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King Crimson’s ’21st Century Schizoid Man’: 50 Years in the Life of a Gamechanging Song

How the band’s 1969 masterpiece has evolved onstage during the past half-century — and how it’s inspired everyone from Yes to Kanye West

King crimson

King Crimson live in 2018. Our deep dive into the band's iconic 1969 song "21st Century Schizoid Man" continues, as we trace its influence on everyone from Yes to Kanye West.

Claudia Hahn

In this second installment of our two-part deep-dive into the history and influence of King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man,” we look at how various lineups of the band have made the song their own, and how it’s inspired artists from the worlds of prog, metal, punk, hip-hop, and beyond during the past half-century. To read the first part — in which members of the original King Crimson look back on the writing of “Schizoid Man,” and contemporaries recount its initial impact onstage and on LP — click here.

Listen to an audio version of this story below:

“21st Century Schizoid Man” would quickly outlive the version of King Crimson that created it.

For the second half of 1969, while the band played around the U.K. and went on to tour the U.S. from October through December, the song remained a live calling card. As heard on various 1969 performances released on 1997’s Epitaph box set — including one from the Fillmore West where Robert Fripp dedicates the song to Spiro Agnew, “an American political personality whom we all know and love dearly” — “Schizoid Man” only grew more frenzied and explosive onstage. But at the end of the U.S. tour, just two months after In the Court of the Crimson King’s release, Michael Giles and Ian McDonald, both frazzled from the road, left King Crimson, marking the end of the band’s first phase.

“Crimson was always a players’ band,” Fripp told RS in April. “My interest was to present platforms where you take good musicians to a certain point and then say, Go.‘” In the half-century since the original band’s breakup, “Schizoid Man” has served as an ideal launchpad for a diverse string of Crimson incarnations.

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By 1971, Fripp was leading an entirely new King Crimson on the road. He’d jettisoned most of the In the Court of the Crimson King repertoire in favor of tracks released on subsequent LPs In the Wake of Poseidon, Lizard, and eventually Islands, eclectic albums recorded with ever-shifting personnel. But “Schizoid Man” survived the transition.

The 2002 archival release Ladies of the Road contains an album-length collage of live “Schizoid Man” performances from 1972, featuring Fripp alongside vocalist-bassist Boz Burrell — who screams the song’s verses with mad gusto — saxist Mel Collins, and drummer Ian Wallace. This medley shows how the song’s improv section mutated into a volcanic hybrid of psychedelic metal, torrid free jazz, and heavy funk, contrasting with the breathtaking tightness of the “stop-start” section.

“We spent three months rehearsing [“Schizoid Man”], to be honest, to get it tight,” says Collins, who, like Steve Hackett, had his mind blown by the original Crimson at the Marquee in ’69. “It’s a hell of a challenge.”

When yet another Crimson incarnation emerged in late ’72, an imposing, improv-prone quintet featuring drummer Bill Bruford and bassist-vocalist John Wetton, Fripp drew a firmer line in the sand: All ’69 material was put on ice except for “Schizoid Man.” When the song showed up, it was often as a scorched-earth set closer.

“We used to say, well, it’s such a hit, everybody loved it so much, all you had to do was go onstage … and then play anything else you wanted for an hour — and sometimes we very nearly did, new material or improvise stuff — then end with [‘Schizoid Man’], and it was a sealed deal,” Bruford says.

Though he was all in with the band’s new direction, built around black-diamond avant-rock workouts like the two-part “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic,” he was thrilled to be onstage with Crimson, playing the piece that had first made him want to join the band.

“I loved playing it; I thought it was tremendous,” Bruford says. “And the hairs still go up on the back of my neck as I think of the tutti [a.k.a. stop-start] section in the middle, and how it astonished so many people when we played it in front of them.”

On July 1st, 1974, King Crimson led off a stunning set at New York’s Central Park with an incendiary “Schizoid Man,” taken at a lumbering tempo and expertly belted by Wetton. It was the last time the band would perform the song for roughly 22 years. The gig was also the final one King Crimson would play, period, until 1981: Fripp disbanded the group in the fall of ’74, and spent the next seven years working with everyone from David Bowie and Brian Eno to Blondie and Daryl Hall.

