On this date 48 years ago, King Crimson’s debut album, In The Court Of The Crimson King, was released. The recorded entered the UK charts at No.5 and later, No.28 in the US charts and catapulted King Crimson from underground cult act to mainstream success.
It was Fripp’s idea to subtitle the album “An Observation By King Crimson”, which had the effect of framing the five pieces within an implied concept of sorts. Fripp also his suggestion that there be no print anywhere on the exterior artwork. John Gaydon, Crimson’s co-manager at the time recalls Island Records were worried about objections from retailers who would be confused about the lack of information on the sleeve. “Fripp said, well, it’ll be the only record in the shop without anything down the spine on it, so they’ll know which one it is. Which was brilliant when you think about it.”
Housed in its distinctive cover painted by Peter Sinfield’s friend, Barry Godber, it remains the most widely recognised album by King Crimson.
Writing in the booklet accompanying the Epitaph box set Robert Fripp recalled “The cover was as strange and powerful as anything else to do with this group. Barry Godber, a friend of Peter and Dik the Roadie, was not an artist but a computer programmer. This was the only album cover he painted. Barry died in bed in February 1970 at the age of 24.
The cover was as much a defining statement, and a classic, as the album. And they both belonged together. The Schizoid face was really scary, especially if a display filled an entire shop window.
Peter brought the cover into Wessex Studios in Highgate during a session. At the time Michael Giles refused to commit himself to it, nor has he yet. But Michael has also never agreed to the name King Crimson. We went ahead anyway.
The original artwork hung on a wall in 63a, Kings Road, in full daylight for several years. This was the centre of EG activities from 1970 and remains so today, albeit in its diminished and truncated form. For several years I watched the colours drain from the Schizoid and Crimson King faces until, finally, I announced that unless it was hung where it was protected from daylight, I would remove it. Several months later I removed it and it is now stored at Discipline Global Mobile World Central.”
In 1969, Rhett Davies, who would come to work with King Crimson on Discipline in 1981, was then employed in the Liverpool Street branch of Harlequin Records in London. He ensured that Crimson’s debut album occupied a whole window of the store. “I phoned up the label and asked them to send me over twenty album sleeves and I stuck a joint in one of the mouths!”
Rarely had an album sleeve so accurately echoed the shock-and-awe reaction which this extraordinary music produced in its listeners. Even the advent of the CD and the jewel-case has done little to dilute its iconic power.
Reflecting on the factors surrounding the making of the album, Fripp said “Any group working together has to have a common aim. The ‘69 band’s common aim was to be the best band in the world, whatever we understand by that, but that was the shared aim. Not the most successful band in the world, not the most famous band in the world - the best band in the world. And while you share that aim, and that is your primary focus together, things might happen.” Things certainly did happen for Crimson and at a dizzying speed. Just days after Lake, McDonald, Giles, Fripp and Sinfield began rehearsing in January 1969 in the basement beneath a Turkish cafe on the Fulham Palace Road, record companies were being invited down to listen to their hybrid mix of folk, rock, jazz and symphonic-hued compositions. As word began to spread about the group’s extraordinarily audacious abilities, one early interested party were The Moody Blues who fancied King Crimson might be the first outside signing for their soon-to-be-established Threshold label. “One or two of them came down with their producer Tony Clarke and we played two or three songs and they were impressed” recalls Fripp. A few days later the entire band came to see Crimson play at The Speakeasy. “They hadn’t heard the heavy stuff such as Schizoid Man or Court at that point. We were meant to be going to out on tour with them but they came and saw us live.” After that, Crimson were dropped from the support slot. “They knew we’d blow them off stage” concludes the guitarist.
Tony Clarke with the Moody Blues
The association with the Moody Blues continued however with Clarke as the would-be producer of Crimson’s debut album. After only a few sessions however, first in Morgan Studios and then Wessex Studios, Crimson found themselves increasingly dissatisfied with the results, opting to produce themselves. Given that they still had only a handful of gigs under their collective belt, one can’t help but think that this band must have had balls of steel to tell one of the best-selling producers his services were no longer required. “It wasn’t balls of steel it was just this wasn’t right. Look at it a different way; this has to be right. It wasn’t right. I believe we had a meeting in the EG Volkswagen Beetle and the decision was taken: if we produce ourselves we’ll make mistakes but they’ll be our mistakes and not someone else’s. Tony Clarke would get me strumming rhythm chords to I Talk To The Wind for hours through the night. Well, through the night is not my best time for working. Strumming lots of chords is not the best use of me as a guitar player. In other words, he didn’t see these artists; he didn’t see this band. Not really. He saw what he obviously thought was a good band at the very least and it would be good for him as a producer and he probably gave it his best shot, but it wasn’t the production for us. That’s not a criticism of him as a producer. It was just a mismatch between producer and artist. I saw him a few years after that at Heathrow. I can’t remember exactly what was said but there was an edge there. There was something not resolved for him. He seemed to have a bit of attitude about it. For me it was clear he wasn’t the producer for this band. It doesn’t mean the band’s bad or wrong or the producer; it’s just not the match.”
In the years that have followed its release the self-produced album has been widely regarded by many as having kick-started progressive rock.
