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?”
“If we embrace the unexpected. If we are free not to be slaves to the rhythm. If we have the courage to believe that dreams can and will come true, our ears transform humble songs into music beyond our wildest imaginings” – The Vicar 11 July 2012.
This quote from the enigma that is The Vicar is the best possible introduction for a review of the most paradoxical and amazing album I have heard in years.
Over the years, rock has been an extraordinarily elastic form of music with many variations: punk, alternative, progressive, blues-rock, cabaret rock . . . the various genres continue to multiply. Still, all of these variations share a basic paradigm: the rhythm section. Except for “Eleanor Rigby,” and the occasional acoustic, progressive or a capella track, it’s very difficult for us to imagine rock without bass and drums. The concept defies our fundamental beliefs about what rock is all about. From Bill Haley to The Beatles to even the relatively progressive offerings of Pink Floyd and Radiohead, the core rock rhythm section pretty much remains intact. The rhythm section is what makes rock rock. The Stones wouldn’t be the Stones without Wyman and Watts, and Kurt Cobain was that much better because of Novoselic and Grohl. Rock is about movement, and it’s that tight link between bass and drums that makes us want to jump out of our seats and onto the dance floor or slam into a nearby body.
But what if we could be “free not to be slaves to the rhythm?” What would rock be like without the traditional bass (usually electric) and drums?
Songbook #1 gives us that answer and at first, it’s shocking. There are fourteen tracks on the album and not once is the rhythm driven by bass and drums. During my first screening of the album, I felt adrift and lost with nothing to hang onto. I came very close to abandoning the thought of doing a review because I simply couldn’t get my pretty little head around what was happening. I decided to let it go and move on to something more familiar: power pop.
In the meantime, I found scraps of melodies from Songbook #1 popping up in my head, along with memories of some of the unusual arrangements and panning. I chose to ignore the neurotic internal dialogue that I was wasting my time on something that had crossed the line from progressive to gibberish, and pulled out my best set of headphones and gave Songbook #1 another chance.
The shock changed to fascination. I listened again and by the end of the third time through, I was convinced that eliminating the traditional rhythm section was a bold and courageous act that worked. Songbook #1 expands the possibilities of rock arrangement and will hopefully inspire other musicians to experiment with alternatives to tradition.
This is a good thing, because rock has always had a revolutionary component, whether you’re talking about Elvis shaking his hips, the cover and content of Sgt. Pepper or the sheer outrage of Never Mind the Bollocks. Rock is always at its best when it gives a big fuck you to convention . . . even its own conventions.
The fourteen tracks that make up Songbook #1 do have rhythm, but the rhythm on many of the songs is provided primarily by the string instruments you’d find in your typical chamber ensemble: violin, viola, cello, double bass. However, don’t assume that the strings have simply transformed themselves into 12-bar blues percussion instruments. The closest analogy I can give you is that the rhythm is like watching a film scored by Phillip Glass: the rhythm is unmistakeable but it moves to the emotional tension of the moment instead of sticking to a script. Once you get over the feeling of strangeness (caused by our own limitations of how things should be), the rhythmic movement becomes terribly exciting and gives you something to hold onto: a strange and wondrous thing, indeed, but a very solid foundation for the various arrangements.
Once you have your bearings, you can begin to appreciate the complex vocal performances on Songbook #1. At first, they may strike you as weird and ethereal, but once you get over your paradigm paralysis, you’ll realize that a good chunk of the songs could easily be played to a standard beat and arranged as first-class pop songs. That said, I am very thankful that The Vicar chose not to do this, for then they would have sounded quite ordinary and dull. What the string-driven rhythms and unexpected positioning of the vocals do is actually enhance the beauty of the melody . . . not so “it sounds just like a symphony,” in Chuck Berry’s words, but almost like the melody has escaped the bonds that limited its movement. On Songbook #1, we have an opportunity to experience melody and harmony as we rarely have before, and the experience is thrilling . . . once you let go of your expectations.
