Listen to this track by primo-prog pioneers and art rock template setters King Crimson. It’s “In The Court Of The Crimson King”, the title track from their 1969 debut record In The Court of the Crimson King. That record set the standard of approach to expansive musical ambition when it came to making rock records, later to be recognized as one of the primary albums that “built prog rock”.
Indeed, this band established the idea of creating artistic statements in the rock vein while avoiding established American R&B influences, and turning to classical and other European ingredients instead. Rather than coming from the gospel churches of the American south, this music is more aligned with the liturgical grandness of the Church of England. This record is where it all began where prog rock is concerned.
This was the first incarnation of the band; Robert Fripp on guitar, Greg Lake singing and playing bass, Michael Giles on drums and percussion, and Ian McDonald on multiple instruments, including the mellotron. It’s this last texture which is so important on this song, giving it an eerily orchestral, and portentous atmosphere.
I think it serves not only as an aural element that would go on to define a genre. But, it also serves the narrative as written by lyricist Pete Sinfield, which is one that matches the mythical with the political.
In the light of that, who is the Crimson King anyway?
Well, for one thing, the person of the Crimson King is perhaps secondary to the tone that the song strikes during a time when playful and childlike psychedelia was coming to a close in Britain. The Crimson King is a vague Lewis Carroll reference perhaps to the dreamlike figure of the Red King in Through The Looking Glass. References to Carroll provided a common thread to be found in late-60s British psych. But, here that sunny playfulness and sense of innocence is nowhere to be found. The Crimson King is a figure of darkness, and of grim reality, rather than an occupant of an idealized world far away. This is a song of experience, not innocence.
To me, that’s one of the things that stands out about this song, and differentiates it from a lot of the material in a similar musical vein. A lot of prog rock is very escapist in nature. There’s certainly place for that, of course. But, here on this song I think it’s about the realization that there are real forces that work against what the peace and love counterculture envisioned for the world; the powers that be, with a self-serving agenda of their own.
That’s what the Court of the Crimson King is; an oppressive system of values. When in that context, this song becomes less of a high-minded, high-concept piece that characterizes a lot of early art rock. It becomes more in line with something that looks like a protest song, even if it is dressed in language that is decidedly fantastical.
Maybe that’s why it worked so well when included in the film soundtrack of Children of Men, a story about a dystopian future of government oppression, and the desperation of the masses. Maybe too it’s what inspired writer Stephen King to include a character called The Crimson King in his The Dark Tower series of books about the forces of darkness that seek the destruction of humankind.
The band would change line-ups by their follow up, In The Wake Of Poseidon in 1970. This would include the departure of McDonald and Giles before the end of 1969. Eventually, McDonald would join Foreigner (!?). Changes to the line-up would also include Greg Lake’s departure. He would go on to establish a stream of prog rock of his own with Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. With the change in line-up, they would never make a record that sounded exactly like this again. Maybe that’s another important part of its mystique.
King Crimson would release several studio albums over the course of a forty-four year span, with line-up changes that would include top shelf musicians like Adrian Belew, Bill Bruford, and John Wetton. King Crimson would play within and cast off a variety of musical phases that mixed the ratios between jazz, classical, and metal. The “band” would go through several hiatus periods, and with Fripp as a creative fulcrum each time.
To learn all about each stage in the trajectory of this unique musical vehicle, check out the All Music Guide entry about King Crimson.