King Crimson Album Art: Introduction — High Fidelity

The Young Person's Guide to King Crimson inner gatefold

Robert Fripp is prone to a cer­tain pithy phrase when on the topic of mer­chan­dise, here employed with regard to a new line of King Crim­son branded t-shirts and glassware:

“There are many men impa­tient to covet such delights and fon­dle them in the pri­vacy of their cham­bers.“
– Robert Fripp, Diary, April 6, 2011

As is typ­i­cal for a Fripp apho­rism, there is a lot to unpack in this statement.

First, his use of the word “men” to describe his prospec­tive cus­tomers is not an exam­ple of casual sex­ism. Rightly or wrongly, much of Fripp’s recorded musi­cal work has been char­ac­ter­ized as pro­gres­sive rock, a genre noto­ri­ously appeal­ing to pre­dom­i­nantly male audi­ences. Any good mar­keter of prog rock wares, arti­facts, and col­lectibles would be con­scious that the tar­get audi­ence is male. Sec­ond, note this state­ment is com­ing from a man. Fripp him­self is no stranger to cov­et­ing and fondling, for he often details his taste for fine art and antiquing in his online diary. It takes one to know one, as it were.

Far more than a work­ing gui­tar player and band­leader, Fripp’s long­time par­al­lel career has been as a kind of antique dealer him­self, albeit of delights of his own mak­ing. He has served as mae­stro and care­taker of the King Crim­son legacy, on both com­mer­cial and artis­tic fronts alike, through­out the band’s tumul­tuous, phoenix-like cycles of deaths and rebirths. The music is what mat­ters in the end, of course, but atten­dant to that are the mer­chan­dise, printed mat­ter, adver­tis­ing, and album art, the lat­ter often housed in increas­ingly deluxe pack­ag­ing as the music is peri­od­i­cally reis­sued. Fripp is directly respon­si­ble for many of the most desir­able “delights” that he gen­tly teases his fans for cov­et­ing. He has a cer­tain respon­si­bil­ity to main­tain the cat­a­log — to exploit the brand or prop­erty, as it were — but he could get away with a lot less. The albums might not be so lov­ingly remas­tered, ancient live record­ings might not be so painstak­ingly restored, and the album art and pack­ag­ing might not be so well appointed.

The Young Person's Guide to King Crimson inner gatefold

Fans used to the notion that Fripp is the boss of King Crim­son might be sur­prised to learn, as I did, from Sid Smith’s band biog­ra­phy In the Court of King Crim­son that co-founder and orig­i­nal lyri­cist Peter Sin­field over­saw the band’s pre­sen­ta­tional aspects for the key first few years. Fripp first asserted his visual sense begin­ning in 1973 with the Larks’ Tongues in Aspic sleeve. Fripp con­tin­ued to god­fa­ther sub­se­quent sleeves, and later super­vise their peri­odic mod­ern­iz­ing and repack­ag­ing — aside from a few inter­est­ing excep­tions: Red was largely han­dled by the record com­pany, and band mem­bers con­tributed to other sleeves, such as Tony Levin for THRaKaT­TaK and Trey Gunn for The Con­struKc­tion of Light. In the field of graphic design, Sin­field and Fripp’s visual respon­si­bil­i­ties would fit the job descrip­tion of Cre­ative Director.

The demar­ca­tion of duties among the design hier­ar­chy is often blurry (Cre­ative Direc­tors, Art Direc­tors, Senior Design­ers, etc.), but the group duties essen­tially boil down to rep­re­sent­ing a com­pany, indi­vid­ual, or brand’s iden­tity through design for var­i­ous media (printed mat­ter, online, tele­vi­sion, etc.). For a musi­cal artist or group, this means every­thing from album art, tour pro­grams, music videos, stage designs, logos, mag­a­zine ads, online web­sites, ad ban­ners, even Twit­ter avatars. As tours wrap up and adver­tis­ing cam­paigns run their course, most of these are proven ephemeral. For many musi­cians, live per­for­mance is where the action is, but in the end it’s usu­ally the stu­dio albums that com­prise the legacy. Sim­i­larly, all the design work gen­er­ated dur­ing a band’s life fades away from his­tory except for the album art. So it’s impor­tant to get it right. Sin­field and Fripp often did, ensur­ing the King Crim­son cat­a­log is clad in more design clas­sics than most artists man­age. Of their imme­di­ate con­tem­po­raries, per­haps only Pink Floyd or Yes pro­duced the most album cov­ers that are still talked about today.

