- A) Their music changed my life.
- B) Weren’t there like 100 dudes in that band?
- C) Didn’t they all wear capes?
At first blush all three responses might seem far-fetched but upon closer examination do hold some water. While there weren’t “100 dudes” in the band, King Crimson has managed to house over 20 musicians throughout its history and that number seems to be growing. With only guitarist and visionary, Robert Fripp, as a constant, Crimson has seen more line-up changes than the Detroit Red Wings, many of which are credited to “creative differences,” but despite the rotating cast the band has maintained its unique sound and style for over 40 years.
As far as capes go King Crimson is no more likely to wear them than any other prog rock band from the 60s and 70s, which is to say capes are certainly possible but not necessarily likely. That is, of course, excluding the world’s most prodigious Chapman Stick player, Tony Levin, for whom capes are standard fair whether playing with Crimson or not.
Of these three perspectives on the band the one that is undoubtedly true is the idea that King Crimson’s music has changed people’s lives. Diverse bands like Genesis, ELP, Bad Religion, Tool, Iron Maiden, and even Kanye West have all listed Crimson as a major influence. Kurt Cobain went so far as to claim their seminal album, Red, as being crucial to the development of Nirvana. It is therefore challenging to sift through 13 studio albums and 15 live albums to select the Top 10 King Crimson Songs and their most important pieces of music in their arsenal, there are simply to many to choose from but here are 10 that stand out at the very least.
# 10 – Fallen Angel
Starting out the Top 10 King Crimson Songs list is ultimately a song about a young boy joining the Hells Angels motorcycle club and subsequently dying in a fight, Fallen Angel, is the second track off the aforementioned Red. Released in 1974 when the band had been reduced to a trio consisting of John Wetton on bass, Bill Bruford on drums, and Fripp on guitar. Interestingly, Fallen Angel is the last studio recording to date featuring Fripp on acoustic guitar.
# 9 – In The Wake of Poseidon
The title track off the band’s second album, In The Wake of Poseidon, is the last record featuring Greg Lake on vocals. Receiving mostly positive reviews, the album was, however, often accused of being almost a song-for-song copy of their debut album, In the Court of the Crimson King. For many, Poseidon may have been too reminiscent of Epitaph off that first record but considering the strength of that song, who cares?
# 8 – Islands
The closing and title track to the band’s fourth studio album features a softer, mellower side of King Crimson. With music composed by Fripp this song featured gentle lyrics by Peter Sinfield. Islands would be the last album to feature Sinfield’s lyrics.
# 7 – Larks Tongue in Aspic (part 1)
The opening track on the band’s fifth studio album, Part 1 is the first in a series of songs released over 25 years on three different albums. Part 1 is the longest of what would become a four-part sequence. In addition to Robert Fripp’s guitar work, Part 1 features Wetton on bass, Bill Bruford on drums, David Cross on violin, and Jamie Muir on percussion.
# 6 – I Talk to the Wind
The second track on In The Court of The Crimson King, this quiet number features the flute work of Ian McDonald. The idea of following a loud, harder edged song with something on the mellow side becomes a bit of a theme for Crimson throughout the years. In this case, “I Talk To The Wind,” acts as a calming palate cleanser after the madness of 21st Century Schizoid Man, which starts the album.
# 5 – Red
The first, and title, track off 1974’s Red, this 6:15 second instrumental sets the tone for what is considered Crimson’s heaviest album. While its polyrhythmic melodies and multiple time signatures give it that classic Crimson feel, the hard edge of Fripp’s guitar work stands out as the predominant sound on one of the heaviest King Crimson Songs in their catalog.
# 4 – The Court of the Crimson King
The final track off the band’s debut album, The Court of the Crimson King, has the distinct honor of being one of only two Crimson songs to ever chart in the United States. Possibly the most recognizable track to the general public, this song reached number 80 on the Billboard Hot 100. Written by Sinfield and McDonald, Crimson King’s flute, Mellotron, and string work set King Crimson apart upon its release in 1969.
# 3 – Starless
The last track on the last King Crimson record of the 1970s, Starless, stands as 12-minute musical epic that was originally intended to be the title track of Starless and Bible Black, the band’s sixth studio album. The initial lyrics and melody were written by Wetton but Bruford and Fripp didn’t feel it was good enough for the album. After some alterations to the words and melody, the song was recorded six months later during the Red sessions. As the third track off that album to make this top 10, Red is an absolute must for any Crimson listener.
# 2 – Epitaph
Perhaps not the most recognizable song nor the most driven on the Top 10 King Crimson songs list, Epitaph, manages to capture something special from Crimson. Sinfield’s lyrics sung by Lake’s powerful voice often stand completely alone giving them a haunting feel. McDonald’s Mellotron and flute work make a strong argument that he may have been the most underrated member of the band over the years. Fripp’s delicate acoustic guitar work fit so perfectly beside it all that one wonders why he gave it up a mere five years later. An emotional journey, Epitaph, stands as one of the band’s most powerful moments and one of the greatest King Crimson Songs of all time.
# 1 – 20th Century Schizoid Man
The opening track off their debut, 20th Century Schizoid Man features a Fripp guitar solo that has been rated one of the top 100 guitar solos of all time by Guitar World. The solo comes during a heavy, instrumental middle section with Lake’s bass, Michael Giles drums, and McDonald’s saxophone filling out this musical mash up of prog rock, jazz, and heavy metal. Schizoid Man isn’t so much a song as it is an experience that leaves you breathless a mere seven minutes later.
It’s hard to pin down exactly who King Crimson is or what style they encapsulate other than Robert Fripp’s musical vision. It is, however, easy to say that King Crimson is as unique as they are prolific. To this day Fripp and some combination of musicians are out playing a new version of an old song or a new one altogether and they don’t show signs of stopping anytime soon.
Updated: August 20, 2020