King Crimson’s seventh studio album, Red, was originally released in November 1974 as a vinyl LP in a single sleeve. Its music was the culmination of many years’ intense work, but you wouldn’t know it from a cover that seemed to suggest a more radical deviation. But if you were to flip through your Crimson record collection from the start, you’d immediately notice more than a few outlying aspects about Red’s cover:
- a dark color scheme breaking from the cream colors of its two immediate predecessors
- a return to terse album titles like Lizard and Islands, after a detour into the florid mouthfuls Larks Tongues in Aspic and Starless and Bible Black
- the first outer cover to feature conventional photography (I’m discounting the nebula photo on Islands for the sake of argument)
- the first outer cover to feature an image of the band
- the first outer cover to feature overt “design” (in this case, overlaid text and border)
Prior, Crimson had established a consistent visual style of hand-illustrated artwork commissioned from within the band’s own inner circle. Only the UK edition of Islands had incorporated photography, in the form of a photo collage of the band that appeared on an insert, not on the outer sleeve itself (the US edition was very different, but that’s another story). Oddly, the ornate Lizard sleeve depicted lots of musical groups, none of them Crimson: one was The Beatles, another a generic contemporary rock trio (whereas at the time the Crimson lineup was a cast of thousands), and the rest medieval minstrels. According to Sid Smith’s interviews for his book In the Court of King Crimson, Red’s radical break in the Crimson visual style was not instigated by the band, nor was it inspired by the music. Rather, it seems to have been a result of faulty marketing presumptions made by interfering management, as they chased evolving album cover design trends in the seventies.
The Red front and back cover, as reproduced in the 2009 40th Anniversary Series reissue
Vocalist/bassist John Wetton first suggested the concept of a volume level needle maxing out into the red, having witnessed first-hand the band’s sonic impact upon the mixing board meters. Wetton found it symbolic of the heavy new material, and imagined it gracing the front cover, but EG Records disagreed. Probably coincidentally, a virtually identical concept was used on the front cover of The Velvet Underground’s 1985 compilation VU. Probably not coincidentally, a digitally-distorted photograph of an analog volume level meter also appears on an inner page of the CD booklet of King Crimson’s 2000 album The ConstruKction of Light. Although the volume level would appear to be uncharacteristically low!
Three needles in the red: King Crimson’s Red (1974), The Velvet Underground’s VU (1985), and King Crimson’s The ConstruKction of Light (2000)
EG Records co-founder Mark Fenwick arranged for a more traditional photo shoot in the summer of 1974, with the rationale that a cover featuring a full band portrait would be more easily marketable. Noted rock photographer Gered Mankowitz shot both the front and back covers. The photo session was tense (as would much later also be the case for the THRAK full-band photo sessions circa 1994):
“Mankowitz recalls the band seemed very ill at ease with each other. His solution was to take individual shots and then produce a composite giving the impression of the three standing together. With the pensive lighting, Manjowitz clearly alludes to Robert Freeman’s classic With the Beatles cover, which captures four fresh but vulnerable faces at the early stages of their career. With Red, though, the shadow is more severely drawn, suggesting a sombre, ruminant introspection.“
–Sid Smith, In the Court of King Crimson, page 194
Robert Fripp biographer Eric Tamm also recognizes the visual allusion to With the Beatles, an “image indelibly stamped into the minds of a generation”, and quotes Fripp that it reminded him more of an album by Grand Funk Railroad (Tamm, Robert Fripp: From King Crimson to Guitar Craft, page 78).
The Good, The Bad, The Ugly, and The Red: The Beatles’ With the Beatles (1963), Grand Funk Railroad’s Closer to Home (1970), Kiss’s Kiss (1974), and King Crimson’s Red (1974)
Reportedly, the portraits were “immediately christened by the band themselves, ‘the good, the bad and the ugly’” (Red 40th Anniversary Series booklet, page 10), but at press time it remains unclear which is which. Wetton appears bemused yet circumspect, drummer Bill Bruford gazes calmly into the lens, and guitarist Robert Fripp is all business.
Red was not the first King Crimson studio album to be issued in a single LP sleeve. Islands (the UK edition, that is; the US edition was a gatefold with the inside artwork on the outside — a complicated story to be told in a forthcoming entry in this series) and Larks’ Tongues in Aspic hold that distinction, although both included lyric sheets, while I believe Red shipped with a bare inner bag. It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that the decision to do so may have been inspired by the pared-down lineup. The leanest Crimson yet was not the result of planning but rather a series of painful departures. Percussionist Jaime Muir had already exited some time before, so disenchanted that he left music altogether. The departure of violinist David Cross was more of a push than a leap, and even Fripp was in private personal turmoil at the time.
