King Crimson I/ 1969: 50th Anniversary Essay (2019)






King Crimson formed, rehearsed, performed and recorded their seminal LP –In the Court of the Crimson King – An Observation by King Crimson in 1969. It was the first incarnation of the band; this essay is about its coming into being. It looks at the background and biography of its founding members and the influences – musical and other – brought to the mix in creating the unique sound of this original version of King Crimson. My account is set against the prevailing cultural trends of the late 60s, and the social and political currents, which underpinned them. The evolving music field is also brought into relief as a series of generational shifts out of which King Crimson emerged and to which it contributed, including changes in the use of musical instruments and, indeed, music management practices of the day.


Background and Biography


King Crimson 1 (KC1) as a collective.

Four distinct individuals, each with their own personalities: Robert Fripp (1946 – ), Michael Giles (1942 -). Greg Lake (1947-2016), Ian MacDonald (1946 – ) and Peter Sinfield (1943 – ). In the Court of the Crimson King (ITCOTCK) was a distillation of their individual biographies, dispositional traits, and trajectories at one point in time and space. What can be said about them and the period they occupied?


Personnel and Background


Half of the band originated in the area of South Dorset, England. Indeed, there seems to have occurred the remarkable ‘coincidence’ of a group of guitarists coming together, ‘as a single generation’, from a relatively small, unremarkable, provincial town – Bournemouth – and its outlying areas: Wimborne (Fripp); Winton (Giles) and Poole (Lake). Other renowned musicians from the region would include Andy Summers (The Police), Gordon Haskell (King Crimson), John Wetton (King Crimson), John Rostill (The Shadows), Zoot Money, Al Stewart – and others. The majority of them came from lower middle-class backgrounds, thus affording a measure of both cultural and economic resources. Most were educated in Grammar Schools at a time when entry to these depended on distinguishing oneself by passing the 11+ examination.


Local culture would include seaside entertainment that brought accomplished musicians and entertainers to the area, and for whom various King Crimson members played, either as backing or in support bands – a good practice ground! In seaside shows and dances, music often involved more than three chords and required a developed sense of musical accompaniment within jazz/ swing styles of the dance orchestras. A local music teacher like Don Strike, who gave guitar lessons to both Fripp and Lake, came from such a background and ended up having a shop in the Arcade at Wimborne. His influence was in teaching a certain style; thus developing technique, reading music and practicing sophisticated chord progressions. Other ‘jazz’ tuition was available; for example, Tony Alton (Fripp). There was also a local tradition of classical music, itself accessed by Fripp – Kathleen Gartell and the Corfe Mullen Youth Orchestra. Indeed, both Fripp and Lake practiced Paganini based guitar exercises. Local networking was, therefore, strong; including a prominent and well reputed music shop such as Eddie Moores. Of course, the typical pop format for the 60s was the four-member ‘group’, modeled in the style of The Beatles. Such groups would have represented a contemporary youth alternative to music that went back to the traditional songs of the 1940s, 50s and beyond – as we shall see.


Each of the Dorset band members existed in various music combos – both amateur and semi-professional. In the case of the Giles Brothers – Michael and Peter – professional work as a musician came relatively quickly: Johnny King and the Raiders-> The Dowland Brothers-> The Trendsetters. Each step would be a hike in professionalism and therefore musical standards. For example, The Dowland Brothersplayed the Downstairs Clubin Bournemouth where they would mix with Zoot Money, Andy Summers and John Rostill. Their move from semi-pro to professional, however, came in 1964 through the sponsorship of local businessman Roy Simon. It was his initiative that led to the Giles brothers (as The Dowland Brothers) joining TheTrendsetters. Although never ‘making it’, the band were ‘good enough’ to back an established international group such as The Drifters.


Out of their relative ‘failure’ came the drive to re-found the group by auditioning for other players, which is when Robert Fripp joined to become Giles, Giles and Fripp.

Meanwhile, Fripp’s school friend and fellow guitar student, Greg Lake, was working through his own range of pop bands: Unit Four, The Time Checks, The Shame, The Gods.


Listening to, and playing, music for future Dorset-based King Crimson 1 players, therefore, encompassed a range of styles: contemporary pop, classical, jazz, modern dance. The particular styles and names associated them would then include:


Michael Giles: Pop, Vaughan Williams; father was a violinist in Bournemouth classical Orchestra; Skiffle.

Robert Fripp: Dance, The Beatles; Dvorak; John Mayall; Chris Barber; Django Reinhardt.

Greg Lake: Pop, Prokoviev, Copeland



However, against this provincial musical heritage can be set a more London-based ethos for other King Crimson I members; and one which included both significant musical and important literary sources.


Firstly, Ian McDonald. McDonaldwas born in Osterley, Middlesex, and latterly lived with his parents in Teddington, London. His upbringing would involve a similar jazz/ dance band musical legacy as his Dorset-based contemporaries: in that his parents listened to Les Paul, Guy Mitchell, Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. Classical music was also a significant presence in his upbringing: Rimsky-Korsakov, for example. McDonald played a little guitar and drums. However, unsuccessful at school, he left to join the army, attending the Royal Military School of Musicfrom 1963, where he learnt compositional and arranging skills. On leaving the army in 1967, he plunged into ‘flower power’ London, specifically the avant-garde Middle Earth Clubin Covent Garden where he met and worked with Judy Dyble who was then lead singer for folk-rock group Fairport Convention.


