King Crimson were a progressive rock band from the late 60s spearheaded by the eccentric and musically gifted Robert Fripp on lead guitar. The band went through a few key lineup changes and were constantly pushing the envelope with their sound. They were also primarily a live band and produced their most powerful and exciting music on the stage, something that cannot be replicated in the studio, but the magic is still there. Seeing as their true greatness was heard and seen live (something few people getting into the band realise) I’ll only use live performances to paint a canvas of the greatness that was/is King Crimson. The rules are simple, only 7 songs and they must highlight the band’s peak musical period. If you are not a fan after listening to these songs then King Crimson are definitely not for you. Enjoy.
1. 21st Century Schizoid Man  – From their debut album In the Court of the Crimson King, it is arguably their most famous song, and certainly the one that put them in the limelight. The great thing about this song is how it disguises itself as a typical rock song but develops into an intricately woven masterpiece. The song alternates between standard 4/4 timing and 6/8, and towards the end is entirely in freeform. For more great live versions check out the albums ‘Nightwatch‘ (possibly their best live album) and USA. The best version I’ve ever heard is on their album ‘Earthbound‘, but unfortunately it also has the poorest quality; however the sax solo more than makes up for this minor shortcoming as it will likely send shivers down your spine.
2. Ladies of the Road  – The first lineup put out two more albums and then made its first personnel change, resulting in the album Islands. This song is a funky rock n roll number that captures the band’s live sound at the time quite well.
3. Larks’ Tongue in Aspic Part II  – In 1973 the lineup changed again, and this third lineup is widely regarded as the ‘golden era’ of King Crimson and I certainly agree. It was radically different from the other incarnations and was the first without saxophone or woodwind instruments, and the first to really embrace dynamic improvisation. The band now consisted of Robert Fripp on guitar, both Jamie Muir and Bill Bruford (of Yes) on drums, John Wetton on bass and vocals, and David Cross on violin. The album Larks’ Tongue in Aspic was highly experimental and progressive, and the song I’m showcasing, part two of a four-part suite, shows a very early seed of Heavy Metal.
4. Easy Money  This song, also from the Larks’ Tongue in Aspic album displays three things, 1. the band’s ability to create atmosphere, 2. their knack for improvising, and 3. the powerful rhythm section of Wetton and Bruford.
5. Fracture  – After the release of the previous album, percussionist Jamie Muir left the band for personal reasons and left King Crimson as a quartet. Their next album, Starless and Bible Black, was sculpted from live performances and refined to sound like a studio album. This is the era of King Crimson at their most mind-blowing, and features their best live work. A box set titled ‘The Great Deceiver’ showcases all of their standout live shows from this period. The song Fracture is a brilliant showcase of Robert Fripp’s total virtuosity on the guitar and often sounds like two guitars are playing at the same time. How he played this live without making any mistakes is something that keeps me up at night.
6. Starless  – Their next album, Red, is easily their most commercial and I don’t mean that in a bad way at all. It is very easy accessible and regarded as one of their best; Kurt Cobain of Nirvana cited it as one his favourite albums. It resulted from Robert Fripp’s temporary ego loss due his following of the Gurdjieff Self Observation method and his subsequent lack of involvement in the band for the duration of the album’s recording. He gave the reigns to the other members and without Fripp’s iron fist they produced a diamond. The song Starless is sad in tone but builds up to an explosive crescendo leading to an even more potent climax. Watch the chemistry between the players, the interaction between drums, bass, guitar and violin is second to none.
7. Elephant Talk  – After 1975 King Crimson disbanded and wasn’t heard from again until 1980, with a new lineup featuring Fripp on guitar, Bruford on drums, Adrian Belew (Talking Heads/Frank Zappa) on guitars/vocals and Tony Levin on bass/chapman stick. By this stage King Crimson had abandoned its grungy edge in favour of a more 80s synth like approach. The band was injected with Adrian Belew’s ‘Talking Heads’ style and fused with Robert Fripp’s crazy polyrhythms and resulted in a totally unique synthesis. This is the era that influenced Tool the most because of the complex rhythm work, though they were also definitely influenced by the raw Larks’ Tongue in Aspic era sound.
King Crimson continued to play well into the 90s and are still playing today, but these 7 songs (I feel) capture the essence of the band at their best.