Epitaph b/w 21st Century Schizoid Man single
King Crimson had its genesis in a collaboration between Dorset, U.K. residents Michael Giles, a drummer, his brother Peter, a bassist, and guitarist Robert Fripp. In August 1967, the Giles brothers advertised for a singing keyboardist to join their new musical project. In spite of the fact that Fripp was not a singer and not a keyboardist, the trio joined forces to form Giles, Giles and Fripp. Based on a format of eccentric pop songs and complex instrumentals, Giles, Giles and Fripp recorded a series of unsuccessful singles and one album. The band had several radio sessions and television appearances, but never achieved a commercial breakthrough. Attempting to expand their sound, the band recruited multi-instrumentalist Ian MacDonald on keyboards, along with MacDonald’s then-girlfriend, singer Judy Dyble. Dyble’s tenure with the band was brief, but MacDonald recuited lyricist Peter Sinfield. Fripp then recommended his friend Greg Lake for recruitment into the band, with the suggestion that Lake replace either Peter Giles or himself. Ultimately, Peter Giles stepped aside and the first incarnation of King Crimson came into existence in late 1968. The band made their live debut on April 9, 1969 and achieved a breakthrough by playing the free concert staged by The Rolling Stones in Hyde Park, London in July 1969. They released their debut album, “In the Court of King Crimson”, in October 1969, on Island Records (distributed by Atlantic in the U.S.). The album was a commercial and critical success, and soon the band was touring the United States alongside many contemporary popular bands. McDonald and Giles, however, chafed at Fripp’s creative control, and wanting to record a lighter and more romantic style of music, quit the band during a tour of California in late 1969. Greg Lake was the next member to leave, departing in early 1970 to join Emerson, Lake and Palmer. This left Robert Fripp as the only remaining original member. For the next eighteen months or so, the band was in flux. Fripp convinced Lake to sing on the next studio album, “In The Wake of Poseidon” (1970), in exchange for the band’s PA equipment, got his former band mate Gordon Haskell to sing on one track, and also recruited Michael and Peter Giles to play on the album. Mel Collins played saxophone and flute. For the next album, Fripp retained Collins, as well as Haskell, who would now play bass as well as sing. Andy McCulloch, another Dorset musician, rounded out the new lineup on drums. This lineup recorded “Lizard”, released in December 1970.
But this lineup would prove to be a transitional one. In 1971, Fripp started auditioning new band members. Ian Wallace (who had played with Ian Anderson) became the new drummer, and was soon joined by Raymond “Boz” Burrell. Unable to find a new bass player, Fripp taught Burrell to play bass (Burrell had never played bass before, but had played rhythm guitar). This band became the first incarnation of King Crimson since 1969 to tour. This lineup recorded “Islands” (1971), an album which received mixed reviews. After the release of this album, Fripp ousted Sinfield as his songwriting partner, and the remaining band broke up acrimoniously as a result of Fripp’s unwillingness to incorporate his band mates’ ideas into the songwriting process. This lineup would reunite to fulfill King Crimson’s 1972 tour commitments (recordings from this tour would surface on the “Earthbound” live album). Fripp recruited free-improvising percussionist Jamie Muir, who was paired with former Yes drummer Bill Bruford in the first lineup of King Crimson to feature two drummers. John Wetton became the new singer/bass player, and David Cross became the new keyboardist. Wetton’s friend Richard Palmer-James became Fripp’s new lyricist. Rehearsals began in late 1972, and the work ultimately paid off, as the resulting album, “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic” (1973) was hailed by many critics as revolutionary, drawing from influences as varied as Bartok, Vaughan Williams, and heavy metal. Muir departed the band after the release of this album, and King Crimson continued as a quartet. Their next album, “Starless and Bible Black” (1974), was released to mostly positive reviews. The band soon began to fracture again, with Cross being voted out of the band in 1974 after a tour of Europe and America. The remaining trio reconvened to record their next album, “Red” (1974); unbeknownst to Buford and Wetton, Fripp was undergoing a spiritual crisis and thus largely withdrew from the sessions, leaving Buford and Wetton to direct them. Nevertheless, “Red” turned out to be one of King Crimson’s strongest albums, and although it achieved only moderate commercial success, it remains very popular with fans and critics. After the release of this album, Fripp disbanded King Crimson. A posthumous live album, “USA”, was released the following year. Fripp embarked on a solo career; in the meantime, Island Records reissued two of the band’s classics from the first album, “Epitaph” and “21st Century Schizoid Man” as a single. This is today’s featured single.
