King Crimson Album Art: Red

King Crimson Red

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:

  1. a dark color scheme break­ing from the cream col­ors of its two imme­di­ate predecessors
  2. 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
  3. the first outer cover to fea­ture con­ven­tional pho­tog­ra­phy (I’m dis­count­ing the neb­ula photo on Islands for the sake of argument)
  4. the first outer cover to fea­ture an image of the band
  5. 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.

King Crimson Red album coverThe 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!

King Crimson's Red, The Velvet Underground's VU, and King Crimson's The ConstruKction of LightThree 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 Beatles' With the Beatles, Grand Funk Railroad's Closer to Home, Kiss' Kiss, and King Crimson's RedThe 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.

King Crimson Red LP labelsUK 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.

King Crimson Red original Gered Mankowitz cover photographThis unadorned ver­sion of Gered Mankowitz’s photo col­lage appears in the scrap­book included with Frame by Frame: The Essen­tial King Crimson

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.


  • Cover by: John Kosh
  • Pho­tog­ra­phy: Gered Mankowitz
  • 40th Anniver­sary Series pack­age art & design by Hugh O’Donnell



  • Com­menter Eric B, for point­ing out my mis­take (now cor­rected) regard­ing the very dif­fer­ent US and UK edi­tions of Islands on LP.

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


6 thoughts on “King Crimson Album Art: Red

  1. Some of the bands likely depicted on Lizards cover: Bea­t­les [top right FC], ELP [top left front cover], Jimi Hen­drix Expe­ri­ence [bot­tom right FC], Gen­e­sis [bot­tom left BC], Jethro Tull? [bot­tom mid­dle FC] — I’ll let you guess the rest, but this should help you to do so

    As for Islands US cover being ‘very dif­fer­ent’, the US cover is actu­ally the graph­ics from the ‘gate­fold’ paper inner sleeve of the UK edi­tion, with­out the outer UK cover

  2. Another sin­gle sleeve cover was the UK (only) release of live ‘Islands’ mate­r­ial– “Earth­bound”. Black (with no pho­tos and inter­est­ing gothic type­face). Haven’t yet noticed the cru­ci­fix pen­dant, or maybe I have. The com­pos­ite photo has a com­pressed qual­ity (didn’t know it was a com­pos­ite of three sep­a­rate pho­tos by Gered Mankow­icz and com­pos­ited by John Kosh). Fits in with the pres­sure theme and the gauge. Down to only five songs. Like “Earth­bound”. Crim­son not coast­ing or rest­ing on their lau­rels. I can imag­ine Mr. Fripp not lik­ing the cover; not many are pleased with pho­tos of them­selves. But it rep­re­sents a rad­i­cal depar­ture from the paint­ing cov­ers so com­mon to prog. Crim­son seemed to die a death after the com­ple­tion of each album and tour, only to be res­ur­rected in a new incar­na­tion. THAt was what Mr. Cobain must have noticed– the unex­pected that arrived via an album cover that came to be by accident.

  3. Check your grammar/spelling for “nor” in the fol­low­ing sen­tence (you spelled it “not”):

    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, ((not)) was it inspired by the music.

  4. Thanks for the cor­rec­tion, Eric. It was a com­bi­na­tion of a typo and me get­ting mixed up about the var­i­ous edi­tions of Islands. I made some cor­rec­tions and added a “spe­cial thanks” sec­tion at the end of the article.

    Imag­ine how much fun I’m going to have when I get around to writ­ing about Islands! I think I might have to save that one till last.

  5. Red was not the first King Crim­son stu­dio album to be issued in a sin­gle LP sleeve (Lizard and Larks’ Tongues in Aspic hold that distinction […])”

    Very inter­est­ing arti­cle that brought up design issues that I’ll admit that though I’ve been lis­ten­ing to the band for more than 30 years I’ve never really reflected on. Any­way, a bit of a nit­pick regard­ing the sin­gle sleeve issue. I bought all their album on vinyl back in 1980 and Lizard had an open­ing gatesleeve cover with the lyrics on the inside. You may have meant the UK ver­sion of Islands which I’ve read was only a sin­gle sleeve with a pic­ture of a nubula on the cover (this cover became the one they used for the CD releases). The Amer­i­can ver­sion of Islands (which is the one I bought) had an open­ing gatesleeve with a min­i­mal­ist Peter Sin­field paint­ing on the cover. I’m amazed that I even remem­ber this stuff (I still have the LPs gater­ing dust in my closet while I lis­ten to the CDs)

    Any­way, good work. I’m look­ing for­ward to future articles.

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