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The Cover Uncovered: The artwork for 'In the Court of the Crimson King' by King Crimson

As the hippie era of music transitioned from the bright and cheery themes of peace and love of the mid-1960s into the more fearful, reality laden themes of prog-rock in the late ’60s and early ’70s, a strange face began to appear on record shelves across the UK and eventually, the world.

This was a time of crushing reality for many people who were becoming increasingly alienated by the false promises of the peace movement as the war in Vietnam dragged on and civil unrest in the western world appeared to be, if anything, on the increase. King Crimson epitomised the time they stepped into, demanding the attention of their listeners with their darker and organic prog-rock sound and the mystic allure of the ghastly face plastered across the front of their debut album In the Court of the Crimson King

King Crimson was formed in 1968 in London from the ashes of a short-lived Dorset group, named Giles, Giles and Fripp, the members were joined by guitarist and vocalist Greg Lake following the departure of Peter Giles. Born was the first arrangement of King Crimson, a band that took its name from founding member Peter Sinfield’s lyric book. They found some scrawlings from long before he had joined Giles, Giles and Fripp and decided that the name had a nice ring to it. It has been suggested that the origin of the name came from the historical term Beelzebub, referring to satan, the “crimson king” being an evil and deceitful leader. This name, therefore, perfectly matches the dark political subject matter of much of the group’s work.

Listen to Greg Lake’s dextrous isolated bass for ’21st Century Schizoid Man’

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With this more streamlined and catchy name decided, the band set about fashioning their sound, all the while touring the UK. Their sound was a strange mix between jazz, folk and the psychedelic-blues-rock that had been recently championed by the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Cream. The group’s major breakthrough came after only a few months of King Crimson when the band were invited to play at the Rolling Stones’ free concert held at Hyde Park in London in front of a congregation of half a million people on July 5th, 1969. The following months saw the group’s popularity grow from strength to strength during the recording of their debut album. 

The album was finally released on Island Records in October 1969 and was an instant hit in the UK and America with the unsettled youth lapping up this new dark psychedelic prog-rock that so befitted the contemporary political unrest. The band was held in high regard by peer musicians too for its originality, experimentalism and learned artistry. Pete Townshend of The Who once described the album as “an uncanny masterpiece”. The genius of the music is obvious upon first listen and seems to offer something fresh and thought-provoking with each listen, but what grabbed listeners first was the bold and intriguing face peering from the artwork on the cover of the album.

The cover for In the Court of the Crimson King shows no text, simply leaving the space for a giant psychedelic cartoon image of a face expressing an emotion somewhere between shock and horror. The face was created by Barry Godber, a friend of Sinfield’s from art school. Inspired by the opening song to the album ‘20th Century Schizoid Man’, the image has since revealed little more, retaining its air of mystery. One can only speculate as to the source of the poor face’s exasperation. All we know is that they are beholding something ugly, perhaps a war atrocity in Vietnam, or perhaps the hallucinated illusion of a young mind fraught with psychedelic drugs and paranoia. Unfortunately, Grober died aged 24, just four months after the release of the album and it appears that perhaps the mystery died with him. Robert Fripp, the longest-standing member of the group said of the image: “If you cover the smiling face, the eyes reveal an incredible sadness. What can one add? It reflects the music.”

Every time I set foot in old record shops to this day, I can feel the presence of this other-worldly, horrifying face before my gaze meets it; it perches on the display shelf frightened as ever, mimicking the enduring horror of the world, standing out bold amongst the crowd of gems from yesteryear.

Stream King Crimson’s ’21st Century Schizoid Man’ below.

(Credit: Press)