Remembering King Crimson’s In the Wake of Poseidon, 50 years later
I still remember how disorienting and enlivening the little moment was, walking at night under bouts of negligible drizzle, being floored by my first acquaintanceship with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
Kanye had clear intent from the introductory chorale, a stylistic-disconnect novelty he (and others) have since deployed to death – a marriage of so-called “high”, as in “European chauvinist”, artistic ideals, and the “low” grit and affront of a pop genre whose current commercial dominance he’d helped solidify. All of which served as a musical metaphor for his also very abundant conceptual declaration to a public he’d kept rapt following the Taylor/VMA self-exposure as a “jackass” (not my words), which was: there’s a joyous power in asshole grandiosity, in putting yourself first, as long as you cross the line with grace.
No one man should have all that power, but the album was a banger like Machiavelli could never have conceived, and by three dizzying feats in he was already musing about it and getting you to agree. And in an oblique concordance, he topped off a chorus with a wholesale dose of a group so self-protective they weren’t on Spotify a year and a half ago – “21st Century Schizoid Man”, just its titular line groaned by Greg Lake through that futurefuck filter. It’s a perfect moment, one of many on the album, but part of it is in the recognition, the secret society Ye’s shoutout implicates. Though King Crimson lorded over the short-lived “prog rock” pack, their former dominance is rarely hailed these days. Still in the concert and iconoclast-instructor circuits, leader Robert Fripp best known today for viral dances with his wife.
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Intentional pomp like prog only works if subverted or embellished as deftly as Kanye did on that album; Queen has survived its art-rock tag, despite basically being a clownish, mercenary take on Roxy Music, because of their relentless hooks and indefatigable stage presence, not the oft-referenced frills of the genre from which they emerged. Most of the premier “prog rock” looks more than silly in the rearview. Sure, bands like Pink Floyd, Rush and the unrelenting yet Tolkien-happy Led Zeppelin have survived the association by hewing to the fringe and appealing to baser (not to say dumber) tastes. Yet Yes, say, are hippie-dips far more dated-looking than the Grateful Dead; Emerson, Lake and Palmer remain verifiably unlistenable; the hits of Genesis and its defectors sound nothing like its organ-drenched original canon. Mind-blowing in their day, the prog bands’ classically inspired bombast now seems entirely déclassé.
King Crimson always came off a little different, though. Their stark, stately, largely wordless covers felt more convincingly mysterious than the Roger Dean weedscapes adorning Yes’ cardboard, or whatever a ‘tarkus’ is. Though their lyrics were as bad as the usual prog fodder – artless evocations of secondhand imagery, or painfully transparent poetry-mongering – they were usually darker, more sparsely intoned, by people whose lack of standard vocal chops suited the ominous surrealism of the music. Their guitar hero was no showboat, though he audibly could’ve outpaced them all; Fripp has been known to humbly brag that Jimi Hendrix loved them. And rather than screaming bursts of organ, the music was a tensely fluid interplay between careful virtuosos, quietly lmenacing and absurdly beautiful at insane intervals.
Though born in the year of The Joshua Tree – ergo a young adult in the age of peak rock boutiquing (’96-’04 was the golden age of the CD reissue) – I discovered In the Court of the Crimson King when I was 11. The album is known as the ur-text of the entire prog movement, preceded by Sgt. Pepper offshoots too poppy or folky to prove “prog”, and albums by Caravan, the Soft Machine and Yes that, while boasting imaginative arrangement and dexterous performance, still feel quite psychedelic. But Court’s expansive dynamics, clean, muscular production and unprecedented forms and ambitions place it among 1969’s innumerable “shock of the new” classics. Pete Townshend, the current authority on “art rock”, called it “an uncanny masterpiece”, sensing correctly that while Tommy was smarter and more felt, maybe even harder to make, these boys from nowhere had captured sounds and feelings he’d aimed for and missed.
And it’s true, in a lot of ways the record is a straight-up timeless stunner. The band was about as beloved by rock critics as their contemporaries Chicago (who also claim Hendrix loved them); the big names who dared touch them, like Lester Bangs (“King Crimson would like you to think that they’re weird, but they aren’t”) and Robert Christgau (“I used to think this was the worst band in the world just because it was the most pretentious”), didn’t come away eager to endorse what they’d endured. Still, though the band kicked off their career with full-time membership from co-producer, lighting designer and autodidact versifier Pete Sinfield, the archetypal Bad Prog Lyricist, the embarrassing muchness of his rhymes are well concealed by extremely shrewd, generously melodic art-jazz-metal. Do you recall “cat’s foot, iron claw/neurosurgeons scream for more/at paranoia’s poison door” for what it says, or how it shreds?
