly, although they recorded three albums in the mid to late seventies they were never signed up by a record company and never promoted in any way. Secondly, they never played any live gigs. Unless you knew them personally there was simply no way you could have heard of them.

Axis of Evil - WMAP

Inexplicably Cool Axis

I’m talking about Axis. They grew out of a collaboration between a couple of guys my brother knew from school: Andy Honeybone (keyboards, guitars, sax, flute, vocals) and Paul Colbert (guitars, vocals). They used to write music together and record it in a bedroom using a domestic tape recorder. The duo compiled an album called Exclusive Or in 1975 and shortly afterwards advertised in Melody Maker for a third musician. John Bishop (keyboards) got the nod and it was this trio that took the name Axis.

I didn’t know Andy and Paul that well and I moved away from the south London suburbs where we all grew up before John joined the band. Somehow, though, I acquired tapes of Exclusive Or and the first two Axis albums: The Spectacle Snatcher of Thornton Heath (1976) and A Little Night Muesli (1977). I think Paul gave me the tapes but I don’t remember the occasion.

The music on those tapes was astonishingly good. I suppose you’d call it a brand of progressive rock and many of the tracks fit quite neatly into that pigeonhole – plenty of synthesisers, guitars and unusual time signatures. These are songs that Genesis might have played in their early days. But there are also excursions into jazz, classical, electronica and cabaret tunes. These guys really can’t be shoe-horned into a single genre.

I had to borrow my dad’s reel-to-reel tape recorder to play the Axis tapes. I could have listened to them for days but after a couple of runs through I had to pack them into my overnight bag and return to my digs in Reading, or Teeside, or wherever it was I was living at that time. Eventually those precious tapes found their way into a large cardboard box which sat among all the other items I had no room for but couldn’t bear to part with.

Wind on the clock 35 years…

Those tapes were still in that cardboard box in the ‘junk’ room which was now full to bursting with souvenirs, unwanted presents and documents that should have been shredded years ago. Mrs. Crotchety and I decided to have a clear out. The tapes I sent to Gary Ankin to be converted to audio CDs. They came back a couple of weeks later and, amazingly, there was the music, as fresh and exciting as ever.

By today’s standards the original analogue recordings were of a very poor quality. The instruments come across tolerably well but many of the words are indecipherable, which is a pity because the lyrics, when you can hear them, are an important part of the songs. I guess we have Paul’s experience as a journalist to thank for that. Certainly, the story of The Spectacle Snatcher of Thornton Heath is based on a series of bizarre incidents that Paul covered for the local paper and was subsequently picked up by the nationals.

The conversion to CD format faithfully reproduced the tape recordings, with all their imperfections. Nothing could be done to clean up the sound, adjust the balance or fix a fluffed note. But, while the tapes had been hibernating in my back room, the PC and the Internet had germinated, blossomed and invaded our homes like Japanese Knotweed. Now the Axis music could be shared with the rest of the world at the click of a mouse.
Axis - Hexagon

It was tempting to upload the files and tell every Tom, Dick and Harriet in my contacts list where to find them. But, actually, it wouldn’t have been as simple as that. If I was publishing photos I could have put them on flickr or added them to my blog but I didn’t know any music sharing sites and my free WordPress account doesn’t support MP3s. More importantly, it wasn’t my music to publish. I’d have to contact the band to get permission.

Unfortunately, I’d lost contact with Paul many years ago and although I was still sending Christmas cards to Andy I wasn’t getting any back. Perhaps he had lost my address. Or had he just quietly unfriended me? I didn’t have an email address for Andy but a quick search on Facebook turned up a likely electronic contact page and it wasn’t long before our stuttering friendship was renewed.

That was in May 2011 when Andy said he’d muse on the idea of disseminating the Axis material. He stopped musing at the beginning of December because John, the third member of the band, had published the three Axis albums on his website: the two I had plus The Nightly Parody. Of course, I was delighted. And I hope you will be, too.

