Revised and updated, July 2016.
With great dismay, I learned that at least one critic described In the Court of the Crimson King as “the most influential progressive rock recording in history.”
“Influential” is the ultimate backhanded compliment. It usually means “it’s a shit album but at least one musician worshipped by the music press happened to mention it in a long-forgotten interview.” I have experienced even greater dismay when listening to “influential” albums such as Pet Sounds and Astral Weeks, as both are clearly period pieces that fall into the category of “unlistenable.”
Many influential albums have been labeled as such by the Baby Boomers in control of the music media. Baby Boomers tend to believe that nearly everything they heard post-puberty was the greatest fucking development in human evolution. While I happen to agree that the overall quality of music in the period 1964 to about 1973 was much higher when compared to any other era, The Boomers have applied the “We’re Number One!” ethos far too broadly. We see it in their uncritical depiction of The Beatles, in their elevation of one-hit wonders like Question Mark and the Mysterians to “classic” status and in their over-the-top application of the word “influential.”
For all I know, In the Court of the Crimson King may very well be an influential album, but I think what’s more important is that nearly fifty years after its release, it is a great album with music that sounds as fresh as it must have sounded on first release and with themes that are painfully relevant to a world that seems to be on the verge of chaos. Another feature that distinguishes Crimson King from its progressive progeny is that while it shares the classic progressive tendency towards very long tracks, I don’t hear a single note that is superfluous. The pieces that make up this record are brilliantly designed compositions that keep the listener engaged, attentive and often moved.
Whenever I hear the stunning opener, “21st Century Schizoid Man,” I have to double-check the claim that this record was recorded when they said it was recorded. “Are you sure this was done in nineteen-fucking-sixty-nine?” I ask the empty room, holding onto a tiny bit of skepticism for safety’s sake. I look at the vinyl album cover (a masterpiece in itself) and there it is in print: 19fucking69.
You’ll appreciate that fact even more when you look up the Billboard Top 20 for 1969 and find that the #1 song of the year was “Sugar, Sugar” by a fake band called The Archies who provided the music for a Saturday morning cartoon. I can’t imagine a greater gap between alternate universes than “21st Century Schizoid Man” and “Sugar, Sugar.” The one deals with fundamental human alienation and the other is well, “Sugar, Sugar.”
Another aside: I was pissed off when I read that Top 20 list to discover that “I Can’t Get Next to You” by The Temptations was only #7. One of the greatest soul recordings ever made couldn’t outsell “Sugar, Sugar?” No wonder America was falling apart at the time: the Silent Majority consisted of clueless fucking losers.
Where were we? Ah yes, “21st Century Schizoid Man.” What a great song!
Greg Lake kills this vocal, patched voice and all. The words are so prescient, describing 21st Century psychology (if not reality) to a T:
Cat’s foot iron claw
Neurosurgeons scream for more
At paranoia’s poison door.
Twenty first century schizoid man.
Blood rack barbed wire
Politicians’ funeral pyre
Innocents raped with napalm fire
Twenty first century schizoid man.
Death seed, blind man’s greed
Poets starving, children bleed
Nothing he’s got he really needs
Twenty first century schizoid man.
Nearly every word could have been written today: the mass paranoia engulfing the terrorists and terrorized; our narcissistic political leaders leading societies closer and closer to self-destruction; true artists relegated to poverty and anonymity; kids getting shot up in American schools and on the front lines in the Middle East.
But equally impressive is the extended instrumental section, with its shifting electro-mechanical rhythms of precise starts and stops. The chords are not particularly complex, but the collaborative precision is stunning and the painstaking effort that went into it truly breathtaking. Robert Fripp makes quite an entrance as the driving force behind King Crimson: the wail, the bend, the riffs working counter to the scales and back . . . a brilliant piece of musicianship indeed. The rhythm section of Lake and Michael Giles is as tight as possible, creating their own syncopated melodic lines in the context of the neurotic, jumpy rhythms. “21st Century Schizoid Man” is both a brilliant composition and a shining example of full commitment on the part of a marvelous group of musicians.
After the intensity of “Schizoid Man,” the lovely, quiet harmonies and gentle flute of “I Talk to the Wind” is like stepping into a cool shower on a hot day. The lyrical themes of confusion and isolation flow from the themes of “Schizoid Man,” but this is a more personal, existential alienation—the alienation one feels when you realize the separateness that is a severely limiting aspect of the human condition:
I talk to the wind
My words are all carried away
I talk to the wind
The wind does not hear, the wind cannot hear
A dramatic drum roll and cymbal crashes wake us to confront the “Epitaph Including March for No Reason and Tomorrow and Tomorrow,” a dramatic suite that continues the theme of alienation with more intensity but even greater doubt. The verses are built on a combination of dichotomies and bleak realizations:
The wall on which the prophets wrote
Is cracking at the seams.
Upon the instruments of death
The sunlight brightly gleams.
When every man is torn apart
With nightmares and with dreams,
Will no one lay the laurel wreath
As silence drowns the screams . . .
The repeated line, “Yes, I fear tomorrow I’ll be crying” may seem bleak, but once you stop trying to avoid reality through whatever your escapist method may be (television, Internet, booze, drugs, video games), you have to accept the face that the human race is in deep shit due to a combination of denial, inhumanity and our willingness to surrender our power to the short-sighted:
Knowledge is a deadly friend
If no one sets the rules.
The fate of all mankind I see
Is in the hands of fools.
Someone simply must create a video with visuals from the Republican presidential debates with audio from “Epitaph Including March for No Reason and Tomorrow and Tomorrow.”
“Moonchild Including The Dream and The Illusion,” with its imagery of “dreaming in the shadows of the willows” features a fascinating musical landscape of random percussive and keyboard sounds with hints of a guitar exploring the possibilities inside and outside the scale; it’s like jazz separated from rhythm . . . more of a musical painting than a musical suite. On the engineering side, the panning separating keyboard and guitar makes for an extraordinarily compelling listening experience. In the Court of the Crimson King is a very well designed record on every level.
The album ends with the title cut, the exquisitely grand “The Court of the Crimson King Including Return of the Fire Witch and Dance of the Puppets.” The weaving together of flute, guitar, crashing drums, mellotron and the powerful chorus of male voices is truly spine tingling. And I am always surprised and delighted when the instrumental segment dissolves into the sound of an organ grinder playing the melodic theme—the stark contrast between grand and human scale is one of the most brilliantly-conceived turns I have ever heard. The song ends with the chorus theme crashing over sounds of “shorting-out” and chimes dissolving as if the music has left this dimension for another. The image-laden lyrics are somewhat opaque, though appropriately so: human beings deliberately design structures where power is wielded to inspire awe and a sense of mystery in the minds and hearts of the insignificant shits who arrive caps-in-hand.
In the Court of the Crimson King was certainly influential in terms of opening the door to what we now label “progressive rock,” but in this case, the original is as good (or better) than anything that followed it. The combination of superb musicianship, exceptional dynamics and memorable motifs lead me to believe that a symphonic version would receive a warm welcome from classical audiences. The musical thought and effort that went into this recording made it not only far, far ahead of its time, but a timeless work of art. Most importantly, its theme of existential alienation transcended the simplistic “love is all and love is everyone” philosophies of the era, forcing the listener to face the endless question, “In a world where one person feels they do not matter, does anyone matter at all?”