‘I don’t regret what happened': On one of King Crimson’s most misunderstood albums

Red, at the time, was clearly a disappointment — having spent just a single week on the British charts, at No. 45. Every previous King Crimson album had gotten into the Top 30. Robert Fripp, to make the point clearer, unceremoniously ended the band before Red even appeared on store shelves.

Well, in truth, the group was breaking up even as it convened into July 1974 for these sessions. David Cross departed at the end of King Crimson’s summer tour, leaving a pared down trio of Fripp, John Wetton and Bill Bruford to go forward with a few assists from ex-bandmates Mel Collins and Ian McDonald. It didn’t last long.

With Fripp’s announcement of a split, Crimson would lay dormant until the beginning of a new decade — and this aggressively complex album might have been, it seemed, best left forgotten. Except the critical estimation of 1974’s Red has continued to rise over the ensuing four decades. Kurt Cobain, for instance, would count Red as a landmark in his brief, but influential career.

There was no denying, of course, that the Wetton-era Crimson, as it moved from 1973’s Larks’ Tongue in Aspic; to 1974’s Starless and Bible Black and then Red, had lost sales momentum. USA, a live document, arrived in 1975 — but by then Wetton was already headed toward a stint with UK. Still, he remains a proselytizer for his final studio effort with King Crimson, charts be damned.

“It’s a beautiful album,” Wetton tells us, in an exclusive Something Else! Sitdown. “I thought so at the time, though nobody else did. [Chuckles.] That’s just the way it was. When we finished the album I thought: ‘This is exactly what I wanted to do.’”

The tough title track (as grandiose as it is brilliantly grating) begins things, unleashing a torrent of time-signature changes, before Red moves into an acoustic-tinged “Fallen Angel.” Then there’s “One More Red Nightmare,” one of the heaviest moments in Crimson history.

Red had it all,” Wetton says. “If you look at Red, as much as any album we did, it has the lot — very concise, very to the point. It hits you like a sledgehammer, and at the same time, it gives you mouth-to-mouth respiration just when you need it.”

“Providence,” a live, utterly on-the-edge improvisation, sets the stage for the 12-minute album-closing exploration “Starless” — a seminal effort for Wetton as a composer, and a second standout moment for McDonald, after “One More Red Nightmare.” “Starless,” which was actually a hold over from Bible Black, had been radically reworked by the time it appeared on Red — and ultimately featured a memorable personnel twist.

“I provided three minutes of a formal tune for ‘Starless,’ and part of the lyric,” Wetton tells us, “and then Bill Bruford provided the demonic bass riff. King Crimson was nothing if not a paradox. Everybody assumes that the bass part was written by the bass player, but it was written by the drummer! [Laughs.]”

“Starless” has remained a key element of Wetton’s live shows, though he typically plays the shorter, original version of the tune. He even used a discarded portion of the song for a subsequent UK track called “Caesar’s Palace Blues.” Forty years later, there are no hard feelings.

“I don’t regret what happened there,” Wetton says. “Stuff happens and you learn from it. It makes us what we are now. I thoroughly enjoyed my two or three years in King Crimson. It was like going to college, really. You come out with a qualification that no one can take away.”

Nick DeRiso

Over a 30-year career, Nick DeRiso has also explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz, Ultimate Classic Rock 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 nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.