King Crimson: Through the dark years

By Will Romano
Reassessing ‘Lizard’ and the band’s tumultuous 1970-1972 period
ROBERT FRIPP (second from left) has been the one constant in King Crimson’s ever-changing lineup. Warner Bros./EG Records
ROBERT FRIPP (second from left) has been the one constant in King Crimson’s ever-changing lineup. Warner Bros./EG Records
King Crimson guitarist and mainstay Robert Fripp has always maintained that a “good fairy” was responsible for guiding the band’s early success, its sudden rise to stardom and bestowing the band with a kind of musical magic rare in the annals of progressive rock.

The band’s debut, 1969’s In the Court Of The Crimson King, catapulted Crimson into the public eye, having reached #5 in Britain in November 1969 (and scoring a Top 20 hit in the U.S. in 1970), and influenced a host of progressive rockers, from a young Steve Hackett to the members of Peter Banks-era Yes.

With the help of the “good fairy” Crimson could do no wrong. Or so it seemed. Crimson and Fripp were in for a rude awakening by the end of 1969, when the band began to buckle under the strain of touring and interpersonal differences.

Multi-instrumentalist Ian McDonald, whose creative talents helped to forge the monolithic debut, was the first to go, followed by influential drummer Michael Giles and then vocalist/bassist Greg Lake, who soon formed Emerson, Lake & Palmer with the Hendrix of the Hammond organ, Keith Emerson, sensing his own band, The Nice, had run its course.

That could have been the end of Crimson right then and there. It wasn’t, of course, but it would be a few painful years before the band could reclaim the glory of its early days, as it did with bassist/singer John Wetton, drummer Bill Bruford, percussionist Jamie Muir and violinist David Cross.

That painful spot, the “dark years” from 1970 through mid-1972 — specifically the time encompassing the release of In the Wake of Poseidon, Lizard, Islands and Earthbound — stands as the strangest and perhaps most musically diverse period of the band’s history.

Fripp, himself, was never a big fan of the period, and of 1970’s Lizard the guitarist wrote in his diary (from September 1999): “Lots of ideas, mostly presented simultaneously, and very few of which work.”

Calling the album unlistenable, Fripp said that if there are Lizard lovers, “ … they must be strange.”

As a 5.1 Surround Sound and a new stereo mix from the original studio masters of Lizard was recently done by Porcupine Tree’s Steven Wilson (as part of Crimson’s 40th Anniversary Series — see a review on page 44) details have emerged concerning Lizard, its depth, wonderfully confusing blend of musical genres, and the out-and-out bizarreness of the record.

Perhaps it’s time to reassess Lizard and the entire period of 1970 through 1972 in order to get a more accurate reading on what made those records so special, undervalued and strange.

Fripp, the composer

Though In the Wake of Poseidon had surged higher on the British charts than The Court, the band was wracked and devastated by the aforementioned personnel shake-up.

It was through this adversity that Fripp found his creative direction and sharpened his compositional skills, virtually out of necessity, and did so by cutting a spiraling musical path that traversed a gnarly musical wilderness full of arty jazz, classically influenced rock and nearly boundless (if unfocused) experimentation.

“Fripp was definitely looking for a way through, finding his own voice,” says Crimson biographer Sid Smith, author of “In the Court of the King Crimson.” “He’d gone from being just part of the band to being the band. That’s quite a burden of responsibility.”

You won’t find many Crimson fans pointing to Islands or Earthbound or Lizard as their favorite Crimson records. Those albums may have been (and may still be) overlooked, because the band was in such constant flux and turmoil (seems the band, perhaps more than the average rock outfit, was embroiled in some form of inner squabble) that made it difficult for them to settle on a coherent musical vision, just as it’s been difficult for fans (or anyone else) to discern whether Crimson had a clue.

“The stylistic compass is all over the place,” says Sid Smith.

“Poseidon, Lizard and Islands all cover quite different ground, and though there are some common factors, there are probably more points of divergence than convergence.”

Fripp, flanked by his partner in crime, lyricist/conceptualist/sound engineer/lighting man Peter Sinfield (often refered to as the “fifth member” of Crimson), were desperately trying to hold the band together when they recorded Lizard, a record that grew with a hothouse weirdness (and one that sneakily speaks directly to the listener’s subconscious) that only Crimson (and only a 1970 Crimson) could nurture.

