In this first installment of our two-part deep dive into the history and influence of King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man,” the band’s co-founders look back on the writing of the iconic song, and contemporaries recount its initial impact onstage and on LP. To read the second part — which traces how various lineups of the band have made “Schizoid Man” their own during the past half-century, and how it’s inspired artists from the worlds of prog, metal, punk, hip-hop, and beyond — click here.
Listen to an audio version of this story below:
Late one night in the spring of 1969, after driving back from an out-of-town gig, members of the young London band Yes stopped by a club called the Speakeasy for a nightcap.
“It’s just a small, dive-y place,” recalls Bill Bruford, the group’s drummer at the time. “Rock groups after their shows would often be there at one in the morning for a late drink and a steak sandwich. And we’d driven back probably 100 miles or so from wherever we’d been working to do just that.”
Just as the members of Yes entered, another local band was setting up onstage.
“We walked in while King Crimson was just about to start, and it was all very reverential and all very hushed,” Bruford says. “And then, this God almighty powerful beast uncoiled itself. It wasn’t at all like anything else anybody had ever heard. Nobody knew what the hell this thing was. The lyrics were different, the way the musicians conducted themselves was different, the sound was different, there was a strobe light making an extremely kind of hard-edged [scene] — it just kind of froze everybody.
“And after that night,” he adds, “all I could think was that I wanted to leave Yes and be in King Crimson.”
In three short years, Bruford would realize his dream, joining King Crimson for an on-and-off stint that lasted a quarter century. But in the meantime, the “God almighty powerful beast” he’d witnessed at the Speakeasy would achieve international fame. And the song that had stopped him and the rest of the room cold that night would be known to fans across England and the U.S. by an odd and striking title: “21st Century Schizoid Man.”
Musical movements don’t begin suddenly; they take shape slowly, their origins defined only in hindsight. Still, “Schizoid Man” seems in many ways like progressive rock’s Big Bang. The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper, Pink Floyd’s The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, the Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed, and other adventurous mid-to-late Sixties classics are all indispensable precursors to this loosely defined subgenre. But it was “Schizoid Man” — released on October 10th, 1969, as the opening track on King Crimson’s debut album, In the Court of the Crimson King — that laid the foundation for the next 50 years of technically demanding, formally innovative rock, from the output of Seventies giants like Yes, Genesis, and Rush to that of modern luminaries like the Mars Volta, Opeth, and Mastodon. And as Bruford suggests, prog’s first roar was a mighty one.
More than just a song, “Schizoid Man” is a seven-and-a-half-minute statement of purpose: rock power, jazz spontaneity, and classical precision harnessed in the service of a common aim. The track erupts with a snarling, ominous proto-metal riff, which — played by guitarist Robert Fripp and alto-saxophonist Ian McDonald — rings out like an infernal fanfare. The band falls away, leaving only one stabbing chord, and Greg Lake’s distorted voice barks lyricist Peter Sinfield’s grimly prophetic images of Vietnam War–era strife and corruption:
Cat’s foot, iron claw
Neurosurgeons scream for more
At paranoia’s poison door
Twenty-first century schizoid man
The imagery only intensifies from there:
Blood rack, barbed wire
Politicians’ funeral pyre
Innocents raped with napalm fire …
The band then launches into a lengthy instrumental excursion, known as “Mirrors,” that sounds alternately like Cream covering Count Basie, or the world’s loudest, most ass-kicking chamber ensemble. The main riff returns, leading into one final doomsaying verse:
Death seed blind man’s greed
Poets’ starving children bleed
Nothing he’s got he really needs …
“Twenty first century schizoid man is everything multitracked a billion times, and when you listen, you get a billion times the impact,” Pete Townshend wrote in a 1969 ad for In the Court of the Crimson King run by the band’s U.S. label, Atlantic. “Has to be the heaviest riff that has been middle frequencied onto that black vinyl disc since Mahler’s 8th.”
As influential as “Schizoid Man” has been in the sphere of prog — a movement that Fripp, King Crimson’s sole consistent member since ’69, now views warily — its reach extends much further. Everyone from Ozzy Osbourne to the Flaming Lips, Gov’t Mule, Voivod, and even the Late Show With David Letterman house band have covered it, while outspoken punks Bad Religion riffed on it in their 1990 song “21st Century Digital Boy.” And in 2010, Kanye West prominently sampled “Schizoid Man” for his edgy anthem “Power” — in which he rapped, “I’m living in that 21st century, doing something mean to it” — underscoring its longevity and influence.
