The Pillars of Prog, Part 1 – We Are All 21st Century Schizoid Men

Welcome to the first in a new series about some of the most important/influential songs in the history of progressive rock. I’ve been trying to come up with a new idea for a series or regular column here at Progarchy, and last week, while enjoying the vast beauty of northern Michigan for a week, I was struck with this idea while standing in an antique shop (which was taking my money for my very first, and probably last, vinyl purchase).

I’m beginning this series with King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man” because I honestly believe this song is what started the genre. Feel free to let me know in the comments what songs you think I should talk about in the future. I’ve got ideas ranging from Dream Theater to Yes to Jethro Tull and everything in between, and your ideas will be helpful in rounding out my ideas.

Without further ado…

[Please feel free to play the song as you read.]

I don’t collect vinyl. I like CDs and I love buying books, but I’ve decided that vinyl isn’t for me. I like being able to have all my music on my computer, and, after all, one can only have so many disparate collections and hobbies. However, when I saw an original mint copy of King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King last week in an antique store in Traverse City, MI, I knew I had to have it. This album means so much to the genre, and the artwork is so incredibly iconic. If anything, it will make a beautiful piece of artwork for my wall once I get one of those fancy vinyl record frames.

Like many connoisseurs of prog (and I say that proudly with pinky firmly in the air as I sip a cup of tea), “21st Century Schizoid Man” is one of my favorite songs. Ever since my friend and fellow progarchist, Connor Mullin, played the song for me as a freshman in college, I’ve loved every second of it. The lyrics, the guitar, the saxophone, Greg Lake’s awesome distorted vocals – this song IS progressive in every sense of the word. It actually did break new ground, and it sounds as fresh today as I’m sure it did in 1969. Nothing that came before it truly comes close to being this progressive, and nothing written since, even by King Crimson, quite captures the spirit of the age in which it was created.

Cat’s foot iron claw
Neuro-surgeons scream for more
At paranoia’s poison door
Twenty first century schizoid man

King Crimson were remarkably accurate and prophetic in their assessment of twenty-first century western culture. Even now, we see people everywhere clambering at paranoia’s poison door – “the Russians, the Russians, the Russians – aaaaaahhhhhhh!!!!!!!” Give me a break. As a culture, we have become 21st century schizoid men. We don’t know what to believe unless somebody tells it to us from a television set. Yet, King Crimson warned us of this in 1969 – almost fifty years ago!

Blood rack barbed wire
Politicians’ funeral pyre
Innocents raped with napalm fire
Twenty first century schizoid man

While it is quite clear that these lyrics reference the insanity that ensued during the Vietnam War, it seems that these words might also apply to today. The only difference that might suffice for today would be replacing politicians’ funeral pyre with that of terrorists. Scratch that – add the terrorists to the funeral pyre along with the politicians. Just turn on the tv to see evidence of these lyrics being more than true.

And yet, we 21st century schizoid men perpetuate these atrocities to ensure that our personal peace and affluence are not disturbed.

Death seed blind man’s greed
Poets’ starving children bleed
Nothing he’s got he really needs
Twenty first century schizoid man

This may be the most important verse, offered to us after one of the greatest musical interludes ever written. I read and reread these lyrics and I still struggle to understand exactly what is meant by the first two lines of the third verse. But those last two lines – they just about sum up contemporary western man. We are laden with all sorts of crap – none of which we really need. And, all the while, the poet’s starving children bleed because their parents can’t afford to care for them.

The 21st century schizoid man has become so self-absorbed that he can’t be bothered to concern himself with the plight of others. He can’t be bothered to appreciate true art in any of its various forms, since that may not give him the greatest amount of pleasure at that particular moment. Because of this, the poets, artists, painters, writers, and musicians (those same folks that Big Big Train masterfully extol the virtues of in their latest album, Grimspound) are left with nothing because the 21st century schizoid men care nothing for what truly matters.

While a very upbeat song, it becomes achingly clear that the lyrics of “21st Century Schizoid Man” are remarkably dark. These words are a warning to avoid the meaninglessness of modern life. There is so much more to life than money, a new car, a big house, or personal peace and affluence. All of that is merely, as Kansas put it, dust in the wind. Indeed, I believe the great cultural critic Francis Schaeffer would comment, if he were still living, that the chaos of the end of this song represents the complete pointlessness of the life of the 21st century schizoid man, who is left wide eyed with mouth agape and nostrils flared as he rushes through paranoia’s door.

