It was Fripp’s idea to subtitle the album “An Observation By King Crimson”, which had the effect of framing the five pieces within an implied concept of sorts. Fripp also suggested that there be no print anywhere on the exterior artwork. John Gaydon, Crimson’s co-manager at the time recalls Island Records were worried about objections from retailers who would be confused about the lack of information on the sleeve. “Fripp said, well, it’ll be the only record in the shop without anything down the spine on it, so they’ll know which one it is. Which was brilliant when you think about it.”
Housed in its distinctive cover painted by Peter Sinfield’s friend, Barry Godber, it remains the most widely recognised album by King Crimson.
Writing in the booklet accompanying the Epitaph box set Robert Fripp recalled “The cover was as strange and powerful as anything else to do with this group. Barry Godber, a friend of Peter and Dik the Roadie, was not an artist but a computer programmer. This was the only album cover he painted. Barry died in bed in February 1970 at the age of 24.
The cover was as much a defining statement, and a classic, as the album. And they both belonged together. The Schizoid face was really scary, especially if a display filled an entire shop window.
Peter brought the cover into Wessex Studios in Highgate during a session. At the time Michael Giles refused to commit himself to it, nor has he yet. But Michael has also never agreed to the name King Crimson. We went ahead anyway.
The original artwork hung on a wall in 63a, Kings Road, in full daylight for several years. This was the centre of EG activities from 1970 and remains so today, albeit in its diminished and truncated form. For several years I watched the colours drain from the Schizoid and Crimson King faces until, finally, I announced that unless it was hung where it was protected from daylight, I would remove it. Several months later I removed it and it is now stored at Discipline Global Mobile World Central.”
It’s mid-August 1969. The apocalyptic blast of 21st Century Schizoid Man is abruptly cut off in mid-flow as recording engineer Robin Thompson mutes the speakers. Below, in the cavernous performance area of Wessex Studios, Robert Fripp, Michael Giles, Ian McDonald, Peter Sinfield and Greg Lake stop work to welcome the arrival of artist Barry Godber, carrying a large rectangular package wrapped in brown paper. A few weeks previously, Sinfield had commissioned his friend Godber to come up with something for the cover for King Crimson’s debut album. “I used to hang around with all these painters and artists from Chelsea Art School,” says Sinfield. “I’d known Barry for a couple of years ... he’d been to a few rehearsals and spent a bit of time with us. I told him to see what he could come up with. I think I probably said to him that the one thing the cover had to do was stand out in record shops.”
Godber tore off the brown paper and laid the painting on the floor as the band gathered around to see. Greg Lake vividly remembered the moment. “We all stood around it and it was like something out of Treasure Island where you’re all standing around a box of jewels and treasure ... this fucking face screamed up from the floor and what it said to us was Schizoid Man – the very track we’d been working on. It was as if there was something magic going on.”
Magic and King Crimson never seemed to be far apart in 1969. Even before they’d played a proper gig in London there was an expectant buzz about the monstrous sounds emanating from the band’s rehearsal room in the cellar of a cafe on the Fulham Palace Road. Exactly one month after their first proper rehearsal on 13 January, Decca’s A&R man Hugh Mendl had been persuaded by Crimson’s managers David Enthoven and John Gaydon to sample the band. Mendl, who had previously signed Giles, Giles & Fripp to Decca, brought with him Moody Blues producer Tony Clarke, with a view to having Crimson sign up to the Moody’s own still-nascent Threshold label.
“We had taken various people down to see them and everybody who saw them was blown away by them apart from Muff Winwood, who was then A&R at Island,” remembers Enthoven. “I’ll never forget he turned to me and said ‘They’re a bit like the Tremeloes, aren’t they?’ I thought to myself ‘What the fuck are you listening to?’”
While many bands were cranking up the volume as the burgeoning underground scene demanded, what distinguished King Crimson from most of its peers was their lethal combination of claw-hammer brutality and surgical precision. They were summoning up musical forces not only capable of immense subtlety but also the ability to knock punters into the ground like so many tent pegs. This impressive combination had the word-of-mouth bush telegraph working overtime.
