By Daniel Anderson
It was supposed to be a day of remembrance, of mourning. I suppose it is true what they say: with death comes new life.
On July 5, 1969, more than 500,000 attendees gathered at London’s Hyde Park to see The Rolling Stones play live after a two-year concert hiatus, and only two days after guitarist Brian Jones had fallen. What preceded their act, however, was something that almost no one had anticipated.
Opening for them was a band that the majority of the audience had never heard of up until that point; they had not even released a single record. As they viscerally and furiously play on, there is applause for sure, yet most attendees had no idea of what to make of them.
And to think, just months earlier, that same band had merely been playing for local pubs.
All of it started with just three young men: Micheal and Peter Giles and Robert Fripp, the latter of which was the brains of the operation. Together, these three brought together a myriad of musical influences ranging from blues, contemporary pop and jazz.
This incarnation was short-lived as Peter soon bailed, leaving Michael and Fripp with guitar and drumsticks in hand, but no direction to take.
That is, until they were lent a few hands from lyricist Peter Sinfield, vocalist and bassist Greg Lake, and multi-instrumentalist Ian McDonald.
On January 13 1969, the group held their first rehearsal, and thus was born King Crimson.
The band’s name, coined by Sinfield, was not thought of as an allusion to Beezelbub or any demonic figure for that matter, but rather as a term used to describe tyrannical rulers or monarchs. As he jokingly put it, “Anything was better than Giles, Giles, and Fripp. King Crimson had arrogance to it.”
Regardless of however you interpret it, the name matches the sound of the band down to a tee. Simply put, nothing else sounded quite like them.
Now, that is not to say there weren’t other artists who played and in a similar vein. Contemporaries such as Yes, Soft Machine and Jethro Tull had all previously began indulging in fusion and experimentation of psychedelic rock, blues, jazz and classical elements and theory to form what we now know as progressive rock.
But there was an essence that made King Crimson truly emerge from the rest of the pack. One key element lies in the angst of their music. The band had a tendency to play far more aggressively and unpredictably in comparison to their peers.
This was especially the case for their live performances, as Fripp and company could go from deafeningly loud and abrasive in one minute, to subdued and atmospheric in another. Polarized, often quiet audiences were commonplace throughout the first few months of their careers— until that fateful day in Hyde Park.
With a sudden twist of fate, King Crimson almost immediately became hot property. Soon enough, they were signed to both Island and Atlantic, two of the biggest labels in the entire music industry, for U.K and American distribution respectively.
And with their new deal, King Crimson were primed and ready to release what they already had concocted earlier that year. On October 10th, 1969, the band’s full-length debut was unveiled: In the Court of the Crimson King.
Stiff is not enough of a word to describe the competition that this album faced, as it was a time directly in between the releases of both the Beatles’ and Led Zeppelin’s seminal records Abbey Road and Led Zeppelin II. Despite being at the crossroads of music history, the album sold quite well for a debut, charting at No. 5 on the U.K. Albums Chart and No. 28 on the U.S. Billboard 200.
It should be worth noting that it was met with mixed critical reception upon release. Looking back, I guess that would be a somewhat fitting entrance for King Crimson. When compared to most records popular at that time, In the Court of the Crimson King sticks out like a sore thumb, both in sound and attitude.
That immediately becomes apparent with the iconic opening track “21st Century Schizoid Man” (which, to me, still remains one of the coolest song titles ever). After an eerie, wind-swept intro, the listener is met with a torrent of pummeling, distorted guitars, drums and ascending saxophone leads. Around the two-minute mark, the instrumental switches to a fast-paced section of sporadic guitar solos and manic drum fills before it eventually returns to the previous section.
Meanwhile, Lake viciously belts out lyrics of a mad, dystopian world, “Blood rack, barbed wire / Politician’s funeral pyre / Innocents raped with napalm fire / Twenty-first century schizoid man.”
The pessimistic nature of both the lyrics and instrumentals are quite a blatant contrast to anything “peace-and-love” related in psychedelic music at the time. So much so that this track is often referred to as an early example metal music (mind you, artists like Black Sabbath and Budgie had not yet burst onto the scene at that time).
However, the album’s nature soon performs a 180° spin with the following track, “I Talk to the Wind.” As previously stated, the band knew how to transition sonically from one area to another, and this track exemplifies that flawlessly. Immediately following the mayhem of the track prior, we are then thrust into a serene environment with McDonald serenading listeners with his masterful flute skills.
Instead of a menacing snarl glazed with distorted post-effects, Lake greets our ears with a soft-spoken and far more melodic voice as the lush instrumentals compliment him in the mix.
It should be worth noting that, despite how many pretty bells and whistles that are presented (such as McDonald’s astounding flute solos), Sinfield’s lyricism still convey the essence of a fearful world. Here, they seem to portray a man who is questioning his faith in the world around him, “I’m on the outside, looking inside / What do I see? / Much confusion, disillusion / All around me.”
With this in mind, an elephant in the room remains: the reason for such lyrical and sonic pessimism. Thankfully, considering the time in which this record was released, context becomes easy to piece together. The year 1969 was in the midst of a tumultuous era for global affairs— most notably the height of the Cold War and the Vietnam Campaign.
It would only make sense for a group such as King Crimson to reflect the ever-present darkness in the world around them. And that darkness is unfurled in all its glory with the third track “Epitaph.”
