I first met the 21st Century Schizoid Man in a small music store in Montreal, November of 1969. The debut album of King Crimson was still hot off the pressing machine and I was a young man looking for a way to…
Well, to be quite honest with you I wasn’t sure what I was looking for and I still can’t quite define it but for a 15-year-old plucked from the middle of a cold prairie winter this album was a revolution.
I had grown up listening to my Dad’s small collection of country and western albums, and even a few 78’s, and the staple of radio was CFCW, the voice of the farmers. I didn’t know that music like King Crimson was making even existed. The closest I had ever been to anything remotely close to this was listening to a bit of 630 CHED, the pop station out of Edmonton. The reception was sketchy at the best of times and the rest of the time it was what Dad wanted to hear: CFCW, with your prairie hog report. King Crimson took my music listening to a whole new level.
The 47 Year Old King
That opening riff is killer, it grabs you immediately and then won’t let go. The grinding guitar offset by the soaring brass/organ and pounding drums. It hooks you and pulls you in and then continues to sustain the pressure. The lyrics are easy to comprehend, I’m not knocking some other bands but there are many that I simply can not interpret what they are singing. King Crimson do not make that mistake. But what does it all mean? Does it matter? Just grab that infectious groove and go with it. Just chant “21st Century Schizoid Man” on the fourth bar of each refrain and you’ll nail the song. I don’t have to understand it to enjoy it.
And then it all changes, the rhythm slows, then picks up and we have intense horns. Horns? This is supposed to be rock and roll. Oh wait, the guitar follows the horns in short order so all is as it should be again. But the guitar sounds so different, I mean really, The Beatles don’t play the guitar like that. Or Eric Clapton or anyone else that I know of. This is totally weird shit man but I dig it. It has a driving beat again, and more horns but I like it. And then the song goes all staccato, and it demands attention. I have to listen so I won’t miss anything. There is so much more happening that just a couple of blokes jamming. And then it builds and the vocals return, just remember the chant on the fourth refrain, got it. Whoa, it goes all freaky, the sounds are discordant and not playing the same song, or are they? And then it ends and I absolutely have to play it again, and again.
And so here we are; 47 years later playing it again and again. What gives a piece of music the ability to last that long and not lose its appeal? It has to be something more than an earworm, that belongs to the Archies Sugar Sugar. It must be something more than nostalgia, I reserve that for Hank Williams and remembering my Dad.
I think the 21st Century Schizoid Man was on to something. The creators of him knew a thing or two about music and put that to good effect on this song in particular but on the album as a whole as well, and they continue to do so, especially Mr Robert Fripp, the lead architect and guitar virtuoso. Mr Fripp had been exposed to diverse musical experiences since acquiring his first guitar at the age of 11, whereas I did not get my first guitar until I was 15, giving him a full 4 years head start which explains why he is so much a better player than I.
Mr Fripp has been quoted as being influenced by Charlie Parker, Charlie Mingus, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Antonin Dvorak’s New World Symphony and Are You Experienced by John Mayall among others and this diet of varied musical greats would contribute greatly to his playing style. Fripp, as he is affectionately known to music aficionado’s, uses jazz, symphony and old world influences to great effect and that is very evident in the Court of the Crimson King. Jazz, even free-form jazz, flows smoothly alongside soaring rock guitar and echoes of the symphony can be heard in the way the song builds, fades and moves forward. This album, and the song 21st Century Schizoid Man, in particular, are not an accidental fusion of sounds. It is carefully crafted and intelligently delivered.
I do not wish to patronise Mr Fripp so I would like to introduce the rest of the band: Michael Giles on percussion, Greg Lake on lead vocals and bass guitar, Ian McDonald on woodwinds and keyboards and last but not least: Peter Sinfield, lyrics, illumination and production. I do not wish to belittle Mr Sinfield but it is not every album that lists illumination as a credit. So to expand on this here is Mr Sinfield quoted from Wikipedia: In his own words, “I became their pet hippie because I could tell them where to go to buy the funny clothes that they saw everyone wearing”. Sinfield also came up with the name King Crimson. Sinfield loved working with the band and, in addition to writing the phantasmagorical lyrics that came to be part of King Crimson’s trademark, he also ran the group’s light-show at their concerts.
So there we have it, a group of charming English lads get together and create a piece of music that I still enjoy listening to 47 years later. Well done chaps, well done.
Now if you will excuse me, I need to pay a visit to The Court of The Crimson King where a Moonchild and I will March For No Reason while I Talk To The Wind. It’s not a Dream or an Illusion, or a trick of Mirrors. It is only the Return of the Fire Witch and the Dance of the Puppets in the Court of The Crimson King.