Meanwhile, in the hands of its makers, the piece has continued to evolve. Though Fripp has overhauled King Crimson’s sound and repertoire constantly during the past half-century, he’s often revisited “Schizoid Man” with very different lineups of the group. And that tradition is ongoing: This fall, after racking up more than a million streams since coming to Spotify in June, “Schizoid Man” is blaring out from stages worldwide on King Crimson’s current 50th-anniversary world tour, in advance of a new deluxe reissue of In the Court of the Crimson King that will feature alternate versions of the iconic opening track.
A half-century after he first heard “Schizoid Man,” Bill Bruford still sounds awed by its impact and prescience.
“Look at it this way,” he says. “Supposing somebody in 1968 had commissioned a rock group to criticize the Vietnam War with a piece of music that gave hints of progressive rock to come, of heavy metal, of jazz-rock, which was just being invented, and all those elements were to be in this song, and it was to have lyrics that were short and hard-hitting — you couldn’t have done better than to come up with ’21st Century Schizoid Man.'”
Maybe fittingly, given its sinister racket, “21st Century Schizoid Man” was born in a basement. The band soon to be named King Crimson first convened in January 1969 at a rehearsal space underneath the Fulham Palace Café in London’s Hammersmith district. They started out as a spin-off of the arty pop outfit Giles, Giles and Fripp, whose final incarnation included Fripp, Ian McDonald on woodwinds and keyboards, and drummer Michael Giles, whose brother — bassist Peter — would be replaced in the new group by Fripp’s childhood friend, budding rock idol Greg Lake.
“It was a very small grubby basement room underneath a Greek greasy-spoon café,” Michaal Giles tells Rolling Stone of King Crimson’s early HQ.
“George’s café, we used to call it,” says Ian McDonald during an August interview at his New York City apartment. “The owner rented out the basement to anyone who wanted to use it. And we filled it up: Mike with his double–bass-drum kit and me with the Mellotron and these huge amps, these 100-watt Marshalls. We were right on top of each other, almost literally. It was kind of cramped, but maybe the intimacy contributed to the creative aspect of what we were doing.”
The band members came to the space armed with influences from all over the musical map. “I arrived in London in ’67 with Sgt. Pepper’s bubbling inside of me,” Fripp recalled in 1995, citing Jimi Hendrix and the string quartets of Béla Bartók as other touchstones.
McDonald also names the Beatles as a key inspiration, along with the urgent modal jazz of alto saxophonist John Handy, while Giles says that at the time, he admired the “seamless abandon” of John Coltrane drummer Elvin Jones, singling out his work on Heavy Sounds, a 1967 album with bassist Richard Davis. Lake had absorbed English church hymns, as detailed in David Weigel’s prog-rock history The Show That Never Ends, and covered the Beatles, the Shadows, and even Janis Ian with a series of earlier bands. And Sinfield was a self-described “crazed book junkie” informed by everyone from Shakespeare and William Blake to Philip K. Dick and Khalil Gibran.
“Schizoid Man” would ultimately reflect all of these ingredients.
“For me, it was group writing,” Fripp told RS of the song’s origins in London this past April. “And it wouldn’t have been possible without those five young men.”
Reflecting on the the genesis of “Schizoid Man,” the guitarist discusses it as though it were a physical presence. “I can tell you when I first encountered it, or when it first encountered me,” he says. “Greg Lake said, more or less, ‘Come with me on this, guys, I have this idea. …'” Fripp then sings the first six notes of the song’s iconic verse riff: “Baaam, ba-dee-dee gah-kee …”
It was Ian McDonald who stepped in to fill in the musical blank.
“Greg came out with this six-note line in the rehearsal room,” McDonald says. “As soon as he played that, I went to the Mellotron and went ‘daaah-daaah-dah,’ the chromatic run-up that follows it.”
Giles punctuated the riff with explosive drum fills. The drummer remembers having a blast navigating the section.
