UNCANNY MASTERPIECE

IN THE COURT OF THE CRIMSON KING

A reflection in two parts by a grateful subject

I

Has there been a more spine tingling opening to an album than the beginning of In The Court Of The Crimson King? An interstellar wind approaches from the depths of nowhere, fades, then explodes into one of the monolithic riffs of rock. A moment later a distorted Dalek voice rasps out of the speakers.

Cat’s foot iron claw

Neuro-surgeons scream for more

At paranoia’s poison door

Twenty-first century schizoid man

In the central section the sax shrieks and wails as Michael Giles percussion clatters underneath. The pace accelerates with some scat unison playing before an angular, jarring guitar solo from Robert Fripp, spurred on by Greg Lake’s prancing bass. Some squalling Ian McDonald sax, another running interlude, then we return, as we must, to that riff again.

Death seed blind man’s greed

Poet’s starving children bleed

Nothing he’s got he really needs

Twenty-first century schizoid man.

Then it crashes and burns, screaming.

As the gentle strains of ‘I Talk To The Wind’ waft in, you find that you’ve been holding your breath. Exhale with a sigh. This is pleasant interlude to recuperate. Ian McDonald’s reeds and woodwinds add pastel colours; Robert Fripp’s brief guitar solo is appropriately reflective.

A timpani roll rises to introduce ‘Epitaph’. Mellotron (McDonald again) and guitar (Fripp) state the melodic theme and Greg Lake sings Sinfield’s story of confusion and despair. The tone is epic, the music sweeping, the lyric portentous and perhaps just a little pompous.

Knowledge is a deadly friend

When no-one sets the rules.

The fate of all mankind I see

Is in the hands of fools.

Almost half a century on –well into the 21st– we now know that our fate is in the hands of merchant banks and multi-nationals. It is notable that this song is an early example of the full dramatic Greg Lake vocal style. So perhaps is it not surprising that Lake interpolated a fragment of ‘Epitaph’ into Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s live version of ‘Tarkus’ on their 1974 live triple album Welcome Back My Friends

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‘Moonchild’ could not offer a more bucolic opening to the second album side. It is a gentle hippy reverie, replete with acoustic guitars, twinkly cymbals and a hushed, almost reverent vocal from Greg Lake.

Playing hide and seek with the ghosts of dawn

Waiting for a smile from a sunchild

The tinkly improvised section was always denigrated by Robert Fripp, so much so that he insisted on excising three minutes for the 2009 fortieth anniversary re-issue. Although I’m usually a stickler for authenticity (Don’t mess with my heritage, bozo!) to be honest, I don’t find that anything is lost here. Especially as the original version is included as a ‘bonus’ on the same CD edition.

With a mellotron washed fanfare opening, the final track stands as the exemplar of both this startling debut album and indeed the two King Crimson albums which follow. Let us, bowing slightly, give the piece its full title: ‘THE COURT OF THE CRIMSON KING including THE RETURN OF THE FIRE WITCH and THE DANCE OF THE PUPPETS’.

Sure, this is the stuff that progressive non-believers like to pillory yet there’s a swaggering imagination and a grand rainbow-hued vision that charmed those open to its siren call way back then and could still do even now, if you’re willing to drift beyond and before. In fact that last idea pretty much summarises the album.

The keeper of the city keys

Put shutters on the dreams

This was a time when young people were pushing open those shutters. Their musicians were doing the same, refusing incarceration in the grey shell-shocked stagnation of elders desperate for stability but bereft of vision. Sharing his thoughts about this creative missile in a press advertisement, Pete Townshend called the album ‘an uncanny masterpiece’. This from the man whose ground-breaking ‘rock opera’ Tommy was released less than five months earlier.

The music of In The Court Of The Crimson King revealed possibilities of what popular music could be if freed from its blues-rock roots; it picked the lock of conservatism and pushed forward towards… what? Doesn’t matter. It’s the pushing that’s important, the willingness to venture beyond the fields we know, the refusal to congeal into stasis.

That’s what progress is. An adventure, a risk, an expansion of possibility.

II

Buying a new record was a big deal back in the day.

In between leaving uni and taking the train home I’d often do a circuit of the city record stores searching for a bargain or hoping for the lightning strike of extravagance that resulted in the purchase of a full-price album. It’s all about priorities: if your threads come from charity shops you can sometimes splurge on the real necessities of life.

