Happy Birthday Peter Sinfield
HAPPY BIRTHDAY PETER SINFIELD
Posted by Sid Smith on Dec 27, 2021

Peter Sinfield who provided lyrics, lights, and much else besides for King Crimson between 1969 and 1971 is 78 today. After his split with King Crimson, Peter went on to produce Roxy Music's debut album, produce PFM's Photos Of Ghosts, and work with ELP for several years. However, after Roxy Music, he began work on his solo album, Still. In this extract from Sid Smith's In The Court Of King Crimson, the background to the making of the record is explored...

While work was continuing on Larks’ Tongues In Aspic in the early days and weeks of 1973, elsewhere in the same building Peter Sinfield was breathing life into his debut solo album. The previous year, Sinfield had become something of a fixture at Command. As Mel, Boz, Ian and Robert worked their way around America on the Earthbound tour in 1972, their ex-lyricist was hunkered down for three weeks of pre-production rehearsals with Roxy Music, EG’s latest signing, prior to spending ten days attempting to capture on tape the ephemeral and mercurial magic of Roxy’s sound and songs.

Peter Sinfield (right) backstage with Roxy Music

“They were very clever but they had ideas which really they had some problems playing even though they weren’t the most complicated ideas. I thought they were very unusual in the mixture of kitsch and burlesque, and so clever,” says Sinfield. “The first time I saw Roxy performing I thought ‘Jesus!’ because Bryan Ferry was worse than Joe Cocker for contorting himself but you couldn’t stop watching him, wondering where he was going to contort to next. The quoting of the whole of rock’n’roll at that stage, to the best of their abilities, was fun. All of those things, the combination of novelty that they brought to the pot was terrific. It was primitive really. They really could only play three and a half chords at that point, but they played them terribly cleverly. They were also very nice people.” 


In the years since its release, it’s been frequently said, not least by some members of Roxy Music themselves, that Sinfield’s production wasn’t really up to the standard of its 1973 follow-up, For Your Pleasure, produced by Chris Thomas, or subsequent albums. Accepting that there were limitations on time, budget – and Sinfield’s overall production skills, which were more intuitive than technical – the album nevertheless is a raw, documentary snapshot of a group in the process of finding itself. There are several points where Sinfield shifts between foreground and background within the songs, a quality which keeps the ear roving between details rather than sedentary or passive. “These were just Crimson tricks. You’ll find this all over Lizard and Islands where I bring vocals up, take them back, move things to the side. The other thing because it was done in Command, which I happened to love as a studio although Robert was a little bit disparaging, it had the best echo chamber that I’ve ever used. A real echo chamber and tiled. Sometimes I’d record in the echo chamber, the woodwinds and flute in Crimson, and on my own record for effect because you can’t get that sound off a plate echo. It had a particular warmth. Also, there were valves in this place. Some of the equipment was really old but it had almost a Nashville sound to it, very real; big red Tannoy speakers, with a very warm ambience, and rather shoddy, which went rather well with the band. Underneath the floor, because it was an ex-BBC studio, beneath the brown carpet, there was a concrete pathway and it’s where they used to record the footsteps for the long-running radio soap opera Mrs Dale’s Diary. A nice bit of English recording history. For some reason that goes well with Roxy, doesn’t it?” Recording Roxy Music and seeing what he regarded as their relative inexperience gave Sinfield the confidence to record his own album. “What’s important here isn’t the Roxy Music album so much but what I did afterwards,” he says. “It was the single, Virginia Plain, which I’m very proud of. I didn’t write it of course but I encouraged it from scratch. It was an exciting time and I used to facetiously say that ‘if they can make an album then so can I’. I was all excited, and although tired from making the Roxy album, I was on a roll.” 


The bulk of Still was conceived and written in the rural idyll of his home in West Cranmore in Somerset. “That was the first house that Stephanie and I had. It was certainly gloomy but it had a magical quality to it. It’s very near Worthy Farm and Glastonbury. It definitely had an air to it. I was surrounded by a bunch of macrobiotic, veggie, nice hippies who happened to be good players as well who all just lived down the road. Very nice people and good players. There was a spirit about the place which was enthusing. It was very nice, having been pulverised and coping with all the Roxy stuff, including having to cope with their bass player’s nervous breakdown, to get down there and have a bowl of brown rice and sit around and strum was very pleasant. It was almost as though I’d arranged it. Of course, I hadn’t. It was all coincidental but I had arranged to get out of London and into my first house in the country. So I thought, well I’m here with all these nice people so I might as well carry on writing. I was carrying on writing the sort of stuff I left off with from Crimson.” 


