King Crimson’s ‘In the Court of the Crimson King’ and Zappa’s ‘Hot Rats’ turn 50

Frank Zappa, a member of the Mothers of invention performs at the Theatre de Clichy in Paris in 1970. via Wikimedia Commons

Very few people at that time knew it, but Oct. 10, 1969 marked an incredible day for music culture. Fifty years ago this Thursday, two of rock’s most influential albums of all time were released: “In the Court of the Crimson King” (1969) by King Crimson, and “Hot Rats” (1969) by Frank Zappa. “In the Court of the Crimson King” was England-based King Crimson’s debut album, which was released through Atlantic Records. “Hot Rats” was not Zappa’s first rodeo, as he and his band Mothers of Invention had released six albums prior. However, his second solo endeavor, “Hot Rats,” has gone down in history as a monumental moment for jazz fusion. The magnitude of influence that both of these albums have on music are similar, but there’s an interesting dichotomy between the two artists. King Crimson has influenced progressive rock to the point where artists have written their albums to nearly mimic the “In the Court of the Crimson King” recipe book. Frank Zappa’s “Hot Rats,” on the other hand, has such an abstract influence on the jazz fusion movement that it has become nearly impossible to replicate.  

The fascinating thing about “In the Court of the Crimson King” is how many parallels one can draw between the album and other progressive rock albums. One would think that this album came straight from the mid-to-late-70’s, during the peak of the progressive rock era. However, this album came years before Yes, Pink Floyd, Genesis and other bands began writing their own standout records. The influence that King Crimson pulled from jazz and classical music strengthened this album and demonstrated the range of instruments that fit in the genre that it was helping shape.  

The first song on the record, “21st Century Schizoid Man,” implements harsher horns, guitar riffs and vocals, and has been considered as an influence on alternative rock and grunge. Kanye West even samples the song on his hit song “Power” (2010). The switch in time signatures, the guitar solo and the stop-start section of the song have all helped this song cement itself in progressive rock culture. Elements from the album’s gradual songs, such as “Epitaph” and “The Court of the Crimson King,” permeated their way into sounds found on albums like “Tarkus” (1971) by Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and “Fragile” (1971) by Yes. To this day, artists across all genres (like Ozzy Osbourne, Entombed, the Flaming Lips and Deerhoof) have covered “In the Court of the Crimson King’s” songs and will continue drawing influence from them for years to come.

While “Hot Rats” isn’t as accessible for listeners, it’s certainly much more accessible than much of Frank Zappa’s prior work. Albums like “Freak Out!” (1966) and “Uncle Meat” (1969) proved to many listeners and music critics that Frank Zappa is a musical weirdo. It’s very easy to get lost in many of his zany and absurd vocal deliveries and instrument choices, but you can still tell that Zappa has a rhyme and reason behind it. He’s arguably one of the greatest songwriters of all time, whether you see it from the chaos in those albums or not. However, on “Hot Rats,” Zappa seems to take a break from political satire and convoluted metaphors and demonstrates his artistic talent.

The album features almost no vocals from Zappa, and instead highlights his astounding ability to play the guitar, his talent in instrumental arrangement and his unique mixing techniques. The lead single, “Peaches en Regalia,” a jazz fusion masterpiece, accompanied Zappa on many of his tours. The following song, “Willie the Pimp,” features grimy vocals and the only vocals on the entire album, provided by friend/collaborator Captain Beefheart, and a phenomenal guitar solo that lasts nearly the entire nine-minute duration. Instrumental credits on this track also included what Zappa called an “octave bass,” which was another name for the resulting sound from double-speeding a bass guitar to make it sound like an electric guitar. The implementation of brass and woodwind instrument, along with keyboard, shows Zappa’s willingness to incorporate jazz into his compositions. 

Each of these albums are much further ahead of their times than either Zappa or King Crimson could have understood. The fact that their influence still finds its way into work produced nowadays is already neat, but it’s only a matter of time before we see how “In the Court of the Crimson King” and “Hot Rats” will continue to find their way in current music culture. And by the looks of it, these albums still have a long future ahead of them.