Here’s one that belongs to a rather exclusive category: albums by future prog rock giants before they went prog. Many of these albums are entertaining, though somewhat embarrassing – this includes the first Yes album, The Aerosol Gray Machine by Van der Graaf Generator, From Genesis to Revelation by a very young, pre-Phil, pre-Steve incarnation of Genesis, and everything by Simon Dupree and the Big Sound (later known as Gentle Giant). The trio Giles, Giles, and Fripp is the band that would morph into King Crimson, with Cheerful Insanity being their sole release. Like that first Genesis album, it was a dismal failure; Fripp estimates that it only sold 500 copies upon release, though the later success of Crimson would ensure that this thing would at least have a niche audience.
Despite preconceptions of what a proto-King Crimson might sound like, Cheerful Insanity is about as far away from prog as it gets; it’s low-key, pastoral, and humorous. It’s a little hard to pin down exactly which era this belongs to – it does have some more experimental (and yes, progressive) tendencies, but they’re unobtrusive and don’t take away from the folkier and jazzier style that dominates the album. Some of it must’ve sounded old hat, even back then. One thing it does have in common with Crimson is great playing – it’s clean and well-produced, allowing all three members to shine, and it’s a rare opportunity to hear Fripp play in a decidedly non-rock context. Michael Giles is of course a top-notch drummer, handling all sorts of understated jazzy fills, while Peter Giles plays a good walking bass (often in a lead role), and handles vocals well, particularly when it comes to harmonization. On occasion they will use a string section, backing vocals, or horns, but mostly this comes down to the trio. You do hear some of the same sounds as you do on the first two King Crimson albums, but you’d have to have a real keen ear to pick that out – “Suite No. 1” with its clean, precise guitar runs is the only moment that makes you think “oh right, that’s Fripp”.
What really defines Cheerful Insanity (once you get past the “pre-Crimson” angle) is its vaudevillian, campy atmosphere. It almost sounds like an early, less-funny Monty Python disc in spots – the lyrics are full of bizarre wordplay, nonsensical punchlines (“Elephant Song”), twists on familiar lyrical concepts (“One in a Million”, a Kinks-like song of the everyman but without the moralizing, and “Newly-Weds”, which is both pro- and anti-marriage), and little stories that run between the songs, one of which gives you the rare opportunity to hear Fripp’s voice on a record (“The Saga of Rodney Toady”). Mostly the humor is droll and occasionally misognystic (the single “She is Loaded”, not on the original LP, but all the CD reissues have it), with a lot of supposedly funny voices. At some points the humor is so subtle you wonder if it’s there at all (“Digging My Lawn”, the blatant throwbacks like “Sun is Shining”). This would be irritating if the songs themselves weren’t good – the prettier songs are all plenty memorable, and are good lyrically to boot (“North-Meadow”, “Thursday Morning”, “Little Children”). Even the jokier songs tend to either be brief (“The Crukster”, likely a parody of In Search of the Lost Chord), or memorable (“Elephant Song”). My favorite song on the album is “Under the Sky”, which I believe was actually written by Pete Sinfield (it later appeared on Still, his one solo album) – it’s folky and mystic, and features the strongest melody here. Again, it’s a bonus track, making me wonder if it was intended to be a single.
At the very least you have to wonder what could have become of them. Cheerful Insanity is an interesting curio, and you can see Peter Giles maybe developing into a sort of Syd Barrett-type character. What if “She is Loaded” had become a hit? Would King Crimson have ever formed? If not, would we know about Yes or Genesis today? Would we even have a Gentle Giant? An archival release, The Brondesbury Tapes, offers some clues, with material intended for a follow-up release. Ian MacDonald joined up with the group at this time, along with future-Fairport Convention singer Judy Dyble, and you can see them start to head into deeper water; the songs are slightly longer and a bit more psychedelic, and with Dyble the group had a stronger and more serious voice to work with. You can hear some future King Crimson vibes here – early takes on “I Talk to the Wind” and “Why You Don’t Drop In?” (not recorded by KC in studio, but often played live) appear, plus of course there’s the presence of Ian McDonald, who would dominate most of the songwriting of In the Court. Meanwhile you get to hear Fripp do more of his dexterous guitar runs, though his songwriting had yet to amount to much. An album with both Giles brothers, Fripp, Dyble, and MacDonald really could’ve been something, but the flopping of Cheerful Insanity likely put a stop to that. Peter Giles left the band, and his shoes would be filled by a 21-year old bassist named Greg Lake. The rest, as they say, is history.
It is unfortunate that many of these guys didn’t have longer careers. Due to their jazzy background and willingness to try all sorts of wild ideas, a lot of unique and fascinating musicians wound up hanging out in the King Crimson circle between 1968 and 1971, but many of them would fall into obscurity (any idea what Sinfield’s been up to lately?). Of course constant turnover was a defining feature of the early Crimson, who went through three full rhythm sections before stumbling upon the classic Bruford/Wetton lineup (which lasted only a little over two years, but hey). The initial flash success of Crimso scared off MacDonald and the remaining Giles right away, who cut an album together in 1970 (simply called MacDonald and Giles). It’s good but slightly underdeveloped – perhaps this is what GG&F may have wound up sounding like. As most Crimson fans know, MacDonald wanted to rejoin Crimson after Red, but Fripp suddenly broke up the band. That’s King Crimson for you – always flirting with (and often achieving) greatness, but also a constant question of what could have been.