"Crimson defined prog": Rosalie Cunningham on her favourite prog icon Ian McDonald

Rosalie Cunningham
(Image credit: Cherry Red)

“I grew up with a musician and prog fan father, so I am sure I would have heard some of Ian MacDonald’s music at an early age, but I didn’t sit up and pay attention
to it until I was about 17 years old. The first time I heard his music I was just in awe; it was in equal parts inspiring and terrifying as an aspiring young musician. I didn’t know whether to lock myself in my room until I’d nailed every note or just chuck my guitar in the bin!

“I got into 60s pop and psych in my early teens while in my first band, and leaned towards the heavier and more complex end of that spectrum. I discovered that this sound I liked had a name and a wealth of bands to discover. King Crimson and Genesis were the first two bands of that ilk that I became completely obsessed with, and I had to know how they made this otherworldly music. It had a big impact on my playing and songwriting.   

“I saw King Crimson at Hackney Empire in 2015. Unfortunately Ian wasn’t in the line-up, but just to hear those songs played and witness the most incredible display of musicianship was an experience verging on religious.

“I don’t approach writing a song with the idea of ripping off another, but there is certainly an Ian McDonald flavour I can detect in the chord progressions I use sometimes. Inspirationally, I love his knack for light and shade, and lullaby-esqe or pastoral flute passages followed by apocalyptic Mellotron. That is definitely something I have pinched in my music. Crimson is heavy and serious, but on the McDonald And Giles album you can hear him being playful. That’s another element of his music that has inspired me; I enjoy prog that has a sense of humour. Also, his talent for arranging, his choice of instruments and where to put (and, more importantly, not put) things. He is phenomenally multi-talented but doesn’t feel the need to let everybody know about it constantly. 

“Essentially, King Crimson defined prog, in my opinion. You can say that it started with The Beatles’ mid-60s stuff and the rapidly expanding musical consciousness that followed, but Crimson were still light years ahead of anyone else in terms of complexity and musical ambition. They set a new precedent that must have put so many ideas in the minds of all the musicians who witnessed them, and I would like to urge any prog fans who haven’t heard the McDonald And Giles album to do so immediately. You can thank me later.”

This article originally appeared in issue 100 of Prog Magazine.

Ian McDonald

(Image credit: Press/DGM/King Crimson)