At one point during In the Court of the Crimson King, a new doc about mighty prog institution King Crimson, former drummer Bill Bruford zeroes in on the core philosophy of the band and its founder, guitarist Robert Fripp. “Change is essential,” says Bruford, who now resembles a pithy, distinguished university professor. “Otherwise, you turn into the Moody Blues, for heaven’s sake.”
Starting in 1969, no one ever confused King Crimson with the far more radio-friendly Moodies. In 2019, the latest incarnation of Crimso, still fronted by Fripp, embarked on a 50th-anniversary tour, playing dense, precise, and impeccably arranged versions of its pulverizing repertoire before besotted audiences. That tour forms the basis of the doc, written and directed by Toby Amies and co-produced by Fripp himself. The movie — which premiered at South by Southwest this week and screens again at the fest on Friday night, with plans for a wider release still TBD — also weaves in look-backs at the band’s tumultuous history, touching on its ever-changing lineups and Fripp’s steering of the whole ship. Even those immersed in King Crimson lore may learn things they didn’t know about a band in which, as one current member opines, “Anything can be seen as a problem.” Here are eight takeaways.
1. King Crimson would make a good case study for medical interns.Rare among rock bands, even in prog, King Crimson had a revolving-door personnel and relentlessly changed up most of its repertoire with each new lineup and album. That approach made for constantly evolving, completely unpredictable music; until recently, no one went to a Crimso show expecting the so-called hits. But as we hear repeatedly from past and present members, this M.O. — combined with the complexity of the music and Fripp’s exacting-headmaster personality — wasn’t easy on anyone.
In fact, hearing them talk about the experience is akin to hearing a patient explaining their symptoms to a doctor. To saxophonist Mel Collins, who left and only rejoined 40 years later, being in Crimson was “a bit of a trauma … some of us went through hell.” To guitarist Trey Gunn, who played with them throughout the Nineties, being in Crimson was “a little bit like having a low-grade infection. You’re not really sick but you don’t feel well, either.” To Fripp himself, the years between 1969 and 2013 were, in his word, “wretched.”
2. Ian McDonald’s departure from the band was even more traumatic than we’d thought.Along with drummer Michael Giles, multi-instrumentalist McDonald left King Crimson after its 1969 debut, In the Court of the Crimson King, which seriously hobbled the band for a period; Fripp himself admits he was heartbroken over it. One of the film’s unexpectedly emotional moments arrives when McDonald, who died just last month, apologizes on camera: “I love you, Robert — I’m sorry I broke your heart,” dropping his head in his hands. Even more surprisingly, Fripp admits that he almost left the band when McDonald and Giles split. “It was more important to me that the band continue than I continued with King Crimson,” he says. “And Ian said, ‘No, it’s more you than us.’ ” McDonald was right: It would have been impossible to imagine King Crimson without Fripp.
3. Adrian Belew is still bummed about not being asked to be part of the 2013 re-formation.Starting in the early Eighties and on and off for 20 years, the wiry Belew became the band’s singer and co-guitarist. Bruford, who was in that lineup as well, admits in the film that this was his favorite incarnation of King Crimson. But Belew still seems a little stunned that he is no longer in the band. “I always thought it was me and Robert as a partnership,” he says in the film. “I didn’t know I was in somebody’s band. … [It] was like, ‘What do you mean? I thought it was our band.’ ” (To which Fripp dryly responds: “Adrian as frontman is not primarily an ensemble player, and I don’t believe he’s interested in being an ensemble player.”) Belew seems at peace with the situation now and speaks fondly of Fripp, but still adds, “I wish [Fripp] hadn’t done that. I’ll be honest: I think he needs me.”
4. Fripp is a taskmaster even when it comes to himself.And not just because he practices his scales every day, often dressed in his trademark three-piece suit. To discipline himself, he avoids warm water as part of his daily bathing ritual. “Your body doesn’t want to go into a cold shower, so you’re saying to your body, ‘Do as you’re told.’ “
5. Fripp has the deadpan timing of a seasoned comic.“He’s mellowed,” Collins says, adding that Fripp would say “very mean” things to him back in the day. (Fripp’s recent lockdown videos with his wife Toyah Willcox also attest to this transformation.) Fripp still displays flashes of spiky annoyance, but he also has one of rock’s best straight-faced deliveries. Two members of the band didn’t continue, he says, “at my initiative.” He likes the current lineup since there isn’t anyone who “actively resents my presence.” How did he account for previous shake-ups and people quitting? “I don’t have a problem,” he replies, precisely. “The problems lie elsewhere.”
6. King Crimson fans are even more hardcore than you think.As the band’s bus arrives at one venue, a fan approaches Collins and asks him to sign copies of albums he’s on — not just Crimson LPs but records by the Rolling Stones and Joan Armatrading. “There won’t be too many more opportunities,” the fan tells Amies.
7. The film has an unexpected hero.Droll, dapper, and snowy-haired, Bill Rieflin, who played drums and then keyboards with the band starting in 2013, cuts a somewhat happy-go-lucky figure, mugging for the camera and playfully asking why the director is following him around. He’s one of the few actual friends Fripp allowed into the band. But as we learn, tragedy lay beneath the humor: At the time of the tour, Rieflin was battling cancer and died a year later, in 2020.
Despite his condition, Rieflin speaks eloquently and calmly about why he continued to do what he did (making music, he says, “can restore grace, if only for a moment, in a person’s life”). Confronted with imminent death, he says, with no bitterness, “I’ve made an effort to be a better person and do better things.” Then he pauses and says, with a smile, “Take that!” We should all be so lucky to confront mortality with that much dignity.
8. The current band couldn’t have found a better lead singer and guitarist than Jakko Jakszyk.It’s not that just Jakszyk’s voice bears some resemblance to that of predecessors John Wetton and Greg Lake, or that he grew up playing King Crimson music. As he says in the film, he had a pet dog when he was 13. Its name? “Fripp.”