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).
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.
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).
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).
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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
- 40th Anniversary Series liner notes: king-crimson.com/album/discipline
- Design Museum’s profile of designer Peter Saville: designmuseum.org/design/peter-saville
- Sleeve designed by Peter Saville, a comprehensive compilation of Saville’s album art work
- The Orchestra of Crafty Guitarists site hosts a repository of collected wisdom from across many years of Guitar Craft: www.orchestraofcraftyguitarists.com/words
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