Saxophonist Mel Collins on His Years With King Crimson, the Rolling Stones, and Roger Waters
Rolling Stone interview series Unknown Legends features long-form conversations between senior writer Andy Greene and veteran musicians who have toured and recorded alongside icons for years, if not decades. All are renowned in the business, but some are less well known to the general public. Here, these artists tell their complete stories, giving an up-close look at life on music’s A list. This edition features saxophonist Mel Collins.
When Robert Fripp resurrected King Crimson in 2013, he could have brought virtually any member from the group’s Seventies heyday back into the fold. The only one he selected was saxophonist Mel Collins. This was a bit of a surprise considering that Collins’ original tenure in the band only lasted from 1970 to 1972, and that he and Fripp had a somewhat bitter falling out in the years that followed. But Fripp recognized that Collins is a musician of extraordinary abilities and that he’d be a huge asset to the new incarnation of the band.
Collins has spent the past seven years touring all over the world with King Crimson, bringing his career right back to where it began a half century ago. In the intervening years, he toured and recorded with many of the biggest names in music, including the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Dire Straits, Pete Townshend, Eric Clapton, Tina Turner, Bryan Ferry, and many, many others.
He phoned up Rolling Stone near the end of King Crimson’s recent U.S. tour. Despite being understandably drained from weeks on the road, he walked us through his amazing life and career.
How are you doing?
Not great. I haven’t slept. We were in Salt Lake City last night and so we had to drive. We’re doing it by bus this time, which is the first time for a long time we’ve done a bus tour. We’re getting used to it.
Do you sleep on the bus?
We’ve got three busses. There’s seven of us in the bus I’m in. Robert has another one. The bunks are there. You do the best you can really. But it’s pretty grueling this tour. We’re pretty tired. We managed to sleep a bit.
Twenty seven straight concerts without a break is a lot.
It’s been 22 months ago that we last toured. They’ve been trying to put this one on ever since. We’re lucky that we’re over here. It’s great to be playing again, to be honest, as you can imagine.
I want to go back and talk about your life. Tell me your first memory of being a kid and hearing music that really reached you.
My father was one one of the top session players in London. I had music in my life right from the beginning. There was alway a clarinet in the house. My father was a woodwind player. He was a big jazz fan, so I kind of was brought up listening to jazz. That was until I was 15 and I discovered the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Then I wanted to be a rocker.
I read that your dad worked with Judy Garland.
He did. He did various tours with people that came to England, such as Judy Garland. He did all the radio, TV, film scores, all that kind of work, which was plentiful in those days. He used to do three or four sessions every day. I did three or four sessions every week. Now there aren’t any.
Who were your first rock & roll heroes?
I listened to Little Richard and Fats Domino at first. I came to Elvis a much later when I played with the Stray Cats [in the Eighties]. They used to show all the videos on the bus. Then I realized how special Elvis was. At that time, I was into saxophone solos like Fats Domino and Little Richard. They had great bands. Ray Charles was another one I loved.
When did the sax become a big part of your life?
I was having clarinet lessons when I was about 13. And England had this sort of trad [jazz] boom, which is what it was called, as in Dixieland traditional jazz, in the Fifties. There was this record “Stranger on the Shore” by Acker Bilk. He was a bit of a hero at the time. Then it disappeared and it became very old-fashioned.
I was still in school at that time. I remember seeing the Beatles on TV for the first time. That’s when I started really listening to rock & roll. Clarinet was a bit old fashioned, so the sax was my instrument since I’d been listening to John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins and all those guys anyway.
There’s no sax player in the Beatles, the Stones, the Who, or really any of the British Invasion bands. Did you think about switching over to guitar or bass during that time?
I did actually play guitar for a little bit. But I don’t know. The sax must have been in the blood. I was in a little band when I was 15, and we used to dream about going on the road in a little van and going off to Germany and playing in Hamburg. I eventually did that in 1965 when I turned professional. We went off to play the Star Club in Hamburg, where the Beatles played.
How was that?
Well, the band I was in was called the Dagos, if you believe. There were five Anglo-Indians, and three of us that were white. When I joined, that was already the name. We had a manager that was determined to get us some work. He somehow got us this gig for a month at the Star Club in Hamburg.
