The story of King Crimson’s Islands is worthy of a soap opera: the product of a tangled lineage, troubled by interpersonal jockeying for influence, and subject to a continually revised legacy for 40 years. When Crimson once set the standard for iconic album art, the artwork proposed for their fourth studio album was as poorly received by the band as it was by international distributors. The result was two divergent packages, neither of which is a design triumph. The album is troubled musically as well, failing to reflect the band’s true live nature — evidently a difficult job, as the following live album Earthbound also didn’t capture their essence. The Islands artwork wasn’t unified until 1987, and the way the band actually sounded onstage was lost to time until 2002.
While there are King Crimson fans who define themselves by liking the hard-to-defend Lizard (including such luminaries as Steven Wilson), I must profess a fondness for Islands. It is certainly easily lost in the fray of the King Crimson studio discography, unfortunately sandwiched on each side by two sets of easily definable trilogies. The first trilogy comprises the legendary debut In the Court of the Crimson King, its mirror-image follow-up In the Wake of Poseidon, and the divisive Lizard. As if that wasn’t enough of hurdle to overcome, Islands was followed by yet another classic trilogy rapidly recorded during a strong resurgence in 1973–74: Larks Tongues in Aspic, Starless and Bible Black, and Red.
The original UK LP cover for King Crimson’s Islands
So how to describe the oddball Islands, which veers wildly from the pretty pastoral “Prelude: Song of the Gulls” to the lewd “Ladies of the Road” to the ferocious guitar and drum workout “The Sailors Tale”? The latter features a striking drum part from Ian Wallace and a strange, unparalleled solo Robert Fripp pulled out of thin air late one night when alone in the studio (as legend has it), which still sounds like rock music from the future. It’s one of several moments of improvisatory genius in the recorded legacy of King Crimson, including “Asbury Park” and “The Sheltering Sky” (the studio recording of which was reportedly drawn from an as-yet-unreleased cassette recording of a studio jam).
Islands was recorded by the first relatively stable band lineup since the original troupe disbanded — by which I mean that they managed to stay together across one whole album, whereas In the Wake of Poseidon and Lizard were more the product of a revolving troupe of guest musicians wrangled by Fripp and lyricist Peter Sinfield. The Islands band put the music to tape in bits and pieces, between live gigs, with everyone (especially chief composer Fripp, who also had the job of teaching Boz Burrell the repertoire) in a state of exhaustion.
Perhaps it would be easier to define Islands in visual terms. First of all, it was what would later be recognized as a banner year for progressive rock. Below is a selection of albums released before Islands in 1971, including such prog classics as Jethro Tull’s Aqualung, Yes’ The Yes Album, Genesis’ Nursery Cryme, Can’s Tago Mago, Pink Floyd’s Meddle, ELP’s Tarkus, and Caravan’s In a Land of Grey and Pink. From within the King Crimson family, 1971 also saw the release of Ian McDonald and Michael Giles’ album McDonald and Giles, so closely related to In the Wake of Poseidon that some fans consider it an unofficial Crimson album. Trippy paintings were still in vogue, as you can see from Genesis, ELP, and Caravan (as an interesting aside, this sleeve could pass for a Yes cover, but it actually predated most of Yes’ more famous Roger Dean paintings).
1971 was a banner for Prog Rock: McDonald & Giles, Yes’ The Yes Album, Can’s Tag Mago, Led Zeppelin IV, The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers (OK, not prog, but a classic cover), Jethro Tull’s Aqualung, Caragan’s In a Land of Grey and Pink, ELP’s Tarkus, Genesis’ Nursery Cryme, and Pink Floyd’s Meddle
The original Islands sleeve as released by Island Records (no relation, apparently) in December 1971 in the UK was a deviation from the established King Crimson norm. Whereas all three previous sleeves featured fully-painted artwork, the Islands package was mostly comprised of photography: an image of the Trifid Nebula captured through a telescope by the Institute of Technology and Carnegie Institution of Washington, and photos of the band for the first time. As far as I can tell, the only prior use of photography on a King Crimson release to this date was the Cat Food 7″ single from the previous year.
Sinfield selected the nebula image to wrap around the outer gatefold, meant to be an illustration of his “Heaven’s Sea” lyric from the title track “Islands”. To point out the obvious, photographs of nebula are engrossing because from such a great distance, vast clusters of stars, gasses, and matter almost appear solid. Just as impressive as these metaphorical islands of stardust are the mind-boggling empty spaces between them.
