Watch the Throne
October 1, 2021
IN NOVEMBER OF 1974, Malcolm McLaren, Vivienne Westwood, and Bernie Rhodes collaborated on a T-shirt printed with two columns of text: a list of “hates” alongside a list of “loves.” As reported in Jon Savage’s 2002 book England’s Dreaming, those hates included Yes, ELP., and Bryan Ferry. The loves included “sex professionals, renegade artists, hard Rockers, IRA terrorists, working-class heroes and, well hidden, the first printed mention of ‘Kutie Jones and his SEX PISTOLS.’”
Those two columns were the shadow commandments of New York critics for decades, and it would not be wrong to lump King Crimson in with other progressive-rock groups like Yes and ELP. Greg Lake—the “L” in ELP—was King Crimson’s first singer. Jon Anderson of Yes sang on a Crimson album, and Bryan Ferry auditioned for the band after Lake’s departure in 1970. Founder Robert Fripp confirmed the affinities in a 1974 Melody Maker interview in which he talked about their recent (but not permanent) breakup: “In terms of most bands, of course, [King Crimson] was remarkably successful. But in terms of the higher echelon of bands like Yes and ELP, it didn’t make it.” King Crimson wasn’t in McLaren’s “hates” column by name, but they were there in spirit. I thought of this when I watched the band play their possibly last-ever show in New York a few weeks ago. When I looked up both bands in Artforum’s online archives, I discovered that King Crimson had been mentioned twice (in passing), while the Sex Pistols have been cited eighty times.
Artistic cohorts (what artists do) and critical cohorts (what critics write) and cultural cohorts (what everyone else actually does) are like transparencies on a light table, passing over one another and occasionally lining up. There were misalignments in 1974. The King Crimson album from that year, Red, sounded like punk rock before there was such a thing. As Lydon said in 1975, “Kids want threatening noises, because that shakes you out of your apathy,” which describes what King Crimson had recorded just one year earlier. At the philosophical level, Fripp and the punks were also not that far apart. In that same Melody Maker interview, Fripp described the “old world” as “large and unwieldy, without much intelligence—just like the dinosaur.” He said that “small, mobile, independent, and intelligent” would be the characteristics of “the new world,” which is how many people saw punk in relation to the mainstream music typified by, say, Top of the Pops. (Crimson and the Pistols both eventually played the show.) In the seven years following the ’74 King Crimson breakup, the mobile and independent unit was Fripp, who played guitar with David Bowie (“Heroes”), produced albums by Peter Gabriel and the Roches, and presented shows of solo guitar and tape loops, which he called “Frippertronics.” King Crimson’s site offers a high-fidelity recording of the first time Fripp performed Frippertronics live, at the Kitchen in New York, in February of 1978.
What came to be called ambient music was taking shape in the work of Fripp’s friend and collaborator Brian Eno, and it is not a stretch to say Fripp’s guitar performances were just as important to this idea as Eno’s music. Without any perceptible marking of time signature or chord changes, Fripp’s burnt, saturated sound unfolded in a way that nothing else did outside of Éliane Radigue’s tape works and certain Tangerine Dream tracks. When Fripp brought Frippertronics to the West Hollywood branch of Tower Records in 1979, Greil Marcus wrote about it for New West: “There was an eerie feeling of completeness to Fripp's music, and an inexplicably ancient aura: I’d never heard more suggestive sounds—and this on a hot afternoon with people crammed into the aisles of a chain store! Tones soared through the room in arcs; they hung in the air, rang like bells, and then retreated to their boxes. When Fripp raised a guitar and softly soloed against the tape he’d made, playing blues just a step past (or a step behind, I don’t know) Jimi Hendrix, the question of whether or not this was rock ‘n’ roll was both answered and made irrelevant. What Fripp was insisting on was a glimpse of possibilities.”
It bears noting that Fripp was developing Frippertronics in the summer of 1977 while he was living in New York. Punk was exploding around him. That July, his friends in ELP played Madison Square Garden. As Crimson biographer Sid Smith put it, “ELP were the complete antithesis, both musically and ideologically, to Fripp’s new scene.” But Fripp moved faster than the critics: Even though, by 1977, McLaren’s love and hates were irrelevant, the critics stuck to those columns for years.
