Red State: Celebrating 50 Years of King Crimson

RNR Globe exclusive with bassist Tony Levin on his role in some of the band’s best lineups, including thus latest incarnation currently on tour

King Crimson 2019

King Crimson is presently amidst a 50th anniversary tour, one that stopped in Boston last month at the Boch Wang Center. It was, frankly, a knockout, a long, stimulating evening of cerebral head-banging. It’s the pinnacle of prog-rock, 2019.

This Crimson is that triple-drummer lineup they’ve been using for a while now: Gavin Harrison, Pat Mastelotto and Jeremy Stacey all up front, flanked to the rear by saxophonist-flutist Mel Collins, bassist / Chapman Stick maestro Tony Levin, singer-guitarist-etc. Jakko Jakszyk, keyboardist-percussionist Bill Rieflin and that small, formal, quiet man up top stage left, sitting down while playing guitar and keyboards, Robert Fripp.

There have been numerous Crimson lineups since its 1968 inception, 14 former players if my count is correct. It’s always Fripp’s baby, however, whether he decides to nurture it or, at times, suspend its animation. Fripp, though, is not the star of the show. There are no stars of the show. This is all about music – complicated, mind-bending music – and the seven musicians playing that music. There’s no video accompaniment and, in fact, not a word spoken from the stage during the three-hour, two-set concert.


VIDEO: King Crimson perform “Epitaph”

I spoke with Levin a week or so before the gig. I’m a New England Patriots fan – go ahead, you can hate me if you wish – and we have something called The Patriot Way. It’s a certain discipline, a way of looking at the game and its preparation. Crimson bassist Tony Levin was raised in Brookline (same town in which I live), just outside Boston, so he’s a Pats fan, too, and he’s familiar with what coach Bill Belichick does.  I wondered, when we talked on the phone, if perhaps there was a King Crimson Way.

“Yes, indeed, there is a Crimson way,” he says. “Let me think about this: I don’t think there’s much of a parallel between the Belichick-ian way and the Fripp way because Belichick is very exact and vocal about saying the way it is and Robert, in his unspoken way, does has [another] Crimson way of doing things. We don’t have a big light show, a big production show. The idea is, as in a classical concert, to watch the musicians and you’ll see a lot of personality from different guys. You’ll get to know them from watching them and there’s plenty of room for them to be themselves. 

“It’s not like everybody is acting the same or is the same kind of person or musician,” explains Levin. “So there is room for that. We rehearse a lot, including the day of the show and probably half the guys are rehearsing in their rooms. We’ll get to the venue at 1 and rehearse at 2 or 3. That’s a little unusual in a band of this maturity and guys that are technically able to play the parts. We find we need to be at our best to play the show we want to play it.”

When I was a teenager, I bought In the Court of the Crimson King, and, though it took some time and work, I loved it. And, curiously, perhaps, one of the songs that drew me in most was the kinda silly “Cat Food.” See, I had a cat and it always had to be fed; thus, we always had to shop for more cat food. In the choppy song, it’s punctuated by frequent cries of “Cat food! Cat food! Again!” It was funny, but true. Not the most complicated of Crimson pieces but … 

“It is interesting you could make the point that for all the complexity of classical music and some rock and King Crimson, for sure, sometimes it’s a musical phrase or a vocal phrase captures you,” says Levin. “Something that brings you in and the rest becomes simpler and that makes you understand the rest and you start to listen. It’s as my wife used to say: ‘This is not a one-listen record’ and this is not a one-listen band. Our fans are kind enough to really involve themselves in it the way you need to, and, as with classical music and maybe they get a reward that’s a little bigger than that that is more accessible.”

Let’s backtrack for a moment… When Fripp exited the semi-cozy confines of King Crimson to embark upon his solo career with 1979’s Exposure, he spoke about being “a small, mobile, intelligent unit” in a world populated by rock dinosaurs. I think he mostly meant record companies as the dinos, but he may have also been referring to the Crimson he’d created and re-created over the decade.

AUDIO: Robert Fripp Exposure (full album)

I met with him in an upscale Boston hotel bar, had a few drinks and it went on – wonderfully- all afternoon, a big feature for a long-defunct music mag called Sweet Potato. Fripp was thoughtful, effusive and engaging, witty and detailed. Only mildly prickly. I was there, largely, not because of King Crimson – I thought that was dead and gone, old-school – but because of his work with David Bowie and Brian Eno.

He was going to be doing a Frippertronics gig – electric guitar and tape loops – at a small Boston club later that night. At one point, I told him his solo on Brian Eno’s “Baby’s on Fire,” was my favorite rock solo. He smiled and said, “That was a good one, wasn’t it?”

When I mentioned that afternoon to Levin, he laughed, and said, “That’s a rarity these days.”

Fripp did an extensive MOJO interview to relaunch the current Crimson upon the world and then pretty much rolled up the drawbridge. Fair enough.

Levin wasn’t knocking Fripp’s non-tour press position at all. He’d said his piece and he was concentrating on other things. But I was curious what Fripp’s interaction was among the band members, what kind of bandleader he currently was. Benevolent dictator would be my outsider guess.

