Inner Knot: The Art of King Crimson’s Discipline

King Crimson Discipline

The story of King Crimson’s revi­tal­iza­tion for a new decade with the album Dis­ci­pline has been told many times over. The 1981–84 period is usu­ally dis­cussed in terms of per­son­nel, with most com­men­tary mar­veling that no two con­sec­u­tive prior King Crim­son albums had ever before fea­tured the same lineup. No doubt, for a band defined by per­pet­ual lineup changes, it was novel indeed to finally sta­bi­lize around a fixed group of musi­cians. It’s a handy nar­ra­tive hook upon which to hang a record review, but it’s only part of the story.

1981–1984 saw the band unusu­ally focused on a core set of musi­cal ideas. They laid them out in a nearly per­fect the­sis state­ment in the form of their debut album Dis­ci­pline in Sep­tem­ber 1981. This “new” Crim­son was to be defined by inter­lock­ing gui­tar parts (shared at first by two vir­tu­oso gui­tarists, but expanded on later tunes like “Neal and Jack and Me” to encom­pass the full quar­tet), bleeding-edge tech­nol­ogy (drum and gui­tar syn­the­siz­ers, plus the futur­is­tic instru­ment the Chap­man Stick), quirky New York pop ten­den­cies (of the Talk­ing Heads vari­ety), a dash of world music influ­ences (par­tic­u­larly Afropop and Indone­sian game­lan), and com­po­si­tion derived through impro­vi­sa­tion (exam­ples being “The Shel­ter­ing Sky”, “Requiem”, and later most of side two of Three of a Per­fect Pair).

King Crimson Discipline front and back cover
King Crimson’s Dis­ci­pline: the front and back cover as repro­duced for the 40th Anniver­sary Edi­tion.

Sim­i­larly, the tril­ogy of albums released between 1981–1984 saw the most uni­fied visual design work King Crim­son would ever enjoy. Across the full band discog­ra­phy, the three early-80s albums are obvi­ously and unmis­tak­ably asso­ci­ated; even to some­one who has never heard the music, one glance reveals that they belong together. Min­i­mal­ist design was also employed in vary­ing degrees in related releases dur­ing this period (includ­ing var­i­ous sin­gles, laserdiscs, and video­cas­settes). The 1998 archival live release Absent Lovers marks a lost oppor­tu­nity to visu­ally call back to the style of the period.

Pre­vi­ous Crim­son albums were all over the place in terms of design. They made use of paint­ing, illus­tra­tion, pho­tog­ra­phy, and absent or incon­sis­tent logos. In stark con­trast, the 80s tril­ogy is marked by min­i­mal­ism, graphic illus­tra­tion, strictly lim­ited color palettes, and a con­sis­tent type­face. Dis­ci­pline and Beat go so far as to reserve the entire back cover to track list­ings and cred­its, with­out any graph­ics at all. This level of restraint was not seen since the refined illus­tra­tion of Larks’ Tongues in Aspic (1973) and the bare-bones aes­thetic of Earth­bound (1972). The latter’s plain black sleeve is likely a result of its bargain-basement ori­gins, but in ret­ro­spect looks quite attrac­tive on the shelf adja­cent to the 80s trilogy.

King Crimson Discipline inner gatefold from 30th Anniversary Edition
King Crimson’s Dis­ci­pline: the inner gate­fold of the 30th Anniver­sary CD edi­tion. The orig­i­nal LP edi­tion was not pack­aged as a gate­fold (a lyric sheet was included in some form with some edi­tions, but I was unable to deter­mine if it was an insert or if they were printed on the inner bag; accord­ing to reader Rick Roys­ton, the orig­i­nal UK LP edi­tion did not include an insert)

The typo­graphic style is also admirably restrained. I haven’t been able to exactly iden­tify the par­tic­u­lar serif type­face, but it shares a kin­ship with the type on Larks’ Tongues in Aspic and Star­less and Bible Black. If you want to approx­i­mate it in a graph­ics app such as Pho­to­shop, try Gara­mond or Caslon with the hor­i­zon­tal scale reduced about 80–90%.

