King Crimson’s Starless and Bible Black was the first of two studio albums the band released during a busy 1974, a feat they last achieved with In the Wake of Poseidon and Lizard in 1970. Unlike the widely divergent 1970 albums, however, Starless and Bible Black and its followup Red were composed and recorded by many of the same musicians, and share a unified character, intent, and sound.
Starless and Bible Black cemented the dramatic shifting of alliances that began a few months before with the debut of the totally new lineup that recorded the now-classic album Larks’ Tongues in Aspic. The contributions of Bill Bruford, David Cross, Jamie Muir, and John Wetton (joining sole original member Robert Fripp) to the band’s new direction are of course obvious and immeasurable, it was to be a different change in personnel that arguably sparked an even greater revolution in the band’s look and sound.
After breaking with lyricist Peter Sinfield after the Islands album and tour, the band now looked outside their own sphere for design and lyrical contributions. Sleeve artist Tom Phillips came via Fripp’s friend & collaborator Brian Eno, and lyrics from former Supertramp member Richard Palmer-James (with a few lines in “The Great Deceiver” by Fripp). Palmer-James was never a full-fledged member of the band, which is probably how Fripp liked it, considering the stressful relationship with Sinfield that ultimately ruptured after the Islands tour (during which he was part of the performing band, operating the light show and manipulating the live sound à la Brian Eno’s role in Roxy Music).
A detail from the Rembrandt painting “The Night Watch”
Sinfield’s influences stretched back to classical antiquity, naming the band from the the Hebrew Bible (via John Milton and William Blake) and lyrics referencing Homer, to name just a few. But with Palmer-James and Phillips, suddenly King Crimson leapt into the 17th and 20th Centuries with overt references to Rembrandt and Dylan Thomas. The album title Starless and Bible Black is a direct quote from the Dylan Thomas play Under Milk Wood, and the song “The Night Watch” is about Rembrandt’s painting of the same name.
Over 35 years later, Robert Fripp would describe Starless and Bible Black as a “transitional album” in what would eventually comprise a trilogy recorded by a core power trio of Fripp, Wetton, and Bruford between 1972 and 1974:
“Half the album is recorded live, mostly in Amsterdam, one track in Glasgow, one track in Zurich, half-written and half improvised. All this by young men on a hectic and unending schedule. A transitional album, the bridge between LTIA [Larks’ Tongues in Aspic] and Red. Moving away from the background of the counter culture with its elements of Back To The Land, Romance and fantasy, and moving into a grittier experience: of taking Utopian and idealist ideas and aspirations onto the road; into a sweaty, grimy and hard life as-it-is-lived-by-the-working-player; with its oppositions and ambiguities (cf the whole tone of “Fracture”). The driving, remorseless inevitability presented by Red was already present and beginning to appear; but not to all.“
– Robert Fripp’s Diary, 8 June 2011
I may be reading too much into his words, but perhaps by “moving away from the background of the counter culture with its elements of Back To The Land, Romance and fantasy” Fripp is referring to the shift in lyrical focus between Sinfield and Palmer-James. While Sinfield did demonstrate some anger and aggression in his lyrics for “21st Century Schizoid Man”, many of the later Crimson tunes had arguably more airy and hippy-dippy lyrics. The world had changed a lot since King Crimson debuted during the Summer of Love of 1969, and it was time for more harder-edged lyrics like those supplied by Palmer-James.
