In the Camera of a Crimson King — Shutterbug bassist Tony Levin delivers funky picks, candid clicks
Updated: Jul 20, 2021
IF YOU’RE PLANNING to check out pioneering progressive-rock giants King Crimson in Delray Beach on July 23, be prepared to smile for the bass player's camera.
Crimson bassist Tony Levin has taken photographs to document much of his 40-plus years in music, many shot with remote-control triggers during live performances with big names like Peter Gabriel, Paul Simon and Sting.
When Crimson takes the stage at Old School Square Pavilion, he plans to sneak in a few camera clicks as he pounds away on his bass.
“I got a new camera in addition to the 360-degree panoramic camera that I'll be taking pictures of the audience with (during the tour),’’ he said in an interview.
“Hopefully I can get the whole band and the audience in one picture every night and share that online.’’
Levin, 74, has been carrying cameras with him almost as long as, and wherever, he has carried bass guitars, onstage and off.
But make no mistake: First and foremost, he is a no-nonsense musician, a prolific session player and touring bassist who made his mark on some of the most popular hits by some of rock’s biggest names.
He has been Gabriel’s bass player of choice since 1977 — that’s Levin on “Sledgehammer” and “Big Time.’’ And he’s the longest-serving bassist for King Crimson, a gig he started in 1981 with a pioneering progressive rock band that formed in 1968.
Ranked among Rolling Stone magazine’s 50 greatest bass players, he also created “funk fingers,’’ modified drumsticks attached to a bassist’s fingers to create a funky slap sound. And he popularized the Chapman Stick, a sleek, tapping guitar heard in Gabriel hits like "Shock the Monkey."
He's a damn fine photographer, too.
See for yourself in “Images From A Life On The Road,’’ a new coffee-table book featuring 247 mostly black-and-white photographs dating back to the 1970s and shot on four continents.
Decades before cameras became fixtures in pocket-fitting cell phones, Levin started carrying one on touring gigs. He had the foresight to photograph intimate moments, often using a squeeze ball or a foot pedal rigged with a shutter trigger.
Aside from a few mirror-assisted selfies (some taken before selfies were a thing), Levin aimed his camera at Gabriel, King Crimson founder Robert Fripp, Peter Frampton and many other musicians in candid moments before, during and after shows.
"Images..." is not his first book of photos. He published Road Photos in 1983 and Crimson Chronicles in 2004. But as 2020 approached, he’d already been thinking for years about a new compilation, if only he could find the time during his busy touring schedule.
Then came the pandemic.
With concert halls silenced, Levin started sorting through tens of thousands of images, many that had to be scanned because they were shot on film. It took him six months.
“I might never have had time in my lifetime to collate it all and put it together if not for the lockdown,’’ he said.
Released in February and distributed by MoonJune Records, the book is presented as a journey of a musician’s life on the road. It’s arranged in chronological chapters covering a typical day — traveling, arriving at the venue, backstage, going on stage, showtime and bows.
For Levin, the book represents a visual biography of the most significant periods in his professional career, which started in the 1970s after he’d studied classical and jazz at the Eastman School of Music.
“I had a pretty good camera in the ‘70s. Pretty early I started taking pictures when things got quiet on stage,’’ said Levin, known for his shaved head and thick mustache.
“Then I started setting up a tripod on stage with a camera on it and a foot pedal to trigger the camera. I put that foot pedal among my bass pedals. You couldn't tell, but I was taking pictures during the show whenever I wanted, if something interesting happened on stage.’’
One of Levin’s favorite images in the book shows Peter Gabriel gently sliding into the crowd on his back and floating through a mass of hands during the song “Lay Your Hands On Me.’’
Go to the 6:10 mark in this video below to see Gabriel doing a crowd backslide like the one Levin photographed:
But Gabriel, who’d just left Genesis when he met Levin, wasn’t always a willing photo subject. A few times during performances of “Solsbury Hill,” the singer would just happen to knock over Levin’s tripod as he pedaled by on a bicycle.
“The special thing about my photos, I’ve had the unique opportunity to have a vantage point on stage with Peter Gabriel and Paul Simon and with Sting, Seal, King Crimson, and the camera is next to me, so I get a picture that's significantly different than anything you can get from the audience,’’ he said.
