King Crim­son

Prog - - Contents - Words: Al Mur­ray Im­ages: Tony Levin

I walked on stage know­ing that this band’s po­si­tion in the world has changed level…

In Pom­peii with Robert Fripp, and in con­ver­sa­tion with the band…

When he pre­sented the 2018 Prog Awards, Al Mur­ray got to in­dulge his life­long love of the genre. And ear­lier in the sum­mer, he took a once-in-a-life­time trip to Italy to wit­ness King Crim­son play­ing in the shadow of Mount Ve­su­vius in Pom­peii. The co­me­dian re­ports back from a bucket list con­cert…

“In Pom­peii, a large per­cent­age of the au­di­ence were young cou­ples, and older men were with wives. My own sense and feel of our two au­di­ences: a large pro­por­tion see­ing Crim­son for the first time, a larger pro­por­tion see­ing this in­car­na­tion for the first time.” Robert Fripp

Start­ing late as they do in Italy, the sun long since set, the am­phithe­atre in Pom­peii is a stark and haunt­ing place. Echoes abound and re­bound, fly­ing off into the night sky. Re­fur­bished by Dave Gil­mour so he could play it a cou­ple of years back, it’s nev­er­the­less spar­tan, if you’ll par­don the Greek rather than Ro­man al­lu­sion. The floor is gravel, the seat­ing ba­sic, the light­ing min­i­mal, and the wind whips through the venue. In the af­ter­noon it shook the tem­po­rary awnings keep­ing the blaz­ing sun off the band’s equip­ment.

The jux­ta­po­si­tion of rock band and an­cient Ro­man arena – though ‘rock band’ doesn’t re­ally con­vey what the stage looks like, with three sprawl­ing drum kits down­stage, Fripp’s gui­tar cove stage left, mir­rored by Mel

Collins’ screened-off sax pit – seems en­tirely fit­ting with this line-up’s do-or-die mu­si­cal am­bi­tion.

Around mid­night in the am­phithe­atre, the crowd surge for­ward to sing 21st Cen­tury Schizoid Man. Ital­ians young and old, some Amer­i­cans, sun-bleached Brits and who­ever else is there, ev­ery­one sings the breaks with Jakko Jak­szyk, ex­ul­tant. He looks like he can’t be­lieve it. Nor can I, to be hon­est. There are the dreaded, dev­il­some cam­era phones ev­ery­where, though God knows those peo­ple are miss­ing out by wor­ry­ing about film­ing what is a truly red­blooded mo­ment in a glad­i­a­to­rial arena – that phone will never cap­ture how it feels, how it sounds as the stars sparkle and the light from the stage glows back on the crowd as the mighty Crim play the song from 49 years ago that started it all.

Night fell long ago. The stars and moon have been al­ter­nately ser­e­naded and bat­tered by the me­lan­choly and fury of this band’s lat­est man­i­fes­ta­tion. As the au­di­ence dis­perse, spir­its are in­cred­i­bly high. A man be­hind me keeps say­ing, “50 years! 50 years!” and clutches my hand. Peo­ple are high­fiv­ing each other. Chris Porter, Crim­son’s front-of-house sound en­gi­neer who has to wres­tle all this right­eous racket into an or­derly noise, is beam­ing when I tell him how great ev­ery­thing sounded. Truly it’s a Ro­man tri­umph. The vol­cano is in the back­ground, but mer­ci­fully it’s King Crim­son that erupt tonight.

“Last night King Crim­son moved into the main­stream in Italy. Al­ter­na­tively ex­pressed, King Crim­son moved out of the prog ghetto… But there’s far more to King Crim­son than this. KC is not only a band, clearly so, as there have been nine-ish in­car­na­tions. KC is a way of do­ing things, and its busi­ness aims must nec­es­sar­ily re­flect its mu­si­cal aims: a har­mony of el­e­ments, in tune, in time and in tim­bre.” Robert Fripp

Idon’t know about that: to me it seemed to be more the strato­sphere that was be­ing both­ered that night in Pom­peii. As a fan – and I ap­pre­ci­ate that what fans want of­ten re­sem­bles the artist’s idea of a shit sand­wich – I’m not sure I like the idea of Crim­son in the main­stream. Not in an “I pre­ferred their early stuff” way; rather I like that when I’m at a show, we and me love this band and don’t care what any­one thinks. But I also sym­pa­thise with Fripp’s de­sire to move out of the prog ghetto. No one likes be­ing pi­geon­holed, even if they ar­guably in­vented the genre they’re boxed in.

I’ve found that de­scrib­ing Crim­son as prog is not par­tic­u­larly help­ful, given how the band have shed their skin and sound so many times, and while the cur­rent man­i­fes­ta­tion has its fair share of flutey and Mel­lotron-y mo­ments, so much else is go­ing on be­sides. Fripp has ven­tured that King Crim­son it­self is the genre, and per­haps that’s the bet­ter way to get your head around it.

