King Crimson – A Personal Reflection

The overall musical background of England at the time;

  1. Listening & Performance practices in my locality.

    1969 really represented the beginning of the end of the end of The Beatles era. The White album had been released in 1968, but not until November. The whole vibe was clearly different: long hair – unkempt, jeans (no suits or flower power dress). Really, ‘white’ was probably a good metaphor of the time – as in ‘empty’ – used up – certainly, the 60s seemed to be!

    • Then, Abbey Road in September 1969 – fifteen days before ITCOTKC (a few days could make all the difference in those days).
    • My memory is that pop/rock music was still very 45rpm based in the last third of the 60s – of course, some classic singles in various genres. What was the first ‘concept’ album? Sergeant Pepper? By 1969, certainly, the focus was shifting from singles to LPs, the titles of which seemed to describe a ‘theme’, if not a ‘concept’
    • I was certainly aware of different record companies and how they seem to collect together musicians with a certain vibe: Track, Immediate, Apple, Island, Harvest, Atlantic; although this probably developed more in the first half of the 70s.
    • Island certainly had their ‘sound’. The Sampler was important here. I had a copy of Nice Enough to Eat, the Island sampler, and liked most of it. This type of record would be a guide for concerts; we soon discovered that the best was often put on the sampler, so there was no need to buy the whole LP! Important because we had so little money.
    • Aside from the discos, the main outlet for live music for me was the Bristol Colston Hall. This venue was obviously on the circuit for touring pop bands. The Beatles had performed there in the early 60s, but I did not go to any these shows.
    • In fact, 1969 was probably the year of my first real concerts. But, the format of these was in a transition. The first ones I saw were built around a Variety Show approach: so there would be two ‘sittings’; and as many as six or more ‘acts’. I think I saw the Beach Boys and Gene Pitney in this sort of format. But, other acts on the same shows included the ‘top’ singers of the day: Joe Cocker, Bruce Channon, The Marmalade.
    • Later, the hall went to top-of-the-bill plus support. The Moody Blues concert in 1969, I remember, included two other signings to their Threshold label: Trapeze and Timon. There was a trend for some bands to follow The Beatles and form their own labels – most dropped the idea once they realised that they were not businessmen!
    • To see American groups in the provinces seemed very exotic – like they had actually come all that way!! Although few did in 1969, at least
    • Another key venue in Bristol was The Old Granary – this was literally a former Granary in the heart of Bristol docks, which was run as a club. I believe KC1 played here, but I did not see them. The scene would have been too late-night and avant-garde – beyond me at the age of 15.
    • I think the Dug Out on Park Row was also going then; it spawned the Wild Bunch and eventually Massive Attack. But, I would not have dared cross the threshold – it seemed like a den of drink and drugs. I was far too young!
    • There was also a very strong folk scene – many pubs had an upstairs folk club. I always said that Bristol had more folk clubs per square inch than any other city. The so-called Troubadour was one of these. Al Stewart had lived in Clifton and had been influential. The Transatlantic Generation were also around: Gordon Giltrap, John Pearse, Ralph McTell, Bert Jansch, John Renbourn. The scene was quite strong with certain local musicians (almost) building a national profile – Fred Wedlock, the Pigsty Hill Light Orchestra, Adge Cutler and the Wurzels, Hunt and Turner, Ian Anderson (now Editor of Folk Roots) – but their horizons were very local/ regional. Village Pump was the local folk record label.
    • The Revolver Record shop opposite the university was influential and stocked all the latest recordings. Then, Virgin opened in the centre: it was very exotic/ dark – airline seats (I had never been on an aircraft), free coffee, ‘discounted records’, attractive female assistants with long hair in loon pants. The scene seemed very ‘alternative’ – certainly different to hippy days.
  2. Young Pre-Dr. Mike: i.e. listening & performance practices, thinking and interests specifically. Significant for me personally, was that I was 16 in December 1969. I always claim we were the ‘lost generation’: too young to be a hippy; too old to be a punk.
