King Crimson exploded right out of the gate in October 1969 with In the Court of the Crimson King, one of the few debut albums to become an instant classic. Popular music history is littered with examples of acts that didn’t peak in artistic and/or commercial terms until well into their recording careers. Artists as diverse as Genesis, Brian Eno, and Radiohead searched for their voices until their third albums, and even the sainted Beatles didn’t go from merely excellent to sublime until Rubber Soul, their sixth. But In the Court of the Crimson King was the complete package, and remains significant and influential to this day in both musical and visual terms.Eric Tamm describes the album’s impact upon the music scene as a sort of cosmic big bang that produced a number of splinter genres:
The “In the Court of the Crimson King” album cover caused the music industry to rethink what marketing possibilities existed in the sleeve. Also, this cover had no identification on its front. You would have to pick the album up to read the pertinent formation
Barry Godber (1946–1970), a computer programmer, painted the album cover. Godber died in February 1970 from a heart attack, shortly after the album’s release. It was his only album cover and the original painting is now owned by Robert Fripp, the band’s mastermind and guitarist.
Artist Barry Godber attended Chelsea Art College, where his circle of friends included Sinfield and future King Crimson tour manager Dik Fraser. Godber later joined them in their day job as computer programmers, where they plotted a visual identity for the band in their spare time. Godber designed Michael Giles’ bass drum skins, the press kit, and a trippy concert poster printed on reflective silver foil, reproduced in Sid Smith’s In the Court of King Crimson (page 49) and the booklet for the 40th Anniversary Series CDedition. But the main event was the immediately iconic sleeve painting, executed in watercolors. According to Smith, it was partly a self-portrait drawn from Godber’s own visage as seen in a shaving mirror, and partly a visual allusion to a William Blake print:
Godber’s screaming visage shares the etched dread of poet, painter and visionary William Blake’s ‘Nebuchadnezzar’ (1795), in which the Babylonian king, in the words of Blake biographer Peter Ackroyd, is “grown mad with unbelief.“
–Sid Smith, In the Court of King Crimson, page 80
Peter brought this painting in and the band loved it. I recently recovered the original from [managing label E.G. Records’s] offices because they kept it exposed to bright light, at the risk of ruining it, so I ended up removing it. The face on the outside is the Schizoid Man, and on the inside it’s the Crimson King. If you cover the smiling face, the eyes reveal an incredible sadness. What can one add? It reflects the music.[5
The Who’s Pete Townshend famously called it “an uncanny masterpiece.” The album also boasts a singularly unique cover that still regularly appears on best-of album cover lists. It ranked #62 on Rolling Stone’s100 Greatest Album Covers in 1991, #9 on MusicRadar’s The 50 Greatest Album Covers of All Time, and #50 on Gigwise’s Top 50 Greatest Album Covers of All Time. It was selected for the book The Story of Island Records.
In some ways it follows the design trends of its time: a lavish gatefold LP package sporting handmade psychedelic artwork. For the benefit of younger readers who may have never even bought a compact disc let alone a vinyl long playing record, gatefold sleeves first appeared in the 1950s, typically employed for multi-disc sets. A side effect was the effective doubling of the printed real estate to almost four square feet. That’s a lot of room for art and design.
The gatefold sleeve gained traction as an art form in the late 60s and early 70s. Single LP packages (including such landmarks as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and The Dark Side of the Moon) were sometimes designed with a superfluous flap, an extravagance signaling extra value to the buyer. One can argue about whether or not it makes sense to put a price on music. For instance, how many songs does $12.99 buy? How many minutes? You can, however, put a price on packaging. A gatefold LP package held the promise of additional artwork, lyrics, and liner notes within, and a sturdier surface without, ideal for practicing more than one kind of roll (amateur snare drum practice and rolling your own jazz cigarettes). Some packages utilized the extra sleeve to house booklets (some notables in my own collection include Yes’ Fragile and Yessongs, and The Who’s Tommy and Quadrophenia), or other printed inserts like posters and stickers (I’m looking at you, Dark Side of the Moon). Even their thickness mattered; they stood out more in stores, and made their presence known in home record collections.
The cover was also a brilliant marketing experiment as the cover bore no identification on the front, so you would have to pick the record up and flip it to where all the who’s, what’s, and where’s are located. It is then already in the customers’ hands.