Secondly, Peter Sinfield. Sinfield had a band named Creation for whom McDonald auditioned. Hewas born in London as well – Fulham (where King Crimson I based themselves and later rehearsed) – but grew up in an altogether more bohemian atmosphere of English/ Irish parents. His mother was bisexual and the family had a German housekeeper with experience as a Circus performer. As an only child, he was taken into an exotic world of adults; itself also enhanced by his induction into the romantic poetry and prose of Sitwell, Blake, Gibran, Byron and Shakespeare thanks to his tutor John Mason.He was therefore steeped in ‘Englishness’ – or, at least, a certain form of Englishness – but with enchanted flavourings: his professional itinerancy (computers, travel agent, market stall holder) matched his travels, which took him to Spain and Morocco at a time when the hippy fashion favoured Asian cultures. Sinfield was certainly more of a poet than a musician – he claims King Crimson was actually born when Ian McDonald finally confronted him with his lack of musical skills but literary talent. A talent that was complemented by a natural feel for technology and its use in enhancing performance; for example, in stage-lighting and graphic imagery!


Of course, all this social activity was being played out in terms that were often emotional and personally hurtful: relationships break up (McD/Dyble), musical collaborations dry up (GG&F), band members move out of step with the direction the music is taking (Peter Giles). The tracking of the various personal movements that took place as immediate precursors to the formation of King Crimson 1 therefore looks like this:

  • Peter and Michael Giles advertise for other musicians in the light of lack of success with TheTrendsetters– Fripp joins (known from the local Bournemouth scene).
  • Judy Dyble (Fairport Convention) joins GG&F, or rather they join her in the light of lack of their success – with Judy comes Ian McDonald (Dyble’s boyfriend).
  • With McDonald comes Sinfield (fellow band member).
  • McDonald and Dyble’s relationship breaks down; she leaves (musical differences).
  • GGFMcD continue: Peter Giles leaves (or is asked to leave).
  • Greg Lake joins (Fripp’s school friend and fellow guitar student).


Moreover, these changes were all taking place in a socio-cultural structure, which included clubs, musical journalism, the media and parallel musical associations. Expanding socio-cultural networks in the field were an important route to establishing a public profile and included other musical connections. For example, future King Crimson member (and Fripp school friend) Gordon Haskell was a member of Fleur de Lyswith connections to both established groups (The Animals) and stars-to-be (Jimi Hendrix). The departure of Peter Giles came as GGF&McD appeared on the BBC programme Colour Me Pop, which itself was a follow-up to another appearance on the BBC Radio with ‘folk singer’ Al Stewart – Bournemouth stalwart and pupil of Fripp! – and guitar experimentalist Ron Geesin.


Such is the dynamic of social, cultural and biographical networking instigated for a variety of reasons: artistic, financial, personal, all framed by a general sense of individual elective affinities. But, these were both shaping themselves and being shaped by artistic traditions – musical and otherwise – that can be identified as stretching back across time and including various transnational cultural heritages.


Artistic Heritage

As social and personal issues were sorting themselves out between the various personalities involved, different musical styles were evidently also gaining (and losing) prominence in the mix that was eventually to become the music of King Crimson I. To sum up, in terms of the musical salience each individual member of the band brought to its musical stylization, there was: ClassicalGiles, McDonald, Fripp, Lake; Jazz/DanceGiles, Fripp, McDonald; PopLake, Giles; FolkMcDonald (Dyble). Certainly, all these styles were eventually discernable in the unique hybrid that became the sound of King Crimson I. But, by what processes?


The French anthropologist Lévi-Strauss at one point describes (wo)man as a kind of bricoleurpicking up fragments of language, myths, and culture in a DIY manner in order to reformulate and re-express them for current needs. We can see such a process actualised in the compositions of King Crimson I and their prominent stylistic sources as identified so far: Folk music (now rendered misty and ethereal – I Talk to the Wind): the pastoral/ melancholy (In the Court of the Crimson King and Epitaph); the esoteric (Moonchild and the general lyrical content); Jazz (21stCentury Schizoid Man). In sum, the In the Court of the Crimson Kingrecordings seem a perfectly realised form of these combined genres: elements including highly rhythmic jazz forms – modal, spare, focused; the epic as expressed in modal-minor keysin the melancholic, foreboding styleof the use of the mellotron (now bleached of it dance-hall string performativity and rendered bleak and emotionless); acoustic guitars and narrative forms of folk music. In sum, the fusing of the searing guitar power based on jazz/ rock forms with classical/ folk stylization – again highly modal and distilled, with clarity and definition, to a high-level concentrate.