Dis­ci­pline vies with Islands for the Crim­son album with the most com­plex release his­tory. Indeed, about the only char­ac­ter­is­tic the two dis­parate releases share is that they have both been issued with more than one design. The orig­i­nal Dis­ci­pline LP sleeve unwit­tingly fea­tured a copy­righted Celtic knot design by John Kyrk (at least one LP press­ing had the emblem embossed on the front cover). Addi­tion­ally com­pli­cat­ing mat­ters, the 1986 and 1989 CD reis­sues fea­tured crudely and dis­pro­por­tion­ately enlarged ver­sions of Kyrk’s icon, pre­sum­ably to com­pen­sate for the reduced phys­i­cal scale of the format.

The 2001 30th Anniver­sary Edi­tion belated rec­ti­fied the mat­ter by finally inau­gu­rat­ing a new ver­sion illus­trated by Steve Ball (a mem­ber of Fripp’s course of study Gui­tar Craft). The 30th Anniver­sary sleeve also restored the proper pro­por­tions based on designer Peter Saville’s orig­i­nal LP sleeve design (alas, my copy appears to have been mis­printed, seem­ingly lack­ing the proper amount of white or sil­ver ink).

Peter Saville album covers: Joy Division, New Order, Brian Eno and David Byrne, Peter Gabriel, Pulp
A selec­tion of album cov­ers designed by Peter Sav­ille, for Joy Divi­sion, New Order, Brian Eno and David Byrne, Peter Gabriel, Pulp

Sav­ille is cred­ited for “graph­ica” on the orig­i­nal Dis­ci­pline album pack­age. He famously designed many now-iconic sleeves released by the leg­endary Man­ches­ter label Fac­tory Records in the late 1970s and early 80s. He is most asso­ci­ated with the short-lived band Joy Divi­sion and its rein­car­na­tion as New Order, but he was also embraced by lat­ter day Brit­Pop bands like Suede and Pulp. Dis­ci­pline was to be his only work for King Crim­son, but of inter­est per­haps to fans of Crimson’s imme­di­ate fam­ily of con­nected col­lab­o­ra­tors, he also designed David Byrne and Brian Eno’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1981) and Peter Gabriel’s So (1986).

1981 album covers: The Rolling Stones, Genesis, Eric Clapton, Robert Fripp and The League of Gentlemen, Daryl Hall and John Oats, Grateful Dead, Foreigner, Ultravox, Devo, Brian Eno and David Byrne
A selec­tion of album cov­ers that would have been seen along­side Dis­ci­pline in shops circa Sep­tem­ber 1981: The Rolling Stones, Gen­e­sis, Eric Clap­ton, Robert Fripp and The League of Gen­tle­men, Daryl Hall and John Oats, Grate­ful Dead, For­eigner, Ultra­vox, Devo, Brian Eno and David Byrne

For con­text, above is a selec­tion of con­tem­po­rary album cov­ers that might have been seen in record stores along­side Dis­ci­pline circa Sep­tem­ber 1981. As you can see, many of these designs could also be described as min­i­mal­ist, with large fields of solid color and lim­ited palettes. It’s worth not­ing that these designs would have appeared even more bold and strik­ing on the dom­i­nant for­mat at the time, the LP record sleeve.

Jack Black and John Cusack in High Fidelity
Spot the copy of Dis­ci­pline in the record shop in the movie High Fidelity

As noted in the Intro­duc­tion to The Young Person’s Guide to King Crim­son Album Art, an LP copy of Dis­ci­pline makes a few cameo appear­ances in the 2000 fea­ture film High Fidelity, by direc­tor Stephen Frears. One might like to imag­ine that the album was selected for its his­tor­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance and artis­tic merit, but it’s just as likely the film’s art direc­tor sim­ply liked how the large solid red square looked on camera.

Vari­a­tions of Steve Ball’s knot­work icon are used to this day as the logos for Dis­ci­pline Global Mobile (DGM), Inner Knot Records (an inde­pen­dent record label asso­ci­ated with DGM), The League of Crafty Gui­tarists, and The Orches­tra of Crafty Guitarists.

