They have typically been categorised as a foundational progressive rock group, although they incorporate diverse influences ranging from jazz, classical and experimental music to psychedelic, New Wave, hard rock, gamelan and folk music. King Crimson have garnered little radio or music video airplay, but gained a large cult following. Their debut album, In the Court of the Crimson King, is widely regarded as a landmark in progressive rock. Their later excursions into even more unconventional territory have been influential on many contemporary musical artists.
Throughout the early-1970s, King Crimson's membership fluctuated as the band explored elements of jazz and funk. Today, its early music seems to owe a lot to the compositional frameworks of jazz innovators, like Charles Mingus. As the band developed an improvisational sound influenced by hard rock, the band's personnel became more stable in the mid-1970s, before breaking up in 1974. The band re-formed in 1981 for three years, influenced by New Wave and gamelan music, before breaking up again for around a decade. Following their 1994 reunion, King Crimson blended aspects of their 1980s and 1970s sound with influences from more recent musical genres, a synthesis which has continued into the 21st century.
King Crimson's membership has fluctuated considerably throughout their existence, with eighteen musicians and two lyricists passing through the ranks as full band members. Fripp, the only constant member of King Crimson, has arranged several distinct lineups, but has stated that he does not necessarily consider himself the band's leader. He describes King Crimson as "a way of doing things", and notes that he never originally intended to be seen as the head of the group.
The initial band was changing, however, as their debut record had not been particularly successful, even being eschewed by Keith Moon of The Who in a magazine review. Fripp had seen the band 1-2-3 (later known as Clouds) at the Marquee, which inspired some of Crimson's penchant for classical melodies and jazz-like improvisation. The first musician to be added to their new line-up was the multi-instrumentalist Ian McDonald on keyboards, reeds and woodwinds. McDonald had been writing songs with lyricist Peter Sinfield who also joined the new group which briefly included Fairport Convention singer Judy Dyble. McDonald had said to Peter in 1968 of his band Creation: "Peter, I have to tell you that your band is hopeless, but you write some great words. Would you like to get together on a couple of songs?" One of the first songs McDonald and Sinfield wrote together was "In the Court of the Crimson King". Fripp's childhood friend, singer-guitarist Greg Lake, was recruited by the others, and replaced Peter Giles on bass, also singing for the band. Thus, the first incarnation of the band was "conceived" on 30 November 1968 and first rehearsed on 13 January 1969. Shortly afterward they purchased a mellotron and began using it to create an original orchestral rock sound. The name King Crimson was coined by lyricist Peter Sinfield as a synonym for Beelzebub, prince of demons. According to Fripp, Beelzebub would be an anglicised form of the Arabic phrase "B'il Sabab", meaning "the man with an aim".
King Crimson made their live debut on 9 April 1969, and made a breakthrough by playing the free concert in Hyde Park, London, staged by The Rolling Stones in July 1969 before 650,000 people. The first King Crimson album, In the Court of the Crimson King was released in October on EG Records, described by Fripp as "an instant smash" and "New York's acid album of 1970", despite the fact that Fripp and Giles claim that the band never used psychedelic drugs. The album received public compliments from Pete Townshend, The Who guitarist, calling the album "an uncanny masterpiece." The sound of the album has been described as setting the "aural antecedent" for alternative rock and grunge, whilst the softer tracks are described as having an "ethereal" and "almost sacred" feel. Music reviewer Annie Gaffney wrote that they were credited with starting the entire progressive rock movement that was popular in the early 1970s.
After playing shows in England, the band embarked on a tour of the United States, performing alongside many contemporary popular musicians and musical groups, and "astounding audiences and critics" with their original sound. Personal tensions within the band eventually reached a limit, however, and the original line-up played their last show together on 16 December 1969. Ian McDonald and Michael Giles left King Crimson to pursue solo work, recording the McDonald and Giles studio album in 1970.
Drummer Ian Wallace and vocalist Boz Burrell were selected for the new band, among others who were unsuccessful, including Bryan Ferry and Rick Kemp. Fripp decided to teach Burrell, who was only a singer and did not play an instrument, to play bass. Bassist-singer John Wetton (ex Mogul Thrash) was invited to join the group in mid-1971 but he declined, accepting a place in Family instead, although he kept in touch with Fripp.
King Crimson undertook their first tour since 1969 in early 1971 with the new line-up, and that year the band released a new album, Islands, which is noted for its heavy Mellotron sound. At the end of that year, King Crimson parted ways with long-time member and lyricist Peter Sinfield, who then reunited with Greg Lake in becoming the primary lyricist for Emerson, Lake & Palmer. The remaining members undertook a tour of the United States the following year, with the intention of disbanding afterwards. Recordings from this tour were later released as the Earthbound live album, noted and criticised for its bootleg-level sound quality and a sound close in style to funk, with scat singing on the improvised pieces. Shortly after the Earthbound tour, Collins, Wallace and Burrell left King Crimson to form a band called Snape, with British blues guitarist Alexis Korner. Burrell would later become the bassist of Bad Company.
