Constructing a Vibrant Light: The Many Faces of King Crimson


It's hard to imagine King Crimson playing the blues. Jazz, classical, world music, even techno, would seem at home in the progressive world of Crimson, but the blues? Nope. So you might get the shock of your life when you turn on Crimson's new album, The ConstruKction of Light. Right out of the gate, the band burst into 'ProzaKc Blues,' a song that moans, wails, and contemplates in a way that Muddy, B.B., and Beefheart would dig. But as guitarist/band leader Robert Fripp and guitarist Adrian Belew do their virtuosic voodoo - and as Adrian Belew sings in a low, ballsy tone (thanks to some studio wizardry) - one thing is certain: This tune is thoroughly tongue-in-cheek and decidedly contemporary. Nevertheless, it's a big surprise.

And as you might remember, surprises are nothing new for Crimson. Ever since the group stunned the rock world with its grandiose debut, In the Court of the Crimson King (1969), blending classical, jazz, and folk leanings into a rock format, they've evolved in many ways. What a contrast, for example, between their dark, odd-meter hard rock in the early '70s and their polyrhythmic, world-music flavored stylings in the early '80s.

Crimson disbanded in '84 (one of several sad breakups) but re-formed a decade later as a 'double trio' consisting of Fripp, Belew, touch guitarist Trey Gunn, bassist/stick player Tony Levin, and drummers Bill Bruford and Pat Mastelotto. Then in 1997, it was time for another chapter of Crimson. The plan: To 'fractalize' into four 'research and development' units (as Fripp says). The Projekcts were born. Ironically, the first one deployed was Projekct Two, an outfit consisting of Fripp, Gunn, and Belew, who instead of playing guitar, handled Roland V drums (hardly a surprise, considering he was a drummer before he become a guitarist). 'The whole idea really was that the Projeckts would lead us to some basic building blocks that we would then turn into songs and formal pieces of music,' says Belew.

Enter The ConstruKction of Light, which goes where no Crimson record has gone before and features Fripp, Belew, Gunn and Mastelotto. Eye-brow raising, but in a good way, are 'Into the Frying Pan' (with its lurching techno groove and screaming guitar leads), the aformentioned blues tune, 'Larks, Tongues In Aspic Part 4' (yep, the 'Tongues' saga continues), and 'FraKctured' (presenting some of the most dazzling guitar parts of Fripp's illustrious career).

In order to truly understand the present, one needs to have a firm grasp of the past. Here, Fripp chronicles the illustrious history of King Crimson. Let's look back at Crimson's early days. What was the band trying to achieve with its debut, In the Court of the Crimson King?

Fripp: The question is, what was the concern at the time. And if you want it in a very simple way, three words: to be true. The intent was to play the music that was true and was right, without any compromise. The normal question you get asked by record companies, is 'You want to sell records, don't you'? Advice to the young musician: If any man, or woman, but it's generally a man, says this, then you're with the wrong record company. You're with the wrong A&R man. The concern with Crimson was to play the music that was right and there and waiting to be played, waiting to be discovered. And we figured that if we did that without any compromises, it would be good enough that we might earn a living. Where did the idea for '21st Century Schizoid Man? [from In the Court] come from?

Fripp: It was the product of all five people. Peter Sinfield [lyricist], you'd have to speak to about the lyrics, but obviously it was about Vietnam, and the student revolution in Europe in '68 would be part of that. The age of Aquarius. Peter would walk around the block while we would rehearse every evening, between 6 and 10 p.m., in the basement of Fulham Palace Café, something that you'd now consider a fairly funky diner in American terms, after the café closed. We would be writing the music and Peter would be writing the words. With 'Schizoid Man,' the da da da de da da [Fripp hums an early section of the song] was Greg's; Bom, Bom, Bom was Ian's, and [he hums the song's quirky, staccato mid-section] was mine, except Michael Giles helped suggest it. So it was a product of a number of people. For me, it kind of had the power of what later became heavy metal, but with a more open musical sensibility. Much of Crimson's music become even more nefarious in the early '70s?

