Prog NOVEMBER 2018 - by Sid Smith


With King Crimson on their Uncertain Times tour, just how uncertain is the future for Robert Fripp's eight-piece powerhouse of prog?

All of us have moments in our lives where we think to ourselves: "How the fuck did I get here?" In the late 1980s, King Crimson's Jakko Jakszyk was living in Los Angeles, an Englishman abroad at the behest of the publishing company who had signed him up as a songwriter and thought a bit of transatlantic cross-fertilisation would be a good idea. Somewhere in the midst of his sojourn in the City of Angels, at the invitation of a pal, Jakko found himself in Westlake Studios watching Quincy Jones capture the horn parts for songs that would end up on Michael Jackson's multiplatinum-selling album Bad.

However, things took an even unlikelier turn when Jackson himself entered the room. As the singer surveyed those within, his eyes alighted on the English visitor's footwear. "I like your shoes," Jacko told Jakko, going on to inquire what kind they were. Telling the most famous entertainer on the planet that they were called winkle-pickers and then having to explain to the giggly and bemused vocalist exactly what a winkle-picker was and how it derived its name surely counts as one of the most surreal, awkward conversations Jakszyk has ever had.

A far more straightforward exchange in LA came when Gavin Harrison rang from the UK, asking if Jakszyk wanted to join a backing group for Italian vocalist Alice, who was undertaking a tour of her native country in 1989.

"Gav said I should bring my driving licence because we were travelling separately to the Italian members of the group. He also said we were all going to share the driving. So when I got to Italy I had my driving licence and, from what I remember, no other fucker had brought theirs!" Jakszyk laughs.

Having ended up doing all the driving and being the last band member into the hotel as he parked up, Jakszyk recalls that the further south the tour went, the more disdain drivers had for anything resembling the Highway Code.

"I remember saying to the tour manager, 'Fucking hell, man, what is going on?' It didn't matter what colour the lights were, people just ignored them and did what the fuck they wanted. And he said, 'The trouble with you English is you treat the traffic lights like they are the law.' I said, 'They are the fucking law!' He said, 'No not in Italy. They are merely a piece of friendly advice.'"

Jakszyk and Harrison found themselves in Italy in 2018 as part of the eight-piece King Crimson alongside Mel Collins, Tony Levin, Pat Mastelotto, Jeremy Stacey, Bill Rieflin and Robert Fripp. Admittedly, this time around Jakszyk didn't have to worry about the driving. He had other things on his mind as the band prepared to enter the stage in Pompeii.

Of course, it's not only ancient history that resonates among the stones of this particular monument. For a music fan of a certain generation, it's impossible not to associate the location with Pink Floyd's celebrated 1971 appearance there. "What we do in life echoes in eternity," as a certain Maximus Decimus Meridius once memorably put it.

"Having walked down the stone tunnel, the two-thousand-year-old stone tunnel where presumably, if you'll excuse the melodrama of the allusion, gladiators would have walked before us, the hairs on my arm were on end," says Jakszyk with a note of incredulity.

"Walking down there, bathed in this weird blue light, and from there out into the open air with a full arena and then standing under a clear, moonlit sky on stage as a member of King Crimson with Vesuvius behind me... if that doesn't count as a 'How the fuck did I get here?' moment then I don't know what does."

If Jakszyk had to pinch himself at that point, he's not the only one. Crimson fans have been doing exactly that since Robert Fripp's reimagining of the group brought the radically different three-drummer configuration to life in 2014. Prior to that, even the most ardent fan couldn't have foreseen the circumstances in which King Crimson would take to the stage again.

Off the road since 2008, Fripp had once again become mired in an industry dispute, this time with Universal Music Group, the world's largest record company. Not one to be cowed or intimidated by record company lawyers and accountants, when it came to his attention that they had infringed the band's copyright, he took them on. Though right might well have been on his side, the quasi-legal manoeuvring came with a price tag, of which a significant part was dragging his attention away from the act of making music.

In one of his increasingly rare interviews with the press in 2012, the possibility of making music again seemed very remote indeed, with Fripp concluding that his life as a professional in the industry was "an exercise in joyless futility". Yet if the history of King Crimson has taught us anything, it's that you underestimate the tenacity of the Dorset-born guitarist at your peril, as more than one label has found to its cost over the years. The other lesson Crimhistory teaches us is that even when Fripp says Crimson has "ceased to exist", as he did in 1974 following the recording of Red, he can change his mind.

