KING CRIMSON – In the Court of the Crimson King (Atlantic ’69): “Beware the forthcoming hype,” Robert Christgau concluded in his three-sentence Consumer Guide review for the Village Voice way back in December of 1969: “This is ersatz shit. D+.” What he meant was that King Crimson were pretentious, and that’s an epithet hard for even devoted followers to shrug off. Consider the following: the album only has five songs, the shortest clocking in at 6:08, the longest at 12:15; for lyrics, the band mixes free-association poesy with too-literal doggerel which sort of lectures about the horrors of Vietnam (or war, or just generally bad things); they take so seriously their mixture of rock, jazz, and neo-classical that they deign to titling the instrumental passages within their songs with wonderfully juvenile names such as “The Dance of the Puppets”; and they credit non-performing band member Peter Sinfield for words and “illumination” and refer to the album itself as an “observation.” Hoo-boy.
Truth be told, each of those vices is at least as much a drawback as a virtue. The long running times allow for their thudding marches or wistful ballads to develop into trancelike meditations. The long musical interludes are not meandering jams—they’re tightly-executed breakdowns that heighten tension and tease cathartic climax. The lyrics might have a lot of cheese when eyed at a distance, but unlike flower-power hippie groups of the time or other fledgling prog-rock acts, there’s not a line here that’s indecipherable, especially in context. And though it might sound a bit dated now, it’s far more fresh than Pink Floyd’s music of the time—several years ago I introduced a friend to the album, and in the middle of it he made a snide remark about how obvious the Schizoid Man was meant to be Bush, and his face dropped when I told him the album came out in 1969.
So take the lyrics, for example. There’s not much to say about their prowess, which swings between the brilliant and the blatant, and often lines like “I talk to the wind / The wind does not hear” rides the line between the two hard. But generally speaking, the words are anti-war and politically critical: On “21st Century Schizoid Man,” Greg Lake’s heavily-distorted vocals are barely understandable enough to hear his acidic spit of the incredibly graphic and jarring line “Innocents raped with napalm fire” among more abstract musings like “Cat’s foot iron claw” and “Death seed blind man’s greed.” In 2006, director Alphonso Cuaron put the words and stately procession of “The Court of the Crimson King” to brilliant (and literal) use in an early scene of his magnum opus Children of Men. And how, with lines as direct as “If we make it, we can all sit back and laugh / But I fear tomorrow I’ll be crying” not feel relevant as we stare down November?
The band is in top form. Their forays into jazz and to a lesser extent classical (bleh!) aren’t overblown, never straying too far from their rock roots so as not to stretch their credulity. Michael Giles does an intentional stutter and stumble with his drum work on “21st Century Schizoid Man” and “The Court of the Crimson King,” sounding as though he’s struggling to keep up. Robert Fripp’s signature guitar work is more muted here than it would be on later albums and iterations of the band, but in tandem with his bandmates it achieves a healthy equilibrium, strong enough to be noticeable without overshadowing anyone else. Though the musical key to the album is Ian McDonald’s menacing Mellotron, which punches and whirs, hovering over every song and intruding with a sick sense of dread. Unfortunately, this is the only album to feature McDonald, and only In the Wake of Poseidon, their sophomore effort, sounded anything like the epic jazz-rock fusion they forged here, as after that the band saw regular and radical lineup shifts, eventually becoming a vehicle for guitarist Robert Fripp and sounding very little like they do on their debut.
So if you can push past the pretension of art-rockers denoting in the liner notes faux-classical ‘movements’ in the titles of their ten-minute-plus compositions, this is a great record. My own tolerance for ‘prog’ or ‘art-rock’ pretty much starts and ends here; with few exceptions like some primo Yes cuts or proto-prog outfits like Procol Harum’s eponymous debut, I can’t stomach the stuff. Kansas, Jethro Tull, a decent portion of Pink Floyd and even most of King Crimson’s own discography is enough to make me gag. But because the musicianship is tight, controlled, orchestral in its execution, and its message eternally pertinent and full of imminent anxiety rather than sophistically philosophical or drenched with medieval drivel, I find something new to enjoy almost every time. Ersatz shit? More like genuine kitsch at worst. A