Was it as dirty and decadent as the legend says?
Ab-so-lutely, yes. It was fantastic. We had to wait until I was 18 to get a work permit and a visa to work in Germany. I was the youngest one in the band, and completely green. I had never seen anything like this. And we were playing this club where at 3 a.m. the transvestites used to come in. It was just wild, really wild.
I’m sure you grew a lot as a musician in those days.
Yes, absolutely. As it happened, we must have been pretty terrible. We finished the gig after a month and went back to England. All of the guys went back to work at their day jobs they had before. I was determined to stay professional. Fortunately, my mother was a singer and my father was a woodwind player: saxophones, clarinets, flutes. They supported me.
For the next five years, until I met King Crimson, I was in another band called Phillip Goodhand-Tait and the Stormsville Shakers, which was a rock & roll band. Then it became a soul band and eventually became Circus.
I was just listening to some Circus music. You guys did a great cover of “Norwegian Wood.”
Thanks. We only made one album, unfortunately, and we were developing as musicians. Writing came sort of later on. We just enjoyed playing these covers. It made enough money to pay for itself, eventually. So it wasn’t a bad idea for a first album.
How did you first encounter King Crimson?
Circus used to play at the Marquee Club. That’s when I met King Crimson. We were on Wednesday nights. They were on a Sunday nights.
Tell me your initial impressions of Crimson when you first saw them live.
They were phenomenal. There wasn’t another band with a light show like King Crimson. And the lineup and the music … it was pretty great. I was very impressed. We all were.
When they came back from their first American tour, Ian MacDonald left. He was their original sax player. Mike Giles, their drummer, left too. And so they were looking to replace those musicians. They came and saw our band and decided they’d like to have me, and asked me if I’d join. That’s what happened.
Tell me about working on In the Wake of Poseidon. You’re on “Pictures of a City” and “Cadence and Cascade.”
To be honest, I wasn’t actually in the band at that time. They were using me as a session guy. I would come in and play the session on my own, basically. I knew something special was going on. They were very nice, and so was Peter Sinfield, who was their lyricist at the time. But I didn’t have that much to do with it. I was just coming in. What happened was Robert would present the song to me and just let me blow. I would find something that seemed to be pleasing to Robert.
They must have liked your work since they hired you full time after that.
They did. In fact, at that time, Greg Lake was still in the band. He left shortly to form Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. But he was very encouraging, and I got on very well with Robert and Pete. They seemed to like what I did.
Tell me about your first shows with them. It must have been intimidating to walk onstage with such a renowned band of virtuosos.
It was a big thing. I left my own band, Circus, which was pretty traumatic, to join up with King Crimson. We were looking for other musicians to take Michael’s place and to find a singer who played bass. It wasn’t so easy. It was off and on, and so I went back to Circus.
And then [the 1970 King Crimson album] Lizard came around and we were going to go on the road with that lineup, so I left Circus yet again. The first day of rehearsals, Gordon Haskell, the singer, who had gone to school with Robert and they knew each other quite well — apparently Gordon wasn’t happy. He decided the very first day of rehearsals that he didn’t want go on the road with Robert. He couldn’t stand Robert. That was it. That was the end of the band.
Robert came to me and said, “I can’t do this anymore. I’m sorry. There’s not going to be another King Crimson.” And so I tried to get back with my band yet again. It was very dramatic. In the end, Robert said to me, “Do you want to get the band together? You do the audition. You audition people.”
And so there I was in the audition room, and he was sending me all these people to audition. I’m a sax player that hasn’t really been in the business that long, especially at that level. It was pretty traumatic. Of course, I didn’t find anybody.
Eventually, Keith Emerson recommend Ian Wallace to Robert. He came down and he fit in completely. And then Boz [Burrell] originally came in to audition as a singer. Dave Ambrose, this bass player that used to play with Brian Auger, he auditioned and he left his bass down. Boz picked it up and started playing. It all came clear to Robert that he could teach Boz what to play, so we’d have a singing bass player. That’s what happened there.
What do you recall about making the song “Ladies of the Road”?
