The Art of King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King

King Crimson In the Court of the Crimson King

King Crim­son exploded right out of the gate in Octo­ber 1969 with In the Court of the Crim­son King, one of the few debut albums to become an instant clas­sic. Pop­u­lar music his­tory is lit­tered with exam­ples of acts that didn’t peak in artis­tic and/or com­mer­cial terms until well into their record­ing careers. Artists as diverse as Gen­e­sis, Brian Eno, and Radio­head searched for their voices until their third albums, and even the sainted Bea­t­les didn’t go from merely excel­lent to sub­lime until Rub­ber Soul, their sixth. But In the Court of the Crim­son King was the com­plete pack­age, and remains sig­nif­i­cant and influ­en­tial to this day in both musi­cal and visual terms. Eric Tamm describes the album’s impact upon the music scene as a sort of cos­mic big bang that pro­duced a num­ber of splin­ter genres:

In ret­ro­spect, what­ever one felt about this music, the sem­i­nal nature of the album can­not be denied: the var­ie­gated yet cohe­sive In the Court of the Crim­son King helped launch, for bet­ter or for worse, not one but sev­eral musi­cal move­ments, among them heavy metal, jazz-rock fusion, and pro­gres­sive rock. As Charley Waters, writ­ing for the Rolling Store Record Guide, was to put it some years later, the album “helped shape a set of baroque stan­dards for art-rock.“
– Eric Tamm, Robert Fripp: From King Crim­son to Gui­tar Craft, page 43

What Pete Townshend Thinks about King Crimson

Its musi­cal influ­ence is only part of the story. The album The Who’s Pete Town­shend famously called “an uncanny mas­ter­piece” also boasts a sin­gu­larly unique cover that still reg­u­larly appears on best-of album cover lists. It ranked #62 on Rolling Stone’s 100 Great­est Album Cov­ers in 1991, #9 on MusicRadar’s The 50 Great­est Album Cov­ers of All Time, and #50 on Gigwise’s Top 50 Great­est Album Cov­ers of All Time. It was selected for the book The Story of Island Records: Keep on Run­ning, cel­e­brat­ing the label’s 50th Anniver­sary (with­out per­mis­sion, as Robert Fripp has detailed in his online diary). Even many of its var­i­ous LP labels from dif­fer­ent edi­tions are repro­duced in the book Labelkunde Vinyl by Frank Won­neberg, also seen in Fripp’s diary.

Praise for the cover is often met by equally oppos­ing deri­sion. No less than two such back­handed com­pli­ments came from The A.V. Club, which placed In the Court of the Crim­son King on its lists of 18 Par­tic­u­larly Ridicu­lous Prog-Rock Album Cov­ers, and Great Albums with Ter­ri­ble Art. The lat­ter described “that dis­torted, scream­ing face in nau­se­at­ing blues and pinks” as “headache-inducing”.

King Crimson In the Court of the Crimson King outer gatefold
The outer gate­fold of King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crim­son King, painted by Barry God­ber

Tech­ni­cally, the full album title is In the Court of the Crim­son King: An Obser­va­tion by King Crim­son, a savvy bit of mar­ket­ing that implies a seri­ous­ness and jour­nal­is­tic import. It man­ages to drop the name of the lead sin­gle “In the Court of the Crim­son King” and repeat the words King and Crim­son twice. In the mod­ern online era, this would be applauded as good S.E.O.

In some ways it fol­lows the design trends of its time: a lav­ish gate­fold LP pack­age sport­ing hand­made psy­che­delic art­work. For the ben­e­fit of younger read­ers who may have never even bought a com­pact disc let alone a vinyl long play­ing record, gate­fold sleeves first appeared in the 1950s, typ­i­cally employed for multi-disc sets. A side effect was the effec­tive dou­bling of the printed real estate to almost four square feet. That’s a lot of room for art and design.