Fripp: At the time, it pissed me off heavily that English groups were looking completely to America for their model. For a young guy whose first record, at age 11 was 'Hound Dog/Don't Be Cruel', I had no argument at all with the American influence. However, it seemed all the English groups were looking to America, and my sense was to look to Europe. Why try and play blues like an American, why do that? What are you going to do with it? As my interest in Crimson developed, as we recorded Larks, Tongues in Aspic [1973] and Red [1974], I thought, what if Hendrix were playing Stravinsky or Bach. The rhythm section of bassist/vocalist John Wetton and drummer Bill Bruford gave the group a very dynamic, powerful, and off-kilter quality.

Fripp: It was a great rhythm section but it may not have been necessarily a good one. A good rhythm section would play in time and would not seek to overwhelm the front line. That particular rhythm section didn't give a moment's thought for the front line. Crimson in 1972 was constructed with a certain balance: [percussionist] Jamie Muir against Bill Bruford; [electric violinist] David Cross and myself counterbalancing; with John Wetton right down the middle. Then Jamie left and it became unbalanced, and the rhythm section increasingly looked to its own interests, so increasingly it moved to become a trio, in effect, with me unable, on my own, to meet the power of the rhythm section. How would you evaluate the group's musicianship by the time it recorded Red?

Fripp: I think by the time of Red, the group had just begin to reach the point where it was beginning. Another words, we're musicians, we're together for a period of time, and we begin to learn how to play together. When we recorded Larks, Tongues, we weren't good enough young players to play the music that had been written; another words, the aspiration or the conceptual grasp was greater than the executant capacity. Crimson in 1973 got better and in '74 probably got better again, and then broke up, just when it learned to begin to play together. Was that disappointing for you?

Fripp: It was utterly heartbreaking for me in 1969 [when the first lineup of Crimson broke up] and in 1974, I was the character who called the halt, although at that point, what I did was plan to replace myself with [former member] Ian McDonald-so there was the line of transmission from the first Crimson-but EG, the management company, said they weren't prepared to have Crimson without me. What kind of music were you hoping to create when you assembled the 1981-84 lineup?

Fripp: It was essentially, 'this is the sprit of the music,' and how could we give voice to it. 'There is the music, how can I play it'? Not, 'what music shall I play'? When I was in New York City in 1981, I used to stay on my friend [former Village Voice editor] Karen Durbin's sofa and she had two cats, Fripp and Eno, and as the light came up in the morning. Eno would get very frisky and run over the head of Robert Fripp sleeping on Karen's sofa. One morning in the middle of 1981, I think it was July, he ran over my head and woke me up. And as I woke up, I saw how it was that music come into the life of a musician. And everything changed after that. It's simply this: music never goes away. The musician goes away, so the concern of the music is not to look for music, the concern of the musician is to be there, the music is always there, so get in a place where the music is. So the concern for me as a working musician is not how to pin down the music but to put myself in a place where I am available to music. So in '81, it's a question of 'here is the spirit of the music, so how do we find notes and sounds in time that reflect that spirit.' The '80s Crimson drew upon African and Eastern music.

Fripp: With the '69 Crimson, my interest was accessing the European musical vocabulary. By 1981, you had access to, if you like, world music, which increasingly became available in my experience after 1976, both on radio and on records. For me, the music on Discipline and Beat [1981 and 1982, respectively] was much more upbeat than the music created by the early '70s lineup.

Fripp: Well, bear in mind that Adrian Belew is a very 'up? guy. And it was a different time in the world, sure. [He thinks for a moment] Music emerges to meet a need, and sometimes, I'm aware that an idea needs to come into the world. Like the way the music played at the big rock festivals in the '60s were critically important for a young generation of people. Initially, you named the 1981-84 lineup Discipline.

Fripp: Yes. I was very nervous, I didn't feel able to reform King Crimson, particularly since it was a very different beast than the '74 Crimson. But I had an experience driving to Bill Bruford's for rehearsal which changed my mind. It changed my view because the identity, the individuality of King Crimson, was available to that band if we wished to accept it. And we did. The final decision was taken in Paris when Tony Levin jumped into the VW bus and we asked, 'Tony, should we be King Crimson, and he said, 'sure, I never liked the name Discipline anyway.'

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