“Epitaph” is a musical triptych that runs almost 9 minutes. [The single version is the album version, and the single is played at 33 RPM to accommodate the length of the song.] The chord progression is not overly complex: during the verses we get Em/D/Am/B, and during the chorus, it’s Em/Bm repeated three times, followed by C/Am/Bm. The song showcases a haunting, minor-key melody with image-laden lyrics: “The wall on which the prophets wrote/Is cracking at the seams/Upon the instruments of death/The sunlight brightly gleams”. The lyrics seem to reach an apocalyptic fury with the proclamation at the end of the second verse that “[t]he fate of all mankind I see/Is in the hands of fools”. This gives way to a lengthy instrumental break that starts about 3 minutes and 40 seconds into the song (the second part of the song, subtitled “March for No Reason”), and which showcases Ian MacDonald’s clarinet-playing. This section lasts 1 minute and 35 seconds long and is followed by a reprise of the first verse and the chorus. Greg Lake mournfully repeats the final line of the chorus “I fear tomorrow I’ll be crying” during the song’s soaring, ethereal fade-out. “Epitaph” stands as not only one of the better songs from a classic album, but as a symbol of the best of what progressive rock had to offer when the genre was still in its infancy.
The B-side of this single, “21st Century Schizoid Man”, opens with some bizarre, cavernous noises before the guitars and other instrumentation thunders in 29 seconds into the track. It’s another 18 seconds before Greg Lake delivers the lyrics that delineate King Crimson’s vision of a futuristic dystopia: “Cats foot iron claw/Neurosurgeons scream for more/At paranoias poison door./Twenty first century schizoid man”. The song is buildt around a lumbering main riff, that swirls around the intricate lyrics. But more than anything else, the song provides a framework in which Fripp and company can engage in an extended instrumental break, which is supposed to mirror musically just how off-kilter the 21st century mind is, an up-tempo section of jazz rock, and one which showcases the musicianship of its members – MacDonald’s saxophone work stands out quite well here, although the guitar solo is quite memorable as well. The third and final lyric is sung about 6 minutes into the track, and while the lyrics aren’t that elaborate by King Crimson standards, the idea of a dysfunctional world in which rampant paranoia is the only way in which to survive, in which violence and greedy consumerism (“[n]othing he’s got he really needs”) are the norm, is particularly haunting. After the jazzy mid-section, guitarist Robert Fripp plays a guitar solo, who uses different amplification effects to create dissonance, further mirroring the paranoia of the song’s subject matter. The guitar chords are distorted (as is MacDonald’s backing Mellotron chords) as King Crimson lays out a post-psychedelic sound that is more heavy metal-sounding than anything else on the first album. “21st Century Schizoid Man” is not everyone’s cup of tea, and undoubtedly it will strike many fans and critics as too self-indulgent, but I give the song a thumbs-up. The single version clocks in at 6 minutes and 52 seconds long, while the album version is 7 minutes and 23 seconds long – presumably the single version omits the eerie opening.
The single (catalog #: WIP 6274) was issued on Island Records in 1976. It had no picture sleeve; the label was the orange and red Island label with the island and palm tree on the left side. The artist info is printed across the top and the track info is printed across the bottom. Fripp would eventually re-form King Crimson in 1981, with Adrian Belew as lyricist and co-guitarist. This incarnation lasted three years and resulted in three albums, but King Crimson split again in 1984. Fripp and Belew joined forces again in 1994; this incarnation lasted about ten years, after which Fripp again put King Crimson on hold, but he returned in 2007 with a new lineup, again teaming up with Adrian Belew and drummer Pat Mastelotto from the previous incarnation, bringing back bassist Tony Levin, who had played with the band in the 1990s, and a new second drummer, Gavin Harrison. The new lineup began rehearsals in the spring of 2008, in preparation for a brief four-city tour that in turn would be preparation for the band’s fortieth anniversary in 2009.