King Crimson Discipline knotwork
The two dif­fer­ent knot­work illus­tra­tions used for King Crimson’s Dis­ci­pline: John Kyrk’s 1981 orig­i­nal (inad­ver­tently used with­out per­mis­sion or attri­bu­tion — and again in 1989!), and Steve Ball’s 2001 replace­ment. The emblem was embossed on orig­i­nal 1981 LP edi­tions

The celtic knot motif has had the longest life of any King Crimson-related iconog­ra­phy. Unlike the six-pointed sym­bol used on many THRAK-era releases (which sym­bol­ized the double-trio con­cept of paired gui­tars, basses, and drums), the Dis­ci­pline knot is not tied to the band makeup but rather to the philoso­phies that Fripp has stud­ied, and later, those that he estab­lished him­self. In that respect, at least, it fol­lows in the foot­steps of the mys­ti­cal or philo­soph­i­cal emblems such as the Tantric dual­i­ties on Larks’ Tongues in Aspic and the Jun­gian arche­types on In the Wake of Posei­don.

The actual design’s ori­gins, how­ever, are murky. King Crim­son biog­ra­pher Sid Smith unearthed a quo­ta­tion from designer John Kyrk in the now-defunct online inter­net list­serv Ele­phant Talk:

“When I started hand let­ter­press print­ing in 1975, I designed a printer’s mark for myself. I mod­i­fied an ancient celtic knot­work pat­tern so that it alluded to the ennea­gram. At small size it also looks like a lion’s face. When Clay­mont started its jour­nal Impres­sions in 1981, my knot­work was printed with per­mis­sion on the cover. Robert Fripp says that, when saw it, he thought it was an ancient mark, and erro­neously put it on the cover of the King Crim­son album Dis­ci­pline, where it was copy­righted. Robert apol­o­gized, paid me a token of appre­ci­a­tion, and promised to stop using the mark.“
–John Kyrk, quoted in the Ele­phant Talk list­serv

Kyrk was a par­tic­i­pant in the Clay­mont Soci­ety in West Vir­ginia, study­ing the philoso­phies of J.G. Ben­nett, whom Fripp had dis­cov­ered circa 1974. It is beyond the scope of this visual sur­vey to sum­ma­rize Ben­nett, but very briefly, he was a fol­lower of the mys­tic G.I. Gur­d­ji­eff, and the writ­ings of both men had a pro­foundly sig­nif­i­cant impact upon Fripp. The most out­wardly vis­i­ble effect to music fans was his extended sab­bat­i­cal from King Crim­son and the music indus­try as a whole in the mid to late 1970s. On a per­sonal level to Fripp as a human being, the philoso­phies directed his behav­ior, inter­ac­tions with oth­ers, and for­mu­la­tions of plans for the future.

King Crimson Discipline original 1981 UK and US LP labels
King Crimson’s Dis­ci­pline: orig­i­nal 1981 UK and US LP labels

The “ennea­gram” Kyrk referred to in his post to the Ele­phant Talk online forum to is likely the Fourth Way Ennea­gram, asso­ci­ated with Gur­d­ji­eff. I’m not sure if Fripp is on record regard­ing the glyph’s per­sonal sig­nif­i­cance to him, Gui­tar Craft, or DGM. He often pub­lishes notes from his Gui­tar Craft courses on his online diary, includ­ing text laid out visu­ally in forms resem­bling ennea­grams. Exam­ples may be found in plain text for­mat on the offi­cial Orches­tra of Crafty Gui­tarists site.

This is purely sup­po­si­tion on my part, but the knots may be related to the struc­ture of Gui­tar Craft itself. There are seven lev­els in Gui­tar Craft, but the orig­i­nal Dis­ci­pline icon has only six kinked loops in the outer ring. More likely, the inter­wo­ven aspect of the entire piece reflects the mechan­ics of group col­lab­o­ra­tion in Gui­tar Craft, par­tic­u­larly the con­cept of the Cir­cle and the prac­tice of pass­ing one note from one player to the other known as Cir­cu­la­tion. As is clear from read­ing Fripp’s online diaries and Eric Tamm’s book Robert Fripp: From King Crim­son to Gui­tar Craft, group work in Gui­tar Craft is not only musi­cal but also just plain “work” — for a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of the courses involves com­pul­sory chores such as kitchen duty.