“This riff was felicitous fecundity for a drummer like me,” he writes in an e-mail. “There was lots of space for drums, and the tempo was perfect for double bass drums and whole-kit fast, medium, and slow fills. It was great fun to fuck about with, or should I say to freely improvise over, under and sideways.”
For the verses, Fripp recalls, it was Lake’s idea to sing backed only by one harsh, repetitive chord: “Greg said, can you just hit the chord [sings], ‘Bah …. bah … bah … ‘?”
“There are very little drums in that section, but I suggested to Mike, ‘Why don’t you just come in for the last bar of that and then stop?'” McDonald adds, explaining the origin of the tumbling drum entrance that adds extra drama to the title line at the end of each verse.
The “Mirrors” instrumental section is another patchwork. It starts with a scampering, madcap theme brought in by Fripp, then segues into another, almost big-band-like uptempo riff, this one written by McDonald during his days playing jazz in the Army before joining King Crimson. (On the album version, this change happens around the 2:25 mark.)
“I was very into things like Stan Kenton and these kind of big bands at the time,” McDonald says. “I was still in the Army. I wrote this piece called ‘Three Score and Four,’ and we put it into ‘Schizoid Man’ there. That whole section is mine that I lifted from that score that I had written.”
Giles was vital in crafting the transitions between these diverse sections. For example, it was his idea for the band to gradually speed up when moving from the main verse riff into “Mirrors.”
As the drummer points out, there was no roadmap in place for the guitar and saxophone solos that followed the “Three Score and Four” theme. “The solo section was totally free and open-ended with no set number of bars or limits to the length of solos,” he writes. “We were up and flying by the seat of our pants.”
This passage, Giles says, gave him “the freedom to improvise and experiment with a high speed 6/4 [time signature] in a semi-jazzy fashion alongside Greg’s pumping bass lines. I also enjoyed being triggered by, and going with Robert’s and Ian’s off-the-wall solos which were never self-indulgently overblown nor extended beyond their natural cycle.”
After the solos, and a brief return of “Three Score and Four,” the band moves into another instrumental workout by Fripp, which begins around 4:38 on the recording. Here, the four musicians play in strict lockstep, leaving dramatic pauses between the phrases.
“Robert had this intricate guitar piece, which is what we refer to as the ‘stop-start’ section,” McDonald recalls. “That whole section where we’re totally in unison, that was something that Robert had as a guitar exercise, and we just transferred it to the band as a whole.”
“An ordinary boring rockabilly bass and drum pattern would not do it justice,” Giles writes of the stop-start section. “So as we were scratching our heads, I suggested that we all play it in unison and enjoy the pregnant pauses.”
Then, also at Giles’ suggestion, the band repeats the entire stop-start section at a much quieter volume before a jazzy snare drum flourish leads back into “Three Score and Four.”
Around 5:45, the song’s main lumbering riff comes crashing back in, punctuated by, as Giles puts it, “heavyweight double bass drums.” Then, after a final verse, the band again accelerates, except here the speed-up culminates in two bursts of noisy, abstract improv.
“I proposed a crescendo of free jazz chaos as a false ending followed by a short stop, and then a second chaotic crescendo to complete the piece,” Giles explains. “I’d heard the Duke Ellington Orchestra do this double ending a few years earlier, and I was very impressed — so why not a bit of copycat dynamics in honour of the Duke.”
The finished song, with its elaborate, quasi-symphonic structure, illustrated how the band could retain rock’s core impact while expanding the genre’s musical scope.
“The music of King Crimson was almost exclusively based on more European structures,” Greg Lake told Rolling Stone’s Andy Greene in 2013 of the band’s 1969 writing process. “It wasn’t basic blues-riff music. This was using very different harmonic components, different structures, so it wouldn’t be verse, chorus, verse, verse, chorus, verse, verse, chorus. …
“The other interesting thing about the band is that it was more orchestral,” he added. “It wasn’t like the Moody Blues, sort of mild and gentle and symphonic. It was intense. Things like ’21st Century Schizoid Man’ would literally scare people.”
If the music alone didn’t have that effect, Peter Sinfield’s nightmarish words drove the point home.
