King Crimson’s Beat dropped in June 1982, smack in the middle of the most unprecedentedly consistent run in the band’s career before or since. After unexpectedly reincarnating and radically reinventing itself less than a year before with the album Discipline, an intense 3-year period of activity saw the band stay true to their new direction, employing for the first time a consistent sound, lineup, and — most relevant to the discussion at hand — unified design approach.
The various distinct eras of King Crimson are usually delineated by lineup, but you can just as well identify related sets of albums by changes in the album art. The early years were marked by richly detailed psychedelic paintings (In the Court of the Crimson King, In the Wake of Poseidon, and Lizard), and the 1972–74 lineup favored solid fields of color (mostly cream, red, and black). But I would argue that Beat was the first King Crimson cover obviously designed and conceived to be part of a continuüm.
King Crimson’s Beat — front and back covers
I’m not sure if it was public knowledge at the time, but Sid Smith’s band biography In the Court of King Crimson mentions that this version of the band was contractually obligated to release three studio albums. With this foreknowledge, it makes sense that the band and management might have planned how the trilogy would appear as a set. Beat’s strictly limited color palette and serif typography were consistent with its predecessor Discipline, strongly implying that this edition of King Crimson would not be a singular occurrence. This fact would have been already obvious to any trainspotter who had noted that the lineup had remained stable for the first time ever.
The album title and artwork comprise a multilayered pun. The title alludes to a musical beat, the lead single “Heartbeat”, and Adrian Belew’s interest in the 1950s Beat Generation literature of Neal Cassady, Jack Kerouac, and Paul Bowles. Complicating matters, the artwork is a halftone representation of an eighth note. Got all that?
The numerous references to Beat literature in Belew’s lyrics are beyond the scope of this article, but it’s worth singling out “Sartori in Tangiers” for its complex title that alludes to two Beat novels: Jack Kerouac’s Satori in Paris (Satori being the Buddhist concept of enlightenment) and Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky (which was set in the city of Tangiers). I have no theory as to why satori is misspelled.
Three examples of halftone art from within the King Crimson family: Beat, The Robert Fripp String Quintet’s The Bridge Between, and the 1995 THRAK tour program.
Halftone printing is a method of producing complex images with a limited number of colors. For instance, a greyscale image may be printed with only solid black dots of varying sizes (in other words, using only one color ink). When enlarged, halftone images often have a aesthetic appeal of their own. As employed on the Beat sleeve, the halftone effect on the quarter note adds grit and texture, and implies distortion and low-fidelity (which is arguably not really appropriate for this band lineup whose sound tended towards the crisp and clean). A halftone design motif also appears on the THRAK CD label, the THRAK tour program, and on The Robert Fripp String Quintet album The Bridge Between.
Designer Rob O’Connor also worked as an Art Director or Designer on a great number of other albums, including Fripp’s solo album Let the Power Fall and EP Network. The LP was still the dominant audio format in 1982, and Beat was originally issued in a single sleeve with a folded insert. The 30th Anniversary limited edition CD in 2001 was packaged in a mini-gatefold sleeve, with the original LP insert reproduced as the inner gatefold.
The folded insert included with the original 1982 LP was repurposed for the inner gatefold of the 2001 30th Anniversary CD
To my taste, the pink on blue color scheme is a curious choice. Yellow or white would provide better contrast against blue. It’s possible the use of pink was meant to call back to the Island Records pink LP labels, or even the hues of Barry Godber’s painting for In the Court of the Crimson King. It’s more likely that I’m reading into things, and the color scheme is more a relic of the neon-colored 1980s aesthetic.
Below is a sampling of major albums released in 1982, prior to Beat’s release, so many of these would have been seen in record shops at the time. This selection is by no means meant to be a representative sample of album art trends at the time, but it does show that Beat was not alone in employing solid fields of color and minimalist color schemes.
Some significant other minimalist album covers released in 1982: Men at Work, Van Halen, The Human League, Toto, Men Without Hats, Duran Duran, Genesis, Lou Reed, Frank Zappa, XTC
The music on Beat included material generated during the Discipline sessions and already road tested on the ensuing tour. However, Beat has always fallen a little flat to me. It’s somehow at once too busy, too brief, and too unfocused. The inclusion of the improvised “Requiem” as the final track somehow smacks of padding out the running time. True, nearly every prior Crimson album had been partly comprised of improvised material, often to stunning effect. For instance, “Trio” and “The Sheltering Sky” were both near-miraculous pieces of music, featuring better beginnings, middles, and ends than many of the composed works.
