In 1984, YHB was fully immersed in the "alternative rock" of the day, from the more popular R.E.M. and U2 to the independent DYI sounds of Hüsker Dü and Minutemen and lots in between. So, when a friend and fellow frequent concertgoer asked about going to see King Crimson do a show at the Greek Theatre in L.A., the answer was an immediate, resounding "NO!"
After all, wasn't King Crimson prog? How uncool and outdated could that be? Disturbing visions ensued of massive stage sets, florid light shows, bizarre costumes, murky concept albums with sidelong suites about fairies and dragons, endless noodling on overwrought keyboard and guitar solos, and on and on, ad inifinitum.
Undaunted, said friend unloaded a set of LPs (remember those massive black things) and begged for a considered listen. And, yes, persistence paid off. The journey through several albums from 1969 to 1984 was a remarkable one.
Actually, with each successive lineup of the ever-changing Crimson, the sounds actually were stripped down and refined further away from the stereotypical "progessive" sound to a leaner, tighter one (ones?) From the legendary debut, In the Court of the Crimson King, and its still-astonishing "21st Century Schizoid Man," to the much-maligned Lizard (1970) and Islands (1971), the riveting power of the 1972-74 lineup and its trio of albums and the surprisingly-successful reconstituted Crimson of the early 1980s, it was obvious that, in its relentless changeability, experimentation, and precision, KC became less of a prog band and operated within its own sphere, separate from anything else in the "rock world."
Guitarist Robert Fripp, who denies being the band's leader, but who has been its sole continuing member and has the patents and copyrights under his own name, has had a clever saying: King Crimson albums are "love letters" and the concerts are "hot dates." Another way of saying that, great as the albums can be, the band is best experienced live. That statement was fully validated by YHB at the June '84 gig at the Greek.
An impressed new fan drove home from LA that night and some albums were quickly acquired and absorbed. Lo and behold, however, KC, again, ceased to exist a month or so later and, so, was left aside in favor of other musical interests. One EP, 1994's Vroom was purchased and enjoyed, but, otherwise, a quarter century went by without any exposure to Crimson, though some aspects of the band's music, especially the 1974 album, Starless and Bible Black, resonated.
So, after 25 years, in Fall 1999, it was decided to give Crimson another go and the focus was the 1972-74 period, a popular one for Crimson fans. What hooked me was the track "The Talking Drum" from 1973's Larks' Tongues in Aspic. The African-style percussion by Jamie Muir, David Cross's keening violin playing, the alternating repetitive triads of bassist John Wetton (he of Asia fame in the early 80s), Bill Bruford's building and hypnotic drumming, and Fripp's Middle Eastern-style guitar playing, in particular, drew me in. It seemed that, while in 1984, my references to Crimson were limited to what I knew of "rock" to that point, the many years since brought exposure to classical, jazz and world music and this helped coalesce my interest in what KC had done over the years. The Starless and Bible Black album featured the amazing closer, Fracture, with Fripp's control, precision and clean tone leading to a thunderous finish. But, it was the final album of that period, Red, released in October 1974, that proved to be the most impressive.
The quartet finished extensive touring with a powerful performance at New York's Central Park on 1 July 1974, after which Cross was fired over Fripp's objections. Already disillusioned with the band's direction and enmeshed in a personal crisis requiring soul searching, the guitarist joined Wetton and Bruford in the studio just a week later to make Red and then informed his colleagues that he was offering no opinions as to the direction of the music.
While these were hardly ideal conditions, if such exist, to make a studio album, the trio, aided by several musicians who had been in Crimson as members or guests (including original member, reed player Ian McDonald, later of Foreigner), created Red, released in October 1974 and which is one of the three essential albums in the Crimson catalog (along with In the Court of the Crimson King and 1981's Discipline.)
The title track is one of the several pieces in the "canon" that are generally held out to be paramount and it is a great piece. Another key song is Providence, a live improvisation with a powerful closing that was edited to a rather abrupt end, and which was recorded in the Rhode Island city of that name, and one of several pieces (a few on Starless and Bible Black) that were included on studio albums, but with audience applause and other concert noise edited out, so that the distinction between studio and live performance was blurred--an interesting effect not often used. Two other songs, Fallen Angel and One Red Nightmare, tend to be downplayed because of the attention give to the others, but Wetton sings well and the band plays tightly. Bruford's use of cymbals on the latter piece is also noteworthy.
The centerpiece, however, and perhaps the greatest song in long history of King Crimson is Starless, a piece Wetton introduced in the Starless and Bible Black session earlier in the year and which was promptly rejected, though it became a live staple later. Persistence paid off, because, when taken up for Red, the song became a stunning display of Wetton's smoky vocals evoking the contemplative and dark lyrics, a long middle section of Fripp's repetitive but hypnotic triad of notes, and a complex and frequently frenetic ending section that, in total, had the band, including McDonald and others, virtually capsulizing the five-year history of Crimson in an exhilirating twelve minute tour de force.
Fripp didn't notify Wetton and Bruford, who both seemed to think that stardom was just around the corner for the band, which was to include McDonald as a permanent member, that he was leaving until later in the year. But, Starless, intended or not, was the ultimate swan song and Red the consummate send-off for a band that was unfairly defined by stereotypical appraisals of progressive rock.
There'll be much more to say here about King Crimson and its long, varied and notable recordings, but Red is about as apt a place to start as any. A 40th Anniversary edition, issued in 2009, has the original album and three bonus tracks (including the full version of Providence) on a CD and a variety of formats and rare 1974 video of the band performing, though in mono, four tracks, including Starless, from a French TV broadcast on a DVD. The mix by Steven Wilson of the band Porcupine Tree is truly outstanding (as all of the series are) and the edition is well worth seeking out for both the superior sound and the video content.