King Crimson exploded right out of the gate in October 1969 with In the Court of the Crimson King, one of the few debut albums to become an instant classic. Popular music history is littered with examples of acts that didn’t peak in artistic and/or commercial terms until well into their recording careers. Artists as diverse as Genesis, Brian Eno, and Radiohead searched for their voices until their third albums, and even the sainted Beatles didn’t go from merely excellent to sublime until Rubber Soul, their sixth. But In the Court of the Crimson King was the complete package, and remains significant and influential to this day in both musical and visual terms. Eric Tamm describes the album’s impact upon the music scene as a sort of cosmic big bang that produced a number of splinter genres:
In retrospect, whatever one felt about this music, the seminal nature of the album cannot be denied: the variegated yet cohesive In the Court of the Crimson King helped launch, for better or for worse, not one but several musical movements, among them heavy metal, jazz-rock fusion, and progressive rock. As Charley Waters, writing for the Rolling Store Record Guide, was to put it some years later, the album “helped shape a set of baroque standards for art-rock.“
– Eric Tamm, Robert Fripp: From King Crimson to Guitar Craft, page 43
Its musical influence is only part of the story. The album The Who’s Pete Townshend famously called “an uncanny masterpiece” also boasts a singularly unique cover that still regularly appears on best-of album cover lists. It ranked #62 on Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Album Covers in 1991, #9 on MusicRadar’s The 50 Greatest Album Covers of All Time, and #50 on Gigwise’s Top 50 Greatest Album Covers of All Time. It was selected for the book The Story of Island Records: Keep on Running, celebrating the label’s 50th Anniversary (without permission, as Robert Fripp has detailed in his online diary). Even many of its various LP labels from different editions are reproduced in the book Labelkunde Vinyl by Frank Wonneberg, also seen in Fripp’s diary.
Praise for the cover is often met by equally opposing derision. No less than two such backhanded compliments came from The A.V. Club, which placed In the Court of the Crimson King on its lists of 18 Particularly Ridiculous Prog-Rock Album Covers, and Great Albums with Terrible Art. The latter described “that distorted, screaming face in nauseating blues and pinks” as “headache-inducing”.