When Crimson returned in the early Eighties, this time with Bruford, Adrian Belew on vocals and guitar, and Tony Levin on bass, they again overhauled their repertoire, underscoring how for Fripp, “progressive” was always a mindset rather than a sound. The only older pieces left — instrumentals such as 1974’s “Red” and “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part II” — were the ones that matched the sleek, worldly, postpunk-informed sound that surfaced on Crimson’s 1981 comeback album, Discipline.

Belew was in his early thirties when he joined, having already worked with Frank Zappa and David Bowie, among others. But he’d been a Crimson fan since age 18, when a friend brought over In the Court of the Crimson King and the album “utterly blew our minds.” Around that time, he was mainly a drummer, and he remembers trying and failing to learn “Schizoid Man” on guitar.

“It’s a little scary, that piece of music,” he says. “When I was an 18-year-old and just teaching myself how to play guitar, I had no idea how to play that. It was something to aspire to.”

Still, once he was in the band, he fully supported Fripp’s decision not to perform the song, despite strong demand from audiences.

“From the very get-go, wherever we went in the world, there would be someone shouting, ‘Play “Schizoid Man”! Play “Schizoid Man”!'” Belew recalls. “It got to be almost frustrating to us, because we didn’t want to do that, and I remember in particular Robert would not do that at that point. So it got be a joke in the band: ‘If you don’t play “21st Century Schizoid Man,” how can you call yourself King Crimson?'”

They held out for three years, steering clear of the song through 1984, when the band again went on extended hiatus. But in the mid-Nineties, when Fripp, Belew, Bruford, and Levin reemerged as part of a six-piece “Double Trio” Crimson that also included Trey Gunn and Pat Mastelotto, the beast once again reared its head. On May 28th, 1996, at a show in Bordeaux, France, King Crimson played “Schizoid Man” for the first time in 22 years, and the song remained in the set throughout that summer’s tour of Europe and the U.S.

King Crimson, group portrait, backstage at Vredenburg, Utrecht, Netherlands, 12th October 1981. L-R Tony Levin, Bill Bruford, Adrian Belew and Robert Fripp. (Photo by Rob Verhorst/Redferns)

King Crimson in 1981: From left to right, Tony Levin, Bill Bruford, Adrian Belew, and Robert Fripp. Photo by Rob Verhorst/Redferns

“It was a crowd-pleaser,” Belew says of the “Schizoid Man” revival. “People had waited a long time for that.”

By that time, he had the guitar part down, and could be heard playing thrillingly abrasive duets with Fripp during the solo break, but handling the lead vocal presented another hurdle. “It’s a vocal that will hurt your voice, because you have to express it with kind of an anguish,” Belew says. “The difficult thing was not to take it too far, because I’d blow my voice out.”

Tony Levin also noted the difficulty of tackling “Schizoid Man.” “I know I’ve got a lot of practicing to do on it — the bass part is murder,” he wrote in an online diary shortly before the Bordeaux show.

After that tour, the piece again rotated out of active service. Belew would remain in King Crimson’s live lineup through August of 2008, and during those 12 years, they never played “Schizoid Man” once, despite strong demand from nostalgic fans.

“It was something to experiment with, gratify our audience, and then see what happens, and I guess from that point on, we thought, ‘OK, we’ve done it,'” he says.

Throughout the decades, while Fripp and his various Crimson lineups were wrestling with the question of how, or whether, to tackle the band’s signature song, “Schizoid Man” evolved into a kind of left-field rock standard, covered and referenced by a slew of artists working in a variety of styles.

Some of these have had direct connections to the Crimson mothership. Just as Fripp continued to play the song both in and out of Crimson — and would release the clearly “Schizoid Man”–descended “Pictures of a City” with the band in 1970 — so did original member Greg Lake, who revived it in the Nineties with his post-Crimson supergroup Emerson, Lake & Palmer, strangely mashing it up with West Side Story’s “America.” And starting in 2002, Ian McDonald and Michael Giles would return to the piece in the playfully named 21st Century Schizoid Band, a Crimson repertory group that also included Peter Giles, Mel Collins, Ian Wallace, and future King Crimson guitarist-vocalist Jakko Jakszyk. In 2005, Wallace reworked the song as understated modern jazz with his Crimson Jazz Trio, while in 2012, Belew, Levin, and Mastelotto jammed it onstage with neoprog heavyweights Dream Theater.

