My closest encounter with King Crimson before a few years ago was a Howard Stern bit that aired in 2000, pitting his motley pickup band The Losers against a non-music celebrity band. The bit was all about mocking actors and athletes who thought that they could pivot to a successful music career just on the strength of their non-music successes. Tina Yothers (remember her?) competed against Howard and The Losers in a Battle of the Bands performing a tortured but rocking version of In the Court of the Crimson King. The record label judges in the studio voted for Howard, surprise…
When composing my last album (which I wrote first, before any of them) in 2002-2003, I pulled down some KC mp3s from the interwebs and especially enjoyed the early, classic-era albums. Their debut still ranks with me as their finest. However, the pseudo-title track from the album that Howard performed has grown tiresome to listen to. What’s stood the test of time better is King Crimson’s ballad Epitaph.
Robert Fripp – King Crimson’s thought leader since the beginning – is well known as a craftsman and true composer, as well as a proto-shredder in those pre-historic days before real shredding. I’m sure Fripp knew that Epitaph was one long Chaconne, a song form popular in the Baroque era that consisted of a single, short, repetitive harmonic progression that is varied melodically over time. Bach wrote many of these, and Bach’s ancient ears wouldn’t have shriveled from Fripps choice of i-VII-VI-V progression here. Its not a particularly exotic progression, but almost schmaltzy in its romanticism.Its a very common progression in folk music as well – nearly every Flamenco folk song consists of this descending andalusian cadence.
The signature melodic element in the song consist in a call-response ascending figure between Greg Lake’s verse vocal (sol-me, etc.) and his bass line (sol-do, etc.). In fact, the counterpoint between the vocal and bass is positively classical – obeying all the very strict rules of traditional contrapuntal melody (i.e. no parallel 4ths, 5ths, octaves – whether hidden or strictly speaking). Honestly, based on Epitaph and others on this King Crimson debut, I don’t understand why they earned such a reputation for progressive music from the get-go. Sure Fripp & Co. pushed the envelope later, but this first release – great as it is – doesn’t really deserve the “progressive” label.
The other mark of compositional brilliance in King Crimson’s Epitaph is the instrumental interlude which pits Ian McDonald’s clarinets (dubbed in similarly conventional but lovely harmony) against lonely staccato tom strikes and tinny strums from Fripp’s acoustic guitar that start in the left speaker and pan quickly to the right. The guitar is either heavily effected or combined with some unusual and indecipherable percussion instrument to provide that harsh, broken glass tone. Its a brilliant arrangement that proves Fripp was a master composer and orchestrator even as a young man.
Epitaph’s lyrics are a perfect match for the deliberate but controlled schmaltz of the music. Hearing Greg Lake sing in his faux-majestic english tenor such cornball lyrics as these really forshadows his more pretentious days with Emerson, Lake and Palmer:
Between the iron gates of fate,
The seeds of time were sown,
And watered by the deeds of those
Who know and who are known
Confusion will be my epitaph.
As I crawl a cracked and broken path
If we make it we can all sit back
Oh – you crazy, visionary early prog rockers!