King Crimson’s entire recorded cat­a­log has been issued sev­eral times in mul­ti­ple for­mats and con­fig­u­ra­tions, with vary­ing degrees of impact upon the art­work. Unsur­pris­ingly, cas­settes and 8-tracks were the least friendly, pro­vid­ing the small­est can­vases and often pre­clud­ing inte­rior art­work, lyrics, cred­its, and liner notes alto­gether. Just as snobs audio­philes tend towards the vinyl LP as the ideal audio for­mat, design afi­ciona­dos also claim the record sleeve as the pre­ferred pack­age for recorded music. I per­son­ally own a few King Crim­son releases on vinyl (In the Court of the Crim­son King, Earth­bound, Star­less and Bible Black, USA, A Young Person’s Guide, and even the Sleep­less 12″ sin­gle), and undoubt­edly it is the ideal medium to present the artwork.

King Crimson In the Wake of Poseidon, Lizard, and Starless and Bible Black 8-tracksAlbum art and pack­age design suf­fered the most dur­ing the 8-track era

The advent of the com­pact disc era was ini­tially cruel to many artists, but espe­cially King Crim­son, with poorly mas­tered and per­func­to­rily pack­aged edi­tions first appear­ing circa 1986. My first expo­sure to Crim­son was an orig­i­nal CD edi­tion of Three of a Per­fect Pair pur­chased some­time in the late 80s, and I can assert it was an ugly thing. I man­aged to sell it off to some poor sucker years ago, and replace it with the 30th Anniver­sary Edi­tion, vastly supe­rior in every way. But I still recall one shoddy lit­tle detail of the orig­i­nal CD: the tray inlay was not even prop­erly per­fo­rated or folded. In ret­ro­spect, I ought to have kept it as a collector’s item, for I believe it may be the only CD appear­ance of an usual mix of Sleep­less with a notice­ably dif­fer­ent drum track. As an aside, I’m prob­a­bly one of the few Crim­son fans that started with Three of a Per­fect Pair, not that it is a bad album, but let’s be hon­est: its pecu­liar mix­ture of a few pop-oriented songs with a whole LP side’s worth of bleak, atonal impro­vi­sa­tion makes it a lit­tle hard to love. It was an acci­dent of my age at the time when an inter­est in Yes led me on the trail of Bill Bru­ford and Tony Levin from Ander­son Bru­ford Wake­man Howe to King Crim­son, and Three of a Per­fect Pair hap­pened to be the one I picked up first. Luck­ily, the music was intrigu­ing enough for me to seek out Dis­ci­pline, which cemented me as a fan for life.

Here is Fripp on the mat­ter of the first round of com­pact disc releases, tak­ing pains to empha­size the costs involved to artists and fans alike:

“The orig­i­nal trans­fer from tape to CD was poorly done. It took place with­out my involve­ment, and the artists were charged with the costs of chang­ing for­mat. Pun­ters and musi­cians, we all paid the price on this one. So, in 1989 Tony Arnold and I re-mastered the Crim­son cat­a­logue, which was released in Japan and Amer­ica as The Defin­i­tive Edi­tion. The artists paid for that one too.“
– Robert Fripp, Frame by Frame: The Essen­tial King Crim­son book­let page 3

