The Show That Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock

In an excerpt from his new book, David Weigel examines the short-lived success and decline of England’s prog rock heroes King Crimson

June 27, 2017

From the summer of 1968 to the summer of 1969, a British fan of the new music who couldn’t catch live bands could settle for Colour Me Pop. The BBC had been booking acts across its other, stodgier shows, but the London scene was cranking out hits and idols faster than the press could cover it. The surplus of new bands, any of which might produce the next Sgt. Pepper, would be given thirty minutes each Saturday to prove themselves.

So Colour Me Pop debuted on June 14, 1968, with a credit sequence that proudly embraced cliché. A “cool” bass line and drumroll played under psychedelically retouched photos of Jimi Hendrix, Mick Jagger, and Frank Zappa, as if asking who’d be next to join the pantheon. The answer on that first Friday was the increasingly progressive Manfred Mann. Spooky Tooth got slotted in at the end of August; the Nice’s set aired on November 16, as their fame was cresting.

That same day, Giles, Giles and Fripp were filming their Colour Me Pop debut. Thanks to the lobbying efforts of Peter Giles, they’d finagled a full thirty-minute episode all to themselves, “when people like the Hollies were doing half a program with somebody else.” The Saturday night audience would hear eight tracks from an album almost nobody had bought, one of them – the spoken-word fairy tale “Elephant Song” – given its own animation.

Giles, Giles & Fripp - Elephant Song

It was the last-ever gathering of Giles, Giles and Fripp. After one day of filming, Fripp and Michael Giles stayed up past midnight to figure out what the band needed to break through. Fripp wanted a new vocalist, one he’d already known for years. Greg Lake, a twenty-one-year-old singer and guitarist in the Bournemouth scene, possessed the pipes and star quality that the band had always lacked. “In my circle,” Fripp would say, “Greg Lake was considered one of the front-runners for fame.”

Lake looked and sounded like a star. He was tall and handsome, full lips and eyes framed by a sharp Roman nose. He had shared a guitar teacher with Fripp but hadn’t trained his voice; his lusty, accented croon came naturally, and found drama in every lyric. The two of them bonded when Fripp accompanied Lake as a roadie, on an ill-starred series of southern England gigs.

“We ended up in Ventnor in the Isle of Wight and got to the gig and there was literally no one there,” remembered Lake. “No audience. The promoter had booked the show and somehow or another mystically failed to get any people to buy tickets. The band was ready to play, the doors opened, and no one came in. So Robert and I decided that what we would do was just play our guitar lessons. We started playing things like Spanish malagueñas and did duets with them. That’s how Robert and I started playing together.”

In 1967, Lake’s band the Shame released a cover of the Janis Ian song “Too Old to Go ’Way Little Girl.” The sixteen-year-old Ian had written a dark advice column to any woman her age: “Now, there is no escaping, and you’d enjoy a raping / just to find out the facts of life.”

The Shame - Too Old to Go ’Way Little Girl

The Shame fixed all that. The key line became “There’s no denyin’ you’re gonna end up cryin’” – a better fit for a vocal that told the girl to get past her prudery, Lake drawling out every mention of “sexxx” and “guuuuuys” and “your dirty miiiiiiind.” This couldn’t have been further from the harmless, cricketer-friendly vocals of Peter Giles.

Fripp made his Solomonic pitch. Lake had to join the band; something had to be sacrificed. Maybe Lake could replace Peter Giles on bass and vocals. Maybe he could replace Fripp on guitar.

Peter Giles didn’t see this as a bargain at all. “That thing of Fripp offering to leave is just a ploy, basically,” he’d say later. “It would have happened quite naturally. Fripp is very cute with political moves.” And Michael Giles was plenty ready to jettison his brother and form a different band. “As much as I love him,” he’d remember, “we were never some kind of inseparable brotherhood that had a design on the world.”

By November 30, when BBC2 viewers were being introduced to the cheerful insanity of Giles, Giles and Fripp, the rump of that band was already starting to practice with Greg Lake. There were no tears for Peter Giles after hearing Lake tackle songs like “Drop In.” The band had traded precious talk-singing for pure swagger. “I couldn’t sing like that,” Michael Giles pronounced. “Robert couldn’t sing at all. Peter couldn’t sing like that. None of us had that sound or power.”

On January 13, 1969, the new band found rehearsal space in the basement of the Fulham Palace café in London, with – and this was important – plenty of room for a mellotron. And there was the right sort of space and ambience for Peter Sinfield as he fiddled with a few lightbulbs and timed them to flash at key points in the songs and sets. “The basics were there,” Fripp wrote in his diary. “Sinfield’s lightshows embryonic... [he] builds stage lights out of baking foil and plywood.”

Anything was better than Giles, Giles and Fripp. King Crimson had an arrogance to it.

