#98: “EPITAPH” (KING CRIMSON)
There is something magic to all those album covers from the late sixties and the seventies. Something special, majestic, and utterly disturbing if you look at them closely. The cover for King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King is one such image, and it stands out as probably the most iconic from that period due to its sheer explicitness: the screaming face, anguish and fear portrayed in red, purple and blue…. This is an image that instantly nests in your memory and never lets go.
When I first listened to this song I was 24, and I still had not explored the full spectrum of progressive rock. Actually, back then I did not know such a type of music existed —the only kind of music I knew about was “symphonic rock”, which included mostly Pink Floyd, Genesis and Yes, but then again those were (together with Jethro Tull and ELP) the only “symphonic” bands I had listened to.
And then, one day I happened to come across In the Court of the Crimson King. In those days I used to buy records on a whim, without having the slightest idea about the artists or bands that created the music. I would take a look at the cover and at the running time of the songs, and if the cover was suggestive or mysterious and the songs were longer than 6 or 7 minutes, chances were I would be interested in the album and very possibly buy it. That’s the way I came to discover King Crimson —as well as Van Der Graaf Generator, a few years later. Of all the songs in the album this was the one that impressed me the most. It may not be the most popular nor the best one in terms of musical quality, but it’s the one to which I feel the most emotionally attached.
Now, about the music itself: “Epitaph” has a similar vibe to “I Talk to the Wind”, the song that immediately precedes it in the album, without being as ethereal, soft or folksy. Ian McDonald’s mellotron features prominently in this song, a presence always evocative of fond memories. At least that is the feeling this instrument awakens in me. Apart from Mike Pinder in The Moody Blues, very few bands/musicians have been able to equal the use of mellotron in such an evocative way as in the very first King Crimson —maybe only Rick Wakeman, Woody Wolstenholm or Tony Banks, though Patrick Moraz also gave us some of the most memorable mellotron contributions to date (most notably in “The Gates of Delirium”).
You will find no rambling or pointless jamming on this one, no weird noises used for weirdness’ sake (not that I have anything against weird noises, but with King Crimson they somehow don’t work as well as with Gentle Giant or Soft Machine, not to mention kraut-rock bands like Can). At least not until that stupid and pointless mesh of nonsense that starts about three four minutes into “Moonchild” kicks in —years later I would discover another musician who could rival and occasionally surpass Fripp in terms of creating pointless waves of weird noises… yes, I mean Peter Hammill, a man who I will be profusely writing about later on.
“Epitaph” displays some good —though by no means terrific— lyrics by Peter Sinfield. Somehow I always think of Bob Calvert from Hawkwind as an equivalent to Pete Sinfield in terms of a ‘guru’ or inspirational figure for a rock band (the main difference between the two being that Calvert did actually sing, act as the front-man in Hawkwind, and contribute heavily to the band’s mood and charisma both in the studio and —specially— in their early live shows and performances). When you hear something like “confusion will be my epitaph” and “yes I fear tomorrow I’ll be crying” you know you’re in for a treat in terms of simple yet efficient lyricism. Almost every verse in the song (let alone the refrain) is as metaphoric as a metaphor can get. The highly abstract lyrics, nonetheless, are here matched by an unexpectedly brilliant singing by Greg Lake. I must admit I have never quite liked the man’s voice in ELP, most probably because I have never quite liked ELP. His singing is not bad, it is just a tad too cheesy, forced or simply too far out, depending on the album. In “Epitaph” and virtually in the whole of In the Court of the Crimson King, —save for “21st Century Schizoid Man,” for obvious reasons— Lake seems to reach just the right balance between excess and restraint, and even though he tends to lean more on the bombastic side of singing, this does not hurt the song in the least since the song itself exudes bombast.
In all, this is a song that will set you in the right mood to think, to dream or just to be washed away by those inescapable mellotron waves out of day-to-day life’s prosaic nature into the calm and peaceful waters of nostalgia. I have listened to John Wetton’s performance of some of the early classics in some of the band’s 1974 shows (specifically “21st Century Schizoid Man” and “Cat Food” from In the Wake of Poseidon), and as much as I love Wetton’s singing in Red, his voice sounds tame and somehow unconvincing if compared to Lake’s original rendititions. But that may just be me, of course.