Fripp sub­se­quently main­tained the legacy with 30th Anniver­sary remas­ters in 2000-01 and the ongo­ing 40th Anniver­sary Series that began in 2009. Improved audio fidelity was always the main sell­ing point, each time tak­ing advan­tage of a decade’s worth of improved audio tech­nol­ogy. But rel­e­vant to this dis­cus­sion, the rich­ness and qual­ity of the pack­ag­ing also improved with each go around. The 30th Anniver­sary edi­tions are par­tic­u­larly lovely, ini­tially issued in a beau­ti­ful match­ing set of faux-gatefold “mini-lp” sleeves, whether the orig­i­nal vinyl edi­tions were or not (THRAK was dou­bly unusual in that it was never released on vinyl in the first place). The 40th Anniver­sary edi­tions released to date are vastly supe­rior in terms of audio qual­ity, even to an untrained ear. But if you’re more of a design snob than an audio­phile, I rec­om­mend seek­ing out a full set of the now out-of-print orig­i­nal 30th Anniver­sary lim­ited edi­tions. Many of the archival releases also approach the sta­tus of art object, espe­cially the 1975 com­pi­la­tion The Young Person’s Guide to King Crim­son and the lav­ishly impos­ing 1991 boxed set Frame by Frame: The Essen­tial King Crimson.

The Young Person's Guide to King Crimson and Frame By Frame The Essential King CrimsonTwo of the best Crimson-related objets d’art

Recall Fripp spec­i­fy­ing the gen­der of his fan­base. There is no greater exam­ple of the male fetishiza­tion of music than Nick Hornby’s novel High Fidelity, adapted into an excel­lent fea­ture film in 2000 by direc­tor Stephen Frears. Music obses­sive Rob (John Cusack) is lit­er­ally sur­rounded by the phys­i­cal embod­i­ments of music every day. He owns an indie music shop and shares his home not with a lover but with his mas­sive, metic­u­lously curated vinyl col­lec­tion. Rob and his cir­cle of friends and ene­mies (includ­ing the never-better-cast Jack Black) have tastes that most likely align to the demo­graphic read­ing this very essay. More than a few Fripp-related items make con­spic­u­ous appear­ances in the film. His per­sonal library includes a copy of Brian Eno’s Before and After Sci­ence, and a sur­pris­ingly dis­cern­ing shoplifter swipes a copy of Music for Films from his shop (both albums fea­ture guest appear­ances by Fripp). A copy of King Crimson’s 1981 clas­sic Dis­ci­pline also makes cameo appear­ances in sev­eral scenes set in the shop. I’d love to learn more about which albums were selected to appear onscreen and why, but per­haps the production’s art depart­ment sim­ply liked how Discipline’s dis­tinc­tive red sleeve looked.

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

Rob is a lust­ful, red-blooded male, but the true love of his life is music. He and his fel­low obses­sives mis­di­rect their ener­gies away from their per­sonal ful­fill­ment, towards hon­ing their pas­sion­ate opin­ions and com­pil­ing lists of trivia. As three males jostling for posi­tion in their tiny clique, they chal­lenge each other to one-up their level of music geek­ery (for exam­ple: “Top five musi­cal crimes per­pet­u­ated by Ste­vie Won­der in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Go. Sub-question: is it in fact unfair to crit­i­cize a for­merly great artist for his lat­ter day sins? Is it bet­ter to burn out or fade away?”). As he finds him­self lonely and sin­gle in early mid­dle age, Rob sets out to revisit his past lovers and fig­ure out where he went wrong. He views these women much as he does songs on a mix­tape, rather than sign­posts along the pro­gres­sion of his maturity.