Peter Sinfield

But it worked. “It’s something to this day that I still tell people doing lighting productions,” Greg Lake remembered to band biographer Sid Smith. “I say, ‘Do we need all these fucking lights up there?’ And they say, ‘Oh yeah,’ because of this reason, and I tell the King Crimson story. One light bulb in the right place is worth 100 varilights going off at the wrong time.”

“Most clubs have a light bulb, and that’s it – joke lights,” Peter Sinfield told me. “So we thought we’d take our own around with us. We have always had a good light show, with the mood changing with the music, doing what a light show should.”

Nine days into the Fulham Palace café rehearsals, Sinfield made a second major contribution to the band. It obviously couldn’t be called “Giles, Giles and Fripp,” given the sudden and unexpected Giles shortage. Sinfield reached into his notebook and pulled out “King Crimson,” a term he had come up with to fill in when “Satan” didn’t fit a rhyme. “I wanted something that had some power to it, like Led Zeppelin,” Sinfield told Paul Stump. “Anything was better than Giles, Giles and Fripp. King Crimson had an arrogance to it.”

The name was adopted straightaway. “Invited audience to rehearsals,” wrote Fripp on January 27. “Success. This band will be bigger than we anticipated.”

At the end of February, King Crimson hopped a train three hours north to Newcastle for their first gigs – seven nights at a three-story venue called Change Is. Every week, the club would switch out a theme – “love” or “fun” or something – and adopt a new one. The week of Crimson’s residence, the theme was “horror.”

That wasn’t preparation enough for Crimson’s performance, all riffs and improvisations, Gustav Holst and fairy-dancing lights. When the band returned for its second set, club manager Ron Markham made a special introduction that Fripp found amusing enough to save in his diary. “Ladies and Gentlemen,” said Markham, “Giles, Giles and Fripp, who for reasons best known to themselves have changed their name to King Crimson, will have a freak-out without the aid of pot, LSD or any other drugs.”

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American and British youth music had grown together from the moment the Beatles landed at JFK. In 1969, the two sounds finally started to grow apart. This was the year that the Grateful Dead grafted country and roots sounds into its music on songs like “St. Stephen,” presaging the next three decades of their career as a jam band. Jefferson Airplane and Love were recording their own down-to-earth anthems. Bob Dylan, recovered from his motorcycle accident, debuted (and never used again) a completely new vocal timbre for songs like “Lay, Lady, Lay.” The Beach Boys, having sequestered all evidence of the Smile debacle, covered the folk standard “Cotton Fields” and waxed it as a single. The Bay Area’s own Creedence Clearwater Revival became the biggest band in America with three albums of nascent country rock.

The British bands did not go this route. They were helped by the continued growth of specialty labels. Deram kept raking it in from the Moodies and Procol Harum. In 1969 Deram was joined by Harvest, a division of EMI that focused on “progressive” music, and by Chrysalis, started by ambitious promoters Terry Ellis and Chris Wright. Ellis and Wright came straight from the college circuit, booking bands for student unions, seeing a greater and untapped financial potential.

“We got Ten Years After and involved ourselves with bands that we really like and whom we knew were talented, in spite of what everybody else thought,” Ellis told Top Pops and Music Now in 1969. “Their career built up, not because of any hype, but because the places where we managed to persuade the promoters to book them – they went in, played, and all the kids went potty. That, for us, was the beginning of the ‘Underground’ scene. We thought we would get the whole organization under one roof.”

Harvest ran the same play, from inside the industry. Malcolm Jones, a trainee at EMI, had brought Pink Floyd to the label. His higher-ups had counted their profits. There was money to be made in the “underground” scene, and the best way to collect it was with a microlabel with a crunchy name. The first six months also saw the debut of Deep Purple, the first post–Soft Machine record by Kevin Ayers, and a sizable Pink Floyd hit in Ummagumma. “By the end of the year,” Jones crowed to a reporter, “75 percent of the album charts will be progressive music.”

The bands would be there for it anyway, even if not all of them could write hit records. Hit singles weren’t the point; bands that could move albums and sell out British venues were inking deals and being covered intimately by the music press. A&R (artists and repertoire) men pulled promising bands from the school union circuit and from the London clubs, two scenes that overlapped from month to month. None of them had Genesis’s connections, but it hardly mattered when A&R men were racing to sell the “underground.”

Van der Graaf Generator benefited from the chase. The school union gigs had built a real following for the band, and a smattering of media attention. At the end of 1967, Peter Hammill, Judge Smith, and Nick Pearne recorded a demo for interested parties, with “Sunshine” on one side and an Icelandic myth called “Firebrand” on the other. Within months the demo had ended up with Mercury Records, and the band was being lobbied hard in London clubs. In May 1968, the three bandmates signed a contract as their manager, a fellow student, watched.

