Fripp: “What I’m going to do is shout out my parts ahead of time. So we have the four themes. G, Eflat, B and then G. On the first Jakko and myself are playing unison. On the second, I’m going down an octave for the Eflat. On the third which is a B, Jakko is on the B, I’m doing the G beneath. And on Jakko’s high G, I’d doing an Eflat.”
Robert, Jakko and Tony then begin a gentle run through Larks’ Tongues In Aspic Part II.
Fripp: “That was the mellow version, (smiling) just to let everyone know we do know our proper parts - if we wanted to play them.”
The King Crimson rehearsal room has always been something of a crucible into which ideas are poured and various distillations are then tried, tested, embraced or rejected. Greg Lake remembers some of the sessions in their 1969 basement headquarters on the Fulham Palace Road could be fairly intimidating. “It was better not to make mistakes in that band 'cos it could be very ugly.”
John Wetton famously recalls having to overcome indifference when he presented the demo of yearning ballad he’d been working on over the Christmas of 1973. “I mean nothing. Everyone just staring at their shoes. Nothing more was said of it and so we moved on to the next thing.” Happily they had the good sense to revisit the ballad when it came to constructing Starless a few days later.
When it comes to the monstrously heavy Red, most of it had been sketched out by Fripp in hotel rooms on the road, with the main riff tried out in a soundcheck in Salt Lake City's Terrace Ballroom. Aspects of the tune had also been thrown around in some of the improvisations but it wasn't until the band arrived at Olympic studios in London that the title track of their last album together was finally constructed. Even at that stage, Bill Bruford wasn’t entirely convinced by the tune which reminded him of light music danceband number, Tea For Two.
During a ProjeKct 4 sound check in Vancouver in 1998, Levin, Fripp and Gunn broke out a series elaborately entangled lines which they proceeded to braid into a series of recurring runs that had the cynical, seen-it-all-before house crew slack-jawed and wide eyed. It was in these grabbed moments that the DNA of Larks’ Tongues In Aspic Part IV was tossed around to see what might stick. It hadn’t stuck in 1997 when they first tried it out, and it wouldn’t be until 2000 until it found its definitive format, by which time the line-up had altered once again.
But that’s also part of the Crimson process towards its personnel and the material; the wheel turns and when everything is in the right place at the right time, you take the leap.
That’s very much something that continues with the present incarnation. As the 2014 tour progressed small snatches of new material found its into the air during soundchecks. As the various Crims arrived on the stage and took up their positions, Robert leaned towards Jakko’s workspace. “Try this one” and he played a small repeating pattern of notes. Jakszyk recognised the motif from an earlier writing session at his studios back in the UK before the start of the tour. The pair swapped notes between them. Meanwhile, the others went about their business, making sure everything was to hand, that faults were being run down, that things were where they needed to be. One by one though, they picked up the lines permeating the air. Levin was the first to join in the cycle, in an almost absent-minded way as he found his volume levels and adjusted his in-ear monitoring. Suddenly he began adding chordal jabs and undulating bass notes from the Stick.
Mastelotto, Rieflin and Harrison, previously engaged in the seemingly never ending task of tiny adjustments and fine-tuning of their respective kits, one by one began to add their take on the sequence of notes filling the air, testing out patterns, laying down tentative, exploratory but uncommitted grooves. Having finished working on his sheaf of repertoire notations, Mel Collins reached down and took his soprano sax from its stand. Adding and subtract flourishes and vamps. Fripp, situated on the riser behind Harrison’s kit, leaned forwarded and spoke to the drummer and within seconds, following that small suggestion, what had been provisional and somewhat inchoate achieved definition and a clarity of purpose as Harrison put in a foundation upon which everyone was able to find their place. A wholly new King Crimson piece had come into being for the first time in that hall.
“I knew from the first day that we started rehearsals in 2014 that it was going to work” says Mel Collins, whose return to the line-up delighted fans and band members alike. Tony Levin remarked that one of his greatest kicks is listening to Mel’s solos in the set, never knowing quite what he’s going to get. “I can’t play the same thing each time. It’s not in my make-up” Collins admits. “It changes every time as I interact with what the others are doing. And of course my playing goes up a notch working with players such as these where the standard of the musicianship is so high. I feel I have to raise my game. There’s no slacking. It lifts me up when I’m in Crimson. There’s so much depth in the playing. It’s actually given me a kick up the backside, to be honest.”