    • I had been aware of the Beatles from the beginning of the 1960s – appearance on ‘Sunday Night at the London Palladium’, my sister’s comics which featured all the new groups (the ‘Valentine’). I even had a collection of Beatle monthly books. We could not really afford to buy records, but there were copies of recordings done by unknown groups sold in Woolworths. We bought these: copies of The Beatles, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Billy J Kramer and the Dakotas, Brian Poole and the Tremolos, Gene Pitney as sounding ‘as good as the real thing’. So, the radio was a significant source of first hand listening of original recordings – more than a record collection per se. Even so, something like John Peel would have been beyond me at this age – 1969: almost dangerous – a different (adult!) generation! He played things like Roy Harper, Tyrannosaurus Rex and Ornette Coleman – all of which I found faintly subversive!
    • Mid sixties and the ‘summer of love’ passed me by personally as I was more interested in football! I had heard of Sergeant Pepper but did not engage with the phenomenon at this point. I always say that the first records I bought were Hey Jude by the Beatles and the Best of the Beach Boys Vol. 1. Both would have been 1968 – a kind of prelude to the White Album in 1969, which I also bought. Having said that, I also bought the Jimi Hendrix 45rpm of Voodoo Chile/All Along the Watchtower/ Hey Joe in 1968 along with a smattering of chart 45s.
    • I was aware of the Liverpool scene, but only as an idea (we had studied the poets at school) – distinctions like Manchester and Birmingham meant nothing to me. London was another world – unknown. I had been there twice by 1969: once to watch a football match; a second time to visit an exhibition at Earls Court with my School. Liverpool? The North? I had never been north of Watford until I was 27.
    • America was pretty much an unknown. I had heard of some of the bands but they did not interest me much. I saw the Woodstock film later in 1970, but still did not really relate to the American bands featured in it: exceptions – Ritchie Havens (who I also saw at the Colston Hall) and John Sebastian. Around that time, I would also have seen the film of the Monterey Pop Festival, which was quite influential. Noticeable performances by The Who, Hendrix, and Simon and Garfunkel, but I remember it looking quite dated by then because it had taken place in 1967.
    • Again, the only money I had was a combination of pocket money and a wage from a paper round – so, records were few and far between.
    • I had bought ‘On the Threshold of Dream’ by the Moody Blues in the summer of 1969. This record dominated our listening in the autumn term of my final school year (I left at age 16). It was very romantic: I remember the refrain ‘if only everyone found the answer in love’; the suggestion ‘Have you Heard’; the mysterious ‘Are you Sitting Comfortably’, ‘The Dream’, and ‘Never Comes the Day’.
    • The Moody Blues’ To Our Childrens’ Childrens’ Children came out in November 1969 (not long after ITCOTKC) – three weeks before my 16th birthday, and I saw (with my first girlfriend) them perform much of this at a concert at the Bristol Colston Hall virtually on my birthday – 14th
    • I loved the sound of the Mellotron: all of the Moodies songs seem to feature it. Out and In from TOCCC was a zenith of this sound; as they said, Mike Pinder had Mantovani (who I also saw – with my parents – in the Colston Hall) in his Mellotron. Quite significant, because some bands of the day went on to record with classical orchestras – Deep Purple, for example.
    • I was aware that we represented a bit of a clique. Other friends at school were into reggae, which was popular then: especially Ska and Blue Beat. I neither liked nor understood this, nor the fashion and practices that went with it. Discos were of no interest to me at that time: there was a Top Rank in Bristol and ‘The Glen’ on the Downs. I guess skinheads were also around – again, I did not understand this.
    • We were more literary – into poetry; actually writing it rather than reading it!! Graeme Edge would have been a model more than any of the established English poets though! The ones we did read were all very romantic: Yeats, Shelley, Wordsworth, etc.
    • I could go and see most of the ‘rock’ bands around at the time at the Colston Hall in the 1969+ period as I was now working and had a wage: Ten Years After, Deep Purple, East of Eden, Jethro Tull, Black Sabbath. I enjoyed these concerts but did not really buy any of the LPs. I was really more into folk music: after the 1970 Isle of Wight festival, American singer-songwriters like Tom Paxton came to Bristol; Ralph McTell also was now performing concerts rather than folk clubs – as was Al Stewart and Roy Harper. Electric variants too: the Strawbs, Fairport Convention, etc.
    • I began playing acoustic guitar around the age of 15: I had the Bert Weedon Play in a Day book. I had no patience to learn music, so I worked with chords and the early days of Folk Tablature. Fingerpicking folk was what I liked best since: a) more interesting than strumming chords; b) you did not need a band!