Van der Graaf Generator - Firebrand

“They spent a whole morning giving their life story to John Sipple, the head of Mercury World Publicity, and also went to Littlehampton for the day to have their photographs taken,” reported the Manchester Independent. “The Generator bought a new 120 watt amplifier and a Vox guitar which they call Meurglys, after Ganelon’s sword in ‘Roland,’ which is covered with fur so that it looks like a flying squirrel with strings attached.”

But that band fell apart a week later. A chance conversation at a bus stop ended up bringing Hugh Banton aboard as an organist. The new band was “discovered” by Tony Stratton-Smith, fresh off his deals with Genesis. Five months after the Mercury signing, a new version of the band recorded a first single: “People You Were Going To” backed by “Firebrand.” Mercury, understandably, objected to releasing this single by their artists on some other label.

The parties reached an impasse. Van der Graaf Generator broke up, again. Hammill headed into London’s Trident Studios to record a solo album. Sort of. “Having the opportunity to make an album,” he told a radio interviewer, “I got everyone from the band together again.” Hammill fulfilled his Mercury deal by getting the label to rename and remarket his record as the first VdGG album, then let him free.

There was a power and an energy coming off Crimson that couldn’t be denied.

Michael Giles

The band that couldn’t stop collapsing was able to put out The Aerosol Grey Machine, a name that Hammill had dreamed up after the drinks at some VdGG gigs kept getting spiked with acid. “Peter joked that I should have an aerosol grey machine which would have the opposite effect to psychedelics and make everything artificially grey,” explained Smith.

A cover was mocked up, a grim female hippie tilting her head as she sprayed shades of gray out of a can, obscuring a backdrop of trees and grass. That was scrapped for something more generically psychedelic – not that it mattered.

The album was released in the United States and Europe. There would be no release in Britain. Mercury’s investment was largely squandered – a down payment on a band that sold nearly no records for them. The label had paid for men barely into their twenties to experiment, and to record the songs that had clicked for student unions in the north. All the labels were taking that risk; any group like this could be the next Pink Floyd, couldn’t it?

“The sheer adversity faced in order to produce the music fired me and the others up to do the rest of the stuff,” Hammill wrote later, when The Aerosol Grey Machine was released on compact disc. “It therefore follows that without this there would be nothing. I would not have attitude if I had not had to get through this. I’ll be honest with you; there are moments on these recordings when I now sound to myself like a real twenty-year-old, know-it-all, know-nothing prat. I was so. But those moments are blips along the track of attempting to make music; that’s nothing I can bring myself to feel embarrassed about.”

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King Crimson fell into place during that week at Change Is. Greg Lake and Robert Fripp hadn’t spent this much time together since the guitarist had done sporadic roadie work for the singer, years earlier in Bournemouth. Once they became bandmates, Lake tutored Fripp in the ways of stardom.

“When I got to the band,” said Lake, “I seem to remember that Robert was dressed in a red maroon pullover, grey flannel trousers, black Oxford shoes – he was dressed to go to grammar school!”

“Greg said we should go into the club and line up the birds,” Fripp remembered to one biographer. “He looked on me, somewhat rightly, as an inept puller” and “took it on himself to give me some help in strategy and maneuvers.” Lake was an excellent teacher, with ego to spare and share; Fripp did pull birds at the Newcastle shows.

The band returned to London. Lake took his guitarist to Portobello Road, outfitting him with “black magic” gear that would be toned down to a modest hippie jacket. Fripp discovered the reward for his carousing in Newcastle: a ripe case of gonorrhea.

Crimson made its London debut on April 9, 1969, at the Speakeasy, gigging steadily through the spring and folding into the scene. They started talking to the Moody Blues about touring with them – an embryonic band backing up the country’s symphonic hit makers. It didn’t pan out. “I think they [the Moodies] were terrified,” said Michael Giles. “There was a power and an energy coming off Crimson that couldn’t be denied.”

None of the musicians who popped up at the shows even attempted to deny it. King Crimson settled into a sound and image. Fripp, never comfortable standing up to play guitar, decided at the band’s May 14 gig that he would play seated on a stool. “You can’t sit down,” warned an exasperated Greg Lake. “You’ll look like a mushroom!”

Fripp was unmoved. “My considered opinion,” he’d tell an audience at a later concert, “was that the mushroom is a fertility symbol in many cultures.” So the guitarist sat down, and he won immediate validation from one of the only people whose opinion mattered. Jimi Hendrix was at the show, “jumping up and down,” and pronouncing Crimson “the best group in the world.”

After the show, Hendrix approached Fripp wearing a white suit with a matching sling on his right arm. “One of the most luminous people I’ve ever met,” remembered Fripp. “And he said to me: Shake my left hand, man, it’s closer to my heart.”

