Classic Lineup Trading Cards: King Crimson

It seems that whenever I long to do something involving visual art here on my little corner of the internet, I always come back to trading cards. I’m not the most gifted in the art department, so doing something where I mix the use of photography with graphic design is something that I am far more comfortable with than drawing. So in the card department, I previously whipped together ones of memorable sibling combinations in bands, then did a post where I paid simultaneous tribute to jazz and baseball.

What brought about my latest idea for music-themed trading cards? This time around, I wasn’t inspired by sports.

In recent weeks, I picked up a handful of Impel Marvel Comics trading cards from the early-’90s. I’d seen a number of them being shared by an Instagram account I follow (Where’s My Stuff Mom?), and was pleased to see that many were available on one of my go-to online trading card retailers (BaseballCardStore.ca). With collective, world-saving forces like the Avengers and the Fantastic Four bringing together beings with extraordinary abilities, I thought of parallels to this that exist in the music world. Different superheroes came and went from the lineups of each of those teams (such as when She-Hulk bounced between both teams), much like musicians change in any particular band. Nonetheless, there are certain incarnations that bands have that seem to have a certain magic about them that puts them at the peak of their creative abilities. With those from these and other superhero teams captured on tiny pieces of cardboard, why not do the same with some of those great lineups in music?

Picking what is ultimately the best lineup of any band is heavily up for debate, and I don’t expect you to agree with my choices. My goal of this is to simultaneously share my favourite incarnations (or, as Deep Purple would refer to them as, Marks) of various groups from my music collection, attempt to be loyal to the visual design standards that card manufacturers were utilizing at the time these bands existed, and to use the cards as something of a jumping off point to touch on some band history while I’m at it.

With that, I have decided for my first “classic lineup” trading cards to use one of those bands that had more roster changes than Hilary Banks had outfits, King Crimson.

How do I begin to pick a favourite (or, in my eyes, the classic) King Crimson lineup? There’s not exactly a time in which the band had a glaringly weak or mediocre assembly of talent. At least to me, anyway, considering they’ve long been one of my favourite bands. The temptation exists to go with the musicians from the period in which I discovered them. The exact year I got into Crimson is a bit fuzzy, but my first album isn’t a typical one at all, Beat. I grabbed a copy somewhere in the mid-’00s at Star Records in Oshawa, not having heard a single track prior to purchase. I’m not even sure if I had seen the YouTube video of their performance of “Elephant Talk” from the sketch comedy show Fridays, a clip that taught me how freaking cool the Chapman Stick was as a musical instrument. While on Beat (and as I discovered to greater effect on Discipline later on) I found what remains one of my favourite guitar duos in Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew, ‘80s Crimson is not what I consider to be their top lineup.

If you were to twist my arm for a ranking of their entire discography, I’d place two of the Robert Fripp-John Wetton-Bill Bruford-David Cross era albums in my top three (one of which, Red, only features Cross on the track “Providence”), so it is natural that I hold that lineup as my favourite. Like all versions of King Crimson prior, it was not particularly long-lasting, but it did prove to be the most stable version of the band at that stage in their existence. There is also plenty that those four musicians in union brought to help lay the groundwork for the future of how King Crimson operated, namely in that their strengthening improvisations would be both vital in the generation of future compositions and an element making them a live act well worth the price of admission. Their show at Massey Hall in Toronto on June 24, 1974 is one of those shows that make me wish time travel was a possibility.

As this era fell between the years of 1972 to 1974, I was eyeing trading card designs that came out in those years in each of the four major North American sports leagues (MLB, NHL, NBA, and NFL). I’d look toward my beloved CFL too, but much of the time I find their card designs were lacking (the JOGO sets in particular). This time, I’ve settled on the NFL’s 1973 Topps set. I know I stated it was superheroes that got me to want to make these cards, but I had so few superhero cards in my collection growing up, so I don’t have as much exposure to their layouts. This set, like many from the 1970s, seemed very easy for me to tackle, plus you’ll see that the use of a front ribbon/banner allowed me to interweave an interesting theme from the band’s recording history.

