Skip to main content

How King Crimson resurrected themselves with Islands

King Crimson
(Image credit: Virgin Records Press)

It’s early on the morning of January 6, 2010 and somewhere between Berkhamsted and Hemel Hempstead, Robert Fripp is looking out of his hotel window at the heavy overnight snowfall and his snowed-in car. He’s in this neck of the woods to work with Steven Wilson, who is remixing King Crimson’s Islands for the then-current 40th anniversary series.

Fortunately, help is at hand in the shape of Jakko Jakszyk who lives nearby and rings up Fripp. In addition to working on remixes of his old album, the guitarist is also engaged on a new project with Jakszyk that will eventually be released as A Scarcity Of Miracles. Given the scarcity of snow ploughs or shovels, Jakszyk’s offer to drive Fripp over to Wilson’s is gratefully accepted. 

Dropping Fripp off at Wilson’s house, Jakszyk goes home to work on tracks he recorded with Robert and Mel Collins, who had been over the previous day before the snow. Aside from a guest spot on King Crimson’s Red, this is the first time Collins has played directly on a full album session with Fripp since Islands in 1971. 

At the appointed hour Jakszyk drives over to Wilson’s house and waits for Fripp to emerge. Upon entering Jakszyk’s car, Fripp doesn’t even say hello but instead launches off with his normally demure Dorset accent now exasperated in tone and laden with expletives as he recites some of the Peter Sinfield’s lyrics to Formentera Lady, the opening track from Islands.

‘Here O-fucking-dysseus charm-ed for dark fucking Circe fucking fell/Still her fucking perfume lingers, still her fucking spell.’ He turns to Jakko and sighing heavily says, “If I’ve learned one thing, it’s never let people write songs about going on their fucking holidays.” Convulsed with laughter, Jakszyk says to the man behind one of his favourite King Crimson albums, “Oh Robert, don’t spoil the magic.” To which, Fripp, digging deeper into his native West Country accent, smilingly replies, “Plenty magic still left there, boy!”

Alongside the obvious humour of the moment, what this encounter also highlights is the fact that at the time Jakszyk taxied Fripp from Steven Wilson’s home, the events and associations surrounding the making of Islands was still capable of eliciting a deep, emotional response in Fripp despite being nearly 40 years ago in his past. Fripp once said that period from 1970 to the summer of 1972 was something he’d rather not go through ever again. 

King Crimson - Islands

(Image credit: DGM)

For a long time, the Islands-era band were very much the forgotten King Crimson, a group overshadowed by 1969’s groundbreaking debut and eclipsed by the brilliance of the magical Larks’ Tongue era that followed. This part of Crimson history was represented by an album hurriedly recorded on the hoof in between gigs and, until the 2000s, a live legacy that could only be found on the infamous Earthbound, whose dubious bootleg sonics meant that Atlantic Records declined to even release it in the country where it had been recorded. In just two years they released three albums that were by turns accomplished, challenging, bold, innovative, quixotic, and, for all their differences and idiosyncrasies, unmistakably Crimson despite the turbulence that was evident had you been following the pages of the music press at the time. 

It was a period where King Crimson were in turmoil, unable to find suitable new members, and where a power struggle between the two surviving founder members was played out to poisonous effect. It was a time when Fripp and the band became estranged, when musical frustration, personal animosity and professional resentment bubbled under the surface, eventually boiling over into passive-aggressive brinkmanship and mass resignation. 

In theory, 1970 and 1971 should have been the years that King Crimson capitalised on the giddy rush of In The Court Of The Crimson King’s transatlantic success. With sales of the hastily constructed follow-up, In The Wake Of Poseidon actually out-performing its illustrious debut, there was no shortage of promoters ringing up the offices of EG Management offering slots at festivals and tours in the provinces at home and abroad. What there was a distinct shortage of, however, was the right personnel that could be fashioned into a working band capable of going out on the road.

Along with Mel Collins on sax, the recruitment of Fripp’s old school pal Gordon Haskell on bass and vocals, and another friend from his past, drummer Andy McCulloch, during the summer of 1970 it seemed like this new iteration of Crimson might yet rise from ashes. Such hopes were short-lived. The making of third album Lizard had proved to be a testing experience for nearly everyone concerned. What had been a cordial enough arrangement between Sinfield and Fripp during Poseidon now became strained and terse. Haskell and McCulloch disliked the way they were required to lay down their parts in isolation with only the sketchiest guide guitar as accompaniment. In particular, Haskell detested Sinfield’s words, a dislike also shared by Fripp. Even the amiable and relaxed Mel Collins was unhappy at the way his and the brass players’ parts were laid down on a bar by bar basis, making soloing feel stilted and uneven. Little wonder then, after Lizard was done the atmosphere in rehearsals was so toxic that within hours Haskell had walked out, closely followed by McCulloch. 