Just as Rob tries to make sense of his life in terms of a music nerd com­pil­ing the per­fect mix­tape, Fripp and com­pany have peri­od­i­cally attempted to define and con­tex­tu­al­ize King Crimson’s legacy through archival com­pi­la­tions and live record­ings. Live King Crim­son was not well rep­re­sented until 1991, when the exhaus­tive four-disc boxed set ret­ro­spec­tive Frame by Frame was released (an occa­sion made pos­si­ble by the sale of the EG Records cat­a­log to the more artist-friendly — at the time — Vir­gin Records, but that’s a whole other topic). From its volu­mi­nous book­let, here is Fripp on the inclu­sion of a full disc of mostly unheard live material:

“Stu­dio and live are two worlds. Would you, the audi­ence, pre­fer to have a love let­ter or a hot date? Each have their value. Crim­son were always a band for a hot date. From time to time they could write a love let­ter, too, but for me they were bet­ter in the clinches.“
– Robert Fripp, Frame by Frame: The Essen­tial King Crim­son book­let, page 3

While I’m sure it amuses him to to raise eye­brows by speak­ing of music in terms of love, dat­ing, and sex, his anal­ogy is clear and seri­ous. Espe­cially from the point of view of a musi­cian, the real event hap­pens in the imme­di­ate per­for­mance of music in front of an audi­ence. It’s a com­mu­nion between two par­ties: the artist and the lis­tener. Any record­ing, be it made in the stu­dio or cap­tured live via sound­board, is one or more steps removed, and by def­i­n­i­tion a very dif­fer­ent thing. By Fripp’s anal­ogy, con­certs are sex and albums are mere sou­venir arti­facts, the keep­sake relics left behind after a love affair: yel­low­ing love let­ters, unplayed mix­tapes, and under­wear lost under the bed.

While we’re on the topic of sex, musi­col­o­gist Eric Tamm quotes Fripp on the swing­ing Lon­don lifestyle he wit­nessed first­hand as an atyp­i­cally sober and intro­verted rock star in the late sixties:

“The cen­tral para­dox, or quandary, of Fripp’s entire career has revolved around the dif­fer­ence between, on the one hand, mak­ing art-objects for a product-hungry yet pas­sive audi­ence, and, on the other hand, actu­ally mak­ing art with an audi­ence on the basis of a vision of a shared cre­ative goal. […] ‘I began to see how much hook­ers, strip­pers and musi­cians have in com­mon: they sell some­thing very close to them­selves to the pub­lic.’ Once one has tasted real love (or real art), mere sex (or mere enter­tain­ment) may sat­isfy on a cer­tain prim­i­tive level, but a deeper long­ing remains frus­trated.“
– Eric Tamm, Robert Fripp: From King Crim­son to Gui­tar Craft, page 18

To point out the obvi­ous, Fripp com­pares the role of the pro­fes­sional musi­cian to a pros­ti­tute. One could extend this notion to almost any­one who attempts to make a liv­ing out of their art, be it a painter, writer, sculp­tor, actor, etc. Expe­ri­enc­ing live music first­hand is the real deal, and any­thing else is a phys­i­cal byprod­uct. T-shirts, but­tons, lim­ited edi­tions, boxed sets, com­pact discs, cas­settes, vinyl, 8-tracks, etc. are all objects sig­nal­ing the fetishiza­tion of music by peo­ple like High Fidelity’s Rob.

This is as good a point as any to con­sider the overt sex­ual con­no­ta­tions of Fripp’s phrase “fon­dle them in the pri­vacy of their cham­bers.” Not that I don’t have a sense of humor (I sus­pect most King Crim­son fans do, tap­ping our toes to such absur­dist tunes as “Cat Food” and “Ele­phant Talk”, not to men­tion the down­right filthy “Ladies of the Road” and “Easy Money”), but I’m going to con­tinue exam­in­ing Fripp’s state­ment at face value just to make a point. He com­pares the col­lec­tion and appre­ci­a­tion of musi­cal arti­facts to, well… not to put too fine a point on it, mas­tur­ba­tion. High Fidelity’s Rob makes sense of his life through music: express­ing his feel­ings through mix­tapes, assert­ing his dom­i­nance by chal­leng­ing rival males to point­less trivia exer­cises, and sort­ing out his albums instead of sort­ing out his life. The beauty of High Fidelity is that we’re invited to laugh at and with Rob, to iden­tify with him and yet hope he finds a way to thread the nee­dle, and find a bal­ance between life and music.

