Counterbalance No. 131: King Crimson's 'In the Court of the Crimson King'

The purple piper plays his tune, the choir softly sing. Three lullabies in an ancient tongue, for the court of the crimson king. A 1969 progressive rock milestone is the 131st most acclaimed album of all time.

King Crimson

In the Court of the Crimson King

US Release: 1969-10-10
UK Release: 1969-10-10
Label: Island/Atlantic

Mendelsohn: I'm always kind of excited when the Great List delivers up an album or artist that I don't know much about. But that can always be a bit of a double-edged sword. Sometimes I'm pleasantly surprised and sometimes I get to spend a week mired in prog rock and paranoia. And so it goes with King Crimson's In the Court of the Crimson King. This is one of those bands who I was told I should probably listen to when I was younger but I never got around to it. My prog rock education started and ended with Rush's 2112. I figured that was enough and hopefully the Internet will still be around when it comes time to talk about 2112 at No. 1058—a mere 18 years or so from now.

As for King Crimson, I keep flipping back and forth from being really impressed to being completely irritated to the point of dismissal when the band starts to wander off. The horn and guitar hook on "21st Century Schizoid Man" is damn near perfect. Damn near. The avant bits in the middle of "Moonchild" reminds me of something Spinal Tap would have done, while towering over a miniature replica of Stonehenge as little people dressed like leprechauns danced quizzically about. There is no reason to do that for 10 minutes. None.

What about you, Klinger? You mentioned you had played Dungeons and Dragons once or twice, so maybe you can shed some light on this record for me. I'm not trying to insinuate that you have to be a nerd to enjoy this record, but I'm guessing it would help.

Klinger: I don't see where that's germane to this discussion, especially since I haven't taken up the 20-sided die since Reagan's first term. And I'm not sure if nerdery is really all that applicable here anyway, since it seems pretty clear to me that In the Court of the Crimson King (and King Crimson in general) is really a cut above the rest of their progressive-rock cousins. But to address your two sides of the coin—yes, "21st Century Schizoid Man" is a very impressive piece of work. Not only does it rock most handily, but in the middle there it becomes an astonishing juxtaposition of the complex (all those bleebledyblips played in unison) and the simple (the way that it reveals itself to be a 12-bar blues pattern in the end). All wrapped in a very zesty riff.

You could not, however, be more wrong about the breakdown in the middle of "Moonchild". The way the song gradually disintegrates into whispers of guitar from Robert Fripp, and then rebuilds itself into a spontaneous composition between Fripp, drummer Michael Giles, and Ian McDonald's vibraphone, is really just mesmerizing. The only thing you can really compare it to is jazz—in fact Giles plays so much like a jazz drummer that I'm a little surprised his post-Crimson discography consists of so many Leo Sayer albums. I think that it's his propulsive playing that makes even the more folky numbers pop, and I've been pretty well fascinated by the rhythmic interplay between him and bassist Greg Lake. At any rate, you may want to give that bit another go-through, Mendelsohn.

Mendelsohn: Am I sensing a little nerd rage at my easy dismissal of King Crimson? I think I am. No matter. I'll have you know that I am also a nerd. I too played Dungeons and Dragons once and Star Wars is the bomb—my favorite part is when Captain James R. Spock uses his Jedi neck pinch to disable that whole fleet of Daleks before climbing into his time-traveling Aluminum Falcon with his trusted side kick Wookie. And now that I've pissed off the rest of the Internet, I'll just move on.

Look, despite my previous misgivings, I enjoyed the hell out of this record. It's epic, Klinger. And, as an added bonus, King Crimson finally showed me the way to understanding—nay—loving the use of flute in rock music. The thing is, this record is complicated. And that takes a certain mindset to truly appreciate the lengths to which Fripp and Co. went to create such a willfully obtuse record. Having to sit through the noodly bits in the middle of "Moonchild" is not always high on my list of things to do on a Tuesday afternoon. Rocking to "21st Century Schizoid Man" or getting swept up in the bombast of "Epitaph" is much easier to do in the car with the windows down and the volume up high. Yeah, that's right random person at the stop light, I'm singing along to King Crimson, welcome to the Court of the Crimson King.

Klinger: Well, epicosity and flautistry aside, I'm a little surprised that you haven't picked up on something that jumped out at me not too long after I dug into In the Court of the Crimson King, and that just how much of an influence it sounds like this album was on Radiohead. Think about it—the dark-toned horns in "21st Century Schizoid Man" are echoed in Kid A's "The National Anthem". The very British pastoral folkiness in Fripp's guitar work can be heard in something like "Faust Arp". Even Greg Lake distorts his vocals a good bit in a way we might now describe as Yorkean.

Mendelsohn: As far as I've heard, the members of Radiohead have never cited King Crimson as one of their major influences (although I haven't read every interview by every member so I might be wrong). I think the horn part on "The National Anthem" comes more from the jazz tradition with respect to Charles Mingus. "Faust Arp" does have that pastoral guitar work, but I would attribute that more to the Beatles than to King Crimson. But there, again, it might just be a British thing—a heritage of sorts that no British artist can escape.

Klinger: I'm not necessarily saying that Radiohead is overly indebted to King Crimson (I'll leave that to someone else). It seems that it might be more of a parallel construction, like how you see logarithmic spiral shapes in the nautilus and shells and Romanesco broccoli and stuff. Anyway, listening to both In Rainbows and In the Court of the Crimson King in such close proximity, I've started to see even more of a throughline of British music, one that I think extends from the complex folk stylings of Bert Jansch to Robert Fripp to Jonny Greenwood. All very architectural in their approach, all managing to be both intellectual and evocative at the same time.

Mendelsohn: I can see where you could connect those dots—there is definitely a shared vision between King Crimson and Radiohead in regard to seeking out the progressive nature of rock music. Each band shows an acute need to push the boundaries of rock 'n' roll and expand on the notion that music can be beautiful and complicated. For the most part, though, Radiohead is much more succinct, much more pop-oriented than King Crimson. I would be more comfortable with citing bands like Tool (Aenima at No. 811) or the Mars Volta (De-Loused in the Comatorium at No. 908) as warriors on the trail that King Crimson blazed through rock 'm' roll.

Klinger: Fair enough. Even with their progressive tendencies, though, I think what sets In the Court of the Crimson King apart from what followed in its wake is the sense of spontaneity that runs throughout these songs. It's important to note that this album was made in just eight days. To me, that suggests that the band was well-poised to create quickly and efficiently—again, much in the same way that four or five jazz guys can get together for a few sessions and knock out a Giant Steps or a Saxophone Colossus. (I could be wrong, but I get the sense that albums by, say, Yes were as laboriously constructed as a ship in a bottle.)

For a long time, progressive rock took a beating from the critics, who dismissed it as pretentious (in fact, I'm inclined to think that they misdirected some of their ire toward Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band for having put unhealthy ideas in proggers' heads). But over time, it seems that critics have stopped seeing so-called prog as a monolithic monstrosity. They're more apt to recognize the happy little trees within the forest these days, and while I'm still more inclined to prefer more concise statements than progressive rock typically has to offer, I'll be interested to see how this all plays out going forward. In the meantime, spending time in the court of the Crimson King is quite the edifying experience.

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