We’d come back from America at that point and we were pretty tight. I remember recording “Ladies of the Road” pretty well. We’d just been to the Speakeasy Club, which is the club where everybody went in those days. We were still hungover in the studio playing “Ladies of the Road.” I remember that very well.
This is a really young band that had just been together for a few years, and there’s already been three very distinct versions of it. It was so volatile.
Absolutely. And then we left. I had problems with Robert. He wasn’t the easiest of people to work with in those days. It’s all different now. But in those days, he upset me a couple of times. Ian Wallace decided he couldn’t work with Robert anymore and had another gig lined up. Boz wanted to do something else. That left me, but I was fed up with Robert too. I said, “Not for me.” That was the end of that King Crimson.
But you’re credited on “Starless” on Red.
That’s again as a session player. I was working at Olympic Studios. I was playing with Humble Pie. Down the corridor was King Crimson in another studio. I went from playing with Humble Pie to playing with King Crimson, quite coincidentally, since Robert wanted me on this particular track. And so I went in as a session player again.
How did you end up on Bob Dylan’s Desire sessions in 1975?
You’ve done some research. [Laughs] I was playing with a band called Kokomo. When I left King Crimson, I was playing with all sorts of people. Kokomo was one of the favorite funk-type bands in London. I knew the musicians pretty well. I started playing with them and became a member of Kokomo.
The Bob Dylan session had to do with Steve O’Rourke. He was Pink Floyd’s manager. He was managing us at the same time. I think Bob Dylan wanted to try and get back the feel he had with the Band. He was looking for that same feel. Before us, he tried the Dave Mason Band. That apparently didn’t work out.
We were in New York. We did a gig in Central Park [on July 28th, 1975]. We went from that gig into the studio. I think it was Columbia Recording Studios. We walked into this kind of empty studio. Next door, Bob Dylan was recording with all sorts of people. I remember Eric Clapton was there. The place was full of musicians.
We got asked to go in one by one. He wanted some singers, so the Kokomo singers went in. He wanted a keyboard player, so the keyboardist went in. I was the last one. I was thinking, “He won’t want a saxophone.” As it happened, there was a trumpet player [Michael Lawrence]. And I got called in at the last minute after drinking a glass of brandy and thinking, “I’m going to be going home soon.”
And bang! I’m in the studio with this very nice guy, the trumpet player. Bob Dylan just sort of walked around the studio playing the song and we had to get a rough idea of it. Then we had to go for a take. So I had to work out some parts with the guy, the trumpet player, and at the end of that, we didn’t get in the control room. There were too many people in there. At the end of that, Bob walked around with another song.
This went on all day. At the end of that day, certain people weren’t asked back. I was asked back, so I must have been OK. We went in for another day in the studio with Bob. It was fascinating.
Did Bob talk to you ever?
No. He’d just walk around to all of us, one by one, so we could get the drift of the song. He never spoke to us. It was very strange.
You’re not officially credited on the album, but it seems like you’re on the master recordings of “Isis” and “Mozambique.”
I honestly don’t know what happened with any of it.
It’s still a pretty cool life experience.
It was very special. We were all frightened to death. We didn’t know what was going on.
I love the Pete Townshend/Ronnie Lane album Rough Mix. Can you talk about playing on that?
These were the days I was very busy. I had been down to the South of France to do the Rick Wright solo album [Wet Dream]. Then I went to Paris to do the Stones album [Some Girls]. And then I went back to England. I didn’t really know Ronnie well. But he was doing an album in Wales in his mobile. He asked me to come down for the day, and I wound up staying for four days.
At the time, poor Ronnie was ill. He had to keep going off to the doctors for different tests. It turned out to be multiple sclerosis. He was lovely, very relaxed — and good songs. I had a great time. I enjoyed it. I did see Ronnie once more after that. But then he went to America and got worse and worse.
You’re on “Catmelody.”
Yeah. I heard that recently. A lot of times, I don’t even hear the tracks I’m on. I’d go in and do my session in half an hour or an hour or so, and I never got to hear any of it. But that one is pretty good. I really like it.
Tell me about Clapton’s Slowhand album.
