Will Rock & Roll Hall of Fame ever court the Crimson King?

King Crimson

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.

King Crimson

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.


14 thoughts on “Will Rock & Roll Hall of Fame ever court the Crimson King?

  1. You didn’t really mention John Wetton as a key member of the band during the mid to late 70s, and the fact he went on to form the prog rock trio UK and later becoming the lead singer and bassist of Asia with Carl Palmer of ELP/Atomic Rooster, Steve Howe of Yes, and Geoff Downes of The Buggles/Yes.
    Wetton was with Crimson just two years and, while he was a key player at that time, I tried to limit the choices to long-serving members except for the originals, otherwise there would be countless inductees. Maybe we’ll get him in later with Asia? – Phill

  2. It doesn’t matter if they get into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame as King Crimson is neither rock or progressive rock… they are avant garde.

  3. Personally, I think induction (abduction?) into the Hall would somehow tarnish KC, given that the “rock experts” (to use the Hall’s own term) have not seen fit to honor several other well-qualified nominees, both in and out of Progressive Rock.
    In my opinion, given Robert Fripp’s documented struggles with record labels, at least over royalties (and I believe copyright as well), those “experts” will never seriously consider Crimson.

  4. Probably not, but who cares? Too many of the tiny-minded believe that “progressive rock” is an inherently contradictory term, and that rock is supposed to be the hormonal soundtrack to engage the shaking hips of adolescence and anything that reaches outside of those instinctual aspirations is illegitimate and pretentiously obnoxious. But in 1000 years, on the off chance that our civilization lasts that long, this group — in all its many manifestations and incarnations — will still be among the most influential and respected, especially upon other musicians.

    When they found Kurt Cobain, this is the album they found in the CD player… the joke is that prog rock and its 20-minute drum solos, 10,000-notes-per-second guitar noodlings and lyrics about wizards and warlocks will make you want to kill yourself rather than endure one more sidelong Mellotron-soaked epic. But KC has nothing to do with those kind of excesses and never wasted any gesture on any of their records or in any of their innumerable concerts, and it’s for that reason that their influence will live on eternally, long after we’re all gone from this place.

    There’s perhaps no other group of which you could say there have been so many variations, yet is so representative of such a singular vision. The majesty and mania of this one stands tall above the rest, no matter what Jann Wenner thinks.

    Long Live the King.

  5. Progressive rock bands shouldn’t be in the RnR HoF unless they’ve had an actual period where they played rock, which KC just never did.

    Prog rock, despite the name, has about as much to do with rock as it does with jazz, reggae or soul. It is an entity unto itself, despite current fervent efforts to turn it into some metal subgenre.
    That, of course, is based on your apparently rather narrow definition of Rock. Currently there are jazz, reggae and soul artists in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

  6. The acts inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame tend to exhibit the trappings of youth culture, which is considered a most significant parameter for acceptability into the Hall of Fame. Then of course, acts which shift the most units for the industry are more likely to be considered.

    *King Crimson were never a “youth culture” type of band.
    *Sex, drugs and partying was never a handle that was associated with King Crimson.
    *King Crimson have never conformed to any particular arbitrary genre or pigeonhole within the music industry. *King Crimson may have been labeled “progressive rock”, but sonically they had little in common with any well known band within the “progressive” genre… despite some of their membership being in bands labeled as such.
    *And lastly, can one honestly describe King Crimson as a “rock ‘n’ roll” band? For acceptance into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, surely….um…

    In other words King Crimson doesn’t qualify. An act that routinely exhibits extraordinary musical skills, compositonal invention, and dares to tread in uncharted waters, often without a safety net, while refusing to conform to corporate cookie-cutter baby formula pabulum, and marketing mens’ demands, remains outside the bounds for consideration.

  7. @emperor nobody: Copious exceptions are given for good lyrics, but yes, the formula seems to be that greatness is properly made of great lyrics that say something meaningful coupled with music that stays out of the lyrics’ way. Even Rush eventually found itself obliged to do nothing but Ten Good Songs every album (though this may FINALLY change with their next one). A shame, really–surely there’s more than one way to write a good piece of music??

  8. “But KC has nothing to do with those kind of excesses”

    “Lizard” side 2?

