The first edition of King Crimson was a powerful group that stomped across every kumbayah circle with heavyweight sound and improvisational capacity. A temporary brilliance, they came together, triumphed, and disbanded all within a year. The group included Greg Lake (bass and vocals), Ian McDonald (woodwinds and keyboards), Robert Fripp (guitar), and Michael Giles (drums), with Peter Sinfield the “fifth man” on lyrics, lights, and general think-tanking.
In the Court of the Crimson King
What’s often hailed as the seminal prog-rock/heavy metal album relies more on solid tunes than anything else. Yes, there is above-average musicality and a dramatic scope that would define the progressive genre, but four of the five tracks could get by on strumming and singing alone. Unlike a lot of later Crimson music, the contents of ItCotCK are not necessarily player specific, although some of the ornaments are. And unlike the live identity, revealed on Epitaph below, the studio album is not the aggressive beast it’s often made out to be. Much of the music is quite reserved; “21st Century Schizoid Man” is the only powerhouse. I came to the album long after its day and heard it as sort of a dated tablet (thanks to the prevalence of Mellotron), but not in a bad way. Dated as in, I’m sorry I missed it, and thanks for taking notes.
At this stage, Ian McDonald is the most valuable member, handling keyboards (mostly Mellotron, the primitive string and flute sampler) and the saxophone that gave the group its near-jazz connotations. Robert Fripp’s guitar is in the shadow of McDonald’s utility work, and even Greg Lake’s majestic voice and Michael Giles’ nimble drumming stand out more than the playing of the man who would assume the throne later on. Yet KC69 is more about the overall vibe than “who did what.” The writing and arrangements are largely a collective effort, with lyrics coming from Pete Sinfield. A lot of his later lyrics are overbearingly ornate, but there’s a peculiar charm to his stanzas on this record.
“21st Century Schizoid Man”: The Crimson Flagship, pure power chord brawn and bopping rock (or rocking bop). Lake’s declamatory, distorted vocal and the frantic instrumental charge make for one of the most compelling rock songs ever created. Flower power was not for Crimson, and neither was the nihilistic, aggro hard-rock stereotype. “Schizoid Man” is realistic, tough, and ambitious, and it elbows all listless hippies and studded ogres out of the way. After two go-rounds with the main riff and strident verses, the group shifts into a fast 6/8 section with lots of highwire sax/guitar lines. Fripp’s solo is mediocre - he hasn’t yet found his ideal tone - while Ian’s dual-sax solo suffers from thin, obscured sound. (Amplified saxophone rarely sounds as good on record as it might in person.) Nevertheless, the overall mayhem is effective, and eventually things downshift into a final verse. Despite some live renditions being preferable, here’s the original text in all its red glory.
“I Talk to the Wind”: From one extreme to the other, this delicate major-key song provides perfect shelter from the “Schizoid” combat zone. A calming vocal, skittering flutes, and light drumming demonstrate the softer side of Crim. Escapist to some degree, especially in the lyric, and very pleasant.
“Epitaph”: Another early classic. The inherent gloom in the song is reinforced by Mellotron curtains and stately punctuations - the Doomy Ballad come to life. It’s a great tune, no question, yet it’s also repetitive, as the heavy inevitability of the verse/chorus plods on with little respite.
“Moonchild”: The lyric is the closest the album comes to ‘60s frilliness, while Lake’s vocal, Giles’ pitter-pats, and Fripp’s forlorn guitar parts summon rainy-day reflection. The song portion gives way to a free improvisation, where Fripp, Giles, and McDonald (on vibraphone) trade quiet fragments for several minutes. I’m going to disagree with almost everyone else and say that this works in context. In keeping with the group’s modus operundi, the album needed a free episode and the dreamy “Moonchild” is as appropriate a place to put it as anywhere else, even though it does go on a little longer than necessary.
