-Originally published in PleaseKillMe as "Bringing Words to King Crimson's Court", May 2021-Reconsidering Peter Sinfield: King Crimson Lyricist as Wandering British Poet
By John Pietaro
In the Court of the Crimson King, beyond bestowing progressive rock’s hierarchy to King Crimson, brought with it the canonization of Robert Fripp and his ever-shifting band of brothers. But with each variant of line-up, from explosive debut through ongoing reconstruction, the lyrical content has been eminent to the legend. Whether coated in psychedelia, painted by otherworldliness, misted in wayfaring balladry or haunted with rueful agitation, the voice of King Crimson is found within its verse. That it all began with a young, wandering poet is too often lost in the band’s tenacious history.
Peter John Sinfield was born in the Fulham section of London on December 27, 1943. The circumstances of an absentee father and a jocular, bohemian mother offered young Sinfield a foundation of equal parts wonder and upheaval. His formative years, however, were largely spent in the company of the family housekeeper who’d been a member of the Flying Wallendas aerial circus act. One can easily imagine the impact this intriguing mélange had on a bright, creative child. At age eight he was sent to a suburban boarding school where he gained a rich introduction to literature. When asked in a 2010 interview about his literary origins, stated: “I think that it was probably in my mother's womb, because I was born with a tyrannical talent to consume and put forth words. At the age of 10 I wrote poems for the school magazine and a little bit later, used to waste my time in geography lessons rewriting the words to the current hits.”
Leaving his studies at 16, Sinfield took up with art school students (as nascent ‘60s rockers were wont to do) and traveled through the continent and on to Morocco, writing, playing a newly purchased Hofner guitar, and earning keep by selling hand-made craft items. He’d by then fallen under the influence of 17th Century Japanese master haiku poet Matsuo Basho “when it became fashionable for myself and others on the "Underground Scene" to investigate the literature, music and philosophy that was becoming available from all over the world. George Harrison discovered Ravi Shankar and I discovered Basho. Perhaps Haiku appeals to me as a lyricist since it seems I have been forever trying to describe life, love and the universe (to sit with music) in the minimum of words.”
By 1967, once back home, Sinfield founded a band with saxophonist/flutist Ian McDonald. Though short-lived, Infinity as it was known, introduced the pair to Michael Giles, Peter Giles and Robert Fripp, the trio of which was now expanded to include singer Judy Dyble (an early Fairport Convention member), and a repertoire framed by the Sinfield-McDonald “I Talk to the Wind”. The song reflected the restlessness and vision shared by so many in this generation.
Said the straight man to the late man,
Where have you been?
I’ve been here and I’ve been there and
I’ve been in between.
I talk to the wind,
My words are all carried away,
I talk to the wind,
The wind does not hear.
The wind cannot hear.
(lyric excerpt, “I Talk to the Wind”” by P. Sinfield, Universal Music)
First recorded as a single by Giles, Giles & Fripp, “I Talk to the Wind” wouldn’t make it to the band’s singular album. Recorded in 1968 but not released for some 35 years, The Brondesbury Tapes featured the song. It is notable that Greg Lake had replaced bassist Peter Giles by this point and his presence was central to Fripp’s next project.
- Giles, Giles & Fripp: “I Talk to the Wind” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vXiWbV0d2w0
The lyric by Sinfield made enough of an impact for Fripp to recognize the need for a poet in King Crimson. After naming the new band, Sinfield wrote the lyrics so powerfully emoted by bassist/vocalist Greg Lake throughout In the Court of the Crimson King. Alternately shocking in its literary challenge and familiar in its drug-induced expanse, Sinfield’s poetry balanced the great instrumental force. The album’s opening number, “21st Century Schizoid Man” functioned as urgent commentary on post-modern societal provocations – as well as the life, bare income and single-minded pursuit of the poet, the artist. Sang by Lake through a blizzard of distortion and played with both shrieking free improvisation and the tightest, most orchestrated precision unisons, the song alerted listeners to Crimson’s ultimate journey:
Cat’s foot, iron claw,
Neurosurgeons scream for more
At paranoia’s poison door.
