In the Court of King Crimson: An Observation Over 50 Years

John Kelman By

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In the Court of King Crimson: An Observation Over 50 Years
Sid Smith
616 Pages
ISBN: 978-1916153004
Panegyric Publishing

When it was first released in 2001, British scribe Sid Smith's In the Court of King Crimson (Helter Skelter Publishing) filled a major need for a band that was, at that time, touring in its double duo format, responsible for the some of the music reissued, earlier this year, in the Heaven & Earth: Live And In The Studio 1997-2008 (Panegyric, 2019) set. That mega-box was but one of a number of 50th Anniversary celebratory events, which also saw the release of King Crimson's 1969 debut, with new stereo and surround mixes and a bevy of bonus material, in the three-CD/Blu Ray edition of In the Court of the Crimson King (50th Anniversary) (Panegyric, 2019), not to mention a three-continent, globe-trotting tour by the current seven-piece incarnation that touched down for a couple of characteristically exceptional performances in Toronto and Montréal back in September.

But it's been almost twenty years since the release of Smith's detailed, exceptionally well-researched and thoroughly entertaining look at a band that may have helped to define the term "progressive rock" back in 1969 but, through its various lineups and albums in the ensuing years, has gone well past that now-reductionist definition of the genre to become something far greater.

As good as In the Court of King Crimson was, and as much as it absolutely filled that need when it was first published, nearly twenty years on it has been in serious need of, at the very least, an update to cover them many things that have transpired during that time. And so, perfectly timed with the band's 50th anniversary, Smith has finally done just that with the aptly titled In the Court of King Crimson: An Observation Over 50 Years.

That said, this revised and expanded edition—at 616 pages, almost double the length of the original—accomplishes so much more than simply augment the existing text that ended after the release of 2000's The ConstruKction of Light and its subsequent live companion, Heavy ConstruKction. Instead, In the Court of King Crimson: An Observation Over 50 Years is completely revised from top to bottom. From the very first page (following, that is, a preface that is also not just a revision, but completely re-minted), the book begins with a device that Smith uses throughout the book: using personal memoirs from the band's triumphant return to active duty with its fall, 2014 American tour—a test that, thankfully, has led to the band touring the world and returning to North America another three times since then—as a means to set up his largely chronological account of the band's emergence, seemingly from zero to sixty overnight, through its various break-ups and re-emergences (always in different configurations) and the many adversities faced and largely overcome, right up to the present day.

Just look at the opening paragraph from the original book (preface omitted):

"In 1967, a tired and frustrated Michael Giles sat in the garage of his home in Bournemouth, wondering about the future and thinking about the past. He and his brother Peter had just left Trendsetters Ltd., the band which had provided a ticket out of the seaside town and onto the touring circuit of provincial England and Europe. Along the way they had backed some of the stars of the day, recorded several singles, made inroads into TV and radio but, after three years of hard slog, there didn't seem to be any gas left in the band's tank. Bored with the diet of bright and bouncy R 'n' B covers, Michael and his bass-playing brother, Peter, jumped off the treadmill and came home to think about the next step."

It's a compelling enough opener that did, indeed, make sense when looking to set the stage for the emergence of the pre-Crimson band Giles, Giles & Fripp, where the two brothers teamed up with guitarist Robert Fripp for an album, The Cheerful Insanity of Giles, Giles & Fripp (Deram, 1968), whose biggest achievement was its minuscule worldwide sales of just 600 copies.

Compare that, however, to the opening paragraphs of In the Court of King Crimson: An Observation Over 50 Years:

"It's mid-August 1969. The apocalyptic blast of 21st Century Schizoid Man is abruptly cut off in mid-flow as recording engineer Robin Thompson mutes the speakers. Below, in the cavernous performance area of Wessex Studios, Robert Fripp, Michael Giles, Ian McDonald, Peter Sinfield and Greg Lake stop work to welcome the arrival of artist Barry Godber, carrying a large rectangular package wrapped in brown paper.

A few weeks previously, Sinfield had commissioned his friend Godber to come up with something for the cover for King Crimson's debut album. 'I used to hang around with all these painters and artists from Chelsea Art School,' says Sinfield. 'I'd known Barry for a couple of years ... he'd been to a few rehearsals and spent a bit of time with us. I told him to see what he could come up with. I think I probably said to him that the one thing the cover had to do was stand out in record shops.'"

This new beginning to a book that in no way omits the earlier events that led to the formation of King Crimson (if anything, Smith expands upon them further), is far more immediately gripping, the sign of a writer who has, in the nearly two decades that have passed, become a far better one (and he was already a fine scribe back then).

In the Court of King Crimson: An Observation Over 50 Years is, even more, the consequence of significant changes to Smith's life, the direct result of that first edition of In the Court of King Crimson.

