King Crimson I – 1969
An Extended Essay in Three Parts
Part 1 began with a personal account of a musical epiphany set in 1970 and explored how we might understand what was going on in terms of the aesthetic experience of a creative event. Sensation, emotion, feeling all go into any first-hand encounter with art, and I explored the ways in which a philosophical interpretation can account for the ways these interact with each other and make up any one individual response. My discussion involved Kantian metaphysics – issues beyond the physical world – but was exemplified with reference to King Crimson I as very much a part of it. This discussion led to the view that further exploration was needed in addressing the exact dynamic between the objective environment within which King Crimson I found themselves and the individual subjectivities of the band members; and for this a more socially accented methodology was required. Such a methodology was sketched out in terms of the Theory of Practice provided by the French social Pierre Bourdieu. His epistemological perspective is based on structure as being both structured and structuring, involving objective patterns of instantiation and sentient data. Subsequent tools for analysis were offered and included such concepts as Field and Habitus as ways of illuminating the objective and subjective, and Capital – Symbolic, Social, Cultural and Economic - as a means of mediation between them.
In effect, this led to a three level analysis of social phenomena1, the specificity of which for King Crimson I shall set out in the rest of this essay:
Level 1: Analyze the habitus of agents - the systems of dispositions they have acquired by internalizing a deterministic type of social and economic conditions. In effect, this level analyses the empirical biographies of KC I members; their work and the salient generative themes within it. The focus here is on the relationships between the aesthetic and socio-historical.
Level 2 – Map out the objective structure of relations between those occupying positions within the music field in the late 1960s. Such includes not only the popular music field, but also its relational structures and consequent activities (and output) within the greater cultural field as a whole. Capital is here used to articulate the medium of its inner dynamic of the field. This analysis provides a structural topology of the cultural field as pertinent to King Crimson I.
Level 3 - Analyse the position of the music field vis-à-vis the cultural field of production: the various socio-cultural and commercial fields and the field of power - and the ways they influence each other. This analysis includes the connections between the music field and the broader socio-economic field structures - fields within fields - in order to highlight the way various social locales – political, education, media, culture – integrate and interface with each other and are, finally, mutually influential in how artistic biography unfolds.
The approach then seeks to offer a three level and three dimensional view of King Crimson I. Although treated discretely, these levels should be understood as co-terminous.
As in part I, the discussion is also interwoven with more subjective accounts of my own personal encounter with the music of King Crimson and the place of popular music in general in my life at the time. This inclusion is to offer something of the naïve, innocence of aesthetic experience; thus not foregrounding academic interpretation.
I first heard ‘In the Court of the Crimson King’ on the Alan Freeman BBC Radio 1 show on a Saturday afternoon and bought the 45 rpm single of the title track – which I still have!! That would have been the autumn of 1969. The imagery would have instantly caught my attention; even the name, King Crimson, and the cover art work of the LP. This was an altogether darker affair than 60s pop and it would have matched my teenage mood: by then, I had been jilted by my girlfriend, was depressed, and into introspective poetry (the romantics!) and folk music. Oh dear! The intra song section titles also caught my attention: The Return of the Fire Witch, The Puppets’ Dance, etc. A whole poetic landscape with music to match – certainly, another world to escape into.
Then, there was the mellotron – those lush strings, which seemed so bleak. And that almost military snare drum!
Lots of other doomy images in the songs as well conjured up a sense of desolation: ‘rusted chains’, ‘black queen’, ‘cracked bells’, ‘funeral march’, ‘prison moons’. Also, a kind of ‘faery world’ – ‘queens’, ‘jester’, ‘piper’, ‘juggler’, ‘wise men’. And, intense music, both in terms of melody and arrangements. Then, that guitar of course – focused tone, precise, never more or less than what was exactly necessary. Intensely emotional.
I certainly knew Epitaph as well – maybe it was on another sampler. More melodramatic mellotron and angst ridden vocals – I loved it!!! ‘Cracking walls’, ‘nightmares’, ‘screams’, ‘confusion’, ‘fear of tomorrow’, ‘iron gates of fate’, ‘knowledge a deadly friend’. The ‘fate of mankind’ being ‘in the hands of fools’ pretty much summed up the zeitgeist of my generation!
Interestingly, I did not buy the LP at the time; as I say, I think I had my favourite tracks on various samplers. Schizoid Man was almost too brash for me. That being said, the way it explodes halfway through the second side of the Island Sampler Nice Enough to Eat is amazing. Side 2 opens with some folk-jazzy-bluesy tracks by Blodwyn Pig and Traffic. Then, there is Nick Drake’s Time Has Told Me. Nothing could be more fragile, more English, poetic, more ‘folky’, and then the terror of Schizoid Man blasts the whole thing apart. This is followed by a bit of Indian exoticism – Gungamai by Quintessence and then the side ends with the whimsy of Anglo-Irish Dr Strangely Strange. Brilliant piece of track placing this.
