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 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 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?”
Happy, happy Beatles singing love, love, love. Wacky, wacky Beatles bouncing around the English countryside in a bus. Busy, busy Beatles dashing off another hit single before flying off to India to seek the truth.
Oops! No truth there! Only Donovan, a Beach Boy and several other hangers-on.
Grumpy, grumpy Beatles fly home in pieces with forty-something songs and start a corporation. John dumps Cyn for Yoko and a heroin habit. Jane catches Macca in the sacca but he’s got a Francie in his pantsy.
Maybe things will get better in the studio.
Oh, no! Happy, happy Beatles snappy with each other! Where’s Ringo? Where’s George? Why is John in one studio and Paul in another? What the fuck is Yoko doing here?
Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, what happened to love, love, love?
The White Album should have been the first signal to the music-listening public that the dream was over.
At the time, the music-listening public was either too stoned, too devoted to their gods or too hungry for anything Beatles (it had been well over a year since their last full album) to receive The White Album with anything but automatic adoration. Thirty tracks! That’s an early Christmas present if there ever was one!
I think the more relevant fact about the timing of The White Album was not that it came at the start of the holiday shopping season, but on the fifth anniversary of the murder of John F. Kennedy. Although the assassination had far more impact on history, both senseless disasters occurred on November 22.
I’m sure there’s a conspiracy theorist out there who will make something out of that.
It certainly doesn’t seem you’re about to experience the beginning of the painfully slow demise of the Fab Four when you put needle to wax. The opening track, “Back in the U. S. S. R.” must have delighted and thrilled Beatle fans of the time with its breezy, playful humor. Ah! The sound of happy, happy Beatles all playing nice together. Just like on Thornbury Playing Fields in the “Can’t Buy Me Love” scene from A Hard Day’s Night.
That might be the sound, but it was not the reality. Ringo doesn’t play a single beat on either “Back in the U. S. S. R” or “Dear Prudence.” He’d been spending most of his time waiting for the others to show up to work, a drag in itself. When they did get to work, Paul started picking on his drumming, so Ringo said fuck it and left for a couple of weeks. Because of the rising enmity between the band members, all four Beatles only participated on a little more than half the tracks, justifying the inclusion of four individual glossy photos of our heroes in the album’s innards.
The critics of the time were not as enthusiastic as the fans. The critics of our time, looking back through nostalgia-tinted lenses, have reached consensus that The White Album was one of the greatest albums ever made.
According to Kenneth Womack in The Cambridge Companion to the Beatles, John Lennon said, “the break-up of the Beatles can be heard on that album.”
That’s what I hear, too.
I also hear a serious decline in the quality of the recording, probably due to George Martin taking an unexpected leave of absence and lead engineer Geoff Emerick getting fed up with the bullshit and beating a hasty retreat. I also hear song fragments rather than complete compositions, lyrics that go nowhere and a distinct lack of musical originality.
I guess that’s where six weeks of hanging out with Donovan will lead you.
Think about it. When you’ve found yourself in the mood for music, have your ever thought, “Man, I’d sure like to hear ‘Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey?’” Or “Yer Blues?” Or “Honey Pie?”
Let’s go back to the promising beginning. “Back in the U. S. S. R.” is an irresistible hoot, and had they continued to connect with that spirit throughout the album, they might have had something. This is The Beatles not taking themselves seriously, trampling all over the image of them as generational gurus. When I listen to “Back in the U. S. S. R.” they seem like accessible, approachable blokes and not at all like rock royalty.
“Dear Prudence” is a solid effort from Mr. Lennon, with lyrics expressing sincere concern for another flowing over pleasant rhythmic and melodic variation. Unfortunately, he follows it with the dreadful “Glass Onion,” where his attempt to poke fun at the tendency of fans to over-interpret Beatle lyrics and the whole Paul-is-dead thing falls flat due to the absence of the insightful absurdist wit Lennon had displayed in his earlier days. It’s also a musically awkward song that never really comes together.
“Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” was selected as the worst song ever in one online poll. I don’t think it’s that bad, but it does not seem that the effort put into this song (retakes, remakes galore) is reflected in the outcome. It’s basically on of those cute McCartney songs (what John called his “granny songs”) partially redeemed by the accidental gender-bending line in the last verse. It’s followed by “Wild Honey Pie,” a silly and stupid waste of time.
Once again Lennon’s wit is absent in “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill,” as any attempt to satirize gun-loving Americans or argue the frequently-made point that killing is wrong are interrupted by the ex deus machina appearance of Captain Marvel for no discernible reason whatsoever. George then gets his turn with “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” overrated by many due to the presence of Eric Clapton on lead guitar (it’s really one of Clapton’s most pedestrian solos). The lyrics, where George assumes the role of guru to the masses, are both insufferable and inane. The real cringer is “With every mistake we must surely be learning.” I can hear the acidheads saying “Wow” as they ponder the obviousness of it all.
“Happiness Is a Warm Gun” is a stream-of-fragmented-consciousness piece that works because of the obvious commitment The Beatles made to get this challenging piece of music right. The connections between the four disparate pieces are very well executed (especially the sudden shift to “Mother Superior jump the gun”). The last verse perfectly encapsulates the uniquely American love affair with guns and links that obsession to a people who are as paranoid as paranoid can get. “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” is a small journey through modern consciousness, and the fragmented nature of the song perfectly reflects the fragmentation of the modern mind.
Now we’re on to Side 2 and McCartney’s “Martha My Dear.” The piano pattern is rather clever, with interesting dissonance thrown in from time to time, but the lyrics—whether they’re about McCartney’s sheep dog or Jane Asher—leave me feeling empty. This is the problem with all the McCartney songs on The White Album except “Blackbird”: the lyrics are throwaway lyrics, as light as diet lemonade. There was a certain amount of truth to the “Paul is dead” hysteria: at this point, the man who wrote “Eleanor Rigby” is deader than Kelsey’s nuts, and what we will hear throughout the rest of his long, drawn-out career is McCartney Lite.
Although he was definitely running out of gas as well, Lennon still had enough left in the tank to give us more memorable lines, as demonstrated in “I’m So Tired.” What I find impressive about this song is that John actually wrote it while suffering from insomnia in Rishikesh. I don’t know about you, but when I haven’t had my sleep I’m barely capable of a complete sentence and most of what tumbles out of my mouth is pure bitch. Lennon manages to not only capture the irritability of the insomniac but also the stray brilliant thoughts that sometimes come to the fore when we’re half-conscious:
I’m so tired, I’m feeling so upset
Although I’m so tired I’ll have another cigarette
And curse Sir Walter Raleigh
He was such a stupid git
Easily the tightest and best-performed song on The White Album, “I’m So Tired” also features an absolute knockout vocal performance by John, who must have temporarily found his inner Lennon.
“Blackbird” follows, and while McCartney has claimed the song dealt with race relations in the United States, that may be what today we call “spin” in response to charges (like the one I made above) that he’s a lyrical lightweight. Sometimes lyrics work because they sound good (ever hear of lyric poetry?) and contain enough concrete imagery to make the moment come alive for the listener (or reader). That’s the case in “Blackbird,” where the images of utter darkness are balanced by images of freedom in the form of flight.
Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these sunken eyes and learn to see
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to be free
Blackbird fly, blackbird fly
Into the light of the dark black night
Oddly enough, my father—one of the most fanatic of all Beatle fans—can’t stand this song. “I heard so many lousy versions by friends and street musicians after it came out that I just can’t hear the original anymore,” he explains. Poor dad.
George gets another go with “Piggies,” one of the songs Charles Manson used to justify his psychotic theory of existence. I guess it was supposed to serve as relevant social satire, but the lyrics so heavy-handed and obvious that it sounds more like pandering in an attempt to remain relevant to the anti-establishment crowd. Harrison didn’t even write the two best lines (“what they need’s a damn good whacking” came from his mother, and “clutching forks and knives to eat the bacon” came from the still occasionally agile mind of John Lennon).