Even on a more lit­eral level, many Gui­tar Craft exer­cises involve play­ing in an inwardly directed cir­cle. The play­ers con­tribute to a whole, with their full atten­tion directed towards each other. The ensem­ble is also the audi­ence. The later ver­sions of the knot used by the League of Crafty Gui­tarists and the Orches­tra of Crafty Gui­tarists, accord­ingly, are more “open” in design, with an intri­cate weave around the cir­cum­fer­ence and a loose con­nec­tion in-between. Sid Smith takes this anal­ogy fur­ther when writ­ing about the Dis­ci­pline group:

Con­structed from sev­eral dif­fer­ent and inde­pen­dent lines, each one in itself is quite frag­ile. Yet, when all the strands are woven together the remark­able results are as strong as they are flex­i­ble. Like the knot-work relief which graced the spar­tan cover, Dis­ci­pline, is about the inter­con­nect­ed­ness of ideas and expe­ri­ence har­nessed together.
– Sid Smith, Dis­ci­pline 40th Anniver­sary Series liner notes

Eric Tamm pro­fesses to not being a fan of 1981–84 King Crim­son, and makes a point of selec­tively quot­ing neg­a­tive reviews from the era. One espe­cially nasty barb comes from Melody Maker on what I con­sider one of Discipline’s many high points: “The Shel­ter­ing Sky” is “a drippy, over­long piece of doo­dling that should have Gen­e­sis fans clos­ing their eyes and mut­ter­ing phrases like ‘dis­tin­guished musi­cian­ship’ while the rest of us fall asleep”. Tamm is nev­er­the­less moved to some of his most poetic lan­guage, describ­ing the music in explic­itly visual terms. Tamm ana­lyzes each Crim­son album indi­vid­u­ally, but here devi­ates from form and treats the 80s albums as a tril­ogy. Inter­est­ingly, he describes them in visual terms: “hand­somely pack­aged”, “cohe­sive set”, with an “archi­tec­tural rather than a lyri­cal style” (Tamm 136–138). Here he enthuses fur­ther in terms that simul­ta­ne­ously describe the knot icon itself:

“a con­tin­u­ally sus­tained vision, a set of pos­si­bil­i­ties that per­mu­tate from piece to piece, a view through a kalei­do­scope that shifts at each slight turn from piece to piece, a sculp­ture in the round seen from dif­fer­ent angles as one slowly cir­cles it.“
– Eric Tamm, Robert Fripp: From King Crim­son to Gui­tar Craft, page 138

The League of Crafty Guitarists Knotwork: Live II, Show of Hands, and Intergalactic Boogie Express
Three Leage of Crafty Gui­tarist album cov­ers inspired by the design of King Crimson’s Dis­ci­pline: Live II, Show of Hands, and Inter­galac­tic Boo­gie Express

The knot may have had its ori­gins with G.I. Gur­d­ji­eff and J.G. Ben­nett and rel­a­tively briefly became asso­ci­ated with King Crim­son, but later iter­a­tions became more per­ma­nently affixed to two very dif­fer­ent ven­tures: Dis­ci­pline Global Mobile and Gui­tar Craft. The Crafty knot vari­ant has adorned at least three League record­ings, includ­ing Live II, Show of Hands, and Inter­galac­tic Boo­gie Express.

Knotwork: The League of Crafty Guitarists, The Orchestra of Crafty Guitarists, and Discipline Global Mobile DGM
Addi­tional vari­a­tions of the Dis­ci­pline knot­work, from left to right: The League of Crafty Gui­tarists, The Orches­tra of Crafty Gui­tarists, and Dis­ci­pline Global Mobile (DGM)

Knots also serve as the de facto logos of The League of Crafty Gui­tarists and The Orches­tra of Crafty Gui­tarists. The most pro­lific use of the knot is as the logo of the Dis­ci­pline Global Mobile since circa 1994, appear­ing in the fine print of nearly every phys­i­cal release as well as the DGM Live website.

King Crimson 1981 singles: Elephant Talk and Matte Kudasai
Two 1981 King Crim­son sin­gles with pic­ture sleeves: Ele­phant Talk promo 12″ and Matte Kuda­sai 7″

A total of three sin­gles were released world­wide: “Matte Kuda­sai”, “Ele­phant Talk”, and “Thela Hun Gin­geet”. Here is a sum­mary of some of the sundry releases:

  • Matte Kuda­sai 7″ (1981) b/w Ele­phant Talk (UK release)
  • Matte Kuda­sai (Spe­cial Mix) 7″ (1981) b/w Ele­phant Talk (Nether­lands release)
  • Ele­phant Talk 7″ (1981) b/w Matte Kuda­sai (UK release)
  • Ele­phant Talk (Dance Remix) 12″ (1981) b/w Thela Hun Gin­jeet & Matte Kuda­sai (US promo release)
  • Thela Hun Gin­jeet 7″ (1981) b/w Ele­phant Talk (unknown region)
  • Thela Hun Gin­jeet 12″ (1981) b/w Ele­phant Talk & Indis­ci­pline (unknown region)

Some notes for the hard­core col­lec­tors: it appears that only the Ele­phant Talk 12″ and Matte Kuda­sai 7″ were issued in pic­ture sleeves (and as you can see, the Ele­phant Talk 12″ cover design is func­tional at best).