The tale told with the original In the Court of King Crimson is reordered, expanded and even more exhaustively researched for In the Court of King Crimson: An Observation Over 50 Years. More importantly, Smith has delivered a veritable tome that more closely fits the email, from guitarist Robert Fripp, that opens the original preface, where King Crimson's only remaining founder wrote:

"You may have realized that you are assembling too much material for one book, and that if you wish to take it seriously, you could become a Crim expert, called upon for interviews, commentary, sleeve notes, articles, etc. You are also in line to write the Crimson encyclopedia."

Since In the Court of King Crimson was first published, Smith has gone on to become precisely what Fripp suggested: the band's official documentarian, managing the majority of written content on the DGMLive website that is the go-to place on the internet for all matters relating to King Crimson, Fripp and much, much more.

Smith has also gone on to write the majority of the liner notes for Crimson releases, most notably the 40th Anniversary box sets, all released by Panegyric, that began with 2009's six-disc In the Court of the Crimson King, but leapt into even higher gear in 2012, commencing with the 15-disc Larks' Tongues in Aspic (40th Anniversary Series Box) and continuing with even larger box sets released every year (barring 2018) until this year.

Even further, Smith has also gone on, in collaboration with Panegyric label head Declan Colgan, to co-curate all (but one) of the annual The Elements of King Crimson Tour Box double-CD sets, with a new edition released (and, initially, sold only at merchandise tables) every year since the current lineup returned to active touring in 2014. Each Tour Box features a bevy of previously released/unreleased material, featuring music culled from the various box sets, live performances from the current band (and earlier lineups), and other recordings.

Still, more than just a compendium of disparate tracks, considerable care clearly goes into sequencing the 25-plus pieces in each edition, lending each of these ongoing Tour Box sets a distinct narrative all their own. The only constant, in fact, is the "Wind Extract," which introduces In the Court of the Crimson King's iconic opener, "21st Century Schizoid Man," but has now become a context-setter (even more, perhaps, a reset button) for each and every Tour Box.

And so, it's no hyperbole to suggest that In the Court of King Crimson literally changed the course of Smith's life and professional career. He may still contribute to magazines like Prog Magazine and contribute liner notes to, amongst others, many of the U.K. Esoteric Recordings label's archival reissues of largely progressive-leaning bands across the past half century. But, most significantly, he has become King Crimson's official scribe. This has given him even greater access to band members past and present, along with archival material that may or may not ever see the light of day, and so much more.

Who else, then, could write such an accurate, detailed and extensive history of King Crimson, a band that has continued to defy easy categorization?

And Crimson does defy simplistic labeling. The unadorned term, "music," could, of course, suffice. Better, still, would be to describe what King Crimson does as simply King Crimson, especially since its current three-drummer front line, twin guitar/bass/woodwinds and reeds back line (with no shortage of players doubling on keyboards) is the very first incarnation capable of covering virtually anything from across the band's diverse, half century repertoire. Combining elements of everything from jazz and classical music to gamelan-inspired minimalism, hints of metal and so much more, there simply is no other way to describe a band that now takes music as old as 50 years and as new as right now, rendering it fresh and, most importantly, relevant each and every night in this second decade of the 21st century.

More than a mere biography/history of the group, In the Court of King Crimson: An Observation Over 50 Years is a complete reference book on the band; the King Crimson encyclopedia, perhaps, that Fripp referred to in that email nearly twenty years ago.

The "track by track" analyses of every song on every King Crimson album (and The Cheerful Insanity of Giles, Giles & Fripp) have been moved from their original in-line position within the original book to one of three sections that follow the 365-page narrative documenting the group's history. Two additional sections (one revised, the other brand new) render the book even more comprehensive: an updated "After Crimson" section covers what happened to musicians following their departure from Crimson; and an "Annotated Gigography," covering 1969-2003, collects all of Smith's original DGMLive thoughts about the many live shows that have been unearthed for download by Alex "Stormy" Mundy.

That's a 365-page bio/history, 24-page "After Crimson," 157-page "Track by Track" and 130-page "Annotated Gigography," the sum total representing as definitive a look at King Crimson from multiple angles as can be found anywhere.

To reveal the many details contained in the biography/history would be cheating. Suffice to say that, if Smith's first crack at In the Court of King Crimson was an authoritative one, In the Court of King Crimson: An Observation Over 50 Years is even more so, filled with the kind of minutiae that fans love and newbies need, and which are the direct result of Smith spending much more time with Crimson members past and present—in person, on the phone, on the road and in other contexts to which only an in-house documentarian could be afforded access. Like the first edition, this revised and expanded one doesn't shy away from painting holistic pictures of Crimson's various participants, but most notably Fripp, given he's the only member to have participated in virtually all Crim-making across the decades.

As intriguing a character as Fripp has always been—enigmatic, eclectic, perhaps even eccentric—he's also a complex personality who has often been unfairly judged by his fan base, despite its largely loving his music and its many innovations. Fripp's ultimate life philosophy stem, in no small part, from studies of the the writings (and, ultimately, attendance at the International Academy for Continuous Education, in Sherbrooke) of J.G. Bennett in the mid-'70s. Bennett was a follower of mystic, philosopher, spiritual teacher and composer G.I. Gurdjieff, and if any single event can be pointed to as changing the course of Fripp's life and career, it was this.