And I’ll add that before you get too scroll-happy and jump down to see all the cards, you’ll notice I’ve left out Jamie Muir. I feel he did not stick it out long enough in the band to be considered a core member of the era, and so I only need to handle doing four of these on my initial attempt of “Classic Lineup” cards. It’s meant as no slight to Jamie, whose work with The Music Improvisation Company I aim to add to my collection some day.

I’ve got to start by showing the man who was with King Crimson from day one, Mr. Robert Fripp. In my promised inventive use of colour, you’ll notice that the front banner uses colours from the band’s 1974 studio album Red.

Here we have Robert casting a yearning gaze at my crudely-constructed Armchair Maestro logo. I know that Topps cards didn’t have a logo on the front much of the time, but I need something on it to let it be known the homage was my own doing. I listed Fripp as only being guitarist, opting to go with the primary instrumentation on the cards. I know that Fripp and David Cross took on other roles (most notably on mellotron) to fill out their sound, so to fit the set’s motif I thought I should keep it to a limited credit to keep some consistency in terms of font size and to keep things from being too cluttered. One might also think I could have listed him as the bandleader. However, this is not how he views himself in the band despite what his time put into the band may indicate. The “democratic band” mention on the card’s back is something he has maintained throughout the years, personally having heard this most recently from a French interview that was conducted in 1973.

Like on the cards that I’m basing these on, a large portion of the back I dedicated to a trivia question. I can’t take credit for the artwork I’ve used on these outside of some additional details and changes to colour and tracing, using numerous royalty-free clipart sites to find imagery that links to the questions I provided. Regarding the answer to the question on this card, I may actually have listed the incorrect answer depending on what your viewpoint is on when a band truly becomes a band. Numerous sources, including their authorized book In The Court of King Crimson: An Observation over 50 Years, state that the date the band was theoretically founded on was November 30, 1968, but they held first rehearsals of the founding lineup occurring in January of 1969. You can make a group on paper without having written a song, but that doesn’t guarantee that they’ll end up ever getting together to make music. This is why I took the date the lineup first played together as the basis of my answer, which also happens to match what is stated on the back of the book’s dust jacket. Fripp also made note of the date’s significance in an Old Grey Whistle Test interview from 1979.

Now comes the vocalist, and it’s one that even non-King Crimson fans may recognize. Here’s John Wetton, who also served as bassist.

What’s not to like about Wetton’s vocals? His warm voice with its distinct rasp are instantly recognizable from Crimson as well as his work with U.K. and Asia. To elaborate with an example of the two-in-one vocal I reference on the card, perhaps “Lament” would be the finest example of this from his Crimson days. And there’s as much to appreciate about his bass playing as his vocals. Melodic and often aggressive, verging on funky at times, though not as flashy as you’d expect from a Crimson member if examining their entire body of work. I’d consider his bass playing to be the neglected aspect of this quartet that’s well worth giving attention to. His case was the one exception I made to my rule of only listing a single instrument on the card front, as I view his contributions (bass and vocals) as co-primary tasks.

On this card, John had more of a just-rolled-out-of-bed look than the more clean-cut, thin tie-wearing image he’d cultivate playing with the more popular bands he would later join. Sports cards don’t always pick the most photogenic shots of people, so the one I used seems an authentic pick for the time. Not a high-resolution picture either, but at least he’s not doing something embarrassing like falling flat on his ass.

Links to popular culture aren’t out of place for a card’s trivia or bio, and here I made a connection to what could be considered loosely as a King Crimson spin-off band (though Free would be the main contributor to the Bad Company lineup). Wetton’s own body of work, in addition to Burrell’s, aren’t the only examples of those who were part of the band playing in more accessible music environments. Members of King Crimson (before, after, or during their time with the band) would get a taste of the mainstream through involvement in such bands as Foreigner, Talking Heads, and Mr. Mister. And the banner on the front? Those colours are courtesy of the Starless and Bible Black cover.

Next up is David Cross, the forgotten man of this Crim-carnation. Yes, I realize pointing out the fact he is the least-known of this quartet does him a great injustice. Instead, I’ll refer to him as the second-most popular entertainer with the name David Cross. Sure, there’s quite a gulf in popularity between this musician and the American comedian (whose likeness has been printed on trading cards), but he still beat out two footballers in the Wikipedia search ranking. Is that any consolation?