For a while it seemed that the music of King Crimson might only be given voice through ad hoc gatherings of ex or current members as the band languished in different periods of hiatus. Between 2002-2005, Jakszyk fronted the 21st Century Schizoid Band, handling vocals and Fripp's guitar parts. He was joined by Crimson co-founders Ian Macdonald and Michael Giles, plus Mel Collins and Ian Wallace, who signed on with Crimson in the '70s, covering music from the 1969 debut through to 1974.

The Crimson itch was scratched once again in 2011 when Stick Men, featuring Tony Levin, Pat Mastelotto and Touch guitarist Markus Reuter joined forces with the Adrian Belew Power Trio, then consisting of bassist Julie Slick and drummer Tobias Ralph.

They became The Crimson ProjeKct, a name conferred upon them by Fripp himself after agreeing with Tony Levin that although 'Stick Men & The Adrian Belew Power Trio That Do A Set Of King Crimson Music' might be an accurate description of what they were performing, it didn't rate as a catchy band name. With songs from Discipline and THRAK appearing on their setlist, alongside each group's own original material, this was as close as you'd get to experiencing anything resembling King Crimson in concert.

Fripp's apparent out-of-the-blue announcement in 2013 that a new incarnation of King Crimson - fronted by three drummers and with a conspicuous absence of Adrian Belew - would be touring the following year created something of a conflict of interest for Levin and Mastelotto, and effectively left The Crimson ProjeKct's viability dead in the water.

Angry at what he perceived as the summary manner of his dismissal, Belew's ire appeared in interviews and social media, with Fripp responding in kind. Although the pair are now reconciled, the bad blood helped feed the tribal instincts of fans displeased that their favourite band had the temerity to move on without first asking their permission.

In the pre-internet age, when a group opted for a shift in direction or personnel, those disgruntled about such matters had the option of moaning about it to their mates or, if they were really peeved, they might pen a letter to the editor of the Melody Maker or the NME. Nowadays, the digital democracy enables fans to broadcast their praise and plaudits, grievances and bile, through the blunderbuss of the world wide web.

Despite his long tenure in the group, Adrian Belew was regularly on the receiving end of abuse questioning his abilities, and his right to even be on the stage with Crimson, something he immortalised on ProzaKc Blues from 2000's The ConstruKction Of Light. These days it's Jakszyk who comes in for a knocking from those unhappy at his role in the new KC.

"Yes, there's a handful of the militant wing of the Adrian Belew Fan Club who have got it in for me, regardless of who I may, or may not, be," Jakszyk says. "I regularly see myself referred to by some of them as the worst singer King Crimson has ever had. I understand that music is subjective and you may not like tone or phrasing, but when somebody writes something that's so preposterous, it's difficult to be offended by it."

One criticism that does rankle is the accusation that this version of Crimson is backward-looking and somehow less experimental when compared to its predecessors. People with long memories will note that when Crimson returned to live work in 2008, apart from unveiling Gavin Harrison as a member, no new material was forthcoming. Instead, they opted for a celebratory 'these you have loved' show with some extra percussive spice and seasoning. However, since the three-drummer-fronted ensemble, not only have there been freshly composed songs, but Crimson gigs have resounded to material previously unplayed for over forty years. Several excursions into the Belew era help to confirm that this band offer the most extensive presentation of all the elements of King Crimson to date.

"In general terms, this is a very popular version of the group playing to bigger crowds and in larger venues than before, and I guess that's because we're encompassing the whole repertoire," Jakszyk says. "We don't neglect any era and the fact is that we can do it and it all sounds incredibly different, and yet somehow there's a genuine glue and thread that connects it all together."

Ticket receipts and a string of sellout shows would seem to bear out Jakszyk's argument - this line-up is attracting greater numbers than ever before. But there's something else happening at KC gigs: those turning out aren't merely confined to the homogenous Prog-with-a-capital-P fan. Younger people are increasingly prevalent and, whisper it softly, larger numbers of women are attending, traditionally a demographic that's been in short supply when the group come to town. It's a definite change that Jakszyk has noticed since 2014.

"I was in the car with my son last week and he said his two most favourite bands ever are Everything Everything and The Beatles," he says. "That's quite a spread, and what I take from that is that in more general terms, there seems to be a lack of tribalism among young people today.

"You've got these young fans who are getting Crimson on some level, regardless of whether we're cool or not, and they're going to the gigs. I look down from the stage and I see these young women singing along and they know the words better than I do! It feels like a weird regeneration thing, which is partly to do with the nature of this version of the band."

Jeremy Stacey, who joined Crimson in March 2016 when Bill Rieflin vacated the drum and keyboard chair for a yearlong sabbatical, agrees that there's something in the fabric of this configuration that makes Crimson a must-have ticket.