The relaxed atmosphere in which ideas for songs were gradually shaped came from a core group of neighbours that included drummer Alan Mennie (credited as Min), guitarist Richard Brunton, bassist Steve Dolan and Phil Jump on keyboards, both previously members of Hard Meat. Out in the country it all seemed so easy, yet once the troop of players entered the studio things became harder. “There’s a danger in using your friends. It starts off really well but then you say, ‘that’s not quite good enough’, and you do it for the eighth time and they’re saying ‘we can’t play it any better’, and I’m saying, ‘yes you can’, but that’s because my standards are so high because I’d been playing with some amazing musicians in the past. So when your friends don’t get it right 12 hours later, it gets very, very difficult. You have to be very patient and in the studio patience wears out very quickly. It’s a bit like getting your friends to paint a wall or something and then they do it all wrong. What are you going to say?” 


By this point in October 1972, as the Larks’ quintet embarked on working live, work on Still slowed and faltered as the budget kept climbing. This wasn’t especially troubling for Sinfield as the bill was being picked up by ELP’s Manticore label for whom Sinfield now operated as a kind of peripatetic A&R man, producer, designer and adviser. Was he nervous about stepping out from behind the mixing desk and operating in the back room to take the spotlight as a solo performer? “No, not really. In my naïve way, I was very keen to do that. One thing I noticed is that, if you make a solo album, in the press you stop being referred to as ‘ex-King Crimson’ and you become ‘Peter Sinfield’. So that was quite good. I had a belief in myself. It was worth a go and nobody told me to stop. I was encouraged all the way by Greg Lake and all the others at Manticore to do it.” 


However, he needed help getting his songs into shape. So he called Mel Collins. “Mel was happy to come over and get involved. One of Mel’s frustrations of course was the terrible thing that Fripp did to him, unnerving him by saying ‘you’re a great player but I’m not sure about your writing’. Mel was fairly determined to have a go and show off that he could have written some stuff if he’d had a chance. So there’s a little axe to grind there, I suppose.”  Sinfield knew how a track should sound or feel or what elements would enhance it. Small things like lifting the sound of owls hooting at midnight from a BBC effects record, or telling your players to give it a bit more “oomph” were straightforward. But when it came to bringing in session players such as oboist Robin Miller, Sinfield lacked the specific musical skills necessary to tell him what to play. That’s where Collins would come in. “I’d say, ‘Mel, I need some brass here’ and he’d say, ‘don’t worry, I’ll sort that out’. For The Night People you’d just say, ‘Mel get me the best guys’ and that’s what you get because he’s one of them. I wanted to make sure he got a credit as associate producer because I didn’t want anyone to think I’d done it all myself. I mean, how could I?” 


The sequencing of Still has a beautiful symmetry. Each side opens and closes with the strongest material. The classical stateliness of The Song Of The Sea Goat and its ethereal counterpart Still on side one is matched by the brooding Envelopes Of Yesterday and the clamouring cityscape of The Night People which open and close the second side. The four tracks represent an autobiographical journey. “I started off with heavy tracks like Sea Goat, Still, Envelopes and Night People and filled it in from there. Because we were making albums which were 20 minutes a side, it had to have a beginning, middle, and end. The structure of these things has always been important to me. It’s not a concept album per se, but something that went along and was a complete thing within itself.” 


While fans of his work with King Crimson would easily recognise a commonality of elements between Still and his previous group, some aspects were markedly different. Sinfield laughs ruefully when he recalls Wholefood Boogie. “The album had a very English lightness of touch to it. I’d become macrobiotic, I was living in the country. I’ve no idea how close I was to the Earth, but I’d become closer than being in the city. I should never have tried to express all that in Wholefood Boogie but at least I did it tongue-in-cheek. I like a bowl of miso soup as much as the next bloke but the macrobiotic people were so sincere, the song was a kind of gentle piss-take. The problem with it is that there are things I just shouldn’t sing, and rock’n’roll songs are one of them!” 


While accepting his limitations as a vocalist, Sinfield admits he was naïve in thinking he could carry off the songs. “One of the problems with the album is that nobody had ever taught me about keys. Nobody was really producing the album and so Greg wasn’t saying ‘Take that down to B flat’ or even take it up! Of course, I know now but I didn’t know then. I was trying to sing in keys which were really not comfortable for me. I don’t know if the musicians were either too kind or too stoned to tell me, but that’s why some of the vocals on the songs are awkward in places as I was learning how to deliver. With the title track I’d managed to write a song and I couldn’t even sing the top end of it. How stupid is that?” laughs Sinfield. “However, in terms of making a mistake and taking advantage of it, I got Greg to do the bit on the end of each verse. It’s a great moment when he comes bursting in – it’s brilliant.” 