    • I never came across drugs much myself; I cannot remember anyone ever offering me any. LSD had a reputation but I never saw it used; lots of smoking of cannabis at concerts, but then I did not smoke.
    • Music certainly became my main passion. I worked in a hospital and did not really read books – this came later when I left to go to university in my early 20s. I was interested in poetry, though, and, after studying medical science until 21.30 for two nights each week, I signed up to do an A-Level English as two other night’s study – quite something with a full-time day job as well. I did have aspirations to study English; although finally did French at University when I went to London at the age 22.
  3. How KC entered these two worlds.   I first heard In the Court of the Crimson King on the Alan Freeman BBC Radio 1 show on a Saturday afternoon and, bizarrely, bought the 45 rpm single of the title track – which I still have!! That would have been the autumn of 1969. The imagery would have instantly caught my attention; even the name, King Crimson, and the cover art work of the LP. This was an altogether darker affair which would have matched my mood: I had been jilted by my girlfriend, was depressed, and into introspective poetry (the romantics!) and folk music. Certainly, the intra song section titles also caught my attention: The Return of the Fire Witch, The Puppets’ Dance, etc. A whole poetic landscape with music to match – certainly, another world to escape into.
    • Then, there was the mellotron – those lush strings, which also seemed so bleak. And that almost military snare drum!
    • Lots of other doomy images in the songs as well conjured up a sense of desolation: ‘rusted chains’, ‘black queen’, ‘cracked bells’, ‘funeral march’, ‘prison moons’. Also, a kind of ‘faery world’ – ‘queens’, ‘jester’, ‘piper’, ‘juggler’, ‘wise men’. And, intense music, both in terms of melody and arrangements. Then, that guitar of course – focused tone, precise, never more or less than what was exactly necessary. Intensely emotional.
    • I certainly knew Epitaph as well – maybe it was on another sampler. More melodramatic mellotron and angst ridden vocals – I loved it!!! ‘Cracking walls’, ‘nightmares’, ‘screams’, ‘confusion’, ‘fear of tomorrow’, ‘iron gates of fate’, ‘knowledge a deadly friend’. The ‘fate of mankind’ being ‘in the hands of fools’ pretty much summed up the zeitgeist of my generation at that point!
    • Interestingly, I did not buy the LP at the time; as I say, I think I had my favourite tracks on various samplers. Schizoid Man was almost too brash for me. That being said, the way it explodes halfway through the second side of the Island Sampler Nice Enough to Eat is amazing. Side 2 opens with some folk-jazzy-bluesy tracks by Blodwyn Pig and Traffic. Then, there is Nick Drake’s Time Has Told Me. Nothing could be more fragile, more English, poetic, more ‘folky’, and then the terror of Schizoid Man blasts the whole thing apart. This is followed by a bit of Indian exoticism – Gungamai by Quintessence and then the side ends with the whimsy of Anglo-Irish Dr Strangely Strange. Brilliant piece of track placing this.
    • I do not know if this is literally true but I always used to claim there were no ‘blues’ in King Crimson – no blue notes. It seemed quintessentially ‘English’ to me – still does. Indeed, putting King Crimson next to Nick Drake pretty much summed up the two extremes of the English voice in pop/folk/rock music at the time. Essentially, they are the same thing!!
    • I never did see KC1. However, I saw KC2 when they performed In the Wake of Posseidon at the Bristol Colston Hall. Of course, this was more of the same in terms of imagery (the cover!!), mellotron, sheer angst – and more. I bought this one and was completely smitten.
    • The concert at the Colston Hall was truly awesome for a young sensitive man. I had never, ever, heard or seen anything like it. The ‘light show’ might now seem corny – the strobes a cliché. But, not for me at the time, they were very overwhelming. The Devil’s Triangle – strobes, red lights, chaotic music, etc. – had a profound effect on me. I remember actually thinking ‘they are going to burn the house down’!!
    • I would have then attended most KC concerts at the Colston Hall in the early 70s. I remember Boz’ appearance, Jamie Muir and David Cross. I guess that took me up to Larks Tongues in Aspic. I loved Lizard – still do! – just those opening notes of Cirkus – again very impressive to an impressionable young man.
    • A couple of personal anecdotes:
      • At one concert, I seemed to arrive early, and met the band in the bar! Minus Robert Fripp. I was struck by how ill they looked – yellow pallor, sunken cheeks, etc. They were also all dressed in black and smelt from the other side of the bar of sweat, cannabis and Patchouille oil!
