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?”
My mother is an enormously talented, classically-trained pianist (and flautist), a woman of intensely strong opinions and the most avid progressive rock fan in the family. So I asked her what she thought of Keith Emerson.
“Le plus doué de tous. Trop doué, peut-être. Trop d’exhibitionniste, comme toi.” “The most gifted of them all. Too gifted, perhaps. Too much of an exhibitionist, like you,” she responded thoughtfully and pointedly.
“Oui, maman, nous avons tous nos défauts.” Yes, mother, we all have our defects,” replied her respectful daughter. My mother hated it when I posted my nudes on altrockchick.com, not out of prudishness but from an ingrained sense of decorum.
After the topic reminded her to get on my ass for not having reviewed more Moody Blues albums, I promised her I would make some progress in that area later this year, and brought her back to the subject at hand. I asked her to choose one ELP album for me to review and she immediately identified Trilogy as the one. “You will see both sides,” she suggested.
I found that to be true. ELP certainly had no shortage of talent: Keith Emerson has to rank as one of most talented keyboard performers in rock history; Greg Lake was always an excellent bassist and vocalist; and Carl Palmer was one of the better drummers of the era. For the most part, those talents melded together beautifully on Trilogy. The synergy built up over their first two recordings sparked confidence and a sense of playfulness in the studio that help make Trilogy seem less ponderous than other progressive rock efforts. Yes, they do go overboard in a few spots and lose my interest, but for the most part, Trilogy is an engaging and often exciting listening experience.
The sound of a heartbeat opens “The Endless Enigma,” a convention that would later open A Passion Play, The Dark Side of the Moon and Queen II. I’m not sure of the purpose of the heartbeat on the two latter works, but in Tull’s opus the heartbeat is a plot device used to describe Ronnie Pilgrim’s demise as it comes to a stop at the end of the opening passage. The purpose in “The Endless Enigma” is to frame the subject of the meaning of life itself, not in a cosmic sense but life-in-the-context-of-human-culture. We’ll get to the story in a moment, but I want to spend some time on the introduction, which is one of my favorite opening passages on any album. The eerie sounds Keith Emerson creates on the Moog, combined with sudden piano runs and fading bongos, establish a sense of mystery—the musical manifestation of a riddle, of uncertainty within the soul. When the bongos steady themselves to shift the direction and Greg Lake comes in with an insistent, linear bass notes, what I hear is the restlessness of the waking soul; when the music shifts again to a steady rock beat featuring delightfully quick keyboard runs, the soul is ready to challenge the riddle. After the band slows down the tempo to provide a proper introduction, Greg Lake begins his vocal. His role isn’t quite an Everyman role in the sense of the common man, but personified humanity, encompassing the experience of human history. What’s interesting is the perspective. At first, we don’t know to whom the narrator is speaking; however, in the last verses in the sequence the narrator admits that all the sins he has seemed to ascribe to others are his own. This is humanity looking at itself in the mirror.
Why do you stare
Do you think that I care?
You’ve been misled
By the thoughts in your head
Your words waste and decay
Nothing you say
Reaches my ears anyway
You never spoke a word of truth
Why do you think
I believe what you said
Few of your words
Ever enter my head
I’m tired of hypocrite freaks
With tongues in their cheeks
Turning their eyes as they speak
They make me sick and tired
Are you confused
To the point in your mind
Though you’re blind
Can’t you see you’re wrong
Won’t you refuse
To be used
Even though you may know
I can see you’re wrong
Please, please, please open their eyes
Please, please, please don’t give me lies
I ruled all of the earth
Witnessed my birth
Cried at the sight of a man
And still I don’t know who I am
I’ve seen paupers as kings
Puppets on strings
Dance for the children who stare
You must have seen them everywhere
Greg Lake’s vocal here is absolutely compelling, and the way he belts out the lines “They make me sick and tired” and “Please, please, please open their eyes” sends chills up and down my spine. Palmer and Emerson are absolutely superb here, perfectly attuning their support to the emotional peaks and valleys of Greg Lake’s vocal. The music briefly returns to the electronic rock segment of the intro before using soft piano to fade into “Fugue,” a brief interlude between parts one and two. Here Keith Emerson demonstrates his dynamic flexibility on the piano, quieting detractors with a delicately played and beautifully phrased sequence. His return to percussive piano chords signals the intro to Part 2, a passage with tiny hints of Copland, foreshadowing the later track, “Hoedown.” Greg Lake then returns to sing the enigmatic closing verses:
Each part was played
Though the play was not shown
Though they all sat alone
The dawn opened the play
Breaking the day
Causing a silent hooray
The dawn will break another day
Now that it’s done
I’ve begun to see the reason why I’m here.