I got asked to go into the studio. It was at Olympic [Studios in London]. He had his American band there with [drummer] Jamie Oldaker and Carl Radle, the bass player. They were actually a very tight unit. And along comes this little thin, long-haired saxophone player, a British guy, who they weren’t really going to be very kind to. And it was awkward. They gave me a bit of a hard time, to be honest.
We spent three days doing that one song, “The Core.” Eric wasn’t very well at that time. He’d always take me with him to the pub and he was actually very lovely with me. He said, “Mel, I’ve played with them all, King Curtis, Aretha Franklin, you name it. And you’ve got it, boy.” It was very encouraging.
He almost never used sax on his solo records, so this was pretty rare.
Yeah. I’m not quite sure how it came about, but we did it live in the studio. We were actually playing together, the whole band, which used to happen in those days. It doesn’t happen much in these days. The interplay between us was live. It was listening to it in the control room and going, “This works. That doesn’t work.”
Tell me how you wound up on the Stones’ “Miss You.”
Chris Kimsey was the producer-engineer for “Miss You” and I knew him very well. I met him when I recorded with Bad Company, which happened because Boz [Burrell] recommended me.
The Stones wanted a sax player, and at that time, Bobby Keys was banned. The whole story is in Keith Richards’ book. He was their usual guy. He did “Brown Sugar” and all those old songs. And Mick booked me to do this session. I had been in the South of France, and they were doing it in Paris.
It was a bit uncomfortable since Keith obviously wanted Bobby Keys, and Mick wouldn’t have it. So I’m there in the studio. I knew Ronnie quite well. He came in and went, “Hey man, how are you doing?” And he walked to the other side of the studio. It’s a very big studio, EMI. Then Keith came in. I was there with Mick and trying to pay the solo of my life.
There was a coffee table in the middle of the studio. People were going in and out, getting cups of coffee while I’m trying to play. And in walks Keith. He walked towards me and I went to shake his hand. He completely blanked me and walked over to the other side, sat on a stool reading a copy of Melody Maker, and completely ignored me. To be honest, it was very uncomfortable. But the end result is pretty good, I think. I didn’t hear it for years. But when I heard it, I thought it wasn’t bad.
How many takes did you do?
We tried another side. I can’t remember the title [“Everything Is Turning to Gold”], but there is a B side where I’m playing. “Miss You” was very limited since it was an old-style recording desk and they only have a limited number of tracks. I actually didn’t do that many. I probably did two or three. They ran out of tracks, so they had to use what I did.
The single version cut out your solo.
Yes. It’s the story of my life [laughs].
You recorded a lot with Gerry Rafferty, but you somehow missed out on the famous “Baker Street” solo.
That’s another story of my life. I worked with Gerry a lot. I did a lot of his tunes, but Raphael Ravenscroft was the saxophonist for that. Gerry himself told me what happened, so I know it’s true. They were working at Chipping Norton [studio] near Oxford. They were trying to get some instruments to play this riff, which was Gerry. There’s a demo of him singing the riff, or playing it, I’m not sure.
Somebody said, “Why don’t we try the sax?” Somebody mentioned my name, but someone else said, “Oh, Mel Collins is in London. He’ll never travel that far down to here.” The idea got forgotten. And there happened to be this other guy, Raphael Ravenscroft. And of course, he played on the very famous “Baker Street.” I got to play it later on [in concert]. That was a bit of a consolation prize, to be honest.
Gerry is my favorite of all time, to be honest. I really liked working with him. He was so musical. I do kind of wish that was me on “Baker Street,” though. Story of my life.
Tell me about playing on “Dance Hall Days” by Wang Chung.
That was before they had done anything. It was a session I was asked to play on. They were young guys. I don’t think they expected that to be such a hit. They just let me blow. They were happy for me to do what I do. It ended up on the record. They actually asked me to tour when they got their first American tour, but I was on tour with somebody else at the time, and I couldn’t do it.
How did you wind up joining Dire Straits for the Alchemy tour?
I got called in to play on this track “Two Young Lovers.” I got on with Mark [Knopfler] very well. They were planning a tour and they wanted to include “Two Young Lovers” and they asked me to come along and do the European tour. I think we did 12 days at Wembley. And so I became part of Dire Straits for a short while.
