King Crimson – In the Court of the Crimson King – Classic Music Review

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 fifty-plus years after its release, is that the music sounds as fresh as it must have sounded on first release, with themes that are painfully relevant to a world that seems to be on the precipice 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 album was recorded when they said it was recorded. “Are you sure this was done in nineteen-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: 1969.

You’ll appreciate that fact even more if 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.”

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 is 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” feel 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 that separateness 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 fact 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.

“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 grandiosity and human scale is one of the most brilliantly conceived turns I’ve 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 power structures and propaganda designed to inspire awe and a sense of mystery in the minds and hearts of the insignificant shits who arrive with their 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?”

18 responses

  1. […] King Crimson – In the Court of the Crimson King […]

  2. For my money, King Crimson was the greatest English prog band, and their first sonic gift to the world is at its best one monumental ride, especially the very first track. Probably their only real competition ( apologies to Yes, ELP, Genesis, etc.) was Van Der Graf Generator. Thanks for the review. Piece of advice, though: You need to explore the 80’s rock underground. Your 80’s list is grossly incomplete.

    1. Suggestions on 80’s underground artists?

  3. Matheus Bezerra de Lima | Reply

    I disagree completely when you criticized Pet Sounds. Certain it is a truly unique album, with a unique sound and atmosphere that may take some time for some listeners “get it”, even tough the album is so catchy. But once starts to grow on you… I found many people that did not love Pet Sounds at first time and initially dismissed it as being overrated by old people, but now give the album 5 stars without hesitation. I did not love Pet Sounds at first, I found it strange, but just few listens made me see what masterpiece Pet Sounds is! A truly magic album, its kind of experience, its arrangements and style are something unrepeatable and magic in their uniqueness by any other album. I find Pet Sounds also incredibly consistent. With maybe the exception of the two instrumental songs, that are pleasure but not extraordinary, all songs in Pet Sounds are good to great, especially Wouldn’t Be Nice and God Only Knows. I am not saying this to make you love the album, just to show another viewpoint and show also that nothing is unanimous and loved by everybody, no matter how great and classic is. So, dismiss an album so acclaimed just because it is not much your taste is a bit of conceit in my opinion, say that millions of people are wrong and you right. I try to act with big respect and understandind even with music that I don’t like and not dismiss as overrated. I not like much Led Zeppelin, I only can have certain appreciation of their when used as fun music in movies, because hard Rock is not my cup of tea. But I can respect and objectively undestand till a certain level their great musical achievements. Another thing: I already saw a guy in RYM that said that hated Sgt. Peppers deep in his heart, that personally found the album as being unlistenable, that had nothing against The Beatles and did not want or thinked fair to take away what The Beatles made and had deep respect and admiration of The Beatles, but somehow could not like music, even wanting to be fan. He gave 1 of 5 stars to Peppers. This same guy gave 5 of stars to Pet Sounds. I like much Peppers, but I find it inferior than Pet Sounds. My favorite Beatles albums are Revolver and Abbey Road. I consider Revolver their masterpiece and best album, but, personally, Abbey Road was the only Beatles album, and among few that I ever heard, clicked with me almost instantly. In my very first listen of Abbey Road, I could not wait to play it again. It is the most acessible Beatles album in my opinion, better than even Revolver in this sense.

    1. Can I interest you in some beets?

      1. I like beets when cooked with chicken, potatoes…But not a fan of beets. I understand you.

  4. I am thoroughly ambivalent about “In the Court of the Crimson King”. Well, except for “21st Century Schizoid Man” and Epitaph which are both just brilliant. With “I Talk to the Wind” and “Moonchild”, I tried, I really did, and I still try but I just can’t connect. Which brings us to the title track…

    It’s a haunting vocal. Musically, it varies (quite satisfyingly) from very big and full to up close and intimate during the verses. Usually I’d be put off that the lyrics don’t make a scrap of sense, and in my less charitable moments I’m likely to dismiss them as nonsense, but it’s a fantasy, a vivid dream at the moment of awakening just before it fades to scattered images turning grey. It’s a song for eyes closed.

