The music proved as unique as the LP cover when King Crimson released its debut
By Phill Marder
(No. 51 in a series on artists who should be in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but are not)
It was late 1969 or very early 1970. I was driving in my car listening to the radio when the disc jockey made the pronouncement, which I have to paraphrase because that was a long time ago.
“I have heard the future of Rock & Roll and its name is King Crimson.”
Immediately, “21st Century Schizoid Man” ripped through my speaker (only had one in those days).
Caught me by surprise because I believe the jock was Jerry Stevens, who had been a mainstay on the Philly AM giant WIBG. I didn’t know at the time he had taken the job as program director for the “new” kid in town, WMMR, which became an FM giant soon after switching to a progressive rock formula a couple years before.
Several years later, Jon Landau uttered his supposedly original and ultimately famous quote, substituting Bruce Springsteen for King Crimson. Now I don’t know if Landau was aware of the WMMR quote, but the late Ed Sciaky was one of WMMR’s top jocks and is often credited with breaking Springsteen in the Philly market.
Eventually, Landau would prove the more prophetic as Springsteen became one of the industry’s all-time greats, while King Crimson became a highly regarded conglomeration, but one whose sales depended on a cult following. Still, that following is rabid and there is strong discontent with the band not getting recognition from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. But what Progressive Rock band does?
The excellent website, digitaldreamdoor.com, ranks the top 100 Progressive Rock artists. While any such ranking obviously is for debate only, it speaks volumes that King Crimson stands No. 2, behind only Yes, which was profiled earlier in this series. Robert Fripp, the focal point of Crimson’s ever-changing lineup, also made the list at No. 83.
Of the top 10, only two bands, Genesis (3) and Pink Floyd (5), are in the Hall of Fame and the only other band on the list in the Hall of Fame is No. 11 Traffic. Other bands with huge popular support – Emerson, Lake & Palmer (4), Rush (6) and the Moody Blues (15) all have been stonewalled so far.
The connection between King Crimson and Emerson, Lake & Palmer is well known, but worth mentioning, anyway. And that is, of course, that bassist Greg Lake was lead singer for both. That Lake left for Emerson, Lake & Palmer shortly after the release of the King’s initial album brings to the fore one of the problems with inducting the band into the Hall of Fame. From its inception, King Crimson has been a revolving door as members come and go. Even before Lake parted, multi-instrumentalist and chief composer Ian McDonald and drummer Michael Giles had split, McDonald later surfacing as a founding member of Foreigner.
That left just Fripp and lyricist and lighting director, Peter Sinfield.
Though no longer band members, Lake and Giles did participate heavily on the second album, “In The Wake Of Poseidon,” along with studio musicians and Fripp. “Lizard” continued the pattern, though it started as a five-man group effort, Fripp and Sinfield along with Mel Collins, vocalist Gordon Haskell and drummer Andy McCulloch. Alas, soon after the album’s completion, the latter two spilt. Collins, sax and flute, actually stayed on for another LP, “Islands,” before departing.
And so it has gone through the years.
The band as pictured for the “Red” LP, John Wetton, Bill Bruford & Robert Fripp
However, some members are easy to define as permanent. Drummer Bill Bruford put in 26 years and guitarist Trey Gunn hung in for nine. Vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Adrian Belew was around for 28 years, up until 2009, and bass player Tony Levin totals 24 years in two separate stints. Drummer Pat Mastelotto served 15 years.
Those five plus, of course, Fripp and the original lineup of Giles, Lake, McDonald and Sinfield plus Collins would deserve induction. That’s 11 members, but the only other way to do it would be to induct just Fripp, Lake and McDonald, the latter two for service in two potential Hall of Fame groups.
Bruce Eder, at allmusicguide.com, summed up the band’s importance, writing, “If there is one group that embodies progressive rock, it is King Crimson. Led by guitar/Mellotron virtuoso Robert Fripp, during its first five years of existence the band stretched both the language and structure of rock into realms of jazz and classical music, all the while avoiding pop and psychedelic sensibilities; the absence of mainstream compromises and the lack of an overt sense of humor ultimately doomed the group to nothing more than a large cult following, but made their albums among the most enduring and respectable of the prog rock era.”
Porcupine Tree’s Steven Wilson noted, “I think musicianship is the key here. Bands like The Beatles and the Moody Blues attempted very ambitious psuedo-progressive albums before, but Crimson was the first time you had a band that were able to go that one step further in terms of their musicianship. They were young guys full of ideas and ambition and I really think you have to say that this is the true point at which progressive rock is born, and some would say never bettered.”
Of course, not everyone agrees, but even “(The New) Rolling Stone Album Guide’s” J.D. Considine opines, “…the ever-changing ensemble has preferred to haunt the artiest extremes of the prog-rock movement, producing music that can be abstruse, arcane, abusive, and abstract – but very rarely boring. As such, it casts a long shadow, not just over prog rock but also new wave, alt rock, and metal, echoing audibly in such acts as Gentle Giant, Talking Heads, Dream Theater, Tool, and Opeth.”
The “Classic Tracks” publication, writing of the group’s debut, notes, “The pioneering music here led to the likes of ELP, Genesis, and Yes finding an audience.”
ELP, Genesis and Yes certainly found an audience, an audience maybe much larger than that of King Crimson. But the band remained a steady seller in the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada throughout the years, if not challenging the top spot on the album charts. Not surprisingly, King Crimson never has been close to having a hit single, releasing few over the years.
So, will King Crimson ever be invited into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame? If not, the King certainly has his own throne in the kingdom of Progressive Rock where his subjects feel he reigns supreme.