A full run through the King Crimson discography: Part 4 (Lizard, 1970)

After the release of In the Wake of Poseidon (or in the wake of Poseidon? Yeah? Sorry) King Crimson reformed in 1970 for the first time out of several times to come, with Fripp and Sinfield remaining and an entirely new lineup otherwise, Gordon Haskell returning as main vocalist/bassist, a new drummer in Andy McCulloch, Tippett again on piano, and several others sitting in on brass and woodwinds. Then they produced Lizard, Crimson’s third album.

I wanted to like Lizard upon this new listen. It’s the first album in this run that I don’t have any memories attached to because I hardly ever listened to it when I was young, for the simple reason that I just didn’t like it back at the time. Lizard sounds absolutely nothing like the first two Crimson albums — the sound here turns to a mix of jazz fusion and sort of medieval/Renaissance-esque (or at least that seems to be what they’re going for; also judging by the pretty nice medieval tapistry-inspired album cover.) It’s a strange mix, but there’s no reason it couldn’t necessarily work, so I went back in hoping I was missing something back in the day that I’d hear now.

I’m sorry to say that I still don’t hear it. This is the first Crimson album, and certainly not the last if memory serves, that’s going to be a rough listen. It’s not because of laziness — it seems like plenty of effort was put into Lizard, but some of the musical choices the band made on this album were baffling.

The opener Cirkus isn’t awful, with some pretty memorable moments, but the sheer ugliness of a lot of the song largely wrecks it for me. The following songs Indoor Games and Happy Family don’t even have the memorability or power of “Cirkus” to at least partially save them — they just outright suck. On top of all that, Gordon Haskell’s voice is rough as hell and adds to that ugly effect. The guy might have been great at singing blues or something really raw like that, but this style of music would have been a lot better with say Greg Lake (then involved in putting out the far better ELP debut album at this point.)

Not that it would have helped a song like “Happy Family” much to have Lake singing instead. Haskell isn’t suited at all to sing these songs, but the songs are really the problem in my opinion — I have no clue what Crimson was going for with this first half, because it doesn’t work. Ugliness absolutely can work in music as in other forms of art, but I don’t think it works without a purpose, and what’s the purpose here aside from a weird retelling of the Beatles’ then-recent breakup (the subject of “Happy Family” supposedly) that I don’t need anyway? Even the requisite soft ballad Lady of the Dancing Water that closes the first side is far weaker than what we’ve come to expect; it slides out of my head right after it’s done playing.

That leaves the by default best song on the album. Lizard features what was quickly becoming a prog-rock standard, the sidelong track: a song that takes up one side of an LP (an anachronistic term even when I was growing up in the CD age, but vinyl is still around, isn’t it? So maybe not.) The 23-minute title track is an ambitious undertaking, a real suite in that old classical sense even if it’s musically a lot more based in jazz fusion. And I guess some people love the song “Lizard” as much as Yes’ “Close to the Edge”, Genesis’ “Supper’s Ready”, or ELP’s “Tarkus”, but all three of those are far better than this mess.

To be fair, the first half of “Lizard” is all right; the first two parts (because of course it’s divided into parts, these prog guys loved making song subparts) “Prince Rupert Awakes” and “Bolero” are together by far my favorite parts of Lizard and the only ones I care to ever hear again. The first is a nice surprise for all the Yes fans like me, with guest vocals by Jon Anderson, a fine treat after having to hear Gordon Haskell all over the first half of the album (though he does return later in the song.) This song even sounds kind of like very early Yes before they got all cosmic and ultra-progressive the following year with The Yes Album. Nice stuff, aside from the messes of organ splashed around that completely clash with the verses (but still nowhere close to what we got on the first side.) And “Bolero” is a very pleasant instrumental lead-in to the main “battle” section of the suite, with a beautiful woodwind/piano section around the sixth minute.

Then “The Battle of Glass Tears” starts, and the song turns into mush again right up until Fripp’s really good guitar solo near the very end. This stretch from the middle on isn’t that memorable or interesting — you’d think the depiction of a battle should get the blood flowing, but it really doesn’t. While it does get pretty loud at points, the whole thing comes off like a weak copy of what Miles Davis was doing at the time, and as much as I like that early 70s fusion, if I want it I’ll listen to Bitches Brew.

Prince Rupert in a contemporary 17th century cartoon. This guy had a legitimately interesting life, getting exiled and fighting all over Europe.

And even that’s not exactly “get the blood flowing” music itself, so I’m not sure what effect Crimson was going for with “Lizard” in the end. It’s supposed to depict the Cavalier leader Prince Rupert of the Rhine at the Battle of Naseby during the English Civil War, one of the battles that really screwed King Charles I, but I don’t know how you’d tell without the references in the subpart titles. Not unless “burn a bridge and burn a boat / stake a lizard by the throat” has something to do with the battle tactics? And what a weirdly specific theme to take on. Was Fripp a history nerd like me, or maybe Sinfield since he wrote the lyrics? But who cares about that — themes and concepts are great and all, but if you’re writing a piece of music, the damn music has to be good or else the rest of it suffers.

That’s Lizard. It’s not very good, and even the band itself seems not to have been happy with it. After its recording, Crimson fell apart for a second time, with Haskell and McCulloch leaving and being replaced by still another singer/bassist and drummer along with the same or a similar set of guys on piano, horns, and woodwinds to record their fourth album Islands the following year. Lizard even got trashed for a long time by Mr. Fripp himself. Too bad — the band had a unique sound at this point, and maybe they could have done something better with it than this.

But maybe you’ll like it, or even love it? Lizard does have its ardent fans. Me, I’d rather put on Van der Graaf Generator’s Lizard Play, even if the rest of the album it’s on is a fucking mess too. But I’ll leave that complaint for the Van der Graaf post series if that ever happens (maybe in 2030.)