Twenty-first century schizoid man.
Blood rack barbed wire
Politicians funeral pyre,
Innocents raped with napalm fire.
Twenty-first century schizoid man.
Death seed, blind man’s greed,
Poet’s starving children bleed.
Nothing he’s got he really needs.
Twenty-first century schizoid man.
(lyric, “21st Century Schizoid Man” by P. Sinfield, EG Music Ltd)
- King Crimson: “21st Century Schizoid Man” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7OvW8Z7kiws
The lyric conjures, more than any other, the scarlet entity that Fripp would claim to be haunted by over decades, whereas the title song painted this myth with medieval imagery, casting the crimson king amid prism ships, pattern jugglers, yellow jesters and dancing puppets.
The rusted chains of prison moons
Are shattered by the sun.
I walk a road, horizons change,
The tournament’s begun.
The purple piper plays his tune,
The choirs softly sing
Three lullabies in an ancient tongue
For the court of the crimson king.
(lyric excerpt, “In the Court of the Crimson King” by P. Sinfield, Universal Music)
Overall, King Crimson’s debut offering was a critical and popular success, launching international tours for the band. But what place for the Blake-inspired poet who toiled over the lyrics during the forging of such an album? Sinfield, who also demonstrated skill as a visual artist, became the band’s lighting tech, drenching the performers in purples, reds and flourishes, as the case may be. He was also called on, sparingly, to add additional keyboards to the soundstream, but largely stood as Crimson’s “pet hippie”, according to Sinfield in an early interview.
The working ensemble, by 1970, was fractured with the exit of Ian McDonald, drummer Michael Giles, and then Lake soon after. Sinfield sought to maintain stability with Fripp and King Crimson’s sophomore album, In the Wake of Poseidon, was completed under considerable duress. In the end, Lake agreed to cover the majority of vocals, and both Michael and Peter Giles (bass) were on the sessions. Fripp also called on such musicians as woodwind player Mel Collins, pianist Keith Tippett and drummer Andy McCullough, all of whom would return for the band’s third release and remain Sinfield associates well beyond.
Marked by the lyricist’s initial attempt at record production, In the Wake of Poseidon offered him a wide breadth of material even if much of the imagery perpetrated sword-and-sorcery depictions. Still, Sinfield’s poetry shined as it called out the complexities about him, railing against the excesses of urban capitalist society:
Concrete cold face cased in steel,
Stark sharp glass-eyed crack and peel,
Bright light scream beam brake and squeal,
Red white green white neon wheel…
- King Crimson: “Pictures of a City” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c7QdzDssvqY
More so, the album’s single, “Cat Food”, an acerbic condemnation of commercial impurities, brandished a lyric that skids cleverly over the music by Fripp/McDonald which moves in and out of a 19/8 time signature.
Lady Supermarket with an apple in her basket
Knocks on the manager’s door.
Grooming to the muzak from a speaker in the shoe rack
Lays out her goods on the floor.
Everything she’s chosen is conveniently frozen
“Eat it and come back for more!”
(lyric excerpt, “Cat Food”, P. Sinfield, Universal Music)
- King Crimson: “Cat Food” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VmnqX4iNBpI
A year or so later, jazz vocalist Annie Ross included her rather uncomfortable version of the song on live album You and Me, Baby, complete with alley cat moans and hisses. This wasn’t the first time a jazz artist tried their hand at the repertoire: in 1970 trumpeter Doc Severinsen, primarily known as Johnny Carson’s bandleader, recorded an intriguing instrumental version of “In the Court of the Crimson King” on his Doc Severinsen’s Closet album. A variety of international pop and rock artists also produced their own adaptations of Crimson material over the years, offering the lyricist his share of royalties, as the case may be.
