Interview with Richard Palmer-James in Calamity
Date Submitted: 24-Mar-2000
Submitted By: George Khouroshvili (calamity_news at hotmail dot com)
This issue of Calamity is dedicated to the 1972-74 King Crimson lyricist Richard Palmer-James who is going to write lyrics for the forthcoming David Cross album. Here is the interview with the man and there are tons of interesting info in it. Enjoy.
C. When did you start to write lyrics? Who was your major inspiration?
RPJ. I started to write lyrics when I joined Supertramp in 1969, because nobody else in the band wanted to do it. It was a little bit like having to do school work, you know... in fact, it still is. I didn't really take it seriously at first. Playing guitar is a lot more fun. I wrote the words for Supertramp's first album; after that, I began to listen to what real poets were doing - Paul Simon, Dylan, Lennon, Joni Mitchell. Most of all, I wish I could write words like Chuck Berry did.
C. Please, tell us about your first band.
RPJ. I started playing guitar at 13 or 14 and followed the musical trends of the sixties with a group of school friends, which included John Wetton. Apart from the Beatles, and then soul music (which has always been very big in England) I learned a lot of blues stuff, the music I still enjoy playing most. My first professional attempt was called Tetrad. John Wetton played bass and sang. A guy called John Hutcheson played Hammond organ - he's now an aeronautics engineer and lives in California. Bob Jenkins played drums; I haven't seen him since 1969 but I understand he is a respected session player. We didn't dare to play original material, so we stuck to our heroes: Vanilla Fudge, ELP, Traffic, Graham Bond stuff - the prog rock music of the time. It was very loud. We drove all over England for very little money and gave up after a year.
C. What was / is more important for you: to write lyrics or music? Do you feel yourself a poet or a musician?
RPJ. I think words and music should - ideally - be inseparable. The lyrics to a song are of no interest standing there on the page. They should engage in, and profit from, the mystery of the music and the singer's voice. I'm not a poet. I'm a bad musician. I try to express in words things that are impossible for me to articulate on a musical instrument.
C. You played in Supertramp for several months. How did you join this band?
RPJ. I answered an advertisement in the English pop newspaper Melody Maker in August 1969, right after Tetrad had broken up. I went for an audition in London. Rick Davies had chosen Roger Hodgson as guitarist the day before, but the three of us seemed to understand each other, and Roger decided he would learn to play bass - which he did brilliantly. Incidentally, I auditioned for Wishbone Ash on the same day.
C. Why did you leave it?
RPJ. I left eighteen months later because our initial understanding had disappeared, sadly. I didn't really fit in that musical situation. Although I thought at that time that I knew everything about every- thing, I was in fact a late developer, a slow learner. I admire Rick and Roger greatly as performers and songwriters, but most of all I admire them for NOT GIVING UP in the early seventies. They worked very hard indeed for their success, which came after five difficult and frustrating years.
C. Correct me if I'm wrong but I think that at that time you moved from England to Germany. What was the reason for such a decision? And why did you choose Germany?
RPJ. Supertramp had played in Germany for several weeks in 1969-70, and I found at the beginning of 1971 that I had more friends here than in England. So I thought I would come over for a while, not having anything else to do. I soon found that I could - more or less -make a living in Munich, playing guitar here and there, and writing music for films. I was very interested in cinematography, and I even tried to get into the Munich Film and TV School; but my German wasn't good enough. Munich was booming culturally in the seventies. I just sort of stayed. I had not had any connections or affiliations with Germany beforehand.
C. You knew John Wetton from the 60s and it was he who invited you to write for King Crimson. Was Robert Fripp aware of your previous works?
RPJ. No, I don't think so. Robert was already a legend as a guitar virtuoso in our home area (Bournemouth, on England's south coast) in the late sixties, but he and I had had no personal contact.
C. Your predecessor, Pete Sinfield, had a very unique writing style, which brought a mystery to King Crimson albums. Your lyrics were very different, there weren't any fantasy or fairy tales at all, I may be>wrong, but your poetry seemed to be closer to the European existentialists. I wonder if you felt comfortable writing for King Crimson for the 1st time?
RPJ. I had absolute carte blanche; I could write whatever I wanted; wonderful! I haven't had that kind of freedom very often since. And it was clear that simple love songs would not be required.
C. Did you hear KC music before John asked for your assistance?
RPJ. Oh yes, the marvellous first album was a sensation in musician's circles at the time I started playing with Supertramp.
C. What was the first song you wrote for King Crimson?
RPJ. EASY MONEY or BOOK OF SATURDAY, I can't remember which.
C. The Night Watch is one of the most beautiful songs ever and your lyrics for The Night Watch were always making me wonder, how on Earth could you choose such a subject for a song?