Hmm. I don’t know if I’m happy with that ending. If the implication is that “the reason” is what Camus proposed in “The Myth of Sisyphus”—that in an essentially absurd world, the struggle itself is the essence of life—I can live with that. If it’s just an “Oh, well, we said it was an enigma—see it’s right there in the title!” then I’m pissed off. I will make the existential choice to pretend that they read Camus and move on to the next track, but before I do that, I just want to say that I think “The Endless Enigma” is fucking fabulous, one of the great works of progressive rock.
Haughty reviewers like François Couture of AllMusic.com refer to “From the Beginning” as “the obligatory Greg Lake acoustic song of the album.” Harrumph! Such an attitude implies dismissal of the effort at the sound of a plucked string. And oh, by the way, where’s the obligatory Greg Lake acoustic song on Tarkus? Pictures at an Exhibition? If you count “Lucky Man” from their first album, this is only the second “obligatory acoustic song” on four albums. And to call this song, “Lucky Man,” or “Still . . . You Turn Me On” acoustic songs simply because an acoustic guitar is part of the mix is an exaggeration par excellence, M. Couture! Did you fall asleep and miss the synthesizer or do you categorize the Moog as an acoustic instrument? Did you notice that all three songs are stylistically quite different?
We’ll leave M. Couture staring moronically at his computer screen and consider “From the Beginning” from a fresh perspective. The acoustic guitar that opens the track is a pleasant and grounding shift from the intensity of “The Endless Enigma,” allowing the listener to take a moment and refresh, like a spot of sorbet after the meal. When the verses kick in, Carl Palmer dampens the drum volume by using tympani mallets, and Greg Lake’s counterpoint bass runs are similarly subdued. The lyrics are pretty much love song lyrics, but work well with the Latin feel of the song. When we get to the instrumental passage, an appropriately toned electric guitar enters, playing riffs somewhere between jazz and blues. Up to this point everything is blending beautifully, but here they ruin it for me with the introduction of the synthesizer. I’ve read several comments on the song that are very complimentary of Keith Emerson’s Moog solo here, but I find it completely out-of-place. A real flute or a real saxophone would have been a much better choice, and would have added to the richness of the album as a whole. Hey, they couldn’t play much of Trilogy live anyway, so why insist on the synthesizer?
I made reference to the fun the band seemed to have on this album, and the two “western” tracks are the best examples of this playful spirit. “The Sheriff” is “Rocky Raccoon” on steroids, a richer and more energetic piece of Wild West lore. I love the inclusion of Carl Palmer’s fuck-up as the track’s opening passage, not something a truly “pretentious” band would be likely to do. When he gets it right, it’s a fabulous introduction to a bouncy, melodic, witty number that feels positively joyful despite the rather grim plot points of lynching and murder. The story is ostensibly about an innocent man (Josie) on the lam from the iconic sheriff; in the end, the tables are turned and Josie puts the sheriff in his rightful place on Boot Hill. After listening to the story several times, I could not resolve certain lines in the opening verse that hinted at something darker than a cliché shootout (unresolved lines in italics):
Big kid Josie rode away
In the sunset covered sky
A lynching mob had strung his friend up
Right before his eyes
He didn’t know what they’d both done
He sure as hell would end up hung
That sounds more like the random yet recurring pattern of lynching Negroes that occurred throughout the South and Southwest for decades after the Civil War. If Josie were the classic renegade like Billy the Kid or Jesse James, he would have known exactly what he had done to earn the sheriff’s wrath. From this perspective, Josie’s shooting of the sheriff at the end is an act of liberation—and makes Josie’s assumption of the sheriff’s job all the sweeter. It also makes the final segment—a sound of a shot leading to Keith Emerson’s silent film accompaniment—a celebratory moment.