But these Crimson satellite takes form only a small part of the “Schizoid Man” legacy. The dizzyingly diverse array of artists that have tackled the song shows just how far its influence has stretched.

In October 1970, Japanese hard-rockers Flower Travellin’ Band released a beautifully raw and exploratory “Schizoid Man” that stretched to more than 13 minutes. Nine years later, Canadian band April Wine issued a bruising yet nimble rendition featuring dueling guitar solos. As a teenager growing up in Quebec, Michel Langevin — future drummer for prog-metal heroes Voivod — heard that version on FM radio.

He’d been a Crimson fan since a few years earlier, when his mom bought him In the Court of the Crimson King for his birthday. He remembers being struck immediately by the “dystopian feel” of “21st Schizoid Man.” Attempting to make sense of the lyrics, looking up the words in his English-French dictionary, he says he was initially baffled.

“At first it really seemed abstract to me, until I realized it was abstract,” he says. “It was apocalyptic imagery, and it was new to me and really refreshing.”

It’s not hard to draw a line between the violence and corruption catalogued in “Schizoid Man” and the Orwellian sci-fi of a Voivod song like “Technocratic Manipulators,” and in 1997, the band made the connection official by recording their own take on the Crimson classic. Though Langevin soups up the song with pummeling, thrash-style double kick drums, it’s an especially exacting version, right down to late Voivod guitarist and Fripp fanatic Denis “Piggy” D’Amour’s faithful reproduction of the guitar solo, and a note perfect rendition of the infamous “stop-start” section.

“We were in separate booths where we didn’t have eye contact, so we really had to wing it,” the drummer says of recording the song’s basic track with D’Amour. “It’s actually pretty impressive that we were able to do the middle part. We had a friend back then, Ivan [Doroschuk] from Men Without Hats — he came to visit us in the studio and he just thought we were insane after we nailed that,” he says with a laugh.

Another musician who discovered In the Court of the Crimson King in the mid-Seventies was Brett Gurewitz. Just a few years later, the guitarist and songwriter would go on to found one of the most influential punk bands and labels of his generation — Bad Religion and Epitaph, respectively — but before that, he was a teenage prog head.

“Prior to discovering punk rock, my way of being avant-garde in the Seventies was listening to some extreme glam stuff and then also some really out-there prog stuff, of which my favorite was ELP,” he says. “But my gateway to ELP was Crimson.”

His love for the band endured, and in 1990, he paid tribute to King Crimson’s signature song with Bad Religion’s “21st Century Digital Boy,” a midtempo anthem about a directionless, discontented kid who wryly announces, “I don’t know how to live but I got a lot of toys.” Gurewitz calls the song “the postmodern ’21st Century Schizoid Man.'”

“Bad Religion was always writing sociopolitical lyrics, and [’21st Century Digital Boy’] was about individualism being subsumed by technology, with the rise of bar codes and the dehumanization of the digital era,” Gurewitz says. “Having the notion of writing a song about the 21st century, obviously, one of my favorite songs came to mind. I thought of that as a clever jumping-off point, to give the song a little bit more depth, because it referenced a song from the revolutionary Sixties culture, and we felt that we were revolutionary Eighties culture in the punk-rock movement.”

To underscore the homage, singer Greg Graffin shouts some of Peter Sinfield’s “Schizoid Man” verse lyrics during the song’s outro.

“We knew none of our fans would have any idea what that was, but it might get them to discover it,” Gurewitz says. (Gurewitz also notes that another Crimson nod is buried within the name of his famed punk label: He borrowed “Epitaph” from the In the Court of the Crimson King song of the same name, with its chilling refrain, “Confusion will be my epitaph.”)