I do not know if this is literally true but I always used to claim there were no ‘blues’ in King Crimson – no blue notes. It seemed quintessentially ‘English’ to me – still does. Indeed, putting King Crimson next to Nick Drake pretty much summed up the two extremes of the English voice in pop/folk/rock music at the time. Essentially, they are the same thing!!
Level 1: Individuals and Dispositions
To consider the individual habitus of the original members of King Crimson is to focus on the particularities of biography and dispositions; this as a way of appreciating patterns of what in part 1 I called elective affinities (and dis-affinities) between them. In the case of KC1, what is perhaps most striking is the congruence and complementarity of their geographical space and social origin.
There seems to have occurred a remarkable ‘coincidence’ of a group of guitarists coming together – ‘from a single generation’ – in a relatively small, unremarkable, provincial town: Bournemouth (with its outlying districts – Wimborne (Fripp), Winton (Giles) and Poole (Lake). Other associated members of this group would include Andy Summers (The Police), Gordon Haskell (King Crimson), John Wetton (King Crimson), John Rostill (The Shadows), Zoot Money, and Al Stewart. Most of these came from lower middle class backgrounds, thus affording both cultural and economic resources. Most were educated in Grammar Schools at a time when entry to these depended on distinguishing oneself by passing the 11+ examination. Local culture included seaside entertainment, but this would involve accomplished musicians and entertainers, who various KC members played for, either as backing or support bands – a good practice ground! On the seaside, such music involved more than three chords and required a developed sense of musical accompaniment within jazz/ swing styles of the dance orchestras. Typical four-member ‘groups’, modeled in the style of the Beatles would have been the contemporary youth alternative to music that went back to the traditional songs of the 1940s and 50s.
A music teacher such as Don Strike, who had a shop in the Arcade at Wimborne, would have been influential in teaching a certain style since he came from that dance-band tradition; so developing technique, reading music and practicing sophisticated chordal progressions. Both Lake and Fripp were taught by him. Other ‘jazz’ tuition was also available; for example, Tony Alton (Fripp). There was a local classical tradition, itself also accessed by Fripp – Kathleen Gartell and the Corfe Mullen Youth Orchestra. Local networking was strong; including a prominent and well reputed music shop such as Eddie Moores.
Listening, and playing, therefore, included a range of styles: contemporary, classical, jazz, modern. Styles and names associated with Dorset-based band members:
Michael Giles: Vaughan Williams; father was a violinist in Bournemouth classical Orchestra; Skiffle.
Robert Fripp: The Beatles; Dvorak; John Mayall; Chris Barber; Django Reinhardt.
Greg Lake: Pop, Prokoviev, Copeland.
As noted in part 1, both Fripp and Lake practiced Paganini based guitar exercises with Don Strike.
Already, this represents a rich and diverse cultural capital, strong local social capital, and at least modest economic capital (guitar lessons cost money!)
A telling statement by Michael Giles sums up the general ambience which encouraged an attitude of musical involvement: ‘ Bournemouth was not like the other industrial cities you know, people living a tough, hard working class life, looking for a way out by being a footballer or a musician…the only reason I’ve been able to come up with as to why we became musicians, was because there was not anything to rebel or fight against. So, it was a frustration not having enough challenge…we weren’t trying to escape…driven by angst or terrible conditions’2.
What is noticeable is how quickly Michael Giles, and his brother Peter, became ‘professional’: Johnny King and the Raiders -> The Dowland Brothers -> The Trendsetters. Each step represented a hike in professionalism and musical standards. Social capital again was important: The Dowland Brothers played the Downstairs Club in Bournemouth where they would mix with Zoot Money, Andy Summers and John Rostill (future member of the Shadows). The move from semi-pro to professional, however, came in 1964 through the impetus of local businessman Roy Simon (economic capital) who, presumably noting the explosion of youth culture announced by the Beatles, commissioned market research to find out what young people wanted with a mind to providing it as a commercial venture. The Giles brothers (as the Dowland Brothers) joined the Trendsetters who, although never making it, were ‘good enough’ to back an established international group like The Drifters .
Out of that relative ‘failure’ came the drive to re-found the group by auditioning for other players, which is when Fripp joined to become Giles, Giles and Fripp.
Meanwhile, Fripp’s school friend and fellow guitar student, Greg Lake, was working through his own range of pop bands: Unit Four, The Time Checks, The Shame, the Gods.
Against this provincial musical heritage can be set a more London-based ethos.