Levin has posted more than 6,800 photos over the years in “The Road Diary,’’ which he started as a blog in 1996 and is now part of his website, TonyLevin.com.
And since 2012, he has showcased images on his Instagram account @tonylevin.
But it’s the book that showcases his very best photos along with his knack for recognizing and capturing significant moments.
“Like the first concert I did with King Crimson,’’ he said, recalling a 1981 show “in a little club called Moles because it was literally in a hole in a wall in Bath, England. I wanted to take a picture of the first note of the first set of that incarnation of King Crimson. It was great fun having the camera along for the ride.’’
Levin, who enjoyed shopping for lenses early in his career on tours of Japan, said he doesn’t necessarily consider himself a professional photographer.
Some of the images in the book aren’t perfectly sharp, the result of a candid moment captured on the fly.
But he’s definitely as serious with a camera as he is with an NS upright bass.
“It's not that I'm an expert at it,’’ he said, “but if you keep trying to get better at it and do it for enough years, sooner or later at the very least you'll get lucky and get some good shots.’’
It’s no surprise that Gabriel and Fripp appear in most of the photographs in “Images from a Life on the road.’’
Both musicians played pivotal roles in Levin’s career, which might have taken a very different road if not for an early setback.
He was playing with the Rochester Philharmonic in 1969 when he was invited to join Buddy Rich’s jazz band on the road. Thrilled about his first big break, Levin got rid of his apartment, sold most of his belongings and took off to join the band.
But when he caught up with the band, he found out he didn’t have the job after all.
“I went on the road and they changed their mind, said they didn’t need me,’’ he recalled.
“Probably my whole life would have been different had I done that tour that I was trying to do.’’
With no job and no apartment, he decided to head to New York City to “try my luck in the big pond with the big boys,’’ he said.
He started playing with Mothers of Invention keyboardist Don Preston and landed session gigs with the likes of Lou Reed (“Berlin”) and Simon. Along the way he made connections with influential producers Bob Ezrin.
“I did a few Alice Cooper records with him and he liked how I played rock,’’ Levin said.
One day in 1976, Ezrin brought him in to play with Gabriel on the singer’s first album since leaving Genesis. That same day, Levin met Fripp, who’d also been brought in to work on Gabriel’s album.
Levin wound up going on tour, the start of a long Gabriel collaboration. He made himself available to other musicians, too.
In 1981, Fripp recruited Levin for his revival of King Crimson, which was coming back from a seven-year hiatus.
Levin would work with other musicians and bands. (Playing bass just a few feet from Lennon during the recording of “Double Fantasy” felt “like I joined the Beatles for a day,” he said.)
But he would end up spending the most productive periods of his career with Gabriel and Fripp.
“Very happily I am still making music with them both, which is pretty amazing,’’ Levin said, reflecting on the day in July 1976 he met both men.
“It’s been a long ride and it's not over yet.’’
What can concert goers expect at a King Crimson show like the one in Delray Beach on July 23?
“You won't hear or see another band like King Crimson. We are certainly unique,” Levin said.
“There are seven of us. We have three drummers in the band who have devised intricate ways to divide up the drum part. We put them in the front of the stage with the other four of us behind them on risers. It’s a fascinating show just to watch the drummers.
“We present it almost like a classical concert. Pretty serious when we come on stage, sometimes in suit and ties. We try to give people the best sound and best musical experience we can and if we’re allowed we do quite a long concert.”
King Crimson’s catalogue of music includes hundreds of songs, many dating back to the late 60s.
“It’s a huge number of pieces and we might pull any of them out on any night.”
But he can’t guarantee they’ll play classics like “Court of the Crimson King” or “21st Century Schizoid Man.”
Unlike most bands that tour with essentially the same set list night after night, King Crimson has a unique set list that’s compiled hours before the show.
“Robert Fripp is pretty adamant about that. He wants us to have about 50 songs ready to play — that’s more than we’ll ever need in any two shows,” Levin said.
“Then on the morning of the show he spends the whole morning listening to things and reviewing our last performance and checking what we played, even if its years before played that venue, to make sure we presents something different or something different than the night before because some people will follow us from city to city.”
Around noon, Fripp emails his bandmates a proposed set list, which is finalized during the sound check.
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