King Crimson

The Court of the Crimson King/The Return of the Fire Witch/The Dance of the

Composed by Robert Fripp / Ian McDonald / Peter Sinfield

Song Review by

"The Court of the Crimson King" was the grand finale to King Crimson's epochal debut album, In the Court of the Crimson King: An Observation by King Crimson. Although the song is really not at all typical of what most of King Crimson's records contained -- particularly since guitarist Robert Fripp has been the only member from the lineup on that album to play on most of the group's subsequent recordings -- it remains, justifiably, their most famous song. The track wastes no time pulling out the stops, starting with a grand, clenched-teeth Mellotron riff anchored by Michael Giles' always varying, underrated drum beats, and the drama is heightened by a turnaround (inspired by James Brown, of all people) in which the Mellotron slowly creeps up the scale until it gets back to where it started. As the intro fades out, a folky verse starts that's really not all that different from a typical classy late-'60s Donovan tune. (Lest some find the Donovan citation an affront, let it be noted that early King Crimson regularly covered Donovan's "Get Thy Bearings" in concert.) The lyrics evoke a medieval royal court and not one that's entirely welcome, with its images of a black queen, funeral march, and fire witch. The vocals become more intensely dramatic -- portentous, pretentious even -- as the singer announces the court of the crimson king, leading into a death-mask wordless harmonized vocalization of the grinding theme introduced in the opening instrumental section. Cleverly, the band varies the instrumentation and tempo subtly from verse to verse with thoughtful skill beyond most folk-rockers or prog rockers -- Michael Giles' stuttering drum rolls being particularly excellent. The verses are interrupted by instrumental breaks which, again, are quite different from each other, though they adhere to the same tune: one glides like a kite set free over fields, another is a pastoral respite that accelerates ominously near the end. The macabre mood peaks in the last verse, where the wordless turnaround eventually comes to a tumbling halt, followed by a sudden optimistic chord and Aeolian vocal as if heralding the appearance of a sudden shaft of sunlight in the dismal court. But it's a false ending, some percussive tinkles leading into a downright goofy reiteration of the main theme by recorder, as if to mimic the dances of the puppets described in the song. An especially booming drum pattern leads the band back into its most crazed, violent restatement of the main theme, this time wholly instrumental, with some of the greatest, chilliest Mellotron ever played on a rock record (by Ian McDonald). The impression here is of a magical court on the verge of teetering amok, especially with the near-berserk keyboard washes of the final bars before it comes to a cold end. The nine-minute "The Court of the Crimson King" may have some of the bombast and pretension that early progressive rock in general is accused of purveying. But few, if any, early progressive rock tracks were as powerful, perfectly evoking the magical yet ghastly faces and artwork adorning the album sleeve.

Appears On

Year Artist/Album Label Time AllMusic Rating
In the Court of the Crimson King 1969 Caroline Distribution / EG Records 9:22