- Annie Ross, “Cat Food” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TFBjC6kD2h4
Sinfield’s role as King Crimson lyricist was maintained over the next two albums, he and Fripp providing the only solidity of an often shattered ensemble. For Lizard (1970), Sinfield’s poetry delved into alchemy, the occult and tarot card imagery. With hindsight, one may assume that 11th Century sorcerers and Mongol invasions were more of a comfort than the session battlegrounds the band couldn’t seem to shake. Islands, a year later, would too suffer from its lack of cohesion. Fripp, after completing the recordings, briefly abandoned the project and Sinfield not only completed production but chaired post-production as well. Unfortunately, his conception wasn’t thoroughly successful. Lester Bangs, writing for Rolling Stone, had no problem attacking the musical and lyrical vagueness, labeling it “a fusion of jazz and rock and folk and corn”. He also cited Sinfield’s lyrics as “quasi-Victorian/Shakespearean doggerel”, adding that they’re “worth quoting if not much else”. Interestingly, Bangs describes the lyric of “Ladies of the Road” as “an elegantly punk macho trip” several years before the actual punk movement would develop on the Bowery. Bangs somehow missed the humor:
Stone headed Frisco spacer
Ate all the meat I gave her.
Said would I like to taste her’s
And even craved the favour.
(lyric excerpt, “Ladies of the Road”, P. Sinfield, Universal Music)
The irascible rock critic added that the song’s primary benefit is as a sleep aid, posting a warning to Fripp and Co. to “recapture some of the primal drive.” Even die-hard fans tend to agree: the music, its breadth and weightiness, had become extremely dense and hyper-dramatic. Fripp would go on to reshape King Crimson into a leaner, harsher ensemble but first the band went on tour in 1971 with Fripp, bassist/vocalist Boz Burrell (later of Bad Company), saxophonist/flutist Mel Collins and drummer Ian Wallace plus Sinfield who occasionally appeared onstage, adding bits of keyboards, but continued his role as lighting director. The capture of their concert at Frankfurt’s Zoom Club, following months of rehearsal, indicates the band’s strengths as a working unit, though this line-up too would recede into the mists of Crimson lore. But the founding lyricist’s role, particularly on the road, had become painfully obscure.
- King Crimson: “Ladies of the Road” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sckkHW487y0
Sinfield, in any case, sought his own path. Back in London he produced Roxy Music’s successful 1972 debut, attracted to the band’s “mixture of kitsch and burlesque, and so clever”, earning him considerable attention within the industry. And then the poet began work on his own album, Still. While his vocals and guitar playing were not deemed strong enough for King Crimson, Sinfield regardless envisioned a solo career fronting a band. Encouraged heartily by Greg Lake, already several years into Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Sinfield plotted out his audio “variety show” (as stated in the liner notes), recorded just down the hall from the studio KC labored in for their own upcoming release.
Influenced by the structures of later Beatles’ albums, Celtic finger-picking guitar styles, macro-biotic eating and the country atmosphere of West Cranmore, Sinfield composed “the sort of stuff that I left off with in King Crimson.” And this connection extended to the guest musicians as well. Lake offered a joint lead vocal with Sinfield on the title cut, also electric guitar and backing vocals on two others. Mel Collins overdubbed a plethora of woodwinds on opener “Song of the Sea Goat” which also included KC alumni drummer Ian Wallace and pianist Keith Tippet, as well as bassist John Wetton who’d join that year. Other tracks included Boz Burrell on guitar and a 5-piece horn section arranged by Collins. But the core band was drawn from new associates in the country after leaving London. Sinfield would later muse over the hardships of recording the album, standing as its lead vocalist in a time when he had no concept of changing a song’s key to better suit his voice. Later, he would recognize his near inability to grapple with rock and roll vocals and “the danger in using your friends…when your friends don’t get it right 12 hours later, it gets very, very difficult.” The final product progresses slowly, pensive to a fault, but readily builds with increasing points of horn-driven improvisational intensity. But for all of its positive aspects, Still never made the impact Sinfield desired. Other than a handful of live and television performances (including BBC’s ‘the Old Grey Whistle Test’) with Collins, Burrell and Wallace, among others, Sinfield’s solo career has woefully faded from memory.