The Rolling Stones were set to play an outdoor concert at Hyde Park on July 5. King Crimson, just six-odd months into its existence, was booked to support them. On July 3, the Stones’ multi-instrumentalist Brian Jones was discovered at the bottom of his pool. There was a moment of panic about whether the show would go forward. The panic subsided and nothing was canceled, as funereal portraits of Jones were placed at either side of the Hyde Park stage. King Crimson would have forty minutes to play to the largest audience they’d ever seen.

King Crimson - 21st Century Schizoid Man (Live in Hyde Park, 1969)

“Here’s a band that’s going to go a long way,” promised the announcer. Seven seconds later the band crashed into the first chords of “21st Century Schizoid Man,” all majors and sharps in 4/4 time, the entire band swinging like a fist. They played the ascending riff three times, each iteration ending with a higher, more discordant bending of Fripp’s guitar strings. The riff ended, and Fripp played flattened C chords as Lake howled Sinfield’s lyrics.

With the last line, Lake switched from a howl to a croon – then back to the riff, and to one more verse. After ninety seconds, the band charged into a faster sort of jazz number based on an old Ian McDonald melody that he’d titled “Three Score and Four.” The players ran through their solos for three minutes as Michael Giles sweated out a backbeat. Then another crash, another chorus. In just over six minutes it was over, and the crowd was theirs.

King Crimson held the stage for forty minutes at Hyde Park, playing highly structured songs – “The Court of the Crimson King,” “Epitaph” – and songs that served to scaffold their incredibly quick solos. Lake didn’t even get vocal parts for the last thirteen minutes. The brief “Mantra” consisted largely of a tender McDonald flute melody. “Travel Weary Capricorn” was a showcase for Giles – a song so evocative of basement jazz that the impressions of “Schizoid Man” started to fade.

But the jazz number ended with a strangled-cat solo from Fripp, as Lake and Giles laid down a thudding beat. This was “Mars,” a travel-sized cover of Gustav Holst’s piece from The Planets. A mellotron carried the melody as the band relentlessly bent the classical piece into a Satanic groove. It ended with air-raid sirens, played by the band’s management. And that was the show. “Standing ovation,” recorded Fripp in his diary. “Mammoth Success, of importance which will take time to appreciate. We’ll look back to see this day in years to come and fully realise its significance.”

King Crimson - Live in Hyde Park (Full Performance)

Sinfield was far less satisfied. The open-air festival setting had thwarted his main live contribution to the band, the light show. The next night, back at the Marquee, Sinfield was in control again, and the band was able to refine the sound it was simultaneously trying to capture in the studio. “They’ve learnt when to clap,” recorded Fripp in the diary.

King Crimson played thirteen gigs at the Marquee in 1969; they played on the night three American astronauts first stepped across the Moon. “I’m sure we’d like to wish them the best of luck,” announced Lake. The band played “Epitaph,” and the teenaged Lake’s voice hit the walls, with something about “the wall on which the prophets wrote” and “the instruments of death.”

By July’s end, King Crimson were recording their album. It was the second attempt, after sessions with Moody Blues producer Tony Clarke produced a fat lot of nothing. “Our energy was trying to be transformed into another Moody Blues,” complained Michael Giles, “with lots of strumming guitars, one on top of the other, all heavily compressed with no dynamics.”

On the second go, the band recorded itself. The record would contain five songs, all but one of them road-tested at most of their shows. “21st Century Schizoid Man” was given a slower burn, starting with half a minute of ambient noise – wind blown through a pipe organ. The stomp of the song was essentially what crowds had been hearing at the Marquee. Lake’s vocal had been heavily distorted, though, and he’d reigned it in, ending each verse and chorus on a low note.

The record followed a rhythm, a sprint/rest alternation between pomp and pastoral music. “I Talk to the Wind” twinned Lake’s lead vocal – again not showing off his range – with a Michael Giles harmony, cooing over Ian McDonald’s flute and some light guitar fills by Fripp. Both “Epitaph” and “The Court of the Crimson King,” mainstays of the live shows, were anchored by mellotron samples of orchestras.

Nestled in between was “Moonchild,” a largely experimental song. It began with a gentle waltz that evoked George Gershwin’s “Summertime,” every bar ending on a menacing note. The waltz faded away; the band began a lengthy improvisation, a slow walk through jazz figures that, at one point, involved Fripp quoting the melody from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Surrey with a Fringe on Top.”

The whole job took about two months. Barry Godber, an artist who had met Peter Sinfield when they were boring themselves senseless in the computer industry, was given tapes of the music and asked to paint a cover. He came back with two watercolors that occupied both sides of a gatefold LP sleeve, with no room for a band name or album title.

