My sympathies to those of you whose parents never listened to good music. Your inherited record collection was full of garbage, and on the day when ownership was transferred to you, all you could do was try out album after album before tossing them in the junk pile, a pile that unfortunately dominated the room. You poor record geeks. I ended up passing on eighty percent of my hand-me-down vinyl (although there was some good stuff that I'm just not into), but I did come away with classics like Rubber Soul, The White Album, and London Calling. I gave the others, including In The Court of the Crimson King, to a friend. A year later I was listening to some King Crimson and kicking myself for giving it away, but luckily the friend in question never listened to it and didn't want it anymore. I got it back.

In The Court of The Crimson King
(An Observation by King Crimson)

This is one of the classic albums of all time. Its cover, a red and purple face with widened, terrified eyes and gaping mouth, is among the most recognizable images in rock music, along with Dark Side of the Moon or Houses of the Holy. King Crimson ignited their career in 1969 with this thrilling, explosive release. A band noted for frequent lineup adjustments, the King Crimson that made this album had largely changed by the time their second album, In The Wake of Poseidon, came out. At In The Court's release, the band members were Robert Fripp (guitar), Greg Lake (bass/lead vocals), Michael Giles (drums and other percussion, vocals), and multitasker Ian McDonald (flute, clarinet, saxophone, vibes, keyboards, mellotron, vocals). The lyrics, with themes of desperate paranoia and unrest, were written by Peter Sinfield. The album is not lyric-driven by any means and many minutes may pass without hearing a single word, but Sinfield skilfully translates the music into human language that both chills and fascinates. In The Court of the Crimson King takes elements of jazz improvisation, psychedelic rock, and classical music, and weds them in an illicit, wild union. Allow King Crimson to share his Observation with you.

21st Century Schizoid Man, including Mirrors

Before the music starts there is silence, and then a whistle like that of a train. Blasting guitar and saxophone immediately come into being, forming the song's famous tune and accompanying the harsh, distorted vocals. At no other point in the album does the music achieve the volume and frantic wailing that 21st Century Schizoid Man is filled with. The segment Mirrors, while not explicitly defined, is a quick-paced instrumental section of the song that follows a surprisingly uniform format while effectively communicating a sharp and vicious chaos. Most of Mirrors is dominated by either saxophone or guitar, and while one is placed prominently and keeps the rhythm, the other instrument fills the background with its screams. They switch back and forth, and the bass drops in and out until Mirrors closes and 21st Century Schizoid Man resumes and ends the track with a mess of unstructured noise.

I Talk To The Wind

The loud, vulgar sax and guitar from Schizoid Man are entirely absent, giving way to a mystical flute that opens song number two, I Talk To The Wind. It's a polar opposite: slow, pensive, calming. The lyrics however reflect a similar theme as the first song. While 21st Century Schizoid Man painted a picture of a corrupt, war-torn world that no one could be happy with, I Talk To The Wind is a monologue of someone coping with extreme loneliness. Isolation emerges as a common thread. At first, it seems like you are listening to a spiritual man in touch with nature until you hear the line, "the wind does not hear. The wind cannot hear." Now the sentence, "I talk to the wind" takes on new meaning. He talks to no one. The music is sad, but not in any dramatic way. If the speaker is in fact utterly alone, he does not seem too upset about it. There is contentment at least.

Epitaph, including March For No Reason and Tomorrow and Tomorrow

I Talk To The Wind was gentle, and mournful. Epitaph continues much in the same vein, but builds to more emotional points than I Talk To The Wind had. At the start, there is a slow accumulation of sound to a climax that goes nowhere. It happens fleetingly, and then is gone. The song stays up at a certain intensity, but you want it higher. It does this twice. There is guitar in this song, but it is either acoustic or a completely clean electric sound, totally unlike the one in the first song. In this one, it's the singing that has all the power. The vocals are powerful, holding tragic pessimism in grocery bags at a bus stop, standing in the pouring rain at cloudless noon.

Moonchild, including The Dream and The Illusion

Moonchild is something different. The entire album has a discomforting feeling of bleakness to it, and the rapidly shifting styles of music reflect life's tendency to transform before your eyes to something you did not expect. Moonchild starts out similar to the previous two songs. It's slow and sweet, and Greg Lake spills out magic lyrics with a romantic, celestial theme. After about two minutes, the music begins to fade. It never completely stops, but becomes a complete departure from traditional music. The following nine minutes are quiet and empty. There is no melody, no tune, no words. Most of the time only one instrument is playing at a time. It's absentminded madness, snippets of music loosely strung together. If a brief hint of a tune is heard, it only hangs around long enough for you to notice, and then drops off into the void.

The Court of The Crimson King, including The Return of the Fire Witch and The Dance of the Puppets

This closes the album. There is nothing particularly outstanding here. Guitar arpeggios and flute score the verses, and the wordless chorus is a ghostly mellotron. The lyrics describe the scene at the court of the Crimson King; it's full of characters like jesters, jugglers, and witches. The tone is hard to describe; I can't decide whether the court is a good place to be or not. Perhaps it doesn't matter. The court itself seems to be a place of many wonders and spectacles, and little sense. Perhaps the point is that it is nonsense. Living in a world that has utterly failed to meet expectations (the world of songs one to four), a world so foreign from the one that is desired, why not retreat to a world filled with such mystic nonsense? That makes as much sense as remaining in the one that has failed you. All worlds being equally insane, the choice is irrelevant. Perhaps the song depicts an actual transition to another place. Perhaps it is more metaphorical and signifies a mental retreat, a distancing of authentic stimuli and embrace of false, constructed fantasy. Whichever it is, The Court of The Crimson King neatly wraps up the album, ending with a whimsical, almost playful melody as the song dissolves. All that is left lingering is a feeling that you had temporarily gone mad, and cannot remember how or why.

In The Court of the Crimson King - King Crimson - 1969 - Island Records