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’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 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 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 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’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.
UK & US LP labels from the original 1970 LP editions of King Crimson’s Lizard
ART & DESIGN CREDITS:
- 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
- Staking the Lizard, by John Harvey — a short biography of Gini Barris with an in-depth analysis of the Lizard artwork
- 40th Anniversary Series liner notes: www.king-crimson.com/album/lizard
- A musical analysis of Lizard by Andrew Keeling
- A deeply historical and mystical examination of the lyrics by Jon Green: Promenade The Puzzle — The Poetic Vision of Peter Sinfield
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