King Crimson

(Image credit: DGM Archive)

To have one band fall apart could be viewed as an accident or just ‘one of those things’. To see another collapse in on itself in such a short space of time was beginning to look like this group was cursed. In the press at the time there was talk of Crimson being deserted by their ‘good fairy’, that’s the run of good fortune and the sense of being looked after by some benign higher force that had taken the original band under its wing. At the end of 1970 King Crimson released Lizard, their arguably most eclectic studio album yet, but at an enormous cost. Having somehow survived the collapse of the original band in 1969, one year on it had happened once again and Crimson looked to being finished for good.

Certainly, that’s how Mel Collins remembered it. He’d been a member of Circus, one of the groups that had appeared on the Marquee’s New Paths series along with pianist Keith Tippett’s band. Fripp’s exposure to both these acts in 1969 had led directly to him asking Collins and Tippett to guest on Poseidon

Fripp loved Collins’ playing and invited him to sign on full-time, something the sax player had no hesitation in doing. What had once seemed like a no-brainer career move had now become a major headache for the 23-year-old musician. “It was awful really. I’d had to go back to Circus with my tail between my legs after Poseidon, and then quitting them again to join Crimson for Lizard didn’t go down well with the guys in Circus or the management at Transatlantic who we were signed to. It was on then it was off then it was on again and it was doing my head in. My chance of being successful, being in a top-rated band and going to America, which was the big one, seemed to be disappearing.” 

Things went from bad to worse. Collins recalls when Fripp seemed to give up, unable to face another round of searching for the next Crimson line-up. “It was so traumatic that at one point Robert couldn’t handle it anymore and he told me that if I wanted to carry on with Crimson and I wanted to get the band together that I should do the auditioning. All I can remember was Robert giving up completely, saying there’s no hope.” With auditions held in the basement of the cafe on the Fulham Palace Road where Crimson had started life in January 1969, Collins got on with the slightly surreal task of finding members for a band that technically didn’t truly exist at that point. 

Collins was quick to recognise the absurdity of the situation. “I can understand why Robert felt the way he did – I was also on the point of giving up on many occasions. Crimson was his whole life. All his energy had gone into the band and Peter [Sinfield, co-founder and lyricist], not being a musician, couldn’t do so much. So there I am in this little rehearsal room auditioning bass players and drummers on my own. As green as I was back then, a saxophone player who didn’t really know the tunes that well, it was unbelievable to be thrown into this situation, but I was hungry to do it. When I think about it now, I can’t imagine how I did it.” 

He recalls meeting several hopefuls of varying abilities and sometimes no abilities at all. “You get all sorts of complete no-hopers who’d blag their way in and Robert was using me to filter all these people out. They were coming in and we’d talk and we’d have a jam. There wasn’t much I could do as a sax player and so we’d do a little blues or something. It was crazy really. If I then found anybody I’d have to re-audition them with Peter and Robert, which was bizarre.” 

One person with a nicely developed sense of the bizarre was drummer Ian Wallace, who at that point had recently been working with various members of the Bonzo Dog Band and had once played drums on television backing comedian Marty Feldman while dressed as a rubber duck. Wallace rented a room in Keith Emerson’s house, as indeed had Andy McCulloch, and now he jumped at the chance to try out for the vacant drum stool. Understanding that Wallace was a serious contender, Fripp was re-energised enough to get back involved in the process of bringing King Crimson back to life. Wallace recalled that after the elation of getting the job, it was grim working in that cramped basement space. “It was me, Fripp and Mel auditioning bass players and singers and it came very close to not existing. We auditioned so many people, dozens and dozens, and we despaired of finding the right combination.” 

One person who did make his way down the basement stairs was aspirant rock star Bryan Ferry, then still a teacher by day and writing quirky songs with a band called Roxy. It’s hard to imagine Ferry getting his tonsils around the lyrics of 21st Century Schizoid Man or Pictures Of A City, and even harder to imagine an alternative rock history had he been successful in the task. Although Fripp liked what he heard it wasn’t judged right for Crimson. The guitarist did, however, give Ferry the telephone number of Crimson’s manager, David Enthoven, and in urging the singer to make the call, set in motion a course that would lead to Roxy Music’s remarkable 1972 self-titled debut, which was produced by Peter Sinfield. 