As was always the case with Crimson, the drama of personnel changes was only part of the story. Belying its identity as a pared-down group, Red featured a host of significant guest players, including returning veterans Ian McDonald and Mel Collins. Still, only three core members would grace the cover, selling the album on the force of their personality and growing individual fame. Wetton would became more famous in his own right later as part of the hit band Asia, but the enigmatic Fripp had already long fascinated the music press and fans, and the popular narrative for Bruford always included him boldly quitting the massively successful Yes in favor of Crimson (if you’ve read his book Bill Bruford: The Autobiography, you’ll know that people still bug him with questions about that). Putting these particular faces right on the front cover granted the marketers at least a few talking points.
UK and US labels from the original 1974 LP edition
But EG Records chose a particularly ill-suited album to market on the basis of the personalities involved, for the album was released after the group publicly disbanded just a few months earlier — unless that unfortunate event gave the album a little goose in sales. The split was widely reported in the music press, so record buyers were knowingly purchasing the band’s effective epitaph. The design of the yet-to-be-released live album USA would put an even more emphatic period on the end of the King Crimson sentence, but Red included their last recorded music of the decade.
Another reason it was probably a mistake to loudly advertise this being the leanest King Crimson lineup to date is that the rock world was moving away from classic “power trio” lineup of drums, guitar, and bass. True, Led Zeppelin and Rush were keeping it real by sticking to their core lineups. But the trend was definitely moving towards busy pretension and the too-many-cooks-in-the-kitchen approach of what is commonly classified as prog rock. Perceived peers like Yes were were busy at the time getting bigger rather than smaller (with the ambitious but poorly received double-LP concept album Tales From Topographic Oceans being roughly contemporaneous to Red) and Pink Floyd were pioneering massive theatrical live experiences.
As was often the case, King Crimson was a little too far ahead of the curve, having already been-there-done-that. They had already passed through their overblown phase which culminated with Lizard, a dense album jam-packed with guest artists and an orchestra. Crimson then pulled back to the essentials a little bit too early as well, for the time wasn’t quite right for punk. The bombast and pretension in the rock world infamously motivated the first punk and new wave groups to strip things down. History wouldn’t catch up to Red the 1990s, when the pendulum had swung back towards the authenticity of stripped-down rock. The doomed Kurt Cobain personally told John Wetton that Red was a key influence (this story is often repeated, but the most reliable source I can find is this Rock & Folk interview with Fripp, but Cobain also appears to have mentioned Red in an interview with an unspecified French magazine). In the early 1990s, Cobain was the figurehead of the grunge rock zeitgeist, so his hat-tip carried a great deal of weight. But in 1974, Red was an accident of timing.
One unplanned advantage of the monotone headshots is to avoid the two most dating aspects of any photograph, particularly those of a rock band: fashion and hair. As such, this image remains timelessly cool. Note, for instance, that Fripp has shed the spectacular hippie ‘fro of previous years and is now sporting a trim beard and and professorial glasses that one can imagine rocked by a member of a contemporary Brooklyn indie band. The only adornment that might draw attention to itself is Fripp’s necklace. It’s a little hard to make out, but Fripp can be seen wearing a christian crucifix pendant in other photographs from the era.
Gered Mankowitz’ portraits may have stood the test of time, but the design slightly less so. The cover is credited to John Kosh, a designer with a long portfolio of album sleeves including at least one undisputed classic, The Beatles’ Abbey Road.
Sometimes the best thing a designer can do is get out of the way. Indeed it’s worth noting the front covers of all six prior King Crimson studio albums presented unadorned artwork with no additional design whatsoever. In cases such as these, the designer’s contribution is to select or commission suitable artwork in the first place, and then choose how to crop and place it. When Lizard and Starless and Bible Black included text, it was as an integral part of the original illustration or painting. Compared to these, Red is a veritable riot of design, featuring overlaid text and a thin white border.
The choice of typeface looks a little dodgy today, deviating from the consistent typographical style established by the first two entries in the trilogy of albums by this lineup, which employed a timelessly classy serif font similar to Garamond. Red’s gothic blackletter style now seems a bit too stereotypically “metal” — although, to be fair, the graphical tropes for heavy metal music wouldn’t be codified for a few more years yet. My personal tastes run more towards the handmade (like Tom Phillips’ stenciled artwork for Starless and Bible Black) or the timelessly austere (like the dignified use of Helvetica on THRAK-era releases). The overall composition would be better without the thin white border, a superfluous bit of overdesign.
Fripp told Smith that he “loathed” the process and resulting cover, and placed the blame upon EG Records’ poor understanding of the band. His displeasure is all too evident in his intense, withering stare. Despite Fripp’s stated distaste, I believe the resultant sleeve is worthy for its intriguing portraits and the beautifully concise yet evocative album title.
ART & DESIGN CREDITS:
- Cover by: John Kosh
- Photography: Gered Mankowitz
- 40th Anniversary Series package art & design by Hugh O’Donnell
- 40th Anniversary Series liner notes: www.king-crimson.com/album/red
- Photographer Gered Mankowitz’s official site: www.mankowitz.com
- Designer John Kosh’s official site: www.tenworlds.com
- Commenter Eric B, for pointing out my mistake (now corrected) regarding the very different US and UK editions of Islands on LP.
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