King Crimson I members were certainly not trapped in rigid artistic encampments but had live antennae picking up what was going on across the musical index – past, present and future. All had been ‘blown away’ by Jimi Hendrix and seduced by Sergeant Pepper. However, the precursors of all of these in terms of contemporary popular music per se, included other twentieth century styles – both English and otherwise. On the English side, was the whole tradition of British music hall and street song going back to the C19 and early C20. Increasingly, however, by the mid C20 these fashions were overshadowed by the American show, dance, and band music of the 1940s and 50s; for example, Rogers and Hammerstein, Glenn Miller, Frank Sinatra. And, as noted, such would have been at the core of the Bournemouth based repertoire at the time, which King Crimson band members would surely have imbibed. Moreover, Skiffle was then also extremely important in the 1950s with its links to American folk music, Blues and Rn’B. Many individuals, who later established themselves in the folk and rock music fields went through Skiffle bands, including Michael Giles of King Crimson I and John Lennon of The Beatles.


The Blues itself had developed from African slaves transported across to America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. By the twentieth century, it had taken various directions: Jug Band Music, Ragtime, Jazz, Country Blues. Gospel was its expressive religious form. All of these styles blended with other popular styles as musicians mixed and matched for entertainment purposes. A singer like Muddy Waters had originally been recorded by folk musicologist Alan Lomax as a Country Blues player. But, Waters then ‘plugged in’ and went electric after moving to Chicago in 1943; thus creating a much harder urban style of the form as compared to its country equivalents. Blues and these style developments subsequently fed into the American popular Jazz and Soul music of the 1940s and 50s, which in turn had a direct impact on English popular song of the day. In London, and transatlantic ports like Liverpool, sailors brought back records of these musicians from the US. 60s pop then evolved as distinct from these styles – a new music for a new generation – whilst combing many of its elements. Indeed, The Beatles were heavily influenced by American Rn’B, as were most rock bands generally during the 1960s – a pivotal point in time therefore opened a door through which so many English Rock Bands from the 1960s passed, including, in 1969, King Crimson: the Jazz/ Blues of 21stCentury Schizoid Manwould be but one highly original derivation of this tradition.


But, we have seen how popular, dance and jazz musical styles were not the only legacies that King Crimson drew upon. There was also the classical. Of course, Western classical music similarly stretches back across the centuries behind King Crimson: its development from Church music, Bach, and then the advent of the German romantic canon in the nineteenth century – Beethoven, Schubert, Wagner, etc. One reaction to this in the UK was the English pastoral music of the early Twentieth century – Vaughan-Williams, Elgar, Butterworth, etc. – which sought to found a more uniquely English form, based originally on music inspired by folk-ballad songs collected in rural England by musicologists such as Cecil Sharp: And, both classical traditions including its folk elements influenced King Crimson I. Adopting aspects of these styles then led on later to further experimentation and adaptations from other more exotic classical musical sources.


For instance, when the influence of C19 German romanticism spread beyond Germany as the century progressed, the French Impressionist music of Claude Debussy (1862-1918) is one example of further extemporization in the classical genre. Debussy had incorporated Javanese Gamelan music into many of his compositions after such Asian styles had come to the attention of French musicians primarily as a result of the Universal Exhibition of 1889 in Paris, which included them in its programmes. In its turn, Gamelan music, with its percussive and tonal qualities, then seems to have inspired later incarnations of King Crimson music as well. Debussy’s compositions were also characterized by whole-tone and pentatonic scales, parallel chords, chromaticism, tri-tonality, fierce modulations and complex time signatures – all of which again were to feature in subsequent King Crimson music, this time set within a rock vernacular. Furthermore, Debussy’s Clair de Luneand String Quartet in G Minorin 1893 significantly used tri-tonality extensively for the first time – something which had been unimaginablebefore then. Indeed, it was referred to as ‘the devil’s note’ for being prohibited. Again, tri-tones were to become a feature of later King Crimson music.


But, the power of the King Crimson I mix was not just musical; and, its compositions also acted as vehicle for a significant literary ethos as expressed in the romantic imagery of its song lyrics. A key source for such was then certainly brought to the band by Peter Sinfield and his literary exoticism in the form of a characteristic poetic/faery vision, which shared literary equivalents with elements of English romanticism, together with the Irish Celtic and Asian cultures that had attracted him. One result was that the very words/ concepts employed in King Crimson I compositions became iconic, again drawing on both Eastern mysticism anda tradition that goes to the heart of the English ‘voice’: dark prosaic, visionary, radical. Sub-elements of the latter 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. These characteristics again can be identified as part of theEnglish pastoral tradition that includes the first folk music revival of the early twentieth century – and beyond: Elgar/ Vaughan-Williams, the Pre-Raphaeilites and the English poetic voice that stems from William Blake and his antecedents. And, then, further back still to the fusion of Celtic and Saxon cultures that lay at the heart of the formation of England in the Dark Ages. These spirits and images lay within the potent and powerful content of poetic images such as ‘Schizoid Man’, ‘Epitaph’, ‘Moonchild’, and ‘the Court of the Crimson King’ itself. Such expressionism then also coincided with the mood of the contemporary zeitgeist of 1969 in pure form – no wonder the band took audiences by storm.