Pom­peii – like Grace­land – is some­where I thought I’d get round to vis­it­ing but never quite man­age. It would have to wait for re­tire­ment

“As Robert Fripp has said, his ap­proach for this sprawl­ing ver­sion of Crim­son is that all mu­sic is new when it is writ­ten, and this band ad­dress all of the mu­sic as though it’s new.”

or, like Grace­land, my kids to show an in­ter­est (my el­dest daugh­ter cried at The King’s grave). So it would take a plan­e­tary align­ment, a fold in space­time, a lot­tery win in Latin to get me to Pom­peii. That, or King Crim­son. When word reached me last year – and I’m aware that makes it sound like I got a tele­gram – that Crim­son would be play­ing Pom­peii, the di­ary was cleared, work turned down, Star­less left on around the house for rest-of-fam­ily brain­wash­ing pur­poses. Crim­son have been a per­ma­nent mu­si­cal pres­ence in my life, some­times front and cen­tre, some­times lurk­ing in the back­ground. I’ve of­ten felt the band’s mu­sic is some­thing I have to be up to.

Red is the LP that the old house­share I lived in would spin every Sun­day night when we played Risk to­gether, world dom­i­na­tion played out to One More Red Night­mare, the vinyl crack­ling over the start of Prov­i­dence. Indis­ci­pline be­came beloved of the crew of sketch co­me­di­ans I did my first Ed­in­burgh Fringe with, shout­ing, “I wish you were here to see it!” When the band re­formed in the mid-90s, at a time when any­thing faintly P-word was re­garded as anath­ema, I dragged friends from both of those sce­nar­ios to see Crim­son at the Al­bert Hall. I loved the new stuff, and was as thrilled when they played Red as Frame By Frame. And I’ve also lived through every King Crim­son fan’s in­evitable Kanye mo­ment: “You know where that’s from, don’t you?”

This lat­est it­er­a­tion I’ve seen five times, and with a much big­ger and ever-shift­ing cat­a­logue of ma­te­rial, every show has been grip­pingly dif­fer­ent. The first time I saw this

Crim I took my el­dest daugh­ter, telling her I never thought I’d see them again so we bet­ter go quick while it lasted. That was in 2014, and the cir­cus rolls on… And this year in Pom­peii, down­wind of Mount Ve­su­vius, in the cru­cible of sul­phuric de­struc­tion, the city that of­fers us a vivid lava-clad snap­shot of what the end of the world might be like, where bet­ter to see

King Crim­son con­tinue to rein­vent their reper­toire?

“I am my­self moved by what acts in and through this band; grate­ful to be around when Mu­sic whis­pers in our ears; gen­tly not­ing that, on oc­ca­sion, what is be­hind Mu­sic ac­com­pa­nies it.” Robert Fripp

Reper­toire. The reper­toire is back. And as Robert Fripp has said, his ap­proach for this sprawl­ing ver­sion of Crim­son is that all mu­sic is new when it is writ­ten, and this band ad­dress all of the mu­sic as though it’s new – turn­ing the more con­ven­tional ap­proach of try­ing to make it sound like the record up­side down. Al­most half a cen­tury’s worth of mu­sic too, some of it only now re­ceiv­ing at­ten­tion and be­ing heard out loud for the first time, but get­ting the same treat­ment as ev­ery­thing else, which­ever era it might spring from, Crims An­cient And Mod­ern, fed through the three­drum­mer, two-gui­tarist, sax, bass, key­boards min­cer. The per­son­nel, from every phase of the band’s ex­is­tence and a cou­ple of new ones, add to the sense that Crim­son are some­how a mu­si­cal Möbius strip: you end up where you started. Rather like Jakko Jak­szyk, who got into mu­sic be­cause of a Crim­son show he saw when he was a kid, that has led him to be­ing in Crim­son…

But you know all this – of course you do. So what was the show in Pom­peii like? I’d stayed in Naples, a city that has the kind of traf­fic that favours the bold and the reck­less: had it been up to me to drive, we would not have left the round­about at the air­port. Naples is a city that seems to be crum­bling at one end and daz­zling at the other, a metaphor in search of a sub­ject. Its dark lanes of­fer real Neapoli­tan pizza and the op­por­tu­nity of be­ing knocked over by a moped you had no idea could pos­si­bly be there.

The jux­ta­po­si­tion of shat­tered and shiny is un­set­tling. And ev­ery­where you go, his­tory looms: Ve­su­vius dom­i­nates the bay, lurk­ing in the back­ground.

We were for­tu­nate to stay in the same ho­tel as the band. There’s some­thing strange about see­ing Tony Levin glide by at the break­fast buf­fet. The band oc­cupy a po­si­tion of mu­si­cal celebrity that doesn’t seem to trou­ble any­one else at break­fast but me. Fripp likes to call Crim­son’s shows “hot dates” – none of the band seem to be on the walk of shame at break­fast af­ter the pre­vi­ous night’s show in Pom­peii.