The gate­fold sleeve gained trac­tion as an art­form in the late 60s and early 70s. Sin­gle LP pack­ages (includ­ing such land­marks as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and The Dark Side of the Moon) were some­times designed with a super­flu­ous flap, an extrav­a­gance sig­nal­ing extra value to the buyer. One can argue about whether or not it makes sense to put a price on music. For instance, how many songs does $12.99 buy? How many min­utes? You can, how­ever, put a price on pack­ag­ing. A gate­fold LP pack­age held the promise of addi­tional art­work, lyrics, and liner notes within, and a stur­dier sur­face with­out, ideal for prac­tic­ing more than one kind of roll (ama­teur snare drum prac­tice and rolling your own jazz cig­a­rettes). Some pack­ages uti­lized the extra sleeve to house book­lets (some nota­bles in my own col­lec­tion include Yes’ Frag­ile and Yessongs, and The Who’s Tommy and Quadrophe­nia), or other printed inserts like posters and stick­ers (I’m look­ing at you, Dark Side of the Moon). Even their thick­ness mat­tered; they stood out more in stores, and made their pres­ence known in home record collections.

Once com­mon, gate­fold sleeves have now been kicked upstairs. Phys­i­cal prod­uct is near­ing obso­les­cence in the music indus­try, but lux­u­ri­ous lim­ited edi­tions pro­lif­er­ate, and now often include LPs or 7-inch sin­gles along­side CDs, DVDs, books, mem­o­ra­bilia, and lav­ish pack­ag­ing. These days, dig­i­tal down­loads are approach­ing free while phys­i­cal lim­ited edi­tions run upwards of $660 for the Über Deluxe Edi­tion of U2’s Achtung Baby, $350 for the Collector’s Edi­tion of Brian Eno’s Small Craft on a Milk Sea or $130 for the Immer­sion Box Set edi­tion of the afore­men­tioned The Dark Side of the Moon.

For bet­ter or for worse, and despite decades of band evo­lu­tion, the front cover of In the Court of the Crim­son King remains the most defin­ing image the band ever pro­duced. Vari­a­tions of the celtic knot that pre­miered on the 1981 album Dis­ci­pline may have graced a greater num­ber of releases, but the iconic scream­ing pink vis­age remains the pub­lic face of King Crimson.

King Crimson concert poster designed and painted by Barry Godber

Speak­ing of faces com­monly asso­ci­ated with King Crim­son, the band is often treated as nearly syn­ony­mous with cofounder, gui­tarist, spokesper­son, and all around keeper-of-the-flame Robert Fripp. But in fact, the pow­er­ful influ­ence of lyri­cist Peter Sin­field dur­ing the early years is not widely appre­ci­ated. He took the lead in defin­ing the band’s visual iden­tity across their first four albums, and indeed even chris­tened the band with its very name: an invented pseu­do­nym for the fallen angel Beelze­bub from John Milton’s Par­adise Lost (Tamm, page 33).

Artist Barry God­ber attended Chelsea Art Col­lege, where his cir­cle of friends included Sin­field and future King Crim­son tour man­ager Dik Fraser. God­ber later joined them in their day job as com­puter pro­gram­mers, where they plot­ted a visual iden­tity for the band in their spare time. God­ber designed Michael Giles’ bass drum skins, the press kit, and a trippy con­cert poster printed on reflec­tive sil­ver foil, repro­duced in Sid Smith’s In the Court of King Crim­son (page 49) and the book­let for the 40th Anniver­sary Series CD edi­tion. But the main event was the imme­di­ately iconic sleeve paint­ing, exe­cuted in water­col­ors. Accord­ing to Smith, it was partly a self-portrait drawn from Godber’s own vis­age as seen in a shav­ing mir­ror, and partly a visual allu­sion to a William Blake print:

Godber’s scream­ing vis­age shares the etched dread of poet, painter and vision­ary William Blake’s ‘Neb­uchad­nez­zar’ (1795), in which the Baby­lon­ian king, in the words of Blake biog­ra­pher Peter Ack­royd, is “grown mad with unbe­lief.“
–Sid Smith, In the Court of King Crim­son, page 80

