Saturday, September 19, 2015

The Improbable Ascent (and Decline) of the First Court: King Crimson reflections Part Two

My journey through the Crimson Forest will now move in the northwest direction on the map to that fearsome image which graced the first King Crimson album proper – the screaming man's face with the look of terror in his eyes. For, although this was the first album to bear the group's name it was not the first record I heard. As I wrote in my last Crimson segment, Discipline was the first KC album I ever heard in its entirety. A handful of months away from the Discipline acquisition I found a copy of the debut LP which was in somewhat dodgy shape – a cheap flea-market find.
Not my first copy of this record - that one went to the great vinyl circular file in the sky.
 Scratches are not very kind to KC records since all the quiet parts get ruined, however I regret pitching it in the trash since it was an interesting Canadian red-label Atlantic pressing (doh!). I keep telling myself it really must have been a crispy critter for me to stoop to such brutality. At any rate, I did play the thing and had the following reactions:
   1.Oh, I've heard this on the radio before – hooray! I like this music. 
   2.Hang on, that's Greg Lake singing isn't it? Hmmmmm....
You see, I was already an Emerson, Lake and Palmer fan by the time I heard In the Court of the Crimson King for the first time. Well, I certainly liked Greg Lake's vocals then and now so – hooray! Of course, I couldn't help wondering why he'd left Crimson after having success with them – why not stay on when your band has a hit like that? I still don't know the real reason(s) for Greg Lake's departure though he did establish an interesting pattern for KC fairly early on – the transient nature of Crimson residents. Greg Lake's fade from the group was complicated by his vocals being present on the second record when in fact he was no longer an official member. But that's getting ahead of the story isn't it? What eventually replaced my scratchy KC debut LP was the compact disc pictured above. In recent months I managed to find no less than three vinyl copies – the most recent reissue on Inner Knot (very nice!), a 70s US Atlantic reissue (also very nice!) and a nifty German pressing with the palm-tree Island label (like a UK second issue). However, speaking of very, very nice – we are still a bit ahead of the story here. In the Court was not the first album to feature Robert Fripp and Michael Giles, even though it was the first Crimson album. About a year prior to the debut of The Court, Giles and Fripp produced this (with Michael's brother Peter on bass):
  The Cheerful Insanity of Giles, Giles and Fripp is a very entertaining curiosity and a facinating pre-quel to the runaway success that arose from its ashes. There are sonic glints of the “Crim to come” hiding amongst the breezy and sometimes silly jazziness of the Cheerful Insantiy tracks. Kind of like those demented smiles we are confronted with on the front cover – just what kind of insanity is lurking behind those smiles? The music found on The Cheerful Insanity of Giles, Giles and Fripp offers a few hints of what was to come, but not quite enough to predict the jarring experience that must have confounded the few “fans” they had who followed them into The Court. I imagine those select few must have had a marvelous time hearing the Crimson debut afresh (were any of them disappointed?). 
  21st Century Schizoid Man certainly must have struck a nerve in the popular consciousness of its times – many a local garage band would happily add that song to their oeuvre. And the angst, paranoia and dread just oooozing from those power chords made for a splendid time in the year 1969 I am sure. I have to imagine a bit since I wasn't there. However, there is enough evidence to suggest that unlike The Cheerful Insanity record, the KC debut was a GRAND SLAM of a hit record. What's the famous endorsement from Pete Townshend? He called it “An uncanny masterpiece” or something to that effect. Not bad from the guy who unleashed his own masterpiece in the same year (Tommy, of course). The success of King Crimson's debut made everything else possible. Yet, the frustrating reality of how to sustain or equal that level of success over the following years must have played heavily upon the heart and mind of, well, at least the one member who rode the ship down to the end. And to think it wasn't exactly his band to begin with! Either by insanity or sheer tenacity, Mr. Fripp resolved to lash himself to the mast of that Crim craft for a ride of his life – which continues to the present, of course. The first phase of which tickles the imagination................

Imagination? Well, what's so interesting about a band that has an unlikely hit record and gradually dissolves over the next handful of years? If the catalog of King Crimson ended with the live Earthbound LP, then maybe it might be a typical case of “one hit wonder group ends after trying to recapture the magic – and fails – after numerous personnel changes”. However, the story doesn't end there (as we will see in Part 3). In 1973 King Crimson would roar back to life with the album Lark's Tongues In Aspic

 – a musical Lazarus if there ever was one. The Crimson of '73 would pave the way for all the future KC endeavors that continue to the present. Yet, what happened between 1969 and 1973 is, to me, pretty mysterious. Especially since I haven't read any group biographies (does one exist?) which is odd for me since I usually go out of my way to find books of that nature. So my imagination is left to fill in the details of a skeletal framework:

SPOILER ALERT!!! Attention Mr. Fripp: I am about to give away an idea that has merit and could be lucrative. Feel free to exploit as you wish. Here's the idea I am going to just give away because I have no ability to do anything meaningful with it myself.........

