Greg Lake on King Crimson’s biggest chart triumph: ‘So fully formed, but also so unusual’

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King Crimson marked its highest-ever album chart ranking today in 1970, as the band’s self-titled debut reached No. 28 on the strength of an entirely new vision for rock.

“In King Crimson, you had zero amount of the blues — whereas in every other rock band you had some, if not a lot,” co-founding member Greg Lake tells us, in an exclusive Something Else! Sitdown. “You had zero American influence, whereas in every other band you would have had some, if not a lot. It was very European, and quirky.”

In the Court of the Crimson King also included King Crimson’s lone-charting single, “The Court of the Crimson King,” a Mellotron-driven burst of seminal progressive rock. It’s a highlight of a five-song cycle by Robert Fripp, Michael Giles, Lake and Ian McDonald that moved boldly toward classical, jazz and European influences — even while it neatly presupposed the darker edges to come in post-psychedelic rock.

Most interesting was the way the group coalesced, bringing together musicians of disparate musical backgrounds who — if only for a moment — bonded in a single, never-before-heard vision.

“It kind of reached out and grasped rock ’n’ roll, in a way — but in truth, while I grew up in rock ’n’ roll, Robert, and Ian and Michael didn’t really,” Greg Lake says. “So, when I came into the picture, I really changed the band. Before, they were actually called Giles Giles and Fripp. You don’t even want to hear that record. It’s offensive; it really is! They were writing funny songs about paraplegic people. It was dreadful! It was a kind comedy group, a high-quality musical comedy group. And they were going to be dropped from the record label. That’s when I entered the picture, and I changed everything, really. They were such great musicians, though. They adapted, and we became a rock band.”

While King Crimson, per se, had only been together less than a year, Lake and Fripp were old friends — providing an air-tight musical symbiosis that served as the band’s initial foundation. Still, Lake says, that was only part of what made this incarnation of the group so special.

“I could play everything he was playing; he could play everything I was playing,” Greg Lake tells us. “We both knew where it came from. The other component that I would say is that (saxophonist/multi-instrumentalist) Ian McDonald had never been in a rock band before. 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.”

Like so many to follow, this incarnation wouldn’t last long, however. Michael Giles and Ian McDonald were both gone within months of the 1969 release of In the Court of the Crimson King, though Giles did sit in on the follow up In The Wake of Poseidon. Greg Lake departed after that 1970 project, going on to co-found Emerson Lake and Palmer, while Robert Fripp still leads he ever-evolving King Crimson to this day.

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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  • Death Spiral

    Between the iron gates of fate,
    The seeds of time were sown,
    And watered by the deeds of those
    Who know and who are known;
    Knowledge is a deadly friend
    If no one sets the rules
    The fate of all mankind I see
    Is in the hands of fools

    • Katherine Leigh

      When I heard the lyric “in the hands of fools” I immediately thought of Dr Kissinger.

      • Death Spiral

        Or Dr. Strangelove, or is that redundant?

  • Sam

    i saw a much, much later version of KC in the orange peel in asheville, nc. seeing fripp so close was a personal milestone. they did do a lark’s toungue piece.

    • Nick DeRiso

      Appove

  • kk29

    I just missed seeing the original KC in Palm Beach Florida ( damn! ). I did see the 1972 version, when Fripp was the only founding member onstage. I saw Ian McDonald in 1978 with his new group Foreigner. And of course I saw ELP several times in the 70s. SO the only original member I’ve never seen is Michael Giles. And I was hoping to finally see him when he formed the 21st Century Schizoid Band, but by the time they came near to my area he had left and was replaced by Ian Wallace ( again! ), and I had seen him in the 1972 KC.
    Greg Lake came to our fair city in 2012 and I got to chat with him. We talked entirely about King Crimson, not a word about ELP! And he talked about KC quite a lot during his show…I had the definite impression that he still favors KC over ELP in his career, wistfully wondering “what if”. What if Ian and Mike hadn’t left? What would a second, and a third KC album be like?
    I told Greg that, for me, there is only one King Crimson, the original band. All the rest are variations of the Robert Fripp Band. Many are quite good, especially the Bill Bruford years. But the name King Crimson was created by Peter Sinfield. It was Peter’s original Court Of The Crimson King, a little folkish ditty he played for Ian McDonald. Ian quite liked the song – the words at least! He then transformed it into the masterpiece that made King Crimson’s name.

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