As the band’s lyricist and reluctant roadie, Sinfield was a fixture at their early basement writing sessions. “There [were] a couple of pretty tunes,” he recalls. “There was a search going on for something heavy for the band. And so that [sings opening riff to “Schizoid Man”] was exactly what we were looking for.”
Around the same time, he provided the group formerly known as Giles, Giles and Fripp with a name that matched its nascent sound.
“I wanted something very arrogant, so that’s why I wanted the ‘King’ in it, royalty … because it was a very arrogant band,” Sinfield explains. “The music played was so varied and so clever, that I wanted the arrogance to be there ready and waiting in the name.” And “Crimson,” he says, is “just the color you would use if you were painting a lot of flames and violent pictures and strange, violent creatures.”
“Violent pictures” would prove essential to the song in progress. Sinfield — whose mother, once described by her son as a “bisexual Communist,” had exposed him to activism early on — remembers seeing a constant stream of images from the Vietnam War in newspapers and on TV, including “pictures of the bombers over Cambodia, dropping sticks and sticks of bombs on the poor peasants underneath, and there was that picture of the little girl running down the road on fire.”
He began working up a terse, disjointed set of lyrics that condemned these atrocities by effectively throwing them in the listener’s face. “If it was a movie, it would just be a series of frames,” he says of the words he settled on for “Schizoid Man.” “I wanted it to frighten people and upset them and scare them and [make them] run out the door — or I wanted them to relate it to other pieces of violence in their life.”
For example, “blood rack,” he says, “should conjure up a butcher shop window full of meat,” while “death seed” in the final verse alludes what Sinfield calls the “harvest of bad things” brought about by Agent Orange.
“Innocents raped with napalm fire” came from contrasting his immediate environment with what he saw being beamed in from the war. “I look around and the rest of the world is innocent, and the next picture I would see on the news would be men with flamethrowers charging rice paddies and burning down villages,” he says. “I couldn’t make it much more hideous than it was.”
The mention of a “cat’s foot” in the opening line is subtler but no less dark. Sinfield says it refers to the phrase “cat’s paw,” made famous by the French fable “The Monkey and the Cat.” “People used to use a cat’s paw if you put something in the fire, or to get your chestnuts out of the fire,” Sinfield says. “So, someone that was used for some other nefarious end, it was called a cat’s paw.”
Some of the lines, he explains — like the brilliantly bizarre “neurosurgeons scream for more” — were “pure phonetics,” phrases that sounded good when sung. The alliteration in lines such as “paranoia’s poison door” and “politician’s funeral pyre,” Sinfield says, was “just me putting lots of p’s in a row, and then when they came out the other end, they were like a machine gun.”
Asked what he felt mankind had that it didn’t need — in the concluding line “nothing he’s got, he really needs,” which he says was probably inspired by the sci-fi he was reading at the time — Sinfield says, “Jesus, where can I start? Everything mankind had, he didn’t need, or want, or was developing to make something larger or greater that he didn’t need, that would destroy him.”
The song’s iconic title line came to him one day while he was watching TV with McDonald.
“I was looking for a phrase about, ‘oh, blimey, we’re all going mad,’ all the world’s going mad, really,” he says. “It needed to say that, and it needed to sound good, which was important.”
He says he has “absolutely no idea” where the word “schizoid” came from. “I have no studies or any knowledge of schizophrenia,” Sinfield admits. “‘Schizophrenia’ just seemed like another word for a collective of mad people to me. And why ’21st century’? I don’t know; it just sounded better than ’20th century.’ It had the right sound to it: a lot of people going insane.
“It’s a prophecy; it’s very sort of prescient,” he continues. “And I was definitely putting it in the near future. The world was going in that direction.”
In Michael Giles’ view, the song’s words “were a stark, black, bleak warning for people to wake up to the sheer ignorance, arrogance, greed, and stupidity of human behavior.”
The unusual potency of “Schizoid Man” became apparent as soon as King Crimson started playing their first proper gigs in April 1969. The band had already attracted label interest and enthusiastic press. (“A cafe in the Fulham Palace Road is keeping within its bowels an incredible sound,” wrote an International Times columnist, as quoted in Sid Smith’s definitive band bio In the Court of King Crimson.) Word-of-mouth buzz followed thanks to the intensity of these early shows, where the band opened with “Schizoid Man,” launching into the song from dead silence — with an arresting visual twist.