1001 Albums You Must Here Before You Die cites Scizoid Man as “perhaps the first alternative anthem, featuring a gargantuan main riff,squalling sax and apocalytic visions.”
Mojo said “The intense brew of classical melodies, jazz and hard rock, matched with fantastical lyrics - and housed in an intriguing, lurid sleeve - created the template for progressive rock. All the more remarkable, then, that the music was created in a week.”
That’s a view that Steven Wilson, who remixed the album in 2009 shares. ”For me this the birth of progressive rock. Yes, there were other albums before that; you could say Sgt Pepper or The Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed have a claim to laying down a blueprint of progressive rock, but In the Court.. really is the first time you have such technical prowess allied to musical experiments, great songwriting and a conceptual feeling all tied together in one record.”
While fans will argue the pros and cons of such an argument there’s no disagreement that Court represents one of the most coherent, cohesive and collectively powerful debut albums of the era.
As new generations of fans discover the album, barely a month goes by without an online reassessment of the record and barely a day goes by without it being cited as one of the most significant and influential rock albums to emerge from the 1960s.
Here’s how some of the music papers of the day reacted to In The Court of The Crimson King.
This eagerly-awaited first album is no disappointment, and confirms their reputation as one of the most important new groups for some time. It gives little idea of their true power on stage, but still packs tremendous impact especially the brutally exciting “21st Century Schizoid Man” and the eerie title track, with its frightening mellotron sounds. It’s not all high power stuff though - there’s some nice flute from Ian McDonald on the beautiful “I Talk To The Wind” and “Moonchild” is pretty, though too long. The vocals are clear and controlled and the instrumental work can hardly be faulted. This is one you should try and hear.
The first LP from the group heralded by those who know to be the most exciting discovery of the year. Get over the most horrific cover of the year and you’ll find the pundits are not wrong. A brilliant mixture of melody and freakout, fast and slow, atmospheric and electric, all heightened by the words of Peter Sinfield.
The Ultimate Album. There is little one can fault with it: the arrangements make masterful use of multi-tracking, compressing and reducing, the standard of playing almost defies belief at time, the vocals are merely excellent and the numbers are brilliantly and excitedly written.
I don’t like one of the numbers, despite my total commitment as a Crimson-Bopper, which is ‘Moonchild’ and is too long. Otherwise a gassy, jazzy, heavy, complex, smooth and totally magnificent album: written, arranged, played and produced by the most original group since ........ (fill in your answers to Apple Ltd., Saville Row, London., for instance.
Long-awaited first album from the remarkable King Crimson, a group which manages to provoke either loathing or fanatical devotion but which is undoubtedly capable of building for itself a sizeable reputation. This stunningly-packaged LP provides a varied selection of King Crimson’s style, although it lacks some of the drive of the stage performances that have made their name. Nevertheless as a first album it is extremely good.
If you want to know where pop is going in the 70s listen to this. It is magnificent.
Finally, the American edition of Rolling Stone had this to say:
"There are certain problems to be encountered by any band that is consciously avant-garde. In attempting to sound "farout" the musicians inevitably impose on themselves restrictions as real as if they were trying to stay in a Top-40 groove. There’s usually a tendency to regard weirdness as an end in itself, and excesses often ruin good ideas.
Happily, King Crimson avoids these obstacles most of the time. Their debut album drags in places, but for the most part they have managed to effectively convey their own vision of Desolation Row. And the more I listen, the more things fall into place and the better it gets.
The album begins by setting the scene with ‘21st Century Schizoid Man’. The song is grinding and chaotic, and the transition into the melodic flute which opens ‘I Talk to the Wind’ is abrupt and breathtaking. Each song on this album is a new movement of the same work, and King Crimson’s favorite trick is to move suddenly and forcefully from thought to thought. ‘Epitaph’ speaks for itself: "The wall on which the prophets wrote/Is cracking at the seams...Confusion will be my epitaph."
‘Moonchild’ opens the second side, and this is the only weak song on the album. Most of its twelve minutes is taken up with short statements by one or several instruments. More judicious editing would have heightened their impact; as it is, you’re likely to lose interest. But the band grabs you right back when it booms into the majestic, symphonic theme of ‘The Court of the Crimson King’. This song is the album’s grand climax; it summarizes everything that has gone before it: "The yellow jester does not play/But gently pulls the strings/ And smiles as the puppets dance / In the court of the Crimson King."
This set was an ambitious project, to say the least. King Crimson will probably be condemned by some for pompousness, but that criticism isn’t really valid. They have combined aspects of many musical forms to create a surreal work of force and originality.
Besides which they’re good musicians. Guitarist Robert Fripp and Ian McDonald (reeds, woodwinds, vibes, keyboards, mellotron) both handle rock, jazz, or classical with equal ease. Bassist Greg Lake and drummer Michael Giles can provide the beat, fill in the holes, or play free-form. While Dylan and Lennon are still safe, lyricist Peter Sinfield does show a gift (macabre as it may be) for free association imagery.
How effectively this music can be on stage is, admittedly, a big question. The answer is probably not too well. Still, King Crimson’s first album is successful; hopefully, there is more to come."
Barry Godber with the album cover he created and for which he will always be remembered.