Wednesday, December 9, 2009

In The Court Of The Crimson King

King Crimson/1969

First, I’d like to apologize to my neighbor Joanne. The little sister of one of my pals at the time, she made the mistake of innocently strolling into my house and gazing upon a certain album cover leaning against the couch. Letting out a blood-curdling scream, the youngster tearfully turned and ran like hell out the front door. Oh, the contorted, fearful, agonized grimace…no, not on Joanne’s face. I’m talking about the face on the album cover. If ever there was an album cover that perfectly reflected the menacing musical vision tucked therein, it was In the Court of the Crimson King by King Crimson. Catching the hippie-dippy, peace ‘n love crowd with their proverbial bell bottoms down, this debut album (subtitled “An Observation by King Crimson”) mysteriously appeared on the record racks with no warning in late ’69. It was almost as if the frightfully grimacing face on the cover was beckoning you, “Come…buy this album…if you dare.” While peaceniks and pinkos were still strumming and singing about social injustice, all the King’s men were busily creating this darkly disturbing, surrealistic fantasy world – resplendent with 21st Century schizoid men, solemn and spooky epitaphs and a warped royal court of dancing puppets, fire witches and funeral marches. If the Beatles proved that rock music could be art on Sgt. Peppers, King Crimson took the ball and ran with it, straight down into their own cozy little netherworld. This is an album of subtle shadings and mind-bending contrasts, set amidst distinctive jazz and classical overtones – perfectly balancing the extreme sonic violence and chaos of lead-off track “21st Century Schizoid Man” (which could be construed as an anti-war song, albeit one from hell) with the flute-fluttering, pastoral beauty of “I Talk to the Wind” – slyly casting its spell, drawing you into its enchanting yet unnerving depths. Contributing to the album’s atmospherics is the mighty mellotron, played expertly by Ian McDonald. A keyboard instrument that replicates the sound of violins, brass and choirs via pre-recorded tapes, the mellotron adds a ghostly, unhinged spookiness to the music – yes, it sounds like an orchestral string section, but one with an alien-like other-worldliness. During your next out-of-body experience, the mellotron will most likely be what you hear in the background. It’s used most effectively on the album’s two epic tracks, “Epitaph” and the album closer, “The Court of the Crimson King.” Based around a majestic mellotron riff, the music on this track slowly weaves through lyricist Peter Sinfield’s Brothers-Grimm-on-acid fantasy poetics:

“On soft grey mornings widows cry,
The wise men share a joke;
I run to grasp divining signs
To satisfy the hoax.
The yellow jester does not play
But gently pulls the strings
And smiles as the puppets dance
In the court of the crimson king.”

What does it all mean? That’s not the point. It’s not so much what the lyrics mean, but more the creepy, nightmarish vision they create. The track culminates in a false crescendo, fooling you into thinking this bad trip is over, followed by several moments of silence and the stark tapping of a cymbal, before the main mellotron riff re-emerges more massive and menacing than ever – finally ascending into a dizzying, dissonant “swooshing” sound, like what you might hear at the very point of waking up from a really bad dream. Or, in this case a beautiful nightmare. The dark, somewhat twisted vibe on this album is appropriate, as King Crimson seemed to be cursed from the start. Cover artist Barry Godber died of a heart attack shortly after the album was released. The band suffered its own coronary after its initial U.S. tour, with McDonald exiting (followed later by singer/bassist Greg Lake and drummer Michael Giles). This particular lineup of King Crimson, stillborn as it were, would take on legendary status while the band morphed and mutated with constantly changing personnel on subsequent albums – all under the watchful eye of lone original member, guitarist Robert Fripp (who continues to manage all things King Crimson to this very day). Though probably not the first Progressive Rock album, In the Court of the Crimson King was certainly the harbinger of things to come at the dawning of a new decade. Rock music would become more impressionistic, more artistic, more risk-taking…to its own detriment, some would argue (those who preferred their music to be exclusively of the sex, drugs & rock ‘n roll variety). But even now, 40 years later, this iconic album continues to transcend time and haunt all who have (or will) come in contact with it – still exerting a strangely disturbing, yet irresistible spell.

Essential Tracks: “21st Century Schizoid Man” “I Talk to the Wind” “Epitaph” “In the Court of the Crimson King”


  1. Now that you've got those lone cymbal sounds followed by the calliope-like mellotron notes swimming in my head, you captured this gem perfectly. Caught us with our proverbial bell bottoms down -- excellent.

  2. The nail has been hit on the head. The first of many great albums from that group.

  3. I have an excellent vinyl rip of a German issue on my

  4. 21st Cent. Schizoid Man was supposed to have been written for Spiro Agnew, according to critics.

  5. Recently bought the 40th Anniversary remaster of this LP. Still QUITE an amazing records,40 years on.

  6. An iconic album if ever there was one. Still waiting for my 40th Anniversary copy...can't wait to hear this stuff in 5.1 multi-channel.