"Cat's foot, iron claw
Neurosurgeons scream for more
At paranoia's poison door
Twenty-first century schizoid man"
Portentous stuff, eh? Prescient, you might say; pretentious, definitely. Ineffably intense and electrically charged, though, if you happened to be a teenage schoolboy the year Withnail and I was set and "cat's foot, iron claw ..." were the first lyrics you heard on the first track of King Crimson's first album, In the Court of the Crimson King, released 10 October 1969. "An uncanny masterpiece," cooed Pete Townsend of The Who. "King Crimson, a beautifully timed, Underground quintet, deserve to be the next cult group and they will be," commented the Financial Times.
"Decadent Gothic nonsense," suggests Peter Sinfield who wrote them, basking in the lounge of London's Intercontinental Hotel, 28 years on. Maybe, but when Greg Lake, preserved on acetate, belts them out - half-Dalek, half choir-boy - from a powerful hi-fi system installed last Saturday in the low-ceilinged, Dallas-decor ballroom of the Intercontinental Hotel, long-haired teenage memories riff up and down the spine. The Intercontinental faces London's Hyde Park. I remember Lake belting out the cats's foot, iron claw thing live in the park, 5 July 1969 (the Rolling Stones, with Mick in a mini-dress topped the bill); there were 650,000 people lazing there on that sunny afternoon.
Greg Lake has changed as I'm about to discover, but King Crimson's best known song remains the same. If it sounded like nothing on earth then, it certainly sounds like nothing on earth now.
The five original members of King Crimson, the most progressive of all progressive British bands of 1969, unless you were a Pink Floyd or Soft Machine buff, turned up last Saturday at the Intercontinental to meet family, old friends and five hundred fans who came to listen to a preview playback of Epitaph, a two or four-volume CD package (you pays your money...) featuring live versions of the band's greatest moments enacted all those years ago in front of earnest, long-haired student audiences. Fans' hair is shorter today and packets of sandwiches wrapped in foil have replaced fizzy lager in plastic glasses and Camberwell Carrots, but the atmosphere is disturbingly familiar. A few feet tap, some heads knotted in meaningful frowns nod, but the King Crimson's courtiers are as tame as the daffodils blossoming in Hyde Park.
The band, sitting at tables among their fans, look bemused, as well they might. Epitaph has been edited by Robert Fripp, the enigmatic guitarist, who, despite his polite disclaimers (delivered in the gentlest Dorset burr), has always been seen as the force that drove King Crimson into the trippy imaginations of university common rooms from Brighton to Aberdeen. "Shake my left hand, man," said Jimi Hendrix to Fripp after one London gig in May '69, "it's closer to my heart."
Greg Lake (bass guitar, vocals), Ian McDonald (woodwind, mellotron), Michael Giles (percussion) and Peter Sinfield (words, illumination) have not heard the edited tapes until now. More to the point, they have not met together in the same room since the original King Crimson line-up split at the end of that intense year. Fripp's Journal, 3 January 1970: "The American thing [tour] was such a total experience of plasticity that Ian and Mike now feel that getting their feelings across on records is more important than performing to audiences."
The emotional cross-currents between the long-separated members of the band are as powerful as the riffs and cat's foot, iron claw lyrics invading the plasticity of the Intercontinental ballroom. Before they get together, however, Fripp, Lake, McDonald, Giles and Sinfield are divided up between journalists from the BBC, El Pais and The Independent and induced into reminiscing by nothing more mind-expanding than weak coffee and chocolate biscuits. "Where's the drugs?" jokes Lake, a big, round-faced man - single gold earring, massive gold chronometer - who fills the hotel lounge door as he rolls in with business manager, gleaming wife and Baywatch daughters.
Lake is based in Toronto today, although he keeps a house in Kensington, a mile down the road from the Intercontinental. Life since King Crimson has treated him well. "Ups and downs," he says, "but, I can't complain." The singer left King Crimson after laying down vocals for a second, and all-but-forgotten album, In the Wake of Poseidon, to form Emerson Lake & Palmer (ELP), a hugely successful pomp rock band that rocked the classics with Hammond organs and Moog synthesisers, and became ever more pretentious, alienating itself from its first audiences. Peter Sinfield supplied more "Gothic decadence nonsense" for Lake to sing. ELP are touring again this summer and autumn (in continental Europe and South America, where heavy, fast, get-your-head-down rock is still appreciated and ELP are still considered fantastic).
"I like fantasy, man," says Lake. "It doesn't always matter what the words mean, it's how they sound. Cat's foot, iron claw... it's meant to sound threatening. Innocence raped by napalm fire... we were watching that paranoid Vietnam stuff every day on the news in '69, so there was an edge to Pete's lyrics and our sounds. Rock music had a significance to events that it doesn't now. Boy meets girl, girl leaves boy... that's the currency of pop, but we were exploring darker territory. I'm not embarrassed by what we did. I still like heavy, moody music."
