King Crimson and the Birth of Progressive Rock

Mar 9th, 2015 | By | Category: Canon Fodder, Reviews

crimson_court(The following review is part 1 of 5 in a series of essential progressive rock albums)

King Crimson: In The Court Of The Crimson King

On July 5th 1969 at Hyde Park in London, The Rolling Stones headlined a free outdoor festival . This concert was significant in a number of ways. It would be the Stones’ first public appearance in over two years and would feature new guitarist Mick Taylor. Unfortunately the death of the band’s former guitarist, Brian Jones, two days earlier thwarted what was meant to be a jubilant return to live performance and instead turned the band’s performance into a memorial for Jones. Also on the bill that day was a little known opening act who had yet to release or even record any music. That band was King Crimson. In front of a crowd approaching a half million strong, King Crimson unleashed an opening salvo of such ferocity that it would reverberate for years to come. A few weeks later King Crimson would record what has often been cited as the first progressive rock album.

Right from the start it was apparent that In The Court Of The Crimson King was a record unlike anything that had come before. The bone chilling intensity of opening track, “21st Century Schizoid Man,” felt more like a call to arms than an introduction. It was a summons, a proclamation, and a warning all in one. Indeed, this was not your standard blues based rock. No, this was uncharted territory, this was Sturm und Drang. On the following track the band allows the listeners some breathing room with a gentle ballad called, “I Talk To The Wind.” A flute is the main instrument here and its soft lilting tone imbues the song with a quiet stirring peacefulness. The next track, “Epitaph,” is a sorrowful lament. Its heavy use of mellotron, an instrument that features prominently in much of progressive rock, adds to the somber atmosphere as does the funereal beat that underlies it all. “Moonchild” begins as another soft ballad before shifting to a free-form improvisation. Here the band is left to explore and experiment but in a subdued and quiet way. Finally the album closes with the majesty of “The Court Of The Crimson King.” Once more the mellotron is dominantly featured providing tension and release.

A few words about the musicians on this album. Founding member and leader of every edition of the band to this day is guitarist, Robert Fripp. His impeccable and thoughtful playing is matched by his precision and articulation. His sound is as distinct and deliberate as his insistent on sitting while performing. The sustain he gets from his guitar soars and sings. Once acquainted with his sound you are likely never to forget it. On bass and vocals is Greg Lake, who would leave the band after this album and hook up with Keith Emerson and Carl Palmer to form Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Lake’s voice is so strong and beautiful throughout that it’s sometimes easy to forget that his bass playing on this album is equally superb. He is not simply holding down the beat, there are moments when his fingers are running up and down the neck of his bass creating movement and density on the bottom end. Michael Giles is a jazz influenced drummer with perfect timing and the ability to switch up tempos on a dime. Much of what happens on this album would not succeed without his caliber. Multi-instrumentalist Ian McDonald provides much of the flavor on the album. He plays saxophone, flute, mellotron, and keyboards. His presence is felt throughout and help make the album distinguishable. Lastly, though not a performing member of the band, Peter Sinfield provides the lyrics for all the songs. His surreal imagery, at times hauntingly beautiful, other times dark and angry, fit perfectly with the band’s music. Mention must also be made of the cover art that adorns the album. Like most progressive rock albums the artwork is always given special consideration. The cover for “In The Court Of The Crimson King” is as intense as the music within. Featuring who we presume to be the schizoid man and nothing else, no band name or album title, it’s as if the band decided to let the image speak for itself. And it does, with his bug-eyes, nostrils flaring and screaming mouth the schizoid man heeds a warning.

In The Court Of The Crimson King is a stunning debut made even more remarkable for forging a new sound. I sometimes wonder what it must have been like to hear the band that day in Hyde Park. The barrage of intensity emanating from the stage assaulting an unsuspecting crowd gathered for an afternoon of sun and the Rolling Stones had to have been quite shocking even for this hippie crowd. The first time I heard this album was sometime around 1973.  By then I was already familiar with progressive rock and had heard of King Crimson as well. Having some familiarity may have prevented me from experiencing the shock first heard in Hyde Park, but it hardly lessened the impact this music had on me upon hearing it for the first time.

King_crimson_21_century_shizoid_man by dami1621


  • Artist: King Crimson
  • Title: In The Court Of The Crimson King
  • Year of release: 1969
  • Year of first hearing by writer: 1973
  • Label of original release: Island (Caroline Distribution/EG Records 1989 Remaster)
  • Format listened to: LP/CD
  • Track Listing
  • Purchase from Amazon: In the Court of the Crimson King


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4 Comments to “King Crimson and the Birth of Progressive Rock”

  1. Thom Lieb says:

    I so loved this album when it came out. At midnight Dec. 31, 1969, I opened my bedroom windows and blasted “21st Century Schizoid Man” to my neighbors (apparently I was not real clear on the distinction between decades and centuries). I have not listened to it in years but need to get out my original British vinyl I got while working at Heads Together and give it a spin!

  2. Enjoyed the linking of the album to that epochal concert, Jim. There’s a brief bit of film of that Hyde Park performance that shows glimpses of the crowd – ah, nostalgia for a time not known!

    My own humble efforts to present ITCOTCK are here…

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