King Crimson: Red (pt. 1)

red

Dear Matt:

Time for prog rock round three.

King Crimson is for some reason the coolest of the classic prog bands. You seem to have picked up on that yourself, given your opening remarks in your Magma response. I have a few theories as to why that is. Bullet points!

  • It could be because they were first. Their debut, In the Court of the Crimson King is widely regarded as the first proper progressive rock album, which would serve as a model for Yes, Genesis and their ilk.
  • They avoided certain dated genre tropes. They never made a concept album. They didn’t mount over-the-top stage extravaganzas. They generally didn’t dress like this.
  • Robert Fripp wasn’t a hippie. He was, and is, an aloof intellectual who’d rather hang out with Brian Eno and Terre Roche than Rick Wakeman and Greg Lake (who he reportedly once threw out of a limousine).
  • They constantly reinvented themselves. The first eight King Crimson albums all feature different lineups. Fripp had a tendency to dissolve the band and reconvene it with entirely new members and a dramatically different sound.

That last point brings up something important: King Crimson isn’t really a band in any meaningful sense. They’re a series of bands, at best — with a leader in common. Fripp has described King Crimson as ‘a way of doing things,’ which is just one example from his lexicon of strange ways to talk about his band. King Crimson doesn’t break up; they ‘cease to exist.’ And they don’t re-form; they ‘return to active service.’

Picking an album to assign was no small task, given that not many of them have much in common. In the Court is probably their most revered album. But, it’s also the wellspring of a particular kind of prog that I know you don’t enjoy. Discipline, perhaps? Nah, too easy. It’s practically Talking Heads with polyrhythms.

Red, then. This version of King Crimson, my personal favourite, made three albums in ‘73/’74, of which Red is the last. True to form, Fripp couldn’t maintain a steady roster for all three albums: they lost their auxiliary percussionist after the first and their violinist after the second. So, on Red, the band contains three official members: Fripp on guitar, John Wetton on bass and vocals, and Bill Bruford on drums. This is the leanest that King Crimson would ever get, although the album features guest performances by a number of ex-Crimson members on various orchestral instruments.

I won’t get into the music on the album too much: I’ll leave that to you again. I can’t resist a few remarks, though. More bullet points!

  • “Providence” was recorded live. It’s one of the band’s famous free improvisations. Their willingness to just go out onstage and jam is one of the things that sets them apart from many of their prog contemporaries, who tended to stick to the script.
  • “Starless” is, for my money, one of the five or six best tracks of 70s prog. It takes a completely unique and surprising approach to making a 12-minute-long song.
  • Astonishing though it may seem, Fripp is possibly the least technically accomplished member of the band at this point. Bruford is the best jazz drummer who barely ever played jazz (he came to Crimson straight out of Yes), and Wetton is a true bass virtuoso, although he gives a fairly restrained performance here.

Okay, I was going to try to be finished at this point. But, given your response to the prog you’ve encountered so far, I do have just a bit more to say.

People often assume, as you have at times in the course of this blog, that prog fans enjoy this music primarily on an intellectual level because, to quote you back at yourself, ‘it’s very technically impressive that you can play in weird keys and modes and flawlessly stick to bizarre time signatures.’ And, I’m sure there are fans out there for whom that’s the primary appeal. Certainly, complexity and technical proficiency are factors that enter into every defence of prog that I’ve ever read.

But, I’ve always found that defense a bit self-defeating, because for most listeners, complexity and technical proficiency are not values in themselves — nor are they necessarily even discernable. And I don’t actually think that those are really the reasons why prog appeals to most of its fan base. I think that it’s like any other kind of music: some people just respond to it intuitively, and others don’t. If this album doesn’t provoke that kind of intuitive response from you, I’m not sure there’s any prog that will. (Which doesn’t mean that I won’t keep trying, naturally.)

My challenge to you as you listen to Red is the same challenge that the MC offered the audience at the Magma concert we attended: don’t try to intellectualize this music. Contrary to its Apollonian image, that is not what it’s for. There are bits of this album that are in 13/8 time. Do not misconstrue that as being ‘the point.’

I await your response with even more anticipation than usual.

— Matthew

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