All the tracks can be streamed and are free to download from the John W Bishop website. Their best songs are quite long but here are a few shorter pieces to whet your appetite:

Haddock’s Eyes

N Things To Do With A Dead Snail

Millenhall – A Portugese Rhapsody

The Three R’s

N Things and The Three R’s are songs by the whole band; Millenhall is a guitar solo; and Haddock’s Eyes is a fretless bass solo. Have a listen and see if you agree that they deserve my band of the year award for 1975.

P.S. There’s another, completely unrelated band on Spotify called Axis and several others come up in Google searches; don’t confuse them.

Guillemots

Guillemots are a bit of a mystery. They are undoubtedly my favourite band of all time but it’s hard to say why. Let’s do some research, see what we can find out, and try to throw some light on the band and their music.
Pair of guillemots: on the right the typical form and on the left the "bridled" variant.

First of all, they are named after a seabird.

Guillemot:

/ˈɡiləˌmät/
noun
  1. a black-breasted auk (seabird) with a narrow pointed bill, typically nesting on cliff ledges.

According to Wikipedia, Guillemots music has been influenced by ‘BIRDSONG first and foremost’. Certainly there are several other references to birds in Guillemots‘ recordings (redwings, flycatchers, doves) and there’s a YouTube video in which a delighted Fyfe Dangerfield brings our attention to the songs of a wren and a robin. Could that be the secret?

Fyfe is a classically trained pianist, guitarist and singer/songwriter. He formed Guillemots in 2004 along with Grieg Stewart (drums), Aristazabal Hawkes (acoustic and electric bass) and MC Lord Magrao (guitars, synthesisers and effects). There’s nothing particularly unusual about those instruments; that can’t be what makes the band so special.

Fyfe was born and brought up in England, Greig hails from Scotland, Aristazabal is Canadian and Magrao is from Brazil. You might think that brings different influences to the music but I can’t detect it. No, it’s not the cosmopolitan make-up of the band that explains their unique appeal.

Guillemots music has been described as “indie rock” (Wikipedia), “avant-garde pop and indie rock” (Last.FM) and “a cappella/pop/big beat” (Guillemots official Facebook page). The last of those is definitely different but, unfortunately, it’s also very misleading. There are no a cappella tracks on any of Guillemots four albums (although Blue Would Still Be Blue comes close) and I certainly wouldn’t call them a big beat band.

Stripped down to the bare essentials Guillemots tracks are just good pop songs. They’re fairly short, have a simple, conventional structure and feature melodies that you want to hum. You might have heard them all before, on the radio, in shops, while you travel; and they sit easy on the ear so you hardly notice your spirits lift a little when you hear them.

But there’s more than that to Guillemots songs. If you listen a bit more carefully you’ll find there’s a beat that pumps a little more blood through your veins and urges your steps to synchronise with the music. You might catch an unusual chord sequence here, an interesting bass line there, an unexpected change of rhythm, dulcet vocal harmonies, subtle special effects; a treasure trove of delights hidden in plain view.

There’s no screaming guitar, no complex rhythms, no brain-numbing thump, thump, thump of bass-and-drums. There’s nothing outlandish, weird, or off-the-wonderwall; no one thing that makes Guillemots stand out. It’s simply a dish of the finest ingredients, expertly blended, beautifully cooked and superbly presented. Not too little of this, not too much of that. Everything just deliciously right. That, I think, is the secret.

Guillemots 2

Guillemots have released four albums to date: Through the Windowpane (2006), Red (2008), Walk the River (2011) and Hello Land! (2012).

For my money the first is still the best. It’s the most varied, the most adventurous and, ultimately, the most successful. Three UK top 40 singles came from Through the Windowpane: Made Up Love Song #43 (a Crotchety Man track of the week in February), Trains to Brazil and the superb Annie Let’s Not Wait (best single of 2007 in my opinion). And there are at least two more tracks on the album that are just as strong (the title track and Sao Paulo). All in all, Windowpane is a truly brilliant album full of exuberant songs and epic productions.

