The incredible wave of creativity that swept through the western world in the second part of the 60s may have culminated in 1967 with the release of countless masterpieces, as highlighted in a previous article. However, one of the new musical genres invented in the decade needed a few more years to mature and reach a level of sophistication and complexity previously unseen in rock music.
King Crimson’s 1969 debut, ‘In the Court of the Crimson King’, is not only one of the first records that can be conveniently classified as progressive rock, but also one of the greatest works the genre has ever produced. Publications that agree with this assessment include Rolling Stone, which referred to the LP as “a surreal work of force and originality”.
But not all contemporary critics recognized the brilliance and significance of the album. Robert Christgau of the Village Voice wrote in 1969: “Beware the forthcoming hype – this is ersatz shit.”
Greg Lake, the group’s first vocalist and bassist, explained what they had set out to accomplish in an interview with Gibson: “At that time, nearly all the British bands were using the blues or soul music – American music – as their influence. Since that well had been visited so many times, we decided we would try to use European music as our base influence, in order to be different. Robert and I – and Ian McDonald, for that matter – had all been schooled in European music. We understood it. We played Django Reinhardt, and we did Paganini violin exercises and so forth. Even though I loved American music, and had played it throughout my youth, it was very easy for me to adapt to using European music as the basis for new creations.”
Not only has the record passed the test of time with flying colours, but its message seems more relevant today than ever. The heavy and explosive first track, ’21st Century Schizoid Man’, may have been inspired by the Vietnam War, but owing to its reference to the present century, it now sounds very much like a sinister prophecy fulfilled: “Death seed, blind man’s greed / Poets starving, children bleed / Nothing he’s got he really needs / 21st century schizoid man”.
With ‘I Talk to the Wind’, there’s a change of tone, blending gentle folk with classical music. The dystopian theme returns with ‘Epitaph’, a gigantic composition combining the weeping mellotron with the elegance of the acoustic guitar and a string section. ‘Moonchild’ is a largely improvisational track with an avant-garde vibe, bringing the freedom of jazz into an otherwise classical-inspired piece.
And then, finally, there it is: a composition so definitive of the band’s mission to combine the music of different ages that the album is titled after it. The haunting, multi-layered arrangement is in an alluring harmony with Peter Sinfield’s spectacular poetry filled with medieval symbolism: “The keeper of the city keys puts shutters on the dreams / I wait outside the pilgrim’s door with insufficient schemes / The black queen chants the funeral march, the cracked brass bells will ring / To summon back the fire witch to the court of the crimson king”. This track is arguably in competition for the greatest piece of music ever written.
The packaging is also worthy of note. The album art was painted by Barry Godber, a computer programmer who died at the age of 24 shortly after the record was released. Depicting the “21st Century Schizoid Man”, it’s one of the most recognizable covers in the history of rock music. On the inside is a striking portrait of the “Crimson King” himself, whose lips are smiling, while his eyes are disturbingly sad.
‘In the Court of the Crimson King’ peaked at number five on the UK Albums Chart and at number 28 on the Billboard 200 chart. Author and critic Edward Macan has written that it “may be the most influential progressive rock album ever released”, while Rolling Stone ranked it second on their list of “The 50 Greatest Prog Rock Albums of All Time”, behind Pink Floyd’s ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’.
King Crimson was formed following the transformation of the trio Giles, Giles and Fripp, which had released one album in 1968, ‘The Cheerful Insanity of Giles, Giles and Fripp’. After bassist Peter Giles left the band the same year, guitarist Robert Fripp and drummer Michael Giles were joined by multi-instrumentalist Ian McDonald.
Since their first release, the group has gone through line-up changes on a nearly annual basis, with Fripp being the sole constant member since the early beginnings. Singer and guitarist Adrian Belew was a member between 1981-2013, although the band was on a 10-year hiatus starting in 1984. It was recently announced that Belew has rejoined as a non-performing ninth member.
King Crimson’s current incarnation formed when vocalist and guitarist Jakko Jakszyk joined in 2013, replacing Belew. They are starting a North American tour on 19th October.