The Return Of The King

As you enter stage seven at Elstree Studios, there’s a laminated sign detailing some of the movies that have been made there: Kick Ass, Hot Fuzz, Under The Skin, Gravity, Star Wars: A New Hope and – appropriately enough as Robert Fripp steps forward to make a short announcement to the 20 or so people who have been invited to hear the new incarnation of King Crimson play – The King’s Speech.

“This is our 12th full-day rehearsal together and this is an informal rehearsal run-through to our invited guests. If we break down, we reserve the right to begin again. The first King Crimson principle is, ‘Let’s enjoy what we’re doing.’ That’s a novelty for King Crimson. The second principle is, ‘If you don’t want to play a part, fine: give it to another guy. There’s enough of them.’” He continues: “The sixth principle is, ‘If you don’t know what to play, get some more gear.’ The seventh principle is, ‘If you’ve got some more gear and you still don’t know what to play, play nothing.’ The third King Crimson principle is, ‘All the music is new, whenever it was written.’”

Impeccably turned out in a three-piece suit and dapper tie, he looks more like a provincial bank manager about to give the audience a short talk on the importance of fiscal prudence than one of the most influential guitarists of his generation, leading the eighth incarnation of the band he co-founded in 1968. But then Fripp has a habit of turning expectations on their head.

With Crimson not having played live since a short American tour in 2008, and being embroiled in a complex and protracted dispute over copyright infringement with the Universal Music Group, it was widely assumed that Fripp had finally retired from the music business. Aside from some low-key live dates and the occasional album release, very little was seen of the guitarist. Very little, assuming you don’t count appearing on the celebrity edition of TV game show All Star Mr & Mrs with his wife, Toyah Willcox.

His announcement in September 2013 that King Crimson would be returning in 2014 didn’t just catch fans and media by surprise – it also took those he’d asked to join him aback as well. Ask Mel Collins (saxes), Tony Levin (bass) and Jakko Jakszyk (guitar and vocals), or the three drummers – Pat Mastelotto, Bill Rieflin and Gavin Harrison – and each will tell you that they never saw it coming.

It was in the unlikely surroundings of a party with pals in Vauxhall that an idea of what a reformed King Crimson might look like came to him, quite literally, in a flash. Or, as Fripp puts it, a point of seeing. In layman’s terms, was this mystical-sounding experience a hunch or a feeling, or was it more akin to a vision in which he could see precisely who the players were and how they were positioned on stage?

“Oh yes, every one of them,” he nods. “Yes, all the people were there and fundamentally it was what the invited audience at Elstree saw. This shouldn’t be surprising. I mean, what is creative thinking? You look at something and the answer appears in front of you. It’s not a rational process. A creative insight is instantaneous. You hold all the factors together and if there’s enough necessity then something speaks back to you. When we arrived at Elstree’s stage seven and I turned up on the first day, there it was actually set up: the point of seeing I’d had, and there it was set up before me. To see it – the three drummers in the front line, the four characters in the back line – I knew immediately. This is serious stuff. I mean, I’m already convinced and there’s nobody even behind their instrument!”

On the evidence of just under two hours’ worth of music performed in public for the first time that day in Elstree, this is the most convincing version of King Crimson there’s been in quite some time.

In 2008, the band reconvened after a hiatus of six years with the surprise addition of Porcupine Tree’s Gavin Harrison joining Pat Mastelotto on drums. While some of the material was given a shot in the arm, it wasn’t enough to propel it by Crimson’s standards of innovation, and it’s probably their most play-it-safe outing to date. Only at the end of a run of 11 dates across America’s East Coast were they sounding sufficiently rehearsed enough to really get started.

Although Fripp wanted to reconvene in 2009, a clash with Adrian Belew’s solo dates nixed that, and for Fripp, the moment at which Crimson might have gone to the next level had passed.