“The word was getting around about Crimson, so we opened with ‘Schizoid Man’ in that way, with silence and then, boom,” McDonald recalls. “We had strobe lights, which Peter Sinfield was in charge of, so we’d come on in relative darkness and just blast everyone with ‘Schizoid Man’ and strobe lights right away.”
One of those blasted by the “Schizoid Man” live experience in the early days was Steve Hackett, future guitarist of Genesis, a band that would go on to set its own benchmarks for advanced rock composition.
“We hadn’t really heard anything else like it,” Hackett recalls of experiencing “Schizoid Man” live in 1969 at London’s Marquee, where King Crimson played often that spring and summer. “You had that sort of free-jazz sensibility, but it was done with rock sensibility. And you had the guitar being twinned with the sax the whole time, so it was a very angular approach. It was the precision of the piece that was most interesting. … Pete Sinfield used to do [the lights] by hand. He knew the piece, so in the silences [in the stop-start section], it went into blackout, which was very effective.
“They were very keen not to play when they first came out,” he continues. “They withheld it, and the dynamics were all the more extreme because of that. It hits you, bam!”
Sinfield says that before joining the band, he’d dabbled in DIY psychedelic light shows, with “whirly swirly things and blobs going up and down the wall.” But his visual setup for Crimson, involving red, green, and blue bulbs in addition to strobes, was more severe, and was as intensely rehearsed as the music. Coordinating his efforts to a piece as involved as “Schizoid Man” presented a serious challenge. “I had this sort of bank of switches that I could play exactly with the music,” Sinfield says. “I had to learn the actual music, and that’s very tricky, especially the fast guitar riffs in the middle. People thought [the lights] were synchronized; they weren’t. It was actually my nimble fingers playing them. ”
King Crimson weren’t able to bring their full audiovisual assault to the biggest show they played that year: an enormous outdoor fest in Hyde Park on July 5th, 1969, headlined by the Rolling Stones and attended by hundreds of thousands. But even in daylight, “Schizoid Man” was captivating.
“The high point of that gig was the whole audience rising to their feet as one and cheering Ian McDonald’s solo during ‘Schizoid,'” Crimson roadie Richard “Vick” Vickers told Sid Smith. “I remember the hairs on the back of my neck rising as the roar from this huge crowd went up.”
“Everyone sort of jumped backwards a foot,” Sinfield recalls of the reaction he saw to the song that day. “It did what it was supposed to do.”
The band had attempted to record “Schizoid Man” — along with a couple other songs that would end up on In the Court of the Crimson King — in June with Moody Blues producer Tony Clarke, but the sessions were scrapped. “He could have been interested in taming us,” Michael Giles told Sid Smith of Clarke.
In late July, the band regrouped at London’s Wessex studio to produce their debut themselves. “Schizoid Man” was the last song they recorded, on August 1st.
“We did it all in one take, from beginning to end, no edits,” McDonald recalls. “There were a couple of overdubs later, but the basic track was the four of us playing it in one take from beginning to end. So, as long it takes to hear ‘Schizoid Man,’ that’s how long it took us to to put it down.”
Fripp recorded his guitar solo on August 4th. With it its long, fluid sustains, broken up by horn-like trills and biting snarls, the passage seems almost weightless, creating a compelling contrast with the rhythm section churning underneath.
Talking to Guitar Player in 1974 about how he achieved the solo’s rapid runs, he said, “It’s all picked down-up,” describing a banjo-derived technique called crosspicking that he’d learned around age 13 from his instructor, Don Strike, who also taught Greg Lake.
McDonald follows with an extended double-tracked burst of psychedelic noise-jazz, which, he confirms, is actually two separate alto-sax solos laid on top of one another. It took him several tries, and some careful maneuvering, to achieve the anguished effect he was looking for.
“I remember doing the solo a couple of times. I wasn’t happy with the way I was doing it, so I ended up putting myself in a very uncomfortable contorted position on the floor of the studio,” McDonald says, imitating a crouched posture, “and then playing the solo like that because I wanted to get [that] sort of angst. … It was all too sweet and melodic, the way I was playing it.
