Farewell to a Crimson King

Remembering multi-instrumentalist and prog protagonist Ian McDonald

RIP Ian McDonald (Image: DGM)

Ian McDonald’s lengthy tenure as a mainstay of the English musical hierarchy found him excelling in both variety and versatility.

As a founding member of King Crimson, a pioneering outfit as far as far as Britain’s progressive precepts are concerned, he added to the band’s tones and textures with a multi-instrumental arsenal that included flute, saxophone and occasional keyboards. He stayed with the band for only a single album, their landmark In The Court of the Crimson King, but his influence can be heard throughout out. So too, the various live compilations and reissues that have been shared since affirm his instrumental agility.


AUDIO: King Crimson “In The Court Of The Crimson King”

Despite those accomplishments, McDonald, who died at the age of 75 on Wednesday, February 9th after a bout with cancer, achieved far more notoriety when he co-founded the mainstream outfit Foreigner, with whom he scored a series of successful radio-ready hit, among them “Feels Like the First Time,” “Cold As Ice,” “Head Games,” and “Hot Blooded.” He also found himself perched at the top of the charts courtesy of the recurring horn riff he contributed to the T Rex single, “Bang a Gong.”


VIDEO: Ian McDonald talks Foreigner 

Nevertheless, McDonald’s reputation reaches well beyond his commercial success. He was instrumental in helping to lay the template for King Crimson courtesy of his contributions to the band’s early incarnation Giles, Giles and Fripp and their seminal album The Cheerful Insanity of Giles, Giles and Fripp. Nevertheless, it was that seamless, sensual sound shared on  that initial Crimson album — particularly the flute embellishment given to the ballads “I Talk to the Wind,” “Epitaph” and Moonchild,” and his songwriting contributions to the album overall, which firmly established an epitaph of his own.

McDonald would continue to mine that progressive posture on his own, most notably with the Crimson spin-off McDonald and Giles, recorded with Crimson drummer Michael Giles, a somewhat obscure solo album Driver’s Eyes, and various recordings with Steve Hackett and the late John Wetton.  So too, despite the widespread recognition he attained through Foreigner, his affection for prog was obvious. He connected with a number of other Crimson alum — Mike and Peter Giles, Mel Collins and Jakko Jaksyk — with the cleverly titled Crimson tribute outfit 21st Century Schizoid Band. He also reunited with Crimson founder Robert Fripp when the two contributed to the late Judy Dyble’s album Talking With Strangers.


AUDIO: Giles, Giles and Fripp The Brondesbury Tapes (1968)

Later, he made another bid for commercial accreditation when he formed the one-off band Honey West, a somewhat unlikely amalgam that included guitarist, lead vocalist and acting enthusiasts Ted Zurkowski, ex-Wings drummer Steve Holley and McDonald’s son, bassist Maxwell McDonald. The band released one album, Bad Old World before disbanding. Nevertheless, McDonald’s interest in other art forms continued via his efforts with Zurkowski and his wife Lynnea Benson, directors of New York City’s Frog and Peach Theatre Company, producers of various off-Broadway productions and readings of Shakespearean plays. He composed and performed guitar and piano music to accompany some of their select productions, including Julius Caesar, Two Gentlemen of Verona, Hamlet, A Midsummer Nights Dream, King Lear, The Taming of the Shrew and Measure for Measure

Clearly, McDonald’s legacy will forever linger in the annals of prog and its influence on rock’s ongoing evolution. To borrow the title of that early Crimson standby, he was the essence of a 21st century man indeed.  


AUDIO: Ian McDonald “Demimonde”

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Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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