Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.
King Crimson’s debut album, In the Court of the Crimson King, is iconic. The cover, a painting of a screaming creature (reportedly the only painting ever by computer programmer Barry Godber, who passed away shortly after the album’s release at the age of 24), is instantly recognizable and unforgettable. Although it was not the first prog-rock album, In the Court raised the bar and in many ways created the road map for the successes and excesses of the style. Nearly 44 years after the album’s release, it was discussed on, of all places, a New York Mets broadcast, and not because Mets fans so often have the same look on their faces.
Crimson leader Robert Fripp has described the first song on the record, “21st Century Schizoid Man,” as the first heavy metal song. That’s a claim that’s far from settled, but the crunching riff and distorted vocals and music displayed here would in fact become mandatory in the metal songs that followed in its wake. (Still, it is amusing to think of vocalist Greg Lake as a heavy metal godfather.) But the song also has a jazzy middle section, some virtuoso guitar soloing, and a free-time ending. Lyrically, the song is typical Peter Sinfield, filled with bizarre and obscure allusions and dystopian imagery which many have related to the Vietnam War. Fripp, at least once, dedicated “21st Century Schizoid Man” to Spiro Agnew.
The song has often been covered, more often than not in a metal style. As we will see, other covers pick up on the various styles included in the original. But not always.
Ozzy Osbourne – 21st Century Schizoid Man (King Crimson cover)
Eschewing any of the subtlety of the original, Ozzy Osborne’s version (from Under Cover, his 2005 cover album) features the jackhammer tempo, distorted vocals, and wailing guitars that typify the genre. However, the guitar solo is by Robert Randolph, who is generally better known for his more soulful pedal steel jamming. But given the chance to play with the Prince of Darkness, who would (or could) say no? This version ends with Osborne’s trademark Satanic vocal intoning, “Welcome to the 21st century.” Just like that, the title gains resonance – the 21st century has arrived, as has the madness predicted to come along with it.
Crimson Jazz Trio – 21st Century Schizoid Man (King Crimson cover)
There appears to be something about being in King Crimson that marks you for life. Even Fripp has proven unable to distance himself from his creation; he ultimately had to resurrect the name when his ’80s band, initially called Discipline, felt strong enough to bear the mantle/burden of the name King Crimson. A short sojourn in the band still seems to mean that somewhere in your career, you will reconnect in some way. In 2003, 30-plus years after leaving King Crimson for a career playing mainly blues-rock and Americana, Ian Wallace joined the 21st Century Schizoid Band, a (mostly) King Crimson alumni band, replacing Michael Giles (who drummed on the original version of “Schizoid Man”); he then went on the create the Crimson Jazz Trio, who specialized in reinterpreting King Crimson songs as jazz numbers. That band recorded two albums (the first opened with this cover) before Wallace passed away in 2006 from esophageal cancer.
Afterhours – 21st Century Schizoid Man (King Crimson cover)
The Italian band Afterhours find another way to reinterpret “21st Century Schizoid Man,” taking a pounding rhythm track and putting it under a faster version of the song. There is something almost hypnotic about this cover, which turns the song into an alternative rocker.
California Guitar Trio – Zundoko-Bushi (partial King Crimson cover)
A somewhat novel approach was used in this song — taking a bit of “21st Century Schizoid Man” and a bit of King Crimson’s 1994 song “Vroom,” then grafting them onto a Japanese classical piece. Here, the California Guitar Trio, whose members first met at a guitar seminar at Robert Fripp’s house, are joined by bass and Chapman Stick-man Tony Levin and drummer Pat Mastelotto, both of whom served in later versions of King Crimson, for a virtuosic instrumental journey.
Johnny G – 21st Century Schizoid Man (King Crimson cover)
One of the hallmarks of much prog rock (particularly from European artists) was a rejection of the blues tradition, instead relying more on classical and British folk music as influences. That makes this slide guitar blues version of the song by Brit Johnny G, a former schoolmate of Farrokh Bulsara (better known as Freddie Mercury), stunning in its audacity. Credit to Johnny and producer Bob Andrews (of The Rumour) for turning this classic on its head.
Bonus—Kanye West – Power (w/ King Crimson sample)
Kanye West’s recent decision to name his daughter “North” may have been a poor one, but his decision to sample “21st Century Schizoid Man” in the song “Power” was a good one. Unfortunately, Fripp has cited the fact that West used the sample without his initial permission as just one of the reasons that caused him to quit the music business as “too debilitating” and “a joyless exercise in futility.” Let’s hope that he reconsiders.