The outer gatefold from King Crimson’s Starless and Bible Black
Bill Bruford also reflected on the album’s gestation in his autobiography, noting that the new lineup was suffering its own interpersonal differences:
“A spectacular shortage of material and a simmering hostility between King Crimson’s bass player and guitarist suffused the atmosphere as we tried to scrape something together for Starless And Bible Black in a room above a boathouse by the river in Kingston upon Thames.“
– Bill Bruford: The Autobiography, page 271
He also goes into greater practical detail about how & why the album was partly comprised of live recordings:
“By the time we reached our second album, Starless And Bible Black, we were dangerously low on material. We were reduced to taking improvised live tracks, removing the applause and extraneous audience noise as much as possible, and passing them off as studio tracks. ‘We’ll Let You Know’, ‘Trio’, and ‘The Mincer’ were all born of desperation. It was rumoured that the record company paid a lower royalty rate on live music — hence the subterfuge — but I never got to the bottom of that.“
– Bill Bruford: The Autobiography, page 61
Fittingly for a surreptitious composite of studio sessions and live recordings, the album kicks off with a track called “The Great Deceiver”. The live portions were heavily edited and presented without crowd noise, effectively passed off as studio work. This strategy saved on costly studio time while also making up for a relative lack of composed material, a savvy tactic that also proved useful for the followup album Red later that year. The 1972 album Larks Tongues in Aspic was to be the only full studio album recorded by this version of the band.
The benevolent deception of sorts did not end there. Many of the live sequences, such as the lovely “Trio”, were improvisations. While extemporaneously pulling “Trio” out of thin air is a sort of minor miracle, some of the other improvs don’t come off as well. The title track feels fairly aimless, and “The Mincer” just trails off mid-thought.
This incarnation of the band is one of the most heavily documented in live recordings available today, apparently because a larger percentage of performances happened to have been professionally recorded for posterity (which is apparently not the case for the 1981–84 incarnation of the band, which is survived mostly by inferior audience bootlegs and a few radio & television broadcasts). Aside from their simple availability, live recordings of the 72–74 band are interesting and valuable because the performances were reliably the most interesting and varied of any version of the band. The closest Crimson came to this level of unpredictability was the 2000 quartet, as documented on the live album Heavy ConstruKction. The 1994–96 double trio would improvise nightly around the “THRAK” theme, as documented on the THRaKaTTaK live compilation, but there was a kind of sameness to each night’s routine (I’m sorry but it had to be said). The 1972–74 live improvisations often clicked so well that audience members assumed they were hearing newly composed material, and the truth was not widely known until the 1992 boxed set The Great Deceiver helped rewrite the band’s history.
Starless and Bible Black’s original format was a gatefold LP sleeve designed and illustrated by artist Tom Phillips. Although best known as a fine artist, he had a notable side career in album sleeve design, having created a number of additional album covers, including Another Green World and Thursday Afternoon for his former pupil Brian Eno. His striking design for Starless and Bible Black is my personal favorite album cover from across the entire King Crimson discography.
Phillips is the creator of the book A Humument, consisting of heavily manipulated pages from a forgotten Victorian era novel by William Hurrell Mallock called A Human Document. Part of Phillips’ conceit is to paint upon, cut up, or otherwise manipulate pages from numerous vintage editions. Through subtraction, Phillips reveals words and phrases from the original text. Taken drastically out of context, they unearth an unintended subtext in the original work, but also create an entirely new narrative: sometimes playfully abstract and even erotic, but always poetic. One such extracted phrase, “This night wounds time” (page 222 of the third edition), appears on the back cover of the Starless and Bible Black sleeve. The book has gone through five editions, each featuring numerous new pages created by Phillips as he periodically revisits the work. It lives on into the 21st century as a website, a Tumblr, and iPad app.
A selection of Tom Phillips’ other album covers, including Brian Eno’s Thursday Afternoon and Another Green World, Tom Phillips’ Words and Music and Six of Hearts, Tarik O’Reagan’s Voices, AMM & Tom Phillips’ Irma, Dave Smith’s First Piano Concert, Dark Star’s Twenty Twenty Sound and About 3AM (UK single part 2) and Graceadelica (UK single part 1) (compiled from Discogs.com, Feuilleton, and TomPhillips.co.uk)
Like only Larks Tongues in Aspic before it, the artwork is generally light in color, a tonal aspect certainly not reflected in the dark music. The album runs the gamut from quiet serenity (“Trio”) to proto-metal (“The Great Deceiver”) to avante garde (“Fracture”). “The Great Deceiver” is tight, furious, and over before you know it. The coda to “Fracture” is among the heaviest things Crimson has ever recorded. Perhaps inspired by the complexity and dissonance inherent in the music, Phillips employed overlapping stencils for the inner gatefold image. A tight grid reins in the design from chaos and illegibility, much like Fripp’s tightly-composed guitar ostinatos provide a framework for the looser contributions of the Bruford/Wetton rhythm section in “Fracture”.