It’s interesting to note that the evocative use of plucked zither in the spoken sections of the title track bears a strong resemblance to the percussion/violin duet, or “water section” as Jamie Muir called it, on LTIA1. That’s not the only Crimson connection on the record. Envelopes Of Yesterday chronicles the break between Sinfield and Fripp, albeit poetically and obliquely, and comes with the added presence of the fuzz bass of John Wetton – in Command at the same time working on his first King Crimson recording. “John’s bass on that was really heavy. He was a mate and that’s why I wanted him,” explains Sinfield. “From Still and all my preachy cosmic stuff you get a bit of angry, because I do a bit of angry every so often. I get a few shots in at Robert. Like all these things, I nicked it from Lennon who wrote How Do You Sleep about McCartney. I thought I’d do one of those.” 

The sessions also reunited Peter and Mel with Boz and Ian Wallace for The Night People. Its howling brass evokes the spirit of Lizard but driven more directly by the rhythm section into a strange hybrid of freeform R’n’B. Sinfield’s lyrics and their portrait of a decadent, bustling London by night are especially sharp and insightful. Here, Sinfield’s role as vocalist is that of a tour guide in the teeming metropolis, all performed in a leery but effective sprechgesang. “My vocal on The Night People does have something of a Berlin-1930s feel to it, I think. If you can’t sing then act it if you can. I can do a bit of ‘To be or not to be’ and it’s a bit of an old trick. You can get away with a lot doing things like that. There are places on the album where I should have perhaps done more than that.” 


The appearance of Under The Sky, a song dating back to the sessions with Ian McDonald before he joined GG&F, is interesting. When Still was released in 1973 most fans didn’t know that this tune had previously been recorded by GG&F in the final stages of their sessions with Decca. While that had a charm, the definitive reading of the tune is found on Still with Mel Collins’ gorgeous, summery flute well to the fore. Aside from Sinfield’s voice, the other defining feature of the record is the use of the Freeman Symphonizer which had just come on to the market. “I think Ken Freeman brought it to us and I consciously used it because I was a bit wary of the sound of Mellotrons on the album. It was much more thin, ethereal and lighter in its sound than a Mellotron although you had to overdub it a lot of times. But in using it I was trying to get another step away from Crimson, really.” 


Sinfield acknowledges that the making of Still taught him a lot about himself and his limitations. “I should never have mixed down and put on echo on some of the vocals the way I did but I wanted to hide them, as you do. You hide them in the mix and you think that’ll make it better. I do like a bit of texture going on but unless you’re a brilliant arranger as well, you tend to end up with too much of this or that. That’s because you haven’t arranged it very well so that when you come to the mix you’ve got a really hard job and have to make decisions about making things disappear that shouldn’t have been there in the first place perhaps.” An axiom Sinfield is fond of using in respect of writing lyrics is: “When you’ve said, remember to edit.” However, he admits that in his role of both artist and producer he should have been far more disciplined in his choices and decisions, accepting that things had gotten away from him during Still’s sessions. “I think perhaps somebody should have controlled me. I suppose if they had it would have been a different album. If it wasn’t Greg Lake then it should have been someone else. But who else?” When it comes to bridging the gap between what you’d hoped for and what you actually ended up with, The Song Of The Sea Goat is the closest to what he wanted the album to be, he says. “I like the lyrics on Sea Goat and I don’t hate the vocals too much.” 


If the making of the album was not an easy process, at the end of it Sinfield recalls being thrilled when the first boxes of finished records arrived at the Manticore offices. Housed in a sumptuous textured sleeve, it was adorned with a print by the German artist Sulamith Wülfing. “I love that cover. We went to Sausalito and this was when we thought we were getting our limos for free. This is how naïve we were on that tour. I’d heard about this restaurant called The Trident out there and Sausalito was so pretty. There was a shop full of Sulamith Wülfing calendars and postcards. I loved them all but I particularly loved that picture, The Big Friend. Some of her stuff can be a little bit fairy-gothic-twee but not that one. I’d previously asked a painter, Kit Williams, and he said he didn’t want to see his pictures in WH Smith which is a bit ironic because his book Masquerade (1979) was certainly all over WH Smith’s a few years later. So then I asked Wülfing for permission to use The Big Friend but she said no. I sent her a handwritten version of the lyrics and the album in a bit of desperation and she wrote back to say how wonderful she thought the words were and she was happy to let me use it for a fee of £60. Sometime later, after I’d sent her a copy of the finished album, I got in touch and said I’d be interested in buying the original. She loved the album she told me, and said I could buy it for £600. This was in 1973 and that was quite a lot of money then but I bought it and have it on the wall now.” 


Not unlike the cover of Larks’ Tongues In Aspic, which contained a combination of male and female elements, The Big Friend also plays with notions of duality; male/ female, innocence/experience, light/dark and so on. “What spoke to me about that painting I suppose was the beauty and the beast thing really. I liked the idea that within the monster there was something that liked preserving innocence.” 