Far beyond High Fidelity, another movie that explores the inter­sec­tion between music and sex (and quite lit­er­ally so indeed) is Michael Winterbottom’s Nine Songs. In it, a dis­in­te­grat­ing cou­ple reflects upon the key moments in their rela­tion­ship, each sound­tracked by music sig­nif­i­cant to them at the time. Here, music has an intensely erotic mean­ing to a cou­ple, inex­tri­ca­bly teth­ered to their mem­o­ries to their sex life and the par­a­bolic arc of their relationship:

For most of human cul­tural his­tory, lis­ten­ing to music was a com­mu­nal expe­ri­ence teth­ered to a shared space. Even when music first could be recorded and broad­cast or dis­trib­uted, most house­holds had only one phono­graph or radio until the avail­abil­ity of mass-produced tran­sis­tors in the 1950s. Afford­able con­sumer elec­tron­ics rang­ing from the phono­graph to the Walk­man to the iPod trans­formed lis­ten­ing to music into an increas­ingly soli­tary affair. Even the most ardent music fan spends vastly more time lis­ten­ing to music in soli­tude than attend­ing live concerts.

Lis­ten­ers could also start to build their own libraries of recorded music (much to the plea­sure and profit of the music indus­try, but that’s another topic). In the dig­i­tal era, what is iTunes (the actual juke­box soft­ware, not the dig­i­tal down­load store­front of the same name) other than a blank slate — essen­tially a cold imper­sonal spread­sheet or data­base. As you fill it with your favorite music, it trans­forms into an extremely per­sonal library. It’s only soft­ware and dig­i­tal bytes & bits, but becomes much more when you fill it with songs that gives pace to your work­out, makes you want to dance, gives you chills, helps you con­vince other peo­ple to make out with you, or reminds you of past lovers. Apple took care to design iTunes and its satel­lite prod­ucts to present dig­i­tal art­work for every album and track on glossy, high res­o­lu­tion screens. Even in this dig­i­tal age, the album art is a key com­po­nent in how we browse and iden­tify the music in our col­lec­tions, and how we share them with others.

As Rob care­fully sorts and re-sorts his vin­tage vinyl col­lec­tion in High Fidelity, he’s curat­ing a very per­sonal library not just for his pri­vate enter­tain­ment and edi­fi­ca­tion, but to emblema­tize and cod­ify his taste and iden­tity. I believe this is what Fripp is refer­ring to; part of his respon­si­bil­ity as cus­to­dian and pro­tec­tor of the King Crim­son legacy is to ensure the music is always avail­able in com­mer­cially fea­si­ble for­mats, designed to be appeal­ing enough for fans to “part with their hard-earned pay” (another occa­sional Fripp apho­rism). If com­ments like these may sig­nal a deroga­tory atti­tude towards fans, is it a mark of hypocrisy or crass com­mer­cial­ism? I believe the key to under­stand­ing his atti­tude may come from his friend and col­lab­o­ra­tor Steven Wil­son, inter­viewed by Prog Mag­a­zine:

“He’s a very mod­est chap. He can’t under­stand why the myths have grown up around him, and why there’s such an incred­i­ble pas­sion, obses­sion about the music, but there is. But of course he’s not look­ing at it the way every­one else looks at it, and he can’t.“
– Steven Wil­son, Prog Mag­a­zine, Feb­ru­ary 2011

The obses­sion and pas­sion that’s going into this very series of essays is a key exhibit in the mythol­ogy Wil­son refers to. While his music obvi­ously means a great deal to Fripp, per­haps he is bemused and unsure about its sig­nif­i­cance to lis­ten­ers that elect to include some or all of it in their own per­sonal libraries, dig­i­tal or phys­i­cal. But to the extent that expe­ri­enc­ing music makes up a part of most people’s lives, what we choose to acquire for our libraries is part of our accre­tion of mem­ory, taste, and the emblems of our identity.

Thank you for read­ing part of The Dork Report’s epic series on King Crim­son album art. Catch up via the Table of Con­tents, and fol­low us for updates via Face­book or Twit­ter.

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