The his­toric fig­ure Neb­uchad­nez­zar II ruled the Neo-Babylonian Empire between 605 BCE – 562 BCE, dur­ing which time he con­quered Jerusalem, destroyed Solomon’s Tem­ple, and sent the Jews into exile. So, safe to say he was one of history’s worst per­se­cu­tors of Jews. His­tory records him as hav­ing gone through a period of mad­ness (per­haps due to syphilis), but the details of his life were quickly absorbed into myth and reli­gious para­ble. Fit­tingly, he is por­trayed in the Book of Daniel as a mad­man dri­ven insane by his pride and hubris and in the Book of Jere­miah as a destroyer of nations. Quite a loaded sub­ject for a rock album cover!

King Crimson In the Court of the Crimson King William Blake Nebuchadnezzar
William Blake’s print Neb­uchad­nez­zar (1795), with detail

Crim­son would have appeared to set off a mini-craze of sorts within the Eng­lish prog rock scene, for Blake’s “Neb­uchad­nez­zar” appeared in full on Atomic Rooster’s sec­ond album Death Walks Behind You in Sep­tem­ber 1970. Slate deemed it one of The Beau­ti­ful, Hor­ri­ble Album Cov­ers of Prog in 2012, a list that does not include In the Court of the Crim­son King, inci­den­tally. Curi­ously, the orig­i­nal US edi­tion of Death Walks Behind You fea­tured an entirely dif­fer­ent cover — that man­ages at once to be more lit­eral and more psy­che­delic. Atomic Rooster was an Eng­lish pro­gres­sive rock band active at roughly the same time as Crim­son, and I don’t think it would be a stretch to sug­gest that their paths crossed and the In the Court of the Crim­son King sleeve influ­enced their design and mar­ket­ing choices.

Atomic Rooster Death Walks Behind You
The UK edi­tion (left) of Atomic Rooster’s 1970 album Death Walks Behind You fea­tured the full Blake print Neb­uchad­nez­zar (1795) that inspired artist Barry God­ber. The US ver­sion (right) is… some­thing else entirely.

Between a band name drawn from Beelze­bub (The Book of Kings, by way of John Mil­ton) and an album cover inspired by King Neb­uchad­nez­zar II (The Book of Daniel, by way of William Blake), King Crim­son cer­tainly appeared rather indebted to The Hebrew Bible. It would seem to have been in the air circa 1969, for the band Gen­e­sis’ debut album From Gen­e­sis to Rev­e­la­tion was released just a few months prior. The band’s name, album title, and most of the songs were all drawn from Bib­li­cal sto­ries. Both bands quickly left their early reli­gious trap­pings behind, and “Gen­e­sis” and “King Crim­son” lost their orig­i­nal mean­ings and became just names. But in 1969, The Bible was a pop­u­lar place to look for inspi­ra­tion if your band needed a name and visual identity.

God­ber sealed his leg­end by dying of a heart attack shortly after In the Court of the Crim­son King was released. Don’t go look­ing to Wikipedia for more infor­ma­tion on his enig­matic album cover; as you might imag­ine, the entry is only half right. Wikipedia per­pet­u­ates the myth that God­ber only com­pleted this one work in his life­time, ren­dered demon­stra­bly false by the sim­ple fact that the inner gate­fold sleeve fea­tures a sec­ond paint­ing. He also likely pro­duced a wealth of addi­tional work while at art school, but the sole album pack­age he com­pleted before his untimely death will be his pub­lic legacy. One won­ders if God­ber would have con­tin­ued to pro­vide the visu­als for sub­se­quent King Crim­son albums had he lived.

