How I learned to listen to King Crimson

A huge compression of grinding guitar riffs and stupefying bass, only upstaged on occasion by drumming that reminds me of the time my pet frog was squashed by seven falling refrigerators.

Paul Ferguson, Amazon Review of Thrak by King Crimson, February 2003 

I hope Paul’s frog survived. In case you are wondering whether Paul liked the album, his review begins 

Wow. I was simply astounded when I first heard this

Paul gives the album five stars (not seven, one for each fridge…..?) 

To continue with the pet frog analogy, one of my friends describes some contemporary classical music as sounding like ‘a fire in a pet shop’, and the music of King Crimson can sometimes seem similarly difficult.

But another ‘difficult’ composer Arnold Schoenberg wrote not just the atonal horrorshow (and I mean that in a good way) of Erwartung but also the moon-drenched Romantic lyricism of Verklärte Nacht: 

Erwartung and Verklärte Nacht

King Crimson’s first album, In the Court of the Crimson King, now 50 years old, is still a difficult listen. The first two tracks perfectly demonstrate the two different styles, beginning with 21st Century Schizoid Man.

Cat's foot iron claw    
           
Neurosurgeons scream for more  

At paranoia's poison door
    
21st century schizoid man. 

Greg Lake’s anguished, distorted cry ‘21st century schizoid man’ has become a cultural touchstone in the 21st century; sampled by Kanye West in Power 

And used by Paco Rabanne to advertise Invictus 

The song also features Tony Blair’s favourite guitar solo; and to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the song PRS Guitars have put the album artwork on a signature guitar 

Image © PRS Guitars 

But 21st  Century Schizoid Man, the first song on In the Court of the Crimson King is followed by the gentle pastoral musings of I Talk to the Wind.

21st Century Schizoid Man and I Talk to the Wind

And King Crimson can also write songs that are as Romantic and melodic as Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht – listen to the opening melody of Starless 

For many years, In the Court of the Crimson King was the only album of theirs that I knew. I was reluctant to buy any more of their albums on cd without hearing them first.

Then I saw a video of them playing Frame by Frame from their album Discipline on the Old Grey Whistle Test. This was very different from the prog glory of The Crimson King. The track reminded me of part III of Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint – Fast, with its virtuoso playing, use of phasing and chorus effects (but not a chorus of Frogs). In both cases harmonic shifts turn a glittering surface into something deeper, more moving and engaging. I bought Discipline on cd and often returned to its post-punk discipline, sometimes edgy and occasionally slightly manic. But this didn’t really help me appreciate the whole of the King Crimson catalogue of 13 studio albums and about 457 live albums, as the two albums I now owned felt so different. This was partly because the two albums were over ten years apart, with only one member in both line-ups, a gentleman by the name of Robert Fripp esq.

Then in April 2019 a revelation. It was announced that King Crimson’s complete back catalogue of studio albums would be available to stream

At last, I could listen to the albums without buying them. (In case you are worried, I have since bought six more of them on cd).

At about this time, I began working on a radio documentary about auditory illusions in music. The Presenter asked me to find a drummer who could talk about rhythmic illusions, so we went to interview Bill Bruford who I knew from his work with Yes, and also with King Crimson on Discipline. To prepare for the interview, I spent a whole weekend listening to the King Crimson albums that Bill had played on. They were dense, a difficult listen, but there was something that made me want to hear them again.

Bill had e-mailed me to suggest a couple of tracks that would illustrate the creation of rhythmic illusions. One of them was Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream from King Crimson’s 1995 album Thrak. This is how he described the track,

The purpose here was to create an illusion of imminent chaos, something about to fall off the edge of the world, but in fact it’s not going to at all. It’s entirely precise…and it’s entirely notate-able if you wanted to.

Finally, it all made sense to me – the key to understanding King Crimson seems to be to view their music as precision-tooled dystopia.

Bill went on to say,

In King Crimson…there was always a call for a sense of a threat of impending doom.

I can see that music with a sense of impending doom isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea. But there is something visceral about the industrial funk of King Crimson of an album like Thrak. If you surrender to it, like the frog watching seven fridges falling towards it, the experience can be exhilarating, cathartic even.

