Sid Smith Answers Seven Questions from CirdecSongs

For an author, the only thing better than a “do over” is a “do more.”

When I finalized my book, I left several chapters and ideas on the cutting room floor. There simply wasn’t enough space for them. It almost feels like having to leave one or more of your children behind, because there isn’t enough room in the car for everyone. I also went through periods of regret and anxiety, certain I could have written certain sections better. Alas, I had to let go. I’m almost certain author Sid Smith went through something similar.

In 2001, Smith published In the Court of King Crimson, the definitive biography of the band often credited as helping usher in Progressive Rock. Smith’s book centered around Crimson founder Robert Fripp, tracing his steps from his earliest days as a guitarist through the founding of the band and all the adventures that came with it. The book is considered a “must-read” among King Crimson enthusiasts. Sadly for many, the book went out of print. Copies could be found on Amazon for upwards of $100. I read it three times myself, and vowed to never let it out of my sight, let alone off my bookshelf without knowing its exact whereabouts. It’s that valuable to me.

The group has taken on many forms over the years, as Fripp sees King Crimson not so much as a band, but as “a way of doing things.” Crimson recorded one last studio album since the book was released (in 2003) and then they all but ground to a halt in 2008, with Fripp deeming himself “semi-retired.” Five years later, Fripp envisioned Crimson in yet another format (this time featuring three drummers on the “front line,” with two guitars, bass, saxophone, and vocals on a riser in the rear), and bringing forth freshly re-arranged versions of the band’s 1969-74 catalog, which had been clamored for by fans at every gig, only to be (mostly) rebuffed. The new band hit the road in 2014, and has been enjoying massive success ever since. A series of live releases has been issued to document each tour, with the band’s setlist expanding almost exponentially with each passing year.

In 2019, Kng Crimson celebrated its 50th anniversary. What better time to release an updated version of the definitive biography? And just like that, King Crimson fans were gifted with a fresh version of the “toxic tome,” as Fripp jokingly describes it. Saddled with the subtitle An Observation Over Fifty Years (a nod to the subtitle of the band’s debut album In the Court of the Crimson King: An Observation by King Crimson), Smith has gone beyond definitive, telling us everything we wanted to know about our favorite band and its members, and then some!

Calling Smith’s updated work “comprehensive” would be on par with calling the Empire State Building “tall.” Where the original work clocks in at just over 300 pages, the update quite literally doubles down on that length. Smith not only tells the band’s story, but breaks down each studio album track by track (which he did the first time, but this time he moves that information to the book’s end, allowing his narrative to flow more freely). Additionally, he offers post-Crimson biographies for each band member, and throws in a detailed “annotated gigography,” in which he covers the highlights of dozens of Crimson concerts throughout the band’s existence. Those of us old enough to remember the Encyclopedia Britannica can assign such a title to this book, albeit centered around a single subject.

Fripp projects an image that leads one to believe his is not the easiest confidence to gain. Clearly, Smith has managed to accomplish this goal. The two met initially in 1972, with Smith having been blown away by King Crimson’s Islands album the year before, and finally getting a chance to see them in concert at Newcastle Odeon. Their bond solidified in 1997, where Smith and Fripp began what the former calls a “small, professional relationship” that started with Smith working the merchandise table for a ProjeKct 4 tour of the western United States.

I interviewed Smith for my book five years ago, as he and Anil Prasad remain my role models in music journalism. At the time, I asked Smith what quality he possessed to gain the trust of one who seemed so distrusting. He was as modest then as he is now. “I don’t know,” he told me. “You’ll have to ask Robert.” Yeah, like that was ever gonna happen! Clearly, Smith remains on the right path, as Fripp once again opened himself and his band’s archives up in order for the author to obtain unfettered access. The result is a book that ends pretty much any debate had by other enthusiasts as to what is true about their favorite group and what is not.