      • Around 1970, I also attended a concert of Centipede performing Septober Energy. By then I was taken by some of the jazz elements of this generation and liked bands like East of Eden and Coliseum. I remember Julie Tibbetts and Keith Tibbett performing, as well as Robert Wyatt and Zoot Money. Sat in the Choir behind the band, I stayed behind in the interval. I remember this man with fuzzy hair and dressed in black came out and tuned his black Gibson guitar. Little did I then realise that some 30+ years later, I would be sharing rooms in a Spanish monastery with him and working with something called Guitar Craft.
    • Some of my contemporaries would hang around the Stage Door after KC gigs (I never did!) and engage Robert in conversation. They always relayed his erudite pronouncements with mirth and some respect for the views expressed. Again, the guitar playing was a focus for my friends and Robert was just not another blues player. On him citing John McLaughlin as a favourite guitarist, we went off and found recordings, and attended Jack Bruce’s Lifetime concert at the Colston Hall where JMcL played on the basis of this ‘recommendation’. At that point, we were certainly open to the jazz elements of KC – still liked the mellotron though!!

    After that, I drifted off somewhat into academic – literary and folk – concerns. My next blast would have been listening to Starless and Bible Black in a record booth in Toulouse, France in 1978! The opening Great Deceiver was another KC epiphany for me.

  4. My views on KC music within the overall.   For me, the name King Crimson is itself iconic and indicative of its music. It IS a defining voice. For me, it has echoes of something rather devilish, but not evil – rather the opposite. Beelzebub rather than Satan. For me, it is resonant with William Blake’s Devil in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: ‘The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels and God, and at liberty when of Devils and Hell, is because he was a true poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.’ ‘Energy is eternal delight’! Red is hellish, but also the colour of blood. So, passionate, life giving, emotional.
    • King Crimson also seemed like Albion to me: a contemporary articulation of a certain English spirit.
    • This was music that came out of the 60s, but was not really a 60s music – definitely 70s in that it was ‘end-of-party’ music: dark, troubled, rather than youthful and celebratory. As I wrote above, music for a ‘lost generation’.
    • For me, King Crimson certainly came from an English tradition that goes to the heart of the English ‘voice’: pastoral, dark prosaic, visionary, radical. Sub-elements would include: Moors and forests (darkness, rain, mists, paths), Water (lakes, the sea), Epic and Drama (magnificence), Celtic and Anglo Saxon (patterns, riddles, numerology, symbolism, illumination), Spirit and Religion (mysticism, antiquarianism, Heroic, gothic, ritualistic), Emotional (poetic, fantasy, romantic, laments, pathos, nostalgia, melancholy).
    • When I look back at those early LPs, they seem to have three distinct sound centres: jazz/ brash; epic; folk/ ballad. What were the antecedents? Well, I guess others have already done a better job than I could at analyzing sources. One would have to look at the personal biographies (including musical) of the founding members. Clearly, there were elements of dance band, jazz, skiffle within the experience of the band – not to mention the influence of classical music, The Beatles and the expressiveness of Hendrix.
    • I said above that KC was a very English band to me – no blues influence. Clearly, this cannot be true since jazz was one of the elements, but it was certainly contemporary jazz by then – not strictly RnB – and so had gone through various modulations in its articulation (heavily influenced by C20 composers – Bartok, Webern, etc.)
    • To me, the period up to Red was one movement – everything is predicated in that first LP and is completed at the end of Red. Then, there were the 80s LPs – the KC voice purged by Punk and embracing New York. Thrak was an LP that most strongly reconnected with The Beatles – for me. I saw the Albert Hall concert with the California Guitar Trio – my first KC concert for almost two decades. Doing this certainly reconnected me to and rekindled my interest in Guitar Craft – I attended my first course in 1997.
    • Later music – The ConstruKCtion of Light (2000), The Power to Believe (2003), Eyes Wide Open (2003) seemed to combine all these elements: the lightness and intricacies of TCOL; the epic Dangerous Curves and The Deception of the Thrush; the lyricism of Eyes Wide Open, etc.