What would the set at tonight’s show be? I had lunch with Jakko Jak­szyk. “There’s hours of ma­te­rial,” he says, “and the setlist changes every night… you have to be on your toes.”

“I walked on­stage know­ing that this band’s po­si­tion in the world has changed level.” Robert Fripp

So night has fallen, the queue op­po­site the ex­hibits of bod­ies frozen in time have stocked up on cold beers, when Fripp’s pre-show voiceover says, “Let’s have a party!” That’s what peo­ple are there to do. How­ever, the good-na­tured an­tic­i­pa­tion you might find in a con­cert hall feels like it has been dis­placed by a real sense of oc­ca­sion. A sound­scape clangs through the au­di­to­rium… the lights come down and through the arch­way at the back of the stage, the band, back­lit by an aura of white light, cast their shad­ows and make their way down onto the stage.

The band present them­selves as if per­form­ing a recital, even tun­ing up like an or­ches­tra – this un­der­lines the idea that this is a body of work we’re there to hear. It just so hap­pens that the or­ches­tra that orig­i­nated the body of work are go­ing to play it. Nat­u­rally, at the start it’s the three drum­mers that are the fo­cus: they play as a trio, pass­ing and shift­ing the beat and bar­line from side to side of the stage. Im­me­di­ately the char­ac­ter of all three play­ers is on dis­play: Pat Mastelotto’s bat-winged gong hint­ing at per­cus­sive fun and games to come; Jeremy Stacey, eyes down un­der the brim of his bowler hat, all in­ten­sity and whip-snap en­ergy; Gavin Har­ri­son’s lan­guid, all-the-timein-the-world im­prob­a­ble groov­ing.

This gives way to Neu­rot­ica from Beat, tor­rid jazz ride cym­bal and bass, be­fore the band come in with chromeshiny chords. This tune played by this band, rather than the Fripp/Belew/ Levin/Bru­ford four-piece it came from, sud­denly fits – you hear things you’ll hear later some­how in Pic­tures Of

A City, a tune from an­other time, an­other for­mat. Then we get the newly melodied Indis­ci­pline, which starts with the drum­mers throw­ing choked cym­bal crashes back and forth, faster and faster, daz­zling, im­me­di­ate, giv­ing way to Jakko’s jazz-in­flected melody, matched on his gui­tar. There’s al­most too much to take in at this point and so Crim­son en­gage their reper­toire time ma­chine and fire us back to 1971 with Cirkus and Bolero, sim­mer­ing in the Pom­pei­ian heat, Bill Rieflin’s key­boards sum­mon­ing ghosts of Mel­lotrons past.

Fallen An­gel and Red fol­low, a clutch of tunes from Red – we are in the band’s heavy ter­ri­tory for a good 12 min­utes, be­fore Epi­taph, the band’s end-of-the-world lament, sung in a city long ago de­stroyed, in an arena for en­ter­tain­ments long since aban­doned, from the band’s long-dis­tant found­ing past, played in its creative present… what else could you want?

Newer mu­sic, I sup­pose, and that’s what we get: Rad­i­cal Ac­tion I and II run­ning into the knotty and pow­er­ful Level Five. To my right, across the aisle, a group of Ital­ian lads in their 20s are on their feet and hol­ler­ing dur­ing this tune – this is their era Crim. As Level Five comes to its crash-land­ing end­ing, the crowd are ec­static – this mu­sic, dif­fi­cult, strange mu­sic, has moved us too. Is­lands fol­lows and the band take a break. I’m not sure who it is that needs to get their breath and com­pose them­selves more, us or the band.

The sec­ond half of the con­cert fol­lows a sim­i­lar pat­tern, mu­sic from dif­fer­ent eras build­ing on it­self. Dis­ci­pline, new to this tour, spi­rals up to the heav­ens, rolling fives within fives, cos­mic ge­om­e­try; the mu­sic of the pen­ta­gons. And as the band play Star­less and the only light­ing ef­fect comes into play, the stage soaked in red light in­stead of a theatre back­drop be­hind them, we see the play­ers in blood-red sil­hou­ette, the am­phithe­atre stalls be­hind them, an im­age thrown into lurid vol­canic 3D.

The show closes with Schizoid Man, and with Gavin Har­ri­son and com­pany repris­ing a theme from the open­ing drum trio, we, like the band, are back where we started, a mu­si­cal Möbius strip, his­tory in the back­ground.

I wish you were here to see it.

PIC­TURES OF A CITY: KING CRIM­SON IN POM­PEII.

MODEL MEN: CRIM­SON PUT ON A SPEC­TAC­U­LAR SHOW.

ABOVE: PRE­PAR­ING FOR A LEG­ENDARY PER­FOR­MANCE. LEFT: THE ADOR­ING AU­DI­ENCE GO WILD.

TWO HANDS: CRIM­SON GET A ROUSED RECP­TION.

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