King Crimson

Extinction Averted:
King Crimson Resurfaces As An Eight-Headed Beast

Progressive rock giant King Crimson has a long and convoluted history. Founded in 1969 by iconoclastic guitarist Robert Fripp, the group has gone through numerous breakups, reorganizations and lineups of varying character. The current King Crimson configuration is generally considered to be its eighth, or perhaps an expanded version of its eighth: along with mainstay Fripp, the “eight-headed beast” includes guitarist/vocalist Jakko Jakszyk, sax/reed man Mel Collins, bassist/Chapman Stick player extraordinaire Tony Levin, and four – yes, four – drummers: Bill Rieflin, Jeremy Stacey, Gavin Harrison and Pat Mastelotto (these days Rieflin has shifted to keyboards).

As Fripp is fond of saying, King Crimson has always been more a way of doing things than a group. The band’s sound has shifted radically over the years; the only constant has been a steadfast collective determination to go its own way, chart its own musical path. It’s easy to find artists whose musical approaches owe a debt to King Crimson’s styles; it’s rather more daunting a proposition to pinpoint anyone who’s influenced the uncompromisingly original King Crimson.

The group has been around in its various permutations so long that it can claim to have influenced many of its current members when they were mere teenagers. Drummer Pat Mastelotto was 14 when he first heard “Cat Food,” a twisted, jazzy number from 1970’s In the Wake of Poseidon. “I was at the public library,” he recalls. “You could listen to vinyl there on headphones, and I would just randomly listen to things that I wouldn’t hear on the radio or see in the record store.” Soon he tracked down an 8-track copy of the band’s 1969 debut album, In the Court of the Crimson King. He was hooked.

Amid a long and successful career as a session drummer for artists as diverse as Al Jarreau, XTC, Eddie Money and Robyn Hitchcock, Mastelotto scored success as a founding member of Mr. Mister, and has been in every lineup of King Crimson since 1994.

Jakko Jakszyk is roughly the same age as Mastelotto; growing up in England, he discovered King Crimson via a 1969 budget sampler album called Nice Enough to Eat. “My next door neighbor was two or three years older than me, which of course at that age is a fairly significant thing, and he was a big music fan,” he says. “And even at the tender age of 11, when he played me ‘21st Century Schizoid Man,’ it completely blew me away.” He found King Crimson’s music “riveting … scary … kind of virtuosic.”

He ran right out and bought In the Wake of Poseidon, and managed to see an early lineup of the band live when he was only 13. He says the experience was life-changing. “It made me think, ‘this is what I want to do,’ whatever this is,” he says. He told himself, “Music like this, music inspired by this: this is going to be my life.” And so it would be: he’d eventually lend his considerable talents to music from Level 42, the Kinks, Tom Robinson and Dave Stewart, among many others.

In 2002, Jakszyk formed 21st Century Schizoid Band, a tribute group of sorts that featured King Crimson alumni, most notably members of the earliest lineups including original drummer Michael Giles (Giles is also Jakszyk’s father-in-law). That experience playing the music of his heroes eventually led to a 2010 collaboration with Fripp and Collins himself; that in turn led to his being recruited as lead vocalist and guitarist when Robert Fripp ended his retirement and announced a re-formed King Crimson in 2013.

When King Crimson started, it was a British group. But that began to change in the 1980s when a four-man lineup (Fripp, Levin, Adrian Belew and Bill Bruford) got together for three highly regarded albums. Both Belew and Levin are Americans. And the current lineup features five Britons and three Americans (Mastelotto, Bill Rieflin and Levin).

Levin is – and has been for years – one of the busiest and most in-demand musicians in any genre. His work is featured on more than 500 albums; he’s been with King Crimson for most of its projects since 1981, and in addition to his packed calendar, he’s a member of the instrumental prog trio Stick Men with Mastelotto and touch guitarist Markus Reuter.

Perhaps Levin’s non-stop workload helps explain why he wasn’t even familiar with King Crimson’s music when he first met Fripp during 1976 sessions for a Peter Gabriel album. “A few years later, when I was invited to play with some guys for a possible new band, Adrian, Bill and Robert played ‘Red’ or ‘Larks Tongues in Aspic Part II’ – I don’t remember which – and I just had to wing it,” he says. He thinks that his unfamiliarity with the band’s catalog actually worked in his favor. “That let me approach the bass part fresh,” he says, “which may have been more appropriate for a newly imagined lineup.”

While there have certainly been exceptions, for the most part, the successive King Crimson lineups have largely focused on new material. The group seemed to have a policy of avoiding previously-covered ground. Speaking about the “double duo” lineup of 2000 (Fripp, Belew, Mastelotto and Trey Gunn), Mastelotto notes that “Robert didn’t want to play anything from before Trey and I were involved.” But for the current run of dates, the eight-headed beast is tearing into the massive back catalog with relish.

And that means playing songs that rank among its members’ favorites. Mastelotto says that “Fracture” from 1974’s Starless and Bible Black is one of those. “It’s a beautiful piece,” he says. “We don’t play it that often. We’ve got a great arrangement for it between the drummers, and it’s really powerful.” He also has a serious appreciation for the dramatic and epic “Starless,” from 1975’s Red album. “I can catch myself crying onstage,” he admits. “I have to take a deep breath sometimes.”