Starless and Bible Black is one of only two King Crimson albums to feature a purely typographical design. The other being, of course, the no-frills budget live album Earthbound. The 1994 EP VROOOM comes close, but is disqualified for its incorporation of architectural photography and abstract grunge textures.
The inner gatefold from King Crimson’s Starless and Bible Black
Take a step back, and imagine experiencing the albums at the time of their release, without the benefit of Sid Smith’s band biography In the Court of King Crimson, Wikipedia, or the archival live albums. Here we have another example of the album art echoing forwards in time. The album title has no obvious connection to any of the songs within. This would not have seemed strange, as this had been the case since In the Wake of Poseidon. As noted by Smith in In the Court of King Crimson (page 178), Wetton had presented a new ballad to the band for consideration but was rejected. Smith doesn’t specifically state as such, but presumably Wetton’s ballad eventually became “Starless,” shortly to become a key element of the live repertoire (as documented on the archival live releases The Great Deceiver and The Nightwatch) and to feature on their final album Red.
A fair criticism would be to point out that Starless and Bible Black is a patchwork quilt masking a scarcity of new material. The album contains only four composed pieces: “The Great Deceiver”, “Lament”, “The Night Watch”, and “Fracture”, only three of which are “songs”. Other pieces kicking around at the time included “Dr. Diamond” and “Guts On My Side”, live recordings of which are included on the 2011 40th Anniversary Edition. For reasons of limited studio time, disinterest, or unsuitability, the band opted to never record them (either in the studio or via proper live taping).
Part of what I love about this album is the relative brevity of most of the tracks. By way of comparison, The Great Deceiver is a monumental beast to try to absorb, with four compact discs packed full of many lengthy improvs and multiple similar takes of “Fracture”, “Starless”, and “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic” Parts One and Two. But the second half of Starless and Bible Black is like a condensed sampler, effectively a Young Person’s Guide to King Crimson live in 1973.
The insert and label from the original UK LP edition of King Crimson’s Starless and Bible Black
Author Eric Tamm notes that Starless and Bible Black was the first studio album to not include printed lyrics, “perhaps intentionally to deemphasize the verbal content” (Tamm page 72). My own LP copy also does not include lyrics, but the first 1974 editions did include a printed insert. However, the fact that at least some editions omitted the insert is very interesting for an album that so strongly features typography as its design motif. I would go further than Tamm, and suggest that Fripp may have felt that Sinfield’s amount of control and influence may have held the music back, and that the newfound freshness of the music between 1972–74 had as much to do with a relatively stable lineup of strong musicians as with its post-Sinfield freedom of expression.
Three different picture sleeves for The Night Watch 7″ single, from France, UK, and Italy
One of the last things in the world King Crimson will ever be known as is a singles band, but there have been a few released over the years and it’s always fun to check out the sleeves. Islands Records released a single edit of “The Night Watch” in 1974 as a 7″ single in a picture sleeve, backed with with “The Great Deceiver” on the B-side. Atlantic Records released a different 7″ single in the US without a picture sleeve, including a mono version unauthorized by the band (which, incidentally, did not use an outside producer or mixer at this time).