The city of Melbourne had much to offer the music fan: Euphoria, Archie ‘n’ Jugheads, Discurio, Clements basement, Pipé, Pop Inn, Batmans, were all frequented by those who would rather be seen dead than caught browsing in the tediously mainstream Allans or Brashs let alone the music section of Myer the department store. Unless there was a sale, of course.

Often I’d flop onto the train empty-handed in terms of vinyl but with an incremental increase in my knowledge base. Flipping through LPs, studying the artwork, lifting out an album here and there to scan the back cover, noticing the instrumentation, logging the musicians… building an analogue database.

There was also an element of romantic yearning; picking up the same LP week after week, gazing at her cover – sorry, it’s cover – and replacing it tenderly in the racks with a barely audible sigh. Rarely did the impoverished socially inept earn the right to take home the prize.

It is ironic that one of the albums I gazed at with considerable desire over a protracted courtship period had one of the ugliest covers in album-cover history. Eyes wide with terror at a glimpse of something demonic coming up from behind and below, flaring nostrils sucking airpower for the scream bursting out of a gaping mouth full of stained uneven teeth; livid pink face, bruised-blue skin creased with fear… an enduring nightmare image.

A hastily assembled focus group of under-ten year olds offered these adjectives:

Creepy

Weird

Crazy

Big-nostrilled

Decades later, Barry Godber’s painting still has the power to startle, to confront.

King Crimson In the Court

Turn it over and the head echoes off into a blue space-void. There is nothing to ground humanity here. No context, not even text. Just this on the spine:

IN THE COURT OF THE CRIMSON KING    AN OBSERVATION BY KING CRIMSON    ATLANTIC SD8245

As this was a sealed US copy, plucked from the racks of an import store that shall – for reasons which will become clear – remain nameless, I could not access the inner gatefold. But I wanted to, desperately.

And so, after much humming and sighing and general prevaricating, I took the plunge and bought the record. I don’t remember the price tag but for someone who had to consider whether a second cappuccino was viable on any given day, it was a lot.

The inside gatefold did not disappoint, presenting the fascinating Pete Sinfield lyrics and the amazing moon-face man inviting me into the world of the Crimson King. Inviting? With rheumy blood-shot eyes, an alcohol melted countenance, two somewhat disturbing fangs and a double-handed blessing cum offering, it was not exactly a comforting vision but I wasted no time in stepping inside, none-the-less.

Court Crimson King gatefold

Fast forward to the gentle end of ‘I Talk To The Wind’. I’m sitting before the stereo, rapt and wrapped in the music. The pretty flute melody fades down as a synth note fades up. But what’s this! A nasty repetitive clicking that is certainly not part of the music. And it’s just keeping on clicking, every two seconds.

Thuk

Thuk

Thuk

This is a brand new record. Damn! What to do? Disturb the first magic listen to examine the offending vinyl or wait until the side ends? A couple of minutes into ‘Epitaph’ the unwanted percussion stops; I sink back into my chair, heart beating out of phase with the surface noise, and try to re-focus.

The wall on which the prophet wrote

Is cracking at the seams

 

But I fear tomorrow I’ll be crying…

Examining the disc, the problem is clear. There is a deep 5mm indentation right at the beginning of the third track. Looks like someone has dropped a screwdriver onto the record. This was a new sealed record. It’s clearly a factory fault so I’ll simply return it tomorrow and get a replacement. No problem.

Except it is a problem. The bloke in the tiny shop, no older than me but with longer, cooler hair and a whole lot more attitude, glances briefly at the record and returns it to the sleeve.

‘It’s a stylus mark.’

A swirl of panic and outrage surges through my gastrointestinal region.

‘It’s not.’ I can hear the twist of desperation in my own voice. ‘I didn’t damage the record, it came like this’.

‘It was sealed.’

End of conversation.

But I persist, desperate.

‘You couldn’t make such a scratch with a stylus, not with a brick on top!’

But the prickling behind my eyes and his slight sneer tell me this battle is irrevocably, devastatingly, lost. Disembowelled by a superior predator, I shove the LP back into the carry-bag and flee, defeated.