If noth­ing else, the cover com­manded atten­tion. In a very wise design choice, there is no text what­so­ever on the front or back, with the band name and album title only appear­ing in small type on the spine. This choice reveals the band and management’s faith in a very strong image that could stand alone, as the call­ing card of a new group’s cru­cial debut. One such per­son moved to pur­chase the album from its appear­ance alone was Eric Tamm, later to write the book-length dis­ser­ta­tion Robert Fripp: From King Crim­son to Gui­tar Craft (avail­able as a free ebook). He was moved to buy it in 1969, at age 14, “because of its cover: any­thing with a sleeve that bizarre, I fig­ured, had to be heavy.” (Tamm, page xii)

It’s beyond the scope of this essay to dis­cuss the state of graphic design in gen­eral in 1969. But one quick way to get a sense of how dif­fer­ent things were (another way of putting it: how dif­fer­ent things looked) from today is to see the exam­ples of print adver­tis­ing depicted in the TV show Mad Men, the lat­est sea­son of which was set between 1966–67. As you can see from this selec­tion of printed adver­tise­ments from 1969, the graphic design most main­stream peo­ple were exposed to at the time was pretty staid and con­ser­v­a­tive. Mean­while, the coun­ter­cul­ture was pro­duc­ing a par­al­lel body of work roughly cat­e­go­rized as psy­che­delia, and one of the best places to see this stuff was in your local record shop. The scrap­book included in the boxed set Epi­taph includes a con­tem­po­rary pho­to­graph of a record shop win­dow dis­play hyp­ing In the Court of the Crim­son King. Note the jar­ring con­trast between the howl­ing cover image, a scream from the youth coun­ter­cul­ture if there ever was one, and the trio of con­ser­v­a­tively dressed squares seen puz­zling over it.

King Crimson In the Court of the Crimson King shop window display
A shop win­dow dis­play for King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crim­son King (photo taken from the box set Epi­taph)

In the Court of the Crim­son King hit record shops in Octo­ber 1969, sand­wiched between two other albums still con­sid­ered clas­sics today: The Bea­t­les’ Abbey Road and Led Zep­pelin II (inter­est­ingly, Gered Mankowitz, the pho­tog­ra­pher of Abbey Road, would also later do the photo ses­sion for Crimson’s 1974 album Red). Other notable acts also mak­ing their debut were Blind Faith, The Car­pen­ters, and Nick Drake. Fans of what would be later called pro­gres­sive music almost cer­tainly looked down their noses at new releases by Elvis, Tom Jones, and The Mon­kees, but could revel in Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma and Frank Zappa’s Hot Rats. Although fully painted psy­che­delic gate­fold cov­ers were not exactly a rar­ity in 1969, In the Court of the Crim­son King was cer­tainly one of the most high pro­file. You can see as such from this com­pletely unsci­en­tific selec­tion of what In the Court of the Crim­son King likely sat next to in US record shops at the time:

1969 album covers The Band, The Beatles, Nick Drake, King Crimson, The Stooges, Tom Jones, Blind Faith, The Monkees, Pink Floyd, Frank Zappa, The Carpenters, Elvis Presley
A selec­tion of new album cov­ers seen in US record shops circa Octo­ber 1969, includ­ing The Band, The Bea­t­les, Nick Drake, King Crim­son, The Stooges, Tom Jones, Blind Faith, The Mon­kees, Pink Floyd, Frank Zappa, The Car­pen­ters, and Elvis Pres­ley

Of these, only King Crim­son, The Bea­t­les, and Blind Faith were bold enough to omit any sort of text what­so­ever. Every move The Bea­t­les made was avidly watched by mil­lions, of course, so they didn’t need any mar­ket­ing help. And Blind Faith took the low road with a top­less very young girl, which is more than enough to attract atten­tion any­where. In the case of The Court of the Crim­son King, the deci­sion was omit the band name or album title from the cover was a care­fully delib­er­ate choice attrib­uted to Fripp per­son­ally, appar­ently not Sin­field or God­ber as I would have presumed:

It was Fripp’s idea to sub­ti­tle the album “An Obser­va­tion by King Crim­son”, lend­ing the five pieces an implicit con­cept while retain­ing a slightly mys­te­ri­ous edge. It was also his sug­ges­tion that there be no print any­where on the exte­rior art­work. John Gay­don, Crimson’s co-manager at the time, recalls Island Records were wor­ried about objec­tions from retail­ers who would be con­fused about the lack of infor­ma­tion on the sleeve. “Fripp said, ‘Well, it’ll be the only record in the shop with­out any­thing down the spine on it, so they’ll know which one it is.’ Which was bril­liant when you think about it.“
–Sid Smith, “Game of Thrones”, Prog Mag­a­zine, issue 32, page 40

Unlike some later King Crim­son albums, the art­work was crafted in response to the music itself, but it’s also impor­tant to note it was designed specif­i­cally for the gate­fold LP for­mat. The excel­lent spa­tial com­po­si­tion works even when view­ing the front cover alone. God­ber depicts a face with­out a head, in a gar­ish scheme of water­color pinks and pur­ples. Rather than express the human head in the tra­di­tional oval (as he does on the inner gate­fold), God­ber dis­torts the eyes, nos­trils, and espe­cially the mouth and its pala­tine uvula into the two-dimensional con­fines of the square sleeve.

There are no overt gen­der cues, such as cloth­ing, hair or jew­elry, but the image reads as male. A side ben­e­fit to the lack of super­flu­ous fash­ion is time­less­ness; had the alarmed pink man sported a peace sign neck­lace, beads, and henna tat­toos, we might not be hav­ing this dis­cus­sion today. His para­noid, ter­ri­fied gaze looks to his right, around the pack­age spine. Flip­ping the album over, he appears to be pur­sued by noth­ing other than the rip­pling folds of his own flac­cid flesh. A track list­ing or pro­mo­tional photo of the band would surely have detracted. Fripp is the cur­rent owner of the orig­i­nal paint­ing, and I would be curi­ous to see a pho­to­graph to see if it really is in a 2:00 aspect ratio or if the album cover is a selec­tively cropped reproduction.

King Crimson In The Court Of The Crimson King gatefold
The inner gate­fold of King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crim­son King, painted by Barry God­ber

The inner gate­fold paint­ing was also planned and exe­cuted well for the for­mat. The left half is a largely fea­ture­less tex­ture allow­ing for a leg­i­ble lyric sheet and set of cred­its. The right half is left unadorned, draw­ing the eye to the visual focus of the paint­ing. This image is markedly more hippy-dippy, fea­tur­ing a full head with a glee­ful mag­i­cal expres­sion bely­ing the mellotron-aided doom and drama of most of the music.

Like the sub­se­quent In the Wake of Posei­don and Lizard sleeves, the In the Court of the Crim­son King art­work fea­tures rep­re­sen­ta­tions of char­ac­ters present in the lyrics. Sid Smith attrib­utes this inter­pre­ta­tion to fans, but Fripp him­self stated as much in the Epi­taph scrap­book and in a 1995 inter­view with Rock & Folk:

The face on the out­side is the Schizoid Man, and on the inside it’s the Crim­son King. If you cover the smil­ing face, the eyes reveal an incred­i­ble sad­ness. What can one add? It reflects the music.
– Robert Fripp, Rock & Folk, 1995

Michael Giles was report­edly never a fan of the cover, but Greg Lake con­sid­ers the art­work and the music to be parts of a whole:

I’ll tell you what makes it a great cover. First of all, it’s a great cover because it’s a great record. Sec­ondly, it’s a kind of appro­pri­ate pic­ture cer­tainly for Schizoid Man but, thirdly, the guy died after doing it — it’s a kind of pri­mal scream before the guy died. It’s the stuff leg­ends are made of. How many more prop­er­ties can an album cover have going for it than that?
– Greg Lake, In the Court of King Crim­son, pages 70–71

This inter­pre­ta­tion mir­rors my long-held impres­sion of the face on the cover: as a vic­tim of man’s inhu­man­ity to man, which at the time would have been specif­i­cally the war in Viet­nam, cou­pled with the fail­ures and betray­als of the estab­lish­ment. But if the link to Neb­uchad­nez­zar II holds, then the Schizoid Man is not a vic­tim of the mil­i­tary indus­trial com­plex, but rather a per­pe­tra­tor, albeit one that is suf­fer­ing the psy­cho­log­i­cal and spir­i­tual col­lapse as a consequence.