"I think it's so fantastic for the audience that suddenly, after all these years, they're able to go and hear material that's not been played live before," he says. "It's not the same as it was because there are three drummers and new arrangements, but there's enough of the original stuff suggested for people who want to hear an element of the record, but it's moved forward, as music should."

Stacey's background in jazz and rock is long and deep, having played with artists as diverse as Noel Gallagher, Chris Squire, Mark Wingfield, The Waterboys, Ryan Adams and Steve Hackett. The newest member of the group, at fifty-five years old Stacey is also the youngest. He regards himself as very fortunate to have had such a varied career over the years, and a level of work that demands he keeps kits ready for use on both sides of the Atlantic. However, out of all the artists he's worked and recorded with, he admits that King Crimson are at another level.

"It's the most different thing I've done. Well, it's kind of obvious when you consider there are three drummers, but it's the fact that I play keyboards, which I hadn't done for a while. I'd played on records but I hadn't played them live in a band since the early '90s, and I hadn't practised or played much piano during that period because I was mainly drumming."

Crimson weren't particularly on his radar, he says. "I remember hearing Frame By Frame back in the '80s and really liking it. I'd heard some of Red and Larks' Tongues In Aspic, and of course In The Court Of The Crimson King, but I only knew bits and pieces really, so I had to start from scratch."

Working with Gavin Harrison and getting to grips with the tightly knit drum arrangements was one thing, but Stacey had to get the keyboard parts under his fingertips as well. Initially he thought he'd be coming in for one tour as a sideman, a situation he was used to. What surprised him, though, was becoming a full member of the band and retaining that position even after Rieflin returned.

"Bill's only playing keyboards now but that's fantastic because a lot of the keyboard parts that were on the original records are now being played fully. One keyboard player couldn't pull off all the parts live without cheating, and Crimson isn't the kind of band that cheats," Stacey notes with approval.

In concert, Stacey has a brief piano solo spot that provides an aural break from the rigorously arranged material, and it's something he approaches with real enthusiasm.

"It's completely improvised," he reveals. "I don't practise anything beforehand. I close my eyes and start and see what happens. I feel that's an element of what Crimson is about. I could obviously do something more harmonic and prearranged but when it comes to those cadenza moments, I'm improvising every night."

A recent performance of Suitable Grounds For The Blues in Essen, available as a free download from the band's website, finds Stacey pitching atonal runs and scattering spiky notes into the air in a manner that unconsciously evokes Keith Tippett's work with Crimson on In The Wake Of Poseidon and Lizard, especially. As the uneven metre of Crimson's mangled take on the blues unrolls, Stacey maintains the barrage. Adding a dissonant freshness, the spontaneity lights a spark to one of the newer pieces the band play.

"It's sort of terrifying but also lots of fun," says Stacey, before adding: "That's if it works. Sometimes it doesn't, but that's the whole point. If you improvise, you don't always know if it will necessarily work - you're taking a risk to put yourself out there and seeing if something magical can happen."

It's a magic that often extends to the group improvisation found in The Letters and Easy Money, where the band feel like they're slipping the leash off the necessarily strict timekeeping that comes from such highly regulated and complex ensemble arrangements.

Fripp has long maintained that while a studio album was akin to a love letter, Crimson in concert was a hot date. With five records already documenting the band's considerable abilities on stage, and a sixth - Meltdown: Live In Mexico City 2017, a three-CD/one Blu-ray set - scheduled, Crimson are positively promiscuous when it comes to putting out live albums.

Wherever Crimheads gather, a recurring question is: "It's been fifteen years since their last studio album. When will they make another one?" In talking to the group, the answer would appear to be: not any time soon. Aside from the costs of getting eight musicians into a room at the same time, the model where a band would tour in support of a new release in order to sell and promote their latest platter has largely disappeared. We live in a different time and Crimson have embraced it.

Jakszyk concedes that in theory it would be possible to utilise the live recordings as a kind of backing track and undertake some strategic overdubs. After all, 1974's Starless And Bible Black did exactly this and yielded the definitive version of Fracture, a classic that Crimson have recently revisited for the first time in over four decades. However, within the ranks of the band, there's no discernible enthusiasm for such an undertaking. This begs the question as to what the future might hold for the group...

When in Rome, there was talk between some of the band members that somehow things had moved into a different gear. Jakszyk says he had a sense of it, as did their agent, that Crimson might be achieving a potential that had hitherto eluded them. "Robert said to me one night that he felt a change in the band," says Gavin Harrison. "I didn't perceive it myself, but Robert has a good overview and masterplan when it comes to looking at the band."

