There’s only one king of rock and roll. Fans affectionately know him collectively as “Crimso”, others attach the more formal appellation King Crimson. I recently pulled The 21st Century Guide to King Crimson Volume One 1969 – 1974 out of my archives. Even listening to it now, I’m struck by just how original and innovative their music was in their heyday. You know a band was ahead of its time when hearing music they recorded over forty years ago you think it would revolutionize music if recorded today. There’s no greater example of that than the tracks from In the Court of the Crimson King.
King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp did an exceptional job remastering these cuts. When I crank songs such as “21st Century Schizoid Man” and “Epitaph” I feel like I’m in the sound booth with the recording engineer. The box has every song from the album, although the version of “Moonchild” is abridged. I’ve heard most of these songs on previous releases, but the sound quality on the box makes it well worth the expense alone.
The box also included five live tracks recorded by the same line-up that recorded Court. The true highlight for me was “Mars: The Bringer of War.” It’s a version of the first part of Gustav Holst’s The Planets performed by a rock band. The arrangement would’ve made the composer proud. The piece increased in volume throughout building to a loud crescendo at the end. I swear my house shakes when I play it at full blast. The “Mellotron” does not reflect its name the way this group utilized it. Keep in mind this is from a band substantially influenced by classical music theory. All this in an era before Heavy Metal came to prominence.
While these songs make the box set well worth the cost and time to listen to it: there’s much more. Fripp included a disc of studio material from the Fripp/Wetton/Bruford/Cross era of the band. This one has some of my all time favorite prog-rock masterpieces. Crimso classics such as “Red”, “Easy Money”, and “Larks Tongues in Aspic Part II” appear in their entirety. A shortened version of “Starless” is on there as well. The way the disc is mixed makes it so all the tracks lead into one another. I thought that a very cool feature.
As with the earlier incarnations of the group, this line-up also has a live disc dedicated to it. The true mother lode on that one is a live instrumental improv called simply “Asbury Park” after the location the band recorded it. Imagine if you will a hybrid of classical music, heavy metal, and funk. If you don’t think a group of musicians could pull this off, listen to this track. It really defines the essence of what “Crimso” was all about in the mid-1970s.
The only real criticism I have of this box is the same critique fans have of any compilation: I don’t agree with all the song selections. The compendium has four different versions of “21st Century Schizoid Man”; one studio and three live performed by various incarnations of the band. None are of the same quality as the version the original line-up performed, but I can understand why Fripp chose to include them. To this day it stands as Crimso’s signature song. On the piece from the Earthbound album, Fripp chose to excise Boz Burrrell’s vocals in lieu of the instrumental parts. (The late Burrell went on to play bass guitar for Bad Company. To be fair to him, he was a great musician, but he was a much more proficient bassist than rock vocalist. Then again, so was John Wetton.)
I really liked the inclusion of a live version of “Easy Money”. It’s certainly one of the best tracks in the King Crimson catalog. I just didn’t care for this hybrid version of two different performances. The band played the song regularly during the early to mid-1970s. Fripp had myriad other renditions to choose from. He included some great recordings of it on the 1992 box set The Great Deceiver. I’m not sure why he didn’t go with a more powerful recording here.
And my big complaint: some songs from The Great Deceiver appeared on this box. I can’t wrap my mind around why Fripp didn’t include “Doctor Diamond”. That song had a mind-twisting time signature even by King Crimson standards. Since The Great Deceiver is now out of print, I don’t understand why “Doctor” wasn’t added to this box. It would have truly enhanced the song selection.
I would strongly encourage any Progressive Rock fan to give The 21st Century Guide to King Crimson Volume One a listen. I recall reading an interview with John Wetton (Bass/Vocals 1972 – 1974 ) back in the late 1990s. He said that whenever he played at Progressive Rock Festivals he’d listen to the new bands and smile. He thought they sounded a lot like Crimso did back in the 1970s. Based on Mr. Wetton’s observation, I’d say why listen to the imitators? Why not pay court to the grand-daddy of them all, King Crimson?