On the front was a red face, the color of pulp and muscle, screaming as it turned to look at some threat from behind. The inside presented another face, less terrifying at first glance, embedded in a red moon and throwing shapes with his hands like Christ in an icon. The face smiled, revealing a set of white fangs. There they were: the Schizoid Man and the Crimson King.

We were blowing audiences’ minds.

Ian McDonald

On October 10, In the Court of the Crimson King hit British shops. On October 11, King Crimson played its final city concert at the London College of Printing. The gear was set up, and most of the band was in place. No one could locate Greg Lake. Ian McDonald’s girlfriend, Charlotte Bates, was deputized to find him. “We had to go get him in the end,” she remembered, “and he was bonking in the changing room. Greg was a great big ego, a big penis on legs.”

But none of that interfered with the pivot to America. King Crimson flew across the Atlantic at the end of October, just as EG Records was ramping up their promos. The label approached Pete Townshend about blurbing the album. His praise was so fulsome that the eventual full-page ad, which ran in music magazines on either side of the Atlantic, consisted entirely of Godber’s art and of “What Pete Townshend Thinks about King Crimson,” which was, in part:

A friend listening to the album from a room below says, “Is that a new WHO album?” Deeply I’m ashamed that it isn’t, but I’m also glad somehow. That kind of intensity is music not Rock. Twenty first century schizoid man is everything multitracked a billion times, and when you listen you get a billion times the impact. Has to be the heaviest riff that has been middle frequencied onto that black vinyl disc since Mahlers’ [sic] 8th.

Thus King Crimson was flogged to the masses as its members flew to America’s East Coast. “We’ll lose money on our way across from the east coast to the West,” Fripp told Beat Instrumental in an oddly honest pretour interview. “As soon as you call yourself a rock band, for instance, you limit yourself.”

The tour wore them down, and quickly. “It’s all that hanging about in hotels and airports, backstage – it’s a strange place,” Michael Giles would recall. “I used to think of it, and still do, like it’s the lions coming into the circus through those tunneled cages and then let loose and they’ve got to perform and then they’re taken away again.”

The “circus” dragged on through November, taking Crimson from Boston to Chicago to Detroit to Florida. Band members included speed or marijuana in their diets, depending on whether work or travel was the order of the day. Giles was talking about turning Crimson into a studio band. Fripp was ignoring him.

The band played five nights in a row at the Whisky a Go Go and were panned by the LA Times as “artists, shrewd manipulators of myriad rock and other techniques” who happened to be “boring almost beyond description.”

Giles and McDonald were fraying, pining for their girlfriends. For the first and not the last time, the US was rending King Crimson apart. “We were blowing audiences’ minds,” said McDonald, “and the thing was turning into this monster that was growing and maybe at the time I wasn’t equipped to deal with it.” Fripp said, “My stomach disappeared. King Crimson was everything to me. To keep the band together, I offered to leave instead but Ian said that the band was more me than them.”

“King Crimson will probably be condemned by some for pompousness, but that criticism isn’t really valid,” argued John Morthland in Rolling Stone. “They have combined aspects of many musical forms to create a surreal work of force and originality. Besides which they’re good musicians.” There was one caveat. “How effectively this music can be on stage is, admittedly, a big question. The answer is probably not too well.”

The review ran weeks after King Crimson had effectively ceased to exist as a live band. They wouldn’t appear on stage again for more than a year.

“That band died during the recording of the first album,” Fripp would tell an interviewer a few years later. “It had gathered such a momentum that the impetus of the corpse twitched on until it finally fell over in San Francisco in December 1969. It was just down the road in a small motel just off Sunset Strip when Ian and Mike decided to leave. They leapt about the hotel in fits of excitement and glee that they had snuffed this burden of responsibility. I envied them considerably because I couldn’t do the same.”

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The music press caught on slowly to King Crimson’s problems. Fripp had long established himself as the band leader, the scientist revealing his equations in loping interviews. Lake was the voice of the band. By the end of 1969, the “underground” and the official scene had been altered completely by the mere presence and terrifying success of Fripp and company. Bill Bruford, then the drummer for Yes, saw the band perform at 4:30 AM one night, and left obsessed. Steve Hackett, a guitarist who would later join Genesis, saw one of the London gigs and marveled at the presentation.

“Yes and King Crimson were very much rival bands,” said Yes guitarist Peter Banks. “When King Crimson came around, and we saw them perform, we were absolutely stunned. I remember Bill saying, ‘I want to join that band,’ which of course he later did.”

And Yes was having a good year. The band had signed to Atlantic, and in the spring they had recorded an album of six original songs and two covers. They didn’t really sound like King Crimson, or try to. Chris Squire’s bass was mixed far louder than Greg Lake’s, chugging the rhythm of “Beyond and Before,” rendering the Beatles’ “Every Little Thing” into a nearly unrecognizable jam. Anderson’s lyrics carried none of Sinfield’s mysticism; they were quirky, but grounded. There was no opacity to them. When Anderson got dark, as on the war ballad “Harold Land,” he told a literal story of a veteran who lost all sense of reality while on the front.

