King Crimson Album Art: Three of a Perfect Pair

King Crimson Three of a Perfect Pair

King Crim­son first exploded on the scene in 1969 as a star­tlingly sophis­ti­cated, tight, and orig­i­nal band. Not only did their debut album In the Court of the Crim­son King show­case a set of solid mate­r­ial, it was per­fectly pack­aged in an instantly iconic sleeve. But the band’s grace period did not last long, and the next few years of their exis­tence were messy and chaotic. A tril­ogy of follow-up albums (In the Wake of Posei­don, Lizard, and Islands) all failed (in inter­est­ingly dif­fer­ent ways) to live up to poten­tial, as the band was beset by con­stant lineup changes and cre­ative com­pro­mises. But Crim­son would enjoy many fur­ther oppor­tu­ni­ties to seal their leg­end, com­plet­ing two more trilo­gies between 1973–74 and 1981–84, with still more resur­gences to come in the nineties and oughties. The sec­ond great tril­ogy came to a close in March 1984 with Three of a Per­fect Pair.

King Crimson Three of a Perfect Pair
The front and back cover to King Crimson’s Three of a Per­fect Pair

The Three of a Per­fect Pair sleeve was designed by Tim­o­thy Eames, based on a paint­ing by Peter Willis, an asso­ciate of Robert Fripp’s from his time at the Inter­na­tional Acad­emy for Con­tin­u­ous Edu­ca­tion at Sher­borne House in the mid 1970s. In his online diary, Fripp has posted more Willis paint­ings, pho­tos of Willis in his stu­dio, as well as images of the orig­i­nal paint­ing that formed the basis for the Three of a Per­fect Pair album art as exe­cuted by Eames. Two fur­ther paint­ings by Willis com­prise the cover for the com­pi­la­tion album Some­times God Smiles: The Young Per­sons’ Guide to Dis­ci­pline Vol­ume II: enti­tled “Angel of the Pres­ence” and “Day Spring”.

Various Aritsts The Young Persons Guide to Discipline Volume II
Front and back cover to the com­pi­la­tion album The Young Per­sons Guide to Dis­ci­pline Vol­ume II, fea­tur­ing paint­ings by Peter Willis

Sid Smith quotes Fripp in his book In the Court of King Crimson:

“The paint­ing was con­ceived as a pre­sen­ta­tion of a rec­on­cil­i­a­tion of West­ern & East­ern Chris­tian­ity. […Fripp:] ‘The front cover has the two ele­ments, rep­re­sent­ing the male and female prin­ci­ples. The back cover has the third ele­ment, draw­ing together and rec­on­cil­ing the pre­ced­ing oppo­site terms. In a sense, this is a con­tin­u­a­tion and devel­op­ment of the Tantric cover art to Larks’ Tongues in Aspic which presents the male and female prin­ci­ples. The geom­e­try behind the sun and moon, if you draw it out, is pre­cise and for­mal. The form behind Peter’s icon paint­ing is defined by the for­mal pre­scrip­tions of that tra­di­tion.’”
– Sid Smith, In the Court of King Crim­son, page 255

Fripp con­nects the male/female binary evi­dent in the Three of a Per­fect Pair sleeve to the Larks Tongues in Aspic illus­tra­tion. The addi­tional theme of East­ern & West­ern Chris­tian­ity recalls Peter Sinfield’s lyri­cal pre­oc­cu­pa­tions on the album Lizard, which are out­wardly illus­trated on its sleeve paint­ing by Gini Bar­ris. The side-long track “Lizard” told a fan­ci­ful tale inspired by Holy Roman Emperor Fred­er­ick II and the Bat­tle of Leg­nica between the Chris­t­ian Euro­peans and the invad­ing Mon­gols (who were, inter­est­ingly, a multi-religious soci­ety). Whereas Sin­field and Bar­ris looked back­wards in time upon a par­tic­u­lar his­toric con­flict between East and West, Fripp and Willis cre­ated emblems of a time­less, spir­i­tual union and reconciliation.