There was therefore much for the potential listener of King Crimson I to draw upon, both immediately in terms of modern musical and artistic vernaculars and the less evident socio-cultural tropes of past English culture woven within their own artistic matrix. And, with the explosion of musical styles happening in the 1960s, which mostly drew on Black and American musical genres, if the sum of King Crimson 1 was definitely the reassertion of English Music, it was amply flavoured with exotic and blues tinges. Could the band have acted otherwise? By anointing themselves as King Crimson – an image created by Sinfield –  it seems almost as if a singular personality ‘interpolated’, or hailed, them as individuals into being as a fully formed voice looking for articulation – and so ‘music just flew in through the windows’ as they say. In other words, this group of ‘voices’ became the particular style, articulation and expression of another singular voice – that of King Crimson himself as a fully formed aesthetic personality. He is even given graphic realisation in the album cover designed by Barry Godber – a cracked psyche of sorts on the road to repair typifying the spirit of the times.


So, if In the Court of the Crimson King was a musical beginning, in that it was the group’s first LP, it was a musical event that subsumed many other previous social and cultural, personal and collective, developments. Moreover, it can be understood both as a response to the 1960s and equally as a statement about the actual contemporaneity of the times with their dominant socio-cultural trends.



The Times

From a personal perspective, the members of King Crimson were obviously born in or just after the war years and grew toward adulthood in the 1950s: But, that decade changed drastically in socio-cultural complexion from its outset to its close. Unlike their parents, teenagers (and the term itself was not used until 1957) of the time hardly knew the austerities and exigencies of actual war and were ready to define their own ‘new world’ in opposition to anything similar belonging their parents. Indeed, war itself became distant and virtual – despite ‘the Bomb’ – allowing for a certain indulgence on the part of teenagers in affirming their distinction from the older generations. The ‘new world’ that had been announced post war had stalled somewhat in the 50s when the ‘old school’ regained power but, with an expanding communications network, an increasingly ‘liberated’ youth, and the raising of international barriers, a ‘Global village’ spirit was finally instituted in the country and, with it, communal youth living in the broadest cultural sense. And, with it, a vision of a new-world life style seemed a distinct possibility for the teenage generations of the immediate post war years, who were hungry for a culture to express this new-found sense of identity.


The radical aspects of these development are similarly identifiable in the general election wins of Harold Wilson and the Labour Party in the 1960s, in that they offered a means of expression for youth opposition and optimism for the future. Indeed, loyalty to the Labour movement and cultural progressivism then reigned for the rest of the 60s at least. The radical mood was occasionally ‘revolutionary’ – one thinks of 1968 and The Rolling Stones’Street Fighting Man. However, it is important to recognize that such was differentially expressed according to geographical locale. A telling statement by King Crimson I drummer Michael Giles sums up the general provincial ambience which, in his view at least, encouraged involvement in musical activities: ‘ Bournemouth was not like the other industrial cities you know, people living a tough, hard working class life, looking for a way out by being a footballer or a musician…the only reason I’ve been able to come up with as to why we became musicians, was because there was not anything to rebel or fight against. So, it was a frustration not having enough challenge…we weren’t trying to escape…driven by angst or terrible conditions’[1].


Yet, political times they most certainly were.  Yet, the music of King Crimson I was clearly not explicitly politically orientated, say, in the way that Folk music was at the time. As seen, King Crimson I members took inspiration from different worlds – both musical and literary – which preceded the immediate political issues of 1969 and their artistic expression, albeit hybridized into new, contemporary avant-garde forms. Nevertheless, King Crimson I could not be politically (with a small ‘p’) neutral since they had entered a cultural field, the dynamics of which included fields, which operated closely within power relations with respect to each other; for example, commerce, the media, etc. And, despite cultural exuberance, their immediate 60s environment certainly included ‘the dark’, with the assassinations of John and Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the nuclear threat, the Vietnam War, campus protests and student deaths, as well as the issue of civil rights and struggles for colonial independence. 1968 also saw the student/ worker protests in Paris/ France; the beginning of the Troubles in Northern Ireland; the invasion of Czechoslovakia; Poland; Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech. The outcomes of many of these events, and the issues they involved, might even be read into King Crimson I songs as allegories of contemporary concerns. Whatever the relationship between socio-political events and artistic forms, the need to take up a position on such occurrences further stoked an ‘us’ and ‘them’ atmosphere, with ‘us’ being the younger generation and their challenge to everything that conformity defended; underpinning and enhancing social separation from what had been before.


Within this general socio-cultural/ political atmosphere it is important to again the stress the distinction between London and the provinces. If London became thecentre of the counter cultural revolution in the 1960s, it was a city young people elsewhere in Great Britain might rarely visit. This played two ways, and lack of immediate access to what was going on there only underlined and amplified the impact it made in the provinces in terms of fashion, music and social mores – albeit distilled through provincial life-styles and attitudes. Prominent cultural icons suggested a ‘world away’ – both connected and disconnected – and a highly mysterious and attractive one at that for a 69 generation ready for artistic experimentation!


Socio-economically, the ‘post-war’ period is generally typified as one of industrial decline and decolonialisation for the United Kingdom – as it became less important and less well off.  Yet, at the same time, the 1960s period was also characterized by a kind of Dionysian spirit: the spontaneous outpouring of emotional, sensual aspects of the post war younger generation – and its eventual sundering. This is the world that King Crimson I surfed in its concluding stages, which found the same generating structures manifesting a very different artistic expressionism.