“There’s always been a tension between Adrian’s solo career and his life in Crimson, which we’ve always sought to accommodate, although it hasn’t always been easy, and sometimes it simply hasn’t [happened]. From my point of view, in terms of seeing what is necessary for this Crimson, this was not a Crimson which I could invite Adrian to join because it’s not Adrian’s material. He’s out playing with The Crimson ProjeKCt so he’s fine, but this isn’t a Crimson for Adrian.”

While Fripp was mired in music industry dispute, the nearest many fans could get to seeing something that closely resembled King Crimson in concert came via the aforementioned The Crimson ProjeKCt, an amalgamation of Belew’s Power Trio and Levin and Mastelotto’s Stick Men group. Initially getting underway with Fripp’s blessing, the six-piece played ’80s and ’90s Crimson material, and they toured extensively over the last year. With a cursory glance at the band, it might look and sound similar to King Crimson, but as Tony Levin indicates, the differences between the two are vast and despite the crossover line-up, have very little in common.

I can’t speak for everybody in The Crimson ProjeKct, but to me, the sense of it is, ‘Let’s go out and have fun and do the songs that we’ve done before for so many years and do them that way. Let’s not rehearse, let’s not come up with any approach that’s new. Let’s not rehearse at all, in fact. Let’s not take on new material, let’s just have fun.’ To me, that feels like Adrian’s approach. I could be wrong. I’m not smart to be speaking for other people, but that’s the way it is. I know we have never scheduled rehearsal time – there wasn’t the opportunity. Being in this King Crimson couldn’t be more opposite. How many times now have I flown to England just to dig deeper into it, to suffer and enjoy it more, immersing myself in the material?”

Once Fripp declared that a new Crimson was on its way back, The Crimson ProjeKCt’s days were always going to be numbered. As Pat Mastelotto admits, “It just felt there was a little conflict of interest.”

Perhaps more than any other version of Crimson, this line-up represents a shift in thinking about the traditional roles that constitute a rock group, be it back lines, front lines or the notion of having someone front it at all.

“How do you know a group is a group?” asks Fripp. “They share the money. So when everyone said yes, they were up for this Crimson, the email went out. The business terms are it’s a one-seventh equal split all around the band. It’s a group.

“Conventionally, the singer steps forward and is the focal point. Well, with Jakko, although singing, when he sings he’s still one seventh of the band. When he’s playing the guitar, he’s one seventh of the band. The role of singer is not as frontman. This is a band of seven equal members. Clearly, within that, the drummers are the stars of the show.”

Located at the front of the stage, the three drummers are hard to miss. Their carefully choreographed parts infuse the material with both urgency and dynamic contrast. For Gavin Harrison, who developed many of the parts, the question was how to respect the past and also come up with something that was cohesive and integrated. “We don’t necessarily have to play what was on the original record, for example, and in fact it quite often works better when we don’t. I’ve come up with some small amounts of arranging and tried to think of it as one drummer with six legs and six arms.”

Fripp’s dictum of ‘new, whenever it was written’ pays dividends when they play material such as Larks’ Tongues In Aspic, Parts One and Two, The ConstruKction Of Light, The Letters and Sailor’s Tale. All are clearly recognisable but feature substantial developments and remodelling work within the details of each piece, rendering them fresh and vital.

One inclusion in the setlist that’s bound to cause heads to turn is Starless. Those present at the public rehearsal at Elstree were both surprised and delighted by its unexpected appearance. The last time Fripp played this track in front of an audience was July 1, 1974 in New York’s Central Park.

It’s not just been about revisiting the classic Crimson repertoire. The Light Of Day, perhaps the most challenging track from A Scarcity Of Miracles, is an opportunity to slip off the leash and explore a more open-ended style of improvisation, something the 2003 version touched on but which the 2008 line-up avoided entirely.

“It’s so complex and it’s a way of playing that we haven’t done before,” says Levin. “To have a vocal that’s set but have all the instrumental parts around it be improvised is unusual, and to do it with all seven guys gets very complex. In the end I think it’ll be a great direction for us to go in with this ensemble because it’s territory that’s uncharted.”