The UK Island Records sleeve featured dramatic typography, contrasting a slab serif title against an art-deco band logo, surrounding a relatively conventional publicity shot of the full band. It bears little visual resemblance with the album it is meant to promote. The UK and Italian sleeves look hopelessly dated today, and do not compare well with the timeless photo composite used for the cover of Red. The French sleeve, while ugly, does at least echo the stencil motif used by Tom Phillips for the album cover.
The front and back cover of King Crimson’s 1975 live album USA
Although chronologically recorded after Starless and Bible Black, the live album USA was posthumously released after Red. Together with the deluxe double-LP compilation The Young Person’s Guide to King Crimson, USA formed a kind of capstone (or tombstone, as it were) to the intense period of activity between 1969 and 1974. Although the sound quality was not as appalling as Earthbound, the only two King Crimson live albums quickly fell out of print and became collectors items until remastered and repackaged for compact disc in 2002. USA benefitted the most, with its running time greatly expanded.
Featured on the back cover (and inner gatefold of the 30th Annversary Edition) is a Kirlian photograph, capturing electrical coronal discharges.
The Young Person’s Guide boldly omitted their most famous song, but “USA closes with a rendition of ‘Schizoid Man’ […] one has the feeling that Fripp was seeking something of a framing effect for King Crimson’s total record output, which had begun six years earlier with the same song. In small print at the bottom of USA’s back cover are the letters ‘R.I.P.’” (Tamm page 75)
King Crimson’s The Great Deceiver: the original 1992 box set front, and both covers from the two-volume 1998 reissue
The early 1990s saw a virtual flood of archival releases, including Frame by Frame, Heartbeat, and Sleepless. The Great Deceiver followed in November 1992, and reflected the newly established design continuity by Bill Smith Studio. It’s a remarkably sturdy, quality object, including an incredibly thick booklet, a sequel of sorts to the scrapbook included in Frame by Frame: The Essential King Crimson.
The Great Deceiver was puzzlingly chopped in half and reissued in 1998 as two sets of double CDs, with completely different artwork by P.J. Crook, and with the scrapbook available as a separate download. As such, I completely recommend seeking out the original edition, if funds allow.
The front and back of the 1997 live album The Nightwatch
Portions of the November 23, 1973 concert at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, Holland were utilized for the album Starless and Bible Black. The entire concert recording was belatedly released in November 1997 as The Nightwatch (one word), sans overdubs or editing. I love the fantastic painting “The Nightwatch” by P.J. Crook, but its use here is perhaps a bit overly literal.
ART & DESIGN CREDITS:
- 1974: Cover Design by Tom Phillips
- 2000: 30th Anniversary scrapbook design by Hugh O’Donnell
- 2011: 40th Anniversary Series package art & design by Hugh O’Donnell
USA ART & DESIGN CREDITS:
- 1975: Cover: Nicholas de Ville
- 1975: Typography: Bob Bowkett, C.C.S.
- 1975: Photography: Willie Christie
- 1975: Kirlian Photograph inset on back cover by Joe Pizzo, David Zink and Riley Jackson of Lamar University, Beaumont, Texas
- 2002: 30th Anniversary scrapbook design by Hugh O’Donnell, including photographs by Rob Gott, Dagmar, Antonio Tiedra
THE GREAT DECEIVER ART & DESIGN CREDITS:
- 1992: Art Direction by Bill Smith Studio, London
- 1992: Photography by the Douglas Brothers
- 1998: Artwork by P.J. Crook
- 1998: Design by Hugh O’Donnell
THE NIGHTWATCH ART & DESIGN CREDITS:
- 1997: Cover Painting “The Nightwatch” by P.J. Crook
- 1997: Sleeve Design: Bill Smith Studio, London
- 40th Anniversary Series liner notes: king-crimson.com/album/sabb
- The original The Great Deceiver Scrapbook is available as an official PDF download from DGMLive.com: www.dgmlive.com/greatdeceiver
- Tom Phillips official site: TomPhillips.co.uk
- Tom Phillips Album Covers by John Coulthart
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