“Rocky Raccoon” was inspired while Paul was playing acoustic guitar with Donovan, and when most Donovan songs end, you inevitably ask, “And the point was . . .?” We stay in country mode for Ringo’s contribution, “Don’t Pass Me By,” which seems to drag on forever. “Why Don’t We Do it in the Road?” is Paul’s reaction to seeing monkeys humping in the street. “And the point of recording this was . . .?”
Side 2 closes with two quieter numbers. The first is “I Will,” an insipid piece of tripe lasting a grand total of 106 seconds that took three Beatles an amazing sixty-seven takes to “get right.” Oh, for fuck’s sake. Lennon comes to the rescue with his touching ode to his mother, “Julia.” While we would hear the more angry and desperate aspect of his anguish stemming from the loss in “Mother,” this song is more contemplative and appreciative. The two-word images (“ocean child,” “seashell eyes,” “windy smile” and “morning moon”) are brilliant and evocative. “Julia” is one of the most uncontaminated songs Lennon ever wrote, and it’s a beauty.
Side 3 is an unmitigated disaster from start to finish. In the beginning The Beatles lose themselves at a birthday party; at the end George finds god. Along the way John speaks pridefully of heroin addiction, unintelligibly about Yoko and snarkily about the Maharishi. Paul goes sickly sweet on “Mother Nature’s Son” then attempts to compensate by leading the band in the noisemaking session known as “Helter Skelter.” My nomination for the worst side the Beatles ever produced.
Side 4 isn’t much better. First we have the original, slower, shoo-bee-doo-bee version of “Revolution (1),” an experience that makes one long deeply for the distorted excitement of the single version. Count me “out” when it comes to this turkey. How you can follow a song dealing with massive social upheaval with one of McCartney’s most sickeningly sweet numbers is a mystery to me, but the Beatles try to do it with “Honey Pie,” which probably made the radicals really wonder whose side they were on. George then brings us a tribute to food and drink, “Savoy Truffle,” and somehow synthesizes that with a dig at “Ob-La-Di-Ob-La-Da” and the pursuit of higher consciousness. Other than the work of the horn section, “Savoy Truffle” is not particularly filling. “Cry Baby Cry” is easily the best track on Side 4, thanks to Lennon’s appreciation for delightful phonetic combinations (“the Duchess of Kirkaldy always smiling and arriving late for tea) and a slightly haunting arrangement that also has the rare virtue (on this album) of being tightly arranged. Paul’s “Can You Take Me Back” fragment follows, an oddly perfect introduction to the closing act.
Inspired by musique concrète and the talent-free Yoko Ono, “Revolution 9” has the virtue of being compelling the first time you hear it, largely because your mind is reaching out to the piece in its habitual search for meaning. You might even give it a second spin if you’re feeling adventurous, but if you’re unlucky enough to listen to it a third time, you’ll finally come to the conclusion that it’s really a self-indulgent piece of crap containing only the meaning that a wacko like Charles Manson derived from it.
The album closes (hooray!) with a Ringo solo, “Good Night.” All I can say about this one is that Lennon wanted it to sound real cheesy and they succeeded.
Many albums from the 1960’s have better reputations today than they did at the time. There are two reasons for that: one, the Baby Boomers still view the period as the most meaningful fucking period in the history of humanity, so everything that happened in the 1960’s was the best ever; and two, the quality of rock music has declined so dramatically over the years that people keep going back to the 60’s to hear the real thing. So, will I take The White Album over anything the Police, Weezer or the Smashing Pumpkins did? Probably.
But what pisses me off about The White Album is that it is the official record of how four very talented people chose to piss away both their talent and a unique opportunity to produce high quality music because they chose not to honestly and openly communicate with one another but behave like adolescents.
And it only got worse on their next album.