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?”
Wanna fuck me?
Measurements: 5’4″, 115 lbs, 34C-25-35 (metric = 162.56cm, 52.163kg, 90D-63.5-89). Firm, natural tits; great legs and a beautiful, firm ass perfect for love slaps! Skilled at many common and uncommon sexual techniques! I’ll even promise to keep the whips in the closet! Offer available to over-18’s of any race, gender, ethnic background, tit or dick size!
Avid readers know that I require future partners to go through background checks, health screenings, personality testing and all kinds of red tape before they get a whiff of my pussy. My lifestyle and aversion to safe sex practices requires a cautious approach. But now, for the first and only time, I’m going to reveal a secret: there’s a shortcut to my sweet spot! Follow these simple instructions and I guarantee you the time of your life:
1. Buy a copy of The Temptations: The Definitive Collection or equivalent in CD format or a digital copy for the iPhone/iPod and keep it with you.
2. Go to Paris, France. I live in one of the apartments there.
3. Ring the buzzer, wait for the click, enter the building, find the apartment and either my partner or I will let you in. She’s the brunette, I’m the blonde. You’ll want to fuck her too, but that’s another procedure entirely.
4. Ask if you can borrow my audio equipment to play me a song. I will grant your request.
5. Play the song “I Can’t Get Next to You.”
By the end of the opening piano run, my clothes are on the floor. By the time you hear the first falsetto, so are yours, probably in shreds. After I get down on my knees and turn you either rock hard or dripping wet, I’ll throw you on the bed halfway through the second verse. If I have to strap on a dildo, I won’t get to the fucking until the instrumental break; for men, expect me to start riding you on the second chorus. When you hear Eddie Kendricks rise in falsetto to sing, “And I . . . Oh I . . . ” you’ll see an evil twinkle in my eyes; then after they sing, “CAN’T GET NEXT TO YOU!” I’m either going to fuck you until your dick breaks or extend the depth of your vagina by several centimeters. Sound like fun? Hey, it may be the last fuck you ever get, but it will be one for the ages!
No song in the history of music activates my libido like “I Can’t Get Next to You.” Just listening to it three times in preparation for the review required tension relief assistance from my partner, who possesses the most talented tongue in the world. When my mojo cools a bit—it never cools entirely—I can listen to the song and appreciate the perfect blending of five marvelous voices and the superbly wrought tease-and-build pattern of the structure. But it’s the sum of the parts that matters, and this song makes me fucking drip, grind and percolate with a vengeance.
Excuse me, I need some relief. Back in a sec. Here: watch the video.
Ah, that’s better. Shit, now I have to review the rest of the album. Oh, well, after a shot of vodka and a cigarette I should be sufficiently rational to accomplish my task. Excuse me.
The Temptations had one hell of a long run in the public eye, largely due to the diversity and blending of their individual vocal talents. There are times when listening to The Definitive Collection I can hardly believe that the group doing the song I’m listening to now also did the song just before it. The Supremes always sounded like The Supremes, but The Temptations varied sound and style with ease. They also seemed to get better and stronger up through the early 1970’s, even as their musical style diversified and expanded and even while dealing with changes in the lineup. Like The Supremes, they had the gifts of perseverance and Berry Gordy’s patience, releasing six singles that went absolutely nowhere before joining the hit parade right around the time The Four Moptops first appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, with a song called . . .
“The Way You Do the Things You Do”: The origins of this song lie in a uniquely American experience: making up games to help you pass the time on a long road trip. I remember playing The Alphabet Game, The License Plate Game and The Fast Food Game and my favorite, First Name Baseball, on road trips with my parents. Smokey Robinson and Bobby Rogers of The Miracles used their play time on bus trips a bit more productively, engaging in simile-and-metaphor challenges. The lyrics for this song sprouted from those poetic games . . . some more punningly painful than others:
You’ve got a smile so bright, you know you could have been a candle
I’m holding you so tight, you know you could have been a handle
The way you swept me off my feet, you know you could have been a broom
The way you smell so sweet, you know you could have been some perfume
Smokey was frigging brilliant at developing the hooks that pulled everything together, and the refrain, “Well, you could have been anything that you wanted to/And I can tell: the way you do the things you do” is an uplifting and validating message for women. Yes, it’s a feel-good song, but what the fuck is wrong with feeling good? The groove is fabulous, and the syncopated delay at the start of the chorus is a masterstroke. And, man, could these guys sing! It’s not just the rich harmonies and timbres you can create by having falsetto soprano, tenor, baritone and bass at your disposal, but the little touches that each of the group members throw in from time to time when they’re feeling it. The Temptations were tight but never monotonous or robotic; they never lost the feel of a song. Kudos to Eddie Kendricks for grasping the playfulness of the lyrics and shading his lead vocal accordingly.
