Happy 50th birthday, King Crimson. As noted on their official website, this past Sunday marked exactly five decades since the legendary avant-rock outfit first rehearsed. The year that followed was a whirlwind: By the end of 1969, the core lineup that had convened on January 13th at London’s Fulham Palace Road Cafe — vocalist-bassist Greg Lake, guitarist Robert Fripp, drummer Michael Giles and woodwind player Ian McDonald, along with lyricist and light-and-sound-man Peter Sinfield — had released a hit debut, In the Court of the Crimson King, and, following a Fillmore West gig on December 16th, promptly broken up.
In between, though, they’d managed to land any young band’s dream gig: an opening slot at the Rolling Stones’ free “Stones in the Park” gig in Hyde Park on July 5th. Playing live for only the seventh time, King Crimson faced an audience numbering in the hundreds of thousands, there to see the Stones’ first live show in more than two years. Here you can watch a tantalizingly brief clip of their signature song “21st Century Schizoid Man” from that momentous day. (The full audio of the show was released in 2002 via the band’s Collectors’ Club series.)
The footage is grainy and shaky, but it still gives a sense of both the hugeness of the show — which looks like a Woodstock-esque bacchanalia, complete with stoned shimmying and a dude ill-advisedly climbing a light pole — and the utter weirdness of the music itself. It’s fascinating to consider how King Crimson’s punishing, saxophone-accented art-metal must have come across to all those unsuspecting viewers that day.
For Robert Fripp, the group’s leader and sole remaining original member, the Hyde Park gig laid the groundwork for everything that would come after. “King Crimson was considered the band of the day,” Fripp later said at a public talk hosted by his sister Patricia, looking back on the show. “There were many people who’d come from Europe and from the United States to see the Rolling Stones’ return to live performance and they went back and said, ‘There’s a band you must see, a new band — it’s King Crimson.’ So from one point of view, this was a move to the international stage.”
Five decades and countless incarnations later, the band is still pushing, with an especially busy schedule planned for 2019 in honor of the milestone year, complete with a new documentary and 50-date tour.