“Because of the lack of recording tracks, you can hear the saxophone solo ends very abruptly,” he adds, imitating the solo’s clipped “whoop” ending, heard around the track’s 4:22 mark. “We needed space to put Robert’s guitar on there.”
Post-production touches were key to achieving the song’s bleak, futuristic feel. During mixing, McDonald explains, the band added a tinny distortion to Lake’s voice.
“The vocal [effect] was an idea that we had to actually overload the control console … causing the vocal to be completely distorted electronically,” McDonald says. “Actually, it was probably very bad for the control board to do that. But that’s what we did: We overloaded the vocal signal when we were mixing to get this edgy, angst-ridden sound.”
Another subtle addition to the track was a strange whooshing heard in the right channel during the verses, coinciding with every guitar chord. To achieve the effect, Giles kept time on a slightly open hi-hat cymbal, and McDonald manipulated the sound on the mixing board. “I moved the equalizer on the control board so that each hit on the hi-hat brought out a different tone,” McDonald says, mimicking the clanging pulses.
The song’s barely audible intro, lasting just under 30 seconds and sounding a little like a train whistle, came from an instrument the band happened to find at Wessex.
“There was a reed organ in the studio, and I guess it had a wind pump to drive these pipes,” McDonald recalls. “What that sound is, is that [organ], with me putting my forearm across the keys. The bellows sending air into the pipe were only so strong — it was basically used for normal playing. When I put my arm across the keys, it totally overloaded the poor bellows, and it came out [with] this sort of wheezing sound.”
In a way, the song’s finishing touch was a visual one. As King Crimson were recording “Schizoid Man,” artist Barry Godber, a friend of Peter Sinfield’s who had attended early rehearsals, dropped by the studio with a painting he’d made of a horrified face — the image that would eventually grace the cover of In the Court of the Crimson King.
“We all stood around it,” Greg Lake told Sid Smith in Classic Rock, “and it was like something out of Treasure Island where you’re all standing around a box of jewels and treasure… This fucking face screamed up from the floor, and what it said to us was ‘schizoid man’ — the very track we’d been working on. It was as if there was something magic going on.”
For the album release, the band added secondary titles to several of the songs. “The reason we did that is … [for] publishing purposes, because otherwise there would have only been five titles and that would have been a bit short,” McDonald says. So the opening track became “21st Century Schizoid Man (including ‘Mirrors’).”
“I needed something that sounded like the middle of a complicated song, and mirrors [are] always complicated, because they reflect each other,” Sinfield says of the addition. “And [if] you’ve got two mirrors, you’ve got a world of mirrors.”
Heard in the context of King Crimson’s debut, “Schizoid Man” contrasted brilliantly with pastoral ballads “I Talk to the Wind” and “Moonchild,” and eerily majestic epics “Epitaph” and the title track. Upon the album’s release, Rolling Stone’s favorable review of In the Court of the Crimson King called “Schizoid Man” “grinding and chaotic,” and praised its “abrupt and breathtaking” transition into “I Talk to the Wind,” while Melody Maker characterized the opening track as “brutally exciting.”
“It was so hard to play, and it was so terrifying,” Fripp said of “Schizoid Man” five years after its release. In 1995, he would look back on the song as foretelling a new era in rock. “For me ‘Schizoid’ was the first heavy metal track,” he said.
“I knew we were doing something different, if not unique, in bringing rock and jazz together,” Giles writes of the song. “Maybe it was nearer to some of Frank Zappa’s music — I don’t know. But the combination of Greg’s voice, Pete Sinfield’s words, heavy rock and free jazz made it very special and different from what had gone before, and the music of ’69.”
Bill Bruford stresses just how forbidding the song seemed at the time.
“Everybody else was singing about ‘Itchycoo Park,’ ‘my purple windmill,’ and things,” he says. “And bear in mind that the three tiny, short four-line verses of ‘Schizoid Man’ were pretty weird — if people are going to open with the word ‘blood’ or ‘neurosurgeons,’ or something, those words just bring up images right away. We were in a tougher, newer land.”
Click here to read the second part of this story, which delves into the evolution and influence of “21st Schizoid Man” during the past 50 years. The author would like to thank Kate Ashley-Norman, David Singleton, Ian McDonald, Randy Alexander, and Jakko Jakszyk for their assistance with coordinating interviews for this story.