I pulled the Waves reference out of Bill Bruford’s autobiography. Unfortunately, even the ever-reliable Discogs lists no recordings Cross played on before Crimson. If any audio recordings of this band exist, or of anything else Cross played on pre-Crimson, by all means bring it to my attention. Listening to guys like him, Eddie Jobson (U.K., Jethro Tull, Roxy Music), Darryl Way (Curved Air), or Jerry Goodman (Mahavishnu Orchestra, Dixie Dregs) make me long for putting the violin back into rock music. As I dwell on it more and more, I may even consider purchasing a violin of my own some day!

While he is the quiet member of this lineup, David still has a sizable solo recording career. I remember being recommended a song off his Closer Than Skin album way back when I used the Pandora internet radio service (I stopped when it ceased to be available in Canada), back before I had a Crimson album that featured him. Much of his output falls pretty far from the mainstream on smaller record labels, but looks like something I should investigate further. Crimson is still very dear to David, as you can see in this 2015 intervew with Sunn Creative Media where he talks at length of the development of “Starless” as a group collaboration. You don’t get Cross on that track from the Red album, which makes seeking out versions with his violin on it well worth the time. And speaking of albums, the ribbon colours on the card are taken from Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, taking a unique approach on this one by adding in a third colour (the red/maroon shade from the album’s border). As for some more light on the trivia answer, Greg Lake was in The Gods (essentially an early version of Uriah Heep) in November 1968 when Fripp called him up as the final piece of the Crimson puzzle.

Last comes Bill Bruford, and I’ve chosen a picture of him with his common adornment of the Boston Bruins logo across his chest. With this connection to hockey, putting him on a sports card was inevitable (of note, he also appear in the 1991 Brockum Rock Cards set).

I ran out of studio albums, so the colours of this card reflect those of their U.S.A. live recording. As much as I enjoy King Crimson, I don’t have nor have I heard that album in its entirety. The lone Crimson live album I own from this period is The Night Watch, an album that was released twenty-three years following this lineup’s demise in 1974, excerpts from which were used as basis for portions of their Starless and Bible Black album. I took note of “The Talking Drum” as just one of his highlights with the band, and did so knowing that it would also become a prominent part of their live set during their Thrak touring more than 20 years later, with Pat Mastelotto bringing different percussive flourishes in place of Jamie Muir’s contributions.

You could argue that making references to Yes twice on the back of this card is too much, but there’s no denying his importance to both bands. When discussing the transition between bands, Bill often portrays the journey from more of a fantasy or romantic angle, for instance, saying in this 1980 interview with Tape Archives that Robert acknowledges that he was “ready to play in King Crimson”. I believe he also once described it in terms of Robert picking him like ripe fruit off the vine, but I can’t recall the exact interview. Talking about this in so many interviews, Bruford has also adapted the story from a humorous viewpoint, such as expressing wanting to play with more musicians due to being tired of “looking at the same four rears” from behind his drum kit (as told in an interview with Rock Hall from the past year). Aside from the Yes connection, I wanted to include it in the card’s trivia because I have developed a rather unusual sentimental attachment to “Prince Rupert Awakes” in recent months. It’s a piece of music that I once went some time without hearing, and one night I had the soft vocal melody and piano from the intro enter a dream I had where I visited my deceased father (I suppose in this dream he somehow came back to life). It’s odd because my dad didn’t listen to Yes or King Crimson, but I think it says something about that piece that had brought such strong emotions out of me when I woke up.

With that, there’s my first complete band set. I can’t wait to do some more, but what band do I choose next? I’m open to ideas, but at the end of the day, I’ve got to have a passion for the music in order to proceed forward. I’m also aware that there are other trading card collectors out there that do music customs. I’ve love to give a shout out to them in future posts, so feel free share links to websites or social media channels (Twitter, Instagram, etc.) that demonstrate a similar passion. For now, I’ll recommend the website PhantomCardboard.com and the Instagram pages nine_pockets and johncandyspants (look for his one of GG Allin!).

And if you want more detail on King Crimson’s early history outside of the sources I’ve shared above, check out Produce Like A Pro’s video on the topic, which I found through a recent tweet by Crimson alum Trey Gunn.

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