[Review] King Crimson: In the Court of the Crimson King (1969)

The quintessential progressive rock album.

Kronomyth 1.0: A Connecticut wanker in King Crimson’s court.

The question of which was the first progressive rock album has many answers: The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, Days of Future Passed, Disraeli Gears, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, ad infinitum (or at least until the end of 1968). The first perfect example of progressive rock, however, has only one answer: In the Court of the Crimson King. The balance of light and dark, poetry and mellotronic majesty, of towering spires twisting into celestial majesty and mysterious cave explorations on the moons of Mars find their first and truest expression here on King Crimson’s debut album. As a coalescing of what came before (Pink Floyd, Soft Machine, The Moody Blues, The Beatles) and a blueprint for what came after (ELP, Camel, Roxy Music), In the Court of the Crimson King is the logical gateway into the magical realm of progressive rock.

If you’re looking for the earlies blushes of Crimson, you’ll have to look beyond The Cheerful Insanity of Giles, Giles and Fripp to the cheerless insanity of Pink Floyd, the moody indigo of Days of Future Passed and maybe even the strange rumblings of Soft Machine. Those groups hinted at what King Crimson achieves here, from the tripping drums of Robert Wyatt to the mellotrons of Michael Pinder to the strung-out strings of Syd Barrett. King Crimson took these elements and from them painted a masterpiece on the ceiling of the heavens.

21st Century Schizoid Man is nothing less than an ion storm of sound. Saxes squall, drums explode, guitars wail and Greg Lake screams atop it all to be heard. Deep Purple be damned, this is the heaviest opening track I’ve ever heard. I Talk to the Wind is its polar opposite: a pastoral ballad with flute, Lake’s dulcet voice and some of Peter Sinfield’s prettiest lyrics. Epitaph is the epic conclusion to side one and a template for how long-form progressive songs should be structured, including a glorious fadeout.

Moonchild is a Lake ballad of two-and-a-half minutes followed by nine minutes of screwing around, which admittedly would also describe “Interstellar Overdrive” in my book, so you can take my opinion with a grain of salt. In the Court of the Crimson King is the album’s crowning achievement, the return of the king first seen on “21st Century Schizoid Man.” The two sections, “The Return of the Firewitch” and “The Dance of the Puppets,” sound the same to me, but it’s over eight minutes of awesomeness any way you slice it.

In retrospect, King Crimson was a supergroup in the making, but an unstable one at that. The various players would soon splinter in different directions, and Robert Fripp would somehow manage to always find the right pieces to replace them. Thus, all the King Crimson albums are different, and many of them are brilliant, but none of them shine brighter than their first.

Original elpee version

A1. 21st Century Schizoid Man including Mirrors (6:52)
A2. I Talk to the Wind (Ian McDonald/Peter Sinfield) (5:40)
A3. Epitaph including March for No Reason and Tomorrow and Tomorrow (8:30)
B1. Moonchild including The Dream and The Illusion (12:09)
B2. The Court of the Crimson King including The Return of the Firewitch and The Dance of the Puppets (Ian McDonald/Peter Sinfield) (8:48)

Songs written by Robert Fripp, Ian McDonald, Greg Lake, Michael Giles and Peter Sinfield unless noted.

The Players

Robert Fripp (guitar), Michael Giles (drums, percussion, vocals), Greg Lake (bass, guitar, lead vocals), Ian McDonald (reeds, woodwinds, vibes, keyboards, mellotron, vocals), Peter Sinfield (words and illumination). Produced by King Crimson; engineered by Robin Thompson.

The Pictures

Cover by Barry Godber.

The Plastic

Released on elpee on October 10, 1969 in the UK (Island, ILPS 9111) and the US (Atlantic, SD 8245) with gatefold cover. Reached #5 on the UK charts and #28 on the US charts.

  1. Re-issued on elpee in 1977 in the UK (Polydor, 2302 057) with gatefold cover.
  2. Re-issued on elpee in 1978 in the US (Atlantic, SD 19155) with gatefold cover.
  3. Re-released on remastered Collector’s Edition elpee, compact disc and cassette in January 1987 in the US and Canada (Editions EG, EGKC/EGCD/EGKCC 1) with gatefold cover.
  4. Re-released on remastered 30th Anniversary Edition compact disc worldwide (Virgin, 844 066).
  5. Re-issued on compact disc in 1999 in Poland (Selles, SELL 1098) with different cover.
  6. Re-issued on remastered compact disc in 1999 in Russia (Kankard, KCCD 001).

2 thoughts on “[Review] King Crimson: In the Court of the Crimson King (1969)

  1. I agree with that review very much, Dave. You only get one chance in life to make a good first impression and King Crimson certainly didn’t blow it. Nothing compares to this album, not even The Dark Side of the Moon.

    Having said that, the playing times you have in your review are wrong (even though some vinyl copies listed them that way). Here’s how long the tracks are:

    -21st Century Schizoid Man (7:24)
    -I Talk to the Wind (6:04)
    -Epitaph (8:49)
    -The Court of the Crimson King (9:26)

    I only checked because you listed the title piece as being 8 minutes long, when in fact it’s 9.

  2. There really isn’t a progressive rock album before In the Court. There are compositions like A Day in the Life, the seed, if you will. Caravan’s Where but for Caravan Would I is another. The Moody Blues are pop with lounge orchestration in the background, the only thing in common with Crimson is the use of a Mellotron and electricity to power their instruments. Saucerful of Secrets is another piece that informs, but the album as a whole does not. Crimson is a child of Stravinsky, Bartok and Wagner, not Chuck Berry, but somewhat informed by free jazz and the pastoral feel of English folk.

    The truth is when In the Court came out it had the sound and quality of something made for adults with an eclectic taste, not teenagers. Everything else by comparison in that year and before sounded like music for children, that’s the truth.

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