One Track Mind: Adrian Belew, Greg Lake, Tony Levin and John Wetton remember King Crimson

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As a sweeping reissue of King Crimson’s Red looms, we returned to that classic trio-era recording, along with the group’s seminal proto-prog debut, its early 1980s comeback and a pair of deeply intriguing 1990s recordings.

Key figures from each of those eras join us, a part of exclusive SER Sitdowns, to discuss what made those albums — and those times — so special.

Each has his own special connection with King Crimson founder Robert Fripp, from Greg Lake’s childhood memories to Adrian Belew’s standing as the mercurial guitarist’s longest-tenured regular collaborator.

John Wetton, meanwhile, joined Crimson for a creatively fruitful period in the early 1970s that produced a trio of classics in Larks’ Tongue in Aspic then Starless and Bible Black and finally Red — each of them issued within a period of almost exactly two years.

Finally, there’s Tony Levin, who joined Crimson with Belew in time for 1981’s Discipline and continued through to the late-1990s offshoot ProjeKCt albums. Levin originally played with Fripp on his 1979 solo effort Exposure.

Together, they provide new insight into a band that took listeners on a series of inventive turns across these four decades …

“THE COURT OF THE CRIMSON KING,” (IN THE COURT OF THE CRIMSON KING, 1969): While King Crimson, per se, had only been together less than a year, Lake and co-founder Robert Fripp were old friends – providing an air-tight musical symbiosis. Still, Lake tells us, that was only part of what made this incarnation of the group so special.

“The other component that I would say is that (saxophonist/multi-instrumentalist) Ian McDonald had never been in a rock band before,” Lake tells us. “He came out of a brass military band — very good musician, of course, but he had no real rock ’n’ roll experience at all. What he did have was a great musical knowledge, a great sense of orchestral music. Finally, you have Michael Giles, the drummer who was just an extraordinary human being. When you meet Michael, it’s as though you go back to 1910, 1920 perhaps. He’s really like that. Everything about him is of that period. He’s really like a Gatsby character; very sweet man. Those are the things that made up that band. You perhaps can see now why the music is like it is. That’s why it was both so fully formed, but also so unusual.”

A Mellotron-driven burst of seminal prog, “Court of the Crimson King” reached No. 80 in the U.S. – becoming the first, and so far only, charting stateside single for King Crimson. It’s part of a five-song cycle that moved boldly away from the blues underpinnings that shot through so much of popular music of the time, instead focusing on classical, jazz and European influences – even while it neatly presupposed the darker edges to come in post-psychedelic rock.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: The title track from 2011’s ‘Raised in Captivity’ found John Wetton reuniting with old King Crimson mate Robert Fripp, producing an album highlight.]

“THRAK (live),” (THRAKATTAK, 1996): A highlight of the wildly engaging — if sadly short-lived — double-trio period, as Crimson returned after a 10-year absence following 1984’s 3 of a Perfect Pair. Fripp was joined this time by Belew, Trey Gunn, Bill Bruford, Levin and Pat Mastelotto, with “Thrak” serving as the opener on this concert recording — after having appeared on this new grouping’s introductory EP Vroom back in 1994.

By the fall of the next year, this primal song had become something much more: a platform for a stunning co-mingling of sonic and musical ideas, showcasing Crimson at a peak of improvisational power. Fitting it all in with this double-trio concept, however, presented unique challenges for those involved as each of Crimson’s six members had to listen as much as they played for their ideas to mesh.

“Challenging, for sure!,” the bassist Levin tells us. “It’s actually harder when you have someone else playing parts in your range — like, for the drummers when there are two, and in Crimson for me and Trey Gunn, both having bass instruments. As usual with Crimson, we embraced the challenge, trusted in Robert Fripp’s judgment that we had the right musicians, and that the direction would be new and worthwhile. The result did justify that trust.”

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Adrian Belew talks about the future of King Crimson, his brilliant orchestral rethinking of ‘e,’ and attending the Frank Zappa School of Rock.]

“SHELTERING SKY” (DISCIPLINE with King Crimson, 1981): A retooled King Crimson returns again, this time following a seven-year hiatus, to produce arguably their most complete recording since 1974’s Red. Fripp had, at this point, initially added Belew and Levin to the lineup, shedding everyone else but Bruford.

The resulting album is challenging and fizzy, infused of course with every progger pretension but now boasting the snappy new-wave vibe of the day. That starts with a conversational Belew taking over vocals. (He sounds an awful lot like his old tour boss, David Byrne of the Talking Heads, on tracks like “Thela Hun Ginjeet.”) Levin’s canny work on the Chapman Stick, notably on the opening “Elephant Talk,” also connected the band with art-rockers of the moment — particularly Peter Gabriel, whose post-Genesis sound was shaped in part by Levin.

Yet for everything different, Discipline doesn’t move completely outside the ever-shifting King Crimson’s age-old vernacular — notably on this trippy instrumental, titled after the 1949 novel of the same name by Paul Bowles. Belew’s jabbing style, we learned from the beginning, makes for an intriguing passenger during Fripp’s bold explorations into texture.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: John Wetton examines three of his most important musical stops – Asia, King Crimson and UK – while frankly discussing how drinking nearly ruined all of it.]

“STARLESS,” (RED, 1974): The trio of Wetton, Fripp and Bruford recorded this underrated project with help from former King Crimson members David Cross, McDonald and Mel Collins. Originally conceived by Wetton as the title track to Crimson’s previous recording, the song had been left out and reworked over the late spring tour of 1974 — eventually reemerging not as a straight-forward ballad, but as one of the band’s classic 12-minute musical explorations.

That long gestation period led to some interesting twists in the song’s evolution: For instance Bruford, the drummer, suggested the bass riff which dominates the lengthy instrumental section — and, of course, the title had to be shortened, since the album Starless and the Black Bible had already been issued. “King Crimson was nothing if not a paradox,” Wetton tells us. “Everybody assumes that the bass part was written by the bass player, but it was written by the drummer! (Laughs.) Sometimes the bass part was written by the guitar player. That happens in any band.”

Shockingly, Fripp disbanded King Crimson before Red could be released, and the album disappeared without any accompanying tour. Still, “Starless” has remained a staple of Wetton’s live shows, though he occasionally performs the shorter, original version.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Tony Levin on life in King Crimson, his 2011 trio project with David Torn and Alan White, and performing on John Lennon’s final sessions.]

“DINOSAUR,” (THRAK, 1995): This long-awaited studio effort memorably concluded a 10-year hiatus for King Crimson. But it certainly wasn’t the first such gap in recording. There was a seven-year silence before Discipline. It’s now been another decade since King Crimson last issued a new album together in 2003.

Belew says he has gotten used to these long periods of inactivity. In fact, he says they usually lead to important breakthroughs. That certainly was the case with Discipline and with Thrak. “I call those honeymoon projects,” Belew tells us. “You come back with so many ideas.” Songs like “Dinosaur” — with its spaced-out middle section — also represent the promise, not quite fulfilled, of Crimson’s imaginative six-man lineup.

“I have always wished that we had used the two-trio thing a little more radically than we did,” Belew adds. “We didn’t get to at that point in time. When we first talked about a double trio, I thought: ‘Great, two trios playing against each other.’ Instead, it was one rhythm section and then another. “Dinosaur” was close. I wrote a string section in the middle, and that was as close as we got. I loved those big pieces like ‘Thrak’ and ‘Dinosaur,’ pieces where there’s lots of music activity and a counterpoint going on. That was great, the way the two drummers worked together. We worked out something truly unique, playing in two signatures over each other.”

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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