The eerie, portentous sound of early King Crimson set the tone for British art rock. But by the time the group's Melotron-heavy sound and psychedelic lyrics had turned into lucrative clichés, leader Robert Fripp had long since shifted the group's style toward music that was far more eccentric, complex, and dissonant.
The original Crimson's roots when back to 1967, when the Bournemouth trio Giles, Giles and Fripp began making whimsical pop, which resulted in one British-only album in 1968 called The Cheerful Insanity of Giles, Giles and Fripp. (For a short time Judy Dyble, early Fairport Convention vocalist, also sang with them.) The band broke up in November 1968, and while bassist Peter Giles went on to become a solicitor's clerk, Fripp and drummer Mike Giles formed Crimson with ex-Gods bassist Greg Lake and their old associate Ian McDonald, who introduced them to lyricist Pete Sinfield. Sinfield also work the band's psychedelic light show.
Crimson made its debut at the London Speakeasy on April 9, 1969, and on July 5 the group played to 650,000 people at the Rolling Stones' free Hyde Park concert. In October In the Court of the Crimson King, with music by McDonald and Fripp, was released, and endorsed by Pete Townshend as "an uncanny masterpiece." But the group soon began an endless series of personnel changes, with only Fripp remaining through it all. On the band's debut U.S. tour, Giles and McDonald left, the latter in a band-control squabble. The two recorded a Crimson sound-alike album, McDonald and Giles, in 1970. During the sessions for Crimson's second album, Greg Lake also left, to form Emerson, Lake and Palmer. He'd met Emerson, then with the Nice, during Crimson's disastrous U.S. tour. Crimson might have ended there if Fripp had accepted offers to replace Pete Banks in Yes or to join Aynsley Dunbar in Blue Whale. Instead he brought in Gordon Haskell to complete the vocals on the second album (Elton John had also tried out), got old friend Pete Giles for a brief stint on bass, persuaded brother Mike to do "guest drumming," and pulled in some other friends, including future member Mel Collins, to finish it up. Fripp's guitar style was already distinctive; he used classical-guitar technique to create angular, sustained, screaming phrases on his Gibson, and he usually performed seated.
In late 1970 Fripp formed a new Crimson with Collins, Haskell, Sinfield, and drummer Andrew McCulloch (later of Greenslade). Jon Anderson of Yes did a guest vocal on the resulting Lizard. Two days after the album was finished, the band fell apart. One vocalist who tried out for the next Crimson was Roxy Myusic's Bryan Ferry, but Fripp opted for singer Boz Burrell, whom he taught to play bass. The band, rounded out by Collins and drummer Ian Wallce, recorded the subdued Islands in 1971 and, like the first group, fell apart on its U.S. tour. (Burrell later joined Bad Company.) Even the long-standing Pete Sinfield left this time; he recorded a solo LP and produced the debut Roxy Music album. The Islands-period band did manage to release a poorly recorded live document of its U.S. tour, Earthbound, released in the U.K. only.
Fripp emerged in 1972 with his most forward-looking and brashest Crimson, including Bill Bruford (who left the far more successful Yes to join), John Wetton (of Family), new lyricist Robert Palmer-Jones, David Cross, and Jamie Muir (who left for a Buddhist monastery after Larks' Tongues in Aspic). This lineup specialized in brainy, Gothic metal and jagged, dissonant free improvisation, and drew critical comparisons to Captain Beefheart's Magic Band and, thanks to Cross' electric violin, the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Cross also left after the followup, Starless and Bible Black, but he did play with the band until its last tour, culminating in a final show in New York's Central Park on July 1, 1974. A live LP from that date and Red, recorded with Cross as a "guest" member in late summer 1974, were both released after the disbanding. Ian MacDonald was about the rejoin the band and did play on Red (he joined Foreigner in 1976).
But as artistically successful as Red was, Fripp came to hate the entire art-rock movement (which was at its commercial peak, along with the mechanics of the music business itself (which he termed "vampiric"), and so he officially ended the band on September 28. On October 18, 1974. Fripp stated, "King Crimson is completely over. For ever and ever."
Fripp decided to work as a "small, mobile, intelligent, self-sufficient unit," in contrast to the overgrown "dinosaur" bands he'd come to loathe. Using the echo-delay tape system devised by Brian Eno for 1973's No Pussyfooting, which he dubbed Frippertronics," Fripp played solo concerts, slowly building minimalist chords with the notes on tape. He produced and played on Daryl Hall's first solo album, Sacred Songs, and two albums by the Roches, and added guitar lines to albums by Eno, David Bowie, Peter Gabriel, Talking Heads, and Blondie. In 1980 he returned to a group performing with the short-lived League of Gentlemen (the name of one of Fripp's earliest amateur bands), which also featured former XTC keyboardist Barry Andrews, and which added a danceable rock beat to Fripp's intricate, repeating guitar lines; League bassist Sara Lee went on to join Gang of Four.
In 1981 Fripp revived King Crimson as a quartet that he had been planning to call Discipline, including session bassist Tony Levin (who had toured with peter Gabriel), guitarist Adrian Belew (ex-Zappa, ex-Bowie, ex-Talking Heads), and Bruford. The new band drew on minimalism, African and Far Eastern polyrhythms, and the angularity of the final Crimson of the '70s. The group toured the U.S. and Europe to wide acclaim, but disbanded after recording its third album, Three of a Perfect Pair.
In 1994 Fripp – after recording and touring the previous year with ex-Japan vocalist David Sylvian – announced yet another re-formation of King Crimson. Calling the new lineup a double trio, he enlisted two drummers, Brufod and David Sylvian's drummer Pat Mastelotto. Also in the band: Belew, Levin, and Chapman Stick (a 12-string instrument combining elements of bass and guitar) player Trey Gunn (who'd been a student in one of Fripp's "Guitar Craft" seminars, and had played on the 1991 album Kneeling at the Shrine by Fripp and his wife Toyah Wilcox's band, Sunday All Over The World). This lineup debuted with the EP, VROOOM, on Fripp's own independent Discipline Records.
In 1997, after extensive touring for Thrak, the band "fractualized" (as Fripp put it) into four subgroups called "Projekcts," which were recorded on Deception of the Thrush and The ProjeKcts; the techno-groove-jam Projekct 2 (Fripp, Gunn, and Belew on electronic drums only) also released its own Space Groove album on Discipline. Partly to counter bootleggers, Fripp released a steady stream of new and old Crimson live recordings: Epitaph featured the original 1969 lineup, Night Watch the 1972-74 edition, and Cirkus collected live recordings spanning the band's entire career (he also released "Collectors Club" concert recordings of lineups throughout Crimson history, by mail-order only, through the Discipline Web site). With Bruford and Levin sitting out [see Bruford entry], Crimson returned as a quartet on ConstruKCtion of Light.
This biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).