A decade later, Allman Brothers–descended rockers Gov’t Mule used “Schizoid Man” to ring in the actual 21st century. Guitarist-singer Warren Haynes says he and his bandmates all shared an appreciation for early prog. They were brainstorming ideas for their 1999–2000 New Year’s show at Atlanta’s Roxy Theatre, and someone suggested covering “21st Century Schizoid Man.”

“It was mostly intended to be like, ‘Wow, what the fuck is that,’ just something people didn’t expect,” Haynes says, of incorporating the song in a set that also included covers of more mainstream classic-rock fare by Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, and the Who. The band played the song right at midnight, omitting the stop-start section (“we didn’t have time to put the dedication into that part — it was like a one-day project,” says Haynes) but injecting it with their own brand of Southern swagger, while harking back to the Allmans’ own prog tendencies. Haynes even sang through a Bullet mic, usually used for blues harmonica, to approximate the vocal effect on the original.

“When we dug it up, I probably had not heard [“Schizoid Man”] in a couple years, and so I was instantly reminded of how ferocious that track was,” Haynes says, “and the intensity not just of the song but of the performance and the recording, and how much influence they had on stuff that came after that. I remember recently hearing ‘Heart of the Sunrise’ by Yes and [hearing the] similarities.”

In more recent years, artists of all stripes have adopted “Schizoid Man” as a sort of oddball party anthem. Ozzy Osbourne played it as over-the-top psych-metal, with surreal Beatles-y backing vocals; the Flaming Lips and Deerhoof turned it into an ass-kicking art-pop set piece, with singers Wayne Coyne and Satomi Matsuzaki each wielding a megaphone and trading off vocal lines; New Jersey punk outfit Rorschach recast it as anguished hardcore; British singer-songwriter Johnny G turned it into back-porch blues; the aptly named Fuzz, with indie luminary Ty Segall on drums and vocals, reimagined it as stomping, in-the-red garage rock; Japanese duo Ruins excerpted it in their awesomely obsessive “Progressive Rock Medley”; Poland’s Totenmesse transformed it into aggro black metal; Entombed gave it a groovy Swedish-death-metal spin; Italian prog vets PFM tipped their caps with a by-the-book version; New Orleans’ Bonerama brassed it up; the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra made it literally symphonic, with help from current Crimson drummer Gavin Harrison; and in April of 1999, none other than the Late Show With David Letterman house band performed it during a transition out of a Top 10 list on “Historical Inaccuracies in Peter Jennings’ The Century.”

But the ultimate “Schizoid” remake just might be a witheringly intense version by the Norwegian band Shining. Along with massive fuzz bass and the squalling tenor sax of frontman Jorgen Munkeby — and, on the studio version, monstrous growls from Enslaved frontman Grutle Kjellson — the cover features a completely rewritten midsection that suggests Led Zeppelin jamming with Japanese noise titan Merzbow and free-jazz pioneer Pharoah Sanders.

Beyond literal covers, the influence of “Schizoid Man” can clearly be heard across decades’ worth of forward-thinking rock.

In 1971, as Warren Haynes noted, Bill Bruford’s then-band Yes seemed to play off the first part of the song’s “Mirrors” section with the central riff of future prog classic “Heart of the Sunrise.”

“I always thought the riff was influenced by ’21st Century Schizoid Man,'” Yes guitarist Steve Howe said of “Heart” in Tim Morse’s book Yesstories, “but I suppose we got away with it.”

A brief survey of other “Schizoid Man” echoes might include: the cathartic doom-jazz and daredevil proto-math-rock heard across The Least We Can Do Is Wave to Each Other, a 1970 album by Van Der Graaf Generator, a band Fripp would guest with later that same year; high-tech classical-on-steroids workouts like ELP’s 1971 epic “Tarkus,” and “Minstrel in the Gallery,” the latter a 1975 stunner by Jethro Tull, whose leader Ian Anderson could be found asking a DJ to play him “Schizoid Man” in a 1971 Rolling Stone profile; Rush’s many long-form suites, especially 1977’s “Cygnus X-1 Book I: The Voyage,” which moves, Crimson-like, from hard-edged swagger to breakneck virtuosity during the course of 10-plus minutes; Sol Niger Within, a 1997 avant-metal mindbender by Meshuggah guitarist Fredrik Thordendal that features bursts of piercing saxophone; mid-period Mars Volta tracks such as “Goliath,” “Tetragrammaton,” and “Cotopaxi,” which hark back respectively to the doomy opening riff, wild sax improv, and stop-start midsection of “Schizoid Man”; “Raider II,” a 2011 sax-powered opus by Steven Wilson — a key Crimson collaborator behind the scenes who remixed In the Court of the Crimson King for the upcoming reissue — that Wilson once called “pure ’21st Century Schizoid Man'”; and various tracks from the Opeth and Mastodon catalogs that blend head-spinningly complex prog with raging hard rock.