King Crimson In The Court Of The Crimson King LP labels
The UK and US LP labels for the orig­i­nal edi­tions of King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crim­son King

The album has been reis­sued sev­eral times, in a vari­ety of for­mats that each had their pros and cons in both audio fidelity and pre­sen­ta­tion of the art­work. After its orig­i­nal life on vinyl, it was among four rep­re­sen­ta­tive Crim­son albums issued on com­pact disc in 1984, the ear­li­est days of the for­mat. Fur­ther CD reis­sues occurred in 1987, 1989 (The Defin­i­tive Edi­tion), 1999 (The 30th Anniver­sary Edi­tion), 2004 (The 30th Anniver­sary Edi­tion Revised, taken from a newly-discovered ear­lier gen­er­a­tion mas­ter tape), and 2009 (The 40th Anniver­sary Series). Sid Smith found the power of the art­work resilient enough to sur­vive any pack­ag­ing compromises:

Rarely had an album sleeve so accu­rately echoed the shock-and-awe reac­tion which this extra­or­di­nary music pro­duced in its lis­ten­ers. Even the advent of the CD and the jewel-case has done lit­tle to dilute its iconic power.
– Sid Smith, liner notes to In the Court of the Crim­son King 40th Anniver­sary edi­tion

In terms of design and pack­ag­ing, it’s hard to beat the orig­i­nal gate­fold vinyl edi­tion (reis­sued in 2009 in a new 200 gram vinyl press­ing). Fail­ing that, the 30th Anniver­sary CD edi­tion (1999) was ini­tially pub­lished in a top-quality minia­ture fac­sim­ile of the orig­i­nal gate­fold sleeve, with a bonus book­let of his­tor­i­cal press clip­pings. The best edi­tion in terms of audio qual­ity is cer­tainly the 2009 reis­sue, which saw for the first time a metic­u­lous recon­struc­tion and remix from the orig­i­nal mul­ti­track ses­sion tapes by Fripp’s friend & col­league Steven Wil­son (of Por­cu­pine Tree and No-Man fame). The vari­ety of for­mats includes an almost absurdly exhaus­tive 6-disc boxed set that also has the ben­e­fit of being able to re-present the art­work at its orig­i­nal scale. So if you want the best sound and art­work, and funds allow, the 40th Anniver­sary box set is for you.

King Crimson In The Court Of The Crimson King single
Two dif­fer­ent edi­tions of the In the Court of the Crim­son King 7″ sin­gle, both from France

The Court of the Crim­son King” was released as a 7″ sin­gle that same year. The UK edi­tion was issued in a generic Islands records sleeve, but no less than two edi­tions were issued in France with dif­fer­ent pic­ture sleeves. The first includes a cur­sory, mono­chro­matic repro­duc­tion of the album cover, cast in a kind of sickly pur­plish pink (I’m not sure if this is a Phillips Records thing, or if the col­ors were cho­sen based on the orig­i­nal album cover or Island Records’ tra­di­tional pink LP labels). The sec­ond ver­sion, while gar­ish, demon­strates a lit­tle more thought by appro­pri­at­ing the album’s inner gate­fold image depict­ing the Crim­son King char­ac­ter. Out of con­text like this, how­ever, the jolly vis­age belies the tone of the doom-laden song. The less said about the type choices, the bet­ter. The orig­i­nal album made dig­ni­fied use of Futura on the inner gatefold.