In terms of their reflection in musical developments, the socio-cultural revolutions of the ‘the 60s’ were almost entirely delineated by The Beatles’first and last LPs – Please, Please Me (1963)andAbbey Road (1969) – and what came before and after can be set against and defined in terms of these two records. If not exactly ‘fin de siècle’ or millenniumism, 1969 was certainly ‘fin de régime’. This fin de régime period of The Beatles – surely, an avant-garde nearing exhaustion (John Lennon sang ‘the dream is over’ on 1970 Plastic Ono BandLP) – then offered a perfect space for a new musical world to define itself. For those coming of age at the time – say 15-17 – and in the light of subsequent experiences, it was an age of catharsis – coming down to earth, even if it was not necessarily this generation that were ‘high’ in the first place! The year 1969 was therefore an ending, but it was also a beginning. It was certainly the end for 60s’ leaders The Beatles. If each album had become an allegory of the times, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band(1968) represented the summer of love. The follow-up White album– white! – was then released later in 1968 with a whole different vibe for the new emergent generation: long hair – unkempt, jeans (no suits or flower power dresses now). Indeed, ‘White’ was a good metaphor for the times – as in ‘empty’ – used up – as the 60s seemed to be. An image of even putrefaction! Autumn 1969 next became the space between cultural geo-seismic plates: The Beatles’ next LP – Abbey Road, appearing in September 1969, fifteen days before In the Court of the Crimson King….


The youth movement of the second half of the 1960s itself came from a world that combined elements of physical and psychic sensationalism with ‘high art’ forms: sensual transcendence; a certain separation (opposition) to society as it stood and the values on which it seemed to be based; a drug and sex fuelled expressionism; a ‘non-English’ exoticism; a displacement of now with ‘elsewhere’ (everywhere). In response to all this, the position that King Crimson 1 personified in its literary images and accompanying music in 1969 seems to have expressed much of this world-weary sentimentalism: romantic, cathartic, post-coital, neo-gothic; and, indeed, an art form that was both of ‘the people’ and separate from them, and ‘new’. In this way, In the Court of the Crimson Kingwas the meeting point of two distinct generations: the sixties swingers and those too young to be a hippy (and, paradoxically, eventually too old to be a punk as well). That meeting point represented a ‘return to Earth’ for both the older and new generations after the excesses of the 60s (note, King Crimson were also eventually to declare themselves ‘Earthbound’), but a return to a very different world from the one that was left behind in the early to mid 60s outset; and one that animated both past, present and future times in their tortured anticipations. Sometimes, periods of exuberance give way to decadent forms, just as the Gothic revival had in the light of the eighteenth Romantic period; when ‘the light’ becomes dark, the yellow sun becomes red – or shall we say Crimson (the colour, let us not forget, of a dying star). It might then be argued that in the case of King Crimson 1, faced with these social forces around them, the band members were indeed somewhat being tasked with giving artistic expression to these times in the form of their musical and poetic hybridity. In this sense, King Crimson I was both object and subjectof a generation.


Such generation shifts can also be seen being played out in the structuring and structured structures of the music field itself.


The Music Field


If we see King Crimson as very much announcing a new musical avant-garde in 1969, their immediate contemporaries would include Roxy Music (1971), Emerson, Lake and Palmer (1970), The Nice (1970), Yes (1968) and Genesis (1967). Indeed, many of the musicians within these groups took the form, if not the content, of King Crimson in defining themselves; in fact, many of them shared the same individual players or had previous (and future!) associations with King Crimson. Bryan Ferry of Roxy Music auditioned for King Crimson and Yes drummer Bill Bruford eventually played for them.


Prior to 1969, the residing, previous ‘avant-garde’ in popular-rock music would have been: The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Cream, The Who, Bob Dylan, etc. A King Crimson generation of musicians would therefore represent a challenge to the established bands and partly a threat to displace them in terms of artistic ascendance in their prise de distance from what had been before. Such distinctions were artistic and aesthetic, but also biological – the new generation was simply younger.


And, before the sixties generation, the previous ‘consecrated avant-garde’ included Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Carl Perkins, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, etc.


Beyond them, the ‘rear-garde’ were comprised of popular singers such as: Perry Como, Connie Francis, Vera Lynn, David Whitfield, Dickie Valentine, Alma Cogan, Ronnie Hilton, Doris Day, Paul Anka, and the dance orchestras. These generations can be set out relationally in the following diagram of the field of popular music culture:




What is true in making a distinction between the generations as represented in the diagram is that to have a new producer, product, or fashion (artist/ art, musician/ music) within the field necessarily threatens the standing avant-garde and risks relegating them to the past – as happened with many groups of the day in the late 60s who suddenly found themselves ‘outmoded’. As in hysteresis, the field simply passed them by and left them standing. Others popular groups were more successful in preserving their position; although this often depended on their salience in the field in the first place. Following this logic, King Crimson I certainly ‘displaced’ and ‘relegated’ many established groups in their ascent to the top of the rock pile.


