Over the course of this series on King Crimson album art, I have often analyzed the work in marketing terms. A fan might like to believe that every sleeve for every beloved album sprang straight from the the interests and obsessions of the musicians themselves. But the reality of the music business dictates that such idealistic notions aren’t always the case, and even when they are, there are always concurrent commercial considerations.
True, in the early years, lyricist Peter Sinfield’s curation of the first four albums produced some remarkably idiosyncratic designs, reflecting his interests in classical western history, philosophy, and the occult. It’s not likely that the Island Records marketing department, left to their own devices, would have produced sleeves depicting paranoia personified (In the Court of the Crimson King), 12 Jungian archetypes (In the Wake of Poseidon), the 1241 Battle of Legnica (Lizard), or an celestial metaphor for isolation (Islands). Even after Sinfield’s departure, Robert Fripp enjoyed freedom enough to clad Larks’ Tongues in Aspic sleeve in Tantric imagery, and draw upon his own circle of friends to have artist Tom Phillips illustrate Starless and Bible Black.
Up until that point in the Crimson discography, I would agree with any dedicated fan that finds it crass to discuss them in marketing terms. But things were to be very different after Starless and Bible Black. The genesis of the sleeve design for Red came almost entirely from EG Records co-founder Mark Fenwick, overruling John Wetton’s own specific concept and Fripp’s general displeasure. The Red sleeve marks the point where the weight of marketing forces began to tip the scale, subtracting one more area of creative expression from the actual artists involved in making the music. I wrote a great deal in my article on Red about the choice to employ traditional photographic portraiture for the first time, but there is one additional significant difference about the Red sleeve: it had a logo.
It’s certainly not as if pop acts weren’t marketed as brands before 1974, but for whatever reason, King Crimson had yet to have established a recognizable iconography for itself. The Rolling Stones introduced John Pasche’s grotesque “lips” graphic in 1971, immediately conveying their image of outsized lewdness. The Who’s logo by Brian Pike has expressed their British identity and aggressive masculinity since 1964. Then of course there is the classic Beatles logo. A number of people have claimed credit, including no less than Paul McCartney himself:
“It wasn’t a typeface,” McCartney says. “I think I drew it when I was at school. I used to sit around endlessly with notebooks, drawing Elvis, drawing guitars, drawing logos, drawing my signature. At that sort of time we were starting The Beatles and I think in my drawing I hit upon the idea of having the T long. […] I think I do have a branding brain. I would appreciate it when I saw an amazing logo. When I saw the Stones tongue I’d think, Oh yeah — got that right.“
– Paul McCartney, quoted in Just My Type: A Book About Fonts, by Simon Garfield, pages 272–274
In typographical terms, the T would be described as “dropped”, or extending below the baseline. Garfield goes on to describe McCartney’s natural branding instinct to be a virtual prerequisite for contemporary acts:
“These days, a musical product with the ambition of The Beatles would never leave the management office without careful consideration of type. Despite McCartney’s early school doodlings, his groups didn’t have a nameplate until several years into their career. Most artists now have a font that defines their style from the beginning, and even if they never went to art school they appear type-savvy.“
– Just My Type: A Book About Fonts, by Simon Garfield, page 275
But rewind back to King Crimson in 1974. What comes to mind when I mention three other contemporary bands often considered peers: Yes, Genesis, and ELP?
Is that not what you immediately pictured in your head? Each of these bands has a strong visual identify, expressed through logos and recurring visual styles. Each has associated itself with a particular artist or design studio throughout their career, providing a visual continuity King Crimson never enjoyed.
Artist Roger Dean created a richly detailed fantasy world for the majority of Yes sleeves, spilling over onto a variety of solo and related projects like Asia and Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe. This aesthetic even seeped into pop culture, to the point where it was shamelessly plundered by filmmaker James Cameron for his world-building exercise Avatar (read The Dork Report review). Dean is also a gifted graphic designer that extended his touch to the logos and typography, which were usually organically integrated into his artwork. Indeed, the sleeve art for at least three Yes studio albums are made up of little but the band logo:
Most of Genesis’ early albums featured paintings by Paul Whitehead, and they later turned to the design studio Hipgnosis and Icon. Genesis’ branding evolved with time, eventually culminating with a hybrid logo conceived in 2007 for a series of retrospective compilations and a world tour.
