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
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”.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
“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.
“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.
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:
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
ART & DESIGN CREDITS:
- 1969: Cover by Barry Godber
- 2009: 40th Anniversary Series package art & design by Hugh O’Donnell
- 40th Anniversary Series liner notes: www.king-crimson.com/album/inthecourt
- A 2006 press release for a P.J. Crook exhibition, including full-sized versions of her paintings used for the covers of Epitaph and The Power to Believe.
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