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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

Diving into "21st Century Schizoid Man" in memory of Ian McDonald

As I've done twice before, I pay tribute to a recently deceased musician by looking back at one of their works.


On February 9, Ian McDonald died at the age of 75. McDonald was a founding member of trailblazing progressive rock band King Crimson, playing woodwinds and keyboards, including the Mellotron, on their landmark debut record, 1969's In the Court of the Crimson King. McDonald left the band in 1970 and later was a founding member of Foreigner, but today I'm solely focusing on his first group endeavor.


King Crimson was founded by McDonald, guitarist Robert Fripp, drummer Michael Giles, lead singer and bassist Greg Lake (later of Emerson, Lake & Palmer), and lyricist Peter Sinfield — a venerable who's who of prog. On In the Court of the Crimson King, the quintet mix progressive rock with proto-metal and a heavy dose of jazz to create one of the most unique records of the 1960s that has more than stood the test of time. Today, I'll be highlighting the album's in-your-face opener, "21st Century Schizoid Man," which features plenty of McDonald's work as part of a seven-plus-minute tapestry that both depicts and decries the atrocities of war.

After an ambient intro, McDonald makes his presence known instantly, taking the melody as the group begins their journey. The melody is simple and outlines the C minor pentatonic scale in its first half, before chromatically climbing from the fourth (F) to the fifth (G) in the second half. Knowing what comes later, it's somewhat funny just how straightforward this opening is.


The first sign something is different about "21st Century Schizoid Man" is the third playing of the introduction melody, when McDonald's wailing saxophone initially adds dissonance as he climbs toward the melody's apex, before it is backed by a siren-like synth for its chromatic climb. It's this moment where the beginnings of its war narrative becomes clear, and this PoV only heightens over the rest of the track. Greg Lake's lyrics then enter, and each of his three verses has a specific cadence they follow: in the first line, two short, unconnected phrases; in the second, a longer phrase that gets more at the song's narrative focus; in the third, a long phrase or sentence similar to the second, often further narrowing the verse's focus; then in the fourth and final line, a statement of the title. The verses each tell of the negative effects and trauma of the Vietnam War, hinting at post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans and victims ("Neurosurgeons scream for more / At paranoia's poison door"), the plight of civilians on either side caught in the crossfire ("Innocents raped with napalm fire"), and the increase in consumerism on the home front and worldwide leaving all parties unnecessarily wanting ("Nothing he's got he's really needs").


Then there's the aforementioned title statement — which I'm sure many of you have heard before; I'll get to that at article's end, but I've got a few things to tackle first. Looking ahead more than three decades, Lake and company predict that humanity in the 21st century will be cold and fractured in the wake of Vietnam and other major traumas. Perhaps, like those suffering from schizoid disorders, they may, unbeknownst to themselves, be living in some sort of fantasy of their own design. Robert Fripp may have dedicated a live performance to Vice President Spiro Agnew in the year of the song's release, but I can imagine there are many more recent figures who would also be fitting of that dedication in Fripp's mind as of 2022.


Lake's lyrics strike a chord within me — and not just the chord Fripp plays behind them. I do get the sense right now that our world is somewhat emotionally cold, with current stressors making that so. It's also certainly fractured in all sociopolitical facets, with no true healing in sight. *sighs* Maybe our collective future was too obvious in the 60s' wake.


"21st Century Schizoid Man" also has a full-on middle jazz section that the band calls "Mirrors." The title doesn't seem to mean anything in particular in relation to the song, but I hear the section's frenetic energy as further representing the chaos of the war climate. Fripp's solo is picked completely in reverse, with up-strokes on downbeats and vice versa; it's something I can definitely hear, and it immediately gives his solo a characteristic uneasiness. Fripp later progresses to near atonality; while there's plenty of atonality in more classical or orchestral musical settings, its placement in rock makes it the sonic embodiment of all hell breaking loose. McDonald takes the lead in the second half of "Mirrors" alongside Fripp, reeling the band back into a more conventional jazz section. I enjoy the more playful nature of this section, accented by the many pauses taken and the ensemble's rhythmic tightness, anchored by Giles' snare drumming.


King Crimson then make their way back to the third and final verse, before the song comes crashing down. The band repeats the three-note chromatic riff, first slowing down before collectively speeding up en route to two bursts of free improvisation. The destruction of one of the song's defining details at its conclusion leaves a lasting impression, especially as it relates to the destruction Lake's lyrics describe. It leaves "21st Century Schizoid Man" as a premonition and a warning to listeners, presenting their possible fate while not condemning them to it. All the while, though, the song is so intriguing that many may not even hear its deeper message, something that only produces even more questions.

 

Yes, this article is in tribute to Ian McDonald, but you can't tell the story of "21st Century Schizoid Man" without a figure who is very much alive and in the news. The vast majority of people my age, myself included, first heard a clip of the song as a sample in Kanye West's "POWER," a track from his epic 2010 release My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy that has more than stood the test of time. I hear Ye's sampling of Lake's title statement as a very clear embodiment of his own psyche, something of which he takes full ownership throughout the rest of the track. It's as if, through "POWER," Ye is proving Lake correct... well, I guess we should've seen that coming all along.

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