“21st Century Schizoid Man” was an uncommonly aggressive “art rock” track for its time, when Procol Harum and the Bee Gees were the premier baroque-pop ascendants. But the rest of The Court looked for beauty, often running into it head-on without sacrificing an innate sense of unease. There are few prog recordings as pretty as “I Talk to the Wind”, a conceit by KC’s two virtuoso-not-visionary auxiliary players: Ian McDonald, later kicked out of Foreigner, on a fleet of well-wielded woodwinds, and Michael Giles, who evinces Keith Moon and Ginger Baker levels of energy while never deigning to bash a single skin along his ceaseless octopod paths. “Schizoid” and “Wind” erect diametric poles between which the remaining three tracks work up their smoke-and-mirrors magic. The apocalyptic “Epitaph” and ersatz-medieval title track are all shimmer and grandeur, their dumb lyrics judicious or well-integrated enough not to puncture the spell cast by the music, which Fripp conducts with a hawklike airborne precision.
All of this paled against the peak they went out on – 1974’s Red, which was followed by Fripp packing it in while decreeing that all other such bands should follow and that the world had sixteen good years left (as respectable a reckless indulgence as, say, adding nine minutes of distracted pseudo-free-jazz to the middle of the wispiest song on your debut LP). By then, Fripp had been through nearly five full bands’ worth of departed companions, most of whom left on their own accord rather than as casualties of his well-reported totalitarian approach to decision making. Slimmed down to ex-Family wunderkind John Wetton, their best-ever bad-singer bassist, and Bill Bruford, poached from Yes’ narrower-minded brain trust, the aggression in the rhythms and feedback felt as real as the soulful yearning in the melodies, where both had felt merely synthetic back on In the Court. Even the lyrics were finally, actually good! Other prog bands had lost the plot; only Crimson honestly embraced the genre’s hallowed progress.
The growing pains theretoward were, like the band’s instrumental textures, reliably harsher than their peers’. Fripp has forever described the original quartet, which included Lake before Emerson had an eye on him and let Sinfield meddle indiscriminately around the edges, as a kind of cosmic occurrence, an unrepeatably perfect confluence of circumstances. That said, he has also always palpably resented Ian McDonald (who features on Red) and Michael Giles (who stuck around for Poseidon) for leaving the band to spend more time with their girlfriends after KC’s 1969 whirlwind. Even in the late ‘60s, rock-as-career was a whim of a prospect, though both had a happy time posing with those girlfriends on the cover of a sole duo album in early 1971. Though Fripp calls McDonald and Giles the “second half” of Court’s follow-up, it sounds like King Crimson would if you scraped all the devil out of the details.
Fripp, not the girlfriending type at the time (monastically devoted to his guitar, books, and the band, he neglected to tend his ‘burns in a flattering fashion until after the group broke up), decided that Crimson the idea, the aura, was far too powerful to need a mere stable lineup of musicians to keep in existence. So he and Sinfield, who for all his faults clearly compelled Fripp’s creative impulses, allowing him space as both straight man and musical director, set on a plan to further the cause. In the Court of the Crimson King, with its instant-ID cover painting by Barry Godber, could’ve been one of many artful post-Pepper one-shots, gone like Godber by its own hands within months of release. Instead, its leaders concocted a deliberate sequel, an extrapolation so rooted in its predecessor it would echo entire choice moments. In the Wake of Poseidon, out on Island seven months after Court’s release, would end up being the band’s highest-charting LP. Today it seems a mere stepping stone – but it’s better than Court in crucial ways.
In a move that looks a little dicky in retrospect, Greg Lake, Crimson’s smoothest-ever lead voice, offered to sing the entire second record in exchange for the band’s PA equipment, to which he and his two new cohorts would exorbitantly add over the years. Ranked with Genesis, ELP and Yes, however they resisted the comparison in word and gesture, King Crimson was always the John Lennon in the post-Beatle prog race, the one with little hope and no apparent intentions for commercial success. But something about the band’s conceivably “cooler” – smarter, edgier, more stylish – framework helped Lake sound so much more winning than he ever did crooning and crowing twixt Emerson and Palmer. Though he once again plays the megaphonium doomsayer on the opening “Pictures of a City”, indifferently spewing some of Sinfield’s laziest bullshit (“spice! ice! dance! chance!”), he also offers a haunting antiwar prologue and epilogue in dreamy falsetto, and mines the playful side of KC’s surrealism on the single “Cat Food”.