“Crimson is a living vibrating organism, it’s like all of the points on a circle; each one has equal value but essentially it’s an organism working to find it’s way,” observes Bill Rieflin.
Each step of the process has its own rules and aims... the aims of rehearsals are going to be different of performance, for instance. Even in rehearsals there are different stages. The early stages are familiarity with the material, familiarity with the parts just physically learning to do it, keeping the pattern alive in your mind as your body gets to know the stuff.” Rieflin, who first saw King Crimson performing in 1981, sees intensity as one of the components in the group. “I think that’s one of the primary currencies of King Crimson though it can manifest in a variety of different ways. It doesn’t have to be loud. It doesn’t have to be abrasive. It can be quiet and very quiet and still gripping.”
Someone else who was gripped by Crimson in concert was Jakko Jakszyk, who first saw them play at Watford Town Hall in 1971. As a result, standing in the rehearsal room has an extra special resonance for him. “I have moments where I’m playing a part or playing a tune or singing a song where I do think ‘bloody hell’ and I’m aware of the 13-year old boy inside of me at that moment. I think sometimes music that’s familiar to an individual can sometimes be a revelation when you find out what the component parts are like. What’s special about this is that even when you pull it apart, there’s still a kind of magic about it. You get a sense of something that is beyond the rhythmic and harmonic ingredients, beyond the notes themselves that goes into creating this vibe and atmosphere that is uniquely King Crimson.”
With seven people in a rehearsal room or on stage there’s always going to be a wide range of skill sets, quirks and idiosyncrasies to contend with. “As with any band, the more you play the better you get; the better the communication and the mix of the chemistry and the personalities becomes better,” offers Gavin Harrison. “Everyone’s at different levels of how comfortable they are - some of us have got charts on the floor and are still reading but that’s the whole point of rehearsals, trying to get it into the system and get it into your blood. There’s bits where something goes wrong and we look at each other and start laughing and there’s Robert, doubled-up with tears of laughter rolling down his face. We do have a good laugh.”
Tony Levin regards the hours spent in rehearsal, and this line-up has been in more rehearsals than most other recent incarnations of the group, as leading to one outcome.
“I’ve been doing it about as long as you can be doing it, to realise that it’s all about the music; that two hours on stage and the interaction with the fans; the sharing of something very special musically with people that makes it worth it and gets you through the other 22 hours of the day. I have always approached it with the same sense that I’ll throw myself into what there is and what we have booked and I’ll thoroughly enjoy doing that, and whatever the future brings I’ll be glad of it. I hope there’s more. What’s consistent in all the King Crimson incarnations that I’ve been involved in is that, of course, I want to do more. I’m one of those guys who loves touring and recording and I love doing old and new music.”
If the appearance of so much vintage repertoire emerging from the rehearsal room came as a surprise to thousands of people who filed into the halls and theatre in America in 2014, it was a surprise shared by members of the band. “I wouldn’t have expected a lot of those songs to be on the songlist, not because I don’t like them but because I didn’t expect that Robert would want to do them,” says Pat Mastelotto. “Look, just talking about this stuff I’m goosebumpy, do you see it? I’m not faking it, dude. Every time you hear the chords from Starless start I know the chills that I get, so I know it’s going to be a very heavy experience for a lot of people. I said when we were going down the stairs at the last rehearsal, ‘Robert you’re going to make a lot of people really happy.’”
So what’s the main thing an audience coming to concerts today should know about this version of King Crimson? “I think they should know the first King crimson principle which is ‘let us enjoy our playing’. That is, let us be joyful. Hopefully for the audience too,” says Fripp smiling. “They should also know the third King Crimson principle which is the music is new whenever it was written...Going back to the early period of Crimson 69 - 74 it was a different time in the world of music, even the world of professional music. So what’s happening now? I don’t know but from time to time it’s good to go out and see what’s possible in the world.”
Finding out what might be possible has always been key to King Crimson’s mission statement. Sometimes it doesn’t quite gel. Sometimes the moment passes. But whether it’s the elements assembled on these discs, or the tracks on a studio album or a moment on stage, both musician and audience best know their parts in case the moment for flight arrives.
Are you ready?
One, two, three, two-two, three...
(taken for the sleevenotes to the Tourbox 2015)