“It spoke to me early on, as it’s so heavy,” writes Opeth leader Mikael Åkerfeldt of “Schizoid Man” in an e-mail. “It predates the first Sabbath album [by] one year or so, and it’s much more vicious than anything Sabbath has ever done. With that distortion on Greg Lake’s voice. It just sounds grisly. In a very, very good way.”

On May 28th, 2010, a new Kanye West song leaked online. Called “Power,” the track featured a rousing choral hook, steely synths, a strutting syncopated beat and — ringing out totally unaccompanied during a break — Greg Lake’s original delivery of the title line of “21st Century Schizoid Man,” as well as a fragment of the rousing Michael Giles drum fill that follows.

At the time, King Crimson technically didn’t exist, having been on hiatus since 2009. But suddenly, the band’s name was everywhere. As many outlets quickly noted, “Schizoid Man” wasn’t just a bedrock sample in “Power”; it provided the song’s climactic moment, with Lake’s refrain perfectly complementing West’s tortured yet self-aggrandizing lines (“Screams from the haters, got a nice ring to it / I guess every superhero need his theme music”).

The sample showed up on West’s radar thanks to Andrew Dawson, an engineer and producer who had worked with the rapper since 2004’s The College Dropout. As Dawson told the L.A. Times in 2010, he had seen a T-shirt that reminded him of the In the Court of the Crimson King cover, which brought to mind his own musical past.

“I found the King Crimson ’21st Century Schizoid Man’ sample on ‘Power,'” he said. “‘I used to play in prog-rock bands, and that’s one of the songs we covered. It was this crazy brash sample.”

The track’s larger framework was the work of producer S1, who mined the choral chant from a 1978 track by French disco outfit Continent Number 6 and the drums from a 1969 single by R&B outfit Cold Grits. S1 originally made an early version of the track — sans the “Schizoid Man” sample — for a planned collaboration with West associate Rhymefest, but West heard it and claimed it for himself. S1 soon found himself in Hawaii working with West on what would become My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.

One day, the producer sat next to West in the studio, as the early version of “Power” played on the speakers.

“I think it was really me, him and the engineer, and he was working on his ASR-10 [sampler], going through samples [while] the song was playing over and over, to see what would fit,” S1 recalls. “I was right beside him while he was doing it, and he came across this King Crimson sample, and as soon as he hit the key, it triggered the sample and it came in right on the right spot of the song, and we looked at each other like, ‘Oh … that’s crazy.’

“So he started chopping it and getting the sample to fit exactly right,” the producer adds. “And every time he would hit it, it was just this magic that was happening.”

 

S1 recalls West working through countless variations on the “Power” lyrics before arriving at the final version. (“A song like ‘Power’ took 5,000 hours — like, literally 5,000 man-hours to do this one record,” West later said in an interview with Power 105.1.) But he’s confident that West’s lyrical reference to the 21st century was a direct result of the sample.

“Once he put that in the song, it became such a moment of the song, that I’m sure that had some type of influence on the lyrics,” S1 says.

Beyond the “I’m living in the 21st century” line, West’s lyrics, with their references to institutionalized racism (“The system broken, the school is closed, the prison’s open”) and time running out (“The clock’s ticking, I just count the hours … ‘Til then, fuck that, the world’s ours”), seem like contemporary echoes of Peter Sinfield’s original dark prophecy

As the track took shape, the King Crimson camp remained fully out of the loop. The band found out about the uncleared sample soon after the rest of the world did, with the leak of the pre-release version of “Power.”