King Crimson

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Raymond ‘Boz’ Burrell was another hopeful who made it to the basement, but unlike the others, got offered the gig. Initially, this was as vocalist only. Burrell had been searching for a musical home since the early 60s, first in local bands in Lincolnshire and then in London. Something of a mover and shaker blessed with good looks and quick wit, Burrell was mentioned on the front page of Melody Maker in 1965 when he was rumoured to be the replacement for Roger Daltrey after the singer had briefly stormed out of The Who. Later, Burrell would try his hand as a jobbing solo vocalist doing covers as diverse as the title song to the comedy film Carry On Screaming and a more creditable rendition of Bob Dylan’s I Shall Be Released

Taking something of a punt on the Crimson audition, any doubts Burrell might have had about whether or not this was the right move for him were quickly dispelled by the unanimously enthusiastic reception given to him by Wallace, Fripp, Collins and Sinfield. In Burrell they had found not only someone whose gutsy but soulful vocals also conveyed a raw power, he was someone they got on with instantly, with a sense of humour that lifted the somewhat gloomy spirit that had pervaded the rehearsal space of late.

The addition of bassist Rick Kemp, who’d later enjoy a career with Steeleye Span, turned the mood into one of celebration. For three days the band jammed but were dealt a blow when Kemp decided it wasn’t for him and pulled out. “That was the lowest point. When we got that message we were all sitting in the basement and it was pretty much that Crimson wasn’t going to happen. That was it really, the band was all but finished,” Wallace later recalled. 

After a few more applicants had tried but failed, Burrell, who’d played rhythm guitar earlier in his career, picked up the bass guitar left behind by one hopeful, plucking a few notes on it. Mel Collins remembered it had belonged to ex-Brian Auger bassist Dave Ambrose. “It didn’t work out with Dave but, for some reason, he’d left his bass behind and that’s the one that Robert picked up when he decided to teach Boz to play the songs.” Burrell was given a week to see how things worked out. Fripp told NME at the time, “We had had plenty of competent professional musicians audition but they didn’t have the feel. Boz felt the bass parts while he was singing, whereas the musicians could play it but couldn’t feel it. And if he could feel it, it could only be a matter of time before it crept down from his head through his hand and into his fingers.” 

Having spent four days in April doing a short residency at Frankfurt’s Zoom Club, where the set was significantly more open-ended and experimental than it would later become, King Crimson next embarked on a lengthy run of UK dates in May 1971, the first time a band bearing that name had performed live in British venues since October 1969. It had been touch and go but somehow, against the odds, they had made it back to the stage. The sense of relief was palpable. Sometimes they felt like robbers who’d pulled off a heist, a feeling that despite all the uncertainty and despair they’d gotten away with it. There were some wrinkles, of course, not everything was as they would have it. In Frankfurt the band had been given to expansive improvisations in which they stretched out ideas across themes and motifs. On their UK tour, however, much of that openness had been penned into a more conventional set that revisited older Crimson pieces The Court Of The Crimson King, Get Thy Bearings, Pictures Of A City, Cirkus and, of course, 21st Century Schizoid Man

As glad as they were to be working at last, some felt uncomfortable about playing material that they’d had no hand in recording – a bit like having to wear an ill-fitting suit or a uniform that belonged to somebody else, as Wallace once put it. Accepting that a setlist would have to represent the broader, historical repertoire, the hope was that all bandmembers would be encouraged to write and contribute music over time. Yet time was the one thing they were short of. Making up for lost months meant that there was no question of taking a break from the road to compose new material in preparation for their first album together. Expediency demanded that they went with what Fripp had available in the way of compositions and their schedule was such that recording dates would have to be fitted in between gigs. In practical terms, that meant after playing a show in the provinces, they’d drive back to London overnight to clock in at Command Studios for 10am. Given that Collins, Burrell and Wallace were fond of a post-gig drink, mornings weren’t always the time when they were at their best. If you’ve ever noticed the strange halo around Boz Burrell’s voice on Ladies Of The Road, it was achieved not through some elaborate effect but by having the microphone positioned next to his head as he leaned over a metal fire bucket held in place in the event of him having to vomit. 