My plan now is to review some of the King Crimson albums I have discovered in my next few blogs, starting with Thrak.

See you next time.

Sir Stephen Cleobury, my Father and the Meaning of Christmas

When I think of Sir Stephen Cleobury who has just died my image of him is conducting the service of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College Cambridge on Christmas Eve.


© Kevin Leighton/King’s College, Cambridge

The festival of Christmas was central to my relationship with my Father who died twenty-five years ago.  I always used to listen to the Nine Lessons with him.

I wrote this piece some years ago but I haven’t published it until now…

A Child’s Christmas

It’s Christmas Eve and Durham cathedral is full. We got there early for the carol service but we’re still stuck behind the widest pillar.  We can’t see the choir singing the carols but it doesn’t matter. The lights go out and the choir comes in with candles. The sweet solo voice sings the first verse of Once in Royal David’s City, just as in the opening of the service of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College Cambridge.

The years roll back and I am with my Father again.

He always insisted we call him Father, not dad. We once played cricket with him in the park and two young urchins came to join our game. Cheekily, they called him Father Dear Father, mocking my use of the word. I hadn’t realised until then that his title was archaic. Later, when I was away at university, he wrote me letters and notes always signed just F, short for Father.

When I started to sign my letter simply with a letter N for Nick, my friends complained that this felt cold. Couldn’t I be bothered to sign my full name? But the simple F at the end of my father’s letters always seemed warm to me, a private, intimate code.

To others, he signed himself JCH, short for John Charles Holmes. He was the choir master of the local church and I was in his choir. The choir boys bought him a leather music case engraved with his initials. He carried it with him to every choir rehearsal. It got more and more battered, but you could still see the black letters JCH engraved on it.

I remember my Father walking home from church with me, carrying his music case as we discussed our visit to the local maternity hospital to sing Christmas carols. We went every year, to sing a carol service in the hospital small chapel. Then we came back to church to put away the robes we had worn for the carol service.

The choir vestry was a cellar beneath the church. We unloaded the robes from ancient suit cases and hung them up on long rails. We climbed back up the stone steps to the side door of the church and locked it with a heavy key. Then a shortcut across the grass to vault over a low wall, checking first that the Reverend Canon Ronald James Birchett – RJB – wasn’t watching.

RJB had been an army captain and took a dim view of civilians who took shortcuts across his churchyard. My father was in awe of RJB but they shared a deep belief in the true meaning of Christmas.

RJB is central to my childhood memories of Christmas Eve. He was tall, broad, proudly strong. His voice was deep and his face was sculpted from granite. So when this proud man went down on his knees to utter the words which marked the birth of Christ, the packed church was silenced by his humility before God.

After that, we choirboys could relax a little. We knew Jesus was about to be born and so Christmas presents were on their way. Midnight Mass actually started at 11:30 at night so there was a silent countdown until midnight came. Christ’s birth on the dot of midnight was marked by choirboys grinning and cheering silently across the choir stalls, always making sure RJB couldn’t see our celebrations.

So the service ended for another Christmas Eve, and my father greeted each choirboy with a cheerful happy Christmas and a box of chocolates.

Christmas Day itself almost seemed less important to him. Christ had been born, so the pagan rituals of exchanging presents, eating turkey and watching the Queen’s speech meant little to him. One year, he even forgot to buy me a Christmas present until my mother reminded him and he ran to the shops to buy something before they closed.

My father died 25 years ago and I don’t think about him every day now, although at the time I vowed I would. But he is still a part of me and at Christmas I feel particularly close to him. I said this to my wife as we were coming out of Durham Cathedral on Christmas Eve. She replied it was natural for me to remember him more at Christmas, because it was his time of year.

Postscript

Leo Hussain @conductorleo wrote the following tweet about Stephen Cleobury on 23 November 2019, but it also perfectly describes my Father

He wasn’t affectionate, but you knew he cared deeply about you. As a musician, he was rigorous, disciplined, loving, had huge integrity and the highest standards. I couldn’t do what I do now without him.