Pop ’N Hiss: King Crimson’s Red

Commendable Coda
Pop ’N Hiss: King Crimson’s Red
John Wetton onstage with King Crimson in 1973.

In the late ’60s, a new style of rock emerged in Britain, influenced by classical music and fronted by bands like Yes, Genesis, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Dubbed “progressive rock,” King Crimson epitomized the form.

Fusing against-the-grain arrangements and meters with grandiose lyrics, King Crimson’s approach was piloted by guitarist Robert Fripp frenetically chordingπ on a Les Paul Custom rendering everything from snarling fuzz riffs to a dark version of Clapton’s “woman tone.” Fripp shifted the band’s music and membership from album to album and composed songs that were often extended, with variations in mood, tempo, volume, and time signatures.

Guitarist Jakko Jakszyk, who joined King Crimson in 2013, first heard the band in ’69, on an Island Records sampler album. He was 11 years old.

“It blew the top of my head off,” he recalled. “You could tell it was coming from somewhere different. Robert seemed ruthlessly determined to plow his own particular musical furrow.”

One of Crimson’s most-noteworthy stylistic transpositions happened in early ’73, when Fripp recruited bassist/vocalist John Wetton, drummer Bill Bruford (who joined from Yes), violinist David Cross, and eccentric percussionist Jamie Muir. Together, they created a stripped-down, semi-abstract tack with little of the Mellotron that previously played a key role. Wetton’s tones were evoked from a ’61 Fender Precision interpolated with fuzz and wah. His evocative vocals and relatable lyrics were also assets.

The lineup debuted with Larks’ Tongues in Aspic before Muir left, followed by Cross after the next album, Starless and Bible Black. In the summer of ’74, the remaining three recorded Red, with Cross and saxophonists Ian McDonald and Mel Collins contributing a handful of parts.

Jakszyk’s first encounter with Red happened while he was working in the record department of a local store.

“Robert’s tone and approach writ large on this album,” he said. “The ascending melody on the title track and the unique tone and phrasing throughout was a huge influence on how I wanted to play, and what I wanted my music to sound like.”

John Wetton: Gijsbert Hanekroot/Alamy.

Red is only five songs, each a standout for separate reasons. The instrumental title-track opener starts with raw, howling guitar lines before focusing on a distorted chord melody. The riffs were some of the most “mainstream” Fripp had ever played.

The softer portions of “Fallen Angel” lament street life in a gritty metropolis, with a delicate acoustic passage from Fripp before proceedings crank up on the growling chorus.

“One More Red Nightmare” discusses the perils of airline travel; each verse has an unorthodox start, with Wetton’s vocals against a guitar solo. The track has a unique percussion effect created by Bruford’s ride cymbal, which was cracked and warped when he found it in a trash bin; its clanking resonance fits perfectly.

“Providence” is quasi-free-form, recorded live and showcasing the band’s experimental soundscapes. And finally, “Starless” is a 12-minute masterwork opening with minor-key Mellotron and Fripp’s melancholy guitar; its dirge-like initial pace recalls Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb,” though Red preceded The Wall by a half-decade. Wetton’s plaintive singing fits the mood perfectly, and as his vocal concludes, he starts with an ominous, repetitive riff on his P-Bass, soon joined by Fripp playing twangy, repeated single notes before their riffing creeps upward in volume and urgency. Fripp works in more strings, bending them until the song explodes in a galloping frenzy, with saxophone and the return of Bruford’s dilapidated cymbal; the cacophony references the chaos of the band’s signature song, “21st Century Schizoid Man,” before careening back to the intro melody, louder and more forcefully. The track is definitive King Crimson on an album of fan favorites.

“I can see why someone would think that, since it goes through so many moods and changes, and contains so many Crimson trademarks and dynamics,” Jakszyk said of “Starless.” “It’s at times beautiful, heart-wrenching, minimalistic, majestic, savage, and has the big build-and-release.”

The song’s final chord decays to silence that serves as both finale and requiem, given that Fripp had decided to break up the band as Red was recorded.

In 1981, Fripp staged a version of Crimson that took another musical direction, and he has done so numerous times since. In testament to the durability of Red, the most-recent incarnation has performed every song except “Providence.”

This article originally appeared in VG’s February 2023 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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