Having just about invented Prog Rock with King Crimson (in which band he pioneered the role of the non-performing member), Peter Sinfield further refined that much-maligned musical genre by his collaborations with Emerson, Lake and Palmer, taking time out to produce Roxy Music’s landmark first album and their ground breaking, hit single Virginia Plain, then record his own, unjustly neglected solo effort Still. To confound the critics who dismissed his lyrics as airy fairy, obscurist acid casualty stuff, he spent the ’80s and ’90s writing smash hits for the likes of Bucks Fizz, Five Star, Barry Manilow, Cliff Richard, Cher and Celine Dion (the zillion-selling Think Twice). No wonder he was supping champagne during the following exclusive interview.
After his parents divorce, Sinfield (born 27/1/43 in Putney) was brought up in a distinctly bohemian atmosphere by his eccentric, bisexual mother. Blessed with what Robert Fripp would no doubt call “a liberal education for a young man”, Sinfield was eventually faced with a choice between his growing creative aspirations and the dreaded day job…
I left school after my GCE’s and started work as a trainee travel agent. I naively imagined that would enable me to see the world. Since it didn’t I found a job in computers, where, among other things, I got to check the printouts from Pye Records revealing the money made by e.g. the Emile Ford record What Do You Want To Make Those Eyes At Me For? i.e. a hell of a lot of money for such a piece of nonsense. It’s possible that planted a seed though it was certainly not the main reason I became a songwriter. Time passed and 5 years later I was auditioning people for my band. Ian McDonald came along. I thought I’d found… Mozart! He could play anything. You might call it luck, but of course I prefer to think I put myself in the position to be lucky.
Out of the ashes of Giles, Giles and Fripp, King Crimson just exploded onto the scene… what were the factors behind that, and were they the same factors that led to the band imploding shortly afterwards?
(laughs) Wow… they were the same. Rarely have five such talented and interesting people found themselves coming together with such power and such ambition. Later, the same power and ambition caused the break-up of the band, which I mainly put down to Michael Giles. Giles, Giles & Fripp had been good, but they needed Greg Lake and they needed me…. they needed a voice and something to say, to go with the incredibly sophisticated music that they were capable of playing. King Crimson were like nothing anybody had heard before. They’d heard bits of it, in The Moody Blues, in Ornette Coleman and whatever, but never all together in a rock band… with a dash of Donovan on top! As a live act, the cliché is that Crimson people blew people’s minds, and that’s exactly what happened.
Although you were a non-playing member, it’s said your lighting played as much a part in the improvisations as any of the instruments…
It’s half true. I started off roadying and amused myself by building a lighting rig. I did it so well that some people were convinced the music was cueing the lights. I was the one sitting there at the controls and if I thought an improvisation was dragging, I would flick a green light or a blue light and they would take the music to green or blue… sounds strange, but that’s how it worked.
In the second touring incarnation of Crimson you used the VCS3 synthesiser to treat Boz Burrell’s vocals and Ian Wallace’s drums… were they happy with that?
Nope! Not at all. Ian put up with it. Sometimes that worked very well indeed, usually on Mars, and other times it didn’t. Unfortunately most of the recorded instances are in the latter category. There were much better and funnier ones. Of course Eno later did something very similar with Roxy Music.
He was also a non-playing member of that band, recalling the role that you had in Crimson…
Yeah, but Eno did it with feathers!
Were you amused or horrified when Tony Blair cited 21st Century Schizoid Man as his favourite song?
What he actually said was that Schizoid Man contains his all-time favourite guitar solo, and it is indeed an extraordinary solo. I wish he had said it was his favourite song, because he’s obviously never listened to the words, which are about… justice and injustice. Even the pop hits that I wrote in the ’80s and ’90s had this edge of social comment to them…
… like Heart Of Stone…
… exactly, thank you! Even The Land Of Make Believe… “Something nasty in Your Garden / Waiting to steal your heart” is my feeling about the political climate of that time.
Bucks Fizz are considered a bit naff now but they made some beautifully polished pop singles.
Some of my work I can’t listen to, but oddly enough I find the Bucks Fizz stuff holds up really well: You And Your Heart So Blue I like a lot… I Hear Talk, which was ahead of its time with the invasion of privacy thing. I like them. I had to write in the style of Bucks Fizz, and they had some great tunes, big productions…
Your co-writer Andy Hill also produced those records, didn’t he?
Yes. He is magic. I’ve a theory that many good producers and songwriters are mediocre but often anarchistic musos, which enables them to ignore the rules.
Going back to Crimson, you stuck with it through various personnel upheavals, then Robert Fripp announced that he didn’t want to work with you any more…
I was never sacked from King Crimson, because I owned 50% of it. Fripp rang and said one of us had got to go, and of course with a U.S. tour lined up, it was never going to be the guitarist. If I’d been more business-minded or bloody-minded I could have got a 3% override on everything, but at this point I was tired, you know, I just said OK, let it go. Fripp wasn’t happy that I’d been pushing for the music to go in a different direction… something a little softer, warmer, more Mediterranean.
Something like PFM, the Italian band you later produced?
Exactly! I love PFM! They’re wonderful players, almost as good as the Crimson guys and they have that great feeling of joie de vivre. Producing them was an excellent experience for me, though we had to do a lot of work on the vocalist’s English.
What did you think of Sid Smith’s book about Crimson?
It was good, though it verged on becoming a list of occasions. I personally wish he’d got more behind the characters, which would have given more clarity to the series of events… to understand Ian McDonald’s situation, for instance, how his parents forced him to join the army, in which he was deeply unhappy for 5 years. All of that pain played a large part in making Ian the person that he is, and I don’t think that comes across in the book. I mean, virtually none of the many characters that have participated in King Crimson, be they good, bad or indifferent, have been uninteresting. And Fripp, of course, is uniquely, forever Fripp…
Was it a tense situation making your solo album Still in the same studios where the new Crimson were making Lark’s Tongues In Aspic?