Though Court’s rhythms and sensibility had suggested a surer jazz sense than any horn-rock group, “Cat Food” was the first time these interests were really made explicit. The result is one of the band’s most arresting curiosities. Lake has such a good time declaiming nonsense over lurching, loping chamber rock and in between addled Cecil Taylor sprinkles (played by journeyman addition Keith Tippett), he breaks out into a perfectly electronicized wheeze-laugh, exactly the kind of sonic touch a shitty lyric requires to come off. What a number for Top of the Pops! While the first side of Poseidon is more or less a mirror image of In the Court’s first half – ominous rocker with palindromic middle section; gorgeous, lilting shift-of-pace, totemic; prophetic, totemic, symphonic thing – “Cat Food” kicks off a side B dedicated to calling to life some of King Crimson’s knottier ambitions. The rest is taken up by the three-part “Devil’s Triangle”, a jolting, captivating exercise in extreme dynamics, and in genuinely scaring the listener.
“Triangle” liberally borrowed from Holst’s The Planets suite, which KC had been playing at their earliest shows, when amalgams of rock and classical music were still novelty enough to leave so explicit. By the third album, Lizard, released after another seven months and debilitating lineup shift, Fripp had grown more comfortable writing his own thrilling, angular jazz-rock and mock-classical experiments. But on Poseidon, he’s still working out what he’s wordlessly trying to say, so the most affecting music belongs again to McDonald and Giles. Lake may have walked off with a bigger paycheck and their amplifiers, but Fripp somehow poached his two other deserters’ single loveliest melody, so much so that they reprise it themselves in a less impressive form on their own LP. “Cadence and Cascade” conjures an atmosphere comparable to the calming, transportive pools of aqueous watercolor on Poseidon’s inner gatefold, a marginally juvenile (servile ladies, et al.) sex fantasy from under a tree in a daydream. Between the sumptuous chords, rippling drums and fluttering woodwinds, you buy into the entire corny reverie.
Though the self-repetitive moments and stray bad lines can take you out of the album, and though its hooks are on the whole less memorable than its predecessors, the instrumental interplay is distinctly more advanced and adventurous. Lake’s bass shoes are filled by Peter Giles, Michael’s older brother and a former third of the pre-Crimson project Giles Giles and Fripp, whose Cheerful Insanity album, a bad swinging-London trip with no trace of KC, saw Fripp on record for his only sessions in a non-dominant role. Still, Giles knew how to work his instrument, and he moves with his immensely talented brother through wondrous plumes of lyrical rhythm, as Fripp flies up and down the neck, every constellation of notes commanding the tone of the moment. Mel Collins proves just as nimble as McDonald, prone as well to bluer harmonic shades, adorning intermittent passages. Walls of warbling mellotrons, one of the most alluring archaic sounds in late ‘60s pop, sob in urgent mourning over almost every other verse.
No less a luminary than Elton John auditioned to replace Greg Lake as Poseidon’s vocalist, with future labelmate/art-rock punk-star Bryan Ferry to follow. But Lake steps out of the way once for his official replacement on “Cadence and Cascade”. The song’s mossy vocal by congested future Crimson bassist Gordon Haskell appealingly replaces the prior singer’s inborn, if inexplicable, confidence with a gently nerdy humility. Haskell would sing most of the next record, with Jon Anderson of Yes taking over for a key passage, furthering Crimson’s sense of having no central voice to anchor their sound. This choice, of less accomplished and assertive or simply less present vocalists, helped to broaden the mystery at the center of their music. As did, again, those album covers, which were always trying to tell you more than you needed to know. Enjoy your Google wormhole over Tammo de Jongh’s 1967 painting of the twelve Jungian archetypes, and how it relates to first source, Richard Gardner’s 1969 book Purpose of Love.
The topsy-turvy sax rock of Lizard and the pseudo-symphonic meanderings of Islands complicated their initial force, evincing a band in a state of perpetual traumatic evolution, earning and bleeding members too fast for anyone to keep track, with confounding and often confounded-sounding music to match.
By late 1972, however, Fripp had stumbled on a few new epiphanies about sound and improvisation, and so he shed Sinfield, gifted Bill Bruford a Gurdjieff paperback in preparation/exchange for saying no to Yes, purloined Wetton from Family and enticed violinist David Cross and irrepressible percussionist Jamie Muir into the mix. He had refurbished his old vehicle into a state far better suited for the intensity and vision of the journey he’d had in mind since founding his court.
But the Crimson caught explosive bursts of that original power somewhere on every LP, and Poseidon features more than its share of storms.