Rock

King Crimson's Tony Levin Is More Than Just a Pretty Bass

King Crimson in all their suited glory. Tony Levin is third from right.
King Crimson in all their suited glory. Tony Levin is third from right. Dean Stockings

When bassist and Chapman Stick player Tony Levin joined guitarists Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew, along with drummer Bill Bruford, in 1980 to form the band Discipline, he didn’t realize they would soon become a reconfigured King Crimson. Forty-one years later, the band has, like a prog rock version of a Transformer, become something both old and new again, and they've got an August 7 show at the Salt River Grand Ballroom at Talking Stick Resort & Casino in Scottsdale.

"In 1981, I joined this band, and at the time, we called it Discipline. There was no plan to call it King Crimson, but I met three amazing musicians that I'm still in very close touch with," Levin says. "I had played with Robert Fripp on Peter Gabriel's album (Peter Gabriel, his 1978 debut solo record) and tour and on Robert’s solo album (Exposure, 1979). I knew Robert’s playing and it is obviously unique and very progressive and very different than anything else.

In fact, over the years, the only constant in King Crimson has been Robert Fripp, who has gained a fair amount of attention during the pandemic putting out highly entertaining, and sometimes slightly erotic YouTube videos with his wife, Toyah Wilcox, where the pair (with an occasional second guitarist) do covers of well-known rock songs.

Reinvention is nothing new to Fripp, but one of his more constant companions on the King Crimson musical journey has been Levin, who shared some recollections of his early days in the band via Zoom.

Bruford had been a member of King Crimson back in the '70s. "I met Bill Bruford, who plays drums differently than anyone else, in a very progressive way that is just bizarrely different, and then Adrian Belew, and I could tell right away that I needed to up my game as a bass player,” Levin says on a recent day off in Florida.

The formation of such an inspired and auspicious quartet led to 1981’s killer King Crimson record, Discipline, one of the most underrated early '80s records from any genre. Angular, punk-ish inspired prog rock with an eastern feel, at times, and the addition of second guitarist/vocalist Belew’s twisted pop sensibility makes Discipline a favorite of both old and new fans of the band that got its beginning in 1968.

With Levin, Bruford, and Belew joining founding member Fripp, the band continued to be prolific for several years until the mercurial leader decided to pull the plug and, once again, put King Crimson on hold (the band has continued to go on and off hiatus since the '80s).

On the current tour, King Crimson has been playing both “Discipline” and “Indiscipline” off the aforementioned record at early tour stops, as well as tracks spanning the band’s entire discography. According to Levin, the rest of the band, which now includes three drummers, often don't get the night's setlist until the day of the show.

"I can't say which songs we do, because Robert only devises the setlist that morning," Levin says. "It's a different set every night and we have a huge repertoire that we’ve rehearsed at great length and we're ready to do.

“In a way, the audience will find it a little bit like a classical concert, because we're a little bit formal the way we come in. Some of us wear suits and ties, dress quite nicely, and there's not a lot of jumping around, and there’s not a big light show. It's about the music and if one lets themselves, they will be drawn into the complexity and quality of music."

Perhaps it was his classical roots, but Levin says that he never really got overwhelmed by working with some of rock 'n' roll’s biggest stars. A student of classical music while growing up in Brookline, Massachusetts, Levin became a sought-after studio musician in the 1970s. In addition to playing with Gabriel and Fripp, Levin has also contributed bass lines on records by Lou Reed (Berlin), Buddy Rich, Paul Simon, Carly Simon, Ringo Starr, Warren Zevon, and many others. He was recently named number 42 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the all-time greatest rock 'n' roll bass players

“As a studio musician, you would walk into the room with any artist and do your job. It was more of a craft than an art. One of the things that I found is that I’m more comfortable playing live and being a performer. I still do albums in the studio as such and I don't dislike it, but as a studio player, one got in the habit of not stepping out of your function by pestering the artist by telling them you are a fan of them,” Levin says.

“But if I'm in a first meeting, especially a first meeting with somebody I admire musically, I might be excited on the inside, but nine-tenths of me is just looking forward to making the music. A lifelong musician, all of them will tell you the same thing, it's all about the music. With John Lennon, when I was just the guy that was chosen to play on the Double Fantasy album, I just did what every bass player on the planet would do and said, 'Thank you' for letting me be the one who's here to play the bass part on it.”

As the band comes through Phoenix on August 7, Levin is looking forward to being back in the desert after a very strange year and a half for all music fans.

“It's great to be doing what we love to do, which is playing live and sharing music with an audience that cares about it. And just the physical, metaphysical experience of sharing a good concert with people who like it, I’m not a poet enough to describe it in words, but there's nothing quite like it. We missed it, you know, and we didn't know how much we would miss it,” he says.

King Crimson. 6 p.m. Saturday, August 7. Salt River Grand Ballroom at Talking Stick Resort and Casino, 9800 Talking Stick Way, Scottsdale. Tickets are $55. Visit talkingstickresort.com.
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Tom Reardon has written for Phoenix New Times since 2013. He's been in several notable bands over the last 25 years including Hillbilly Devilspeak, North Side Kings, and the Father Figures.
Contact: Tom Reardon