However, as with any confrontation of the ‘old’ and the ‘new’, the way this is played out aesthetically necessarily involves the combination of elements from both. Theories of avant-gardes suggest that any new artistic generation can establish itself more by a trans-modification of what exists rather than a genuine ‘new’ art form; novelty is not innovation. And, this is part of the raison d’êtreof hybridity. The eventual power of an avant-garde member to become consecrated – popular – probably rests on this distinction. If something is completely new – unrelated to the work of previous generations – it is unlikely to be recognized at all. An avant-garde therefore has to have enough of ‘the old’ in it for the would-be audience to recognize (have an affinity with) it, but served up in a way that appears new (beyond present conventions), and so appeals to a potential audience as an expression of its own uniqueness: a triumph of form over content. As seen, this process of balancing the old and the new typified King Crimson I in terms of both poetic and musical content, and at a high level of distillation


At the same time, any new band in the field needs more that an artistic vision. It also needs financial backing to be operative and the support of those with power and influence in the field by being acknowledge as ‘worthy of note’. Here, the material and the aesthetic are intimately linked. King Crimson I definitely had social capital(networking) and a certain amount of economic capitalas a result: initial financial backing was provided by the Hunkings – Angus and Phyllis. Phyllis was the sister of McDonald’s father (social capital) and married to Angus – a Northern industrialist who possessed old consecratedcapital. Commercially, however, King Crimson I also aimed high. As Giles, Giles and Fripp,two King Crimson members had already established a relationship with Decca(a leading record company who famously turned down The Beatles) by going directly to the top man (Hugh Mendl). This meant that previous social connections were already there to be drawn upon: from producer Wayne Bicherton (who played with ex-Beatle Pete Best) to Tony Clarke, producer of TheMoody Blues(who were gaining a high level of prominence in the 1968/ 69 period). This mixing of art and commerce is an acknowledged strategy of a new avant-garde: to link themselves culturally with the old one in order to gain recognition by association. Breaking with the old order artistically is then all the more evident, thus drawing on the consecrated capital that the established avant-garde had built up and then underlining their own distinction from it in defining themselves in their own terms. In this way, old cultural capital is converted into new cultural capital with new economic capital pay-off. So, clearly, there was resonance between the Moody Bluesand King Crimson, not least in the use of the mellotron and the pastoral/ folk elements they shared. And, indeed, King Crimson I worked with Moody Blues’ producer Tony Clarke. However, the resulting recordings were then abandoned – another exemplar of a kind of prise de distance– when it became clear that Clarke (dispositionally)needed to turn King Crimson into Moody Bluesmark 2. A wise artistic positioning on the part of the band since resemblance would have only diluted and undermined the power of King Crimson’s aesthetic originality. Such decisions are a critical part of creativity and the discernment needed to sort out what’s what in artistic terms.


So, if Capitalacquisition – social, cultural and economic– requires investment of the respective, relevant resources, King Crimson I had made many of the ‘right’ moves: knew (some of the) right people (social capital), procured funds (economic capital), and established a line-up with recognized experienced players (cultural capital). They also did the rounds of prestigious rock venues in London, as noted, the centre of the cultural universe of the clubs with reputation within the music (rock) field: for example, the Marqueeand Speakeasy (strong symbolic capital). Such activities brought them into further contact with individuals who held prominence and standing in that field. All this then allowed them to establish their position within that social space by recognition: that is, in receipt of acknowledged value by others with ‘the power to speak’ in the field – other musicians and journalists. It evidently paid off when King Crimson joined the line-up for The Rolling Stones’ Hyde Park concert in 1969. What better symbolic display than for the old and the new avant-garde to line up ‘against’ one another? Although this was never going to seriously undermine the Stonesas rock deity, and therefore beyond displacement (consecrated avant-garde), King Crimson 1 blew them off the stage. Not quite a ‘royal flush’ but very near to it! And, as noted, such field manoeuvreswere taking place at a time when previous avant-garde members appeared decadent, used up, even exhausted, leaving a vacant space to be occupied.


To sum up, the socio-cultural context and the internal chemistry of the band thus produced a unique mix of styles, which meant that both history and art were on their shoulders. We might even say that everything lined up: psychology, history, philosophy, aesthetics, culture. The voice of King Crimson in In the Court of the Crimson King indeed became a necessity and, locally, the band members had the individual and combined musical functionality to actualise it. In that articulation, their selection and use of musical instruments was also a significant symbolic choice in characterizing the music; and again, ‘the old’ and ‘the new’ acted as resonant sources to the sound they sought to create.


Musical Instruments

Up until the 1950s, the standard instrument for the working and middle classes had actually been the piano or piano accordion, and it was not unusual, even amongst relatively poor social groups, for families to own one of these. However, by the 1950s, the guitar increasingly became the preferred instrument of popular culture. Elvis played a guitar, as many of the modern American singers did; an approach and style that eclipsed the model of ‘singer with backing orchestra’, which had been the dominant form up until that point. In Great Britain, the ukulele became the original cross-overinstrument in the 1950s: Skiffle bands utilized it, along with guitars and tea-chest bass in the rising aesthetic of popular musical art forms. The ukulele, guitar and Skiffle provided small, relatively inexpensive ways of making music before evolving into guitar-based pop bands in the early 60s.This was the background to training and education that the guitarists of King Crimson followed. But, other instruments were critical to the original Crimson musical mix.