“My memory is that we found out about it within a couple days and it was already up around a million views on YouTube,” King Crimson manager David Singleton tells Rolling Stone.

Singleton says he never found out how the leak occurred, and doesn’t recall exactly how the track came to the band’s attention — he thinks a fan might have e-mailed them a tip — but he does remember the emotions that immediately followed.

“There aren’t a lot of downsides to someone of Kanye’s impact sampling your track,” Singleton says. “So if you asked me what I thought at the time, it would be astonishment, excitement, and then — not annoyance, but a realization that, oh, we’re doing to be dealing with a whole lot of shitty stuff getting this sorted out.”

Singleton says that Def Jam first offered King Crimson a flat fee for use of the sample. “The lawyer who thought he could get away with offering $10,000 for ’21st Century Schizoid Man’ was wrong by a factor of many 0s,” he says. (Both the lawyer and Def Jam declined to comment on Singleton’s statement.)

Eventually a deal was struck and publishing was split among West, Continent Number 6, Cold Grits, and the original King Crimson lineup. But before the arrangement was finalized, West was slated to perform the song at the BET Awards in June 2010. Fripp placed a late-night call to West, who was then prepping for the show, to sort things out.

“Kanye was intending to play ‘Power’ live on BET, however the licensing hadn’t been passed,” Fripp says. “So it fell down to, Robert called Kanye in the middle of rehearsals for the BET on the Friday to speak to him, and what I said to Kanye was, ‘Whichever terms were agreed, even if they are nominally disadvantageous to King Crimson, I’ll make it happen.’ Because here is an artist who … is just about to do a live broadcast on major TV, and he didn’t know whether he could do the piece he was rehearsing or not.

“Robert talked a lot more than Kanye,” he adds of the call. “But it came down to, I said, ‘I’ll make it happen.'”

“Power” would go double platinum and feature not just on the BET Awards but on West’s SNL performance from October 2010. But as Singleton points out, the real reach of the “Schizoid Man”–sampling song came from placements in everything from a cologne ad to countless trailers, including those for the Power Rangers movie and The Social Network. “Paco Rabanne have been using it for about three years now, I know XBox used it, three or four movies have used it, hardly a week goes by without a sports channel wanting to license it for some game or other,” he says. “It’s become one of those omnipresent tracks in terms of licensing.”

“I think it’s a great piece,” Fripp says, when asked his opinion of West’s track. “And clearly so do lots and lots of people that license it.”

“Did I like it?” Sinfield says when asked his opinion of “Power.” “Practically my whole house was bought by him.”

Of all the co-authors of “Schizoid Man,” it’s the late Greg Lake who seemed most taken with West’s sampling of the song.

“In a way, that song still sounds modern to me. I think when you hear Kanye West do it, or include it in his own song, it’s relevant,” he told RS in 2013. “He’s speaking about that crazy world that we live in. It’s as true now as it was then. It’s an honor when something like that happens.”

On his Songs of a Lifetime tour that same year, the singer-bassist went so far as to join up West’s song with its source material.

“I actually use his song to open my show,” he said. “It starts with the lights going out and everything is black. The first thing you hear is the Kanye West piece. When the hook comes on, ’21st Century Schizoid Man,’ the spotlight comes on and there’s no one on the stage. Then the track carries, but the second time the hook comes, it’s me, and me singing it. And I open up with ‘Schizoid Man.’ It’s a great shocker, but it’s a statement too. It’s enabled me to link the past with the present.”

On September 9th, 2014, after a six-year break, King Crimson rolled out its latest state-of-the-art upgrade. That night, following a friends-and-family warm-up performance the night before, a new three-drummer lineup that Robert Fripp dubbed the “Seven-Headed Beast of Crim” made its proper debut at Albany, New York’s the Egg. The set list spanned the band’s entire career up to that point, including songs from the obscure early-Seventies period, favorites from 1974’s celebrated Red, and tracks from their two 2000s-era LPs — and, as the final song of the encore, King Crimson’s first public “Schizoid Man” performance in 18 years.