The album opens with one of the least accessible of all of the songs (at first blush), “The Girl with the Sunshine in Her Eyes.” Its dreamy opening bursts into vocal splashes and insistent strings that collide and revolve around each other in a breathtaking soundscape that is somewhat jarring when you first hear it. However, as the song moves forward, you find a familiar pattern of verse and chorus underneath the complex vocal and string collage, which in turns allows you to appreciate the essential beauty of the arrangement, which is pure genius. It has grown on me so much that it’s one of my favorite songs on the album, but I would advise the new listener to start with something less dramatic.
“Childhood Days” certainly fits that requirement, a lovely pastoral nostalgia piece supported by a stunning arrangement of flute and strings, but there are better songs further down the track listing. I would avoid the next song, “That Boy’s Not Cool,” until you’re more comfortable with having your expectations shattered; just when you think it’s a hard rocker without the rhythm section, there is a sudden shift to soft falsetto and then an equally sudden shift to the highly complex arrangement of the chorus, mingling cascading vocals with horns and strings in completely unexpected ways.
The one I would suggest the listener begin with is “The Moony Song,” which establishes its rhythm with the more familiar tool known as the acoustic guitar and leads into a beautifully delivered lead vocal backed by an arrangement of relative stillness. The chorus introduces the strings and harmonies, both breathtakingly beautiful. I have to pause at this point and comment on the excellence of the musicianship throughout Songbook #1, so obvious in both the arrangement and execution and easiest to appreciate in this simply gorgeous piece of music.
“Twenty Two” also opens with acoustic guitar, but quickly introduces music hall piano and reed instruments to back the once again superbly delivered vocals. This is one of those “humble songs” that brims with good humor, accentuated by the sheer novelty in the instrumentation. “Three Sides of Me” is an anthem for the modern neurotic male with a fascinating score that supports the underlying psychology in an almost Hitchockian manner; the vocal performance here is subtly theatrical and very much in character.
One of my absolute favorites is an ode to the weirdness of modern relationships, “Man with a Woman on His Mind,” another good place for the new listener to start. The lyrics are a hoot as the narrator moves his way through a world where his proclaimed heterosexual masculinity is challenged in multiple forms by placing the line, “If there’s one thing I can’t abide, it’s a man with a woman on his mind” in different contexts. It’s a brilliant piece of songwriting and, once again, the arrangement of piano, horns and reeds is superbly supportive. This is followed by another one of my favorites, “Forever,” a haunting number with an understated arrangement about the search for paradise in this painfully mundane world of ours.
I hate to keep repeating myself, but another favorite is the still quiet of “San Manuel” where the sweetly plucked guitar and restrained vocals accentuate the painfully sad line, “Life just isn’t the same now that we know there’s nowhere to go.” This gem is followed by the more complex and exceptionally well sung, “She Closes Her Eyes” and then by “In Dying Fire,” another triumph of tasteful arrangement and restraint with lasting musical imagery. “Count Your Blessings” is another lush piece with yet another brilliant arrangement that makes perfect use of the double bass. The last two pieces on the album, “Inside My Head” and “Lonely Sunday” are more quirky than the previous pieces, ending Songbook #1 on a lighter note.
Songbook #1 ignores other conventions as well. The identity of the musicians is relatively obscure, as noted in The Vicar’s announcement. Other sources have identified some of the players, most of who are relatively unknown and not “well-known singers from The Vicar’s rolodex.” However, the message is clear: this is not the personality-based music that George Harrison complained about when he said, “You know what irritates me about modern music, it’s all based on ego. Look at a group like U2. Bono and his band are so egocentric—the more you jump around, the bigger your hat is, the more people listen to your music. The only important thing is to sell and make money. It’s nothing to do with talent.”
Songbook #1 has everything to do with talent, everything to do with musicianship and everything to do with artistic integrity. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea and the success of this effort to expand our perspective on what rock and pop music could be is not going to force me to give up my love for The Dahlmanns, The Connection, Liam Gallagher and other artists who create equally important contributions to rock music through more traditional forms. The Vicar has made a brilliant, courageous, convention-defying contribution to the art, and I hope that musicians everywhere use Songbook #1 as an inspiration to break boundaries and explore new possibilities in their own work.