As I poured through its pages, I found my multiple reads of the original work rendered almost moot. So much new material has been added, the first book feels almost like a series of detailed footnotes wrapped around the new edition. My original thoughts of doing a compare and contrast went by the wayside relatively quickly. My only complaint about this volume is the scant number of photos, which I can only assume would have something to do with the book’s final cost. In the grand scheme of things, it’s a relatively small sacrifice. That should not prevent anyone from grabbing hold of a copy of this work, lest that enthusiast miss out on something truly special.

On a personal level, Smith remains engaging and affable, with a delightfully dry sense of humor. It’s easy to imagine oneself sitting in a pub with the author, discussing the merits of not just Crimson, but hundreds of other progressive rock and jazz artists. In fact, Smith was quick to push aside his perceived identity as the progressive rock authority. His true musical passions remain primarily in the realm of jazz, where we are both fanatical about Miles Davis and the fusion era of the 70’s, among other things. You can learn more about Smith’s passion for various forms of music via his podcasts.

There is nothing in Smith’s personae that says he has let his King Crimson access (something many fans crave) go to his head. Given the sheer volume of his other journalistic work (which includes writing reviews and articles for Prog magazine, as well as liner notes for several band’s albums), he probably has no room for such a thought process to begin with. It’s hard to find an easier interview.

From his home in Whitley Bay, England, Sid Smith kindly answered Seven Questions from CirdecSongs. 

https://youtu.be/3028oDEKZo4

CirdecSongs: You’ve had a LOT of personal contact with King Crimson over the past 20-plus years. How important was objectivity in your approach to writing the book?
Sid Smith: Obviously there’s a lot of personal investment wrapped up producing a book about a band that I’m on record as saying “they changed my life.” I tried (to be), as much as one ever can when looking at a particular period, event, or album with as open a mind as possible, and also to be aware of my own prejudices.
Whose idea was it to revisit the work after all these years, and how daunting a task did you think it would be?
If I had a penny for every time somebody asked me to update the book in the years since its original publication in 2001 over the years, I’d be rich.  Down the years, I’d been approached by several publishers wanting to pick the book up and have it updated, but for a variety of reasons I didn’t want to go with them. Over six years ago, Panegyric — who produce King Crimson’s CD and boxed set releases — approached me and asked me how long it would take? “About three months,” I said.  Well, that was the plan. It took me just a little bit longer than that because I had to carry on making a living by taking on other work and other commissions to write. These would take me away from the book. In the end, the fiftieth anniversary of the band seemed like the perfect time to get the job done.

What concerned you the most when it came to revisiting this work?

Just trying to get a narrative that had momentum and was readable was really the main concern for me.

You took what I call a “kitchen sink” approach to the details of this book? How much were your forced to leave out, if anything?
With a fifty-year story that was changing right up to the point of the book going to the printers, there was a lot to include. I would have liked to have done much, much more about the band in the development of the ’60s and ’70s rock scene and the wider context of progressive music, as well the British jazz scene, but I ran out of space. Maybe I’ll save that for the revised paperback edition.
Who else is worth this level of writing commitment, should you want to take the plunge?
The rock bands and players I admire have all had pretty definitive books already written about them so it feels a bit redundant to go chasing those people.
What above all do you want readers to get out of this book?
I see it as a kind of “field guide” that folks can pick up and put down as the need arises, often in conjunction with listening to KC albums. Hopefully, it will tell them things they didn’t know, things they’d forgotten they knew, and things that will help them listen to the music with new ears.

What else do you have on the writing horizon?

I make my living from being a freelance writer, so I’m always busy with commissions. For the last ten years or so, I’ve been incredibly lucky that as one job is finished the ‘phone rings with another. It is a thing of wonder and amazement to me that in this day and age there are editors, label owners, and bands that want to pay me money for writing about music. It’s a privilege that I don’t ever take for granted, and nor do I assume it will last forever. However, while it does I try to enjoy it as much as I can.
Order In the Court of King Crimson (USA) and (Worldwide)

#cirdecsongs

You can follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram (cirdecsongs)

My book, I Can’t Be the Only One Hearing This: A Lifetime of Music Through Eclectic Ears, is available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other fine book dealers.

Would you like to have your album reviewed? Contact me at cirdecsongs@gmail.com

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