Rolling Stone’s David Fricke, who has chronicled and championed King Crimson for decades, was there that night. He opened his review by recounting that finale, the first time he’d seen the band play their signature song live since 1974:

“On September 9th in Albany, New York, the new, ultimate King Crimson … closed the opening night of its debut U.S. tour with the ultimate King Crimson song: the tortuous thunder and scathing paranoia of ’21st Century Schizoid Man.'”

Looking back on that moment in September 2019, less than two weeks before he would catch Crimson again in Philadelphia, he stresses just how powerful it was to be in that room.

“People just went nuclear,” Fricke says.

“This was something people never thought they’d see again: King Crimson playing ‘Schizoid Man,'” he continues. “This was the thing everybody wanted, who was a fan of that band and stayed that way and maybe had come in at some point along the ride. But then to have that chord come out, in the open air, in the room like that, with that amazing band … people went nuts. The reaction was euphoric, and you just felt lifted in a way — I had been totally energized by the whole night and then they leave me with that.”

Another person who shared in that sensation was Mel Collins, who was playing his first proper gig with King Crimson in more than 40 years, having left the band at the end of their 1972 American tour and rejoined in 2013.

“We were frightened to death, at least I was,” the saxophonist says of the lead-up to the gig. But the show turned out to be a triumph, capped by what Collins calls the crowd’s “fantastic” reaction to “Schizoid Man,” newly outfitted with a solo by drummer Gavin Harrison following Collins’ sax solo.

The current Crimson has toured steadily since 2014, with small lineup adjustments, and Collins says the piece is a consistent highlight of their sets, right up to the current 50th anniversary tour.

“It’s always the classic song,” he says. “We don’t play it every night, but we do it pretty often, and it goes down a storm every time.”

Collins points out that the song often sparks audience participation. “When we play the instrumental break, then the audience likes to yell in between the [pauses], answering our phrases,” he says. “They whoop it up as an answer.”

And at one show last year, he says, the song nearly sparked a mosh pit.

“In Edinburgh, we had some headbangers that came down the front dancing to what turned out to be the drum solo in ‘Schizoid Man’ — I do my solo and they started dancing and shaking their heads and all that, and then it goes into the drum solo, so they’re all headbanging to the drum solo, which is difficult to do,” he recalls with a laugh.

At a soundcheck this past August, Collins got another chance to add to the “Schizoid Man” legacy. David Singleton arranged for him to record a new saxophone solo on an unfinished 1969 instrumental demo of the song — from the scrapped Tony Clarke sessions that predated the actual In the Court of the Crimson King tracking — and the composite version will be released on the album’s upcoming deluxe reissue. The track will also feature new overdubs from current Crimson guitarist-vocalist Jakko Jakszyk.

“I was very surprised,” Collins says, of being asked to add to the pre-album “Schizoid Man.” “I had no idea that version of it [existed], although it does make sense, as a demo. But then I heard Jakko had put a vocal on, so this seems to be the reworking of King Crimson now: various ideas that David [Singleton] and Robert come up with, which makes it recyclable, if you will. It’s a new version on top of the old version.”

On September 21st, 2019, at King Crimson’s sold-out show at New York’s Radio City Music Hall — the band’s second-largest North American solo gig to date, after a Toronto concert a week earlier — “Schizoid Man” first appeared in the form of a request. A fan yelled for it during a break in the second set, eliciting a wave of cheers. King Crimson didn’t oblige him right away, but the song arrived not long after, as the encore to a set that journeyed from weighty Wetton/Bruford-era favorites like “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part I,” “Red,” and “Starless” to the whimsy of 1970’s “Cat Food,” the uneasy pathos of “Epitaph,” and the crystalline weirdness of 2003’s “Elektrik.”

The current band gives “Schizoid Man” a flavor of the original, with distortion added to Jakko Jakszyk’s voice to approximate the album version. But at Radio City, once the instrumental section kicked in, exploration took over. If the rest of the set was about showcasing the power of the full seven-piece ensemble, here, the group seemed to atomize: Fripp shared his solo feature with Jakszyk —who played a guitar decorated with the Schizoid Man himself — the two building up a fiery, abstract duet that only increased in urgency when other players briefly dropped out underneath them. And during the saxophone solo, Mel Collins, bassist Tony Levin, and drummer Jeremy Stacey split off from the larger band, forming a wiry bebop unit.

