King Crimson Album Art: Lizard

King Crimson Lizard

The extrav­a­gantly ornate King Crim­son album Lizard appeared in Decem­ber 1970, clad in an equally intri­cate gate­fold sleeve. Many Crim­son albums remain points of con­tention among crit­ics and fans (for instance, Islands is some­times over­looked, and a cer­tain vin­tage of fans never warmed to any­thing after Dis­ci­pline). But no Crim­son album has been as last­ingly con­tro­ver­sial and divi­sive as Lizard. Then and now, it con­founds almost every­one that has heard it, even its own co-creator Robert Fripp.

“Lots of ideas, mostly pre­sented simul­ta­ne­ously and very few of which work. Var­i­ous bits are unsure whether to try and make con­nec­tion with a uni­fied cen­tral theme, or main­tain their inde­pen­dence. Mostly, the search for a uni­fied cen­tral theme escapes sat­is­fac­tion and the con­stituent ele­ments adopt a sem­blance of neu­tral­ity, so as not to attract cul­pa­bil­ity for their involve­ment. Labour and labor­ing, mostly joy­less, strive effort­fully to present the appear­ance of cohe­sion.“
– Robert Fripp, liner notes to Lizard 40th Anniver­sary Edi­tion

Fripp’s frank appraisal of one of his own major works reminds one of Elvis Costello’s infa­mous liner notes for the 1995 Rykodisc reis­sue of Good­bye Cruel World: “Con­grat­u­la­tions! You’ve just pur­chased our worst album.” Lizard is Fripp’s Good­bye Cruel World. Both artists have seen their dif­fi­cult albums remas­tered and reis­sued numer­ous times over the years, along­side other works they con­sider supe­rior (most of which, let’s face it, prob­a­bly sell bet­ter). While Lizard has always had some defend­ers, its gen­eral rep­u­ta­tion was partly and belat­edly res­cued by a metic­u­lous restora­tion and remix under­taken in 2010 by Steven Wil­son for the 40th Anniver­sary Series reis­sue cam­paign. But even now, out of the entire King Crim­son discog­ra­phy, it’s dif­fi­cult to say whether Lizard has the fewest advo­cates or the most detrac­tors. And that counts for its cover art as much as the music itself.

King Crimson Lizard - front and back cover painting by Gini BarrisKing Crimson’s Lizard: front and back cover paint­ing by Gini Barris

While lis­ten­ers con­tinue to debate the mer­its of the music, less dis­cussed is the sleeve art­work. That may be begin­ning to change, as Slate sin­gled it out in 2012 as one of its Beau­ti­ful, Hor­ri­ble Album Cov­ers of Prog. Lizard is one of the very few King Crim­son sleeves that band biog­ra­pher Sid Smith does not so much as men­tion in his oth­er­wise exhaus­tive book In the Court of King Crim­son. He rec­ti­fies the omis­sion in his liner notes for the 40th Anniver­sary Edition:

“Gini Bar­ris, then just 19 years old, was com­mis­sioned to pro­vide the gate­fold cover’s sump­tu­ous and ornate illus­tra­tions. With visual ref­er­ences to the Lind­is­farne Gospels and 15th Cen­tury French illu­mi­nated man­u­scripts, it took over three months to com­plete, mir­ror­ing the epic, painstak­ing qual­i­ties of the words and music.“
– Sid Smith, liner notes to Lizard 40th Anniver­sary Edi­tion

Details from Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry and King Crimson's Lizard Details from Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry and King Crimson’s Lizard

Bar­ris worked only from Sinfield’s lyrics, not hear­ing the music until after the art­work was com­pleted. Her medium was water­color and gouache on paper, inspired by “Per­sian minia­tures, and incor­po­rates devices (such as Celtic inter­lace and knots) and imagery influ­enced by illu­mi­nated man­u­scripts, includ­ing the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, the Book of Kells, and the Lind­is­farne Gospels.” Read more here.

Fripp biog­ra­pher Eric Tamm loved her art­work, not­ing that The Bea­t­les “appear imag­i­na­tively por­trayed in one of the many pan­els on the album’s immac­u­lately beau­ti­ful cover paint­ing by Gini Bar­ris, painstak­ingly exe­cuted in the style of medieval man­u­script illu­mi­na­tions” (Robert Fripp: From King Crim­son to Gui­tar Craft, page 52). Lizard was released only a few months after The Bea­t­les effec­tively broke up under the harsh glare of the pub­lic eye. As beloved as The Bea­t­les remain today, one can only imag­ine how raw the wound felt at the time to their fans and the fel­low musi­cians that admired them. We know Fripp is both, for he has often cited the orches­tral crescendo from “A Day in the Life” on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band as a key musi­cal influ­ence. Regard­less, the track “Happy Fam­ily” tells a cheer­fully fan­ci­ful ver­sion of The Bea­t­les story with­out the doom and gloom of, say, “Epitaph”.

