rock, or ‘prog rock’, has consistently had something of a tainted reputation in
the world of music criticism ever since the punk revolution in the late
Seventies, forever associated (rightly or wrongly) with impenetrable, willfully
difficult compositions, pompous egos and massively expensive instruments. But
for every bloated double-LP of noodling self-indulgence, or triple-LP concept
album about the agrarian revolution, even the smallest amount of research
demonstrates at least one brilliant example of what this kind of experimental,
abstract and highly technical music could sound like, in the right hands.
Possibly the first ever truly great album in this vein was In The
Court Of The Crimson King, the debut album from King Crimson that
was released right at the end of the Sixties, but which would inform a great
deal of what was to come in the following decade.
was a decade in which not only the sound of pop and rock music had
evolved at lightning speed, but also the very idea of what it could describe,
what it could be about, and what forms it could take. After the Summer of Love
of 1967 and the release of psychedelic masterworks like Sgt.
Pepper’s… and The
Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, pop was never going to completely revert
back to its previous state of three-minute hits, and a number of British and
American rock musicians wanted to push the art form as far as it would go. King
Crimson, a London-based five-piece formed at the end of the Sixties, were
probably the most prominent of these.
ascent and impact was almost immediate, enjoying the early exposure of performing in front of
500,000 rock fans on 5th July 1969 supporting The Rolling Stones
at an enormous free concert in London’s Hyde Park. Formed from the ashes of an
unsuccessful psychedelic pop act consisting of bassist Peter Giles, drummer
Michael Giles and guitarist / de facto leader Robert Fripp, the first
(and classic) five-piece line-up of King Crimson came together by the end of
1968 when Fripp ejected Peter Giles for Greg Lake on bass and vocals, and added
lyricist Peter Sinfield and keyboardist / multi-instrumentalist Ian McDonald. Their
name was chosen to make a political point – historically and
etymologically, a ‘crimson king’ referred to a monarch during whose reign there
was civil unrest and copious bloodshed – and the dark and unsettled mood of
their debut album reflected that.
Upon release, In The Court Of The Crimson King was
hailed as a masterpiece, from critics and fellow musicians alike – most notably
Pete Townshend, whose own conceptually groundbreaking album with The Who, Tommy,
was released earlier the same year. In contrast to the blues-based and/or
psychedelic rock approach favoured by many of their contemporaries, King
Crimson blended these influences with a more Europeanised approach, one that
took in classical forms and structures, both romantic and modernist, and
freeform jazz experimentation. Robert Fripp would be the mainstay of King
Crimson for years to come, dominating the group’s sound and direction amid an
array of different line-ups, but on this record, he shares equal billing with
his bandmates, with Ian McDonald’s imagery and woodwind sections arguably the
The themes of madness, unreality and apocalypse of In The
Court Of The Crimson King are established even before you’ve pressed play.
The album’s arresting artwork – best enjoyed on the vinyl album’s gatefold
sleeve – is a painting by computer programmer Barry Godber of the character in
the record’s opening track ‘21st
Century Schizoid Man’. Madness, fear and despair seem to be in the man’s
expression, and the message it communicates is clear – listen if you dare,
because too much In The Court Of The Crimson King might send you mad as
well. Robert Fripp himself later said “the eyes reveal an incredible sadness.
What can one add? It reflects the music.”