In that time, I was working with everybody. I did a tour with the Stray Cats. I did one with Roger Waters on his first solo tour. When it came around to do Brothers in Arms, I just wasn’t around to do that. There’s always someone to take your place, so I lost the gig with Dire Straits until recently when I’ve been playing with Dire Straits Legacy.
I’ve seen lots of video of that Dire Straits Alchemy tour. That was a pretty amazing time for the band. I’ve never heard Mark play better.
Absolutely great. I think people forget how good he is, actually. He’s a little bit underrated. He’s written so many great songs. We recorded about four shows in different places. One was at Hammersmith Odeon. That was used as the Alchemy album.
Tell me about getting hired for the Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking tour with Roger Waters.
I knew Roger’s wife at that time, Carolyn [Anne Christie]. She came on the road as a tour manager with King Crimson years before when I was in the band. I knew her fairly well. I think she said to Roger, “I know this guy Mel Collins. We could use him in the band.”
I then got asked by Roger. It’s ironic since when I was in Kokomo, the manager, Steve O’Rourke, was told in no uncertain terms that either he manage Pink Floyd or he manage Kokomo. And so we were left without a manager. I have a feeling that Roger had something to do with that. It’s ironic that I wound up working for him. I don’t know if he realizes that. We never talked about it.
I fell out with Roger. He’s another one that can be difficult. Funnily enough, the last tour we did in America with King Crimson, we were staying at the Sunset Marquis in L.A. and Roger was there. He played the arena gig the day before. We went to see Roger and then went back to the hotel, and Roger was there at the bar. He invited me over.
There I was at the top table with Roger Waters. He basically told me how much he loves me, and we became the best of friends after those rocky moments where I was on tour with him. I was drinking a lot in those days, so I’m sure it was my fault.
I know Roger is very particular about how he wants everything to sound onstage. He wants every show to be identical.
Yes. I think David Sanborn was on the record, and so was Eric Clapton. At that time, Eric wasn’t really doing much. Roger asked him to come on the road with us. Eric was there, who I knew a little bit and got on with very well.
We were doing one set that was The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking, which was basically one long song. That went down OK. But the second set we’d play the Pink Floyd numbers. That usually worked out better than The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking. That’s the nature of the beast, as they say.
It was a good band. It was a great lineup. I think Eric had a bit of a problem with Roger and didn’t enjoy it that much. It was, as you say, pretty much covering the parts on the record. I had to copy David Sanborn for most of it. He’s a fantastic player. I’m not complaining.
I’ve spoken to some people from his band who said they called Roger “General Waters” since he was like an army general.
In his defense, I must say he was playing his first solo tour. We carried on and formed another lineup for another tour. During that tour, the Floyd were actually on the road at the same time. They were about three weeks behind us. For Roger, that was a lot of pressure to have that on his back.
He was desperately trying … You know that thing about Floyd being anonymous? People didn’t really know them. And so we’re in America and people are like, “Who is Roger Waters?” People didn’t know him that well apart from the hardcore fans, so he had to build that up to where it is now. Of course, everybody knows who he is now.
I can’t imagine the frustration when Pink Floyd are playing a football stadium, it’s sold out, and they’re playing mainly his songs. Meanwhile, he’s at a half-empty arena.
It was very difficult. They had to reschedule some of the shows since they weren’t selling enough tickets. In those days, it was difficult. There was so much pressure on him. It wasn’t easy.
Tell me about the making of Radio K.A.O.S.
I was pretty much in the band then. We were trying different things. I’d be in the studio with him and he’d pull out the track. Again, I would have a listen and see what instrument would work better, the alto or the tenor or sometimes the baritone. We did it like that, trial and error.
We took that on the road eventually. That’s when I sort of fell out with Roger a little bit. He did say recently that he’d love to use me again, so maybe I’ll go back sometime.
Tell me about the “Private Dancer” session with Tina Turner.
That was Mark [Knopfler]’s song, so we actually went into the studio as a band, as Dire Straits, and played it live.
So then why is Jeff Beck playing the guitar on the album?
