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Anyone picking up a pen to write a pop lyric in the second half of the '60s could surely feel the pressure of Bob Dylan, The Beatles and hippy culture pushing the envelope. Anyone interested in words would also have been aware of the Beat poets. Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti were very modish after their visit to London in 1965. As, say, the underground press, the space race, pop art and colour TV began to pick up steam, the traditional concerns of Tin Pan Alley – teenagers in and out of love – no longer seemed adequate to occupy the minds of the generation consuming pop. Something had to give.
In May 1967, the Higgs boson to prog rock's big bang floated to the top of the singles charts and exploded: Procol Harum's A Whiter Shade of Pale. Such was its impact and subsequent power to summon the '60s in a Proustian rush, many can remember where they stood when they first heard its momentous mix of classicism and surrealism. It sounded extraordinary yet rang plenty of comforting bells – Bach, Lear and school assembly – in its call to the future. This dark, stately daydream gave all future rock musicians permission to space walk. And beat The Beatles' A Day in the Life by a month.
Once people got over the sound of Whiter Shade of Pale, their next question was, "Eh?", because the lyrics were, are, most peculiar – a pell-mell of Joycean puns, Blakean portent, beat-style free-association and the ripeness of Dylan Thomas. They were written by 20-year-old Keith Reid, a Hertfordshire [sic] lad who'd been introduced to singer Gary Brooker by antic man-about-town Guy Stevens. Reid was one of several out-sourced '60s lyricists significant in the development of prog: Pete Brown with Cream, Robert Hunter with the Grateful Dead and Pete Sinfield, who was "over there on words" with King Crimson and ELP. "Whiter Shade of Pale was very important from a lyrical point of view," Sinfield agrees. "And it made people aware of lyricists who were not in the band but of it."
Sinfield had a colourful background to draw on: "My mother was a bisexual communist. And because she was so busy I was brought up mostly by a German high-wire walker. Then I was sent to boarding school. From Bohemia to buggery!" After meeting multi-skilled musician Ian McDonald, Sinfield abandoned plans for his own band to write with his new friend. McDonald was drafted into Giles, Giles & Fripp and took Sinfield along. As the band turned into King Crimson, Sinfield made himself indispensable, writing lyrics, doing the lights and overseeing the artwork. He also selected the name, taken from their song In The Court of the Crimson King. "I wanted them to have a powerful name, like Led Zeppelin, which people could remember."
Crimson's debut album, also called In The Court of the Crimson King, released in October 1969, is often cited as the first prog-rock album, displaying a particular combination of carefree variety and showing off – classicism, complexity and eager plumping of the surrealistic pillow. Sinfield's lyrical style took in Bob Dylan's All Along the Watchtower, Lords Tennyson and Byron and Donovan too ("incredibly underrated"). The dreamy Cadence and Cascade included such fruity work as, "Cadence, oiled in love, licked his velvet gloved hand"; the classic opener, 21st Century Schizoid Man, sat at the other end of the emotional spectrum, an angry litany of injustice: "Death's seed, blind man's greed/ Poets starving, children bleed/Nothing he's got he really needs/21st century schizoid man".
"I think we were the first band to take it to such extremes, from flutey meanderings to the aggression of Schizoid Man. That lyric was well fucking annoyed. Politicians seemed to be getting stupider and greedier, especially if you were into Oz and International Times, the fashionable reading of the left-leaning liberal of the time. What you wanted to say was what your mates were saying in those magazines."
Cadence and Cascade turns out to have been about a threesome with some groupies. "Yes, we loved that English, pastoral, streams-and-maidens stuff – William Morris, Arts and Crafts, dreamy knights-in-armour poetry. Aubrey Beardsley, Rosetti and art nouveau were very fashionable. So if I were going to write a tribute to a couple of groupies, I'd put it in a mock-medieval setting. Plus I was full of Tennyson and loved trying to get something like that into a song. I wasn't particularly a fan of blank verse – I wanted my lines to have metre and rhyme, I liked them to chime."
Sinfield's work attracted flak: the phrases "sixth-form" and "'pretentious" kept cropping up in criticism, but it definitely inspired the next wave of writers. Peter Gabriel of Genesis admired King Crimson and picked up Sinfield's sense of an English dystopia in great lyrics like Supper's Ready (named after a line in the Book of Revelations about "the supper of the mighty one"), where the croquet lawns and fox-hunting fields of Blighty become the setting for a Biblical apocalypse (in 9/8).
Progressive lyrics probably weren't written under the influence of psychedelic drugs, but certainly the influence of Robert Heinlein and Thomas Mallory. "There is an element of escapism, but nothing to do with drug culture. I don't think drug-induced states are valuable," said Gabriel in 1972, hinting that any woozy narcotic state described in his work was actually more likely the onset of mental illness. Characters in early Genesis songs are often in a state of mental torment. "One of the great troubles with the mind is that it's always lost between two extremes," Gabriel told writer Jerry Gilbert. "That's partly what Willow Farm [part of Supper's Ready] is all about – cement between two bricks. Wherever you are and whatever you do, there's always a left and right, and up and down, a good and bad – and if everything's good there must automatically be some bad."
The appeal of the fantastical, confused, romantic and ultra-modern was that strangeness and illogic functioned as balm for the broken generation of war, or just post-war, babies who bore the brunt of the conflict's aftermath. This is clearly stated in Townshend's Tommy or Roger Waters' lyrics for Pink Floyd, both men singing about this at great length, in rock-opera form. Fear of war is a frequent theme in progressive-rock lyrics, matching occasionally martial drums or the fanfare of synthesizers, the sounds of simultaneous terror and exhilaration. It's something at the heart of the best work of Yes, where Jon Anderson spouts his impenetrable philosophy with great conviction over super-tricky tracks.
"Pop songs were supposed to cheer you up or make you cry but weren't supposed to shake up your thinking," says Sinfield. "That's what we wanted to do in Crimson. In that sense it really was a progressive band." Prog mattered because it asked you to consider folklore and science, politics and myth, the past and the future, the whole world, other worlds, other universes.
After four Crimson albums, Sinfield wanted to get more floaty and lyrical. Robert Fripp wanted to become more urban and angular and metallic. "When you have a musical difference you start ignoring a bloke and taking the piss out of him," notes Sinfield, "and Robert quite rightly got annoyed and said, 'One of us has got to go and I'm not leaving!'"
Sinfield went on to write for Italian proggers PFM, produce the first Roxy Music album – for which he is seldom given sufficient credit – and to write for Emerson Lake & Palmer, who dealt in amped-up Mussorgsky and neo-classical hoo-hah and couldn't write words for toffee, so he provided context for the musical melodrama.
After a break in Ibiza as the "world's poorest tax exile", Sinfield came home in 1980 to find no one wanted what he did any more; prog had spawned, grown up, grown fat and keeled over within a decade. Peter took a year off and taught himself to write pop songs. Co-writes with Andy Hill provided 20 hits in a row from Land of Make Believe by Bucks Fizz ("Just like a Crimson lyric, if you look at it") to Think Twice by Celine Dion, an enormous 27 million seller.
Quadruple bypass behind him, Sinfield's working on a second solo album, to be called Direction 341, though he's in no hurry, having scrapped it all once. He's proud of his "progressive" years but is uneasy about the label, and scoffs at previous attempts to dub him a Prog Rock Hero. "I can't be a Prog Rock Hero," he says. "I don't possess a cape."
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