Pink Floyd is one of the most design-conscious bands in history, but they’re an interesting outlier that doesn’t fit the model I’m describing. Of all the big-league musical acts in the 60s and 70s, Floyd perhaps had the most ferocious instinct for the visual appeal of its album packaging. Particularly from The Dark Side of the Moon on, each album sleeve was treated as a component in a major marketing campaign, essentially reinventing the wheel for each go around. Preventing such a constant reinvention from resulting in visual chaos was the thread of continuity provided by the eye of designer Storm Thorgerson.
Whereas Pink Floyd deliberately rebranded themselves with each album, the evident lack of cohesion among most of King Crimson’s album sleeves does not appear to be by design (sorry). The band’s tangled, sometimes torturous history and long lapses between periods of activity encompass many decades of changing design trends and fashions. Take a look at this motley and incomplete collection of King Crimson logos through the years:
Here’s a breakdown of the various phases of the band’s logo evolution:
Logo 1 (1969–1971): No real logo per se. The band name appeared on the LP spines and inner gatefolds (a sans-serif, likely Futura on In the Court of the Crimson King, and a serif on In the Wake of Poseidon).
Logo 2 (1973–1974): Larks’ Tongues in Aspic and Starless and Bible Black both featured a consistent serif typographic style on their back covers. The never-repeated stencil treatment on the front of Starless and Bible Black was created by artist Tom Phillips.
Logo 3 (1974): The Red sleeve was to be the sole outing for a gothic, blackletter style logo, distantly related to the Earthbound cover. This is the first example of what I would call a bespoke “logo” for the band — meaning something that was designed, rather than merely a choice of typeface. To contemporary eyes, it now looks the most dated. It is also perhaps the most evocative of a particular musical genre — metal — and not in a flattering way, but rather in a more Spinal Tap sense.
Logo 4 (1982–84): The early 1980s was the most consistent period of design for King Crimson, producing a trilogy of albums that are unmistakably visually linked at just a glance. The serif typography was linked to Logo 2, without copying the past or seeming dated.
Logo 5 (1995–97): Most releases from this period were designed by Bill Smith Studio and shared an interesting design sense, contrasting richly layered digital artwork with starkly minimalist sans-serif type set in Gill Sans.
Logo 6 (2000): Another one-off logo, this time a condensed sans-serif front with a vertical motion blur effect. Not as timeless and classic as the stately Futura of the 60s, elegant Garamond of the 70s-80s, or minimalist Gill Sans of the 90s.
Logo 7 (2003): Another sans-serif logo, set in Helvetica Neue 83 Heavy Extended. Left unaltered by Photoshop effects, it is bold (in both senses) and powerful. Probably the King Crimson logo most influenced by the reduced dimensions of CD packaging.
These phases don’t perfectly align with the usual accounts of the band’s history, traditionally delineated by the comings and goings of band personnel. Nevertheless, some generalizations are possible. The first phase (from In the Court of the Crimson King through the transitional albums of Wake, Lizard, and Islands) are marked by a lack of logo. This was not unusual, and not necessarily an obstacle to strong branding, as the successful example of Pink Floyd proves. The second major phase of the band starts out with a strong typographical linkage between their first two albums (Larks and Starless) but stumbles with the uncharacteristic Red sleeve.
Three edge cases worth noting: Lizard, Starless and Bible Black, and VROOOM could not be more different in musical content, but they do share one characteristic: the typography was not just a major element in each sleeve design, but the major element. The band Yes employed logos as artwork for their eponymous debut Yes (1969), Talk (1994), and Open Your Eyes (1997). But in the cases of Lizard, Starless and Bible Black, and VROOOM, the King Crimson name was integrated into the artwork, not as a logo per se.
I haven’t even touched on a brief detour in the early 1990s, in which the archival releases Frame By Frame: The Essential King Crimson, Sleepless: The Concise King Crimson, Heartbeat: The Abbreviated King Crimson, and The Great Deceiver all shared a consistent logo: a sans-serif type treatment and “crown” icon set in a diamond shape. The icon is perhaps a touch too literal, but it’s undeniably a real logo. To date, these releases mark the most consistent use of branding across albums, but it’s a pity this logo was never used on one of the thirteen flagship studio albums.
- 20 beautiful band logo designs, from Creative Bloq
- Thanks to commenter Layne for letting us know that the original Yes logo was designed by guitarist Peter Banks, who also named the band.
- Thanks to commenter Tom Ace for catching an embarrassing typo.
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