That I couldn’t explain. That came later on. We’d already recorded the song and I played my solo. I imagine something went down where Tina wanted Jeff to play on it. I have no idea. But Jeff was on the single, and I wasn’t.
Jeff is obviously one of the greatest guitarists ever, but that solo is far from his best work. I know Mark wasn’t happy with it.
I don’t know him very well. I met him once and he was a bit off with me. I thought my sax sounded OK. I did an intro, and then Jeff did his thing. That was obviously too much for the single; it’s too long. And Jeff is known, I suppose, more so than me, so they choose his solo as opposed to mine.
What happened in the Nineties when the industry changed a lot and there was less demand for session players?
Work dried up, to be honest. I had a mortgage to pay. I was married and I had a daughter. It got very scarce. I was playing with anybody I could. I was offered gigs in little bands that needed a soloist. I even played in this band called Straight From the Hip, which you would never have heard of. They were all public school boys from places like Eaton. In England, the public school system is the elite. They were all friends from school days. Their financier was a guy that owned a lighting company.
We got all these social gigs because of the contacts they had. We played high-society balls, but they were terrible. They’d start a number and forget how to play the chorus and stop, and then start again. They paid me 100 pounds a gig. We had to wear suits and ties. That was the sort of thing I had to do just to play.
Then I got this job playing in Germany with a guy called Marius Müller-Westernhagen. He was a superstar in Germany that used to play 60,000-seat stadium gigs in Germany. Nobody has ever heard of him over in America or England. I recorded with him for 10 years. He came over to England to do another album. He was huge in Germany and he offered me a tour.
By that time, I had split up with my wife. I didn’t have anywhere to live. I’d lost the house. I was staying with my sister. I was like, “What the hell am I going to do?” There was literally no work. And I went over to do this tour. To cut the story short, it wasn’t great, but it was a big tour. And one of the keyboard players in the band [Helmut Zerlett] had the opportunity to do this chat show, which was the German version of the David Letterman show, basically.
It was starting six months after the tour. He was asked to put a band together and he asked me. He was very easy to get on with and a good musician, and so I got the gig. I moved to Germany and thought it would be three month — six months, at the most. It was called the Die Harald Schmidt Show. And 18 years later, I was still on this show.
Wow. That’s amazingly steady work for a musician.
It was amazing, really. At least I had a job all those years before I came back to England.
Tell me about the formation of the 21st Century Schizoid Band. How did that happen?
That was a project that Jakko Jakszyk put together. He’s the singer and guitarist with Robert now. His father-in-law was [original Crimson drummer] Michael Giles. They’d been talking about putting a band together and basically playing King Crimson songs. It was something that Jakko had always wanted to do since he saw me when he was 12 and I was playing in King Crimson at Watford Town Hall. He had this ambition to play King Crimson songs.
He had been very successful writing jingles and different things, so he could finance this band. He put all his money into it. But Michael wasn’t happy about Ian’s sax playing, so it came around to asking me to do the gig as well. So this lineup was Peter Giles on bass, Michael Giles, Ian McDonald, Jakko, and myself.
We went out as the 21st Century Schizoid Band. It was OK. It wasn’t bad. We did a tour of Japan. But that night, on the way home back to England, Michael Giles did the same thing he did [in 1969] and said he couldn’t be in the band any longer. He left. And so we needed another drummer.
My friend Ian Wallace was in L.A. and really not doing anything, and his ambition was to be back in King Crimson, to be honest. And so we asked him if he’d like to do the gig. We carried on and did an American tour and some more European gigs, until Ian had this job offer in L.A. It was The Ten Commandments with Val Kilmer, which was a musical show. He decided he wanted to do this rather than come on the road with us again. That was at the end of the band. We didn’t get another drummer. It just petered out. That’s the story there.
How did you reconnect with Robert Fripp and rejoin King Crimson?
Again, it’s like a series of events. Robert heard about this band with Jakko. And Jakko had been in touch with Robert. [Robert] actually called us up to give his support. He called me up after 30 years. This was in 2002 or 2003. And he apologized for all the mean things he said to me years ago. He wished us luck and let us know that he supported the band. He said he would come and see us play when we were in England, which he never did.
