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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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 DGMlive.com, 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.”
“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.
“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!
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).
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.
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 DGMlive.com 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.
THREE OF A PERFECT PAIR ART & DESIGN CREDITS:
- 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
ABSENT LOVERS ART & DESIGN CREDITS:
- 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
- Photographs of the original painting by Peter Willis that formed the basis for the cover art.
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