Following a brief drumroll emerging from the fade of the previous track, “Epitaph” emerges with an awe-inspiring soundscape of grandiose, apical proportions. All throughout, there are acoustic guitars (both gently picked and monstrously strummed), varying drum fills and woodwinds accompany Lake’s desperate vocals and Sinfield’s apocalyptic lyrics. Each of these elements are as doom-laden as the other, “When every man is torn apart / With nightmares and with dreams / Will no one lay the laurel wreath / When silence drowns the screams?”
But most important of all, this track heavily implements use of a mellotron: a device which would come to define not only this band, but most of the prog rock genre in general.
Oftentimes cited as a precursor to the modern synthesizer, this key instrument, when played, will give off sounds akin to orchestral samples. This would allow songs with its inclusion to have an almost symphonic appearance.
During production of this album, McDonald spent much of his time overdubbing layers upon layers of mellotron recordings, so its presence would always be unmistakable. His efforts become front-and-center on “Epitaph” as the mellotron swallows the mix and elevates the track to cataclysmic levels, especially during the crescendo towards the last minute-and-a-half.
Many have tried to emulate the feeling of the end of days that this track presents, some have even come remarkably close (namely artists like Sunn O))) and Godspeed You! Black Emperor). Still, I find that, for lack of a better description, the bleak and paranoid atmosphere achieved in this song has yet to be replicated.
But alas, we then recede once more to a softer place with the proceeding track “Moonchild.” Easily the quietest, most reserved song in the tracklist, Giles’ percussion (mostly cymbals) takes up most of the space in the mix as McDonald’s woodwinds and mellotron eerily linger in the background. Meanwhile, Lake gently sings the most abstract lyrics on the album; they wonderfully compliment the track’s tone of isolation “Sailing on the wind in a milk-white gown / Dropping circle stones on a sundial / Playing hide-and-seek with the ghosts of dawn / Waiting for a smile from a sun child.”
This goes on for about two minutes before the song transitions into a bizarre, 10-minute free improv session. The band members seemingly take turns, either one after the other or occasionally contrasting, playing whatever instrument they have in hand without any specific time signature or meter. Perhaps it is filler, but that is something I can easily overlook, as this band was known for doing these sorts of things— both in-studio and in live settings.
Once the track abruptly ends, we at last arrive at the iconic closer: the title track. King Crimson truly pulls out all the stops here, combining just about every element that made all the previous tracks so memorable. You name it, this song has it: unbelievable drum fills from Giles, McDonald’s majestic flute soloing and overpowering mellotron, Fripp’s acoustic guitar appearing gargantuan in the mix, and of course, Lake’s imposing vocals and bass work.
The lyrics, while surreal once more, point in a far more sinister direction, reminiscent of the dystopian themes inspired by the backdrop of Vietnam, “The yellow jester does not play, but gently pulls the strings / And smiles as the puppets dance in the court of the crimson king.”
Once the track seemingly ends around the seven-minute mark, McDonald mysteriously and subtly starts playing his flute and mellotron once more. All of the sudden, the drums come back and we are met with a grand instrumental reprise of the chorus melody. The mellotron here is just as powerful as it was on “Epitaph” as each member gives it their all, especially Giles as he mercilessly pounds the drum heads to a pulp. I could not ask for a better curtaincall if I tried.
Thus concludes an undisputed musical epic, all within a timespan under 50 minutes.
What a shame that these men did not follow through with any projects together. After disputes revolving around the band’s creative direction, the members of King Crimson split up. Ever since then, this band has gone through a plethora of lineup changes; Fripp has remained the only constant member.
On the other hand, the legacy left behind by this group is practically immortal by now. Several of its members go on to have successful careers (most notably Greg Lake taking part in fellow seminal prog rock act Emerson, Lake and Palmer and Ian McDonald in Foreigner) but the amount of influence that this record alone holds on future acts is absolutely staggering.
King Crimson have gone on to inspire artists in a vast array of genres. From later prog acts like Rush, Tool and Porcupine Tree, to modern psychedelia like The Flaming Lips, punk groups like Bad Religion (the band’s own record label, Epitaph, is named after the song of the same title), to metal, as previously mentioned (especially bands like Mastodon, Voivod, Yob, Opeth, Neurosis, etc.), and even genres as far reaching as noise (namely Merzbow).
Not only that, but this band and record have somehow managed to find ways of staying relevant outside the music realm. Several memes have been and are still being made across the internet in light of King Crimson. Perhaps the most popular of all is a niche trend called “getting Fripp’d” where Youtube users upload videos containing audio clips and samples from King Crimson’s discography (especially from In the Court of the Crimson King), only for others to comment on how long it takes before Fripp’s label takes the video down.
Considering how poignant the rigorous and colorful compositions and lyrical themes of a fearful world still remain, I suppose all of this should not be very surprising. But once I look back and compare this album to whatever else was hip at the time, I can’t help but sit back and smile at how long it has stayed fresh.
The fact that an album now over half a century old can still be embraced by far younger generations should serve as a testament to the longevity of this band and album. Not even fine wine ages that well.
Here’s to another 50 years of sonic magnificence, and counting.
Link to Album: https://open.spotify.com/album/5wec5BciMpDMzlEFpYeHse?si=KWbFGSaISCO1FofZjV1ZVA
Link to Hyde Park Concert:
- 21st Century Schizoid Man
- I Talk to the Wind
- The Court of the Crimson King