Album Reviews

King Crimson - In The Court Of The Crimson King

After the highly successful Counting Out Time series, we thought it was a good idea to pay attention to some more of the greatest albums in prog history now and then. This Milestones series is a continuation of Counting Out Time and a shift from DPRP's focus on new releases.

An Observation of King Crimson's First Album

Band Members: Robert Fripp (guitar), Greg Lake (bass and lead vocals), Ian MacDonald (flutes and keyboards), Michael Giles (drums and percussion), Peter Sinfield (lyrics and lightshows).

Producer: King Crimson.
Engineer: Robin Thompson & Tony Page (assistant).

Tracks: 1. 21st Century Schizoid Man, including Mirrors (7:20), 2. I Talk To The Wind (6:05), 3. Epitaph, including March For No Reason & Tomorrow And Tomorrow (8:47), 4. Moonchild, including The Dream & The Illusion (12:11), 5. The Court Of The Crimson King, including The Return Of The Fire Witch & The Dance Of The Puppets (9:22).

The musical scene in the late sixties

The year was 1969. Progressive rock has not been invented yet. but some early attempts had been made, mostly inspired by psychedelic hippie vibes. The Beach Boys had already started exploring the possibilities of multi-tracking ("Pet Sounds", 1966), Jimmy Hendrix started combining R&B with psychedelic rock ("Are You Experienced" 1967), and the first so called "concept albums" were released, like "St. Peppers" by the Beatles and "Days Of Future Past" by the Moody Blues.

Procol Harum had already recorded their organ classic "A Whiter Shade of Pale", but the track wasn't included on their debut album "Procol Harum" (1967). Classical influences were also present on the first two albums by The Nice (with Keith Emerson). And in this period, three young dinosaurs were born, Pink Floyd, Genesis and Yes, but their first albums still were rather "flower power" than what we now call progressive rock.

King Crimson Album Covers

Then suddenly, an album was released by a new band, King Crimson. It came in a strange and frightening cover, that seemed to fit the music quite well. The music was something completely new and overwhelming, both fragile, majestic and aggressive, with unusual sounds, changing time signatures, and complex arrangements.

For many people, this album "In The Court Of The Crimson King, An Observation by King Crimson" marked the true start of progressive rock. For this reason, this article will try to give some background information on how this album came together.

Crimson Court cover
The album cover of "Court".

The formation of King Crimson

The idea for King Crimson was conceived in London 1968. Michael Giles (drums) and his brother Peter Giles (bass) had been playing in several bands all over the country. In London they met guitarist Robert Fripp, who had been there since 1967, without work, but with the desire to become a professional musician. As he recalls: "I arrived in London with Sergeant Pepper's bubbling inside of me. Hendrix, Bartok string quartets, an experience of passionate music".

Fripp and the Giles brothers formed a band (Giles, Giles & Fripp) and in 1968 recorded an album "The Cheerful Insanity of Giles, Giles and Fripp". The album was described as a combination of the silly Beatles stuff, Monty Python and the Moody Blues in their less pompous moods. Unfortunately, the album was quite unsuccessful and GG&F failed to get any gigs.

The GG&F album.

During November 1968, the idea for a new band was formed, without Peter Giles, but with two other members from the GG&F-team: lyricist Peter Sinfield and multi-instrumentalist Ian MacDonald. Sinfield came up with the new band's name: King Crimson, "a synonym for Beelzebub". Fripp also contacted an old friend, Greg Lake, who had just left his band The Gods, and was trying to get a solo record deal. Lake agrees to join them and moves to London.

Crimson rehearsals and performing

Robert Fripp performing in the 70's.

King Crimson started rehearsing in January 1969 in a cafe basement, usually in the presence of a small audience of friends. Most of the music evolved from these rehearsals, with all of the members bringing in ideas and suggestions.

"We didn't really have a formula", Lake remembers, "All we knew was that the music had a life of it's own". The same idea was expressed by the other band members (Giles: "The music was playing us" and Fripp: "the music came to live, of itself, as we played it"). Lake felt that as musicians they were totally unconnected. According to Fripp, the main things that kept the band together were commitment and creative frustration. They felt that, after years of doing things which were unsatisfying, they should create an opportunity to do what they wanted. In Giles' words: "We wanted to make music that didn't sound like anybody else's music. Our intention was to make some powerful, adventurous new music that hadn't been done before, and make our mark on the world".