Part of the insert from the UK edition of King Crimson’s Islands — used as the front cover for the US gatefold edition
Sinfield’s watercolor painting that appeared on the insert of the UK LP edition depicted maplike images of islands, further extending the theme into nautical territory. I am certainly no authority on astrology or the Zodiac, but since the original album credits specify that the Trifid Nebula appears within the constellation of Sagittarius, it’s worth pointing out that this astrological sign is supposedly associated with travel. The journeying of sailors are mentioned in the lyrics to Islands, and alluded to in the instrumental track “The Sailors Tale”. If the lyrical theme of Islands is “space”, it’s not as uniform and integrated as Beat’s myriad allusions to Beat Literature. The other tracks on Islands encompass themes as diverse as classical literature (“Formentera Lady” namechecks Homer’s Odyssey) and free sex on tour (“Ladies of the Road” is a very politically incorrect ode to groupies), so the album lacks a cohesive focus.
All three previous sleeves featured representative paintings (portraits of faces on In the Court of the Crimson King and In the Wake of Poseidon, and medieval tableaux on Lizard). While Islands’ cover photograph is of a specific object, it is nevertheless abstract. In this respect, it bears a marked similarity to Pink Floyd’s contemporary album Meddle, which featured a photograph of a human earlobe submerged in water. Sinfield probably liked the nebula image because its textures weren’t that far removed from his own mode of painting, examples of which had been used as the background for the printed lyrics on the inner gatefolds of In the Wake of Poseidon and Lizard. The non-specificity of the nebula image exacerbated existing friction within the band, and disrupted the album’s design worldwide, as Sid Smith describes his band biography In the Court of King Crimson:
Having previously involved another artist in the commissioning of album covers, Sinfield now became the sole executor of that task. In the UK, the album was presented in an unmarked single sleeve, with a photograph of the Trifid Nebula in the constellation of Sagittarius. The inner sleeve was a fragile cream coloured gatefold with delicate islands, created by Sinfield’s patented method of food dye on blotting paper on the outside and a collage of five individual portraits and three group shots of the band in concert. This was the first time the faces of the band had ever appeared on an album sleeve.
– Sid Smith, In the Court of King Crimson, page 139
Part of the insert from the UK edition of King Crimson’s Islands — used as the inside gatefold for the US edition
Islands was released in an inverted form in the US. Elements of the original UK insert artwork were appropriated for a gatefold sleeve, omitting the nebula photograph altogether. Here’s Smith again with more detail:
On its release in the USA, the inner gatefold was used as the outer cover. In the fractious history of King Crimson, there is still some ill-feeling over this. Fripp: “The change of cover for the US was because the UK cover was considered so feeble. The cover artist for the UK cover was Peter. Peter’s ‘move onstage’ was typical use of the VCS3 now expanded to include designing the cover as well. If this works, fine. But Peter’s cover wasn’t striking and wasn’t in the same league as the other Crimson covers. The ‘Nebula’ really wasn’t much of a cover either, because it hadn’t been chosen as a cover.“
– Sid Smith, In the Court of King Crimson, page 139
LP labels for the original UK and US vinyl editions of King Crimson’s Islands
In his online diary, Fripp connects Sinfield’s increasing creative ambition to EG Management’s desire to massage the lineup dynamic in the mold of their previous success story Roxy Music. In this paradigm, Sinfield was the Brian Eno of King Crimson, and Fripp the Brian Ferry:
…it became clear at the time that Peter was increasingly using KC as a vehicle for his personal ambitions, rather than a joint/group undertaking. On Islands Peter expanded his brief to include cover design, rather than using an outside artist (in the US Atlantic declined to use Peter’s cover, preferring the inner sleeve of the nebula cluster). At live shows, VCS3 explosions & effects from Peter’s FOH desk suggested a metaphorical climbing-onstage. EG Management, experiencing the difficulties of managing an offstage member of KC who wanted the visibility of an onstage presence, put the sound mixer of their next band onstage right from the beginning, in order to head-off the problem: Eno with Roxy Music.
– Robert Fripp’s Diary for Tuesday, 2nd March 2010
Early CD editions of Islands featured overlaid text
Neither the US nor the UK sleeves included the band name or album title. When the King Crimson catalog was standardized for CD release in 1987, the UK cover was selected as the canonical artwork. Some CD editions added text on the front, including the 1989 “Definitive Edition”. Maybe the nebula photograph wasn’t distinctive enough to stand on its own, but the image above proves that crudely adding some giant text didn’t do the trick either.
Form follows function: the bare-bones sleeve for the live album Earthbound
The first King Crimson live album was released in 1972 in a basic, unadorned black sleeve. Its title Earthbound is the virtual inverse of the studio album that preceded it. Whereas Islands incorporated themes of space and nautical travel in its lyrics and sleeve, Earthbound brought everything down to earth — gone are the flights of fancy, replaced by a grimly solid black sleeve and more aggressively dissonant music (its version of 21st Century Schizoid Man includes vocal effects very similar to Doctor Who’s Daleks, and the extended take on Groon is very noisy).
