Analysis of ‘In the Court of the Crimson King’

In the Court of the Crimson King: an Observation by King Crimson is a 1969 progressive rock album by King Crimson, the band’s debut. Its dark, lugubrious, and portentous sound, combining woodwinds and the Moody Blues symphonic sound of the Mellotron with rock, helped define the art rock genre that would soon be represented by such bands as Yes, Genesis (the Peter Gabriel/Steve Hackett era), Jethro Tull, ELP (whose L was Greg Lake, King Crimson’s original bassist/singer), Gentle Giant, and Van der Graaf Generator.

Pete Townshend endorsed the album, calling it “an uncanny masterpiece,” and while it initially got a mixed critical response, it was commercially successful (making an unusually good ranking, for a King Crimson album, on the charts), and it’s now considered a classic.

Here is a link to all the lyrics.

The cover, a painting by Barry Godber (1946–1970), shows a closeup of a terrified face, reminding me of Edvard Munch‘s The Scream. The inside cover, a dominant blue to contrast the dominant pink of the outer cover, shows a face with an evil grin to contrast with the outer face.

The album was released in October 1969, when opposition to the Vietnam War was at its height. I’ve always thought, mistakenly, that “King Crimson,” coined by lyricist/light-show man Peter Sinfield, was meant as a synonym for the Devil; apparently, a ‘crimson king‘ is historically understood to mean a ruler mired in blood, one governing during a period of great civil unrest and war. Somehow, though, the Devil metaphor doesn’t seem too far off the mark. Certainly, US imperialism was, and is now even more so, a devilish crimson king for our time.

The first song on the album, “21st Century Schizoid Man,” is prophetic to us now, from its title alone. “Schizoid” should be understood to mean the fragmented character of the modern personality. We’re all split, not in the schizophrenic or split personality senses, but in the sense of dividing the inner representations of our objects (e.g., other people in relation to oneself, the subject) into absolute good and bad–friends and foes, rather than the actual mixes of good and bad in each of us and them.

This dichotomous attitude, taken to an extreme, has led us to all of these horrible wars–the Vietnam War of the time of the album’s release, and all the wars we’ve had in this schizoid 21st century. The psychological fragmentation of modern man is symbolized in these lyrics–disjointed, standalone images of violence: “Cat’s foot, iron claw…Blood rack, barbed wire…Death seed, blind man’s greed.”

Neurosurgeons scream for more/At paranoia’s poison door.” I suspect, given the song’s focus on “paranoia” and being “schizoid,” that neurosurgeons is meant more metaphorically than literally. This seems especially plausible, since Freud shifted from neuropathology (via a study of neurosis) to psychoanalysis. Hence, for neurosurgeons, read psychiatrists, who have often forsaken their duty to their patients for the sake of profit. Also, there has been all that psychiatric complicity during the ‘War on Terror.’

“Politicians’ funeral pyre/Innocents raped with napalm fire” is an obvious reference to the Vietnam War, though of course the use of napalm can equally apply to any modern war from WWII till Nam, and a number of wars fought since this album was made.

The fast middle section of the song, mostly a change from 4/4 to 6/8, is called “Mirrors.” Given how Lacan‘s mirror gives us a falsely unified sense of self, to the point of alienating oneself from the reflected image, the title of this frantic, dissonant (i.e., Ian McDonald‘s alto sax solo) section–and with its awkward time changes during the fast-picked, alternating 4/16 to 6/16 “down-up” guitar part, doubled by the sax, towards the section’s end–reflects that spastic alienation from oneself, as “I Talk to the Wind” (the following track) reflects alienation from other people (more on that later).

The last verse demonstrates the root cause, the “Death seed,” of all this madness, killing, and suffering: “blind man’s greed,” also known as capitalism. The blindness of these greedy men comes from the capitalist’s denial that his economic system is responsible for the woes of the world–typically blaming the problem on the state, while proposing a ‘free market‘ solution instead…as if we haven’t had enough deregulation and tax cuts for the rich as it is. “Poets starve” because the profit motive has no use for art unless it can make money, thus cheapening art and turning poetry into the titillating superficiality of performers like Nicki Minaj.

Imperialist war makes “children bleed”: consider what happened to Phan Thị Kim Phúc, or what’s happening to Yemeni children now, to see my point. The super-rich have so much money, they don’t know what to do with it; so on the one hand, they avoid taxes by putting their money into offshore bank accounts, and on the other, their addiction to money drives them to cause more wars for the sake of profits for Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Boeing, et al. Hence, “Nothing he’s got he really needs.”

Because of all these horrors, the song’s chaotic, dissonant ending shouldn’t surprise anyone: ever-increasing neoliberal, capitalist imperialism will inevitably lead to barbarism. Small wonder guitarist/bandleader Robert Fripp once introduced the song in a 1969 concert, dedicating it to Spiro T. Agnew. Here’s a live version of the song, done by the Cross/Fripp/Wetton/Bruford lineup of 1973, which I really like. 

The very title of the second track implies social alienation. “My words are all carried away,” and not listened to. Capitalism brought the madness expressed in the first song because it also brought the alienation described in this song. While I prefer a more uptempo version sung by Judy Dyble, the sadder, slower version on the album seems more thematically appropriate.

Where has “the late man” been? He’s “been here” and “there” and “in between.” He hasn’t been with “the straight man”: he was late. He didn’t care enough about his commitment to meet the straight man to arrive on time. Alienation causes this apathy.

It also causes one to be “on the outside, looking inside,” seeing “confusion…[and] disillusion.” Those who alienate us “don’t possess,” “don’t impress,” “can’t instruct…or conduct” us…they just “upset” us and waste our time.

Epitaph,” with its “March for No Reason,” evokes such things as the Vietnam War, the Cold War, and the nuclear arms race. “Tomorrow and Tomorrow” is an allusion to Macbeth, and to that crimson king’s famous speech, upon learning of the death of his queen, when he speaks of the meaninglessness of life, and our day-after-day misery.

The lyrics of “Epitaph” put our present-day troubles into historical context. The words of the writers of scripture have little meaning for us today, for the wall of their etched words “is cracking at the seams.” “The instruments of death” are historic and modern ones, and the sunlight is our knowledge of such Vietnam War atrocities as the My Lai Massacre.

We’re “torn apart with nightmares and with dreams,” for the latter are rarely fulfilled, while the former all too often come true. Media “silence drowns the screams,” for we know of far too few of the atrocities of war, especially the wars of our schizoid 21st century.

We feel “confusion…as [we] crawl a cracked and broken path” paved by the lies of those who fraudulently got the US into the Vietnam War…and now the conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and “I fear tomorrow” Iran, China, and Russia.

Part of what makes this album great, sadly, is that it’s even more relevant today than it was when it was released. We’re in a new Cold War with Russia, with NATO troops along the Russian border (and in the Arctic), ready to fight. The trade war with China could escalate, especially with tensions in the South China Sea. If we can prevent these problems from getting worse, “we can all sit back and laugh, but I fear tomorrow I’ll be crying.”

Fate has “iron gates,” for it seems to have an implacable will. “The seeds of time were sown” between those gates, “and watered by the deeds of those who know”–Lake’s voice seems ironic with that last word–“and who are known.” Those in authority, the ruling classes, have dominated history and our collective fate; we know them all too well. What they know–how to manipulate us, keep us divided, and make us kill each other–“is a deadly friend” without ethical rules. Our fate “is in the hands of fools,” especially today, when MAD is being disregarded in the temptation to use nukes.

The song’s ending is one of the most emotively powerful ones, if not the most powerful, of the whole album, with Lake’s expressive voice, “Crying,” and backed by Ian McDonald’s weeping Mellotron string section tapes, as well as the kettledrum rolls by drummer Michael Giles.

[As a side note, I’d like to mention that these three songs each have their own ‘new versions’ on Side One of King Crimson’s second album, In the Wake of Poseidon. Fripp wanted to rework the first album his way, with “Pictures of a City” paralleling “Schizoid Man,” “Cadence and Cascade” paralleling “I Talk to the Wind,” and “In the Wake of Poseidon” paralleling “Epitaph.” In fact, on Side Two, towards the end of “The Devil’s Triangle” (adapted by Fripp and Ian McDonald from “Mars, the Bringer of War,” from Holst’s The Planets), a little bit of the “ah…ah-ah-ah…ah-ah-ah” singing from “The Court of the Crimson King” can be heard in the background.]

Now, let’s come to Side Two.

Moonchild” begins with “The Dream,” which is the section with Lake’s singing. She is “dancing in the shallows of a river,” “dreaming in the shadows of a willow,” “gathering the flowers in a garden,” and “playing hide and seek with the ghosts of dawn.” Throughout the darkness of the gloomy night, her frolicking and “waiting for a smile from a sun child” represents our long-held hope for peace and a better world. The long instrumental improvised section, however–with its almost Bartókian night music, seemingly going on for hours in a sad minor key until McDonald’s vibraphone switches to a major key, bringing on a happy daybreak of hope–is fittingly titled “The Illusion.”