But that was the connection. He cleared the air. Before that, I never wanted to know anything about King Crimson ever again, to be honest, after I left.
I was still in Germany doing that show. And the show finished after 18 years. I was actually thinking, “What should I do? Stay in Germany? I don’t have any other work.” And so I came back to England. I’ve always kept a place in England. I used to drive back every month or so.
Robert said to me, “How do you fancy a week?” Those were his words. It’s a very sort of upper-class way to ask about doing something together. I said, “Yeah, I’m interested.”
Then he explained that he was putting this band together with three drummers, which was completely his concept, and he asked if I wanted to do it. I actually had nothing else to do. I always enjoyed the music. I loved playing with Tony Levin, Gavin Harrison, and Pat Mastelotto. I thought it would be good, so that’s how that came about. We rehearsed and off we went.
It’s a pretty interesting way of presenting the songs. He’s suddenly open to playing songs from the entire Crimson catalog, going back to the first record. He hadn’t done those songs in ages.
That’s right. Adrian [Belew] didn’t want to play them. It was a really great opportunity to do songs that had never been played before, like “Cirkus” and songs from Lizard that were never played. With me being in the band, I could also recreate my parts.
There was an awful lot of songs I hadn’t played on, obviously, in those years when I wasn’t involved. Basically, I got sent all the tracks that Robert wanted to try out. Then I had to make up my mind what to play on them, what would work, and what wouldn’t work.
With Robert, we sorted out parts for me to be able to play. The baritone, for example, would play some of the bass lines. We didn’t know whether it was going to work, but it has worked. It seems to be fine. I play on every song in some form or another.
Why so many drummers?
As I say, it’s Robert’s concept. To be honest, none of us thought it was going to work: “It can’t.” And the idea of drummers being in front of the stage as opposed to the back … We were like, “How is this going to possibly work?” But with Gavin arranging a lot of the drum parts, it was organized. It would otherwise be chaos. You can’t have three drummers just going for it. It’s all orchestrated, really. And it works because of that.
I’ve just never seen a setup in my life where the drummers are in front and the main guy is in the corner in the back.
[Laughs] That’s right. He did have a problem with sound to begin with, and they built a plexiglass screen to go around to try and buffer a little bit of that. Pat is a bit of a loud player and he’s in front of me. It took trial and error to get something that would be OK for me to play, with it being an acoustic instrument, obviously. I’m going to be picking up all that noise, and it is loud, as you can imagine. That’s worked. It’s another thing we had to put together.
How is the Robert Fripp of today different from the Robert Fripp of 1971?
He’s so much more mellow. He’s tolerant. He doesn’t have that ego that he used to have. He still can be awkward, no question about it, but he is so nice to me. He gives me the freedom to play what I want to play, basically. He’s nice to be with and he loves the music. I think that’s the problem in the past. He loves both the music and the musicians involved.
It’s amazing that you’re the only Seventies member that he brought back out of all those people.
That’s quite an honor, really. To be honest, he did ask me to carry on when we split the Islands band up. He asked me to carry on and form the next group with John Wetton and Bill Bruford. To be honest, I was young and had a lot of music to play. I wanted to play with all sorts of people and not be restricted. In those days, it was restrictive. I said, “Robert, no. I’m sorry.”
In fact, there was a time when I did this Bryan Ferry tour and Robert came. This was like five or six years later. I hadn’t seen Robert. He knew Bryan. He came backstage after a show in London. He sat me down in the green room and he said, “I always said you could be a great player. What went wrong? Is it that you got married and started playing with Bryan Ferry and people like that?”
He was still putting me down in those days. And now he appreciates my musicianship a lot more than he did in those days. He must, to have me in the band.
Is there ever talk of a new King Crimson record, or is it just all about the tours and reinterpreting songs from the catalog?
There’s a project ahead like the A Scarcity of Miracles album that we did [under the name Jakszyk, Fripp, and Collins]. I think we might be doing something along those lines, which is really studio material. There’s been quite a lot of new material written. It’s not definite. It’s being talked about. That’s all I can say at the moment.
