In 1995, progressive rock group King Crimson reunited. Gary Steel talked to drummer Bill Bruford for Real Groove magazine. To celebrate the “almost Crimson” Auckland performance next week by the Robert Fripp endorsed The Crimson ProjeKCt, we revisit that story.
Notes: Originally published as part of a progressive rock special in the July 1995 issue of the now defunct Real Groove, it’s interesting that the piece finds Bruford naming the King Crimson as his “spiritual home”. He would soon have a massive falling out with Fripp, which ultimately resulted in his decision to retire from music. Bruford would go on to outline his disillusionment and bitterness in his autobiography, published in 2009. I wish I had been given more space to twitter on about Crimson and Bruford, whose work both within the context of KC and Fripp’s orbit, and on other, more jazz-oriented projects like Earthworks, was exemplary. Perhaps I’ll dig out my unexpurgated interview transcript and publish that, one of these days.
WHO COULD HAVE imagined that King Crimson, the group many consider to be more responsible than any other for the virtual invention of the genre that became known as progressive rock, could be considered hip in the ‘90s?
Strange, but true. A new version of the much maligned pro-rock supergroup has emerged, their creative energies fuelled by a new generation of rock musicians who see their ‘70s work as hugely influential. Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain cited King Crimson’s Red (1974) as one of rock’s seminal albums and the same period of King Crimson’s turbulent history is celebrated by groups like Primus, the Rollins Band and Nine Inch Nails.
“This grunge business and post-grunge business has in a way elevated King Crimson to the point of being a sort of godfather of some of that music, strangely enough,” says Crimson drummer Bill Bruford. “So, far from being lumped in the progressive rock bag – the Genesis/Yes department – King Crimson has been espoused by younger players as having the grit and grunge that got the movement partly fired up. It’s made a transition which means the band is in danger of becoming as fashionable as it has ever been.”
A legendary skinsman in muso circles, Bruford has played with some of the biggest pomp-rock groups, including Yes and Genesis (chortle!), but his calling is King Crimson. Joining in 1972, three years after their apocalyptic debut, In The Court Of The Crimson King, he is the only member apart from guitarist/leader Robert Fripp to have stayed with the group through its ‘70s, ‘80s and now ‘90s incarnations.
Bruford has been known to bail out of well-paid gigs for King Crimson whenever Fripp has decided to exhume the corpse for another assault on the music scene. One wonders why.
“It’s my spiritual home,” says Bruford. “It’s where I think I’ve done my best work, and it’s the best platform I could possibly hope for.
“We really are in King Crimson – and I know it sounds a bit stupid – because we actually like the music. You’re definitely not going to get rich doing it, but the band does offer all the musicians the ability to play in styles and to do things they would find hard to do in other bands.
“Crimson is, by definition, an experimental unit. It has never decided, like you’re supposed to do, that this is your direction, and you go out and sell it like the Rolling Stones do. It is always interested in changing themselves; that’s why they joined King Crimson. It’s an ongoing work in progress and if King Crimson is selling anything, it’s selling the unexpected.”
The now-celebrated 1972-74 band made brutal, often dissonant, fractured, dark rock. The public hated it, and Red was the last straw.
“Red was an excruciatingly difficult album to make, incredibly painful,” says Bruford. “Robert was going through a period of ego loss… he didn’t want to impose himself in any way on the music. I remember him saying ‘I have decided to suspend the passage of all opinion.’ That was Robert’s particular inclination at the time. Robert wrote most of Red, but he had absolutely no idea if it was any good or not, he couldn’t have cared less about it either way.
“Nevertheless, it got made and everybody HATED it!”
The enigmatic Fripp – suffering complete rock and roll burnout – proceeded to retire from music only to re-emerge in 1980 with a newly reconstituted version of King Crimson featuring American singer/guitarist Adrian Belew. Although the ‘90s version still features the sometimes irritating Belew, new album Thrak is looking directly to Red for its inspiration.
“The Red-ish material has definitely come from Robert and it’s a conscious choice,” says Bruford.
“The music we’re making has resonances of the ‘70s band rather than the ‘80s, and part of the reason is that the climate and context in which King Crimson is operating has changed so much.
“Musical relevance is extremely important. Nobody wants to be outdated. We want to speak in the musical vocabulary of the times, which is part of what the band is about. It looks to the future, suggests new ways of doing things to other musicians. It’s fairly unusual to have a six-piece band divided into a double trio, as it were. But it was unusual in 1969 to be screaming about ‘21st Century Schizoid Man’.” GARY STEEL
* Bill Bruford does NOT appear at The Studio, Karangahape Rd, Tuesday June 24, but The Crimson ProjeKCT lineup is still stellar, making the gig a must for anyone who appreciates fine musicianship. Read Gary Steel’s interview with Adrian Belew here.