Firstly, Ian McDonald. McDonald was born in Osterley, Middlesex, and latterly lived with his parents in Teddington, London. His upbringing would involve a similar jazz/ dance band musical legacy: his parents listened to Les Paul, Guy Mitchell, Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald; but, also classical – Rimsky-Korsokov, for example (‘high-brow’ cultural capital). MacDonald played a little guitar and drums. However, unsuccessful at school, he left to join the army, attending the Royal Military School of Music from 1963, where he learnt compositional and arranging skills (academic cultural capital). On leaving the army in 1967, he plunged into ‘flower power’ London, specifically the Middle Earth Club in Covent Garden (avant-garde cultural capital) where he met and worked with Judy Dyble who was then lead singer for folk-rock group Fairport Convention.
Secondly, Peter Sinfield. Sinfield had a band named Creation for which McDonald auditioned. He was born in London as well – Fulham (where KCI based themselves to rehearse) – but grew up in an altogether more bohemian atmosphere of English/ Irish parents. His mother was bisexual and the family had a German housekeeper with experience as a Circus performer. As an only child, he was taken into an exotic world of adults; itself also enhanced with his induction into the romantic poetry and prose of Sitwell, Blake, Gibran, Byron and Shakespeare by his tutor John Mason (cultural capital). He therefore was steeped in ‘Englishness’ but with exotic flavourings: his professional itinerancy (computers, travel agent, market stall holder) matched his travels, which took him to Spain and Morocco at a time when the hippy fashion favoured Asian cultures. Sinfield was certainly more of a poet than a musician – he claims KC was actually born when Ian McDonald finally confronted him with his lack of musical skills but literary talent. A talent that was complemented by a natural feel for technology and the use it could be made of in enhancing performance; for example, in lighting!
It is worth tracking the various social movements that took place as a precursor to the formation of KC1:
- Peter and Michael Giles advertise for other musicians in the light of lack of success with the Trendsetters – Fripp joins (known from the local Bournemouth scene).
- Judy Dyble (Fairport Convention) joins GG&F, or rather they join her in the light of lack of their success - with Judy comes Ian MacDonald (Dyble’s boyfriend).
- With MacDonald comes Sinfield (fellow band member).
- MacDonald and Dyble’s relationship breaks down; she leave (musical differences).
- GGFMaC continue: Peter Giles leaves (or is asked to leave). Greg Lake joins (Fripp’s school friend and fellow guitar student).
Such is the dynamic of social networking instigated for a variety of reasons: artistic, financial, personal framed by a general sense of individual affinities. However, it is also important to emphasise that behind such a dynamic various musical styles were also gaining (and losing) prominence in the mix that was eventually to become the music of King Crimson. To sum up:
Classical: Giles, McDonald, Fripp, Lake.
Jazz/Dance: Giles, Fripp, McDonald
Pop: Lake, Giles
Folk: McDonald (Dyble),
Nothing was ever as narrow or deterministic as this listing might appear, however. These musicians were not trapped in musical encampments but had live antennae picking up what was going on across genres. All were blown away by Jimi Hendrix and seduced by Sergeant Pepper. Furthermore, these fairly conventional musical styles were underpinned, care of Sinfield, by a strand of psychedelic experimentation, mixed with Irish lyricism and Asian exoticism. Indeed, Sinfield gave the name King Crimson to the group, or rather this name anointed itself on these five young men and the musical voice they were beginning to express. It seems as if that voice interpolated, or hailed, them, and was almost fully formed when it was articulated.
Of course, all this is being played out in terms that are often personally hurtful: relationships break up (McD/Dyble), musical collaborations dry up (GG&F), band members move out of step with the direction the music is taking (Peter Giles). Moreover, it is taking place in a socio-cultural structure, which includes clubs, musical journalism, the media and parallel musical associations. For example, future KC member (and Fripp school friend) Gordon Haskell was a member of Fleur de Lys with connections to both established groups (The Animals) and star-to-be (Hendrix). The departure of Peter Giles came as GGF&McD appeared on the BBC programme Colour Me Pop, which itself was a follow-up to another appearance on the BBC Radio with Al Stewart – Bournemouth stalwart and pupil of Fripp! – and guitar experimentalist Ron Geesin.
In this section, I have drawn attention to the individual biographies - aesthetic habitus - that went into KCI in terms of social background and musical mix. But, band members are more than simply their social and professional provenance, and also come with particular psychological dispositions. Therefore, in the next section, I want to look at the way the psychological is important in the creative process; not just individual but as a sort of collective unconscious for the band out of which its creativity arose.
We can say more about what is going on as part of the creative act. This is it….
> > > Continue reading King Crimson I – 1969 · Part 2...
1 See Grenfell, (2014) op. Cit. Chapter 13
2 Many of these quotes come from interviews that Sid Smith undertook for his own research on King Crimson: Smith, S ( 2001) In the Court f King Crimson. London: Helter Skelter Publsihing.