The title track is edited into two halves to accom­mo­date the 7″ for­mat, a not-unusual prac­tice for bands exper­i­ment­ing with longer pieces (the same was done for Gen­e­sis’ The Knife and Yes’ And You and I). The lis­ten­ing expe­ri­ence must have been rather sub­par, mak­ing the over­all pack­age lit­tle more than an adver­tise­ment for the album proper.

King Crimson Epitaph single
The pic­ture sleeve for the 1976 7″ sin­gle Epi­taph

Epi­taph” was belat­edly released as a 7″ sin­gle on Island Records in the UK in 1976, in sup­port of the com­pi­la­tion A Young Person’s Guide to King Crim­son, the back cover of which does dou­ble duty as the back of the single.

In what one can only sur­mise was a delib­er­ate state­ment, what was arguably Crimson’s most famous song “20th Cen­tury Schizoid Man” was boldly omit­ted from the com­pi­la­tion, and here serves as a mere b-side. This wouldn’t be the first exam­ple of the band delib­er­ately skirt­ing the quag­mire of expec­ta­tion, and instead striv­ing to write its own legacy.

The mono­chrome cover fol­lows the lead of the 1969 Epi­taph 7″ sin­gle in sim­ply repro­duc­ing the orig­i­nal album cover at postage-stamp size. As was the case with The Court of the Crim­son King 7″ sin­gle sleeves, the inline font (“inline” being typographical-ese for a type­face with neg­a­tive high­lights) bears no rela­tion to either the orig­i­nal album or A Young Person’s Guide to King Crimson.

King Crimson Epitaph box set
The front and back of the archival box set Epi­taph, fea­tur­ing a paint­ing by P.J. Crook

The 1969 and the 1980s line­ups shared lit­tle beyond the name and one mem­ber. The one ele­ment in com­mon was that both would have to wait until the 1990s for the stars to align in such a way as to allow com­mer­cial releases of any live audio record­ings (at least the 80s band saw two home video releases, when only a few sec­onds of film sur­vive of the ’69 lineup). Fripp fought a long and hard legal bat­tle through the early to mid 90s in order to free the copy­right and pub­lish­ing rights to his solo and King Crim­son cat­a­log. He has writ­ten about the expe­ri­ence exten­sively in his liner notes to var­i­ous releases (espe­cially Absent Lovers) and in his online diary, and it’s fair to say it was a per­son­ally bruis­ing and costly expe­ri­ence for him, both finan­cially and spir­i­tu­ally. But it ulti­mately led to a golden age for fans as the vaults were opened begin­ning with two lav­ish four-disc boxed sets: Frame by Frame: The Essen­tial King Crim­son (1991) and The Great Deceiver (1992).

Time has shown that the King Crim­son fan­base was finan­cially sup­port­ive enough to make numer­ous archival live releases fea­si­ble. But the 1969 record­ings also had an addi­tional prob­lem beyond attract­ing a pay­ing audi­ence: bar­ring a few well-preserved BBC Radio per­for­mances, the audio fidelity of most exist­ing record­ings was quite poor. As if to make up for this, the best of them were pub­lished in April 1997 as the 4-disc boxed set Epi­taph. The retail edi­tion included the first two CDs and book­let in a com­pact box. An addi­tional two discs, includ­ing record­ings of his­tor­i­cal inter­est but of even lesser fidelity, were sold sep­a­rately via mail order for die-hard fans. The addi­tional vol­umes 3 & 4 were also released in a deluxe mini-gatefold pack­age in Japan.

King Crim­son has exper­i­mented with a vari­ety of boxed set pack­ag­ing strate­gies over the years, from the LP-sized Frame by Frame and 40th Anniver­sary In the Court of the Crim­son King boxes, to the longbox-sized The Great Deceiver and The 21st Cen­tury Guide to King Crim­son, down to the ultra-compact Epi­taph. The dimin­ished scale of Epi­taph does not adversely affect the over­all pack­age, for I find it a very attrac­tive object. Bill Smith Stu­dio (also respon­si­ble for Frame By Frame, The Great Deceiver, and many THRAK-era releases) did a fine job pre­sent­ing the volu­mi­nous amounts of text and vari­ety of con­tem­po­rary arti­facts and press clip­pings. The one inex­plic­a­ble blem­ish is a giant UPC bar­code placed on the spine.