Of course, 1969 was the time of the student demonstrations in Paris, Vietnam, flower power, drugs and the hippie movement. But according to Giles: "We were somehow outside that, just concentrating on the music. There was a lot of concerts and club dates, and the audience just sat and listened, they had a longer attention span. I can remember bands like Soft Machine, which was far more complicated music".

Picture of the early Crimson

From April 1969 the band started its first official gigs, starting as an opening act for other bands. But they soon crashed the main programme, because of their powerful performance. Their sound was quite "new"; they were loud, using unusual sounds like the mellotron and electrified saxes. Also adding to the musical magic was Sinfield's light show. As Sinfield recalls: "I would go: blue, blue, rrrrr ed , b b b blue- and Ian or someone would respond to the colour sequence with a musical phrase. It was a very wonderful feeling!"

The Album

In June 1969, the band started the recording of their first album. The album came in a remarkable sleeve by Barry Godber. Fripp: "The face on the outside is the Schizoid Man, and on the inside it's the Crimson King. What can one add? It reflects the music". This cover was the only one Godber ever did, as he died in 1970 at the age of 24.

Artist Godber with his "Court" cover.

The album was originally to be produced by Tony Clark (who also worked with the Moody Blues), but eventually the band decided to produce the album themselves. The recording and mixing took about 10 days. It's important to notice here that Fripp has always regarded King Crimson as a live band, and not a recording unit. For him, a recording can only capture a part of the music that is happening. Still, the album can be seen as an important musical milestone. The album was finished in August and officially released in October. On the album were only five long pieces:

1. 21st Century Schizoid Man
(incl. Mirrors)
"Cat's foot, iron claw
Neuro-surgeons scream for more
At paranoia's poison door
Twenty first century schizoid man"

The albums starts with the frightening "21st Century Schizoid Man", which Fripp once referred to as "the first heavy metal track". This piece demonstrates the energy and aggression of the musicians: Lake's metallic distorted vocals, MacDonald's electrically amplified saxophones, Giles' restless jazzy drumming, the uncompromisingly fast instrumental middle section and Fripp's wild guitars. The song was basically written by Lake, but in fact is a group effort, evolving from rehearsals. This song must have been quite a shock for the listeners in those days, as it was unlike any of the music they had heard before.

2. I Talk to the Wind
"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"

After the powerful opening, follows "I Talk to the Wind", a peaceful and dreamy piece, mainly carried by the beautiful flutes of MacDonald, who wrote the song. MacDonald: "It was a very simple folky song, but done in a context that one might call progressive". The track also appeared on the GG&F-album, and there is also an early version, sung by Judy Dyble, formerly of Fairport Convention.

3. Epitaph
(incl. March For No Reason & Tomorrow And Tomorrow)
"Confusion will be my epitaph
As I crawl a cracked and broken path
If we make it we can all sit back and laugh
But I fear tomorrow I'll be crying"

This piece was another band effort, based on Sinfield lyrics, with Lake's song part added, and all members contributing musical ideas. The music is heavy, not because it's loud, but because of it's dramatic melody, its minor key, and the classic sound of the mellotron. A short snippet of this song can also be heard on ELP's 1974 live album ("Welcome Back My Friends").

"Epitaph" is also the name of a collection of live recordings, released in 1997, which give a nice impression of the live performances of the first Crimson line up in 1969, with more improvisations, and some material that had previously been unavailable.

4. Moonchild
(incl. The Dream & The Illusion)
"She's a moonchild
Gathering the flowers in a garden
Lovely moonchild
Drifting on the echoes of the hours"

Side 2 of the LP (remember?) starts with "Moonchild", a piece in two parts. The first part is a romantic hippie ballad, for which Sinfield wrote the lyrics after he had fallen in love with his new wife, Stephanie. After the "song part" starts an long instrumental section, spontaneously recorded without Greg Lake. It's a free improvisation, with no melody and almost inaudible. For many people (some band members included) this section didn't really work on the album, but it's interesting to see why it was included. Sinfield: "We were a bit short of material for the album, and we decided to do something that represented the often most amusing / entertaining / perverse part of our live show".

5. In The Court Of The Crimson King
(incl. The Return Of The Fire Witch
& The Dance Of The Puppets)

"The purple piper plays his tune
The choir softly sing
Three lullabies in an ancient tongue
For the court of the Crimson King"

The album closes with the title track, the majestic mellotron piece "In The Court Of The Crimson King". The story of the Crimson King was inspired by several historical figures, most notably the Emperor Frederick II (1194-1250), a rebellious despot. Originally, this was a tune all written by Sinfield for his earlier band 'Creation'. The song was completely rewritten for King Crimson, with a melody line by Lake.