King Crimson

(Image credit: DGM Archive)

Hangovers aside, the guerrilla raids on Command Studios yielded some impressive results. Although Islands continued King Crimson’s penchant for mixing contrasting styles and dynamics that veered between The Letters’ gothic melodrama, Formentera Lady’s laid-back reveries, Ladies Of The Road’s raucously skewed blues, or the genteel chamber orchestra heard on Prelude: Song Of The Gulls and the poignant title track, it was Sailor’s Tale that stood out as a break with the past and pointed towards a future Crimson. Propelled by Wallace’s insistent cymbals and Collins’ acerbic sax break, the spiky, fiery onslaught of a guitar solo tore up the guitar solo rule book and presaged what was to come. Although not released until 41 years later, during the Islands session they attempted early versions of music that’d later surface on Larks’ Tongues In Aspic and Starless And Bible Black. Sounding awkward and unable to find the right feel within this line-up, the tracks were shelved. 

This new direction beckoning Fripp partly explains why, during the autumn tour of the UK, he had lost confidence in the band and distance grew between them. Collins remembers how strained relationships between Fripp and the band became. “There was a period where Robert couldn’t talk to us. We were travelling in a little Transit van so we were in a confined space every day and it got to be emotional. He was obviously going through some terrible trauma within himself. We were discussing this every day, ‘What’s wrong with Robert. Maybe there’s something terrible that’s happened? Had his father has died or something? He can’t bring himself to tell us?’ But that caused a lot of problems within the band on the road. We ended up towards the end of the tour at a gig where Boz smashed his guitar up against his amp and the amp went tumbling over and Ian kicked his drum kit all over the stage. It was like King Crimson visits The Who [laughs]. This was how intense it was. Musically and personality-wise, it wasn’t an easy band. We were above the fisticuffs, unlike some bands, but it was very tense and emotional.” 

Tensions between Fripp and Sinfield had also reached a point of no return. At the end of what had been a generally positive tour in the USA, Ian Wallace remembered Fripp asking them to make a choice: to go with him or Peter. “We saw that Crimson wouldn’t have continued without Fripp and, although he gave us a choice, there really was no choice.” 

Back in the UK, Fripp made the call telling Sinfield their partnership was over. This was, as Fripp saw it, the inevitable climax to what he described as “18 months of managing increasing personal criticism and hostility, quite apart from the specific professional context, which was disintegrating”. 

For his part, Sinfield saw the tensions in their relationship as essentially a way of keeping creative sparks flying but views the root of the problem as being caused by Fripp resenting his interventions and suggestions for Crimson’s musical future: “I think the famous ‘big’ problems really occurred leading up to Islands, where I musically wanted to find a softer, Miles Davis-with-vocals sexy package.” 

Over the years, Sinfield has been quoted as saying that he regarded his final album with King Crimson as being “my Islands”. It’s an assertion that Fripp dismisses. During the remixing and remastering process in 2010 where he was listening to the music in close detail, he offered this perspective on the issue: “I’m not sure why Peter Sinfield would consider Islands to be his album, although it became clear at the time that Peter was increasingly using KC as a vehicle for his personal ambitions, rather than a joint/group undertaking. On Islands Peter expanded his brief to include cover design, rather than using an outside artist [in the US Atlantic declined to use Peter’s cover, preferring the inner sleeve of the nebula cluster]. At live shows, VCS3 explosions and effects from Peter’s FOH desk suggested a metaphorical climbing-onstage. EG Management, experiencing the difficulties of managing an offstage member of KC who wanted the visibility of an onstage presence, put the sound mixer of their next band onstage right from the beginning, in order to head off the problem: Eno with Roxy Music.

“The creative power that brought KC to life in 1969, which we called the ‘good fairy’, did not originate in the young men that formed the band: it acted through and upon them. I don’t doubt that Peter’s feelings are genuine, that he honestly believes himself to be KC’s Good Fairy. This would explain the bitterness, ongoing to this day. But realistically, how was Islands Peter’s album? Peter didn’t compose or play music… Which musical route did Peter want for KC? That of Formentera Lady? Ladies Of The Road? Scored music for chamber orchestra? And how could any route have been continued, even were Peter to have remained within the band? Peter’s considerable talents were not musical. Peter had no musical and performing experience, compositional or executant skills. And personally, I prefer Larks’ Tongues In Aspic, Fracture and Red to Formentera Lady; with due respect to all the talented characters involved.”

