“We did two days recording… he fired the whole band on the first day”: Tony Levin recalls the “really evil” bandleader who was more challenging than Peter Gabriel and Robert Fripp

Tony Levin
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Tony Levin has been omnipresent in the world of progressive music for over 50 years. Born in Boston, Massachusetts, he joined his first band, the wonderfully named Aha, The Attack Of The Green Slime Beast, in 1970 – and never looked back. By the end of the decade, he was playing in Peter Gabriel’s band, before joining the rejuvenated King Crimson in 1981. 

The bass, Chapman Stick and synth player is also heard on Pink Floyd’s A Momentary Lapse Of Reason and the Anderson, Wakeman, Bruford And Howe album. In 2013, as he prepared to join the “final” incarnation of King Crimson, he looked back with Prog.

You’ve been working with Peter Gabriel for nearly four decades. What’s the best thing about being his bass player? 

Through the years it’s become a whole adventure and a lifestyle. Publicly he seems like a great guy, right? Well, he actually is like that, so we have a lot of fun together and it’s never rigid, structured or corporate in any way. He’s very open-minded. He’s someone who looks at things sideways. He’s always open to some new, innovative way to do things. That’s really the definition of progressive music. To me, as a guy who just plays bass, that’s a big inspiration and helps with my own approach to my instrument.

Would you say that King Crimson has been the defining experience of your career?

It had a big influence on me in 1981 when I joined for the first time. Robert Fripp is unique, but at the same time I was meeting Bill Bruford and Adrian Belew for the first time too, and both are unlike anyone else. So it was one of those defining periods for me. I was soaking up information about how to approach music and looking at myself as a player in completely different ways. I still look at King Crimson as the most challenging thing I do.

Given Robert Fripp’s refusal to repeat himself, being a fan of King Crimson is challenging too, isn’t it?

I love that. I believe that a band gets the fans it deserves. It’s a temptation to always give the fans what you want. Peter Gabriel is another good example of someone who doesn’t do that. Robert is always surprising the fans and it’s too bad if they don’t like it! But they know him, so they know that. 

Do you think Crimson fans have an accurate perception of what Robert Fripp is really like?

I honestly don’t know what the public perception is of Robert, but there’s always a lot of humour in the band. It is very intense, especially the writing and rehearsing periods. I wouldn’t describe it as fun, but it’s very deep and a huge challenge and we always survive it. Hopefully, the music that comes out in the end warrants the small degree of suffering we endure in rehearsals! Emotionally and artistically we’re stretching ourselves. 

Robert’s great at respectfully asking everybody in the band to break away from what’s comfortable and find something new. We all have tremendous freedom. Complete freedom, in fact.

One of the first big names you played with was Buddy Rich. Would it be fair to say that he made Robert Fripp seem like a pussycat?

He was notorious for being an awesomely great drummer and a pretty difficult guy to get along with. In the early 70s I was in the city of Rochester and was very successful as a bass player and not sure I wanted to leave when I was called to join the Buddy Rich band. At that time, to be in a jazz big band on the road meant permanently. So I decided to do that, and I got rid of all my stuff except for my bass and a suitcase and I joined the band in Boston.

But Buddy had changed his mind and he’d talked the old bass player into staying. I thought I was going on the road for the rest of my life and I found instead that I’d left Rochester and I had no gig at all. I wasn’t thrilled about that!

You did eventually worked with Buddy in 1974. Did you escape unscathed?

We did two days recording in New York and he fired the whole band on the first day but thankfully he re-hired us all the following morning! Buddy had a small jazz club in New York, and the following week I joined him to play there in a quintet. During the show he’d talk to the audience and do some comedy. It was very intimate.

One night, he told the audience that Mel Tormé – a very famed and wonderful jazz singer – was playing a concert in New York and after his show he’d come to the club. Buddy told the audience that they’d seat him in the front row and that he would give him a very elaborate introduction and then they’d shine a spotlight on him. At that point, Buddy asked the audience to be completely silent and not clap or anything.

It went down just as he planned it. It was really evil. The spotlight came on Mel and he stood up and turned around with this big smile and he heard complete silence. It was a great moment! That was Buddy.

Dom Lawson

Dom Lawson has been writing for Metal Hammer and Prog for over 14 years and is extremely fond of heavy metal, progressive rock, coffee and snooker. He also contributes to The Guardian, Classic Rock, Bravewords and Blabbermouth and has previously written for Kerrang! magazine in the mid-2000s.