*

Back home, I experiment with ratcheting up the weight on the tone-arm. The noise just gets louder. I lighten the tracking weight, the stylus sticks. I return the weight to the original setting. It’s still sticking. This is getting worse. It is not fair. Despair, never that far away in those days, shuffles forwards. Somewhere further back rage lurks, denied but palpable.

I sit, holding the flawed disc. A memory surfaces of a visit to a teenage cousin some months back, how I was appalled at her treatment of records. Naked on the floor, dumped on top of speakers outside their covers – let alone the inner sleeve – I wanted to run screaming from the room.

‘How do they still play?’ Surely she heard the anguish in my voice.

‘Oh, sometimes they don’t,’ she said cheerily. ‘If there’s a big scratch I do this…’

Picking up a scuffed LP she produced a match and after locating a suitable surface wound rubbed the non-ignition end of the match vigorously back and forth along the line of the grooves. ‘That usually fixes it.’

Well, if it worked for 20 Electrifying Hits, maybe it’ll work for King Crimson.

It does not. The stylus is still sticking and now there is a graze surrounding the gash. Some sort of madness then takes hold. If the record is mortally wounded then I may as well try the equivalent of amputation, or more accurately, by-pass surgery. It occurs to me that maybe I can cut an angled groove from the beginning of the scratch to the end, like a run-out groove. Thought passes to action with no discernible review process; a hobby knife is located and the carving begins.

Yes I fear tomorrow I’ll be crying

Crying, crying

Breathing a little heavier – not just from exertion – I place the record back on the turntable…

Thok   –   Thuk

Thok  –  Thuk

Thok – Thuk

Bizarrely, although I’ve managed to double the pop, the stylus is at least tracking through the song; it just lasts a bit longer now and is in, um, stereo. I decide I’d better quit while I’m ahead. Or behind. I comfort myself with the revenge fantasy of squeezing superglue into the locked door of the record shop. Anarchy rules. Right on, schizoid man.

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*

I played the vinyl of In The Court Of The Crimson King today and was transported to a world of technicolour imagination, of wildly creative composition, of brilliant musicianship, and of fine production. At the beginning of the third track I took a brief detour into my own past but was delivered back to the present by the magic of the music. Now, as then.

I’m not going to argue with Pete Townshend on this record; an uncanny masterpiece, scratches and all.

 *

 

24 comments

  1. Gee it’s been a long time since I listened to this … and I would have been in an altered state then. Or perhaps I should say in a different kind of altered state than I am in today when perhaps three quarters or more of the cells in my body are non-human. It still sounds pretty good to me … and them.

    Thanks Bruce

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    1. Thanks DD. Don’t forget to call Ripley if the cells get outa hand.

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  2. An uncanny masterpiece indeed and a heartbreaking tale of record scratching…

    My Crim story revolves around being obsessed with KISS in my teens. I’d look in stores at the KISS cassettes and anyways see this wierd tape cover with the ugly face next to theirs. So I became really used to seeing it. Years later I saw Paul Stanley listing his Top 5 favorite albums in a mag and the one with the ugly face was one of them! So I had to have it. Naturally, expecting something more KISS-like, it wasn’t an instant hit but it has become a real favourite over time and a priceless intro to Prog.

    It’s a testament to its quality that I give it full marks despite the shite section in Moonchild (don’t agree with editing it out though). And even more amazing is that there was better still to come in their catalogue.

    Brilliant post!

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    1. I love it when a post draws out a story such as yours Scott. That’s brilliant. I can easily imagine the shock and awe on expecting something Kiss-like and getting ITCOTCK.

      And it was a gateway to progressive music not just for you, but for the world. Sure the Moody Blues were extending the boundaries of what an album could be, but this was the one that really hit folk in the solar plexus.

      Finally, I was expecting/dreading/hoping someone would pick up on the ‘masterpiece’ tag. I mean, really, it’s rock and roll; the term is a bit ridiculous. But I really responded to what you wrote Scott. It gets ‘full marks’ despite its flaws. That’s the glory and the paradox, eh?

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      1. Haha it definitely is. It was a perfect gateway and such an important album. And the “progressive” band most deserving of the description too. The 2nd album of theirs I bought was Thrak! That took a bit of getting used to too. And wondering how on earth they got from the debut to there.

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        1. KC are a band with phases (not phasers like Star Trek, though some KC music is set to stun).