“The Court of the Crimson King”: A courtly musical refrain surrounds fanciful verses in this memorable anthem. The total picture glows like a majestic folklore tale, thanks to Lake and McDonald’s contributions. Fripp and Giles add nice touches, especially the latter’s cymbal work in the faster instrumental part. Like “Epitaph”, it gets a little repetitious - once you’ve heard one verse and refrain, you’ve pretty much heard the whole piece, although there are a few brief detours in the structure.
All five movements together make an impeccable rock symphony, one that served as inspiration to many of KC’s contemporaries and that still stands up in the greater Crimson oeuvre.
Generally speaking, studio albums are like posed portraits, and live recordings are like candid snapshots. Both have their merits, but for a group that deals with improvisation and visceral stage presence, the latter often has more value, in my opinion. For a few years, all I knew of the original Crimson was their studio portrait, and then the 1997 release of this collection revealed the working band behind it. The basic Epitaph set includes two discs, with two further discs (of lesser sound quality) being available through DGM mail order. (I’m reviewing the smaller set here.) The packaging has a commemorative flair - individual disc sleeves and a substantial booklet are housed in a small foldout case, dressed up in neo-Victorian artwork by PJ Crook, who would provide several more Crimson covers. Robert Fripp is the main tour guide in the booklet’s text, and comments from all original members and a trusty roadie are also included, along with notes from engineer David Singleton and plenty of memorabilia. A classy package.
Disc 1 starts with four BBC tracks that replay three of the studio album’s songs along with Donovan’s “Get Thy Bearings”, an anomaly that served as an improvising launch pad for Crimson. “Epitaph” is the best of this batch. The concert material dates from late 1969, beginning with a short set from Fillmore East that includes “21st Century Schizoid Man” and “A Man, A City”, a “Schizoid” knockoff that would be finalized as “Pictures of a City” on In the Wake of Poseidon. This “Schizoid Man” is a fast-tempo thriller with burning solos and precise intensity in the stop-time section. Lake also throws in some extra vocal enthusiasm. McDonald blows a jazzy solo on “A Man, A City”. The recording quality is decent if not great, but the energy of the music sure comes through. We then travel to Fillmore West for a different suite, including “Mantra” (a pensive guitar-based vamp), “Travel Weary Capricorn” (an easy-swinging song with vocals from Giles), a free improv with some Mellotron-preset horseplay, and finally “Mars”. The latter is a stage staple of the period that turns the martial ostinato and stern fanfare of the Holst classic into a crescendo of doom. Bass, guitar, and drums hold down the marching line while McDonald plays around the theme on Mellotron; by the end, the guitar cries out with tortured bends and the Mellotron shudders into feedback. Even more than “Schizoid Man”, “Mars” hammers home the dark side of Crimson.
Disc 2 presents the following night at Fillmore West, which turned out to be the swan song for this lineup. Energy is somewhat lacking in places, and there’s a bit of fumbling (especially from Fripp), but it’s a good quality set, from the opening “Court of the Crimson King” to the closing “Mars” apocalypse. The non-album “Drop In” is a clunker of a song that happens to feature a fine sax solo; it would be refashioned into “The Letters” on a later album.
In all, Epitaph is an essential companion to In the Court. There truly is something “other” that aligns the group at its performing best. Without being mystical, I’d say it has to do with resonant energy and shared aims.
Toward the end of that December, Ian McDonald and Michael Giles announced their resignation from King Crimson. The reasons were both personal and artistic, although McDonald for one would later admit that it was a rash move. (And this isn’t the last we’ll hear from either man on Crimson’s studio albums.) Fripp offered to leave in their stead, because for him, “Crimson was too important to let die.” The power that made it so important was also what nudged Ian and Mike out, apparently; Giles said something about wanting to move away from the “demonic” airs of KC, and the ensuing McDonald-Giles collaboration album reflected a lighter side. Despite the huge losses, Fripp had every intention of keeping the King alive.
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