The clear highlight of the piece was Gavin Harrison’s extended electroacoustic drum solo, a technically dazzling yet never self-indulgent feat that incorporated ear-catching sampled percussion, sprinkles of sound across an array of small cymbals, and full-bore double-bass pummel. Once the verse kicked back in, all three drummers added another flourish in the form of a synchronized stick toss before the final rendition of the title line.

The crowd emerged into the lobby exhilarated. Many sported King Crimson apparel from different eras; one shirt featured lines from the second verse of “Schizoid Man” (“Blood rack / Barbed wire…”) spelled out in big barbed-wire lettering. Other artists’ shirts seen in the lobby — from Miles Davis and Rahsaan Roland Kirk to Bad Brains, Meshuggah, Opeth, Frank Zappa, and Snarky Puppy — reflected the way King Crimson draws in an unusually broad spectrum of listeners, albeit most of them male.

“That was amazing,” said longtime Crimson fan Bruce Lee Gallanter, owner of Downtown Music Gallery, a crucial NYC avant-garde record shop that specializes in everything from free jazz to prog. He’s caught the band on every U.S. tour since the early Seventies, and estimates that he’s witnessed more than a dozen live renditions of “Schizoid Man.” This time, though, he says extramusical context gave the song new meaning.

“I think that song has more relevance now because it’s about Donald Trump,” Gallanter explained. “That’s the feeling I get when they play it. It’s about the scumbag who’s at the top, who’s schizoid, who lies all the time. And all the horrible images in there. I mean, [King Crimson] were scary when I first heard them; now, they fit with what’s going on, so it’s more pertinent.”

King Crimson live in 2018. Photo by David Singleton

Fifteen-year-old Jacob Ferstenberg, who was attending his first King Crimson show, accompanied by his father, Isaac, named In the Court of the Crimson King as his favorite album of all time. “It was absolutely incredible,” he said of the “Schizoid Man” finale. “The drummer all the way to the right” — Harrison — “he showed all of them who was boss.”

At an after-show event, Harrison himself said he sets a high bar for himself during each “Schizoid Man” performance. “I try to play a completely different drum solo every night,” he noted. “It’d be easy to just string together a load of bullshit and do a lot of crowd-pleasing stuff, but that wouldn’t be in the spirit of King Crimson.”

On the other side of the room, Ian McDonald stood with Jakko Jakszyk, representing a 50-year span of King Crimson membership. McDonald called Jakszyk’s performance “terrific” and said he thought the current band had only gotten tighter since he first saw them at New York’s Beacon Theatre in 2017. “It’s wonderful — I just let it wash over me,” McDonald said of hearing “Schizoid Man,” and other In the Court of the Crimson King songs he helped write, live on the Radio City stage. “It’s hard to put the two things together: enjoying it and saying, ‘Wow, that was me!'”

Jakszyk pointed out that “Schizoid Man” had been his introduction to Crimson around age 11. “To find myself singing and playing it every night is extraordinary,” he said of the song. “It’s like the maddest childhood dream made flesh.”

Pat Mastelotto, another of Crimson’s current drummers, who traded off fills with Harrison and Stacey during the verses of “Schizoid Man,” also has a long history with the song. He recalled that he first heard In the Court of the Crimson King on 8-track in his parents’ car, and then later while on LSD at a party.

“It’s overwhelming. It’s hard to explain, really,” he said when asked how it felt to play such an iconic song live on the Radio City Music Hall stage, 50 years after it was written.

He’s been performing “Schizoid Man” with King Crimson since 2014, so now, he said, the experience is less about what the piece means to him, and more about what it elicits in others. A half-century after the shock and awe of the Speakeasy days, “Schizoid Man” remains a showstopper, but these days, it furnishes a different sort of thrill: Still fearsome, it’s also become a source of palpable joy.

“We’ve played it enough that I’ve kind of gotten over it. For a long time, [it was] like a dream state, like you can’t really believe it’s real,” Mastelotto said. “What I see now is, I get to look at the people while we play it, and I see people light up. That’s what I love. I just enjoy seeing people enjoy it.”

To read part one of this story, click here.

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