- Peter Sinfield: “Song of the Seagoat” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dzoxJT74W0w
The philosophy within the verses of the title song remains vibrant, baring traces of Thoreau, Marx, Gandhi, perhaps Abraham Maslow too:
Still I wonder how it is to be a stream
From a dark well constant flowing,
Winding seawards over ancient mossy wheels
Yet feel no need of knowing?
Still I wonder how it is to be a tree,
Circles servant to the seasons,
Only drink on sky and rake the winter wind
And need no seal of reasons?
- Peter Sinfield: “Still” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X9EC51RwMf4
The poetic landscape, even with the tension of the helm about him, was wide open. On “A House of Hopes and Dreams” Sinfield wrote Across the floor lies broken bowls of pride, and on “The Night People”, his tale of life on tour, Blue neon clock fingers. But he also used the opportunity to air the stressors with Fripp. He’d later state, “I do a bit of angry every so often”, specifically on “Envelopes of Yesterday”:
I’m upside down, I’m an empty town
My eyes are full of ghosts
Of dusty windowed certainty and spider-webbed almost.
I love, I hate this rock and roll,
The ladies and the lights
Ate my flowers long ago but the roots came through all right.
Whilst now my toast is the crossroads post
I hear just out of sight
That the Black Pick’s found this Chaldean lamp
After years in a concentration camp
But I fear he’s still out on ice
With his bagpipe mouth and cup of crimson speiss
(lyric excerpt, “Envelopes of Yesterday”, P. Sinfield, Manticore Music)
Unfortunately, at other points Sinfield fell through the usual portals of myth and magic. In the end such excesses of leading a band in the King Crimson orbit proved to be ineffectual. Greg Lake had invited him to compose lyrics for Emerson, Lake and Palmer the year prior, while Sinfield was constructing Still, and after completion of the album the time was right; the poet’s ELP immersion came at an opportune point. Brain Salad Surgery (1973) was the trio’s first album of both public and critical acclaim, from its fold-out cover by H.R. Giger to its surprise of a hit single, “Karn Evil 9” (the title of which was another Sinfield gem). The full work, a nihilistic vision of a computer-ruled society, was built over three Impressions totaling a near half-hour in length. Sinfield’s major contribution was in the lengthy latter Impression, though he also worked with Lake in other sections.
Man of steel pray and kneel
With fever’s blazing torch
Thrust in the face of night;
Draws a blade of compassion
Kissed by countless kings
Whose jeweled trumpet words blind his sight.
(lyric excerpt, “Karn Evil 9, Third Impression”, P. Sinfield, Manticore Music)
Simultaneously, Sinfield partnered with Procol Harum’s Gary Booker in writing a series of songs for that artist’s first solo outing. While ELP toured the world amidst laser lights and pyrotechnics, performing all of the complexities of Brain Salad Surgery, Sinfield was back at home working with the trio’s label Manticore. He produced the 1973 album of Italian progressive ensemble PFM and, with Mel Collins, opened for that band’s European dates. 1974 saw the publication of Sinfield’s poetry collection, Under the Sky, the title piece of which reached back to the roots of his collaboration with McDonald, signaling both a release from and rapprochement to the crimson one. That same year he produced PFM’s second release and its first live album, and in ‘75 wrote the lyrics for and produced a widely successful single for Lake, “I Believe in Father Christmas”, which included a 60-piece orchestra and 30-voice chorus. And it was just about the holiday season that Sinfield decided, for the second time, to leave the glitter of London for a quieter locale, this time the Spanish island of Ibiza.
In 1977, over several months, ELP released both of their momentous Works volumes, carrying Sinfield’s lyrics over turntables and stages across the globe.
Spare us, the galleon begged,
But mercy’s face had fled.
Blood ran from the screaming souls
The cutlass harvested
Driven to the quarter deck, the last survivor fell.
She’s ours, my boys, the Captain grinned,
And no one left to tell.