How was your experience in Dire Straits Legacy?
It was for fun, to be honest. There’s a terrible thirst for Dire Straits music. People want to hear all those great songs. It’s based in Italy. The singer and guitarist [Marco Caviglia] was a number-one Mark Knopfler fan from Rome. He put this project together originally. Phil Palmer, who was touring with Dire Straits, and Alan Clark, who was with Dire Straits for years as a keyboard player and arranger. The musicianship is so good. I just went to do a couple of gigs with them, basically. I was in Germany doing the TV show.
I thought that show was very good and it allowed me to go out and do a project and join the show again, so it was very well organized. I went off to Italy and it was a lot of fun. I liked a lot of the songs that Mark wrote. It’s carried on from there. They are supposed to be over here touring this summer, but my priority now is King Crimson. They’re a good bunch of guys. I will go back and play with them again after the King Crimson tour.
We don’t know whether this will happen again with King Crimson. I hope so. At the moment, we’re all getting old.
How was the first post-pandemic show with King Crimson?
Obviously, we had to be very careful with wearing masks. What’s different now is we can’t have people backstage, friends and relatives, or whatever. We’d do that after every gig with backstage passes and green-room meetings. We can’t do that anymore.
Robert is very careful and we wear masks backstage. But it was such a relief to be onstage again. We hadn’t worked for all those months. It’s fantastic to be back. It’s a different world. It’s not the same one we had before when we were touring.
Are there ever nights on the tour bus where you’re like, “I’m too old for this shit. I want to go home”?
[Laughs] Funny you should say that. I felt a bit like that last night after a 13-hour drive straight after the gig. Whatever you say, it’s not the most comfortable thing to be sleeping in a bunk driving along a motorway with the engine and the bumps and everything.
But we’re so grateful to be back playing that we’ll put up with this for as long as we can. And the management has made sure that we have day rooms. So after a long night on the bus after a show, we have a room where we can go and sleep. Today is an off day and we have a hotel today. They organized it very well. It’s not so bad.
The childhood fantasy of being on a rock tour is that it’s all glitz and glamour. In reality, it’s a lot of very hard work and very long and uncomfortable nights on a cramped bus.
Absolutely. You hit the nail on the head. When you’re 18, as I was going to Germany, it was fantastic. All the gear was in the back. We were driving around. It was very romantic. But not these days. It’s not like that anymore.
Tony, Robert, and myself are all over 70 now. I do feel very lucky. I was thinking at the last gig, “We’re really lucky to be doing this still.” My father and his colleagues, who were all fantastic musicians, retired in their late sixties. They didn’t play anymore. Not me. I’m going to keep going.
You’re keeping the legacy of this great band alive.
It is special. I’ve realized that more so since I’ve been back with Robert, because of the fact that we didn’t get on that well, and I didn’t want to play King Crimson music anymore in the Seventies. And now I listen back to these things and they’re fantastic. Robert is playing great. And the compositions … I appreciate it now. There’s no sort of ego problems or anything like that. It’s not like they were when you were younger.
Do you never think about retirement?
No. I couldn’t. I love to play. The thing in King Crimson has developed musically to the point where the standard is so high that you can’t fail to play better. Even this tour, people have said how much better it is than last time, so we’re going in the right direction.
You’re playing to people and their kids or even their grandkids.
Yeah. It’s a whole cross-section in in the audience. Of course, it’s not packed and sold out like it would have been before because of Covid. People are still afraid. We are aware of that. But you’ve got to go out there. You’ve got to play. As I say, I feel very fortunate to be doing it, with King Crimson.
There was a long period where there was no King Crimson. I thought he was done with it.
It was a big surprise to me that he wanted to go out again. All the ups and downs that he had to fight through, he still has this urge to keep the band going. That’s great.
How do you feel if you’re driving or you’re in a grocery store and you hear “Miss You” or “Private Dancer” or “Dance Hall Days”?
Immense pride. I do actually get goosebumps. That’s happened to me before. I’ve gone into a supermarket and I’ve heard something playing and I go, “That sounds a little like me.” And it turned out to be me playing. It’s a great feeling, actually. Not that I’m bragging …