Yes - Beyond and Before

In the Court made Yes’s sound seem several evolutionary cycles behind. “It kind of blew our thunder completely,” groused Peter Banks. “Also, their album did very well, in contrast to ours, which didn’t.”

King Crimson was, at that very moment, in a state of collapse – as was the Nice. Keith Emerson’s band had just recorded its second symphony, one that moved further away from rock structure than the old Ars Longa Vita Brevis had. Nineteen minutes long, entirely instrumental, it was arranged for an orchestra and would be played live by one. Emerson’s ambitions were larger than the band could support. After one rehearsal, Emerson and Davison retreated to the Speakeasy, and the keyboard player’s suggestions turned the meeting into “a ‘fuck you,’ ‘fuck you, too’ kind of conversation.”

Emerson sought out new talent, starting with Lake. He met him first in the dressing room after a San Francisco band showcase, when Crimson was at its most fractious. Emerson would remember Lake “majestically enthroned in the only overstuffed tatty armchair of his band’s dressing room, snapping fingers at the nearest subject to light his cigarettes,” and had a first conversation that consisted of Lake lecturing on “the clarity of sound” and why “some of the notes you play seem blurred.”

The keyboard player was undeterred. Over the long Christmas holidays, he met again with Lake at the bassist’s cottage. “He was still indecisive,” Emerson would remember, “almost evasive about discussing King Crimson’s future, centering discussions around what I was doing and how I could do it better.”

Weeks later, at 3 AM, Lake rang up Emerson with an offer. “Listen, I’ve been thinking. We should get the band together.” Emerson trekked back to Lake’s house, ready to cut the deal over a bottle of red.

Fripp stuck to his guns, even though the guns were pointing in the wrong direction.

Peter Giles

“You’ve got to work with professionals,” explained Lake to the star who’d spent nearly three times as long in the music industry. “That’s the key word – ‘Professionals,’ and the reason The Nice fell apart, bad management.”

“Hold on a second,” said Emerson. “The Nice fell apart because of their changing artistic attitudes. It’s got nothing to do with set-ups. I happen to think that Tony Stratton-Smith is a very fine, very fair manager.”

“Maybe he was okay for The Nice,” shrugged Lake. “We have to move on.”

Lake suggested the management of EG Records, carrying straight on from King Crimson. This wasn’t the only thing he copied from his old band. He cut a deal with Fripp – a sort of kick-starter for the music he would make with his new, genius partner. “The actual phrase used by Greg was ‘for my art,’” said Fripp.

“Robert had asked me if I wanted to continue the group under the name of King Crimson,” Lake would say, “and I think I would have done had it been just one of the two of Ian and Mike who had left.”

Fripp didn’t have that choice. The band still had a deal, and a burgeoning audience won over by 1969’s best album. “King Crimson was too important to let die,” thought Fripp.

His band – and it was quickly becoming, by default and intent, his band – only lacked material. “Cat Food” was a dada rumination on fast-food culture that had been cobbled together on the chemically enhanced bus ride between the Detroit and Chicago gigs. Lake stayed on to provide vocals. Fripp had been a fan of Keith Tippett, a freestyle pianist, and invited him into the band. The King Crimson sound changed completely, to the disquiet of the other players. “Without the piano it might have actually done something,” said Peter Giles. “Fair enough. Fripp stuck to his guns, even though the guns were pointing in the wrong direction.”

King Crimson - Cat Food

That direction was set not just by Fripp, but by the prodigal McDonald and Giles. Back in England after the tour, as they hammered out songs for the second album, Fripp and Sinfield had visited McDonald with some unfinished tracks. “My feeling at the time,” remembered the multi-instrumentalist, “was that they were trying to get free ideas and I just kept my mouth shut.”

Fripp never agreed with that. “If half of the most exciting band of the year leave as it takes off,” he asked an interviewer, rhetorically, “which they later acknowledge as a mistake, how could they be trusted/relied upon again?”

Soon, McDonald was collaborating with Giles on an album of their own, taking with them some of the melodies they’d written for King Crimson. “Some people have likened it to middle-period Beatles,” Giles told an interviewer who’d heard the new album. “Fine by me, because that’s what we wanted to get, the sort of music which doesn’t come from technique but which works on a warmer level.”

McDonald and Giles had taken melodies with them, starting with a side-long suite that became “Birdman.” Fripp “had hoped that this would be the centerpiece of the second Crimson album.” A brief, sweet, and lilting ballad became “Flight of the Ibis.” The lyrics were pure sentimentality.

