Why King Crimson Imploded on ‘Red’
At the time, King Crimson's Red was decidedly disappointing, an album without a band that spent just a single week on the British chart, stopping at No. 45.
Every previous Crimson offering had gotten into the Top 30. This one, conversely, appeared on store shelves weeks after Robert Fripp unceremoniously announced their demise.
In truth, King Crimson were breaking up even as they convened in July 1974 for the album's sessions. David Cross left at the end of the group's summer tour, leaving a pared-down principal trio of Fripp, John Wetton and Bill Bruford to go forward with a few assists from ex-bandmates Mel Collins and Ian McDonald. Red came out on Oct. 6, 1974, heralded by Fripp's rather depressing comment that Crimson were "over for ever and ever" in the New Music Express.
"It was a quite superb band," Fripp surmised in a separate interview with Melody Maker that published one day before Red arrived, "but, nevertheless, what we were doing wasn't really for me."
Fripp seemed to be simply burned out, half a decade into leading the band. "To give you an idea of the work we've done this year: From January to February we made an album, then went to Europe for a tour, then immediately off to America, back to Britain for rehearsals and straight back to America for another tour," Fripp told Melody Marker. "After that, I had one full day off in the country before we started recording Red. With that kind of life, there's a lot of things I'd like to do, but can't."
With Fripp’s announcement of a split, Crimson would lay dormant until the beginning of a new decade – and this aggressively complex project might have been, it seemed, best left forgotten. Except the critical estimation of Red has continued to rise over the past four decades.
Kurt Cobain, for instance, would count Red as a landmark in his brief, but influential career. The album landed on many best-of lists over the years. And McDonald, who'd earlier worked on King Crimson's genre-defining 1969 prog classic Court of the Crimson King, counts this album among the group's most important. "I think Red is the best of the next wave of Crimson," he said in Will Romano's Mountains Come Out of the Sky. "Robert defined the band and found his voice, as far as I'm concerned, guitar-wise."
So why was Fripp himself so unhappy? "I decided it was time to stop," he said in a January 1979 interview with Best. "I was becoming more and more frustrated. Crimson had stopped evolving both in a commercial and musical sense. This reflected a lack of strength in the music. If our music had been incredibly good, we would undoubtedly have had a huge success. Such was not the case."
There was no denying, of course, that the Wetton-era Crimson, as they moved from 1973’s Larks’ Tongue in Aspic to 1974’s Starless and Bible Black and then Red, had lost sales momentum – in particular in the U.S., where those albums slid further and further down the the Billboard chart. USA, a live document, arrived in 1975 but by then Wetton was already headed toward a stint with a new band, UK.
He remained a proselytizer for his final studio effort with King Crimson, charts be damned. "At the time we were recording, Robert Fripp said he wanted to take a backseat, because we wasn't sure where this was going," Wetton said in Mountains Come Out of the Sky. "Bill Bruford and myself knew exactly where it was going. We took the front seat on it, and pushed for that very up-front ... in-your-face guitar [sound]. Yeah, definitely. We did that. You can hear it from the first track. This band is not fucking about."
Listen to King Crimson Perform 'Red'
As such, an understandable sense of missed opportunity will always surround Red. "I think John Wetton felt the group was poised for – I have to use the words 'big time,'" McDonald said in Romano's book. "He felt the group was, for the first time, on the verge of being widely known." But the iconoclastic Fripp, in that talk with Best, admitted that he'd wasn't envisioning any such thing. "I never let King Crimson fall into the success trap," he said. "Several times, we went very close to having a gigantic commercial success. I have always instinctively tried to avoid this success."
Red would have to gain its modicum of fame through shared listening sessions, anniversary re-evaluations and the odd retrospective radio program. And in time, it did, based solely on some of the toughest, yet most intelligently layered music King Crimson had constructed up to that point.
After the thrillingly aggressive title track – something as grandiose as it is brilliantly grating – finished unleashing its torrent of time-signature changes, Red moved into the acoustic-tinged "Fallen Angel." Then there's the heavier-still "One More Red Nightmare," one of the crunchiest moments in Crimson history. "Providence," a live, utterly on-the-edge improvisation, set the stage for the 12-minute album-closing exploration "Starless" – this seminal effort for Wetton as a composer, and a second standout moment for McDonald, after "One More Red Nightmare." "Starless," which was actually a holdover from Bible Black, had been radically reworked by the time it appeared on Red.
"Starless" also featured a memorable personnel twist, when Bruford came up with its demonic bass riff. "It was balls-to-the wall progressive rock," Wetton concluded in Mountains Come Out of the Sky. "It was shit-hard rock 'n' roll. It was heavy metal, really."
A sign of Wetton's enduring passion for the disc: "Starless" long remained a key element of his solo live shows, though he typically played the shorter, original version. Wetton even used a discarded portion of the song for a subsequent UK track called "Caesar’s Palace Blues." But he never returned to Crimson, later co-founding Asia as Fripp belatedly reconstructed the old band with an '80s-era lineup that included Bruford, along with Adrian Belew and Tony Levin.
The time away, it seemed at first, had done Fripp a world of good. "It is hard to isolate yourself when you are part of the structure of the rock 'n' roll industry," he told Best. "There is always a reinforcement of your own ego, this vampiric relation between the audience and the artist and the personal disillusions, not to mention media, record companies, management and so on. My experience put me out of phase. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to isolate myself and start a new life."
In reality, the cycle of rebirth and demise established with Red would continue, as the restless Fripp sought to keep King Crimson from ossifying into any kind of comfort zone. The early-'80s quartet recorded only three albums before likewise disbanding.
"King Crimson is, as always, more a way of doing things," Fripp later said. "When there is nothing to be done, nothing is done: Crimson disappears. When there is music to be played, Crimson reappears. If all of life were this simple."