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Words, sounds and visions.

It turns out that today is the 70th birthday of a guy I heard a lot of in my teenage years — even though he didn’t sing and played (almost) no instruments.

I was a big King Crimson fan in my younger days, owning most of their albums.

This meant I was quite familiar with the work of Pete Sinfield, the non-performing lyricist on the band’s four albums between 1969 and 1972.

Sinfield also worked the light show at Crimson’s live concerts, and added the occasional spot of synthesizer to one or two of their records. (Hence his credit for “words, sounds and visions” on 1972’s Islands album, for which he also contributed cover art.)

After parting ways with Crimson majordomo Robert Fripp, Sinfield apparently had not exhausted his prog-rock mojo, as he went on to adopt a similar collaborative role with Emerson, Lake & Palmer.

Sinfield’s lyrics appear on all of ELP’s albums released between 1973 and 1978, when the group split up. This means he is partially responsible for the notorious Love Beach album, but we won’t go into that here.

I had no idea what happened to Sinfield after that until I read his Wiki entry today.

Apparently he went on to co-write sizable U.K. hits for several acts in the ’80s and ’90s, including Celine Dion. (!) He’s also won two Ivor Novello awards, which honor successful British songwriters, and has spent a lot of time writing poetry.

Looking back on those early Crimson albums, it pains me to say that Sinfield’s lyrics were the band’s weak spot. They tended to be kinda overwritten and hippie-ish, full of moon children and lonely talks to the wind. I don’t think they hold up well with age, especially when combined with thick slabs of Mellotron.

The subtitle of the band’s first album, In The Court of the Crimson King: An Observation by King Crimson, says it all: These were not individual songs, but some sort of linked, sweeping statement.

The band got better after it ditched the “observations” and just set about shaking the fillings out of people’s teeth, which was about the same time Sinfield left.

On the other hand, Sinfield’s lyrics reflect the time in which he wrote them; he certainly wasn’t the only person working in that style.

And Crimson might have been a tough band to write for, given their changes in style and personnel, their dark and sometimes complicated song structures, and the commanding presence of founding guitarist Fripp.

One of the Crimson songs I remember best from the Sinfield Years was “Cat Food,” a denunciation of prepared food and the people who eat it, taken from 1970’s In The Wake of Poseidon.

Remarkably, the band’s record company put this uncompromisingly dissonant, jazz-tinged offering out as a single, and a temporary lineup of Crimson appeared on the BBC’s Top of the Pops in March 1970 to mime to the song.

(I do not believe the song charted anywhere. Sinfield would have to wait for Bucks Fizz (!!!) for his chance to reach the top of the pops for real.)

I played “Cat Food” for the drummer in my high-school band, way back when, and he and I developed a weird, shared fondness for it. I bet if I shot him an email now saying “Cat food!,” he’d probably reply, “Not even fit for a horse!”

Which, I guess, means that Pete Sinfield’s words — however knotty or florid — have a way of finding their place in people’s hearts and minds.


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