Originally published in 2001 Sid Smith’s acclaimed biography of King Crimson has long been out of print. With copies changing hands for astonishing prices on the second-hand market this new revised and expanded edition continues the story all the way up to King Crimson’s 50th-anniversary tour in 2019.
The book will be available via Burning Shed from November 14th and comes with an exclusive signed postcard
For those ordering the US the book is now carried by Inner Knot. The US publication date is still to be determined.
In addition to telling the story of the band over the last fifty years, the book includes a detailed track by track analysis of each of the thirteen studio albums recorded between 1969 and 2003, and an annotated gigography celebrating well over 300 performances by King Crimson during the same period.
Sid Smith comments, “Everyone who has ever played in King Crimson over the last fifty years has had the course of their life altered in some way as a result. In interviewing all of those players, plus managers, friends, and professional colleagues associated with the band, you get a sense of what kind of place the Court of King Crimson can be like. The music produced by the band and all its different incarnations over the last five decades have profoundly touched so many people, myself included.
By exploring the context around the making of their studio albums, the various interactions between each of the players and the in-concert experience of band members and fans alike, I suppose in one way the book is really a users’ field guide to King Crimson.”
At over 600 pages In The Court Of King Crimson represents a substantial and authoritative history of the band, its music, and its impact across the last five decades.
Here's an extract from the book which looks at some of the highs, lows and pressures of life in King Crimson as they embarked upon the road to Red...
Members of the group coped with the pressures of touring in different ways and with varying degrees of success. Fripp, very much feeling burdened by doubts about King Crimson and his responsibilities in it, spent time practising the guitar, reading and scrupulously maintaining his journal. Cross candidly admits he drank more than was probably good for him. “I don’t think I was that unhappy with touring but rather I was getting frustrated with the stage show and my performance, which I wasn’t happy with. I found a note I’d written in the gap between these two tours that I’d contacted somebody to try and get some violin lessons. I knew I needed some help with that. I was realising that I had to take some kind of action to improve things.”
As the band’s profile grew in America, Wetton and Bruford fused into an invincible wall of sound which, though wonderful for audiences, had the effect of sidelining others in the band. Bruford recalls Fripp describing the experience akin to “playing with a flying brick wall” and going on to advise that any player coming into contact with it should “go with it or duck”.
If it was becoming difficult for Fripp, the problems experienced by Cross were also mounting. As the players became louder, he began to find even the effort to compete dispiriting. The volume in concert, coupled with the vagaries of on-stage monitoring, blunted his hearing and tone and, ultimately, his appetite for punishment. The more he tried to move into the musical space towards which the rhythm section gravitated, the more he had to turn up. The more he turned up, the less he heard. The less he heard, the more marginalised he felt. The more marginalised he felt, the more the others would sense this and resent it. And so on.
Worse than that for Cross was a sense that there was little room for him within improvisations he felt were becoming increasingly rock-driven, demonic and, correspondingly, one-dimensional. For him the situation seemed unremittingly bleak as he describes in his notes in The Great Deceiver boxed set. “After gigs I would drink and drown my anger. All the time I was making progress within the group but my confidence was seriously undermined and I often felt lonely, even in the midst of 10,000 people.”
Looking back, Bruford acknowledges that their impatience with Cross effectively shut out the violinist. “I don’t think John and I were in any mood to wait and see if anybody could keep up with us. Robert could and so that was OK, but David didn’t. I have a lot of sympathy with David now. I feel that I wasn’t in a place at the time to be able to understand his ‘white flag’ held up as a truce, saying to us ‘Hold on ... could I be included in this?’ I was too strong and too disinclined to wait for any passengers. It was too much success, too much exuberance, too much coffee, too much tiredness. It was being egged on by a very loud bass player. I’d do it differently now and, as I now know, musical talent is not all about muscles.”