Firstly, the mellotron, which so characterized the original King Crimson sound, as it did that of TheMoody Blues,not to mentionThe Beatlesand a host of other contemporary pop/rock bands. The original attraction of the mellotron was that it offered the sound of strings, and indeed began its life as somewhat of a replacement for a string orchestra in dance hall situations. Unlike the organ, it could simulate actual strings, wind instruments and choirs. However, taken away from its dance hall settings, its resultant tonalities ended offering an altogether different vibe from simply one of orchestral accompaniment – for anyone with ears can notice. The way it was subsequently used in the epic rock vernacular could then evoke a wide range of both romantic and associated melancholic musical atmospherics. The inclusion of wind instruments by King Crimson I – sax, flute, etc. – alongside the mellotron only added further reference to classical and jazz genres to the musical fabric; again, creating a hybrid of modern rock with more traditional musical styles. Such is another good example of how not only musical tropes, but instruments themselves, can be redefined when an avant-garde is constructing itself. Hence, again, the jazz/rock guitar of Fripp (not to mention his acoustic playing), the lyricism of Lake’s voice and wind instrumentation of Ian McDonald can be set against the sounds of the mellotron strings of McDonald with all their antecedents across a particular musical legacy but, this time relayed in an upfront amplified, rock mode.


In considering the links between the aesthetic realisation and commercial context, it is also important to note the changes that were occurring in the management of rock groups at the time.


Commerce and Management

By 1969, musical management had come a long way from the practice of the 50s into the 60s. During these years, if one might argue that music was a way of aestheticizing capitalism, it could be argued that the opposite was equally true – capitalism commercialised aesthetics (big time!).


If all cultural fields are both mediated in and through cultural, symbolicand socialcapital,strongly driven by economic capital, they do this is pursuit of their own autonomy. This is exactly what was happening in the music fields in the 1950s and 60s with its links to the associate fields of commerce; although these were still evolving. Previously in the 1950s, producing records had been dominated by a relatively small band of popular singers and labels. The record company would then be part of a large-scale corporate conglomerate. However, this began to break down. For example, Elvis Presley and his contemporaries first recorded for relatively small companies like Sun– innovation therefore appeared from grass roots’ musicality. It then became clear to business, however, that much commercial viability rested within these companies faced with an expanding youth market ready to invest culturally and economically in the up-to-date sounds. In sum, record sales became the latest mass consumer commodity.


The realization that there was money to be made in pop culture also dawned on various small-scale entrepreneurs. So, a culturally aware individual like Brian Epstein, son of a furniture retailer, who also owned a record shop in Liverpool, saw the commercial potential of moving into entertainment management when he signed up The Beatles. He was not alone and others – some music related and some not – regarded the expanding popular music market as a sound business opportunity. George Martin signed a contract with The Beatlesfor Parlophone– a label renowned, up until that point, for recordings of the spoken word. Later, others made a similar move; for example, Witch Season (Joe Boyd and Muff Winwood – brother of Traffics’sSteve Winwood) – as a sub company of Island Records (founded by Chris Blackwell in 1962, mainly as an outlet for Jamaican music but now very much representing the new rock avant-garde (including King Crimsonwho therefore shared in these developments);Immediate Records (Andrew Oldham – manager of the Rolling Stones);Harvest Records (Norman Smith – the Beatlessound engineer), Apple(The Beatles), Threshold Records(The Moody Blues).


Moreover, the UK cultural fieldbecame increasingly susceptible to international influences, which only opened up further commercial potential for the exploitation of overseas markets. Most of these companies were then eventually swallowed up by the big conglomerates: Capitol,EMIand Universal Music (which seems to have ended up owning everything!)


Similar trends can be identified in the commercial management of King Crimson, and its members: a move from small-scale local and individual support to more professional and corporate backing. These trends existed within a changing cultural field, and one that increasingly involved other sections of the fields of power. Roy Simon, for example, undertook his commercial venture with the Giles Brothersafter canvassing youth about what they wanted through an advert in the music magazine. Having recourse to the teenage-orientated press (media field) by placing an advertisement in the pop music newspaperThe Melody Makerwould have been a sound and obvious strategy on the route to his construction of The Trendsetters. He was not mistaken judging by their level of work as backing band and performers of their own music, as well as signing for Parlophone. Producer/ manager Frank Fenter also realised there was money to be made from pop/rock; this time, in employing (Gordon Haskell band) Fleur de Lys as studio session musicians rather than a touring band. A measure of the financial returns possible is evidenced by the way he reputedly made himself 1000 GBP a week, out of which he paid each band member 15 pounds. This type of practice continued the established principle of managers exploiting their artists!