    • It has been said that KC is mostly a ‘live’ band, and I can see where that statement is coming from. Certainly, KC live is a powerful beast. When I attended the concert at Shepherd’s Bush Empire in July 2000, I found the experience completely disorientating: I came out in a daze, lost my wallet and train ticket, had to borrow money to get home. The music was like some gigantic Behemoth writhing around in the agony of the present condition of the world. Again, I recognised that voice as the same King Crimson of those early days in the 1970. Things had not got better!
  5. The wider background; historical, philosophical, cultural – even esoteric!Of course, lots and lots of writing on this period in general, and indeed KC in particular with relation to it: Smith, Keeling, etc. What might I add?
    • Firstly, it is possible of course to set the whole KC phenomenon within a Dionysian account of the 1960s: the spontaneous outpouring of emotional, sensual aspects of the post war younger generation – and it does fit. What I did not realise at the time is that it had all happened before – for example the artistic generation after the first World War and indeed the Romantics of late C18/ early C19. It does seem that once there is this outpouring, this exuberance, there is a catharsis where the same emotions go ‘dark’, even decadent. So, the power and expressiveness of the Romantic period was followed by Gothic horror and the macabre. KC could certainly fit within this post-dionysian analysis as partly representing the hangover of the 60s excesses, now turned inwards and more darkly expressive.
    • That being said, ‘the dark’ had certainly been there in the 60s as well: assassinations of John and Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King; the nuclear threat; the Vietnam War; campus protests and student deaths. Also, the issue of civil rights and struggles for colonial independence. 1968 did not mean that much to me: Paris/ France; the beginning of the Troubles in Northern Ireland; the invasion of Czechoslovakia; Poland; Enoch Powell. However, there was certainly this ‘us’ and ‘them’ atmosphere, with ‘us’ being youth (just about because I was still really a child) and everything that conformity defended. This was increasingly expressed in the latter part of the 60s.
    • In my biography of Ralph McTell, I included three ‘interludes’ on Creativity, each focusing on it from a Philosophical, Psychological and ‘Spiritual’ perspective. Very briefly, the first analyses the tension between the sensual and the ‘pure gaze’ of Kantian transcendental aesthetics; the second sees creativity in terms of a neo-Freudian resolution of neurosis (externalisation and incorporation); and the third attempts the same through Bennett’s triads (active, passive and reconciling forces) and tetrads (automatic, sensitive, conscious, and cosmic energies); functional capabilities (amateur, professional, master, and genius); and Worlds. KC would certainly fit into each of these.
    • In terms of the esoteric, KC would be grasped as ‘necessary’, an act of cosmic ‘will’, which ultimately is love. Again, with the RM biography, I attempted to locate these sorts of forces within a UK socio-cultural analysis derived from the French social philosopher Pierre Bourdieu.  Key notions here are:
      1. A 3-Level Analysis of the UK Music Field – the Field and the Field of Power; the Field; and the Habitus of those positioned at various points in the Field (and their Capital Holdings – Social, Economic, Cultural, Symbolic);
      2. An account of the UK Field of cultural production in terms of various artistic generations – Rear-Garde, Consecrated Avant-Garde, the New Avant-Garde – which also demonstrates six dimensions of time within artistic activity in the field;
      3. Some analysis of the UK ‘field of power’ (politics, media, education, commerce).
    • There is clearly a lot that could be said about a ‘spiritual’ form – music – entering a secular space – the commercial world of popular music. It is a kind of incarnation – a fall – thus susceptible to adulteration. In Bennett’s terms it would be an instantiation of World 1 into the World 48. By definition, it is immediately corrupted. The purpose is then to work its way back to world 1 through worlds 24, 12, 6 and 3 – except various elements are working themselves out both existentially and essentially, thus both within time and space and outside of it. This is the nature of grace.
    • I do think that the relationship between the folk (people), art/ music, and commerce changed considerably in the 1950s, going into the 60s and 70. Honour and time are involved – and commerce. One might even argue that music was a way of ‘aestheticising capitalism’; although what seems to have happened is the other way around – capitalism commercialised aesthetics big time. This has led various individuals – especially within a post-modern perspective – to argue that ‘art’ is ‘not possible’. Blake certainly wrote of those who ‘destroy’ art by the price they put upon it. One, finally, has to conclude that true art/ music can only exist within individuality (and to do this is must do it creatively/ actively) if there are no commercial exigencies. Guitar Craft is one expression of such. But, this argument does not hold up if one is still committed to the redemptive quality of music.