Fripp also accepts that Cross was placed in an increasingly impossible position, which saw a musical and personal distance develop between the violinist and the rest of the group as he failed to meet the strength and volume of the rhythm section. For his part, Wetton says it was difficult to step away from the surging excitement their playing incited. “We’d generally have a rule that if it wasn’t going anywhere then we could stop and go into a formal piece. The trouble was that once Bill and I were going it was difficult to stop. Robert and David might be bored out of their minds, you know, but it was very difficult to stop.”
It wasn’t just Cross experiencing a sense of dislocation. As the tour ground on, crevices of animosity and resentment opened. Bruford cites Wetton’s on-stage volume as being a symptom of the distrust that had begun to subtly gnaw away at old alliances. “John’s onstage sound got unnecessarily loud and that became a huge source of irritation. It’s a way of saying ‘I don’t really want to hear you so I’ll turn myself up’. John got louder and louder and decided he couldn’t trust the sound mixer and he was going to make sure that the guy sitting at the back of a 4,000-seat room was going to hear him play. Of course, it’s a chicken-and-egg thing because the more you play louder, so the sound mixer does turn you down and so on.”
Wetton, himself no stranger to alcohol and other chemical substances, often found solace in the company of several different girlfriends. “I was footloose and fancy-free and we were a popular band touring the US in the ’70s,” he smiled, recollecting his not-so monkish existence at the time. “It was just after the late-’60s free love thing, you know. It was a lovely time to be on the road with a rock band, really.” Bruford laughs at the suggestion that he also might have taken up the life of an on-road Lothario. “I wasn’t much good at sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. I was too bloody knackered.” Aside from thinking, practising and learning to stand on his head, Bruford reveals he took up alto saxophone, learning to play it in his hotel room. “Did he?” said Wetton, taken aback. “That’s a new one on me. I don’t remember that. Several times I had a room next to his and I never heard a toot!”
Seeing Crimson in concert often meant taking in at least two other bands on the same night. With tours organised through Frank Barsalona’s Premier Talent Agency, the pairings could at times be incongruous. “We had some wonderful mismatches,” laughed Wetton ruefully. “Although ’70s audiences were very tolerant because often their edges were smoothed out somewhat by the haze that engulfed them, when you put a rock’n’roll band like Ten Years After, Black Oak Arkansas or ZZ Top with King Crimson, those kinds of pairings didn’t really work. Groups such as The Mahavishnu Orchestra and Procol Harum did work well because there was some degree of crossover between fans.”
Sharing the bill on numerous occasions were The Robin Trower Band. Fripp, a fan of Trower’s playing, tried to catch the first few numbers of the ex-Procol Harum guitarist in concert before going backstage to prepare for his own performance. After gigs, the pair would discuss the challenges they faced with their bands, swap guitar exercises and looked into the practicalities of working together the following year.
“Robin Trower – that was a nice bill,” Wetton remembered. “They had an album that was really doing well and was in the charts. I think, in fact, when it was Crimson, Robin Trower and Golden Earring, the album chart positions were in reverse order of the billing of the bands. You had Golden Earring had an album at No. 6, Robin Trower had one at 22 and Crimson had one at 67! (laughs). But the applause was inversely proportional. Robin used to go down really well but it was always difficult for anyone to follow Crimson. We would end with LTIA2 or Schizoid Man and it’d be difficult for people to top that, really. The sound was so brutal coming from all of us it didn’t actually matter what we played because when we came on, even if we were improvising from the word go, people would just stand and say ‘fucking arseholes – what is this!’ It had such force and presence you couldn’t argue with it really.” One of the many bands who ended up on the receiving end of that force was the UK band Slade. Wetton recalls his incredulity when he was told that the glam-rockers were headlining in Detroit, something of a Crimson stronghold. “We played our set, then Slade came on and they had to survive the boos and jeers. Noddy Holder, their lead singer, came up to the microphone and he said in a broad Wolverhampton accent, ‘If you don’t like it you can all go and have a shit!’ It was superb!”