King Crimson

(Image credit: DGM Archive)

The musical partnership that had formally begun in January 1969 and the circumstances that had thrown them together was finally dissolved in December 1971 when Fripp asked Sinfield to leave. He was now the sole survivor from the original King Crimson. When the quartet reconvened in January 1972 to rehearse for the upcoming US tour, a dispute caused by Fripp’s refusal to play a piece composed by Collins on the very first morning resulted in the rest of the band quitting in solidarity with Mel. The new King Crimson had broken up on the morning of their very first rehearsal. Persuaded by EG Management that they were contractually obliged to complete the tour, this strange happy, and unhappy, band of brothers landed in North America and, between February and April 1, 1972 played more than 30 gigs. At the end of it, Collins, Wallace and Burrell stayed Stateside to join forces with Alexis Korner while Fripp headed back alone to the UK to compile a live album of the tour, which with his customary deadpan wit he titled Earthbound

For decades the Islands band were regarded as not quite being up to the level of other Crimsons. The truth was they were simply different. Over the years their reputation has been rehabilitated through the release of numerous live albums, which reveal a band that, on the one hand, did like to boogie in a most un-Crimson like manner if they got the chance, but were also capable of some absolutely hair-raising, impassioned performances. 

Although their paths did not cross for many years there was a rapprochement with Collins and Wallace. In one of those truly cosmic coincidences, Collins remembers that in August 2002 he was at home in Germany transcribing music for the 21st Century Schizoid Band when the phone rang. Out of the blue, it was Robert Fripp calling from Nashville where he was recording material for King Crimson’s 13th studio album, The Power To Believe. “We were offering each other congratulations on the various things we’d done since playing together,” recalls Collins. “I told him how good I thought what we were doing back then was, and in the course of this, he apologised for the hurtful things he’d said to me 30 years ago. He felt he could have put it all in a different way and that he wished he had. I’m glad we made our peace.”

King Crimson

(Image credit: Michael Putland/Getty Images)

For Jakko Jakszyk, the unwitting recipient of Fripp’s ire that wintry afternoon in 2010, his life was utterly transformed in ways he could not have imagined when he saw Mel, Ian, Boz and Fripp perform at Watford Town Hall in 1971. Islands is one of his favourite King Crimson albums, he says. “Obviously it has a place in my heart that’s to do with a time and a place, I guess. I love Boz’s voice. I know it’s maligned by some of the Crimson aficionados, but I don’t really get that. Both Mel and Ian were incredibly defensive about that. They really loved Boz. They loved his bass playing too, even though it wasn’t overly technical. They said he had an amazing groove and an amazing vibe, that he really made those things sing.” As a member of Crimson now, invariably his favourite songs to sing are the ones from Islands

When King Crimson reformed in 2014 and Jakko stood onstage as a member between Collins and Fripp, it was exciting enough. To then discover that Fripp intended to include tracks from the Poseidon, Lizard and Islands eras was especially pleasing, recalls Jakszyk. Sailor’s Tale and The Letters hadn’t been performed live in more than 40 years and he says their inclusion represented the fact that Fripp had come to terms with the music he’d for so long wished to disassociate himself from. “I think finally he could hear the music in those pieces. He’d avoided not so much because he dismissed the value of the material or the content, but because of the hellish memories he has of trying to bring that particular music to life. So I think that’s why he hated that period for so long because in his head it represented this torturous process that he didn’t want to revisit. Obviously remixing it on occasion has helped him come to terms with it all and certainly playing this stuff again has made him re-evaluate it, which is why it was such a joy to do it.” 

Hearing Fripp take on the chordal solo of Sailor’s Tale while standing next to him was another spine-tingling moment for Jakszyk. “Listening and watching him do that live for the first time was unbelievable. Robert’s soloing with those kinds of chords and intervals, with that sound, it’s such an extraordinary example of tension and release and the places it goes is truly unique. Who plays like that? Nobody.” Jakko recalls that in one of the first band rehearsals he was using a Kemper audio modelling processor that was able to precisely emulate vintage amp configurations and guitar settings. “The first time we ran through Sailor’s Tale, after we finished Robert said to me, ‘The sound you’re using there, what is it?’ And I said, ‘It’s a preset on the Kemper called ‘Early Fripp.’” He absolutely cracked up. He thought that was hilarious.”