“My Girl”: There are so many reasons why Smokey Robinson is on my short list of favorite songwriters, and this collaboration with fellow Miracle Ronald White is a big one. The lyrics were written with his wife Claudette in mind, but the music was specifically designed for David Ruffin’s “mellow but gruff” voice, which Smokey thought was a natural hit maker. Smokey also produced the song, but let The Temptations figure out their own backing parts, “because they were so good at it.” The result is one of the great balladic odes in music history, one that has been covered many times but never with the same breakthrough feel of the original. David Ruffin’s lead vocal melts me like butter and the background vocals more than live up to Smokey’s expectations. I wish Smokey would have been hired to produce all the Motown hits that feature strings, because he showed much more restraint than others and never let the strings drown the vocals or the groove. Here’s a two-song video featuring both of these first hits in reverse order . . . with a snippet of Raquel Welch finishing up a song. I had no idea she sang, but jeez, what a bod!
“It’s Growing”: Smokey Robinson wasn’t infallible, and this song has too many echoes of “My Girl” and too many players in the mix to float my boat. In addition to The Temptations, Motown backing group The Andantes are enlisted to fill every bit of an already crowded soundscape. I do like the opening with the toy piano, though.
“Since I Lost My Baby”: Ah, that’s better. When you’ve got The Temptations, give them plenty of room to do their thing! Melvin Franklin’s bass touches are marvelous and I love how his voice is so prominent on the harmonies. A fab slow dance song, perfect for a flickering tongue in your lover’s ear.
“Don’t Look Back”: The compilers of this collection make an interesting choice here, taking the B-side over the A-side (“My Baby”). I’m glad they did! I think “My Baby” is a bit too close to the “My Girl” formula and this song gives Paul Williams a chance to sing lead (only fair since he was the original lead singer). I love his baritone: it has the rough feel of the great blues singers with depth to match. You can certainly hear the gospel influence in his phrasing and in the way he holds the notes: this man was imbued with the spirit! I’m aghast that this song didn’t get the attention it deserved at the time, but thrilled to have it in my collection. Thanks again to Mr. Robinson and Ronald White for another wonderful song.
“Get Ready”: This was the first of four #1’s in a row . . . on the R&B charts. Its “failure” got Smokey Robinson bounced as The Temptations’ producer and was the last song he would write for them. What the fuck? I always thought this was one of The Temptations’ best up-tempo numbers, full of verve and excitement. Eddie Kendricks is as smooth as silk here, and the rest of The Temptations are on fire. Why it only made it to #29 on the pop charts is a mystery for the ages. Rare Earth would resurrect it and make it to #4 in 1970, but I’ll take this version any time.
“Ain’t Too Proud to Beg”: Motown politics and corporate structure provide the backdrop for this song, repeatedly rejected at the weekly Quality Control meetings by Lead Inspector Berry Gordy. The Temptations trudged back to the studio and the new producers decided to raise the key to the utmost limit of David Ruffin’s range. Otis Williams said that Ruffin was “drowning in sweat and his glasses were all over his face” at the end of the session, and you can definitely hear the strain in his vocal, in stark contrast to the smoothness of “My Girl.” He sounds vulnerable, and we chicks love men when they’re vulnerable, especially when they’re singing delightfully submissive lyrics:
If I have to sleep on your door step all night and day
Just to keep you from walkin’ away
Let your friends laugh, even this I can stand
‘Cause I wanna keep you any way I can
Sweet humiliation! Lick my boots while you’re down there, honey! My man!
“(I Know) I’m Losing You”: The compilers wisely excluded the pop hit, “Beauty’s Only Skin Deep” from this collection, a song that I always felt was way too cute for this group. This is a much stronger piece, with exceptionally strong background vocals, a tight horn section and rock guitar sharpening the groove. The one benefit of the move away from Smokey Robinson as producer was that it allowed The Temptations to move into harder, rougher territory, where they could display their full range of vocal talent.
