It helps to think of King Crimson not as one band but as a series of bands, linked together by a few general principles and the presence of guitarist Robert Fripp. While Yes managed to maintain some kind of continuum despite a rapidly shifting lineup, Crimson would routinely shed entire rhythm sections and retool their entire sound based on what instruments the band could play and whatever Fripp felt like doing that day. It’s the reason why the three most popular Crimson records (1969’s In the Court of the Crimson King, 1974’s Red, and 1981’s Discipline) don’t sound a thing like one another, and also why this band never got a chance to go stale like so many of their contemporaries.
The original run of KC records from 1969 to 1974 is the most fascinating in this regard, especially given that there’s a different lineup on every studio album. This includes the two most famous ones – the original lineup with Ian MacDonald and Greg Lake, and the ’73-’74 improv-heavy band with Bill Bruford and John Wetton. How they got from one to the other is some sort of miracle, given just how quickly it all fell apart after In the Court of the Crimson King; still the quintessential prog album after all these years, still the watermark that so many other bands reached for and could never quite hit. Hell, even the band members admitted they don’t know what the hell got into ’em during those sessions. The flash success didn’t jive well with the group; McDonald and Giles didn’t want to live their lives on the road, while Greg Lake had even bigger aspirations, forming ELP, a band which debuted by firing cannons into a crowd of 250,000. Hell, the fact that they even managed a second album is incredible – most of the band was in the process of leaving, and the material was cobbled together from mostly-finished tunes that had been around since the band’s early days. But after that, the two remaining members, only one of whom was an actual musician (lyricist Pete Sinfield stuck it out a couple more years) were on their own. And yet, King Crimson continued.
The Lizard band is perhaps the strangest in King Crimson’s history; they only lasted about six months and featured members who actively hated the album (in fact, most of them, including Fripp himself, still do). They didn’t get a chance to play live, which feels significant given that there’s at least a dozen live CDs out there from every other lineup. The band’s sole instrumental talent was saxman Mel Collins; Fripp himself took over the mellotron and other keyboards, and winds up playing almost no electric guitar at all on the album. But make no mistake: bassist/singer Gordon Haskell is the story of this album. A childhood friend of Fripp’s, Haskell was brought into the fold solely to keep the band going, even though he despised the music and hated recording it. The bigger problem: Haskell just cannot sing this stuff. He’s got this sort of smoky baritone that just hits all the wrong notes; he’s John Wetton with a hangover, less In the Court-era Greg Lake and more Greg Lake the way he sounds now. Maybe not quite on the Lee Jackson level of awfulness, but he’s down in the cellar with him. Surprising too, because he did an adequate job filling in on a In the Wake of Poseidon cut: “Cadence and Cascade”, where the vocal mic was turned down so far you may not have even noticed it was him.
But on Lizard, things go downhill as soon as he enters; “Cirkus” begins with a twinkly little melody that Haskell just wrecks with his off-key warbling, leading up to a big ol’ melltron *WRONK* that sounds like a fire alarm going off in your head. This is one of the better tracks, mind you. King Crimson really make a commitment to full-on ugliness this time around, jamming this thing full of rough-edged instruments controlled by rough-edged musicians; there’s Mel Collins, squealing into the upper reaches of saxland, there’s Fripp, abusing his mellotron even though it sounds like half the tapes melted off in the sun, and there’s Haskell, frogging it up from one track to the next. And then you’ve got the lyrical stylings of Mr. Peter Sinfield, a litany of broken metaphors and strange turns of phrase (“Elephants forgot/force-fed on stale chalk/ate the floors of their cages”) – hey, you employ a full-time lyric writer, this is what you get. Even the album sleeve is strange, the word CRIMSON spelled out against cluttered illustrations, the sort of thing you’d expect to see in a painting that was centuries old, before artists really got a sense of aesthetics.
