‘You never knew what somebody was going to do’: Greg Lake on King Crimson’s improvisational start

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King Crimson’s genre-creating 1969 debut In the Court of the Crimson King didn’t include a single song shorter than 6 minutes. The band’s 1970 follow up ended with an 11-minute song suite.

Founding member Greg Lake says Crimson’s proto-prog excursions would become even lengthier in concert back then. And if it sometimes sounded like utter and complete improvisation, well, that’s because they were. In fact, King Crimson made sure of it.

“On every concert we played, we would have one song that had no time signature and no key,” Lake says in this video Q&A. “It would just start, and somebody would play something — and you would play off of that. Everybody would just play however they felt, however it came. It was a kind of a free-jazz concept.”

Existing in such a turbulent, free-flowing environment, Lake says, forced King Crimson — which also initially featured drummer Michael Giles and multi-instrumentalist Ian McDonald — to focus not so much on their individual parts, but on the larger musical whole.

“King Crimson was more about listening than it was playing,” Lake says. “All of were good players, and the thing we discovered was that the band played better when everybody listened. Rather than concentrate on what you’re doing, listen to what the other person is doing — so you could interact with it. That was the thing about King Crimson, we were always locked up in some way.”

Of course, by the time 1970’s In the Wake of Poseidon appeared, the band was already in flux. Fripp and Lake were joined on the album by saxophonist Mel Collins, bassist Peter Giles, pianist Keith Tippett and vocalist Gordon Haskell — but the band had already essentially disintegrated.

Still, the original edition of King Crimson left behind quite a legacy, Lake says.

“It always verged upon something that was slightly dangerous, where you never really knew what somebody was going to do or play,” Lake adds. “I think that’s what kept it really alive, and buoyant. It was one of the things that defined King Crimson, not being restricted to doing a three-minute pop song. We allowed things to go on 10 minutes, 15 minutes, and it allowed for the music to develop.”

Lake would go on to co-found Emerson Lake and Palmer, recording with the supergroup into the 1990s.

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