“You’re My Everything”: Eddie Kendricks is in fine voice indeed, but this is a cliché-filled love song drowned in string syrup, not interesting in and of itself but much more so in the larger context. A tragic backstory begins here: staff writer Roger Penzabene wrote these words to express his love for his allegedly wonderful wife. As things turned out, his wife was cheating on him, the bitch. When I hear the happiness in Roger’s lyrics—as cliché as they may be—I get very angry about that. No one deserves to suffer from that kind of deception. Roger may not have been able to achieve originality here, but there is no doubt he felt happy and genuinely lucky to have found his true life partner. The next song continues the thread.
“I Wish It Would Rain”: Roger Penzabene now saw romance through a darker, cloudier lens. What he writes here expresses genuine pain and defeat, transforming the words to “You’re My Everything” into the wishful thinking they turned out to be. Sadly, Penzabene would commit suicide a few months later. David Ruffin delivers one of his most sensitive vocals, expressing sadness, confusion, isolation and the terrible loss of self and other that comes with a shocking end to a relationship. The backing group is equally sensitive with their vocal approach: subdued, soulful and empathetic, supporting the grief in Ruffin’s tone. The difference in the quality of the lyrics seems to be a human tendency: it’s much harder to write convincingly of happiness than sadness. Shakespeare’s tragedies are much more memorable than his comedies. As a twinned pair, “You’re My Everything” and “I Wish It Would Rain” form a moving statement about human relationships. I wish it had only been art instead of real life.
“Cloud Nine”: In one fell swoop, The Temptations swap David Ruffin for Dennis Edwards, change their sound from string-laden soul to Sly Stone psychedelic, and introduce socially conscious lyrics to the mix. There was no question that Ruffin had to go with his oversized ego demanding Diana Ross-type billing and his reliability in question. Dennis Edwards had been courted by The Temptations for about a year before the change was made, and this turned out to be a wise approach and an excellent choice. As good as David Ruffin could be, Dennis Edwards added a power and range better suited for the group’s edgier new direction. The guy who really shines on this track is Paul Williams, who belts out the verse about the shiftless, abusive father with genuine indignation. The song frigging rocks, thanks to a combination of The Temptations’ collective ability to get into the groove of the song and the sheer musicianship of The Funk Brothers. James Jamerson’s bass runs sound like the work of an accomplished jazz musician, which he was (as were many of The Funk Brothers). The Temptations claimed that the song is not about drug addiction, but Barrett Strong’s lyrics lead the objective observer to no other conclusion:
It was a one-room shack
That slept ten other children beside me
We hardly had enough food
Or room to sleep
It was hard times
I needed somethin’ to ease my troubled mind
After this song, The Temptations went into a weird hibernation, doing a Christmas single and peeling off group members for duets with Diana. When they regrouped, they came back with a vengeance.
“I Can’t Get Next to You”: Wanna fuck me? See instructions above.
P. S. Dennis Williams is irreplaceable on this song. David Ruffin simply didn’t have the power to do this number justice. And I was thrilled to learn that this most erotic song made it all the way to #1—and the fact that it knocked “Sugar, Sugar” out of the top makes it that much . . . sweeter.
“Ball of Confusion”: Dear Compilers of The Definitive Collection: Where the fuck is “Psychedelic Shack?” The song has historical significance both as a period piece and one of the first hits to rely on sampling technology! Harrumph! “Ball of Confusion” isn’t so much a protest song as a long list of all the shit that was going on in the world back then, including good stuff like “The Beatles’ new record’s a gas” (terrible timing, as they’d just broken up). It sounds like the people of the 1970’s were feeling terribly overwhelmed and that big problems that seemed solvable only a few years before now seemed like one big ball of crap. The Temptations give an energetic performance mirroring the frantic anxiety of the time, but the song is a little tiresome to people of the future who are dealing with the same old shit coming at us one hundred times faster.