Once again, Fripp began the task of looking for new members. These included improvising percussionist Jamie Muir; vocalist and bassist John Wetton, formerly of the band Family and a college acquaintance of Fripp; violin, viola and keyboard player David Cross; and drummer Bill Bruford, who had chosen to leave the commercially successful Yes at the peak of their early career in favour of the comparatively unstable and unpredictable King Crimson. With Sinfield gone, the band recruited a new lyricist, Wetton's friend Richard Palmer-James.
Rehearsals and touring began in late 1972 and the album Larks' Tongues in Aspic was released early the next year. The album was noted for its revolutionary sound (exemplified by such pieces as the title track in its two parts), which was a significant change from what King Crimson had done before, and had influences from the heavy metal sound that was in its infancy. Muir left the group in early 1973 following an on-stage injury. During the lengthy tour that followed, the remaining members began assembling material for their next album, Starless and Bible Black, released in January 1974, earning them a positive Rolling Stone review. Most of the album was recorded from live performances, although in many respects it was treated as just another studio album with the live factor dismissed.
During the band's 1974 tour of Europe and America, David Cross left the group after a performance in Central Park in New York, and left the remaining trio to record a new album, Red. The record included guest appearances by musicians from previous albums: Robin Miller on oboe; Marc Charig on cornet; former King Crimson member Mel Collins on soprano saxophone; David Cross on the live track "Providence"; and Ian McDonald, from the original incarnation of the band, made a guest appearance on alto saxophone. Red has been described as "an impressive achievement" for a group about to disband, with "intensely dynamic" musical chemistry between the band members that resulted in a record "aggressive and loud enough to strip the wallpaper off your living room wall". McDonald had plans to rejoin as a full-time member of King Crimson while Fripp, increasingly disillusioned with the music business, was turning his attention to the writings of the mystic George Gurdjieff, and did not want to tour as he felt that the "world was coming to an end". The Red line-up never toured, and two months before the album's release Fripp announced that King Crimson had "ceased to exist" and was "completely over for ever and ever", and the group disbanded on 25 September 1974. A posthumous live album, USA, documenting this version of King Crimson's final tour of the United States, was released in 1975 to critical acclaim, reviewers calling it "a must" for fans of the band and "insanity you're better off having". Technical issues with some of the original tapes rendered some of David Cross' violin parts inaudible when mixed in 1974, so Eddie Jobson was brought in to provide studio overdubs of violin and keyboards. Further edits were also necessary to allow for the time limitations of a single vinyl album.
By October 1981, the band had begun using the name King Crimson. The group released a trilogy of albums: Discipline in 1981, Beat in 1982, and Three of a Perfect Pair in 1984. Beat marked the first King Crimson album to have been recorded with the same band lineup as the album preceding it, was the first King Crimson album not to have been produced by a member of the group, and was named for the beat generation and its writings. This theme was reflected in the music with song titles such as "Neal and Jack and Me" and "The Howler", with Belew even being asked by Fripp to read Keroauc's novel On the Road.
This version of King Crimson bore some resemblance to New Wave music, which can be attributed in part to the work of both Belew and Fripp with Talking Heads and David Bowie, Levin's work with Peter Gabriel, and Fripp's solo album Exposure and side project League of Gentlemen. With this new band, described by J. D. Considine in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide as having a "jaw-dropping technique" of "knottily rhythmic, harmonically demanding workouts", Fripp intended to create the sound of a "rock gamelan", with an interlocking rhythmic quality to the paired guitars that he found similar to Indonesian gamelan ensembles. After Three of a Perfect Pair, King Crimson disbanded for around a decade, during which time Fripp formed the record label Discipline Global Mobile for King Crimson and related projects, besides starting the Guitar Craft music school in 1985.
In the late 1990s, Discipline Global Mobile began to feature not only the works of King Crimson, but also of side projects. ProjeKcts One, Two, Three, and Four, were each a splinter group (a "fraKctalisation", according to Fripp) of King Crimson. They released various recordings, demonstrating the improvisational musical high wire act that the constituent musicians are able to produce. These recordings, similar to the Thrakattak album, were described by music critic Considine as "frequently astonishing" but lacking in melody, and thus difficult for the casual listener. The DGM record company also founded the King Crimson Collector's Club in 1998, a service that regularly releases live recordings from concerts throughout the band's career, which are now available for download online.