The sessions might have overlapped by a day or so, but I really didn’t notice because I was so busy that I just didn’t have time to notice anything else in the world except trying to finish the bloody album. I had to do everything, at the end of it I just collapsed with exhaustion.
There are some digs at Fripp on Still, and it’s said that the Crimson track Great Deceiver is a bit of tit-for-tat…
The stuff on Still is my How Do You Sleep… it’s pathetic, really. I’m flattered to think that Robert would even have bothered write Great Deceiver about me. Ha! I hope it’s true…
How do you feel about Fripp since your split?
Although initially, in my opinion, he made some naive mistakes – business rather than musical – I have to admit that he’s persevered, learnt and done many good things on behalf of KC, past and present. He’s always been peculiar and I’ve mostly admired that. He’s a good band leader, though he always says he isn’t one… methinks he protesteth too much! He took the band in that urban, metallic direction epitomised by tracks like Red through to the stuff with Adrian Belew. I’m bemused and delighted that the 21st Century Schizoid Band continue to play what he chose to leave behind.
What do you think of the archive releases that he’s putting out?
I have quibbles with some of the covers but it does gives people who never experienced the band an opportunity to hear what all the fuss was about and they do get some value for money. Also, we get paid – not very much, because they don’t sell millions, but it’s a very interesting collection of work that should be heard.
One gathers that a reunion of the 1969 band is never going to happen.
No, the nearest we got was… after seeing a one-off concert at the Barbican by Gary Brooker, who used to be a neighbour of mine, playing Procul Harum songs with an orchestra and a choir, I mooted the idea that we should take as many members of Crimson as we could get, do the same sort of thing and record it. That got taken over by Mike Giles, who decided to put together a sort of retro King Crimson which became 21st Century Schizoid Band. Fine, except for the fact that Mike annoyed everybody so much… he’s the most brilliant drummer, but he’s not the most diplomatic of band directors. He wouldn’t let me go to rehearsals, I was banned because I’m a troublemaker, famously so… I understood his point of view.
Now that he’s been replaced by Ian Wallace, are you likely to collaborate more actively with The Schizoid Band?
Insofar as it’s possible, yeah. I speak to them all the time and Mel Collins attended my 60th birthday party. The problem is they live all over the place and they don’t collaborate properly with each other, let alone me. Most of them are in their fifties, so they’re not computer literate. If they were they could swap music files around… it’s a logistical problem. It might get solved.
Presumably you got the job of producing the first Roxy Music album through the EG connection.
Exactly. Bryan Ferry had allegedly auditioned unsuccessfully for Crimson and would have got on with David Enthoven and John Gaydon of EG management, who had this public school background. They told me: “You’ve got to work with these chaps, their ideas are amazing”. We had considerable problems making the album. I was at the rehearsals and we had to sort a lot stuff out. They weren’t that experienced but Paul Thompson was wonderful, rock solid, and a band can only be as good as its drummer. They were exploring but we had so little time we just had to bang it down as best as we could. I dunno if Bryan specifically wanted that Crimsonesque sound but that’s how it turned out. The album is messy but it’s very atmospheric, because I love atmosphere and texture. They learned a lot from me – I’d been making albums for three years – then they went to Chris Thomas to get this crystal-clear poppy sound they wanted. That wasn’t my bag.
Did you read Keith Emerson’s autobiography?
No, I’m still waiting for him to send the signed copy he promised me.
One thing that emerges from it is that there wasn’t much love lost between him and Greg Lake…
Two huge talents, two huge egos… it couldn’t have happened without Greg and he had his spots in the act, but really it was Keith’s band with Greg and Carl. Greg will hate me saying that. But lots of fights, yes, they fell out all the time just for the hell of it, as a sort of continual power struggle, wasting fortunes along the way. I put some of the blame on ELP’s manager, Stewart Young, who should have said: “You cannot take a 60 piece orchestra around, it will cost you millions!” He should have stopped that before it started, it was always going to bankrupt them and somebody should have noticed. Those were the days of indulgence… bands had their own labels and it was just like vanity publishing. They had a lot of opportunities to waste their own money.
Is it true that you wrote the lyrics of Pirates while riding the Disney roller coaster over and over with Greg Lake?
No, not true, we just watched a lot of Errol Flynn movies! The idea was pirates as an allegory for a rock band on tour. When I read up on the subject it soon become obvious that pirates weren’t at all romantic, they were reprehensible people… like the Kray Twins at sea! Keith’s music was very Gilbert & Sullivan, it was extraordinarily difficult to get the true nature of piracy into it, and I wrote most of it in Montreux, perhaps the least piratical place on Earth. I had to write to music that was already fixed and I only had 20 minutes to unfold this epic narrative. It should have been at least twice as long.
Nevertheless, it still stands as one of the true epics of Prog Rock. Are you happy with the legacy of Prog, whose detractors usually cite you as one of the main culprits?
I should hope they do. The thing is, no matter how Dylanesque some of us were… and my mother brought me up, railing against injustice… the musicians were full of bombast and ego as well as, it has to be said, great playing skill. Those are the things that came to the fore. But I’m proud of my involvement in Prog Rock. Some of it sounds archaic now, some of it still comes across as very relevant to the times we’re living in. Epitaph, for instance, which started life as a poem and which I’ve turned back into a longer poem… it was labelled pretentious at the time, y’know, but pick up any newspaper and you’ll see that it’s more pertinent than ever.