The same melody had ended up with Fripp and Sinfield, and in the light-show poet’s hands it became a story of blissful roadie seduction.

The album’s cover art was gatefold, a photo of the bandmates and their current girlfriends traipsing through a garden, colors touched up to psychedelic standards. This was cheerful, an increasingly stark contrast to the goings-on in Fripp’s studios. The sophomore King Crimson album, In the Wake of Poseidon, was filled out by revisions of material that the old band had worked in concert. “The Devil’s Triangle,” which closed the record, came about after the band was prevented from putting that cover of Holst’s “Mars” on vinyl. The new song sounded like Holst’s music trampled by demons, the melody oozing from a mellotron. The song closed with a sample of the old band’s harmonies from In the Court of the Crimson King.

Fripp faced a challenge. He was open and available to the press; the press was avidly interested in whatever King Crimson did. Yet the quality of the new music was impossible to spin. The band stopped touring; indeed, it wouldn’t tour again until more than a year after the American run ended.

Gordon Haskell is struggling heroically to be a singer in a context where such endeavor is a functional impossibility.

Robert Fripp

Sinfield was more confident, sure that inspiration would come again, remembering what had risen from the bones of Giles, Giles and Fripp. “Within a year of its release and demission, somebody had stirred a cauldron, pointed a bone, painted a throne, and crowned a king,” said the lyricist to Fripp. “You’ll work it out.”

But with what band? The Poseidon sessions were filled out when saxophonist Mel Collins was brought in, and – eventually – when singer Gordon Haskell agreed to take the place of Greg Lake. Haskell had been friends with Fripp since the Bournemouth days, when the two of them sat next to each other in class. “Robert got me started,” Haskell said later. “He played me Django Reinhardt, but I preferred American music. Looking back, Robert was drawn to European music, and I was my father’s son; he was American-Greek.”

The differences between the singer and the guitarist had only widened since. Haskell had clocked time on the London scene, playing for a while with the Fleur de Lys and recording a strings-drenched solo album – Sail in My Boat – that he later condemned as juvenilia. “I was easily manipulated,” he would later admit. Haskell’s inborn mistrust of the music machine synced up quite well with Fripp’s. But Haskell originally turned down the offer to join King Crimson. The band was too weird.

When he relented, the band found new ways to make him skeptical. “They took 12 hours to get a drum sound and it was still shite,” Haskell remembered. “You know, Otis Redding’s band took two minutes to get a drum sound and that was perfect. Fripp and Sinfield didn’t know what they were looking for.”

Not on drums, not in any way – at least not in Haskell’s opinion, shared by others being asked to remake the band. Trombonist Nick Evans was disturbed to see how “our parts were added in small sections, maybe four or eight bars at a time” and placed like ink strokes across the tracks as Fripp required them.

And the choices really were Fripp’s to make. After McDonald and Giles quit, and Lake followed, what had been a 22.5 percent royalty share for Fripp became 60 percent. He was an impresario now, even if his new singer was utterly unmoved by Keith Tippett and couldn’t understand what the point was, musically, of the pianist’s fingerings on songs like “Cat Food.”

“That sounds just like a cat walking across a piano,” Haskell told Fripp.

“Yeah,” said the impresario, “but Keith knows what he’s doing. A cat doesn’t.”

“Yes,” sighed Haskell, “but it sounds the same!”

Haskell stuck with the band. Poseidon was done, and the “Cat Food” single would feed the press and public attention. The new King Crimson would have time to congeal – and to war internally. After one row, Fripp snapped at Haskell to remind him of who had the most to gain from being in this band. “How many hits have you had, then?”

The singer just steamed. “It’s got to sound ‘innovative,’” Haskell would carp to an interviewer decades later. “They shouldn’t have used drums – they should have used my dick.”

Haskell was angrier than Fripp knew. “I can honestly say I always felt the same as a slave, as I was and have always been intuitive,” Haskell would remember. “I knew we were slaves in a fascist country intuitively, but failed to articulate it – so I continually was self-effacing when I should have been a warrior and stood my ground. I was so unbelievably pleasant. Stupid, really. And I ought to have ripped a few heads off.”

Fripp and Haskell were bound to combust eventually. The singer didn’t know what Fripp was playing at. Fripp, in talks with the band and the press, broadcast the confidence of complete control. “The ideal size for a band would be 15 people because you could then have the musicians who could interpret any song you wanted to play, but that is impossible,” Fripp told Music Now’s Tony Norman. “The Beatles had it down to an art. When you heard one of their songs for the first time, your interest was immediately aroused. But then with things like Sgt. Pepper you can hear them three years later and still be hearing something new. That is what we are trying to do. We want our albums to last.”