Also in the quote above, Fripp notes the the­matic res­o­lu­tion pro­vided by the jux­ta­po­si­tion between the front and back cover art­work. Two sim­i­lar sym­bols are joined on the front cover, but are not com­pleted, or made “per­fect” until joined together by a third. Indeed, Three of a Per­fect Pair is the only vol­ume of the 1980s tril­ogy to incor­po­rate any art­work at all on the back cover. Before it, only In the Court of the Crim­son King and Lizard coaxed a kind of nar­ra­tive from a sequence of dif­fer­ent images. Court cen­tered around on two very dif­fer­ent por­traits of char­ac­ters fea­tured in the songs (the neu­rotic Schizoid Man on the out­side, with the jolly Crim­son King on the inside), which con­trasted in tone and mood if not in color scheme. The Lizard sleeve pre­sented a pic­to­r­ial illus­tra­tion of many key scenes from the the lyrics, many of which are part of the lengthy nar­ra­tive regard­ing the afore­men­tioned Bat­tle of Legnica.

Specif­i­cally, the front cover icon paint­ing depicts two par­a­bolic arcs, with one inverted and shorter than the other. While the sun and moon are two of the most ancient sym­bols in human thought, it is less easy to inter­pret the mean­ing of two very sim­i­lar sym­bols. Purely sup­pos­ing, one would imag­ine an arc to be a fem­i­nine sym­bol, but what to make of two of them?

In archi­tec­ture, arches quite lit­er­ally serve as foun­da­tional sup­port and as por­tals of entry and egress. Inverted arches (AKA cate­nar­ies) appear often in nature (such as hang­ing vines or spi­der threads), yet they are also employed by humans for strength (for instance, a sus­pen­sion bridge). So one pos­si­ble dual­ity to be found in the front cover art is that of nat­ural and human-made.

1618 Emerald Tablet engraving by Matthieu Merian
A 1618 engrav­ing by Matthieu Mer­ian based on the Emer­ald Tablet (image credit:

Wikipedia states that Willis’s paint­ing alluded to the Tab­ula Smarag­dina, or Emer­ald Tablet. Beware this fac­toid is given with­out attri­bu­tion — the ref­er­ence link to the Ele­phant Talk Wiki includes no men­tion of the Emer­ald Tablet. But if true, the ancient Ara­bic text con­cerns the ele­ments, with the two arcs on the Three of a Per­fect Pair front cover rep­re­sent­ing the sun (Sol) and moon (Luna).

While Fripp is on record describ­ing the cover art in Tantric prin­ci­ples, it might also be worth it to ana­lyze the icons in an ancient Euro­pean con­text. In the Tarot, a cup is a sym­bol of emo­tional or spir­i­tual mat­ters. The two arcs on the front cover might refer to the Two of Cups card, which depicts a lov­ing man and woman each bear­ing a cup. The Three of Cups card depicts three peo­ple each toast­ing a cup in mer­ri­ment, sym­bol­iz­ing a com­ing together in fel­low­ship. If Crimson’s orig­i­nal lyri­cist Peter Sin­field were still in the band at this point, this Euro­pean inter­pre­ta­tion of the art­work would be the most obvi­ous. But when Fripp became the standard-bearer in the early 1970s, King Crim­son cover art began to take on a markedly east­ern out­look, start­ing with the overtly tantric sym­bols on the cover of Larks Tongue in Aspic. Unlike the Sin­field era, how­ever, the lyrics do not reflect these his­tor­i­cal or spir­i­tual con­cerns. Andrian Belew’s lyrics are more con­cerned with insom­nia, cars, and rela­tion­ships (the lat­ter, how­ever, would fit in with my Tarot the­ory, which I already think I’ve stretched too far).

Finally, at risk of point­ing out the obvi­ous, the three col­ors used in the back cover icon have imme­di­ately lit­eral sig­nif­i­cance to the 1980s tril­ogy: blue being the dom­i­nant color of Beat and red that of Discipline.

King Crimson Three of a Perfect Pair inner gatefold
The inner gate­fold of the 30th Anniver­sary Edi­tion of King Crimson’s Three of a Per­fect Pair. The orig­i­nal LP edi­tion included a plain black and white insert with the lyrics.

Three of a Per­fect Pair was the first King Crim­son album to be released simul­ta­ne­ously on LP, CD and cas­sette for­mats. The LP pack­age had a pleas­ing con­sis­tency with the rest of the 1980s tril­ogy. Like them, the slim min­i­mal­ist sleeve included a plain white lyric sheet printed on only one side (repro­duced in the inner gate­fold of the 2001 30th Anniver­sary Edi­tion, albeit in color and with a con­tem­po­rary band photo).