With over three and a half hours of new and reimagined pieces at their disposal, Harrison is pleased with the evolution of the band, though he admits to the occasional disappointment that in the course of a performance the octet will only ever scratch the surface of their repertoire.

"It can be frustrating but I know Robert spends a lot of time planning each setlist. We could do two entire evening performances of completely different material but that wouldn't necessarily make either night a great night if you only came to one of them. That would only work if you bought tickets for both shows. Of course, Frank Zappa used to do virtually a different show every night. He had so much material that he could do that. I saw him twice at Wembley and I think there was only one song the same on both nights.

"You should always play the set you feel flows the best and that's what Robert does. He can see and perceive things that, on the surface, others might not. He senses these shifts that others might not. In my eyes, it's his band. He's steering the ship and he decides when we're going to work and where we're going to work."

There are plans for the band's fiftieth anniversary, though for now these have yet to be revealed. What we do know is that the uncertainty surrounding the UK decision to leave the European Union has scuppered plans for an extensive tour in Europe. Nevertheless, the anniversary year is sure to be special, with a documentary planned by filmmaker Toby Amies, along with another in the series of the large, multi-disc box sets that have enabled King Crimson to become one of the most scrupulously documented groups this side of the Grateful Dead already planned. And yes, you can bet there'll be another live album coming along, as each tour brings with it a new addition to the setlist.

The band are conspicuously happy and not for nothing is Fripp, who once lurked in the shadows on stage, playing boldly in the light these days, standing alongside his colleagues at the end of the long set to take the applause.

As for how long King Crimson will go on for is probably a question only one person can answer - and he isn't saying. Harrison suggests that people should give up speculating on what may happen and concentrate instead on being in the here and now.

"This band is unfolding right before you in real time. I can't say where we'll be in six months or what we'll be doing. I really don't know. Robert's plans tend to be more the type of audience he thinks we should be reaching and the areas we should play, more than, 'I think we should play the songs like this.' That's left to the individual, to play the way you think is correct for the song at that time.

"The band's sound is the sum of all the personalities and the chemistry. For better or worse. If you change one member, the band will sound different. The way the personalities click together, or not in some cases, is the sound of the band. Some bands have lots of bad vibes and arguments and animosity and that will produce a certain type of sound or songwriting or album. Surviving each other is usually the hardest part of any band.

"King Crimson is not a rock'n'roll band where we get drunk and start punching each other. Yet."


What lies ahead for Crim once the UK leaves the EU?

As King Crimson approach their fiftieth anniversary in 2019, the uncertainty surrounding the UK's departure from the European Union has had an impact on the group's plans to tour Europe. Fripp noted in his online diary in June: "Currently there is no foreseeable exit arrangement for the UK, no clear plans for migrant workers, e.g. the Brothers Crim and their pals, whether work visas will be necessary for anyone other than our American members.

"The technicalities and bureaucracy of arranging visa for all eight members of The Beast plus circa twelve support team persons, in each different country, is impracticable; this without even dealing with the withholding tax for each jurisdiction. Compliance with EU tax and individual arrangements for each country is already close to unworkable for small organisations. KC/DGM is a good example of the margin between too small/sufficiently large, to be proportionately overloaded with stuff. I wonder how many of those good persons that plan and implement a seemingly endless proliferation of forms have gone out into the world and directed a small company."

The answer from some observers was that bands used to tour before the UK joined the EU and so it'll be easy to do so again. Prior to joining the EU, a detailed carnet - a list of every single item of equipment - had to be compiled and was usually scrupulously checked at borders, requiring trucks to pull over and wait for inspection. Any discrepancies between the carnet and the actual contents would require a new carnet to be written and authorised, adding time and extra costs to the process.

This is in fact what happens when bands visit non-EU countries such as Switzerland and Norway, a process that is sometimes subject to delays and additional costs. Touring the EU at present requires only one carnet, with vans driving from one country to another without any border checks. Will this continue after Brexit? Nobody knows.

"Two years on from the referendum and with the clock ticking inexorably towards the UK's departure in a few months, the British government and its cabinet even at this late stage can't even agree what the terms of our departure should be. They don't know what the fuck is going on. How can they expect bands and their management to know?" one music industry veteran insider told Prog.

"In the absence of any clarity on what arrangements will be in place for bands, or indeed for any kind of goods transiting through the EU, makes forward planning virtually impossible. With tours and all the minutiae that goes with them having to be planned and costed generally up to a year in advance, simply trusting that everything will be okay after March 29 next year is simply not an option."