The story of King Crimson Mark I is perfect for a TV drama. Imagine a TV mini-series either directly based on the first phase of KC or loosely based on it. I don't know all the details about what caused such a turbulant rise and fall from success by KC Mark I but I think it's an interesting trajectory of experiences that could sustain a TV audience – espeically Baby Boomers who I bet would EAT THIS UP. And I certainly would. So, all you TV entrepreneurs - let's get going. I'd love to watch a show like this and I haven't been interested in TV since 1985. And seeing how Robert Fripp has remained the central figure to KC – he is naturally the main character / hero of the story. Mr. Fripp – here's your chance to take KC to the next level – to the mainstream! Wouldn't it be great to have a TV mini-series based on King Crimson to talk about with the people you see at work? Consider the success of “Breaking Bad” which I didn't watch a nanosecond of, but seemingly the whole rest of the world did. The story of King Crimson is fascinating and could be entertaining if presented the right way. And the potential for developing a storyline is easy to find since the real story continues to the present. Here's a quick proposal:

Talented, yet directionally-challenged musicians release one fairly oddball LP that flops in spite of a genuine desire to entertain and please its audience:
One musician leaves – three more are added (among them a splendid vocalist / bassist). New group creates crazy classic LP in a radically different style than the previous flop LP:
After one tour to promote hit record – splendid vocalist bails out forming new supergroup (reaping even more commercial success). Remaining members manage to release follow-up LP somehow persuading splendid vocalist to contribute distinctive lead vocals to key tracks even though he is no longer in the band. 
After record #2 emerges – core members bail leaving only the guitar player and sax player holding the bag. Now with two pretty successful albums – the group that created them is no more. What explains such an unusual turn of events I have no idea.

The second defection of musicians never ascend to similar heights of visibility in the music world again though they continue to make music (and some very good music at that). 
Since the King Crimson band is still a lucrative enterprise – replacement members join to create LP #3. 

Splendid vocalist is now identified with his own successful band which renders him unable to help bail out LP#3. Several vocalists contribute – one who finds the experience so unfavorable that he quits the band before the LP hits the shops! And another vocalist is drafted in from a “rival” up and coming group further diluting any clear association of King Crimson with one vocal identity. Is Crimson the group that has to hire out vocalists from other bands just to get their records done? Egads – what a nightmare. 
  No matter - time to assemble another lineup to promote LP#3 that they didn't even play on!! How did things come to this? Said new musicians also appear to be struggling to hold the unique identity of Crimson together – at least on record. The fourth KC album – Islands – is created under this duress and - while engaging and interesting – bears only a passing resemblance to that first smasheroo LP that excited audiences in ways their recent efforts haven't. 
 Why keep banging one's head against the wall? Why not ROCK OUT instead? A general mutiny unfolds and the crew hijacks the Crim-ship on its last live go-round – grinding to a halt with the release of Earthbound as the terminal document illustrating what happens to a one-hit-wonder band gone wrong over many years of turmoil. Earthbound = the grave. 
Never to be seen again by disgusted and disheartened guitarist. Or so we are led to believe...........until the group rises yet again in Phoenix-like style about a year later.
 So that's my TV-plot line sketched out from the little I know about King Crimson Mark I. What I don't know fascinates me. This is where a little imagination can take artistic license and build up a nice drama. If ex-band members might take exception to being portrayed against their wishes - just use the general outline of King Crimson's real experience as a guide for a fictitious band to save the bother of stepping on any toes and egos. C'mon you TV bigwigs! I smell money in this idea - don't you??

For the record – although the first LP gets the accolades it rightly deserves, I have to admit a soft spot for In the Wake of Poseidon.

 I think the overall sound of the recording and the material gives the debut a serious run for its money. At least on the first side. Side two, while interesting, leans a bit more on experimentation – the likes of which are given free reign on LP#3 – Lizard.
Even Robert Fripp has gone on record to declare Lizard “unlistenable” though I have to say I adore it in all its weird glory. All the more so in its 5.1 surround sound incarnation courtesy of the deluxe, 40th anniversary series of releases. Lizard in surround is as wild a sonic ride as you could ever hope for! I love it! Oddly enough, my first exposure to Lizard was via a used 8-track found at a flea market. 

At various points along the four “programs” of the tape I am certain I stared in disbelief at the player upon first listen. Some parts sounded like the tape was damaged (it wasn't). Then – am I dreaming? Is that Jon Anderson (from Yes) singing on one track? Oh for God's sake what the heck is up with THIS album? One must recall that 8 track tapes did not come with any useful information one might normally find printed inside an LP sleeve. Hearing that album for the first time under such spartan conditions was nearly as confounding as hearing “Trout Mask Replica” - another seemingly impenetrable sonic fortress........

King Crimson LPs have been issued on so many different labels around the world – the variations are dizzying. Which proves another point – that debut LP of 1969 must have really made a splash around the world. All the other subsequent Crimson LPs were issued enthusiastically worldwide no matter how weird they got. This is an important reality to consider. King Crimson, though never again reaching quite the level of “hit status” as achieved on that first album, managed to present challenging and interesting music on a global scale in the years following – right up to now. So many current bands are led into the mindset of finding one lucrative sound and riding it for all its worth in the marketplace – driving a well-worn sound into the dirt. King Crimson may have tried, but ultimately blazed a very different path. Not that “the answer” of how to do this was evident by the end of the tour which produced “Earthbound”. From the average fan's point of view that record was a bitter farewell to a chaotic scramble of a rock band's short and brutish existence. 
 Until next time when I continue with Part Three...........