          The first seven albums – to 1974’s Red – constitute the first phase. After the first interregnum (Fripp’s word, not mine!), there’s the trio of albums, Discipline, Beat and Three of a Perfect Pair then another break before Thrak. After that there is no discernible pattern.

          Robert says that King Crimson exists when there is King Crimson music to be made. So there.

          It’s a fascinating journey. A personal favourite of mine is Red.

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        2. The Discipline etc… trio are personal faves. Larks Tongues and The Nightwatch live album are my picks from the Wetton era… but I change my mind fairly often! The only ones I could never get into were Lizard and Islands.

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  3. Always enjoy reading and hearing people’s thoughts about this album – truly is a masterpiece. I didn’t, however, ‘enjoy’ reading about your record. Man, I kept waiting for the happy ending. Though I guess the happy ending there is that those thok-thuks make that record experience yours. That’s special. Anyhoo, smashing post …

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    1. Ah, not all stories have a happy ending, do they? I do appreciate your empathy though J. And you are correct. When I played it again, I knew I was truly playing one particular record. I imagine that if I got another copy it would sound, well, wrong not to have the pops.

      Very glad you enjoyed the post.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Great post Bruce – if there were a top 5 ‘must be owned on vinyl’ surely this would be a contender.
    And agreed about the haunting magic of the title track opening – for me, the 3rd time through the riff is, well, incomparable.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Geoff.
      There is something about the life-size head on a 12″ vinyl record that just doesn’t cut it on CD. Though having said that, Steven Wilson’s remastering for the 2009 (40th anniv.) re-issue is superb.

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  5. The greatest album most people have never heard. And if the music doesn’t grab you (how could it not?), that amazing artwork will!

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this landmark album.

    See You In The Shadows…

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  6. Reblogged this on Candle Experiænce and commented:
    Indeed, King Crimson’s debut album is an Uncanny Masterpiece. It is an album most people have never heard of – let alone listened to. But it has been a huge influence on so many artists and bands since its release in 1969. If you get the chance, listen to this album. You will not be sorry. Better yet, if you can get it on vinyl, the experiænce will be even greater!

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  7. My dad tells the story of being somewhat the worse for wear one night and passing a record shop in London shortly before this came out, to be confronted with a huge window full of posters of the cover – much to his considerable psychic distress. Lucky beggar saw them at Hyde Park too.

    I bought this at, fairly, large expense to get a pretty mint original copy about 8 years ago but i just haven’t played it very often at all. I need to get around to it again.

    Really enjoyed this post.

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  8. Crimso is fantastic, not my favorite of the Catalog but its importance in Rock History is undeniable.

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    1. Yes indeed. A key element in the birth of progressive rock.

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  9. Thanks Bruce, that was great! Especially loved the horror of the vinyl fault and it provoking thoughts of a revengeful anarchy.

    I recall lending my copy of ITCOTCK to a schoolmate (I think it was Form 3 or Year 9) – who brought it back the next day saying: “that first track is brilliant but what is the rest of that shit all about?”

    Always loved this album.

    Thanks again.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Aussie-Byrd-Brother · · Reply

    Controversy – I always preferred the second `Poseidon’ album, even though it’s essentially a remake of this first album! At the very least, I play that second one more often these days. Despite liking Crimso and having all of their albums, I find them quite a frequently cold and mostly emotionless band. ‘Islands’ would be my favourite, lots of atmosphere, subtlety, and I really dig the darker jazz elements of it.

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  11. […] glorious parts. I once borrowed someone else’s use of the ‘m’ word for a piece on In The Court Of The Crimson King, this time I will deploy it myself; in my dictionary, Apple Venus is a […]

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  12. […] Original Post: January 2015 […]

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  13. Great post Bruce. I’m betting that when you finally got to hear a clean version of “I Talk To The Wind” you fully expected, and probably in your head actually did, hear that “thuk thuk” at that same moment.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Jim. Yep, that unwelcome drum-sound is embedded in my memory!

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  14. Finally catching up with this, Bruce, and as always you offer a delightful take. Crimso, at least in the first phase, remains one of my favorite goups of all time for Fripp’s willingness to take risks and explore new pathways.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Yup! All the different directions this album took CB. ‘Larks Tongues’ brought me to it,then i found Lake was involved. CB was an ELP fan. Cool cover. I think I have 2 copies. I must have been a little impaired at the time.

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