In 1981, a revised version of King Crimson formed and recorded Discipline, their sound now springy and funky. They played the Roxy, one of hip-hop’s only downtown-Manhattan outposts, while punk was retreating. My teenage self had been taken with the clarity of punk’s negation, but that didn’t affect my love for Crimson, less florid than they were in 1969, and not something I would have called either punk or progressive rock. Next to the Talking Heads and Grace Jones and Cheryl Lynn and Gwen Guthrie, they just sounded like dance music.
By the twenty-first century, those loves and hates columns had calcified into a critical position Dan Lopatin (of Oneohtrix Point Never) called “timbral fascism” in a 2009 interview with The Wire. In that exchange, Lopatin was describing the critical consensus around the effect of a chorus pedal on ’80s synths—“the cheese zone” is how he paraphrased it—but his point speaks to the nature of items still in the rock-critical hates column around 2009: New Age music, progressive rock, most things ornate and obvious or sincere. But through the long-lasting effect of hip-hop’s sampling practices (remember that Kanye sampled King Crimson in 2009) and of producers like Lopatin, the 2021 discourse has caught up with Fripp and his entirely independent band.
The version of King Crimson that just spent two months in America this summer has been more or less unchanged since 2013: drummers Pat Mastellotto, Jeremy Stacey, and Gavin Harrison, alongside saxophonist Mel Collins, bassist Tony Levin, singer-guitarist Jakko Jakszyk, and Fripp. (Drummer Bill Rieflin died in 2020 and was replaced by Stacey.) They’ve been approaching King Crimson’s catalogue in a flexible and critical way, moving material in and out such that the live shows engage with the band’s history without presenting a single, canonical version of it.
At the Beacon, on September 9, King Crimson went heavy on ’70s material, like “Red,” for a little under two hours. The stage was split into two levels signaling the band’s chain of command. Upstage, on a fairly tall riser, the string players were arrayed in suits; Fripp sat stage far left on a stool, with Jaksyk, Levin, and reed player Collins to his right. Below them, the three drummers: Harrison stage left below Fripp, with Stacey centered and Mastellotto beside him. Fripp sat angled to his right, surveying the band while the players looked out at the audience.
Two threads tied the set together: the controlled aggression of songs like “21st Century Schizoid Man” and “One More Red Nightmare,” and the pastoral songs like “Starless” and “Epitaph” that depend on the sound of the Mellotron. Rendered here on stage by software, the original Mellotron is a magically cockeyed bit of older technology that plays tape loops of existing instruments (familiar to you perhaps from “Strawberry Fields Forever” or “Kashmir.”) The band’s heavier tunes are a kinesthetic variant of noise, something that elaborates and cleanses anxiety without breaking the furniture. There is enough imprecision and degradation in their quieter songs that the sound of the Mellotron served as the emissary of an unspecified past that could not be rendered properly. Combine that with romantic lyrics like “Confusion will be my epitaph / as I crawl a cracked and broken path / If we make it, we can all sit back and laugh,” and you have a sound for the pandemic.
Of all the decisions Fripp has made, his choice to work with three drummers still baffles me. I get more sound than music out of this deal, as much as I like each individual drummer. Do they serve as a buffer? As support? I admit defeat here. The band’s set felt both exuberant and casual, a relaxed summation of their songbook. Even though it was reported that this might be the band’s last visit to America, there was no self-congratulation in the proceedings. The set flew by. When it was done, Fripp stood up and, as promised earlier in the show, took photos of the audience with a small camera. (Audiences were forbidden to take photos during the show; during “Starless,” Fripp pointed at an iPhone violator and solemnly shook his head.) Along with the prog dads, there were a healthy number of women in the crowed as well as some fans in their twenties. After the show, a sixteen-year old musician named Luca Schlee told me that it was “the greatest show” he had ever seen, largely because of the band’s technical skill and their “long, really thought-out” songs.
I talked to Jakszyk by Zoom after he had flown back to his home in Berkhamsted, England. He told me that half of the band live near him in a “Crimson Triangle” around Hertfordshire, and that the next two years would be tricky because Harrison, one of the drummers, is booked. But what had Fripp himself said about the future of King Crimson? “When we were done playing Washington, on Saturday, the last show of the tour,” he said, “Robert came in with some champagne, and he toasted the completion of fifty-two years of King Crimson playing in North America.” I hope that, as with many of Fripp’s resolutions, this one is subject to revision.
— Sasha Frere-Jones