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

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