In The Court of the Crimson King, by King Crimson

An album cover art story

Pete Sinfield was in need of an album cover. Having served as roadie, light man, lyricist and a general conceptualizer for a new band named King Crimson, he was now tasked with the matter of finding a way to package the strange music the band was committing to tape in the recording studio. Wasting no time, he reached out to his friend and former colleague at English Electric Computers, were they worked the night shifts as computer operators. Enter Barry Godber, who was hired not for his computer programming skills but rather those with the brush, for he studied at Chelsea Art School and was savvy with watercolors. Having never been commissioned for an art project and certainly not an album cover, the aspiring artist asked to listen to the music his art was supposed to visualize. Sinfield put on the tape, blasting a piece of music that blew Godber’s socks off. Hundreds of thousands of people at Hyde Park experienced the same effect a few weeks earlier, when King Crimson unveiled their music at The Stones in the Park concert. Sinfield gave Godber one directive: The cover had to stand out in record shops.

Barry Godber

How do you visualize a song like 21st Century Schizoid Man? Godber sat himself in front of a mirror and started painting. Whatever went through his mind as he was applying the watercolors to canvas, it worked. When completed, Sinfield brought it to the recording studio and laid it on the floor for the group members to look at. All but one were flabbergasted. Greg Lake recalls “We all stood around it, and it was like something out of Treasure Island where you’re all standing around a box of jewels and treasure… This fucking face screamed up from the floor, and what it said to us was ‘schizoid man’ – the very track we’d been working on. It was as if there was something magic going on.” The only one who did not like the painting was drummer Michael Giles, but as Robert Fripp said, he also did not like the name King Crimson.

The album was released in October 1969, and some record stores immediately latched on to the visual impact of its cover. Posters were blown up to a size that covered most of the storefronts, projecting a surreal and scary urban facade to unsuspecting passersby. Godbear definitely delivered on Sinfield’s request – that cover stood up. The album was packaged in a gate fold cover that extended one side of the screaming face. Upon opening the gate fold you found Pete Sinfield’s lyrics and another painting by Barry Godbear, this one depicting the character of the Crimson King. That face seem to be smiling, but deeper emotions are hidden in that facial expression. Fripp added: “If you cover the smiling face, the eyes reveal an incredible sadness. What can one add – It reflects the music.”

The detail given to the album cover design went beyond the paintings. The title above the lyrics on the inner sleeve drew you in, reading:

In The Court of the Crimson King

An Observation by

King Crimson

No text appeared on the front cover, and nothing even on the album spine. The band’s then-co-manager John Gaydon recalls Fripp saying “It’ll be the only record in the shop without anything down the spine on it, so they’ll know which one it is.”

I remember the first time I listened to the album. Album sleeve in my hands, my gaze on that wrenched painted face, I dropped the needle on side 1 of the LP.  It was the perfect sonic match to the album cover, a musical wow moment you experience only a few times in your life. When you calm down from the auditory assault of the first minute, you realize this is a complex piece of music executed by very talented musicians. Multi-instrumentalist Ian McDonald on recording 21st Century Schizoid Man: “The first track on the album was the last one we actually recorded. And I’m very fond of letting people know that we actually recorded it from beginning to end in one take, with no edits. We did overdub some parts later. Contrary to what you might think, it was actually a breeze compared to other tracks. The sax solo just ends abruptly, but we needed the tape track to punch in for one of Robert’s guitar parts.” Sinfield added more insight into the lyrics: “The lyrics for Schizoid Man were written right at the end, where we knew the thing was angry, against the Vietnam war; an angry, modern song of its time. I knew I had to say something, and that I didn’t have many words to say it in.”

King Crimson, 1969

Barry Godber sadly died at the young age of 24, a year after the album was released. Fifty years on that piece of music still has the same effect, that sense of urgency, as it did when it was first released. Here it is. The needle drops, and…

Categories: Album Art

16 replies »

  1. Listening to this makes me feel 13 again. I am now 64. There are albums I never get tired of ,and this is one of them. along with islands of course.

    • Ditto for me my friend, killer artwork and welcome to Prog Rock. Those were great days. Sending from Nanoose Bay, BC Canada. Grooved to this early 70s in Ottawa, early prog rock days! I am also 64. Cheers Rob

  2. This album cover has always been a mystery to me.
    It was one of my brother’s records and when he died my mother propped it up infront of the stereo and left it there for ages.
    My brother was 24 and was an incredible artist as well. He died of a brain anyerism. I once asked her why it was there and all she could say was she liked it.
    Was hoping I would find more info reading the story.
    I am pretty sure he bought it when he toured Europe in 1970.

    • Interesting story, Brenda. Your mom is pretty cool for liking the album, music as well as cover art not easy to digest. Many young folks in 1970 were into this type of music and the art of album covers. Those were the days.

      • Those were the days! I was only 4 yrs old in 1971, but strangely began a lifelong obsession/love with Music and Art, through album art. I had just learned to read, so reading every word of every album cover in our home was my favorite past time. Thankful my parents had good taste. Thankful this love followed me through my lifetime. Took hiatus from vinyl, like most, but always returned there. King Crimson and especially this cover stay embedded in my psyche, and I’m so grateful.

  3. This era of music was a bridge to me back to , for the lack of a better word, Rock. I grew up listening to a lot of jazz being a horn player. In the mid 60’s jazz as Zappa said, jazz is not dead, it just smells funny, started to want the glory, the riches the girls on private jets that rock acts, some who could barely play their instruments, were enjoying. I was 22, 23 in the early 70’s and all the big rock acts were in their heydays. That got stale and along came these musicians who melded jazz chops on rock beats and instruments. Crimson, ELP, Zappa, The Nice. It was a great time to be alive especially with the crap that poses as music these days. I suspect strongly that folks like me are going through those records way back in the closet looking for gems they may have missed .

    • Yes. Definitely. I find myself returning to jazz, revisiting old collections. Craving something more pure. I’m not a musician, and without a trained ear, but just a lifelong obsession/deep Love for music of all genres. My mantra: so much Music..not enough time. Thanks for sharing your story. Very interesting to hear the perspective of a true musician. And, thank you for honing your craft/Art. We appreciate it. You make the world better. 🙂

  4. The fact that you don’t include the fact that everyone was tripping balls at the time makes your review disingenuous. Start with the right basis and carry on from there. Frame it up right and true.

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