Speaking of celebratory, that is just the word I would use to describe the feel of “Hoedown,” Keith Emerson’s amazing rendition of the closing segment of Aaron Copland’s Rodeo, a piece written for ballet. I never warmed to Copland much, but I love ELP’s intensely energetic and exciting rendition. The keyboard work is indeed fabulous, but what really makes the song for me and provides the element that Copland’s original sorely lacked is the drumming. Copland couldn’t have realized it at the time (rock ‘n’ roll hadn’t been invented in 1942), but he created a perfect musical scenario for a talented progressive rock drummer capable of more than accenting the backbeat. Often I’ll tune out Emerson (sorry, Keith) and just focus on Carl Palmer’s drumming, a perfect mingling of drummer and rhythmic flow. I can fully understand why the live version of the song is included as a bonus track; it must have made for a tremendously exciting experience.
It’s at this point that ELP loses me . . . actually, they lose me at the 3:04 mark of the title track, “Trilogy.” What begins as a pretty and reflective number suddenly turns frantic and heavy, and the structure simply can’t stand the weight. “Living Sin” is an attempt to go dark that also leaves me flat; it seems terribly out-of-sync with the general mood of the album. And I simply loathe “Abaddon’s Bolero,” in part because I find the rising dynamics of the Ravellian application of bolero tedious. Since I find Ravel’s Boléro tedious, this was a piece that never had a chance with me. By the way, this is a march, not a bolero, as it’s in 4/4 time. Harrumph!
Critics of the time frequently used the word “pretentious” to define Emerson, Lake and Palmer. That arrogant prick Robert Christgau went apoplectic over ELP, commenting that “”these guys are as stupid as their most pretentious fans,” and referring to them as the “world’s most overweening ‘progressive’ group.” The manic tone of the criticism gives me the impression that these reviewers somehow felt threatened by ELP, perhaps because they didn’t follow rock dogma or perhaps because the music was too complex for their puny brains to grasp. ELP was also criticized for excess in their performances, as summarized succinctly in the Wikipedia article about the band:
On stage, the band exhibited an unorthodox mix of virtuoso musicianship and over-the-top theatrical bombast. Their extravagant and often aggressive live shows received much criticism in this regard. The theatrics consisted of a Persian carpet, a grand piano spinning end-over-end, a rotating percussion platform, and a Hammond organ being up-ended and thrown around on stage to create feedback.
While some of that does sound superfluous and “over-the-top,” many rock musicians have been blasted for excessive showmanship, much as Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie were blasted by jazz purists for hamming it up on stage. It’s impossible for me to evaluate ELP’s live performances because I never saw them live. Based on what I hear in their recorded work, I hear a group of superb musicians who sometimes produced music of great beauty and power and sometimes produced music that simply didn’t work. Emerson, Lake and Palmer certainly had an ambitious musical vision, and it’s not uncommon for ego to get in the artist’s way when ambition is part of the mix. I certainly don’t find ELP any more pretentious than Pete Townshend, who displayed both pretentiousness and a lack of ability to back up his grand visions on both Tommy and Quadrophenia. As I’ve pointed out in other progressive rock reviews, these musicians were exploring new territories, and explorers are bound to fuck things up every now and then because they’re dealing with unknown variables. Columbus thought he was going to India, for fuck’s sake, stumbled on a shitty little island in the middle of nowhere, and after years of being held up as a hero, he’s now pretty much a bum whose act of dumb luck opened the Americas to environmental exploitation and genocide. Progressive rock is now on the outs, but someday it will be rediscovered and honored for its expansion of rock possibilities.
In that spirit, I’m sure that future critics will take a more measured and tempered view of Emerson, Lake and Palmer and express more appreciation for both their efforts and their results. Trilogy contains some very impressive music that deserves to be heard, and it would be a shame to allow critical bias to blind us to the contributions ELP made to modern rock music. While not perfect (few albums are, despite what loyal fanatics believe), it’s still a strong effort by a gifted group of musical explorers.