RPJ. I wrote this piece along with LAMENT and THE GOOD SHIP ENTERPRISE in the early seventies as part of an album project of my own which never got beyond the demo stage. John took over the words for King Crimson songs, fitting them to existing ideas he was developing with Robert, re-working the music accordingly. Nobody understood the song at all when it appeared. But there's nothing mysterious about it, it's just a brief historical commentary on Rembrandt and his situation in 17th-century Holland. This is probably not an ideal subject for rock music.) More people seem to realise what the song's about nowadays. Rembrandt's supreme genius has enriched my existence since schooldays. I eagerly went to see the exhibition of his self-portraits last year at London's National Gallery, and was amazed to discover that although the collection had been on show for three months, I had to wait inline for an hour to get in. Even when seen over the heads of crowds of people, the late self-portraits are awe-inspiring and sublime works of art, which make the passing of centuries meaningless.
C. You contacted with the band via John. When did you meet the other band members for the first time?
RPJ. I visited them in Command Studios, London, while they were recording LARKS' TONGUES early in 1973. Later I accompanied them on tour in Germany for a few days. We had no regular or intimate contact.
C. I know you had a project called Emergency in the 70s. Please, tell our readers about it.
RPJ. This was a jazz-rock formation led by the Czech saxophonist and arranger, Hanes Berea. We toured extensively and played very fast and complicated pieces which were beyond my technical ability as a guitarist. I learned a lot about the mechanics of music from Hanes. He was killed in a car accident a few years later.
C. Are there any more albums from that period you participated in?
RPJ. Diez and Bischof - DAYBREAK; produced by Dieter Dierks; I wrote most of the words. Also for two albums by MUNICH, a mainstream rock band from the town of the same name; in the mid-eighties I played guitar with this outfit and wrote two more albums with them. By the end of the seventies I was working full-time as a lyricist, and was involved in dozens of pop albums and singles productions.
C. Most of our readers have no idea on your work in 80s and 90s. Could you give us some information, please?
RPJ. During the 80s I wrote literally hundreds of lyrics for all kinds of productions in Germany, France, and Italy. I was lucky enough to participate in chart successes with La Bionda, Gilbert Montagné, Mireille Mathieu and Patrick Duffy, Moti Special, Michael Cretu, Sandra, and Munich (the band I played guitar with in the mid-80s). More recently I wrote some stuff for Haddaway, but mostly I've spent the 90's teaching myself computer-based production and sound editing techniques; I moved out here to the Bavarian countryside about ten years ago, to spend more time with my wife and two sons. At the moment I'm trying to produce two very talented singer/songwriters from this area. In the past two years I have at last returned to regular guitar-playing, concentrating on the blues and country styles which seem to have been at the roots of my career. I probably have more enthusiasm than talent, but playing in clubs and bars is one of the joys of my life. When I was writing for Crimso back in the early 70s, I certainly had no idea that I would ever become involved in mainstream pop music; nor did Pete Sinfield, I presume. But there's really no other way to earn a living as a lyricist. And the main thing is, I have been able to make music my profession.
C. The Wetton + Palmer-James album became a pure delight for many Crimson fans. Your "Good Ship Enterprise" impressed me very much. The liner notes say it was written in 1972 but recorded by John and Bill only in 1976. Was it intended for King Crimson? Please, tell us about this song, how it was written and how to interpret it?
RPJ. John wanted to do it with Crimso but Robert disbanded the group before that could happen. It's about the survivor of a shipwreck, drifting on the open sea in a small boat with a dead companion, not knowing whether he or she will be found and saved. It's about the meaningless of human vanity in an indifferent cosmos (a Russian theme?).
C. This album also features the 1st ever-released studio version of Doctor Diamond, which was only available on The Great Deceiver box and numerous bootlegs. Is there any more unreleased King Crimson song with your lyrics?
RPJ. There are two or three, but they are only fragmentary. If they had been listenable, we would have put them on the MONKEY BUSINESS album.
C. You still work with John Wetton from time to time. Is there any news in this field?
RPJ. We spoke last autumn about doing an album of new songs together, but right now John's busy with Qango and the project is postponed.
C. How did the idea of you writing lyrics for a new David Cross album appear? Did you keep in touch with him after King Crimson had disbanded?
RPJ. David simply phoned and asked me if I'd like to do it. I was very pleased. No, we had not been in touch at all. We met for the first time in 25 years at the King Crimson Royal Albert Hall concert in London. A year later I saw David perform with his group at the London Astoria, where John also appeared, and we briefly discussed the possibility of a collaboration. Also, I was in the studio when John sang EXILES for David's last album.
C. Have you heard his previous albums? What do you think of the music? Oh, and the lyrics, of course?
RPJ. When I've finished writing the words for David's new album I'll look forward to hearing all his stuff from the past few years.
C. Can you describe the lyrics you wrote for David's forthcoming album? Can you give us an idea what are they about?
RPJ. It's a bit too soon to say, but the lyrical themes seem to concern identities, the roles we all play. (I haven't finished yet.) The pieces are extremely difficult to sing (and write) - David is searching for someone who has the required phenomenal vocal technique. But because of this, the album will be very unusual and I'm proud to be part of it.
C. What are your plans for the nearest future besides the work with David Cross?
RPJ. Producing other people's work. Recording a bluesy album of my own. More Stratocaster. More trying to sing. More badly-paid gigs in bars.
PS. By the way, David is still looking for a singer to perform on his forthcoming album. If you have any thoughts, proposals, etc. feel free to contact him at noisynoisy at aol dot com
All the best,