This is quite simply one of the best books about music I’ve ever read. At 608 pages of fine print, it’s obviously exhaustive–but never exhausting. Consider the bare parameters of the task at hand: 50 years of the group’s existence; over 20 different members in various combinations; a notoriously prickly bandleader; one of the most sophisticated bodies of work in any musical genre. I can’t imagine anyone other than Sid Smith, longtime associate of the band and prolific rock journalist, who could have pulled it off.
The King Crimson story is unusual in that their peak of fame coincided with the release of their first album in 1969. Instead of the long slog through pubs full of flying beer bottles, ending up in stadium tours with mountains of cocaine, this is a story of constant struggle–often financial, but just as often aesthetic, as guitarist and final arbiter of all things Crimson, Robert Fripp, tries to embody his constantly shifting musical vision in the form of all too human players.
Smith perfectly balances the many aspects of the narrative. His in-depth interviews conjure the complex characters in telling detail, from Fripp’s mock-playful references to himself in third person, to Bill Bruford’s relentless desire to improve his craft, to Adrian Belew’s fragile egotism. Smith provides multiple viewpoints when there are arguments about who wrote what or whether somebody was fired or quit. For those (like me) who love the technical bits, there is gear and studio chatter and gig specifics. The music itself is expertly analyzed and critiqued. There’s even a bit of sex and drugs and alcohol. Plus the subtle, atmospheric cover painting by Mark Buckingham perfectly complements the contents.
The Crimson story per se ends on page 365, but addenda include capsule bios that take all the principals up through 2019, track-by-track notes on all the band’s albums, and a long section of gig diaries. (Not included, unfortunately, is an index.) Note that this is a vastly expanded version of a book that was originally published in 2001.
If you’re a fan of any of the incarnations of King Crimson, the book is essential. If you care about any of the bands that spun off from Crimson to become huge–Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Asia, Foreigner–or the musicians whose orbits intersected Crimson’s–Bowie, Eno, Yes, Talking Heads–you’ll find it fascinating at the very least.