Speak­ing of doom and gloom, the tor­tured process of mak­ing Lizard is recounted in Smith’s book and touched upon in the liner notes in the 40th Anniver­sary edi­tion. As an exec­u­tive sum­mary, suf­fice to say that King Crim­son did not exist as a band, per se, in 1970. It fell to Fripp and Peter Sin­field to com­pose and record an album with an ad hoc mix­ture of past and present band mem­bers (some on the way out and some on the way in), plus guest artists, ses­sion musi­cians, and an orches­tra. Yes’ Jon Ander­son appears on one track, and other guests of note include Keith Tip­pet and Mel Collins. The result­ing album is as wickedly dense and noisy as the cover art is ornate. Lizard’s music and art­work are both dra­mat­i­cally overcooked.

Details from the Book of Kells and King Crimson's LizardDetails from the Book of Kells and King Crimson’s Lizard

My own first impres­sion of the album came from “Bolero”, the sole rep­re­sen­ta­tive track included on the 1991 boxed set Frame by Frame: The Essen­tial King Crim­son. Com­piler Fripp evi­dently felt noth­ing else from the album was worth excerpt­ing, even with four CDs worth of room. Even then, Tony Levin was drafted to re-record Gor­don Haskell’s orig­i­nal bass part (partly due to Haskell not being much of a vir­tu­oso, but also to a long and ugly roy­alty dis­pute). When I even­tu­ally got around to pur­chas­ing a full copy of Lizard years later, it was ini­tially con­fus­ing to me that “Bolero” didn’t appear among the track list­ing; in fact, it is a seg­ment enti­tled “Bolero — The Peacock’s Tale” (note the pun) in the album-length title track (a sin­gle unbro­ken track on CD edi­tions). “Bolero” is quite lovely and dig­ni­fied, but a rather incon­gru­ous bit of jazzy cham­ber music amidst all of the 1970-vintage prog rock on dis­play before and after. Jon Green has a fas­ci­nat­ing the­ory link­ing the musi­cal struc­ture of “Bolero” to alchemy.

Such multi-part suites were very much in vogue at the time amongst the prog-rock set. “Lizard” was one of the first of its type, pre­ced­ing Gen­e­sis’ “Supper’s Ready” (1972), Yes’ “Close to the Edge” (1972), and Rush’s “2012” (1976). “Lizard” depicts the his­tor­i­cal Bat­tle of Leg­nica, in which com­bined Euro­pean armies met the invad­ing Mon­gols in Poland in 1241. Its cen­tral char­ac­ter Prince Rupert is an alle­gor­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tion of Holy Roman Emperor Fred­er­ick II. Lis­ten­ing to “Lizard” now, it’s hard to believe that this war story is by the same band as the one that com­posed “21st Cen­tury Schizoid Man” (report­edly a reac­tion to the Viet Nam War) when the for­mer track still sounds sig­nif­i­cantly less dated.

Details from the Lindisfarne Gospels and King Crimson's LizardsDetails from The Lind­is­farne Gospels and King Crimson’s Lizard

All that said, the cover is of a piece with its two pre­de­ces­sors. All three cov­ers so far fea­tured promi­nent illus­tra­tions of char­ac­ters men­tioned or alluded to in Sinfield’s lyrics. But where the sleeve most dif­fers from its pre­de­ces­sors is that it is the first to include the band’s name. And boy does it. The words “KING” and “CRIMSON” (but not the album title) appear in a pas­tiche of medieval illu­mi­nated man­u­script art­work, pro­vid­ing a frame­work for a series of panel minia­tures. In light of Scott McCloud’s book Under­stand­ing Comics, its tempt­ing to seek a nar­ra­tive in the sequence of illus­tra­tions. Indeed, the illus­tra­tions on the front cover roughly cor­re­spond to the first side of the LP, and vice versa:


