As the prog rock originators return to Liverpool this weekend, Kevin Ponsonby charts the rise of King Crimson and the birth of progressive rock. 

Progressive rock is a little off kilter in the music industry.

It isn’t not danceable, and receives relatively little popular radio airplay. In fact, there is no reason to suspect that many people would even go out and buy this kind of music, at least when compared to a big selling singles band. Listen to those unusual time signatures, tempo changes and arrangements, long instrumental breaks and bizarre instrumentation.

Look at Yes’ Tales From Topographic Oceans album, often seen as the height of prog’s pomposity. Four tracks on a double album at 20 minutes each?! Who can be bothered?

Once punk exploded, the prog Gods were routinely bashed in the music press. But the creativity of prog in undeniable, and neither is the musicianship. This is a fair, objective statement, whether you like the music or not.

And if there is one man who is the catalyst in the true birth prog, it is Robert Fripp.

Fripp formed King Crimson from the embers of Giles, Giles and Fripp in 1968, a band he was in with Michael and Peter Giles.

The beginnings of prog were already scattered around. The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper had been released in 1966 and 1967 respectfully, so the art rock movement was in full swing. Around swinging London, psychedelic bands such as Keith Emerson’s The Nice were laying the ground work for what would become prog rock.

In the middle of this came King Crimson, and their debut album In The Court Of The Crimson King. For the record, Fripp was joined by Michael Giles from his former band, bassist and vocalist Greg Lake (later Keith Emerson’s bandmate in Emerson, Lake and Palmer, in some ways the definitive prog rock combo), and Ian McDonald, who played a plethora of keyed and woodwind instruments.

Not only that, but Fripp reached out to his friend Pete Sinfield as non-performing member of the band, contributing lyrics and production. Sinfield was central to realising the King Crimson vision. He later applied this to prog generally, composing lyrics for ELP and Italy’s PFM, as well as art rock bands like Roxy Music. He later found success in pop, penning The Land of Make Believe by Bucks Fizz and won an Ivor Novello award for Celine Dion’s Think Twice.

In the Court of the Crimson King was both critically successful, and defied the odds to sell a fair few copies, reaching number five in the charts.

Songs like 21st Century Schizoid Man had an unusual, futuristic distorted production on the vocals which almost sounded robotic. Whilst Lake sang, Fripp was savagely attacking the vocals with his riffs. This led into I Talk to the Wind, which was a more typical type of peaceful prog song, with a great vocal line and keyboards and mellotron abound.

Fripp was always the star of Crimson. His guitar style was unique. His influences were far more in an avant garde/jazz area that most rock guitarists, and naturally this is how he played. His chord structures in particular evoked jazz long before jazz rock developed, and even predating Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew.

Crimson King not only put the band on the map, it exploded the genre. From Yes, to Gentle Giant, to the post-Syd Barrett Pink Floyd, prog was tearing up the album charts. Nothing made you cooler than breezing into the 6th form common room with a copy of Yes’ Close To The Edge under your arm.

Yes and King Crimson had one other major thing in common; line-up changes. Neither ever held on to a stable line-up for very long. In fact, original Yes drummer Bill Bruford was poached by Fripp just as Yes were about to become a major commercial success after their masterpiece Close To The Edge – their third drummer after GilesLake left to form ELP, eventually to be replaced by John Wetton on bass and vocals, this line-up signalling a true rebirth for the band.

Revitalised, they released a string of albums that approached the quality of In The Court of the Crimson King, culminating in 1974’s Red – their seventh album in five years. Following this, Fripp unexpectedly disbanded King Crimson.

Fripp is a unique guitarist and can’t be imitated. He doesn’t play blues, or hard rock, or 12 bar boogie.  He doesn’t play catchy, commercial hooks that can be so successful for singles to be played on the radio. Despite this, or possibly because of it, he is highly rated by his peers.

During the hiatus, he popped up here and there, most notably on David Bowie’s “Heroes” and Scary Monsters albums. He also worked with Peter Gabriel, Brian Eno, Talking Heads, Blondie, and developed his ‘Frippertronics’, an ambient style of playing which utilises a tape delay system. On its own, it is an acquired taste – possibly even more than prog. But when absorbed into something more, its effect can be staggering, and he certainly incorporated it into reincarnated King Crimson in 1981.

Perhaps Fripp knew something was about to change when he disbanded Crimson. It was only two years later that punk exploded, making life difficult for the prog giants for a while. The often repeated myth is that punk killed prog, but this isn’t strictly true. Some the biggest prog bands of the 70s did their best business after punk exploded; Genesis, Yes and Floyd all released some of their biggest albums when the Sex Pistols were long gone.

It was in the early days of new wave when Crimson returned, but that wasn’t always the plan. The initial plan was for Fripp to create a top tier supergroup. But somewhere along the way, it became King Crimson again.

The resulting album, Discipline, was a change of direction from the band’s original incarnation, both musically and in image – looking like hip new kids on the block, and even filling the album with hooks.

Bill Bruford returned on drums, with prog stalwart Tony Levin on bass and Adrian Belew joining on guitar.

The acquisition of Belew gave the music a new freshness, accessible and even radio friendly at times, with songs like the avant-garde Indisclipine, the funky Thela Hun Ginjeet, the Frippotronic driven Frame by Frame and the beautiful, dreamy Matte Kudasai.

The three albums they released in this period – Beat and Three Of A Perfect Pair alongside Discipline – redefined what King Crimson were, mixing jazz, rock, the avant garde and out and out  pop. They still stand up. More contemporary and radio friendly songs like Neal and Jack and Me, Heartbeat, and the Bob Clearmountain mix of Sleepless (best version).  Fripp showed here he could be adaptable in both musical content and in the way he played, without much compromise, which is why he was in demand as a session player.

What’s more, it did to Crimson’s audience what Crimson had done to general audiences a decade previously – it challenged them.

Just as previously, Fripp dissolved this new version of King Crimson in 1984. They would reappear intermittently, but few of the albums made anything approaching an impression, either critically or with fans.

But nothing can take away from King Crimson’s importance. Fripp’s worth as a player and composer is there to be seen and heard.  He is influential, experimental, consistently challenging, and a superior guitar player than many of his peers.

There aren’t many like Robert Fripp, and he would be unlikely to reform Crimson without ensuring his artistic integrity.

In a lot of ways King Crimson define prog – always pushing forward, never looking back, and always searching for a higher musical plane.

King Crimson play Liverpool’s Empire Theatre on Saturday 10th November 2018.