On release in May 1973, the album was heavily promoted across the music press with full-page adverts: “Lyricist and co-producer of King Crimson and midwife to the birth of Roxy Music, Peter Sinfield has been one of the most astonishing background contributors in today’s music. With Still, his first album, he puts his talent out front. Where it belongs.” There were also TV and radio appearances for Sinfield, including The Song Of The Sea Goat and A House Of Hopes And Dreams on The Old Grey Whistle Test. In the BBC studio, Sinfield is backed by John Wetton, Mel Collins, Richard Brunton and Alan Mennie. Audibly nervous, Sinfield misses his cue on Sea Goat but does well with the second song which features a spirited tenor sax solo from Collins. At the mere mention of the Whistle Test, Sinfield cringes. “Oh, I hated that. What do I look like? Flouncing about, oh dear me.” 

 

 

 

In print, he was far more confident. Talking to Chris Welch in Melody Maker, Sinfield said: “The LP is a step forward for me and it may prove to people that perhaps a bit more of King Crimson was me and that it wasn’t all Bob Fripp’s vibes.” Clearly there was still a degree of heat between the two, with Sinfield feeling aggrieved that his contribution to Crimson was underestimated. At some point Still’s salmon pink cover was replaced by a blue coloured board.

 

When asked about the reasoning behind this change, Sinfield guffaws: “You have to remember that in the early days of the record business you weren’t allowed to have any input into the design of the thing. ‘What do you mean you want to have a look at the fonts?’, the corporation would say. So when we actually had some power it was fun driving the blokes in the factory mad. So we did. Because we were so full of ourselves at Manticore and we had such fun annoying the guys who did the covers. For PFM’s second album I did, The World Became The World (1974), and I said, ‘What if we had a cut-out?’. So that means some poor soul in the factory has to do a die cut. For my album the prints on the cover had to be stuck on by hand. They loathed it but it was just those times when things were allowed to be indulgent. I just went off the pink. Wouldn’t it be fun to change it to blue? I was a bit like a naughty boy seeing if I could get away with it. The record company just said OK but God knows what they were saying privately,” he laughs. 


Still was reissued on CD in 1993, but retitled Stillusion, containing two extra tracks. Hanging Fire, recorded in the same sessions as Still but unused, and Can You Forgive A Fool, co-written with Still collaborator Richard Brunton from a later period when Sinfield was working with ELP orchestrator and conductor Godfrey Salmon. “Took me 11 hours to sing Can You Forgive A Fool,” says Sinfield ruefully. “It had great writing by Godfrey but that was a song I shouldn’t have sung, or at least I should have taken the orchestra off.” While these two tracks were welcomed by fans, they were inserted into the original running order in a way that was both awkward and disrupted the carefully constructed flow of music. Worse still was the harsh and brittle remastering, rendering the original warm production thin and vapid. Happily, the 2009 re-issue by Esoteric Recordings had a more sympathetic remastering and, importantly, restored the original track listing. The package housed a second disc which contained the two “new” tracks and several alternate mixes. While pleased to see the album properly re-issued, Sinfield says working on Still was stressful and exhausting. “I can’t stress just how difficult recording the album was, and although there was some joy in it, overwhelmingly everything was hard work. I couldn’t listen to Still for years. The same for Crimson and ELP. When you’ve been in there for hours making it, or when you’ve spent 50 gigs mixing it, you don’t want to go near it. All I hear is the hard work and the mistakes.” 

He contrasts this with his time working as producer with PFM, which overlapped with Still. “The joy of that is that I was working with wonderful musicians, the best musicians I’ve ever heard. So you have wonderful people, Italian food and great music and I can write anything I want on it. The only downside was the state of the vocals and trying to get them to sing in English. We just about got away with it. Now that was a happy time. It was work but they were such nice people and it was a joy to be with them. With PFM I didn’t have total responsibility. I just had to do my words and make a few suggestions and then go off and make spaghetti. Lovely. Whereas after 12 hours in Command Studio doing Still, phew, it was hard. I was dying by that point with Still because there were so many decisions to make about the tracks, the writing, the mixing. It’s a good job I was fairly fit at the time. It’s one of the reasons I was quite pleased to not rush into another album and instead get seduced by ELP and the life of decadence to go and sit in Switzerland and write about pirates. Still was the hardest I think I’ve ever worked in my life really. There comes a point where you think ‘Thank God that’s finished!’. Afterwards it wasn’t too hard to step away from being a solo artist.” 

In 1974 A collection of Peter's poetry and collected lyrics was published. At the time the book retailed for an affordable 85p. These days, Under The Sky is highly collectable and much sought-after item with asking prices often in excess of £100...

Moonchild by Julia Fryer

Several of the images in this piece are taken from Peter Sinfield's website

 

 

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