Perhaps Beat suffers by being sandwiched between two more overpowering albums? I would argue that the stone-cold classic Discipline is one of the key cornerstone albums of their career, at least as important as In the Court of the Crimson King and Larks Tongues in Aspic (both of which are subject to mega-deluxe boxed set reissues as part of the 40th Anniversary Series, which gives Discipline the same treatment as some of the relatively — relatively! — less important albums like Lizard and Islands). And Three of a Perfect Pair may be a schizophrenic listen, but is more rich and varied than most, ranging widely from one of the band’s most complex and polished song-based compositions (“Sleepless”) to nearly an entire side’s worth of adventurous improv-based experimentation.
LP labels from the original 1982 UK LP Beat
So while Beat may be Crimson’s ninth studio album, it may also be a victim of sophomore slump — easily lost between two imposing albums by a lineup so new it was practically a new band. Perhaps the studio recording is missing some unquantifiable spark? For instance, “Sartori in Tangiers” never really had an impact upon me until I saw it performed live on the Three of a Perfect Pair Live in Japan VHS release, where it positively cooked. Robert Fripp has never embraced the “guitar god” trappings of some of his peers on the instrument, but the composition is essentially a showcase for him to burn up the fretboard. Hopefully the forthcoming 40th Anniversary Edition reissue will feature a remix and restoration from Steven Wilson and Fripp that might bring the recording to life.
The picture sleeve for King Crimson’s 1982 7″ single Heartbeat
The single Heartbeat was released in 1982 in 7″ format with picture sleeve, backed with an edited version of “Requiem”. The design is more closely related to the parent album art than any prior Crimson 7″ sleeve, which often seemed to have been designed by people who had barely so much as glanced at the original album art, and often failed to even apply consistency in typography. Amidst the trio of albums Discipline, Beat, and Three of a Perfect Pair, the Heartbeat single appears to be part of concerted and consistent campaign.
“Heartbeat” is perhaps the most transparently pop-oriented King Crimson song. Prior attempts like “Cat Food” and “Elephant Talk” were both too weird for the mainstream, and the later “Sleepless” and “Dinosaur” were both too adventurous to chart against the likes of The Police and Talking Heads in the 80s, or Pearl Jam and Oasis in the 90s. Adrian Belew later re-recorded the song for his solo album Young Lions in 1990, effectively claiming it as his own despite crediting the composition to all four King Crimson members.
Three Noises: the original 1982 VHS, the 1997 VHS reissue, and the 2004 DVD Neal and Jack and Me
The music industry was radically different in the 1980s, than from what King Crimson had operated within during its previous incarnations. Behind the scenes, the business was changing into a more corporate operation, but a greater sea change happening in front of everyone’s eyes was the more image-conscious MTV era. While musical acts had always appeared in television and film, examples of what we would recognize as a modern music video began to appear in the 1960s. But suddenly in the 1980s everybody had to look good on TV.
King Crimson made a number of television appearances in the 80s, far more than ever before. Curiously, the band only produced two music videos, (“Heartbeat” and “Sleepless”), while Fripp appeared in many more supporting his solo and collaborative projects, including “I Advance Masked” and “Parade” by Summers/Fripp, “Jean the Birdman” by Sylvian/Fripp, and even Fripp’s own “Exposure”. Belew takes the starring role in the “Heartbeat” video, chating up a series of 80s lovelies while Fripp, Bill Bruford, and Tony Levin do a passing job acting as wallflowers during a party. “Sleepless” was eventually released on the DVD Neal and Jack and Me, but the “Heartbeat” clip remains lost in the ether. In case you haven’t had the pleasure, here you are:
One concert performance filmed in France on August 27, 1982 was released on VHS cassette in 1982 as The Noise. The title may be a little unflattering and self-deprecating, but is at least tangentially related to the album title Beat in that it puns on audio noise as well as “noise” in the sense of the video distortion that provides the purplish background texture in the artwork (similar to the aesthetic of the sleeve for Fripp’s solo album Exposure). The Noise was reissued on VHS in 1997 with a more appropriate cover than the hideous original, and again in 2004 as half of the DVD Neal and Jack and Me.
ART & DESIGN CREDITS:
- 1982: Cover design by Rob O’Connor
- 2001: 30th Anniversary scrapbook design by Hugh O’Donnell
- The Noise is available to watch on YouTube.
- Design Float: 40 Minimal CD Covers Stripped to Their Essentials
- Mmminimal: Less is More — 20 Minimal Yet Memorable Album Covers
- Grungehouse: Best Album Cover Design — Grammy Awards 1980’s. Interesting to see which packages won Grammys in the 1980s. The Talking Heads and Miles Davis sleeves are still brilliant, but I don’t think anybody would claim that Bob Seger had the best album sleeve of 1980.
- Thanks to commenter baz for correcting a silly mistake I made regarding the eighth note musical notation.
- Thanks to commenter mhanna49 for alerting me to the existence of a promo video for “Heartbeat”. I’ve been an avid King Crimson fan for ages and had never even heard of it.
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