An erudite and, at times, dryly witty man (witness his introductions to songs during the 1973-74 Larks' Tongues Crimson lineup), Fripp may not always be easy to get along with. But, like other musical ground-breakers like ECM Records label head/producer Manfred Eicher and jazz innovator Miles Davis, Fripp's apparent difficulties are clearly the result of having a vision for what constitutes King Crimson music (and, just as importantly, what does not), and a complete refusal to accept anything less. Smith captures, through interviews with Fripp and others, the broadest picture of a musician who, in his steadfast refusal to stand still, is perhaps rock music's Miles Davis, the trumpeter who shifted gears at least five times during his lifetime.

And, for any difficulties that Fripp's unwavering commitment to being both the best he and Crimson can be while, at the same time, pursuing the goal that collective music-making should always be enjoyable, there are few in the music industry who have fought so hard (and at such great expense) to regain the rights to their music (and that of King Crimson). And yet, few bandleaders (a term he steadfastly strove to avoid for so many years, until the current lineup where he has finally accepted the role) possess as egalitarian a philosophy as Fripp.

Smith, in fact, documents the formation of the current lineup in great detail, including challenges dealing with past member, guitarist/vocalist Adrian Belew, when Fripp decided that he would not be right for the current lineup (and despite Belew initially being busy and giving Fripp the go-ahead to move forward without him). The animosity that, sadly (and attributable, initially, to Belew), went public was thankfully resolved in a more positive fashion. Still, it was very telling that Belew, unlike Fripp (who views every member of the band as an equal), suggested that he and Fripp, as "primary" songwriters, should be treated one way (essentially as proper band members), while the others be relegated to "sideman" status and thus, amongst other things, be paid as such (meaning: less).

Belew also initially insisted, despite this never being an issue with earlier band members when subsequent Crimson incarnations performed music which they had composed/co-composed, that the current lineup could not perform any of the songs which he believed were attributable to himself as the primary writer (even though this was often far from the truth). Again, that this was resolved and the current lineup has added songs like "Indiscipline," from 1981's Discipline (reissued Panegyric, 2011), and "Neurotica," from the 1982 follow-up Beat (reissued Panegyric, 2016), amongst others, to its set lists is, indeed, a very good thing.

Still, Smith's documenting these events only go to show that, while Belew is now considered Crimson's "ninth member," it's unlikely (though nothing is ever a certainty) that he'll ever appear onstage with the current band. A natural-born front man if ever there was one, as a player whose natural charisma renders him hard not to watch when he's on a stage, Belew is simply antithetical to the current Crimson's equality-driven philosophy of no front man, where everyone shines and nobody shines. Even guitarist/vocalist Jakko M. Jakszyk is located in the back line, sandwiched between Fripp and bassist/stick player Tony Levin, where he draws the same attention, visually, as the rest of his band mates, sometimes moving to the fore, but just as often visually a part of the greater whole.

But, as much as it is inevitable that In the Court of King Crimson: An Observation Over 50 Years is filled with even more revelatory prose about Fripp than the original, it, too, is egalitarian in its focus on each and every member of Crimson, past and present, not to mention names that have emerged as significant participants in the Crimson team, including producer/manager David Singleton, archivist Alex "Stormy" Mundy, Panegyric's Declan Colgan, and others.

In the Court of King Crimson: An Observation Over 50 Years is the King Crimson biography and history that a group celebrating its golden anniversary deserves. The kind of intimate details that Smith reveals, both in the main body of the work as well as the three sections that follow, are never included at the expense of the overall narrative, and never become so dense as to detract from the natural flow of a book that is, simply put, the work of an author who has, like his subject, evolved considerably since that first edition nearly two decades ago.

It's unlikely that there's any salient information from the original In the Court of King Crimson that can't be found in In the Court of King Crimson: An Observation Over 50 Years, albeit in, perhaps, significantly revised form, and possibly placed elsewhere in the narrative. What this means is that Smith's new edition is not so much an augmented book that renders the original superfluous; it's more a brand new book that uses the first edition as its starting point. Which also means that those who own the original In the Court of King Crimson may we'll find themselves keeping it, alongside In the Court of King Crimson: An Observation Over 50 Years: two vastly different books on the same subject by the same author, but one told with the dual benefits of far greater exposure and being an even better writer.

For anyone interested in King Crimson—whether new to the group (to which its growing attendance numbers would attest) or a hardcore, decades-old fan—In the Court of King Crimson: An Observation Over 50 Years is the book that now tells the whole story (and more). Updated to the present in a manner that, again like Smith's subject, is both complex and detailed while, at the same time, thoroughly engaging and, more, entertaining, it's the current last word on King Crimson.

Though, with no end to the current King Crimson in sight, who knows if yet another edition will be required at some point in the future?

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