  5. […] King Crimson, In the Court of the Crimson King […]

  6. The most insane fact about this album is that King Crimson had only existed for about six months by the time they recorded this album and shortly after it was released, they imploded on tour. They formed in January 1969 and by December 1969, they were no more. Ian McDonald had joined Giles, Giles and Fripp for the last few months of their existence, but that band gave very little pointers or clues as to what would happen with King Crimson.

    Just four musicians were making this intense noise though their fifth member, lyricist Peter Sinfield was treated as an equal member – to this day, Robert Fripp still points to Sinfield’s lyrics on this album as being his very best work and opines that Mike Giles was the most fantastic, creative and precise drummer of his time. For my money, Greg Lake never sang or played better.

    The band were tapping into some source of energy and power they didn’t fully understand and sadder still, it began creeping out Ian McDonald and Mike Giles. More hippie like than the other members they decided to quit the band because they wanted to spend more time with their girlfriends since they found being on the road and playing this music too scary and wearying. Fripp was devastated when they announced their decision. Of course, Crimson continued – and by goodness they turned in a lot of interesting diverse music – but it took a couple of years for Fripp to find his feet again and for that to happen he ended up firing Peter Sinfield and in the process, ending up as the sole original member of the band.

    It might be worth your time to check out the album “Epitaph” which brings together BBC sessions and live tapes of this original version of King Crimson in action. Onstage, there is an extra power and ferocity that is breathtaking… there’s a rough-ish mono tape of them onstage in New York that’s an absolute blinder. Fripp also released through DGM a recording of the band at the famous Rolling Stones’ Hyde Park gig that’s worth a listen… reasonable sound quality and proves that they slaughtered the Stones that day. Of course the tragedy was the film cameras only filmed the Stones’ ragged rusty set and not a single frame of King Crimson… however, one fan did shoot a little black and white 8mm footage of Crimson in action.

    There was simply nothing like this original line up of King Crimson before or since and this album is a reasonable representation of that, though Fripp feels it fails to capture the raw power of what they were like onstage. It’s even better in it’s remixed form – Steven Wilson remixed it all from scratch a few years ago, going back to the original stage tapes so it shines and sparkles even more than before… I always had problems with the original mix, but Wilson’s remix sounds like a veil of clingfilm has been removed, so it’s much sharper and clearer… and to my ears, all the better for it.

    1. Great backstory. I’d like to explore Fripp’s work in more depth, and now that I have more time, I’ll do just that!

  7. […] some of the mystery surrounding the album and starting a very interesting conversation. See also my review on In the Court of the Crimson King for a look at Fripp’s early […]

  8. […] ass came in as the fourth most popular post! Considering that my ass followed only my reviews of In the Court of the Crimson King, Revolver and Don’t Believe the Truth, my gorgeous butt (shown above) now ranks with some of […]

  9. ‘The Cheerful Insanity…” is an utterly different beast to ITCOTCK, much more light and,er….i dunno. BUT if you really want to go on a deep dig, look for “The Brondesbury Tapes” which is an amazing ‘missing link’ between the two. You get a sense of the evolutionary process form “Insanity” to “Court” and dear god, i’m sounding pretentious…

    1. Thank you for the tip! I love exploring origins and watching the development of musical ideas. That’s not pretension, that’s insight!

  10. Well, technically, Robert Fripp did NOT make his debut on ITCOTCK — he had appeared in an earlier album, “The Cheerful Insanity of Giles, Giles and Fripp,” which sold almost no copies worldwide and is now greatly sought-after by Crimson afficionadoes.

    1. Bad wording on my part. I meant his debut on this particular record. I appreciate the feedback and I will now become one of those seekers of his real debut album. Thanks!

      1. I can now take the album on its own merits. I was introduced to King Crimson through Starless & Bible Black. ITCOTCC was nothing (to me) compared to it when i first listened to it. To really appreciate ITCOTCC, i had to listen to the lives sets of the Epitaph boxed set and really GET the fact that this music was done in 1969, both studio and live. Then, comparing what was out there at that time and what the boys were playing live…phew! Sweet bit of business.

      2. I agree: the level of commitment to perform such a complicated work live is truly astonishing. When you consider that one of the reasons The Beatles gave for ending their live gigs was the inability to reproduce on stage what they were doing in the studio, I appreciate King Crimson’s effort even more.

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