Wetton recalled the profound impact of singing in front of 18,000 people in Phoenix’s Feyline Fields, between Strawbs and Trower. The same gig also lodged in David Cross’s memory. “It was lovely and for me in such an alien environment, out in the desert. So different, so strange. You can’t buy experiences like that. It was such a privilege to be able to take part in that event, to go on at that time was just perfect as the sun was going down.” For Cross, where Crimson appeared on the bill wasn’t a particularly big deal. “It was just all part of the job. The good thing about headlining is you got to play longer, suppose. One of the things that did help us as an improvising band was that, because we did do supports, we had to tailor our set to wherever we were. Sometimes we were doing a 45-minute set, sometimes less, and you had to fit into that slot and deliver what was appropriate for that time, while at the same time give people the flavour of what you were up to. That could be quite challenging but I think that’s what kept us focused.”
Regardless of where they were on the bill, the sound Crimson made, on what turned out to be this line-up’s final, tour, was committed and forceful. It wasn’t just down to volume although, as several eye-witnesses attest, the band was undoubtedly loud. Often audiences had no idea that the piece they were hearing was improvised, a forgivable misunderstanding considering the way such blows could sometimes be introduced. For example at the Palace Theatre, Providence, an audibly amused Fripp pronounces ahead of the first blow of the evening: “This is a new piece we’ve been working on for a considerable amount of time. This is a cosmic voyage which seeks to depict musically, seven states of altered consciousness. This is called A Voyage To The Centre Of The Cosmos, subtitled My Mate Atman.”
On some occasions, such as the memorable performance at Asbury Park, there was no time for such jollity. Straight after Exiles, an ever-eager Bruford performs a typically crisp snare roll, laying down a wonderful groove. Six seconds in, Fripp can be heard shouting “F!” across the stage. A couple of beats later the bass grunts, the guitar growls and the band take a collective leap into the unknown. Years later, those who saw the performance, and the many more who heard it on USA, marvel at what is widely regarded as one of the finest moments of Crimson in any incarnation.
“Improvisation and extemporisation; what’s the difference? Extemporisation is what the musicians do and improvisation is what happens when it comes to life,” says Fripp. “Spontaneous composition? Trio is an example of that. It was improv but it sounded written. The Sheltering Sky, another example.”
Listening to the improvisations from 1974, one becomes aware of distinct areas the improvisations fall into, not exactly a map but there are recurring motifs and moods. Were these consciously worked at or allowed to develop on their own? “You work with these musicians and you have some sense of how they might respond in a certain situation,” offers Fripp. “Then you have Asbury Park – ‘F!’. All right, what are you anticipating might happen after that? Where is that going to go? Well, all you know is it’s going to begin somewhere around F and then, who knows? So you’re working with these characters; you know the areas they are likely to move to, and then sometimes it goes somewhere else. That’s what it is, and sometimes it moves towards a formal structure that can be formalised in a piece – or not.”
In those moments, Cross believes they were operating around the rawer edges of how music is constructed. “If you throw the rules out of the window then you do start to come up with ways of talking about music in the way that we used to; starting with big bangs, steady climb-outs, fade-outs or cross-fades. We were talking about music in rather general terms because we didn’t have any specifics mapped out. When I’ve endeavoured to walk down anything like a similar road with musicians since, they’re terrified of doing that, or if they do, they can’t play a tune. Somehow we could see the value in playing tunes, singing songs and, at the same time, exploring anything else that was around or came to mind. It’s dead lucky that we were able to do that. Considering how young we were, it was quite extraordinary really.”
“There was an undeniable force with that band. It was not any one individual. It was the whole band,” suggested Wetton. “I can’t tell you because I was on stage, but I think if you were standing in the audience you would feel this raw wave of power. It was just a kind of attitude really, a big attitude coming off stage at you. What people forget is that when they think of King Crimson they tend to think of balladic, Mellotron-led stuff. Actually by the time we were doing Red and on the road, it’s fucking metal – sheet metal coming off the stage at you.”