By the time the ProjeKcts were complete, Bruford and Levin had ceased to be involved with King Crimson, leaving to work with Earthworks and Peter Gabriel/Seal respectively. Belew, Fripp, Gunn, and Mastelotto remained, releasing the studio album The ConstruKction of Light (2000), accompanied by the album Heaven and Earth released under the name ProjeKct X in the same year. The ConstruKction of Light was criticized for lacking new ideas, as was Heaven and Earth. The band toured around this time, and played shows opening for the band Tool in 2001, during which their lead singer Maynard James Keenan humorously commented: "For me, being on stage with King Crimson is like Lenny Kravitz playing with Led Zeppelin, or Britney Spears onstage with Debbie Gibson."
The band continued their activity throughout the decade. In 2002 the EP Happy with What You Have to Be Happy With was released, and in 2003 the studio album The Power to Believe came out with the band touring in support of it. In late November 2003, Trey Gunn announced his departure from the band. Levin would become the active bassist of King Crimson again, with the subsequent line-up scheduled for rehearsals in 2008 and consisting of Fripp, Belew, Mastelotto, Levin plus a second drummer, Gavin Harrison of Porcupine Tree, who joined King Crimson in November 2007.. The new ProjeKct Six, consisting only of Fripp and Belew, toured in 2006 playing shows in the United States and Japan. However, one of these shows was postponed due to the sudden death of Adrian Belew's long-time friend and engineer, Ken Latchney. ProjeKct Six was eventually launched as a live performing unit, touring the U.S. in the fall of 2006, opening for Porcupine Tree. King Crimson began rehearsals in March 2008.
In August 2008 the band set out on a brief four-city tour in preparation for the group's 40th Anniversary in 2009. A short time thereafter, on August 20th, 2008, DGMLive issued a download-only release of the August 7th, 2008 concert in Chicago. The show reveals a drum-centric direction but the setlist, consistent with the rest of the tour, contains no new material, nor any extended improvisation. However, many of the pieces from the back catalogue receive striking new arrangements, most notably the renditions of Neurotica, Sleepless, and Level Five, all of which are given percussion-heavy overhauls, presumably to highlight the return to the dual-drummer format with Pat Mastelotto and newcomer Gavin Harrison.
In August 2008, a line-up called Crimson Project with Adrian Belew, Tony Levin, Pat Mastelotto, Eddie Jobson and Eric Slick (from the Adrian Belew Power Trio) played a short set at a Russian festival.
A second recurring theme is an instrumental piece, often embedded as a break in a song, in which the band plays a passage of considerable rhythmic and polyrhythmic complexity. One of King Crimson's best-known songs, 21st Century Schizoid Man, is an early example. The series of pieces collectively titled Larks' Tongues in Aspic, as well as pieces of similar intent, such as "Thrak" and "Level Five", go deeper into polyrhythmic complexity, delving into rhythms that wander into and out of general synchronisation with each other, yet through polyrhythmic synchronisation all 'finish' together. These polyrhythms are abundant in the band's 1980s work, which contained gamelan-like rhythmic layers and continual staccato patterns overlaying each other.
Another theme is the composition of difficult passages for individual instruments, especially Fripp's guitar, notably during "Fracture" on Starless and Bible Black. Other themes includes pieces with a loud, aggressive sound not unlike heavy metal music, and the juxtaposition of ornate tunes and ballads with unusual, often dissonant noises.
What differentiates King Crimson's approach from most other jazz and rock groups is that Crimson's improvisation avoids the notion of one soloist at a time taking centre stage while the rest of the band lays back and plays along with established rhythm and chord changes. Rather, King Crimson improvisation is a group affair, a kind of organic music-making process in which each member of the band is able to make creative decisions and contributions as the music is being played. Individual soloing is largely eschewed; each musician is to listen to each other and to the group sound, to be able to react creatively within the group dynamic. David Cross described the process in this manner: "We're so different from each other that one night someone in the band will play something that the rest of us have never heard before and you just have to listen for a second. Then you react to his statement, usually in a different way than they would expect. It's the improvisation that makes the group amazing for me. You know, taking chances. There is no format really in which we fall into. We discover things while improvising and if they're really basically good ideas we try and work them in as new numbers, all the while keeping the improvisation thing alive and continually expanding." With this approach, Fripp stresses the "magic" metaphor; to him, when group improvisation of this sort really clicks, it is white magic.
Unlike most rock improvisation or jamming, these sessions are rarely jazz or blues-based. They vary so much in sound that King Crimson has been able to release several albums consisting entirely of improvised music, such as the Thrakattak album. Occasionally, particular improvised pieces will be performed in different forms at different shows, becoming more and more refined and eventually appearing on official studio releases (the most recent example being "Power to Believe III", which originally existed as the stage improvisation "Deception of the Thrush", a piece played onstage for a long time before appearing on record).