Jakszyk explains the group’s current thinking. “We are embracing the music as a whole, and we are going back and we are playing things that have either not been played in decades, or that have never been played live, ever.” He mentions a suite of songs off one of the group’s least-known releases (a relative term, that), 1970s Lizard. “It’s an amazing vibe to play,” he says. “And then right at the end of it, I just get to stand there and watch Robert play ‘Prince Rupert’s Lament.’ That alone is a good night out for me; I don’t know about anybody else.

“Robert knows that no one in this version of the band is going to say, ‘No, I don’t like that. I’m not playing any of that old stuff,’” Jakszyk says. “Everyone’s going to go, ‘Yeah, let’s give it a go. Fantastic.” Levin’s comment on the subject illustrates Jakszyk’s point. Noting that he has no favorites to play from the King Crimson catalog, he says, “I try to buy into each piece totally. If I’m not playing a great part on it, then it needs more work on my end.”

Notwithstanding the many archival releases via the King Crimson Collectors’ Club, the group hasn’t released an album of new material since 2003 (a 2017 EP does feature a heartfelt reading of David Bowie’s “Heroes”). Still, despite erroneous reports to the contrary, the current lineup has plenty of new music, and plays it on the current tour.

“I read a lot of stuff on forums slagging us off about the lack of new material,” Jakszyk says, “but you know what? We currently have a repertoire of around 3 1/2 hours. And of that, I would say there is about 40 minutes of new material.”

Levin agrees. “I’m looking at a couple of set lists from the last tour leg,” he says, “and I see ‘Radical Action Pt. 1,’ ‘Radical Action Pt. 2,’ ‘Radical Action Pt. 3,’ ‘Meltdown,’ ‘Interlude,’ ‘HellHounds of Krim,’ and ‘HooDoo.’” To date, only one or two of those has been released in any form.

In concert, the band’s three drummers set up along the front of the stage, with the other five musicians situated on risers behind them. One might think that playing with a roomful of drummers would pose challenges for a bassist, even one of Levin’s caliber and experience. “It has been a challenge,” he admits. “But not as hard as I expected it would be.” He says that’s largely due to the great amount of work the drummers have done on each piece, devising ways to divide responsibilities in creative ways that don’t clutter things up. “So it’s not at all like playing along with a few drummers hammering out the same part,” he says.

And it’s not all one big drumfest, anyway. “We do ‘Islands,’ Mastelotto says. “It doesn’t even have any drums for about six minutes. So we have to patiently chill. And you’ll notice that we never leave the stage. You could say, ‘Oh, this drummer’s not gonna play for five minutes; he can scoot off the stage, get a glass of water, or take a break,’ but we chose not to do that.” He compares King Crimson’s approach to that of an orchestra. “The triangle player is waiting for his moment. The third bassoon guy, he’s gonna sit there and be a listener and participate and not distract, and be in tune with the song until his moment comes. And that’s more of our modus operandi now.”

There’s a long-standing stereotype that applies to fans of King Crimson and other artists in the progressive rock genre. “The core audience of Crimson, as you know, is older men,” says Mastelotto with a chuckle. “Black t-shirt, spectacles, and usually a notepad and that whole thing; that’s kind of the joke. It’s an overstatement and oversimplification, this whole thing about how ‘there’s no line at the girls’ bathroom.’”

Mastelotto says that he’s noticed a change in the makeup of the band’s audiences. “There are more women,” he says. “We’re doing a few more ballads; we’ve added ‘Islands,’ which is another real tear-jerker. And I’ve heard directly back from women after the show, how much they respond to those songs.”

But the 2017 King Crimson lineup isn’t dialing back its overall intensity one single bit. He notes that some tunes like “One Time” or “Walking on Air” draw in listeners who prefer something a little more conventionally accessible. “But then sometimes we’ll play something like ‘Red’ or ‘Thrak,’” he laughs, “and drive ‘em right back out.”

Still, in some ways the current-day King Crimson seems a kinder, gentler band; that may help to explain why – unlike most of the band’s previous incarnations – the current lineup is very stable. “We’re older and mellower,” Mastelotto suggests. “The management has become more focused, and DGM, Robert’s label, is more in control.” Mastelotto makes the valid point that “Robert doesn’t need to do this. He doesn’t have to do it. He retired. So the idea that he would want to start again is a powerful thing. He’s a happy guy. You can actually see him on stage now; you know, there were those years where he was hidden behind his amp, or off in the dark.”

Jakszyk provides a bit more context. “Robert said – and has said quite often – that this is the first version of King Crimson where there isn’t one member of the band that actively resents him.” For his part, he mentions the support and good vibes he received from Mastelotto and Levin when he joined the band. “They’re both ‘encouragers,’” he says. Jakszyk believes that with this lineup, “Robert has ended up with a bunch of guys who enjoy being on the road. And in my case, I’m absolutely amazed that I’m doing this at all.”

King Crimson has already scheduled live dates into 2018, but it’s anyone’s guess as to the long-term future of the group. “This is supposition,” Jakszyk cautions. “This isn’t a conversation I’ve had with [Robert], but my sense is that if this is going to be the last Crimson, let’s go out with a bang. Let’s leave an imprint.”