“Just My Imagination (Running Away from Me)”: After four pretty intense singles, it was time to dial it down a bit, and this was the perfect song for that mood. The opening has a Brook Benton feel to it: laid back and smooth. From the first gorgeous set of harmonies on the “ooh,” you get the message that this is a song about beautiful voices coming together in song, and that’s exactly how things turn out. Eddie Kendricks never sang as beautifully and The Temptations never harmonized as sweetly. The cascading harmonies on the “I” in the “I can visualize . . . ” line are particularly special. Giving Paul Williams a solo line for the last time was another brilliant move. People have called this a throwback song reminiscent of their earlier days, but I hear a great deal more sophistication and clarity in the vocal arrangement. Wherever it belongs, it belongs: “Just My Imagination” is a thing of beauty that will last forever.
“Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone”: After another long period of turbulence that saw both Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams exit the stage, The Temptations come back with an unusual long-form funk/soul song that proved to be both highly popular and heavily influential. Much of the credit goes to producer Norman Whitfield, The Detroit Symphony Orchestra and The Funk Brothers for creating the instrumental passages that dominate the song and supply The Temptations with a rich sonic texture to blend their vocal talents. This is the “short” seven-minute single version as opposed to the original twelve-minute opus, and I really wish the compilers would have included the original because it is a much more satisfying composition. Whitfield must have realized this was his crowning jewel, for he pushed the group hard during the recording process, an act of assholity that led to his dismissal. The lyrics are a greater expansion of the issue of the African-American father first mentioned on “Cloud Nine,” and in this case, the man is just a myth to the narrator, who never saw his father alive. In terms of capturing both the loss and confusion of the abandoned child and exposing the greater social problem, “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” is a moving and brilliant work.
“Shakey Ground”: The compilers sacrificed “Masterpiece” for this song from 1975, perhaps to show that The Temptations were running out of steam. Their last Top 30 hit of the decade, coming out almost three years after “Papa,” is not one of their best efforts: a tired funk number without the discipline and quality of their other numbers.
“Treat Her Like a Lady”: Fast-forward to 1984! Otis Williams and Melvin Franklin still survive from the classic lineup, but the rest of the crew joined at various times in the early 80’s. Opening with a cappella harmonies on the title line, the song opens up to a typically overproduced 8o’s funk beat—a little bit of disco and a whole lot of engineering. The song protests the notion that chivalry is dead and that feminism has imposed too many artificial limits on guys just wanting to be nice to their ladies. Hmm. We’ll see about that! Here’s a line-by-line, blow-by-blow commentary on the suggestions for post-feminist etiquette:
Now I like openin’ doors (Why wouldn’t you do that for anyone, regardless of gender? It’s a nice thing to do, especially when someone’s struggling with a cup of coffee, an iPhone, a briefcase and a croissant!)
Pickin’ up her hanky off the floor (Yuck! What if she’s just blown her nose into that hanky? Wait—does anyone still use hankies?)
Light her cigarette if she smokes (I always have my submissives light my cigarettes, male or female. It’s a natural erotic moment with special meaning. The submissives light their own. This is like, “duh” to me.)
Even (Help her with her coat) (Again, that’s a nice thing to do, period. Are you afraid that if you helped a man with a bulky coat you would become a homosexual? Or that the coat-wearer would turn impotent?)
In this world of liberation/It’s so easy to forget/That it’s so nice to have a man around/To lend a helping hand (A debatable point. Penises can be handy, I admit, but I can outshine any handyman on earth. I don’t drive anymore, so I don’t need my oil changed. I’m trained in the martial arts, so I don’t need a man to protect me. What else ya got?)
“Stay”: Now it’s 1998 and only Otis Williams survives. I had no idea The Temptations did anything in the 90’s, but I was very relieved that this was not another cover of Maurice Williams. It is a copy of “My Girl,” right down to the bass part and the guitar riff. It sounds like a Temptations cover band that you might see in Vegas.
Last three songs aside, the experience of listening to The Definitive Collection was both pleasurable and revelatory: I knew The Temptations were good, but I don’t think I appreciated how good they really were. I have a passion for groups that change and grow while adhering to high standards, and The Temptations certainly feed that passion: they were superb at ballads, superb at hard soul, superb at funk. Most of all, they blended diverse talents into vocal performances par excellence.
Okay, I’m now waiting to give you the hump of your life. When are you going to get here? What? What do you mean you’re lost? I gave you directions!