This month I’ve been lucky enough see King Crimson perform not once but twice, and I’m not sure anything I can write here will ever convey how amazing they were. That, of course, is why I want to write about it.
I first became aware of Robert Fripp in the early 80s, as the guitarist on David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’; around 1984 or 1985 Dan Coggins (always generous) lent me a tape of Three of a Perfect Pair. Both the title song and the atmospheric side two material stayed with me, but I didn’t follow it up for some time. With Fripp’s appearance on David Sylvian’s Gone to Earth (1986) I grew more intrigued, and around that time must have got Fripp’s solo album Exposure, perhaps to check out the alternative version of Peter Gabriel’s ‘Here Comes the Flood’. I was intrigued by the J. G. Bennett samples on both those records, though I wasn’t sure what to make of them. Then some time in the late 90s or early 200s I started listening to Brian Eno’s Here Come the Warm Jets, and was blown away by Fripp on ‘Baby’s on Fire’, and at that point started listening to King Crimson from various eras. All of which is to say, I’ve been waiting for these gigs for a long time.
I was a little sceptical when I heard the band was reforming with three drummers. Two drummers had worked well, but three seemed to risk the sound becoming too percussive and too bottom-heavy. I needn’t have worried. The three-drummers interlock their beats in a way that’s mesmerising: the gamelan style of playing that characterised Fripp and Belew’s guitar parts in the early 1980s lives on it the drums. Although it’s hard to keep up with which sounds are coming from where, at times Gavin Harrison and Bill Rieflin take the main drum part, while Pat Mastelloto fills in with percussive noises (wobbly sheets of metal, maracas, squeaky toys). All three had some sort of electronic trigger device for tuned percussion. There’s an almost comical contrast in scale between Rieflin’s very basic kit, and Harrison’s sprawling one, which has enough drums for two. On some pieces, Rieflin didn’t touch his drums, and played mellotron (or mellotron emulator).
Visually, they aren’t a spectacle in the usual rock performance way: every player stays pretty much where he is; only Tony Levin makes any significant amount of eye contact with the audience, and the occasional wryly amused smile. That gives him strong stage presence, though it may also be the case that as a one-time bassist — a recovering bassist — I was more than usually interested to see what he was up to. The Stick is a baffling instrument; the Funky Fingers (on ‘The Talking Drum’, I think) were fascinating to watch. The lighting was minimal, remaining the same except when the lights turned red at the end of ‘Starless. At Edinburgh Levin laughed when a drum improvisation we thought had ended started up again. At the same gig, Jakko Jacszyk was laughing openly at the wild idiot-dancing during the final song of the encore, ‘Twenty-First Century Schizoid Man’ — but that was an exception. But they’re still visually interesting to see, particularly because of the three drummers spread out across the full width of the stage: you’re constantly looking from one to another, to locate the source of a particular sound, and it’s intriguing to watch them watching each other.
When Mel Collins began to play his instruments, I was slightly surprised, and likewise when Jacszyk began to sing: I had’t heard these sounds within the Crimson mix for a long time, and in Jacszyk’s case never (only since the Aylesbury gig have I caught up with A Scarcity of Miracles). It took a few moments to get used to, and they didn’t seem to blend with the other instruments; but it was immediately apparent how well Jacszyk’s voice suited the early 1970s material. At the Edinburgh gig both elements seemed to fit more comfortably: I think simply because I’d got used to it, not any change in the mix. At both gigs, Collins’s baritone sax was particularly impressive, adding a rich forceful sound at the bass end of the spectrum, complementing Levin’s bass.
At both gigs Fripp’s playing was unostentatious, with there being nothing akin to his solos on ‘Baby’s On Fire’ or the Sylvian/Fripp material, but this didn’t register as a disappointment; the pleasure is to hear the entire band interlocking. Where there were extended solos — Gavin Harrison did an extended piece in ‘Schizoid Man’, though it seemed shorter at Edinburgh than Aylesbury — it was a pleasure to hear players I’m unfamiliar with.
Fripp has written often on his blog about his irritation with people recording and photographing gigs, primarily, it would seem, because he would prefer listeners to be living in the moment with the music, rather than living in anticipation of a later playback. There’s something high modernist about his belief in art as a sacred or quasi-sacred space, and philosophically I’m not sure I buy the idea of the rigorous exclusion of contingency; however, I’m comfortable with the exclusion of cameras. I wondered at Edinburgh how Fripp felt about people dancing in a mock-Bacchanalian way to ‘Schizoid Man’: I was relieved to see that Jacszyk saw the funny side, but Fripp’s expression gave nothing away. The Aylesbury audience was impressive though: complete silence, which meant that the quite and the silent moments in the music, between the loudness and heaviness, were all the more gripping. The Edinburgh audience was significantly more restless: there was more coming and going between songs (which I find baffling) and, especially by the end, more cheering and singing along. Much as I appreciated the Aylesbury audience’s concentration, it made them seem staid by comparison. But in both cases the kind of relation the audience’s took to the performance, much more like that of a classical music audience, allowed for a better appreciation of the music. These were performances of power and precision, muscularity and delicacy, invention and wit. One review spoke of them as valedictory, which I hope isn’t to be the case; but if it is, I’m lucky to have seen them.