(lyric excerpt, “Pirates”, P. Sinfield, Manticore Music)
Ironically, most of the poetry apart from the above was restricted to love songs like “Lend Me Your Love Tonight” and “Watching Over You”. Odd that the band at the helm of stadium-geared progressive rock, after releasing albums of the highest order, felt the need for such a formula.
The unfortunate fall of both ELP and Sinfield’s lyric contributions, however, came in the form of Love Beach, the album that moved more rapidly to LP cut-out bins than even John Travolta’s fateful leap into music. From the open-shirted, tanned Bahamian imagery to the unexpectedly commercial sounds, the album strayed far from rock art song. In a bizarre turn, when looking back on the single “All I Want is You” as well as the title song, one detects pop hooks of quality and Lake’s voice is surely in top form. The all-star band Asia, which included Carl Palmer, would form within two years in an attempt to popularize such prefab progressiveness, forging an emulsion of electro-pop and prodigious playing, just where Love Beach left off.
- Emerson, Lake and Palmer: “Love Beach” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ABKtXIWJmko
Through 1979 and into the ‘80s and ‘90s, Sinfield’s production and writing credits continued. In 1980, he returned to London and began work with songwriter Andy Hill on several projects including “The Land of Make Believe” for UK singer Bucks Fizz which quickly went to number one. The pair wrote several others for Fizz, little known on these shores, as well as for Lulu (“If You’re Right”), Leo Sayer (“Have You Ever Been in Love?”), and the hit for Celine Dion “Think Twice”. As before, Sinfield was called on by foreign-language artists to write English lyrics to their songs, but also worked with Chris Squire (“Run with the Fox”), Moon Martin (“X-Ray Vision”), Eric Clapton (“Leave the Candle”), Bad Company (“Smokin’ 45”), John Wetton (“Get What You Want”), among others. Sinfield, with a select band drawn again from KC forces, performed on Spanish television in a rare performance. But perhaps his most intriguing credit was the debut album of Unrest for their song “Manhattan”, “an adaptation of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" from the Woody Allen film Manhattan with King Crimson & Half Japanese lyrics recited simultaneously”, as stated in Sinfield’s discography. The description alone remains a total draw.
1993, the 20th anniversary of Still, saw a reinvention of the album under the title Stillusion which the poet has since disavowed due to the label’s disorder of the tracks. He continued working as lyricist for other artists and contemplated a second solo album, working at points with John “Poli” Palmer, vibraphonist/flutist of Family. In 2005, after recuperating from open-heart surgery, Sinfield mused over the place of poetry in rock music, offering: “Well I would class Randy Newman as a man who conjures intelligent, 'poetic writing' with depth and disturbance. With him sits the mighty Mose Allison; in fact dozens of old blues legends. John Lennon of course, Bob Marley and Youssou N' Dour. There are so many; very recently a young singer called Laura Marling (another old head on young shoulders) whose new album, " I Speak Because I Can", I am currently listening to.” Never one for complacency, in recent years he appeared in the BBC documentary Prog Rock Britannia: An Observation in Three Movements, and also collaborated with experimental Italian musicians Max Marchini and Paola Tagliaferro, offering both his own spoken word performance and a lyric for Tagliaferro’s vocal.
- Max Marchini and Paola Tagliaferro: “Blossom on the Tree” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Fdl7z27B3s
Residing today in the coastal English town of Aldeburgh, Sinfield is an active writer working primarily in haiku who has been featured in numerous European festivals of poetry. He is still reading Blake, Kahlil Gibran, Shakespeare, Basho, Dylan, when not engaging in farming, natural cooking and herbal medicines. Rumors of his planned second album remain pervasive.
Sinfield website: https://www.songsouponsea.com/
Smith, Sid: liner notes, Still, 2009 re-release (Esoteric Records)
Smith, Sid: “Happy Birthday Peter Sinfield” https://www.dgmlive.com/news/happy-birthday-peter-sinfield-and-the-making-of-still
Rockerilla Magazine, May 2010, Sinfield interview by Max Marchini, http://www.songsouponsea.com/galleries/press/rockerilla2010.html
King Crimson website: https://www.dgmlive.com/