The cover art­work is derived from a P.J. Crook paint­ing enti­tled “The Four Sea­sons”, repro­duced in full on the book­let front cover:

King Crimson Epitaph The Four Seasons painting by P.J. Crook
The full P.J. Crook paint­ing “The Four Sea­sons”, used for the cover of the King Crim­son box set Epi­taph

The included scrap­book is a sequel of sorts to the first three, orig­i­nally pub­lished in A Young Person’s Guide to King Crim­son, Frame by Frame, and The Great Deceiver. In it, Fripp relates the ori­gins and even­tual fate of the In the Court of the Crim­son King cover:

“The cover was as strange and pow­er­ful as any­thing else to do with this group. Barry God­ber, a friend of Peter and Dik the Roadie, was not an artist but a com­puter pro­gram­mer. This was the only album cover he painted. Barry died in bed in Feb­ru­ary 1970 at the age of 24.

The cover was as much a defin­ing state­ment, and a clas­sic, as the album. And they both belonged together. The Schizoid face was really scary, espe­cially if a dis­play filled an entire shop window.

Peter brought the cover into Wes­sex Stu­dios in High­gate dur­ing a ses­sion. At the time Michael [Giles] refused to com­mit him­self to it, nor has he yet. But Michael has also never agreed to the name King Crim­son. We went ahead anyway.

The orig­i­nal art­work hung on a wall in 63a, Kings Road, in full day­light for sev­eral years. This was the cen­tre of EG activ­i­ties from 1970 and remains so today, albeit in its dimin­ished and trun­cated form. For sev­eral years I watched the colours drain from the Schizoid and Crim­son King faces until, finally, I announced that unless it was hung where it was pro­tected from day­light, I would remove it. Sev­eral months later I removed it and it is now stored at Dis­ci­pline Global Mobile World Central.”

– Robert Fripp, Epi­taph scrap­book, pages 17–18


  • 1969: Cover by Barry Godber
  • 2009: 40th Anniver­sary Series pack­age art & design by Hugh O’Donnell


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3 thoughts on “The Art of King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King

  1. Hi, and thanks for your comment.

    If you want to iden­tify your records, check out

    Your Island Records copy is most likely from the UK, and the Philips edi­tion might be from France or Aus­tralia. I’m not sure about any dif­fer­ences between those, but I do know that every edi­tion released after 2004 are taken from the orig­i­nal mas­ter tapes (which had been lost for quite some time).

  2. Hi! I’ve read your excel­lent “Art of King Crim­son” Post and I have a ques­tion to ask you. I get two copies of the record. First is a Philips edit and the other an Island edit. The dura­tion on each record is dif­fer­ent. Some tracks on the Island one are more longer. I heard some­where that after the first issue of the record, dis­tor­tions appear due to a bad recorder. So Peter Fripp cor­rect them and a sec­ond issue came. Do you know if the first edi­tion is the shorter or the longer. Thanks for your answer and excuse me for my very bad eng­lish. Regards.

  3. Hi! I’ve read your excel­lent “Art of King Crim­son” Post and I have a ques­tion to ask you. I get two copies of the record. First is a Philips edit and the other an Island edit. The dura­tion on each record is dif­fer­ent. Some tracks on the Island one are more longer. I heard some­where that after the first issue of the record, dis­tor­tions appear due to a bad recorder. So Peter Fripp cor­rect them and a sec­ond issue came. Do you know if the first edi­tion is the shorter or the longer. Thanks for your answer and excuse me for my very bad eng­lish. Regards.

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