“He’s really unique, really different than any other band leader,” Levin says. “I don’t know a whole lot of band leaders but he has a very interesting way of running the band. When you see him, even for the fans, you can tell he’s very self-disciplined. He holds himself to a high standard. For instance, he’s in his vest, suit and tie early in the morning, even on rehearsal days. Every day, not just a concert. Right now, I’m in my hotel room practicing, but he’ll be at breakfast with headphones on putting together the setlist for tonight – [they were in Montreal] – and that set list will be different from any other set list and he will have compared it with when we last played this city and compare it to the night before in case people are coming to two shows in a row.  

Levin says the current Crimson has between 50-60 song options from which to choose in concert. The set lists change every night. As to the direction of King Crimson – then or now – Levin says, “I don’t know the deep and real reasons he makes the decisions he makes. The vision of Crimson and where it’s going has changed throughout the years, but it always lies somewhere in his psyche. 

“For that reason, it keeps changing although there are some consistent things and many the fact of change has been consistent and very conscientiously done and really gives a full effort as you can to get it right. Almost everything else has changed over the years. Look at us now: We’re a giant, not mobile unit at all! Not only with three drummers but I think five of us have keyboards in addition to the regular instruments we play. We’re able to sonically cover a lot of ground, but it makes us a big beast to travel with on the road. Which is very different from when I joined him in ’81 – just four guys and we were pretty simple and mobile compared to now.

King Crimson 2019 Tour poster

“He knows that the vision for where King Crimson is going musically lies within in him and I know that and respect that but he’s very good in finding the right musicians to implement that. You find in practice, he doesn’t need to tell us the way to play the parts, he kind of indicates the way to go and he’s clear when he’s really thrilled with the part and not.”

Levin is the longest-term member of the band – he’s played off and on with them since 1981. “Uh, yeah, I guess,” says Levin. “I don’t really do that math. You would think I would play all the right notes by now but in fact I make quite a few mistakes and I’m still trying to learn the book and be a better bass player, more up to speed playing the Crimson stuff. That’s not to say I don’t get a lot of the notes right; it’s an adventure and an amazing number of years, but the fact is with this kind of music and this kind of band, it’s not something you just coast along with and take for granted. The longer I do it, it still remains a challenge. I still practice a lot and I still try and get better at doing this stuff.”

As to the Boston show, traffic congestion being what it was I missed a chunk of the first set, but walked in during the fleet-fingered, jazz-rock of “EleKtriK,” which moved into the – there’s no other word – majestic realm of “Court of the Crimson King,” replete with a splendiferous coda.

The second set started with “Drumzilla” and, speaking as one who’s taken bathroom breaks during drum solos for years, it was thrilling. (And it wasn’t a solo of course – there were three guys.) Just to watch the different rhythmic patterns, the hand-offs, the joy and camaraderie as built to shattering climaxes. 


VIDEO: King Crimson “Indiscipline” Live in Mexico City .

Confession: I’d put most prog on the shelf when punk rock hit – and have only gone back in bits and pieces. There was a Crimson show in the ‘80s that was impressive, yes, but left me cold. Great musicianship (of course), but it didn’t get inside me. All that changed last month in Boston. Whether it was the different band and approach or my own evolution (or re-acceptance of what I’d once loved but discarded) I can’t tell you. But there was nowhere else on earth I wanted to be.

Another great high with “Epitaph” (more majesty). Sang Jakszyk: “Confusion will be my epitaph/As I crawl a cracked and broken path/If we make it, we can all sit back and laugh/But I fear tomorrow I’ll be crying.” I felt transported, elevated.

And, then brought back down to earth and in the grocery store at age 14 with, yes “Cat Food.” It all ended, as it should, with “21st Century Schizoid Man,” a song much more prescient in this century than we ever dreamed it might.


AUDIO: King Crimson “Cat Food” (alt mix)

Coda: I asked when Levin – arguably the best and best-known bassist in prog – first got into King Crimson.  Was he, too marveling, over the complex time signatures and stunning power of Starless and Bible Black, Red, In the Court of the Crimson King and In the Wake of Poseidon in his Brookline bedroom? 

“That wasn’t my youth,” he says. “I didn’t know anything about the band until after I met Robert Fripp and worked with him. I met Fripp in July of ‘76 when I was luckily called to play on Peter Gabriel’s first solo album after he had left Genesis. We played on that album together and then we toured together. I did play on his Exposure album after that. Then I was called. I had heard of King Crimson and I had heard maybe one or two of the pieces in my musical passing, but I wasn’t particularly aware of King Crimson, I was called by Robert not to join that band but to think about joining [a different] band.

“I found out later it was an audition of me but I didn’t know that and I was kind of glad. I met Bill Bruford and Adrian Belew that day in 1980 and we decided to be a band and tour as the band Discipline – still not King Crimson. Robert was pretty intent on not doing any King Crimson material – maybe one piece for an encore or something. It was only after that that we became King Crimson and it was long after that that I listened to the KC repertoire. Some of it I still haven’t heard! I don’t mean to imply I’m not a fan of the old band – everything I hear I love. I just didn’t happen to be exposed to it ‘til after I was in the band.”


VIDEO: Current King Crimson perform “21st Century Schizoid Man” in 2016



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Jim Sullivan

Jim Sullivan has written for The Boston Globe, Boston Phoenix, the Boston Herald, Boston Common, the Christian Science Monitor, and Creem. Follow him on Twitter @jimsullivanink.

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