    “and never wasted any gesture on any of their records”

    “Lizard” side 1? “Islands”, both sides?

    “or in any of their innumerable concerts”

    Not true, there’s plenty of improvs from the 1973-74 band that go nowhere, are just noodling in search of an idea that never ends up happening > on to the next version of “The Nightwatch”. Or: Ian McDonald’s endless sax solos from the 1969 gigs.

    I love King Crimson, and despite all the protesting that Robert Fripp has done down the years in an effort to distance KC from sparkly capes and the like, 1969-74 KC was just as guilty of excess, pretentiousness, bombast and all the other cliches as the rest of ’em.

    Plus, people still care about what the R&R HOF thinks? Really? You get selected and then have to pay $25,000 to sit at a table during the ceremony, it’s a scam run by dinosaurs like Jann Wenner, Jon Landau and the awful critic Dave Marsh.

  9. Henry Holland:

    If it’s possible to label King Crimson, of all bands, with the “pretentious” moniker, then almost *anyone* can be a legitimate target.

    For starters, how about all the hordes of divas who perform perfectly schooled, clinically correct vocal gymnastics, and then claim that it is soul and R&B?
    How about all the middle-class and well-to do-white kids who ripped off the blues format – the music made by black Americans in slavery – and then got rich and famous from it? There are many examples in the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame in *that* category!
    Then there’s punk, a white urban folk format of the mid-late 70s which started with angry working class kids, and then it became anyone’s game after becoming pretentiously corporatized…..
    Then we have disco (no comment required)…
    Even some country music can qualify….

    The term *pretentious* has been mostly used, by music press people to describe music written and performed by players who have talent and ability (and get laid) way in excess of what these petty jealous critics could ever hope for. It was also used liberally during the late 1970s punk era, especially in the English music tabloid rags (Melody Maker, New Musical Express, Sounds, Record Mirror etc) to describe any music that used more than 3 chords, deviated from the militaristic 4:4 “left-right-left-right” time signature, whose lyrics contained words of more than two syllables, lasted more than 3 minutes, and had to be listened to more than once to get it. Much of King Crimson’s material qualified eminently as an easy target for such arbitrary slag-offs, but here we are, still debating this music, some of which is 43 years old.

    And…. just because it takes formidable musical chops to get around most of King Crimson’s material should not render their catalog as “pretentious” by default.

  10. Yes, their debut album was great, the second not quite up to same standard, but still very good, and Fripp has made some very interesting music with other King Crimson lineups, but due the revolving nature of musicians, where there was no consistent King Crimson group, they are not really candidates for inclusion to the R&R HOF..even though, admitedly, they are certainly more worthy than many ridulous R&R HOF inclusions.

  11. Having listened to this debut release on and off for over 40 years I am still surprised to find it actually a very quiet and acoustic based work. Aside from some minor guitar “screams” during Schizoid Man most of the electric quitar work has a solid jazz tone. It should be noted that Fripp plays acoustic guitar on the majority of the numbers. It also must be mentioned that Michael Giles eloquent drumming does so much more than hold up the bottom end of this music.Has Greg Lake ever sounded better? We can all opine over the merits of membership in the HOF but we can agree this release sounded like nothing that came before it.

  12. If not in the Hall, they should make some kind of list for that album cover. Totally Awesome cover that makes the hair on my neck twang and not in a Country way.

  13. The initial band was an incredible line-up, as was the 1st LP they created and subsequent live recordings issued from that era. Sadly, they fragmented shortly thereafter, and Fripp has been the only constant. I would not argue against their inclusion in the R&RHOF, but one classic LP and a revolving line-up thereafter probably doesn’t make the most compelling case. I wish there was an induction of sorts for noteworthy recordings, especially for the work of fleetingly brilliant bands such as early King Crimson. “Court” would rate as one of a very select few.

  14. No other band from the same era put out compelling and challenging albums decades on, but KC did, up through its excellent 2003 record, The Power to Believe. They could mix melodic ballads, hard-charging romps in complex time signatures, intriguing improvisations, and a whole lot more and put their integrity before commercial concerns. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, along with all the award shows and other halls, is an exercise in industry self-congratulation. KC certainly doesn’t require any validation by the industry or the Hall. Who needs ’em?

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