In a case of form following function, Earthbound was a budget-priced no-frills release, appropriately reflecting its appalling audio quality. It was recorded on basic cassettes for personal archival purposes, not with the intent for eventual commercial release. Atlantic Records, who had balked at the original sleeve for Islands, were so disenchanted with everything about Earthbound that they declined to release it in the US and Canada altogether. It fell out of print and became something of a collector’s item more important for completists to possess than to actually listen to.
The practice of illicitly recording live concert events became both practical and commercially valuable beginning around the mid-1970s. The availability of compact tape recording devices coincided with the potential lucrative packaging and selling of popular acts that weren’t being served by legitimate releases. Robert Fripp has a longstanding stance against bootlegging, describing it not only an act of theft, but as a less-tangible intrusion upon the live music experience. Even fans recording concerts for personal use or for trading amongst friends is equated with the deceptive packaging of illicit recordings as legitimate releases that don’t benefit the artists in any way.
Bootlegs still occasionally slip through into the commercial market; one interesting example is Michael Brook’s Shona, drawn from a poor-sounding recording of a live event from 1989 and released by Sine Records in 1995. I used to run an unofficial Brook fan site, and representatives from Sine Records once contacted me to object to the categorization of Shona as a bootleg. Brook has stated it is an unauthorized release, and his manager Richard Chadwick personally confirmed the situation with me (more details here). In short, Brook and Chadwick tried to contest the release through official channels, but ultimately had to stop legal activity because the effort was greater than the potential remuneration. The point of this digression is to illustrate one concrete way bootlegs can have serious financial repercussions to the exploited artists.
It would appear that Crimson wouldn’t become a target to bootleggers until after the one tour by the Islands lineup (1972–74 and 1981–84 live performances were more heavily bootlegged). But the release of Earthbound now looks to be the first example of what would much later become a key strategy of the band: legitimate releases of live material (whether from band recordings or even from reclaimed bootleggers’ tapes). Such releases appease fans’ desire for live material, while simultaneously drive down the value of bootleggers’ offerings. Frank Zappa was one of the first to pioneer this strategy with his Beat the Boots series.
But with wide scale exploitation of Crimson live recordings by bootleggers yet to come, the original release of Earthbound served more as a symbolic door-closing on the Islands era of the band. The 30th Anniversary Edition of Earthbound released in 2002 went a long way towards sonically rescuing the recordings, but the album is still effectively what would later be called, in the case of 1995’s B’BOOM, an “official bootleg.”
An utterly bizarre Italian sleeve for Earthbound
Eric Tamm owns an unusual “later Italian version on the Philips/Polydor label, featuring liner notes by a certain Daniele Caroli titled ‘Robert Fripp: musica psychedelica dal vivo negli USA’ [’live psychedelic music in the USA’] and incongruously sporting a cover collage utilizing photos from King Crimson’s 1974 album Red.” (Eric Tamm: Robert Fripp, from King Crimson to Guitar Craft, page 58)
Ladies of the Road rewrote history with regards to what the Islands band actually sounded like onstage. Here’s the front cover (featuring a painting by P.J. Crook) and a concert poster reproduced in the CD booklet.
The archival live release Ladies of the Road (2002) for the first time revealed the true nature of the Islands touring band. Its extended track list, decent audio quality, and luxe packaging all went a long way towards rectifying the unfair reputation set by Earthbound. The raucous, jamming rock band was a world apart from what you can hear on either Islands or Earthbound. This group rocked harder, and had a wackier sense of humor, as best evidenced by the King Crimson Collector’s Club release of Live at Summit Studios, Denver, in which drummer Ian Wallace delivers a deranged Monty Python-like monologue called “My Hobby”.
Ladies of the Road was the first retail release to bear King Crimson Collector’s Club Special Edition branding — the “Special Edition” differentiating it from the normal Club releases in that it was available in retail stores. The CD booklet includes period photos, liner notes from Fripp and Wallace, and a contemporary concert poster guest starring The Fantastic Four’s Human Torch and The Thing. The cover painting is by P.J. Crook, with tangential at best relation to the themes of Islands: a sailor appears, with guitar, amidst a busy street scene also featuring some posh ladies (not obviously groupies), gents, and soldiers. Crook’s work usually adorns other King Crimson archival releases and satellite ProjeKcts (but was also used on the 2003 album The Power to Believe, which after years of side projects, had the detrimental effect of visually associating this new material with the bands’ series of archival albums and compilations).
ART & DESIGN CREDITS:
- 1971: Cover Design & Painting Peter Sinfield
- 1971: Outer cover illustration “Trifid Nebula in Sagittarius” courtesy of The Institute of Technology and Carnegie Institution of Washington
- 2000: 30th Anniversary scrapbook design by Hugh O’Donnell
- 2010: 40th Anniversary Series package art & design by Hugh O’Donnell
- 40th Anniversary Series liner notes: www.king-crimson.com/album/islands
Buy any of these fine products from Amazon and kick back a few pennies to The Dork Report: