<2019.3> L’art philosophique. Private Opera. 50 years In the Court of the Crimson King. 7.597 Zeichen. online 2. 10. 2019 .html


What is so fascinating about the 1960ies? The power of imagination? Youth? Experimenting? Whatever it was, it happened nowhere more than in pop music. In the course of the decade an increasing number of bands sprang up like mushrooms. On October 10, 1969 In the Court of the Crimson King was released, the first record of King Crimson. As sensational as the rockband live, the album climbed number 5 of the British LP charts, in Japan even number 1.

Side one starts with an ambitious riff. Like in an air-tight chamber short guitar shocks are set simultaneously with cries: „Blood rack barbed wire / Politicians’ funeral pyre / Innocents raped with napalm fire / Twenty first century schizoid man“. Then the guitar and the saxophone rush with howling in 3/8 time in a bebop improvisation. Freejazz chaos concludes this the horror of this song. Cut, second song, the folky „I Talk to the Wind“ with slightly alienated harmonies, addressed to those who dream away: „Said the straight man to the late man / Where have you been?“ A flute and a soft electric guitar savour the idyll in solo parts and swell in a tympani swirl for the start of the long third Song „Epitaph“. „Confusion will be my epitaph / As I crawl a cracked and broken path / But I fear tomorrow I'll be crying“. This is weltschmerz played heartfelt. Also great cinema the dazzling metallic mellotron, the instrument that triggers single tapes of violins in every pitch possible by means of keys. The mellotron elevates a diminished major chord two steps higher up to the orchestral climax in the basic minor chord (minutes 3:43-3:56). Follows an almost infinite, hymnal fade-out.

On side two, number four sings about a „Moonchild“ as she could appear in the star sky of the cover inside. A sinus guitar tone hovers in the distance. Then calm cluster of tones associatively enmesh each other played by a scintillating vibraphone, a facetious guitar and dry frugal percussion. Das massive finale of almost ten minutes long number 5, „The Court of the Crimson King“ delivers a chorus for several voices drawn from the beginning of Samuel Barber’s Essay For Orchestra 1. Here the mellotron leads to verses carried by a skillfully layered composition. An electric harpsichord, a clarinet section support almost bombastic pathos. The piece concludes abruptly with elektronic music like in 2001 A Space Odyssey.

Today King Crimsons firstborn is considered as the foundation of an entiore genre. Whereas The Beatles tried with Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band to forge political content, self-absorbed lyrics and instrumental music, it was only King Crimson who succeeded in connecting exposed heterogeneous parts. For the first time, convincing rock music with complexity was achieved by merging psychedelia, symphonic music, folk music, jazz, elektronica and improvisation. Rhythmical dynamics became a challenge welcome by open-minded dancers in the discotheque. Now, compositions related to each other were cut or mixed. For the first time, a band proceeded collectively their virtuous pieces of music in the studio in order to arrive at a characteristic sound.

During the following years, so called progressive rock tied to that impressive template, with ‚progressiv‘ including romantic classical music reaching to twentieth century anti-modernism. Excellent albums were released and performed by Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Jethro Tull, Gentle Giant, Curved Air, Genesis and Yes. Even Pink Floyd and Black Sabbath were conceptually inspired by King Crimson at the time.

For creations of this kind appropriate musicians are required. For King Crimson, three young and well educated friends from around Bournemouth of the English south coast teamed up with two Londoner friends: sound-conscious guitarist Robert Fripp, versatile drummer-percussionist and background singer Michael Giles, the expressive and empathetic singer and bass guitarist Greg Lake together with big band arranger and jack-of-all-trades Ian McDonald, background singer on the mellotron, piano, harmonium, harpsichord, vibraphone, saxophone, flute, clarinets and band name giver Peter Sinfield, strong fantasy lyricist responsible for the light show and the the record sleeve commissions.

The record sleeve! Water colour painter Barry Godber makes a bad looking and slightly comic-like huge red head blush blue and thereby achieves to resolve the reddish violet of the traditionally majestic crimson. The scull is averted to the outside of one of the red stars at the sleeve painted like bubbles in a lava lamp. Eyes and mouth are opened wide in paranoic dread. The cry remains mute. What is that? An illustration of a torture in Vietnam war? Die visualisation of a bad LSD trip experienced by a hippie? Or is it, albeit improbable, the crimson king himself nowhere identified either in the lyrics nor by the LP cover?

This inscrutability is one of the powers of the album. The record cover which is blank on the outside advances to a veritable stage design for the imagination of the listener. Unlike rock opera Tommy from The Who or Andy Warhol’s multimedia show for The Velvet Underground we are concerned with an open opera in its rawness. The listener may combine the songs, the legible white lyrics and the moving sleeve images at will. She may make free associations with the sonic, visual and literary figures and form them in a private fiction. Yes, she may compose an own music drama unburdened by the venerable art of the opera.

No wonder In the Court of the Crimson King was succesful. But success did not do the band good. The perfect presettings of the record with considerable overdubs put a burden on the intense and precise performances. An U.S. tour at the end of 1969 cost a lot of energy. Tensions between the musicians put the band over the edge. Giles and McDonald quit. Lake was enticed away by Keith Emerson’s band project with Carl Palmer. The band almost broke.

Yet marvelously played pieces like the horrifying „Mars“ awaited recording. Fripp and Sinfield continued even though with incessant band reshuffle. The following albums did not entirely reach the sovereign unity of the firstborn. Losses in style, sound and force were inevitable. A bit later followed a harder, more guitar biased rock. In the 1980ies ‚progressive‘ Rock could not stand the disappearance of musical form that coming along with the rise of the CD. It almost disappeared like the vinyl longplay and its productive two times 20 minutes and 30 by 30 centimeter for the sleeves.

Only in the 1990ies the King Crimson model was seized by bands like Radiohead, Dream Theater and Porcupine Tree. With „Power“, rapper Kanye West engaged in „21st Century Schizoid Man“ by sampling and referring to the lyrics. ‚Progressive rock‘ with the King Crimson template has amounted to a category. Even the band still around Robert Fripp play, since 2004, again in long concerts „Schizoid Man“, „Epitaph“ and „The Court of the Crimson King“. A great album lives on in different ways.


Covach, John (2006): What’s That Sound? An Introduction to Rock Music, New York: Norton.

Eco, Umberto (1962): Opera aperta. Forma e indeterminazione nelle poetiche contemporanee, = Portico. Critica e saggi 38, Milano: Casa Ed. Valentino Bompiani.

Keeling, Andrew (2009): Musical guide to In the court of the Crimson King by King Crimson, hg. v. Mark Graham, Cambridge-E: Spaceward.

Macan, Edward (1997): Rocking the Classics: English Progressive Rock and the Counterculture, New York-NY/Oxford-E: Oxford University Press.

Smith, Sid (2001): In the court of King Crimson, London: Helter Skelter.

Peter Mahr © 2019