But conflict remained, particularly for the increasingly marginalised Cross. As early as April, at Columbus, Ohio, tensions between Cross and Bruford spilled over on stage, despite the fact that Fripp judged the gig to be a good one, noting it was the “first time we’re as big as we can be”. By the time the band played their historic gig in New York’s Central Park, the decision had already been taken that Cross and Crimson would part company. “Over my life I’ve come to realise that playing the violin is a core activity for my existence. It’s not really something I can pick up and put down. If I don’t do it, I don’t feel right and I don’t feel like me. So I guess if I wasn’t playing as well as I wanted to, then I wasn’t feeling right about me and that needed to be addressed somehow, and I guess that meant I just had to get out of the situation which I found myself in. Leaving King Crimson was not a decision made in any particular moment and was based on instinct rather than reason. Although I enjoyed so much of being part of KC, touring was increasing my levels of anxiety to an untenable degree and I didn’t have the psychological resources to keep coping. The avoidance of that particular pressure grew into a more pleasant vision of the future than continuing. On stage in Central Park I loved being, there but offstage the balance was shifting fast in favour of self-preservation.”
Cross’s position in the band was the subject of ongoing discussion in those final weeks before Central Park. There was talk about replacing Cross in the middle of the tour with ELO violinist Wilf Gibson. Fripp had previously worked with Gibson on Keith Tippett’s Centipede album and on King Crimson’s Islands where he had been responsible for fixing up the small string ensemble for Prelude: Song Of The Gulls. Gibson, who died in 2014, remembered receiving a call about possibly joining Crimson while he was on tour with ELO in the USA. “The schedule we had with ELO made you feel like some product, like a packet of cornflakes or something rather than a musician. The criss-crossing of America on the first ELO tour was suicidal. Florida one day, Boston the next, Los Angeles the day after. We sometimes shared the bill with Crimson. There was a place we crossed paths somewhere like Fresno or Sacramento, somewhere on the West Coast,” said Gibson. “You got to a stage where your brain was absolutely scrambled. It took me weeks to get over that. I went up to Norway to my in-laws and just sat in a boat fishing for about six weeks.” Back at home in London, he attended a meeting at EG’s offices where a firm offer was made and terms were discussed although no members of Crimson were present. “At the time my son was three years old and my daughter was one year old. The reason I turned it down was what the management put to me would have meant spending the next two years touring the States. I could see the prospect of having to bring my kids up in America which I didn’t want at all. I had a house in Wimbledon that I had to keep up and it would have been a huge upheaval. I was a bit brutal about it at the time. It was a very good offer. The money they offered me was really good payment for the gigs and a retainer, but I was a bit uneasy about replacing their violinist – dead man’s shoes and all that. Eventually I said ‘No, it’s not for me’.”
Despite these difficulties, the band was still capable of magnificent improvisations. Wetton recalled: “Usually we’d start with an atmosphere, hit in with a riff and reach a climax, then fizzle out. Maybe one night in every five it would be brilliant and for us – that was enough because we’d got a result. You can’t do it every night but that was a risk we were always prepared to take.” The intensity could vary tremendously, even during the same show. At Toronto’s Massey Hall, on 24 June 1974 (documented on the fourth disc of The Great Deceiver boxed set), they launched into a blistering groove reminiscent of The Mahavishnu Orchestra’s The Noonward Race. Yet somewhere in between The Night Watch and Fracture, the spark haemorrhages away to produce, in the aptly titled Clueless And Slightly Slack, an indeterminate, unfocused prodding which hangs Cross out to dry. For Fripp, there are many reasons for such an occurrence. “A performance can be violated and damaged, often in ways which are not immediately apparent or obvious. Surreptitious recording, photography, drugs kicking in, even violence on the premises, all disturb the performance. Sometimes this is connected to the group. Mostly, it is not.”