I like Fripp’s term “icon paint­ing” which alludes to reli­gious art and iconog­ra­phy. The term also applies hand­ily to the sleeve art for Larks Tongues in Aspic, Dis­ci­pline, and Beat. At first glance, the icon art­work appears crisp and geo­met­ric, espe­cially when reduced to CD book­let dimen­sions. Exam­ined up close, how­ever, the forms are revealed to be slightly rough and asym­met­ri­cal, clearly the prod­uct of the human hand. If the album had been designed just a few years later, it would have likely been crafted using a com­puter vec­tor illus­tra­tion appli­ca­tion and would not have had this sub­tle organic feel.

King Crimson Three of a Perfect Pair LP and CD labels
King Crim­son Three of a Per­fect Pair — orig­i­nal edi­tion LP and CD labels

As the third and (at the time) pre­sum­ably final state­ment by the band, the sense of final­ity and clo­sure pro­vided by the back cover proved appro­pri­ate. But per­haps unwit­tingly, this design aspect also rein­forces the dual, almost schiz­o­phrenic nature of the album itself. In an inter­view with the BBC on March 10th, 1984, avail­able as a down­load on, Fripp issued this pre­pared quip on the album’s struc­ture: “The left side is acces­si­ble. ‘Sleep­less’ comes from that. The right side is exces­sive, and ‘Dig Me; comes from that.”

Roughly seg­re­gated on flip sides of the LP and cas­sette edi­tions, the music is a com­bi­na­tion of songs and exper­i­men­tal sketches derived from stu­dio impro­vi­sa­tions. The mate­r­ial runs the gamut from poppy (“Man With an Open Heart”) to noisy (“Indus­try”), and some­times both in the same song (“Dig Me”). In the cas­sette and LP edi­tions, the sides are labelled as “Left Side” and “Right Side”, a neat trick that side-stepped the usual A/B or 1/2 sequenc­ing. Pack­aged this way, both sides have equal weight, and nei­ther could be seen as lesser than the other. While CD edi­tions cod­i­fied the lis­ten­ing sequence begin­ning with the acces­si­ble Left Side, lis­ten­ers liv­ing in the iTunes/iPod era are more likely to have dis­rupted the track sequenc­ing altogether.

Another, less flat­ter­ing way to look at the album title is that it might refer not just to Tantric dual­i­ties but to the trio of albums King Crim­son released in the 1980s. Could it be that some­body felt that they released two “per­fect” albums’ worth of mate­r­ial across three discs? Regard­less, there is one clear stand­out: “Sleepless.”

King Crimson Sleepless single
King Crimson’s Sleep­less sin­gle: 7″, 12″ and 12″ promo editions

Sleep­less” was released as a sin­gle in 7″ and 12″ for­mats, accom­pa­nied by a promo music video directed by Mick Hag­gerty and C.D. Tay­lor. Even in 1995, with the full weight of Vir­gin Records’ pub­lic­ity depart­ment hyp­ing the album THRAK with a cam­paign of accom­pa­ny­ing CD sin­gles, live album, and world tour, the “Sleep­less” and “Heart­beat” videos remain their sole con­ces­sion to MTV cul­ture. The “Sleep­less” video is included on the DVD Neal and Jack and Me (2004), but “Heart­beat” can only be found on YouTube. You can read more about the “Heart­beat” video on our essay on Beat, and here’s “Sleepless”:

Accord­ing to In the Court of Crim­son King, some of the numer­ous remixes that appeared on these sin­gles (and reis­sued in 2001 on the 30th Anniver­sary Remas­ter) were some­what pop­u­lar in Euro­pean dis­cos. I used to have a boot­leg VHS cas­sette fea­tur­ing TV clips of King Crim­son play­ing before enthu­si­as­ti­cally danc­ing audi­ences. For some­one who has only expe­ri­enced the band play live in sit-down-and-pay-attention con­texts, the sight of 80s club­bers hop­ping and jiv­ing to Crim­son num­bers sim­ply defies belief.

The Deja VROOOM DVD includes a list of con­tem­po­rary live TV appear­ances, includ­ing the Old Grey Whis­tle Test (UK 1981), Fri­days (US 1981), Spain (1982), Italy (1982), Fre­jus (1982), and Tokyo (1984). But the broad­casts on the boot­leg tape I watched were clearly not from the Tokyo per­for­mance avail­able on the Neal and Jack and Me DVD. Per­haps some of these time cap­sules will appear on a future offi­cial release, but for now here’s a taster from YouTube, a per­for­mance of “Man With an Open Heart” with some shots taken right from the danc­ing crowd’s perspective:

In later years, Belew took to play­ing solo acoustic ren­di­tions of “Three of a Per­fect Pair”, effec­tively claim­ing it as his own. But it would not be cor­rect to assume that the more song-oriented pieces on Three of a Per­fect Pair can be attrib­uted to Belew. “Sleep­less”, for one, was a full band col­lab­o­ra­tion, and Smith recounts the story of its com­po­si­tion in In the Court of King Crim­son. It began as a Tony Levin lick, and was expanded and arranged largely by Belew and Bruford.

