King Crimson Album Art: Islands

King Crimson Islands

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.

King Crimson IslandsThe 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).

Prog rock album covers from 19711971 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.

King Crimson Islands insertPart 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

King Crimson Islands insertPart 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

King Crimson Islands LP labelsLP 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

King Crimson Islands 1989 CD bookletEarly 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.

King Crimson EarthboundForm 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.”

King Crimson Earthbound Italian coverAn 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)

King Crimson Ladies of the RoadLadies 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).


  • 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


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