King Crimson

In the Court of the Crimson King

The first incarnation of King Crimson formed in London on 30 November 1968 and first rehearsed on 13 January 1969. The band’s name was coined by Sinfield, though it is not meant to be a synonym for Beelzebub, prince of demons. (According to Fripp, Beelzebub would be an anglicised form of the Arabic phrase “B’il Sabab”, meaning “the man with an aim”.) Historically and etymologically, a “crimson king” was any monarch during whose reign there was civil unrest and copious bloodshed; the album debuted at the height of worldwide opposition to the military involvement of the United States in Southeast Asia. At this point, McDonald was the group’s main composer, albeit with contributions from Lake and Fripp, while Sinfield wrote the lyrics, designed and operated the band’s stage lighting, being credited with “sounds and visions”. The band purchase a Mellotron, and they began using it to create an orchestral rock sound, inspired by the Moody Blues. Sinfield described Crimson thus: “If it sounded at all popular, it was out. So it had to be complicated, it had to be more expansive chords, it had to have strange influences. If it sounded, like, too simple, we’d make it more complicated, we’d play it in 7/8 or 5/8, just to show off”.

King Crimson made their breakthrough live debut on 9 April 1969 by playing the Rolling Stones free concert at Hyde Park, London in July 1969 before an estimated 500,000 people. The debut album, In the Court of the Crimson King, was released in October 1969 on Island Records. Fripp would later describe it as having been “an instant smash”. The album received public compliments from Pete Townshend, the Who’s guitarist, who called the album “an uncanny masterpiece.” The album’s sound, including its opening track “21st Century Schizoid Man”, was described as setting the precedent for alternative rock and grunge, whilst the softer tracks are described as having an “ethereal” and “almost sacred” feel. In contrast to the blues-based hard rock of the contemporary British and American scenes, King Crimson presented a more Europeanised approach that blended antiquity and modernity. The band’s music drew on a wide range of influences provided by all five group members. These elements included romantic- and modernist-era classical music, the psychedelic rock spearheaded by Jimi Hendrix, folk, jazz, military music (partially inspired by McDonald’s stint as an army musician), ambient improvisation, Victoriana and British pop.

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