Like Levin, Mastelotto is also a huge fan of Belew’s style and singing, but readily offers his admiration for Jakszyk’s work in the group. “The Letters sounds fucking great. I was surprised how good Jakko’s voice is on some of these things. Like The Light Of Day, where he’s totally exposed and he’s sold the song. When he sings it like that, he sells the song.”

Paradoxically, it seems a necessary part of going forward for this Crimson is to reconnect with their past. When Crimson hit the concert halls in the States, it will be 42 years since Fripp was on a stage with Mel Collins. Does that have a special resonance? “Yes, but it’s not about nostalgia – he’s a wonderful player,” says Fripp bluntly.

Collins describes himself as invigorated to be returning to Crimson.

“I knew from the first day that we started rehearsals that it was going to work. There are no problems ego-wise. Working with Jakko, Robert and the others inspires me to play really well.”

Crimson once again have an Englishness to their sound, a fact that Jakszyk fully acknowledges: “I think it’s to do with a return to certain values within Crimson that might not have been so prevalent in more recent times, with a view to addressing material in a certain way; going back and re-examining some of what Crimson did and don’t do any more. Hence we’re playing some older material but it really isn’t a slavish note-for-note recreation. It’s done within the spirit of that older music but with these particular musicians in mind, and how they feel it and see it.”

And what of the future? Though nobody says it, the desire to take the music further is palpable. “We’re all of a mind where we are more than happy to continue doing this into the foreseeable future,” enthuses Jakszyk. “As well as the older material being completely re-evaluated and reconstructed, there’s some material that’s been written and recorded with five of the current members post-A Scarcity Of Miracles, which has yet to be played live and has never been released. I’ve been writing new material, as has Robert, and we’ve been discussing that. This doesn’t feel like a revisionist, greatest hits combo. It feels like a living, breathing group that’s got things it wants to do and say.”

Given his problems with the music industry, is Fripp really sure he wants to do it all again? “I spent this morning at the American embassy sorting out a visa and it’s things like that that put me off doing it again,” he sighs. “But one of the things I was doing when considering this was listening to the music. The music brings us to life. We’ve had two batches of rehearsals so far and the tour of America is booked. So yes, I’m pretty sure!” he laughs.

Fripp laughing seems such a contrast to his stony-faced public persona. But this is a line-up in which the guitarist seems comfortable and, well, happy.

“Well, it’s the first Crimson I’ve been in where there isn’t at least one person in the band who actively resents me. I’m not used to that,” he says frankly.

Though he’s the newest member of King Crimson, Bill Rieflin has known Fripp the longest, having witnessed the guitarist performing Frippertronics in Tower Records, Seattle in 1979. Beyond Crimson, the pair are good friends. “Bill is also a record producer,” says Fripp, “and is able to ask the questions that I would if I had more energy.”

Rieflin admits to being surprised by his friend’s decision to return to the music industry at the age of 68. “Well yes, he hates all that but apparently it’s worth doing. That’s the answer!” he observes. “If it’s worth doing, not to sound overly dramatic, it’s worth suffering for and worth putting up with a bunch of shit to make something good happen. Everyone knows that.”

Though they didn’t realise it on the day they gathered in Elstree for the last time on July 29, exactly 45 years ago on that date, the first incarnation were recording In The Court Of The Crimson King. Surely a coincidence as cosmic as this bodes well for the future

Sid Smith

Sid's feature articles and reviews have appeared in numerous publications including Prog, Classic Rock, Record Collector, Q, Mojo and Uncut. A full-time freelance writer with hundreds of sleevenotes and essays for both indie and major record labels to his credit, his book, In The Court Of King Crimson, an acclaimed biography of King Crimson, was substantially revised and expanded in 2019 to coincide with the band’s 50th Anniversary. Alongside appearances on radio and TV, he has lectured on jazz and progressive music in the UK and Europe.  

A resident of Whitley Bay in north-east England, he spends far too much time posting photographs of LPs he's listening to on Twitter and Facebook.