Co-producer Sinfield once intimated to the reporter that Lizard was the result of he and Fripp having a lot of time (maybe too much) on their hands. What emerged is scattered references to the 12 Jungian archetypes (represented and reinforced by the elaborate medieval, illuminated manuscript-styled LP cover artwork), Fripp’s first true major composition (i.e. the three-part title track, featuring Yes’ Jon Anderson on vocals in the opening section, “Prince Rupert Awakes,” and some beautiful oboe work by Robin Miller in “Bolero: The Peacock’s Tale”), the strange musical amalgam of jazz, folk, synth/electronic and classical, and Sinfield’s lyrical perversity (touching on such varied subjects as the Fab Four and cushy bourgeoisie society in songs such as “Happy Family” and “Indoor Games”).

“[Lizard] is a great example of a record that doesn’t make sense the first time you hear it,” says Steven Wilson. “Who is going to have the time and patience, in this day and age, to understand a record like it? Lizard requires a commitment on the part of the listener. If you’re committed to making that sacrifice, then there’s so much to take away from that music.”

Coming apart at the seams

Inevitably, as was par for the course, the Lizard band broke up, never having toured.

Singer/bassist Gordon Haskell (Lake’s replacement) walked out before the record’s release over creative (and what he says are financial) disagreements; drummer Andrew McCulloch also left (later to become a member of Greenslade), leaving horn player/flautist Mel Collins (McDonald’s “replacement”), Fripp and Sinfield to build yet another band.

They would do just that, of course, with future Bad Company bassist Boz Burrell (whose strength was more as a singer while with Crimson) and drummer Ian Wallace while recording just one studio record with Crimson, Islands (and the much-maligned live album Earthbound, notorious for its poor sound quality).

Earthbound, in particular, the last official release of the 1970s by the Islands-era band, is a missed opportunity; its very title a sad commentary on the fact that the band never took off. Says Alex Mundy, tape archivist for Fripp’s Discipline Global Mobile (DGM) label, the cassette masters for the Earthbound recordings can’t be located (only the transfers exist) and were, in any case, of very low quality. It’s likely that Fripp and crew had to do the best they could with what was available to them.

“The original cassettes must have been distorted, so the master tape for pressing could at least be a third generation of the original recordings,” Mundy says.

Earthbound was digitally remastered by Fripp and sonic guru Simon Heyworth and reissued by Caroline/Virgin in 2002. In recent years, DGM, also, has issued quality live recordings from the era, including the double CD release Ladies of the Road, Live At Jacksonville, Live At Plymouth Guildhall, Live At Summit Studios, and Live In Detroit via the Crimson Collectors Club.

In retrospect, the Islands band was an important one and their music foreshadowed the work Fripp and Crimson would do in the future.

We hear snippets of what would become well-loved Crimson pieces such as “Easy Money,” “Book of Saturday” and “Larks’ Tongues In Aspic, Part Two” among music that flutters between jazz-rock (“Formentera Lady,” “The Sailor’s Tale”), cosmic-rock, avant-garde noise (“The Letters”), burlesque, symphonic (“Prelude: Song of the Gulls”), Beatles-esque harmonies (“Ladies of the Road”), and beautiful melancholic balladry/church hymn (“Islands”). In essence, Islands is the perfect bridge between Lizard and the post-dark years stunner Larks’ Tongues In Aspic.

But the band was pulling in different directions. Fripp and Sinfield were not seeing eye-to-eye (about everything from the band’s musical direction to lyrics), and there was a clear divide between the guitarist and the rest of the band. Inevitably, the Islands band broke up, following in a sad but then-short tradition of Crimson personnel switches. (Islands wasn’t the end of the road for Fripp, of course, even though the press was writing Crimson’s obituary. The King would later return with their strongest material since 1969.)

“The requirement that [the Islands band] play material from three albums that they weren’t all involved in cut short their evolution,” says Smith. “It distorted things, I think, sending them on a course which a wholly new band almost certainly wouldn’t have taken. That said, I think the new remix of Islands by Steven Wilson and Robert Fripp, along with all the extra tracks and bonus material we’ve uncovered, will certainly help in rehabilitating this period’s reputation.”

The 1970–1972 Crimson seems to cast a magic spell separate from all other eras of the band’s history. In 2008, Fripp concluded that after hearing Steven Wilson’s 5.1 mix of Lizard, he, for the first time, enjoyed the record.

That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement. But it’s proof of the enduring legacy and power of Crimson’s dark period.

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