The management practice of King Crimson I also has distinct and original features when set along such developments. Firstly, they actually bought their own equipment (not necessarily the usual practice for aspiring pop groups in the 1960s) from that financial backing from Angus Hunking. Such an individual can again be seen as a business man looking for opportunities within an expanding market, although that market itself was becoming increasingly professional and commercially minded – and panoptic. The fact of the matter was that King Crimson I did not at first sign a contract and, when they did, did so on terms that was not the norm of the day. Commercial times were indeed a-changing. Fripp’s own experience in property management within his father’s firm also gave him an acute sense of what to look out for in reading contracts. Michael Giles: ‘The big difference was that most musicians would rely on record company support in order to get equipment or rent their flat or do something. They were beholden to the record company. The record company then could harness the young men’s energy and give them a small percentage of sales. But, we already had the attitude that we didn’t want to be ripped off by a record company because we’d already done the Decca thing by returning their contract. We already knew that lease-type deals had been done in the past, so we knew that we didn’t have to sign up to a record company to do what we wanted to do’.


Bands on the up, of course, take support where they can find it, including Dunlop Tyres in the case of King Crimson I in the early days. However, once it was a successful living entity, and performing as such, more direct and committed management was needed from individuals who were media literate: enter David Enthoven and John Grayson, who also appreciated the value of independence. The biography of these two impresarios is itself interesting; both attending public school and originating from the Noel Gay Theatrical Agency. They gave up their job there to manage King Crimson showing that they too recognized the commercial potential of pop/rock music; and, indeed, the value of the cultural rock lifestyle, which they apparently enjoyed up to the hilt. There would have been plenty of other examples at the time.


So, experience in the past allowed the group a certain savvy on what to do and not to do. Enthoven and Grayson then invested further economic capitalto keep the show on the road hoping, like any well-judged investment, for a return on their outlay. They then formed the EG company to take care of artists’ recording and publishing activities. These sorts of moves are reminiscent of the ‘heroic times’ of the French Impressionists, which is when painters, for the first time, took ownership, and thus control, of their art: Art for art’s sakereflected the needs of its audience so typical of the underlying generative forces of population changes and the consequent evolution of cultural fields. In a similar way, Music for music’s sakemay well have reflected the needs of King Crimson’s own potential audience given the socio-cultural climate of the day: post-hippy, pre-punk.


In retrospect, we can see the arc of change that was taking place with respect to management within the music field, and the extent to which this impacted on musicians’ income for their work. In the 1950s, it was not uncommon for a manager simply to pay an artist a wage. With the advent of the new entertainment entrepreneur – such as Brian Epstein – percentage deals were struck where the manager took a larger slice of the income as it increased; the logic being that they benefited from success that they instigated and managed. This logic is questionable, of course, especially as it was not rare for managers to contrive contracts with clauses that gave them the lion’s share of the profits if an act achieved mass success. Mistakes were also committed in the general air of amateurism, which characterised rock/ pop music management of the time; for example, Epstein signed away millions of pounds by not realising the commercial potential of merchandising The Beatles. No wonder bands turned to accountants, who understood money matters. So, with The Beatles, Allen Klein took over, and both restructured and rationalized Apple holdings, including making a number of redundancies amongst those who seemed to have little active role in the company’s commercial output. His plan was to guarantee a fixed income to musicians, which seemed an attractive proposition after the uncertainties of the past. The reality, however, was that large sums of money were often siphoned off to overseas accounts, which did indeed supply a stable income. However, much in the style of banks, more money was made by individuals like Klein investing receipts from groups’ earnings via a series of companies, which they also founded and directed for further commercial gains.


Accountants such as Sam Alder (who eventually bought out EG) and Lord Levy used knowledge gained in accountancy services to the entertainment industry to their advantage. Alder, for example, through a series of sub-companies and off-shore accounts began practices of borrowing from one to another (if not exactly stealing from Peter to pay Paul!), often against projected future royalties, which slowly leached finances from musicians to pay – past, present and future – for their own consultancy and further commercial activities. The track of these practices through the 70s, 80s, and 90s has been documented in painful detail by Robert Fripp; a situation which left him seriously financially compromised by the commercial practices of his management company sailing close to the legal wind.


In Conclusion

In the end, however, there is the music, and indeed a cultural legacy that sees King Crimson still extemporizing and re-articulating its original voice after various reformulations of personnel, style and cultural content. In the course of its existence, each of its founding elements have at times been put to one side, re-expressed and/ or re-engaged with through an extensive history of performance and recordings. The reason for their success, finally, must surely be the richness of that music itself, as evidenced by the large following it has built up over 50 years.


This personal reflection on the first incarnation of King Crimson has shown how their emergent art arose at a particular socio-cultural time and place, and was deeply shaped by its antecedents. But, critical to their artistic expression was the particular mixture of biographies and personalities and the way these interacted together musically to articulate a certain aesthetic of those times. The fact that it is possible to identify influences should not, however, detract from the originality of the mix: the whole being greater that the sum of the parts.


Creativity is an immanent impulse personally expressed in trans-historic fields utilizing sentient fabrics. However, it is also shaped by others – managers, accountants, and record companies – each of which retain their own interests and ambitions; sometimes working with and at other times against the artist. The fact that the voice of King Crimson as expressed in In the Court of the Crimson King still animates its unique aesthetic vision can only attest to its continued potency and contemporary relevance.




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[1]Here, I acknowledge source material from interviews that Sid Smith undertook for his own research on King Crimson: Smith, S (2001) In the Court f King Crimson. London: Helter Skelter Publishing.