King Crimson Album Art: Starless and Bible Black

King Crimson Starless and Bible Black

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).

Rembrandt The Night Watch (detail)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.

King Crimson Starless and Bible Black outer gatefoldThe 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.

Tom Phillips A Humument This night wounds timeA page from Tom Phillips’ book A Humu­ment (page 222 of third edition)

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.

Tom Phillips album coversA 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, Feuil­leton, and

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.

King Crimson Starless and Bible Black inner gatefoldThe inner gate­fold from King Crimson’s Star­less and Bible Black

Tom Phillips - Here We ExemplifyTom Phillips’ 1967 art­work “Here We Exem­plify the Per­se­ver­a­tive, Addi­tive and Sub­trac­tive Modes. The­sis as Object and Art­work as Residue of Process”. It was repro­duced in the book “Tom Philips — Works/Texts to 1974″. More infor­ma­tion avail­able at the Tate Museum web­site. Thanks to Richard Roys­ton for alert­ing us to its exis­tence, and for the­o­riz­ing that Phillips’ inner gate­fold for Star­less and Bible Black may have been orig­i­nally con­ceived as the outer cover image.

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.

King Crimson Starless and Bible Black LP insert and labelThe 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.

King Crimson The Night Watch singleThree 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.

King Crimson USAThe 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 The Great DeceiverKing 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.

King Crimson The NightwatchThe 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.


  • 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


  • 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


  • 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


  • 1997: Cover Paint­ing “The Night­watch” by P.J. Crook
  • 1997: Sleeve Design: Bill Smith Stu­dio, London



  • Thanks to Richard Roys­ton for more infor­ma­tion about the Tom Phillips piece “Here We Exem­plify” and book “Tom Philips — Works/Texts to 1974″

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