  • C: A cir­cus in mid-performance. Obvi­ously an illus­tra­tion of the first track “Cirkus”. Musi­cally, the themes of “Cirkus” recur dur­ing “Big Top”, the clos­ing seg­ment of the title track.
  • R: A medieval lady ser­e­naded by a trou­ba­dour with lute, pos­si­bly inspired by the track “Lady of the Danc­ing Water”.
  • I: The Bea­t­les, pos­ing on a sea­side dock, with their famous yel­low sub­ma­rine vis­i­ble in the waters, and what would appear to be the dis­em­bod­ied head of Yoko Ono waft­ing out of a lantern held by John Lennon. An illus­tra­tion of the Bea­t­les para­ble “Happy Fam­ily”. Inter­est­ingly for an album so pre­oc­cu­pied with war, The Bea­t­les appear in their late period Abbey Road-era fash­ion, not the mil­i­taris­tic Sgt. Petter-era uniforms.
  • M: A knight and grim reaper on horse­back, at night­time. Pos­si­bly related to the post-battle after­math in “Prince Rupert’s Lament” (the moun­tains vis­i­ble in the back­ground sug­gest­ing the same set­ting). It’s also pos­si­ble this panel is related to the Tarot, but some­one more versed in the occult will have to con­firm or deny.
  • S: Two scenes of deca­dent royal lux­ury, likely an illus­tra­tion of the pup­pets and saunas that appear in “Indoor Games”.
  • O: A jug­gler and pair of musi­cians per­form­ing out­doors, before a lake.
  • N: An anachro­nis­tic rock trio, some­times thought to rep­re­sent The Jimi Hen­drix Expe­ri­ence. In fact, accord­ing to Bar­ris her­self, the fig­ures por­trayed are Hen­drix, Gin­ger Baker, and Dave Wade (her future hus­band, and uncred­ited designer of Lizard’s inner gate­fold). Accord­ing to Green’s analy­sis, the fan­ci­ful appear­ance of a bear fly­ing an air­plane is a visual pun depict­ing the Eng­lish comic strip char­ac­ter Rupert Bear.


  • K: An agrar­ian scene depict­ing reapers har­vest­ing a crop, as described in the “Prince Rupert Awakes” sequence of “Lizard”. Accord­ing to Green, the oth­er­wise puz­zling lyric “Will rust beneath our corn” refers to the Roman Empire’s monop­oly on the corn har­vest. This bucolic land­scape is jux­ta­posed with the an illus­tra­tion of the Euro­pean and Mon­go­lian armies meet­ing in bat­tle dur­ing the “Bat­tle of Glass Tears” por­tion of “Lizard”. The land itself is lit­er­ally riven, and the dis­tant seas replaced by cold moun­tains and stormy skies.
  • I: A quar­tet of musi­cians per­form­ing before a cas­tle and town.
  • N: Prince Rupert and his pea­cock, from “Bolero — The Peacock’s Tale”. Green states the pea­cock is a sym­bol of the Ori­ent, tying in to his the­ory that Sinfield’s larger lyri­cal theme of the album is a con­flict between East and West (not just Mon­go­lia, for he also iden­ti­fies a few ref­er­ences to Islam in Sinfield’s lyrics). Pea­cocks also appear embed­ded through­out the rest of the cover art.
  • G: A sol­dier, an intel­lec­tual, and sev­eral naked men. Per­haps the con­quered army being cat­a­logued by the vic­tors? Not sure what’s going on here, par­tic­u­larly because of the racially-charged depic­tion of some of the naked men in sub­servient positions.

Two addi­tional notes about the cover:

  • As part of the medieval illu­mi­nated man­u­script motif of Bar­ris’ cover, cer­tain pat­terns and motifs pre­fig­ure the “knot­work” that later graced the cover of the 1981 album Dis­ci­pline. Sin­field orig­i­nally asked Gini Bar­ris to pro­duce some­thing akin to The Book of Kells, which fea­tured Celtic knots and inter­lace.
  • I’ve heard a fan the­ory that Emer­son Lake and Palmer are rep­re­sented some­where on the Lizard cover, but I don’t see a likely can­di­date. As Greg Lake was a recently departed Crim­son mem­ber, ELP would have been of even closer rel­e­vance than the Bea­t­les. For as the Fab Four had just called it quits, ELP was soon to ascend to unprece­dented com­mer­cial heights.

King Crimson Lizard - inner gatefoldKing Crimson’s Lizard — inner gate­fold by Dave Wade (uncredited)

Like its pre­de­ces­sors, Lizard was pack­aged in a deluxe gate­fold sleeve. The inner gate­fold fea­tured the cred­its and lyrics atop “inner mar­bling” by Koraz Wall­pa­pers. The uncred­ited artist was Dave Wade, appar­ently not, as it might first appear, another water­color paint­ing by Sin­field. It’s a sequel of sorts to the inner gate­fold of In the Wake of Poseidon.

King Crimson Lizard - LP labelsUK & US LP labels from the orig­i­nal 1970 LP edi­tions of King Crimson’s Lizard


  • Sleeve con­cep­tion by Peter Sinfield
  • Out­side paint­ing Gini Barris
  • Inside Mar­bling Koraz Wall­pa­pers (uncred­ited: Dave Wade)
  • Typog­ra­phy C.C.S.
  • 40th Anniver­sary Series pack­age art & design by Hugh O’Donnell


Buy any of these fine prod­ucts from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to The Dork Report:


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