The band always tried to avoid giving obvious cues to each other in improvisations which led many to miss the fact that what they were hearing was not the debut of a forthcoming composition. Wetton takes some pride in this. “We knew what was going on most of the time but nobody else did and it looks like we are performing miracles. We were very much against signals or cues which were obvious to anyone other than ourselves. There was a rule whereby, if one of the guys led off somewhere, there was an absolute commitment to follow in that direction, no matter where it might lead. It was very supportive. There had to be that understanding.”
Wetton took the view that a more demonstrative player than Cross was needed. Fripp agreed, at least in part, recording that the thinking behind this was to do with Cross’s widening disconnection from Crimson’s musical direction. It was also agreed that problems of confidence and self-esteem had rendered Cross’s personality too insecure for him to remain. Fripp says: “The balance of the group, conceived as a quintet, had been lost. Part of this was that Jamie balanced Bill and without Jamie’s counterbalance, ordering and direction, Bill’s energies become increasingly unrestrained. The rhythm section got stronger, and essentially became the front line. The degree to which the guitarist held his own with them is debatable: even if considered as strong a player, he was outweighed two to one. As an individual, David Cross was probably a gentler character than Bill and John, and not as likely to move into the clinches. But, as an instrument, the violin could not hold its own in an electric power context alongside (at least) the mighty Bass Beast Of Terror.”
With one eye looking out for the person and one eye on business, tour manager Dik Fraser argued that Cross might be inclined to do something stupid – and the music might suffer as well – if told that he was out. Only Bruford felt that the violinist should stay on. He was outvoted. It was agreed that Cross should be told by EG when he returned to the UK, with Fripp insisting that his objection to not telling Cross in person had been over-ruled.
Looking back, the guitarist says: “I was infuriated that, even when we began recording Red, David Cross had not been told by EG. This was in direct violation of the undertaking I had been given. EG’s Standard Operating Procedure was clearly not one of transparency.”
1974’s final gig, in New York’s Central Park on 1 July was always going to be an important one though, as the players left Rhode Island that morning, they could hardly have envisaged it would be King Crimson’s last for more than seven years. “There was enough testosterone onstage that night to drive an F-14,” Wetton recalled. For Fripp the gig had a power he’d not felt since 1969 – “the bottom of my spine registered ‘out of this world’.”
It was the expressed hope of Wetton and others in the team that Central Park, like Hyde Park in 1969, might thrust the band into wider recognition. “Everybody at Island and Atlantic believed in the band and gave us a lot of support, a great management team and, for my money, I thought we were the best in the game. We had the plot,” says the bassist.
But the gig nearly didn’t happen due to a terrible mains hum which threatened to swamp the PA sound. Fripp’s inclination was to cancel unless the technical difficulties could be overcome. A vote was taken and it was agreed to go ahead. At a little after 8.30 pm, as the mellifluous strains of No Pussyfooting – still unreleased in the USA at that point – gently massaged the atmosphere, Crimson took the stage with a highly flammable 21st Century Schizoid Man.
Towards the end of the set, the band played their epic new number Starless. Fripp recalls: “As the sun went down and we moved into the ominous bass riff emerging from the Starless vocal, red stage lights faded up from behind the band. For me, a stunning theatrical moment highlighting the tension within the piece and the group; a moment of resonance.” Wetton: “I don’t think you get that level of energy in bands that often. I don’t think there were that many bands around at the time, doing that kind of stuff, who could touch us.”
Wetton later enjoyed a far more lucrative career in Asia, who at one point sold 800,000 units a day. Yet he was in no doubt which part of his career meant the most to him. “If I shuffle off this mortal coil tomorrow, that gig would be the one for me. All the stuff with Asia and everything else is just icing on the cake. That was the one ... it was almost tearful it was so emotional. It should have been the beginning of something rather than an ending.”