I’ve written a little bit about prog rock; my series “The Amazing Pudding” at PopMatters and rankings of the best prog albums and Top 100 Classic Prog Rock songs (and many, many reviews, etc.) When it comes to the best of the best, I’ve tended to keep it very simple: while debate can — and should — rage about what albums and songs belong in the upper echelon, when it comes to the best, there can only be one choice (for song and album).
Progressive rock’s Rosetta Stone, King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King (released exactly fifty years ago, today) is the purest and most perfect expression of everything this music was capable of being. Sgt. Pepper popularized the then-radical notion of an entire album being an artistic statement, without singles or filler. After the summer of ’67, there was an unprecedented turn toward less commercial, more uncompromised music. King Crimson’s debut, in ’69, signaled the first album that was as much manifesto as work or art: this was among the earliest instances of popular music forsaking even the pretense of anything that might be played on the radio.
To understand, much less appreciate, what these mostly unknown Brits were doing you had to accept their sensibility completely on their terms. Importantly, this was not a pose and it was not reactionary; it was a revolution in music: it still manages to seem somehow ahead of its time as well as — it must be said — timeless. Of course, it also may sound hopelessly dated, depending upon one’s perspective, and that is the whole point: anyone who hears this album and associates it with long hair and sheets of acid are the same kind of simpletons who hear Charlie Parker and envision a strung-out freak wailing away in a smoked-out nightclub. These people don’t hear the music now and, more importantly, they didn’t hear it then.
Virtually each note on King Crimson’s debut at once originates and defines the prog rock aesthetic. This was, in every possible sense, an entirely new sort of music: a collective of superlative craftsmen, united in the effort to create art so original, so unmotivated by commercial appeal, so honest, it couldn’t not be transformative. If the progressive movement would, for both understandable and perhaps inevitable reasons, become insular to the point of near-suffocation with its one-upmanship, navel-gazing and self-indulgent geekishness, no such criticism could be applied to both the material and attitude that inform In the Court of the Crimson King.
Locked-in and cranking on all cylinders from the start, “21st Century Schizoid Man” helps slam the iron gate shut on any vestige of the hippie era with a song that’s equal parts discourse on Vietnam and unflinching nod to Orwell’s 1984 (in spirit if not literally). Influential, sure, but what continues to impress is the way this song still sounds fresh, ferocious, and nerve shattering, a half-century later.
Greg Lake’s processed and distorted vocals, like a machine shriek, and the surreal interplay of Robert Fripp’s guitar lines and Ian McDonald’s squealing sax contribute a vibe that goes for the jugular and leaves the listener gutted. The rest of the album would be, in turn, bucolic, surreal, strange and disquieting, but the opening volley is a straightforward scorcher, serving notice that this was still rock and roll, but it was quickly being taken to a deeper, much darker place.
As a part of the whole, “I Talk to the Wind” is an ideal transition, calming the waters after the incendiary “21st Century Schizoid Man” and setting up the concentrated dejection of “Epitaph.” As a standalone track, it’s a stunning tone poem of melancholy, somehow managing to be both somber and gorgeous. Each individual musician is indispensable (on this song; on this album), and while drummer Michael Giles’ subdued but industrious embellishments shine, this might be Ian McDonald’s finest moment: his flute, clarinet, and shared vocals (with Greg Lake) are astonishing; an unending well that will satisfy and inspire even after countless listens. (Interesting sidenote: this song was initially attempted on 1968’s The Cheerful Insanity of Giles, Giles and Fripp, and a another take featuring vocals by Judy Dyble.)
The themes and concerns of “Epitaph” are very much of their time, but it’s neither the band’s nor music’s fault that lamenting our lust for war, our pillaging of the environment, and zero-sum game of our personal and political relations are as relevant now as it was 50 years ago. Greg Lake, the ideal voice for Peter Sinfield’s poetry, arguably never sounded this authoritative (and vulnerable) again. Michael Giles’s drumming is at once muscular and restrained, and Ian McDonald’s foreboding Mellotron is suitably ominous (it’s safe to say bands like Genesis were taking careful notes).
“Moonchild” begins as a gorgeous ballad (again, that Mellotron!), and then drops off into an abyss of beautiful tension (the tension is, impossibly, almost peaceful). Elements of free jazz, classical, and improvisation abound, setting a template for future work, with passages (particularly Fripp’s lucid guitar lines and McDonald’s gentle Vibraphone strokes) that are downright pastoral, yet there’s a ceaseless tension and hint of menace, as though something dangerous lurks just around the bend.
The title track is unsettling, ceaselessly astonishing: at once the introduction and apotheosis of what progressive rock became. It has all the important elements: impeccable musicianship from all players, rhythmic complexity, socially-conscious lyrics and an outsider’s perspective that is neither disaffected nor nihilistic. It speaks from the underground, but it is grounded in history and looking forward, not back. “The Court of the Crimson King” is, at times, the soundtrack to an Edgar Allan Poe story and a Hieronymus Bosch painting personified: it came out of the era and the minds in which it was imagined, a dark, sensitive and psychedelic space. This song is, possibly, the first time the Mellotron was utilized with such extraordinary results. Before this — and after — it was primarily used for sonic color and texture; on this song it is, improbably, the lead sound around which the drums, guitar and bass circle. Greg Lake, who would sing splendidly for most of the next decade, never sounded as urgent, and none of the subsequent Crimson line-ups — magnificent as they all were in their way — could conjure up such an uncanny and indescribable vibe. This work is almost unapproachable but not aloof; it is entertaining and unnerving, but its capacity to delight and astound remains inexhaustible.