Opening with a steady, ominous rock riff, those same themes
of internal and societal chaos are expressed in Ian McDonald’s series of
disconnected images. “Death seed blind man’s greed / Poets starving,
children bleed / Nothing he’s got he really needs”, Lake sings in a heavily
distorted voice, the lyrics interspersed with saxophone squalls, jazz freakouts
and stuttering drums. Not only
is ‘21st Century Schizoid Man’ credited with influencing the
alternative rock and grunge sounds of the early Nineties, but Kanye West was so
enamoured with it that he sampled the vocal line for ‘Power’ from his 2010
masterpiece My Beautiful Dark
This is followed by the least unsettling track of the album
– or, at least, superficially. Although it’s set to pastoral wind instruments,
beautiful flutes and soft, pattering drumming, Lake’s lyrics in ‘I Talk To The Wind’ speak of
complete futility and crushing alienation. “I’m on the outside / looking
inside… I talk to the wind / But the wind cannot hear” he croons
strikes a similar note of resignation, although its execution seems to frame
Lake’s disposition as something more virtuous than it was on the previous track,
despite him singing McDonald’s lyrics predicting of a time when “the silence
drowns the screams”. The mellotron sound is toned down on these tracks compared
to the totemic power of their early live shows, but the album doesn’t suffer
from this, instead living gaps for Fripp’s inventive blasts of guitar and Lake’s
strongest vocal work ever.
The spooky yet utterly beautiful ‘Moonchild’ opens the second
side, a 12-minute epic that contains an improvised, ambient jazz interlude
after an acoustic, folk-based ditty. Unlike the two famous tracks that bookend In
The Court Of The Crimson King, ‘Moonchild’ is the quietest and most reflective
moment, and one that was given
a second life in the 21st century when Doves
re-moulded the melody for ‘M62
Song’, on their chart-topping 2002 album The Last Broadcast.
great conceptual works, In The Court Of The Crimson King saves its most
epic and bombastic moment for the end. Featuring majestic drum rolls and with
its lyrics speaking of fire witches, purple pipers and lullabies in ancient tongues
based around a symphonic riff, the album’s title track manages to sound both
grandiose and deeply depressed at the same time. The shifting time signatures,
and the folky arabesques and baroque flute that characterise the track’s middle
section, are all brilliant examples of what progressive rock could be at its
best. Even the pitched-up synthesisers in the song’s short coda seem to signify
a collapse into madness. While an abridged version of the single stiffed in the
UK, ‘In The Court Of The Crimson
King’ did surprisingly well in America, where the full 10-minute running
length was split over two sides of a 45-rpm disc.
heard In The Court Of The Crimson King at the time was astonished by the
group’s highly original approach, and 50 years later it’s among the most daring
and ambitious debut albums ever conceived. It blew every other band in their
fledgling genre out of the water, including commercially successful acts like The
Moody Blues, and in many ways became an albatross for King Crimson themselves.
This line-up would not stay together much longer, with Greg Lake, Michael Giles
and Ian McDonald all quitting or being pushed out during the subsequent touring
period as Robert Fripp assumed creative control of the group. It took them five
years and as many albums to make something half as resonant as their debut,
however, with 1973’s freeform Larks’
Tongues In Aspic being the best.
of King Crimson headed up by Fripp still tours today, although the group hasn’t
recorded any new material since 2003. Their influence isn’t contained to the
progressive rock genre, however, with artists as diverse as Kasabian and Kamasi
Washington owing a debt to their fusion of rock with more classical and
avant-garde (or at least non-blues) forms. Half a century later, In The
Court Of The Crimson King is the cornerstone of that lasting legacy, still
retaining its unsettling and startling power for newcomers today.
Listen to In The Court Of The Crimson King by King Crimson here via Spotify, and tell us what you think below!
Robert Wyatt, Pink
Floyd, Soft Machine, Emerson Lake & Palmer, Yes, Jethro Tull, David Bowie,
Brian Eno, Genesis, Goblin, Pere Ubu, Kate Bush, Jeff Buckley, Tool, Godspeed
You! Black Emperor, At The Drive-In, The Mars Volta, Doves, Wooden Shjips,
Kasabian, Foals, Temples, Kanye West, Kamasi Washington, Ezra Collective
Influenced by: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, The Beach Boys, The Beatles, Love, Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Frank Zappa
Tags: 50 years old, 50th anniversary, cult 60s, Greg Lake, Ian McDonald, In The Court Of The Crimson King, King Crimson, Michael Giles, Robert Fripp
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