Granted they weren’t the only artists taking such flights of fancy back then, but musically they were certainly traveling an odd path. While bands like Yes, Genesis, and Gentle Giant were focusing on getting tighter, King Crimson were just letting it all fall out. Imagine Van Der Graaf Generator with way more mellotron and a much worse singer, and you’re pretty much there. Fripp, forced into his role as a first-time bandleader, decides to just let ’em loose. And though the core band was only four people, the group had a number of auxiliaries, mostly from Keith Tippett’s Centipede project. As a result there’s probably more total instruments here than on any other early prog album, which leads to utter cacophony in spots. Most of the times it’s not really clear what you should be listening to; a good number of parts (including most of Fripp’s guitar playing) just get buried in the pile. Which can make for some interesting moments if you’re paying attention, since few parts are played straight, and new drummer Andy McCullouch often just plays one fill after another, lost on his own island.
The effect often obscures the actual tunes, which tend to make sudden dives into improv and quick-instrumental-cut territory (see “Indoor Games”, practically a blueprint for “Easy Money”). One in particular, “Happy Family”, has so much schizophrenia going on that it almost completely obscures the nursery-rhyme style melody – listen to it loud enough and it’s a truly terrifying experience. You can practically hear the LSD seeping out of the speakers (particularly when the intro bit jumps back in around 3:30 – CRASH! CRASH! CRASH!). But the group can keep it together when they want to – both “Lady of the Dancing Water” (the requisite flute ballad) and the “Prince Rupert Awakes” section of “Lizard” show their ability to pack it in, though I must mention that the latter is bizarre in a dozen other ways. It’s maybe the best individual section of the action, helped greatly by the fact that Jon Anderson (yes, that Jon Anderson) lends the vocals. Plus the chorus contains my favorite line on the album: “burn a bridge and burn a boat, stake a lizard by the throat” (which make about as much sense as any other one).
As for the rest of “Lizard” – it is, as you may know, King Crimson’s only foray into the epic sidelong, beating ELP, Genesis, and even Yes to the punch. Though it’s bolstered greatly by the pop song in the front, the rest is nothing like that – “Bolero” is mostly a vehicle for Collins and Tippett’s soloing (mostly at the same time), which eventually transforms into an ascending instrumental pattern. The second half is far darker – outside of a brief vocal section, the whole thing goes into an extended mellotron workout, eventually cascading into a litany of honking and tooting. Once again I’m not sure what McCullouch is supposed to be doing here – I almost wonder if he received any direction at all. It’s the same sort of skronk that occupied most of “21st Century Schizoid Man”, but this time it’s less mutant jazz and more of a mutant swing.
Needless to say…it takes a few listens to appreciate this stuff, but once you do, it reveals itself as something truly unique. Don’t get me wrong, there was a part of me drawn to it right away, but another part was wondering if they knew what the hell they were doing when they made this. Look at the evidence – McCullough hated it, Haskell really hated it, and Fripp went on the record to call it “unlistenable”. Not that this means it’s a bad record, but clearly it’s not what any of the band members had in mind – Sinfield aside, perhaps. King Crimson have always cultivated an absence of structure – even those 80’s albums give the band plenty of improv time – but they’d never again go this far off the deep end. McCullough and Haskell both left the band immediately; McCullough went to play with a number of B-list prog groups, while Haskell decided to start a solo career which promptly went nowhere – although, surprisingly enough, he did wind up achieving some success as a lounge crooner three decades later. Imagine that. As for King Crimson, you know the story – they shambled through another strange lineup (resulting in Islands and Earthbound, the band’s first live album), chucked everyone again, somehow courted Bill Bruford and John Wetton, and the rest is history.
One more thing: if you do get this album, make sure you grab the Steven Wilson remix from 2009. It is, no joke, one of the best reissues I’ve ever heard – Wilson didn’t remaster the album as much as he did reassemble it, including pieces from the original tapes that I swear were not in the original release. For example, the bluesy guitar playing on “Indoor Games” is a lot more audible, adding a completely new dimension to the tune that was completely muffled before. “Happy Family” turns from a trainwreck into something horrifying, in a good way. And so on. It must be said, that unlike Fripp (who supervised the first couple of CD editions), Wilson actually likes this album, which it turns out makes a whole lot of difference. Even if you already have it on vinyl and CD, get it again. Trust me.