Staking the Lizard

Microsoft Word - Document20.docx‘Burn a bridge and burn a boat, Stake a Lizard by the throat’ (‘Prince Rupert Awakes’).

Gini Wade (née Barris) was responsible for designing one of the most revered and idiosyncratic progressive-rock album covers of the 1970s. Between 2007 and 2010, she studied for an MA in Fine Art at the School of Art, Aberystwyth University. She had returned to education, having graduated in 1967 with a BA in Graphic Design from the Central School (now Central St Martins), London, pursued a career as a freelance children’s book illustrator, and worked as an occasional arts co-ordinator, visiting lecturer, and DJ.

I first encountered Gini Wade’s work in 1973, when I was 14 years of age, on the cover of a 33-rpm record called Lizard (1970) – the third album by King Crimson, who were arguably the most accomplished and ambitious of Britain’s progressive-rock bands. (A digitally re-mastered and revised version of the recording was released in 2009.) Gini’s ‘outside painting’ (as the artwork is referred to in the sleeve notes) exhibits the same mixture of pageant, anarchy, and oddity as her most recent prints. It remains one of the most striking and original contributions to what was a relatively new genre of graphic design or applied illustration, which had reached its high watermark only three years earlier on the cover of the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, designed by the British Pop Artist Peter Blake.

The two recordings (and their artwork) share several features. Both are what might be termed discontinuous concept albums, in that their lyrical and musical ideas do not amount to a single unifying story or theme. Instead, their respective concepts (such as they are) bookend and recur intermittently throughout a sequence of otherwise disparate tracks. Traditionally, the function of the cover artwork was to advertise the album’s musical content, articulate the artistic vision of the composers and performers, and provide a striking promotional image for the product. Sgt Pepper and Lizard presented a significant challenge in all these respects. How could an artist encapsulate the album’s diversity in a single cohesive image? Blake chose to follow the (il)logic of the music, and base his design on a collage comprising an equally incongruent company of life-size cardboard figures portraying the group’s heroes, wax effigies of the Beatles, and the ‘Fab Four’ posing as their alter egos — the Lonely Hearts Club Band — in brightly-coloured military uniform.

In contrast to Blake’s use of contemporary Pop Art processes and assorted visual quotations culled from twentieth-century culture, Barris’s response – while similarly characterised by a multiplicity of events and an assortment of borrowings from pre-existing sources – evokes a far more distant visual tradition, historically speaking. The two square-format cover panels (front and back) were painted in watercolour and gouache on paper. The design is coloured (both metaphorically and literally) by her love of Persian miniatures, and incorporates devices (such as Celtic interlace and knots) and imagery influenced by illuminated manuscripts, including the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, the Book of Kells, and the Lindisfarne Gospel.

The design is underpinned by the words ‘Crimson’ and ‘King’. The historiated initial ‘C’, along with several other letters, is zoomorphic (partly composed of animal forms). The ‘C’ is based on the enlarged initial found on the incipit or opening paragraph of a medieval book or page. All the letters either incorporate or are framed by small and detailed scenes. Some are illustrative of the album’s lyrics, whereas others are ‘inhabited’ (that is, they have no identifiable relation to imagery used in the songs). These latter vignettes are populated entirely and eclectically with various drolleries and grotesques derived from Gini’s pictorial research and visual imagination. The illustrative scenes that illuminate the letters C R I M S O N (on the front cover) refer to the songs on Side A of the LP, while the scenes associated with the letters K I N G (on the back cover) refer, for the most part, to the lyrics of, and themes evoked by, the programmatic music of the album’s title track, which occupies the whole of Side B. (The distinction between the sides and their relation to the cover design is, of course, lost on the CD and downloaded versions of the album.)


The image accompanying the letter ‘I’ in ‘Crimson’ portrays the Beatles, who are cryptically alluded to in the track entitled ‘Happy Families’ and shown standing on a promenade against the setting sun. (Lizard was released the same year the Beatles broke up.) (The Sgt Pepper cover also refers to another rock group – the Rolling Stones ­– on the jumper worn by the cloth figure of Shirley Temple, situated at the centre and on the far right of the design.) The letter ‘N’ in ‘Crimson’ vignettes a fantasy super-group made up of the guitarist Jimi Hendrix (who died the same year as Lizard was released), Ginger Baker (the drummer from the rock group Cream) and, at the centre, the flautist and Gini’s future husband Dave Wade (who also designed the marbled wallpaper for the inside of the gatefold). These contemporary references to the music industry’s feted and fated, coupled with iconography of the circus (framed by the initial ‘C’, and alluding to the album’s opening track), disrupt the period continuity of the artwork and remind the viewer that the music it represents is very much of the present. However, Gini conceived the artwork without ever having heard the music. She had only the lyrics by Peter Sinfield (who had commissioned the cover from her) to go on. Gini recalls that Sinfield gave her carte blanche in terms of the design, which she executed over a period of three to four months while keeping house for the American folk-rock performer Julie Felix.

From the 1960s onward, album-cover art was increasingly regarded as one component of the whole (music being the other). The artwork not only presents a conspicuous visual contrast to the austere blackness of the vinyl disc but also ‘scents’ one’s reception of its sound. But Gini’s polite and playful faux medievalism is entirely at odds with the darkly insane and frighteningly sinister tone of Robert Fripp’s compositions and Sinfield’s synthesis of often wilfully elusive and wonderfully psychedelic imagism. Musically, the album – far from beckoning to a bygone era – was ahead of its time: its fusion of rock and jazz, and of electronic and acoustic instrumentation, kept pace with the experimentation of the greatest musical pioneer of the 1960s and 1970s, Miles Davis, whose own melange of these idioms and means, Bitches Brew, was released in the same year as Lizard. And yet, it is the very incongruity between the music and the artwork’s visualization of the lyrics and extraneous sources that enables the album to evade categorization and historical specificity.

It was often said that although Sinfield was not an instrumentalist his contribution to King Crimson’s first three albums was as important as that of any member who played on them. Gini Wade’s involvement with the band on Lizard was, similarly, that of a sleeping partner in a trio of intelligences that, together, created a demanding musical, lyrical, and visual masterpiece.

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