The so-called “Dance Remix” of “Ele­phant Talk” was included on the US promo 12″ LP only. A needle-drop record­ing fea­tures among the 40th Anniver­sary Edi­tion DVD bonus fea­tures, and it appears to be nearly iden­ti­cal to the album mix, save for a slightly extended instru­men­tal intro­duc­tion. It’s for com­pletists only, but I found it inter­est­ing to get a clearer lis­ten to the intri­cate back­ing tracks sans vocals.

A ver­sion of the Matte Kuda­sai 7″ released in the Nether­lands included a “Spe­cial Mix”, but I have been unable to deter­mine what that means, exactly. The orig­i­nal 1981 vinyl press­ings of the Dis­ci­pline album included a “Matte Kuda­sai” mix fea­tur­ing a solo lead per­formed by Robert Fripp. Sub­se­quent issues sub­sti­tuted a dif­fer­ent mix with Fripp’s play­ing excised. The 30th Anniver­sary reis­sue includes the orig­i­nal mix as a bonus track. So if in 1981, the only ver­sion of “Matte Kuda­sai” was the one with the Fripp solo, what is the “Alter­nate Mix”? Pos­si­bly the one with­out Fripp, that later became the defin­i­tive version?

ART & DESIGN CREDITS:

  • 1981: Graph­ica by Peter Saville
  • 1981: knot­work by John Kyrk (uncredited)
  • 2001: Dis­ci­pline knot­work by Steve Ball
  • 2001: 30th Anniver­sary scrap­book design by Hugh O’Donnell
  • 2011: 40th Anniver­sary Series pack­age art & design by Hugh O’Donnell

FURTHER READING:

SPECIAL THANKS:

  • Thanks to reader Rick Roys­ton for con­firm­ing there not being any insert included with the orig­i­nal UK LP edition.

Buy any of these fine prod­ucts from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to The Dork Report:

 

6 thoughts on “Inner Knot: The Art of King Crimson’s Discipline

  1. Dis­ci­pline… How I miss this period. Those days I’m lis­ten­ing Matte Kuda­sai by Crim­son Jazz Trio. A per­fec­tion. As a musi­cian I’ve got my own “I talk to the wind” pop vision… A real trib­ute on youtube (well, I’ve tried…)

  2. I own a copy of Dis­ci­pline with John Kyrk’s icon that is embrossed on the front. It also has the Orig­i­nal EG record label. I was work­ing at a record store at the time of it’s release and grabbed the first copy!

  3. If I remem­ber cor­rectly, the lyrics for the (vinyl) albums of this era were printed on the inner sleeve that held the LP.

  4. Hi Andrew,

    Thanks for your com­ment. I wasn’t aware that the “Alter­nate Mix” bonus track on the 30th Anniver­sary edi­tion was actu­ally from the orig­i­nal 1981 vinyl album. I’ve revised that sec­tion accord­ingly. It’s kind of a pity that it wasn’t also included on the 40th Anniver­sary Edi­tion (which is oth­er­wise EXCELLENT, by the way, which I really should have men­tioned some­where in this piece).

  5. It’s pos­si­ble that the “spe­cial mix” of Matte Kuda­sai refers to one of the two released ver­sions of Matte Kuda­sai — the vinyl release con­tained a ver­sion with lead lines played by Fripp in addi­tion to Belew’s parts, while the cd ver­sion omit­ted Fripp’s parts (this, I believe, is the more com­mon ver­sion, and is how the song has always been per­formed live). A sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion occurred on Three of a Per­fect Pair, with the Bob Clear­moun­tain mix of Sleep­less used on the vinyl release, but a cleaner, band-produced ver­sion used on the cd.

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