King Crimson Three of a Perfect Pair single

Three of a Per­fect Pair” was also released as a sin­gle, appar­ently only in 12″ for­mat. The sleeve fea­tures a dis­tressed vari­a­tion of the front design from the album, but cast in a color scheme that harkens back to Beat. The dra­matic zoom and crop of Willis’ icon is less dig­ni­fied than the stan­dard set by Dis­ci­pline, Beat, and Three of a Per­fect Pair stu­dio album cov­ers. The band name appears in an appro­pri­ate serif font, but the other type bears a marked resem­blance to the infa­mous font Comic Sans, but pre­dates it by almost exactly a decade. Prescient!

King Crimson Three of a Perfect Pair Live in Japan
King Crim­son: Three of a Per­fect Pair Live in Japan — three edi­tions: laserdisc, VHS, and DVD

The Three of a Per­fect Pair 12″ sleeve is a model of restraint com­pared to the busy and gar­ish Three of a Per­fect Pair: Live in Japan laserdisc. But to be fair, it, in turn, is not nearly as appalling as the orig­i­nal VHS cover for The Noise: Live in Fre­jus. At least this designer made an effort to incor­po­rate art­work from the album. Three of a Per­fect Pair: Live in Japan was reis­sued in 1997 on VHS in a sleeve that directly repur­poses the album art­work, and again in 2004 as half of the DVD Neal and Jack and Me (with a paint­ing by P.J. Crook).

King Crimson Absent Lovers
Three vari­ant cov­ers for King Crimson’s Absent Lovers: Live in Mon­tréal 1984

The 1980s quar­tet was the first incar­na­tion of the band to release con­tem­po­rary audio­vi­sual records of their live per­for­mances. But as the orig­i­nal video­cas­settes and laser discs quickly fell out of print, what this lineup actu­ally looked and sounded like in live per­for­mance would remain an enigma for quite a num­ber of years. For fans will­ing to trawl through used record stores, the Islands lineup had Earth­bound, and the 72–74 out­fit had USA. But the 80s group had no offi­cial doc­u­ment of their live power until the archival live album Absent Lovers was released in June 1998. It was sourced from the lineup’s final live per­for­mances of the decade, in July 1984 at Le Spec­trum in Mon­tréal. A ver­sion of the show was broad­cast on the radio, and exten­sively boot­legged for years.

King Crimson Montreal 1984 bootleg covers
Five dif­fer­ent cov­ers for boot­leg edi­tions of King Crimson’s final 1984 per­for­mance in Montréal

Absent Lovers remains the only com­mer­cially avail­able live doc­u­ment from the era, while many other peri­ods of the band are rep­re­sented by sev­eral releases. This is just sup­po­si­tion on my part, but it would appear that not many suit­able multi-track or sound­board record­ings of the 1980s band exist in the archives. The evi­dence to back this up being that most of the 1980s shows avail­able for sale as down­loads on the are restored audi­ence bootlegs. Here’s hop­ing that there are more multi-track live record­ings from the period wait­ing to be prop­erly mixed for posterity.

Absent Lovers was issued in three vari­ant edi­tions, fea­tur­ing the same art­work and typog­ra­phy, but on solid red, blue, or yel­low fields. I’m sure the orig­i­nal paint­ing by P.J. Crook is quite lovely, but it appears to have been repro­duced poorly on my blue copy. I also believe this to be a missed oppor­tu­nity to for a graph­i­cal design, to fit in the con­tin­uüm of the 1980s aes­thetic. Two tan­gen­tially related albums that do employ the aes­thetic I imag­ine are Pro­jeKct Two’s Live Groove or Pro­jeKct Four’s West Coast Live.


  • 1984: Cover sym­bol from a design by Peter Willis of the Tre­vail Mill Studio
  • 1984: Cover art by Tim­o­thy Eames
  • 2001: 30th Anniver­sary scrap­book design by Hugh O’Donnell


  • Cover Paint­ings “Absent Lovers I & II” by P.J. Crook
  • Dis­ci­pline Logo by Steve Ball
  • Sleeve Design: Hugh O’Donnell
  • Black & white pho­tog­ra­phy: Tony Levin


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


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