By contrast, Red is a sweet and sour mix of plaintive melodies and abrasive, raw energy. The second album was never going to be as good as the first; that would have been impossible. But there are soothing songs, rocking riffs and echoes of the wide-screen, film-score music of the previous album. There is one track, though, that grates on me like squeaky chalk on a blackboard and that’s Get Over It, Guillemots best selling single. There’s no accounting for taste, I suppose. Especially that of the unwashed, single-buying masses!

Walk the River, is perhaps the most assured and the most indie of Guillemots albums. Most of the tracks roll gently along, carrying you away on the current of a lazy river. Sounds to comfort you as your mum pushes you through the park in your buggy with just the occasional jolt as a wheel bumps over a stone (like the exquisite bass part in I Don’t Feel Amazing Now.) Life doesn’t get any better than this.

Early in 2012, Fyfe announced that Guillemots were working on a project that would deliver four albums in a year. The first of those, Hello Land! was released in May 2012 along with an apology for being behind schedule. That album bears all the hallmarks of Guillemots compositions: lilting tunes, sumptuous synthesised strings, haunting vocals, a smorgasbord of sounds beautifully blended and artistically presented. A worthy successor to Walk the River.

Then, in 2013, Magrao announced that he was leaving Guillemots to concentrate on his own band, LUNGS. Later that year Fyfe posted a Facebook message assuring us that more Guillemots music was in the pipeline and, in June 2014, he announced a gig while he was visiting Arista in L.A. – just the two of them playing Guillemots, Arista and Fyfe tracks. Since then there’s been nothing.

Have we heard the last of Guillemots? I don’t know but, If we have, it’s been great while it lasted. Whatever the future holds Guillemots are worthy winners of my band of the year award for 2006.

If you’re not familiar with Guillemots’ repertoire you must have been asleep since 2006. Shame on you! Wake up now and start listening. No matter how sleepy you feel Annie, Let’s Not Wait will get you out of bed. Vermillion will rouse you. You can listen to Standing on the Last Star on the train, relax with Fleet in the evening. Let Guillemots accompany you throughout your day. And when you go to bed, Byebyeland will lull you to sleep. Sweet dreams, my child. Sweet Guillemot dreams …

Yes

Yes

There was a lot of good music on the radio in the late sixties but by the time I started university in 1971 it had been almost entirely replaced with banal and sickly-sweet pop songs. Look away now if, like me, you don’t want to be reminded of Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep, Grandad or Bridget the Midget, all among the top-selling songs of that year. After the pirate radio stations were closed down in 1967 it became all but impossible to discover new bands or anything that could be remotely described as original.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times …

But the progressive rock bands that emerged during the laid-back, canabis-infused days of Flower Power were just beginning to blossom. One of the best and most original of those bands was Yes. Formed in 1968, they were at their peak in 1971 when they released The Yes Album, widely regarded as their best, and Fragile, which was also a very fine album.

… it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair …

In those bleak days of the early seventies I stopped listening to the radio altogether, subsisting on a diet of recorded music by Genesis, Yes, King Crimson and Soft Machine, supplemented by live bands in the local pubs. In some ways, though, I was lucky. Although the radio was a musical wasteland there were sporadic oases in Crystal Palace Park just twenty minutes walk from where I lived in south London. There they had Garden Party rock concerts and on 2nd September 1972 Yes were top of the bill.

Yes at Crystal PalaceThe Garden Parties were not free concerts but this was an opportunity even this miserly and cash-strapped student was determined not to miss. My own memories of that day are very faded but they are broadly in agreement with the comments on the UK Rock Festivals website – John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra played a really good set, Lindisfarne didn’t come across well in the concert bowl and Yes were not quite as good as I’d expected. The old Yes tracks still had all the punch and freshness of the band’s early compositions but some of the new material from their Close To The Edge album seemed a little stale and self-indulgent.

Anyone reading this blog will be familiar with Yes, I’m sure, so rather than describe their music I’ll just give a few links to my favourite Yes tracks:

That’s Yes, my band of the year for 1971.

(Terrible bootleg recording of Yes at the Crystal Palace Garden Party 1972: YouTube)

King Crimson

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.
King Crimson Hydepark-69
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.
Larks Tongues
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!
Discipline Logo
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.