As any excellent progressive rock song does, King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man” prompts us to ponder who we are and where we are going. These lyrics ring true just as much, if not more so, today as they did in 1969. The music builds upon the foundation laid by the classical composers, jazz musicians, and contemporary rockers, both psychedelic and otherwise, of the 50s and 60s, and in doing so, the band kickstarted a new genre and a new way of approaching music. In this way, they have taught us a new way of looking at ourselves.

I implore you, lovers of prog, next time you find yourselves tempted to knock at paranoia’s poison door, ask yourself if you really want to be a 21st century schizoid man. I know I don’t.

9 thoughts on “The Pillars of Prog, Part 1 – We Are All 21st Century Schizoid Men

  1. Okay Sir-Bryan……………don’t You DARE continue on this topic,WITHOUT a STRONG Mention of a TRIO from Canada,EH??? LOL.

    Yup,we BOTH KNOW whom I speak of!!! For they DEFINED the Progness for all of us ALL THROUGHOUT the 70’s well into the NEXT decade!!! I SO HOPE You’ll choose ANOTHER Album to write about,other than the MOST WELL-KNOWN PROG.ALBUM of the 70’s………”2112″!!! That one’s been done to death!!! So I hope You’ll either write about MY personal fave………”Hemispheres” or perhaps the one that immediately followed 2112………….”A Farewell to Kings”!!! For THAT is nothing but a HUGE,JUICY SLICE of PROG. CAKE right there!!! Lol.

    Anyway,You definitely started out this topic with a PERFECT Song!!! Looking foward to where You go with this!!! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Bryan Morey

      Oh, believe me, Indieun7, I wouldn’t dream of doing this series without mentioning Rush, possibly in multiple pieces. I’m glad you mention doing one other than 2112 – I also feel it has been covered a lot, but I wasn’t sure if I should do it again. I think I’ll pick something from Farewell to Kings, since that is my favorite Rush album. I may go rogue, though, and talk about “The Necromancer” or “The Fountain of Lamneth” – definitely songs that don’t receive enough attention. Plus, without those songs, 2112 wouldn’t have happened, or at least not in the way they did it.

      Cheers.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ahhh,BRAVO My Young Friend,BRAVO!!! You basically just SAID,precisely what I was THINKING last night when I wrote my above-comment^^^ Haha. Yes,way back when…………when I first got my ears on “RUSH”…….quickly afterwards,my older-brother got me “Caress of Steel” for my birthday,and I had NO IDEA what this album contained,but after listening to it………..My brain was quickly going in a million different directions JUST from the construction of the MUSIC!!! (the Lyric-sorting in my brain,came later!!! Lol.) And since that very FIRST LISTEN,WAAAAAY back in the early 80’s……..I had always just simply LOVED this album for the quality it has!!! Nowadays………….so many OTHER Prog and RUSH fans,are starting to agree with that theory as well,and it’s made me smile!!! 🙂 So YES,perhaps You may consider breaking “RUSH” down into a few pieces………ONE of them,talking about “The Necromancery” and/or “The Fountain of Lamneth”!!! As before………..Looking forward to where You choose to go with this My Friend!!! ~Peace~

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Bryan Morey

      Thanks, Rick. I’ve been wanting to write something lengthy about “Supper’s Ready” for a while, so I’ll probably go with that. Maybe something from Trick of the Tail or Wind and Wuthering, too.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Laurence Stevenson

    For me, Prog started a bit earlier with ‘Legend of a Mind’ from ‘In Search of the Lost Chord’ by The Moody Blues. That whole album totally turned my head towards music. King Crimson, when they came along later, have always been a big favourite (I’ll be seeing them again in a couple of months!) but The Moody Blues were where it began.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Bryan Morey

      Thanks, Laurence. I probably would have chosen something from them to start this series, but I don’t know their music very well – one of my many short-fallings. I’ll check out the song/album you mentioned. Enjoy the upcoming KC show!

      Liked by 1 person

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