Almost every band starting out has a wish list of hopes and dreams – getting good; getting in print; getting on John Peel; getting big; getting signed; getting an album in the Top Ten. In 1969 King Crimson got the lot. Even seen from fifty years later, the rapidity of their progress remains breathtaking. In April they played their first London gig at The Speakeasy to great acclaim. In May they recorded a session for John Peel. That same month, Jimi Hendrix saw them play at another London watering hole, Revolution. Shaking Fripp’s hand, Hendrix declared excitedly to anyone who would listen that Crimson were the best group in the world. With that endorsement still ringing in their ears, in June they sat down at Morgan Studios with best-selling producer Tony Clarke to start recording their first album.
Counter-culture house magazine International Times interviewed the group and it was evident that the mood in the Crimson camp was (understandably) upbeat. Fripp talked about recording a double album with one side per track, while Sinfield wanted to ensure that music and album cover comprised a total package. They’d gone from zeroes to would-be heroes with an audacious masterplan to be the best band in the world, a growing reputation for killer concerts and an album in the works. Not bad going in just six months.
Yet the 12–18 June sessions didn’t go quite as smoothly as expected. Something about the sound at Morgan wasn’t working for them. As they swapped to the more spacious Wessex Studios, the band prepared for the gig that would seriously accelerate an already fast-track career – supporting the Rolling Stones at Hyde Park on 5 July. David Enthoven and John Gaydon immediately understood how important it was for King Crimson to be on that bill. “It was going to be a huge gathering of people and a great opportunity for the band to play to that kind of crowd ... and we were trying every means possible to bribe and corrupt dear Pete Jenner from Blackhill Enterprises who was organising the whole thing. I was happy to give him quite a lot of money. They wouldn’t take the money but they put us on the bill because of the sheer brazenness of us! I would’ve done anything to get on that bill.”
King Crimson stepped on to the Hyde Park stage before an estimated audience of 650,000 – a nerve-racking experience, as Greg Lake vividly remembered. “I’d never seen that many people in my life for any reason. I mean, you’d need a war to see that many people ...! They weren’t there to see me or King Crimson, they were there to see the Rolling Stones, so in a way it wasn’t that bad ... All of a sudden we play Schizoid Man at blinding speed and unbearable intensity. Suddenly everyone starts to take notice and stand up. Then we started playing the beautiful stuff like The Court Of The Crimson King and Epitaph. Well, by then it was game, set and match. It worked very well. I realised it was a turning point the moment I walked off stage because you can’t go down that well at an event that big and it not be significant.”
Returning to Wessex Studios on 7 July, Crimson and Tony Clarke had a second attempt to record the album. Almost immediately more doubts about the results resurfaced. Maybe it wasn’t the studio that was the problem. Maybe it was the producer? Clarke’s preferred way of working – slowly building up big backing tracks as he’d done with the Moody Blues – wasn’t suiting Crimson’s dash for dynamics and cocky live-take bravura. Drummer Michael Giles felt Clarke was trying to tame Crimson’s energies and shape the band into something they were not. Lake agrees. “The general sense we had was that his main motivation was to make us another version of the Moody Blues and we didn’t want that.”
On 16 July, they decided to walk away from Clarke and the prospect of a Threshold release that came with him. It seems almost inconceivable that a young band who’d only been together just over six months would take this kind of risk. Another example of Crimson’s so-called “Good Fairy” that they talked about, or testosterone-fuelled balls of steel?
Greg Lake: “You’ve got to remember that all the people in King Crimson were very strong personalities. They were very intelligent, very good musicians and all opinionated – not in a nasty way but everyone was passionate about what they were doing. There wasn’t anyone along for the ride. All very dedicated and all of us out to change the world in one way or another. The fact of the matter is that when it came to music making and the music we were making, really Tony didn’t know enough about it. We felt that we could make a better job of producing the record because we knew more about it than he did.”