Ian McDonald, sitting trim on the edge of a hotel sofa, has travelled a long way from Lake in the intervening years. Not so far geographically - he lives and works in New York and has done so for more than 20 years - but musically. In 1969, he seemed the dreamiest of the band members, the musician most likely to talk to the wind when he wasn't struggling to keep his new-fangled Mellotron in tune. Today, Indian silk shirts, beads and crushed velvet loons have yielded to a crisp black designer suit accompanied by an equally crisp shirt and tie. He is neat, shy and slim.
"My work has been commercial for a long while. Adverts. Scores for corporate videos. Post-production. It makes much more money that Crimson ever did - pounds 30 to pounds 40 a week each in '69 - but I'm putting tracks down now for a new solo album; it's hard to climb down from being a rock musician."
"It was fun being up there," says Peter Sinfield, who looks like everyone's funny uncle today. "I'm not sure what we were on - literature probably, I was a crazed book junkie. Later on I wrote songs like 'Land of Make Believe' for Buck's Fizz that earned real money. So have million-selling songs for Diana Ross and Cher. Perhaps they brought me down to earth, but I still like "I Talk to the Wind". It's about the young men we used to be in '69, struggling to wake up and wondering what to do with the day, as if nothing mattered and everything mattered at the same time. Does that sound bollocks? It's what it'll say on my gravestone. No, not 'bollocks'... 'I Talk to the Wind'."
Michael Giles, the moustachioed drummer, whose stop breaks in "21st Century Schizoid Man" are a rock tour-de-force, will be remembered for the driving beat of the band's heavier, extended numbers. "It took six months to get 'Schizoid' right," he says, enjoying the first of several large drinks. Carl Palmer, the furiously fast drummer who joined Greg Lake and Keith Emerson to form ELP, was unable to get his drumsticks around it in time for the new band's debut at Portsmouth in August 1970. There just wasn't enough rehearsal time.
Whether you like In the Court of the Crimson King or not (and you'll need to if you buy the four-volume CD set which features four versions of the song), you can't help admiring its energy and polished intensity. It is, however, despite selling extremely well - the cover designed by Bruce Godber, a roadie with no artistic training, was a big selling point - far from perfect. Robert Fripp is a perfectionist. He gives his interview, in two parts, in a separate room in the Intercontinental. "This is the temporary headquarters of Discipline Global Mobile," he says, as opposed to the lounge next door where Sinfield, Giles, Lake and McDonald are gathered. Discipline Global Mobile is Fripp's record company, aimed at producing avant-garde music of singular intensity without ripping off his artists. He has been in litigation with previous managers for the past six years and is only just rising above the legal maelstrom.
"Time to make music again?"
"I'm always trying to do that. I had no natural talent to begin with. I'm always learning." Teaching, too. Fripp's Guitar Craft, a fusion of summer school and medieval guild workshop, is legendary and never less than fully booked.
Neat, polite, intense and disturbingly precise (a man who can remember the Sixties, and he was there), Fripp is a hero to many budding guitarists, a pretentious mystifier to others who just want to get on down and boogie. He doesn't mind what you think. "Is Epitaph, King Crimson's music from 1969 worth re-releasing? That's up to you. What impresses me still is the way the power of the music was balanced by great control. The musical life can be the door to excess. We were pretty disciplined. I called my next band Discipline. I also like the fact that the music has an innocence. It was never cynical."
Fripp could never be accused of cynicism. If anything he seems far too sincere to have been involved in rock. It comes as no surprise that his next major appearance is Salisbury Cathedral during the first week of June.
Salisbury is near home, HQ of Discipline Global Mobile. The house is beautiful and used to belong to Cecil Beaton. "My wife, Toyah [Wilcox], can't be with us today," says Fripp, "as she's being photographed with Beaton, our rabbit, for a Sunday Times celebratory rabbit feature."
You can't get cuter than that. Fripp, peering quizzically and accusingly through round-framed glasses, is an enigma in the world of contemporary music, but so was King Crimson in that one, remarkably successful year when the band looked set for great things, but split before it was out.
As Peter Sinfield put it in the title song of Fripp's intense four-volume CD collection:
"Confusion will be my epitaph
As I crawl a cracked and broken path
If we make it we can all sit back and laugh
But I fear tomorrow I'll be crying
Yes, I fear tomorrow I'll be crying... "
He needn't have worried. There's no crying at the Intercontinental, no hint of paranoia. Nerry a cat's foot, much less an iron claw at the Intercontinental's entrance doorn
'Epitaph' is released 14 April, on Discipline
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