Response to the album

When it came out, the album was very well received. There seemed to be an audience for music that was not primarily entertaining, but more serious and intellectual in both lyrical and musical terms. In this perspective, the album is very close to "Days of Future Passed" by the Moody Blues.

Even more than the Moodies, King Crimson's "Court" laid down an important foundation for a new musical style that became known as "progressive rock" (although the band members were never too keen on the word).

The band's "epic" approach of the song material, and the complex arrangements became very influential to a new generation of musicians, thus marking a point were pop musicians wanted to be more than "just" pop, trying to give popular music a more serious treatment, and maybe even create some new form of Art.

End of the original line up

After King Crimson's USA tour in December 1969, the original band fell apart, as MacDonald and Giles decided to leave. Several reasons were given: the sudden success of the band, the pressure of touring, and the fact that the members didn't communicate too well. Giles had fallen in love and wanted to spend more time at home, and MacDonald wanted to make more personal and happier music, "with less paranoia, aggression and frustration".

Soon after, a problem arose between Lake and Fripp, both two strong characters. Fripp had some very clear ideas about the band's musical course, and wanted full control. Lake recalls: "Bob wanted to work to a situation where he was in the driving seat over the other musicians involved, which I can dig, but not for me." Lake also felt a bit underrated in the band, and wanted more credit for his songwriting. All this finally resulted in the departure of Lake.

In 1970, a "new" King Crimson started recording their second album, "In The Wake Of Poseidon". This was a messy period, in which Fripp was still trying to get his new band together. The line up on "Poseidon" was a strange mixture of both old and new band members. The official new singer was Gordon Haskell (who only sang on one track), but most of the album was sung by Lake. Also new were Keith Tippeth (piano) and Mel Collins (flutes and saxes). Mike Giles temporarily returned to play the drums, and his brother Peter Giles (from GG&F) played bass.

There are several interesting stories about this period, like Yes asking Fripp to replace their guitar player Peter Banks (which he refused), and Elton John being asked to do some work as a session singer for "Poseidon" (cancelled by Fripp).

"Whatever became of..."

So what happened with the members of the original King Crimson line up? To conclude this article, just some short notes...

Greg Lake became very successful as part of the trio Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Fripp did express his interest in working with ELP (as did Jimmy Hendrix), although this never happened, probably because Emerson wasn't too interested in working with another guitar player. ELP released their first album in 1970, and beside his work with ELP, Lake also recorded some solo albums, sometimes collaborating with Gary Moore.

MacDonald and Giles recorded a new album in 1970 (MacDonald & Giles). However, this was just a studio thing, never intended to become a band. After that, Giles became a session musician, working with Rupert Hine, John Perry and Ant Phillips, and also doing some film and television music.
MacDonald moved to New York, where he started working with the very successful band Foreigner (debut album 1977). He incidentally played with King Crimson and did some production work. More recently, MacDonald made a solo album, "Drivers Eyes" and played with Steve Hackett and John Wetton.

The collaboration between Fripp and Sinfield came to an end in December 1971. He kept writing lyrics, working for ELP and the Italian band PFM. He also recorded a solo album in 1973, "Still" (re-released as "Stillusion"). More recently, Sinfield started to write lyrics for more poppy bands, like Bucks Fizz's "The Land of Make Believe" (which he described as an "anti-Thatcher song").

And Robert Fripp, finally, of course kept working with King Crimson. Through the years, the band went through several personal and musical changes. In the seventies Crimson recorded albums like "Lizard" (1970), "Islands" (1971), "Lark's Tongues In Aspic" (1973), "Starless And Bible Black" (1974) and "Red" (1974). In 1981 a new Crimson arose, and the band is still active in 2002, with several side projects.

Fripp has also recorded some solo albums, worked with Peter Gabriel, Brian Eno, David Sylvian, Andy Summers and many others. He also gives workshops for guitarist, and often surprises the world with his cynical, humorous statements:
"We're not to be enjoyed. We're an intellectual band!"

Written by Rob Michel, April 2002

For this article I made use of several sources, like the album booklets to KC's "Young Person's Guide" and "Epitaph", Eric Tamm's book "Robert Fripp, From King Crimson to Guitar Craft", and various interviews found on the internet.
Recommended website for further reading:

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