Monday, August 5, 2013

King Crimson - 21st Century Schizoid Man

“In The Court of The Crimson King” is one of my favorite albums. As one of first ever “progressive” rock bands King Crimson did a lot to influence and inspire a variety of musicians in a variety of ways. King Crimson was one of the first bands to focus on building dark atmospheres in their music and incorporated lyrics of far out fantasies. Many of their instrumentals were long and highly experimental, almost to the point of sounding like a casual session or note exploration than an actually structure song. Also interesting is that “In The Court of The Crimson King” was the best selling album of 1969.

1969 was a good year for music, arguably the best year ever:

- Led Zeppelin I
- Led Zeppelin II
- The Beatles – Yellow Submarine
- Three Dog Night (Debut)
- Jefferson Airplane – Bless Its Pointed Little Head
- Cream – Goodbye
- The Velvet Underground (Debut)
- The Guess Who – Wheatfield Soul
- Bob Dylan – Nashville Skyline
- Joe Cocker – With A Little Help From My Friends
- The Moody Blues – On The Threshold of a Dream
- Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Everybody Knows This is Nowhere
- The Who – Tommy
- Deep Purple (Debut)
- Yes (Debut)
- Janis Joplin – I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama!
- The Band (Debut)
- The Beatles – Abbey Road
- Credence Clearwater Revival – Willy and the Poor Boys
- David Bowie – Space Oddity
- Mott The Hoople (Debut)
- The Rolling Stones – Let It Bleed

Just to name a few of the albums that came out in 1969.

At the time King Crimson’s “In The Court of The Crimson King” managed to outsell everybody, even Zeppelin, even the Beatles. Now since then many of the albums listed above have gone on to eclipse the selling numbers of King Crimson’s debut album, still it is impressive they managed to garner the popularity and attention they did and in such a prestigious year too. King Crimson’s success would be short live, sort of. After 1969 the progressive rock band would be reduced to a cult favorite loved by few but forgotten by most everyone else.

Many people have gotten it into their heads that the Crimson King is the devil and his court is hell, but I don’t think that works. The kingdom described to us in “The Court Of The Crimson King” is eerily specific in many details, and many things suggest the setting to be a fantastic place of magic and manipulation. The Crimson King’s subjects are presented to us as slave or victims of his will, and while this could be used to describe the biblical devil it only works given our broad multi-dimensional interpretation of the traditional “Satan.” It is a weak connection at best.

The Crimson King
from Stephen King's
The Gunslinger Series
It was not just music King Crimson would influence, their cryptic lyrics would allow for a large array of interpretations. One of the primary antagonist in Stephen King’s “The Gunslinger” series was called “The Crimson King” a not so subtle reference to the music Mr. King obviously loves. Interestingly enough, even though Stephen King’s works are ultra famous and his musical reference is painfully obvious the cult status of King Crimson prevents the overwhelming majority of people to catch the reference. So hurray! I got it.

Along with the title track “In The Court Of The Crimson King” the only other song King Crimson has ever had that appears to made any kind of splash in the minds of the general population of casual listeners is “21st Century Schizoid Man.”

“21st Century Schizoid Man” is in many ways a logical first choice to present to someone unfamiliar with King Crimson as a first listen. It is the second shortest song on their debut album at seven minutes and twenty-four seconds and the one song that allows for abridging for radio play. It is also one of King Crimson’s only songs that have an easily identified hook to catch casual listener’s ear early on. Most King Crimson songs are an adventure onto themselves, perhaps, maybe “21st Century Schizoid Man” least of all, but still.

There are only a handful of lyrics in “21st Century Schizoid Man” but they are deep;

“Cats foot iron claw,
Neuro-surgeons scream for more,
At paranoia's poison door.
Twenty first century schizoid man.

Blood rack barbed wire,
Politicians funeral pyre,
Innocents raped with napalm fire,
Twenty first century schizoid man.

Death seed, blind man’s greed,
Poets starving, children bleed,
Nothing he’s got he really needs,
Twenty first century schizoid man.”

The lyric, “Innocents raped with napalm fire” should strike up this image:
"Innocents raped with napalm fire."
I am nearly one hundred percent certain that King Crimson is deliberately referencing this moment in history with that lyric. I am so certain in fact I didn’t bother doing any research to confirm my suspicion. For those of you don’t know this image was taken during the Vietnam War after a payload of napalm was dropped on a village, that poor little girl came running out screaming looking for help after having her clothes and some of skin burned off. This is very literally innocence being raped by napalm fire.

So King Crimson managed to be both deep and political. Good work.

“21st Century Schizoid Man” is a great song, but if for some reason you don’t believe me, believe Ozzy Osbourne, he did a cover of it on his 2005 cover album appropriately titled “Under Cover.”

Now if you are not someone who listens to progressive rock or Ozzy, but you do listen to the top 40 you are probably still familiar with this song in some manner, also you might be my bizarro. Recently self proclaimed lyrical genius Kayne West released the song “21st Century” and you already know where this is going. Kayne has sampled the most radio friendly song by an incredible radio unfriendly band. Still I got to give the man credit for having good taste, or for digging deep for a song to sample no one else would have heard of, but alas Kayne me and many others remember progressive rock bands from the late sixties and seventies. 

Kanye West - 21st Century

There is no point in being mad anymore this is like the billionth time someone has done this. I am just glad that this might encourage people to look up the original. So if you found this blog post because you were google’ing something like “song sampled by Kayne in 21st Century” you have come to the right place, now go listen to King Crimson “21st Century Schizoid Man.” Do it!

Until later this month keep on rocking in the free world.

- Colin Kelly


  1. the photo could not have been the reference point for the song, since the photo was taken in '72