The Court of the Crimson King” includes “The Return of the Fire Witch” and “The Dance of the Puppets.” A witch casts spells, mesmerizing and transforming those under her spells; fire is desire, craving, attachment, greed, hate, and delusion. Since the Fire Witch is in the court of the crimson king, her spells keep the fire of our desires aflame, and distract us from his evildoing, keeping us ignorant of it. Similarly, the puppets’ dance keeps us mesmerized and distracted, so we’ll ignore the bloodshed, carnage, and oppression the crimson king is responsible for.

The other songs of the album have dealt with the wars, as well as the suffering, greed, alienation, fear, and misguided hope we all feel; this last song deals with the bread and circuses, the entertainment and titillation used by the bloodthirsty ones in power to keep us at bay.

“The rusted chains of prison moons/Are shattered by the sun.” The prison of dark night, of lunacy, no longer keeps us in chains when we see the sunlight of truth. “I walk a road, horizons change”: I explore what’s out there in the freedom of my thoughts, and my whole perspective changes because of this sunny enlightenment. “The tournament’s begun”: the powers-that-be are ready to contest my freedom by attempting to put me back to sleep, back in the “rusted chains” of my former lunacy, a mental illness that comes from being denied the truth. 

To lure me back into hypnotized compliance, the “purple piper plays his tune/The choir softly sing/Three lullabies in an ancient tongue…” The three lullabies seem to represent the Trinity of the authoritarian Church, tricking me into thinking all these wars are for the glory of Christ (e.g., as against Muslims, etc.).

A king’s court is full of servile flatterers, and the contemporary equivalent–the media as part of the superstructure of the ruling class–is no improvement. All this lulling, hypnotizing music of the piper, the choir, and the orchestra symbolizes the deceitful narrative we get in the mainstream media, a problem every bit as real back in the days of the Cold War–with Operation Mockingbird–as it is today, with similar mind games going on to make one wonder if Operation Mockingbird ever really ended.

“The keeper of the city keys,” who controls who can enter and leave, and thus controls us in general, “put shutters on the dreams,” preventing us from realizing them. The “pilgrim” wishes to go on a far-off journey to a far better, holier place than our corrupt city, and “I wait outside” his home, thinking of how I can help him escape, but my “insufficient schemes” can’t get us out of town.

The “black queen” of Thanatos, the death drive that inspires war and lulls us into joining her with her “chants” and ringing “cracked brass bells,” more mesmerizing music to fan the flames of desire and hate, “To summon back the Fire Witch.” We take pleasure in satisfying our desires and in causing death.

The ruling class seems to do good in one place–that is, it “plants an evergreen/Whilst trampling on a flower,” or doing evil elsewhere. Distracted by all this, “I chase” empty pleasure, “the wind” (which I aimlessly talk to, knowing it won’t hear, much less satisfy my yearnings). In Shakespeare’s day, a juggler was a “trickster, deceiver, fraud” (Crystal and Crystal, page 248); lifting his hand, the juggler makes the mesmerizing, “orchestra begin/As slowly turns the grinding wheel” of the empire of bloodshed.

“The Return of the Fire Witch” section has a pretty flute solo by McDonald. We’re lulled in the bower of bliss of our desires, not noticing the death and destruction elsewhere in the world.

The “mornings [, when] widows cry,” are “grey” because the Moonchild’s illusory hope for a sunny morning never came true: the widows’ husbands came home from Vietnam (and the other wars of recent memory) in bodybags. “The wise men [who] share a joke” are the academics of today who are full of witty, clever observations, but are cut off from the common people because they’re all in ivory towers. 

I read the newspaper propaganda, the “divining signs,” because I want to be reassured in my prejudices of what’s going on in the world, “to satisfy the hoax,” and not face the truth. This propaganda is part of what the “jester” does as he “gently pulls the strings/And smiles as the puppets dance”–all part of the ruling class’s control of the media, the minds of the public, and therefore the political direction of the world, pushing us further and further towards even more bloodshed, inequality, and despair.

“The Dance of the Puppets” section, like the “Fire Witch” one, has a sweet melody played by multi-instrumentalist McDonald; again, we’re tricked into thinking all is well, so we never hear the screams of the suffering.

The dissonance heard coming towards the end of the song (including Giles’s magnificently precise and fast drum licks) suggests the pain and sorrow hidden behind the pleasant melodies of the “Fire Witch” and “Puppets” sections. In fact, the song ends almost as chaotically and abruptly as “21st Century Schizoid Man,” fittingly bringing the whole album full circle, and reminding us of the horrors that are hidden, because the crimson king uses silence to drown the screams. 

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