King Crimson - Indoor Games

Haskell simply didn’t hear that in the music. “Indoor Games” had the structure of a pop song but elements that spun it sideways. The trumpet that drove most of the melody ended each bar on a jarring up note. The conclusion blended this sound with a raining synthesized effect. “They were all such pricks,” Haskell would say. “No studio experience at all. I had spent three years in studios, with superb musicians, world class.”

But in the studio, confronted with “Indoor Games,” Haskell was tasked with a simple tune wedded to an abstruse Sinfield lyric. He never stopped struggling with it. He couldn’t take it seriously. “I was in a booth on my own with the lyric sheet in front of me and the lyric ended with ‘Hey Ho.’ When I saw the line come up I thought ‘I don’t know how to sing this.’ I thought this was fucking insane so I just went ‘Hey Ho!’ Who says ‘Hey Ho?’” So he burst out laughing. “It was the worst thing I’d ever heard up to that point and there I was actually doing it.” On the track, the context happily removed, Haskell’s spite sounded rather jovial. The cackle stayed in.

Outside the studio, Fripp put a positive spin on things. “Cirkus,” a song with the structure and lyrics of a Renaissance ballad and the tones of a horror film, had terribly challenged the new singer. “Gordon Haskell is struggling heroically to be a singer in a context where such endeavor is a functional impossibility,” Fripp explained. “An accompaniment which declines to accompany, and lyrics sufficient to set the psyches of strong men flapping.”

Even that nicety suggested that Haskell couldn’t stay. The breaking point came when the band rehearsed “classic” Crimson songs – material that was a year old, or less, but remnants of an entirely different band. Haskell’s wry, adenoidal voice could simply not wave and soar the way Greg Lake’s could. He wanted “Schizoid Man” shifted down, into his range.

“I’m not going on stage and making a cunt of myself,” he snapped.

“Do you want to leave?” asked an exasperated Fripp.

“I do,” said Haskell, in his telling of the story. “I’m not going to go onstage and sing something I don’t believe in. It’s bullshit.”

Haskell remembered storming out; he remembered Fripp telling him, “You’ll still get your royalties.” Then he remembered seeing the whole dispute in the music press.

The King Crimson weapon is musical fascism, made by fascists, designed by fascists to dehumanize, to strip mankind of his dignity and soul.

Gordon Haskell

“He knew how to grab a headline,” groused Haskell. “It must have been the first thing he did that night of the row, and after promising to pay me my share of Lizard – clearly a blatant lie, as I have never received a penny. Typical fascist behavior. He struck me as an utter buffoon.”

The Lizard incarnation of King Crimson would never play live. Haskell would never forget the darkness of the tryst. He and Fripp would meet again, on fair and friendly terms; he would get another crack at a solo album, It Is and It Isn’t, approved by Ahmet Ertegun himself after a spontaneous performance in the Atlantic guru’s hotel room. “Excitement, vindication, proof of my sanity,” Haskell remembered.

He would move on, recording the sort of soulful music he had wanted – the antithesis of Crimson. “The King Crimson weapon is musical fascism, made by fascists, designed by fascists to dehumanize, to strip mankind of his dignity and soul,” he said later. “It’s pure Tavistock Institute material, financed by the Rothschild Zionists and promoted by two poncy public school boys with connections to the city of London.”

That – well, not all of it, but some of it – was what kept the world interested in Fripp. Even as the latest iteration of his band was rending itself apart, the guitarist was giving more interviews about King Crimson’s philosophy. “Some people say our music is pretentious,” he told Music Now. “I would say the music is arrogant. It is presumptuous to hold an opinion, but on the other hand it is better to be like that and hold an opinion than to have no opinion at all. If you record that opinion then your music is arrogant. But I am right in thinking that pretentious means trying to be something you are not. Well, I wonder what we have tried to be that we are not.”

At the close of 1970, the question was bound up with optimism. King Crimson was now largely Fripp’s project, partly Sinfield’s project. It was, definitively, falling out of the cosmos. Other “progressive” bands, celebrated by the same music press, were filling the black sky. Sinfield would hear Fripp repeat a theory he’d come up with – the parable of the “good fairy”: A positive spirit flitted from band to band, acting as muse just long enough to produce some great work. When the work was complete, the muse moved on.

“You don’t have to believe in God, but a musician believes in music as if it was a God,” Fripp would say, in one telling of the theory. “One would have to say with that band that something took place outside of the band, and the words I’d use would be that music leant over and took us into its confidence. Music played that band for a short period of time. In King Crimson, we called this our ‘Good Fairy.’ We knew it had nothing to do with us. And yet, despite the foibles, weaknesses, animosities, and limitations of the members of that remarkable group, something exceptional occurred. Despite the people.”

The chapter “A Billion Times The Impact” from The Show That Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock appears courtesy of David Weigel and W.W. Norton & Company Ltd.

Header image © Chris Welch / W.W. Norton & Company

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