In order to finance the self-produced album, Enthoven and Gaydon swung a deal with the Thompson family who owned Wessex Studios that guaranteed the £15,000 recording costs. To do this, Enthoven remortgaged his house in Petersham Place and a further loan of £4.5k was taken out from Barclays Bank in the Gloucester Road. “A bit of a punt really,” Enthoven smiles. “It was either a test of commitment or bloody madness on my part! We knew it was going to be successful so at the end of the day – it was just down to money and we had to find the money to do it.”
As Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked about on the Moon, on Monday, 21 July, King Crimson walked into Wessex Studios, took control of their own fate and began work on their debut album for the third time. Over the next fortnight, in between gigs, the band spent three days laying down backing tracks for In The Court Of The Crimson King; a day a piece on I Talk To The Wind and Epitaph; a day on Moonchild and its improvised instrumental work-out and, finally, Crimson’s magnum opus, 21st Century Schizoid Man, completed in just one devastating live take.
August was spent mixing the original eight track tapes down to two tracks to carry out extensive overdubs. Pete Sinfield recalls their no-nonsense approach. “We weren’t one of those bands who rolled a couple of joints and had a scotch before we started work at midnight. We used to get up there at lunchtime and work through until we were exhausted at around nine or ten and not push it ... we worked fairly hard and we did it very quickly. We could do it very quickly because everyone knew their parts very well because we’d rehearsed it and played it, which helped a lot.”
The album’s final overdub – Robert Fripp’s one-take guitar solo for Schizoid Man – was completed on 20 August 1969, with plans already under way for the finished album to be released on Chris Blackwell’s Island label. If the band and their fans, including The Who’s Pete Townshend (who famously dubbed the album “an uncanny masterpiece”) thought things had been moving fast already, the whole adventure went into hyperspeed when the album was released in the UK in early October.
Going straight into the top five of the album charts, the potent, ground-breaking music, and its striking album sleeve, one of the first without a band name or record company logo on its gatefold front, demanded to be heard.
Barry Godber with his iconic cover art
Pete Sinfield: “Not having the name on the front cover meant that if you were fingering through the racks in the record shop and you came across it, you had to open it up to see who it was. You were being led further into our world. Hopefully then you’d want to hear it and then buy it. It was exactly done that way. I remember being in Oxford Street just after it was released and seeing a whole shop window full of them and I stood there thinking ‘’struth, what have we done?’”
They’d been together less than nine months
Running like the soundtrack to some epic, unreleased movie, the album was a decisive break with the blues-rock motifs still dominating much of the underground scene’s output. There’s no lengthy solos anywhere on the album. Instead, the group’s collective firepower is directed into beautifully crafted and detailed arrangements, symphonic allusions and precocious ambition.
The unrelenting pace of Crimson’s life on the road began to take its toll once the band arrived in the USA as the album – released in America on Atlantic – entered the Top 30. In the midst of a kaleidoscopic American travelogue that crossed vast coast-to-coast distances, Michael Giles and Ian McDonald, homesick, lovesick and beginning to find the hurly-burly pace more than they could handle, decided to quit at the end of the tour.
When Crimson left the stage of San Francisco’s Fillmore West on Sunday, 14 December, it was over. The whirlwind of 1969 had seen them play over 70 gigs and get an album out in a mere 335 days.
Though King Crimson would continue with different line-ups, the only album by the original, short-lived group became a defining moment in rock’s development.
Greg Lake had no doubts about its significance: “It fired the starting pistol on progressive rock. I think that there were other bands that you could also credit with bringing about a new attitude in music: Pink Floyd were one band that brought new stuff along. So I wouldn’t say Crimson were the only band to bring new things along but we were certainly fundamental and important in the progressive movement. The album provoked a lot of changes.”
Peter Sinfield admits to a certain amount of pride in the album’s achievements. “You don’t think about the legacy of an album as you’re doing it but I have learned, just by being around long enough, that it’s the greatest feeling in the world to have done something like that. To have written something that lasts and has a bit of a timeless feel to it ... we didn’t philosophise about it at the time because we didn’t have time all those years ago.”