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Non-Prog Interviews

Richard Palmer-James

Interviewed by Gary Hill
Interview with Richard Palmer-James from 2016
You have a new solo album. What can you tell us about that?
I spent most of my professional life writing stuff for other people. The TAKEAWAY album is a collection of songs written over the past few years to suit myself, and I eventually summoned up enough courage to perform them myself, too. The recording took shape when my colleague and kindred spirit, percussionist Evert van der Wal, phoned two Christmasses ago and asked exactly how long I thought I could wait before making a start. He’d been encouraging me to do this for a long time.
You've had an intriguing history in the world of music. Can you catch us up on some of the highlights?
In summer 1969 I auditioned in London for the nascent Supertramp in response to a “wanted” ad in the UK music newspaper Melodymaker. We worked hard and earned practically nothing . . . although we shared some remarkable adventures, eventually our widely differing personalities clashed, and I left after about 18 months. I wasn’t even sure that I wanted to be a pro musician any more.

I moved to Munich, Germany in 1971. Life seemed to be much more fun there than in post-60s England. Over the next few years I played in various bands, often trying to play material that was way beyond my technical capabilities as a guitarist, but they usually forgave me if I wrote the words.

Being associated with King Crimson - at that time an awesome live act - helped. I worked on songs for Donna Summer while she was still living in Germany. Eventually I started writing for a pop-disco act called "La Bionda." These two brothers broke into the Italian, German, and French charts at the end of the 70s in a big way, and consequently all sorts of folks called for lyrics.

I even did some songs for the short-lived and somewhat improbable duo act Mireille Mathieu and Patrick Duffy (of “Dallas” fame). Also for successful productions by Michael Cretu before he moved to Ibiza and became Mr Enigma. Many French and German pop acts unknown in the States. Haddaway. It was all about as far away from prog rock as you can get. And being a lyricist isn’t very glamorous.

How did you wind up doing lyrics for some King Crimson music without actually being part of the band?
It seems that in 1972, Robert Fripp wanted to make a fresh start with his extraordinary band, and my old buddy John Wetton suggested me as a successor to Pete Sinfield. John knew I’d written the words for Supertramp’s first (eponymous) album, and (like Robert) I was a native of Bournemouth, England, to boot . . . I think the fact that I lived a thousand kilometres away was somehow attractive.

I visited Crimso in the studio a couple of times, and was invited to some gigs in Germany, but otherwise my only contact with the band was through John. We worked on the songs intensively for three albums.

If you weren't involved in music what do you think you'd be doing?
When I first moved to Germany I applied for a place at the Film School in Munich with ambitions to become a director. They suggested, however, that I might wait a year to improve my German, and during that period the music grabbed me again.
Who would you see as your musical influences?
They change over the years. But I’ve always been drawn to diarists and story-tellers like Chuck Berry, Eddie Cochran, Robbie Robertson, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon - a long list.
What's ahead for you?
I discovered pretty late in the day that I could entertain an audience with my own songs for a couple of hours, and I’d like to indulge in doing that as long and as often as I can. Since beginning to play acoustic instruments about 15 years ago, I like to think that my guitar-playing’s improved enough to be presentable.
I know many artists hate to have their music pigeonholed or labeled, but how would you describe your music?
Dunno. Folk-rock, I suppose. Sort of.
Are there musicians with whom you would like to play with in the future?
There’s a troupe of ladies and gentlemen I’ve known for a long time here in Europe with any of whom it’s always a pleasure to make music. I don’t think any of them are particularly well-known . . . except John Wetton. It would be great to play with him again, like at the very beginning of our careers.
Do you think that illegal downloading or streaming of music is a help or hindrance to the careers of musicians?
I think the jury’s still out on that one. I do find it frustrating, however, that many consumers believe that songwriters and performers are having such a good time all of the time that no-one has to worry about paying the rent or feeding a family. In other words, we should all never tire of explaining just why it’s illegal.
In a related question, how do you feel about fans recording shows and trading them or posting them online?
To tell the truth, I think I’d be flattered. At least, at first.
MSJ: If you were a superhero, what music person would be your arch nemesis and why?
The occasional "music person" who tries to explain to me in all sincerity that The Beatles are overrated.
MSJ: If you were to put together your ultimate band (a band you'd like to hear or catch live), who would be in it and why?
Well, Annie Clark would definitely be front person on guitar. A law unto herself.
MSJ: If you were in charge of assembling a music festival and wanted it to be the ultimate one from your point of view who would be playing?
Ghosts: Hendrix. Little Feat with Lowell George. Bowie. The Who.

(I'd prefer a club venue actually, with an audience of 400 or so.)

MSJ: What was the last CD you bought and/or what have you been listening to lately?
Complicated Game by James McMurtry: a masterpiece.
MSJ: Have you read any good books lately?
Canada by Richard Ford: another masterpiece.
MSJ: What about the last concert you attended for your enjoyment?
There were two that I enjoyed immensely: Neil Young and Promise Of The Real, and Robert Plant with the Sensational Space Shifters; both in July, both in Austria.
MSJ: Do you have a musical “guilty pleasure?”
I really like Lionel Richie's ballads.
MSJ: What has been your biggest Spinal Tap moment?

Inadvertently stepping off the edge of a four-foot riser in an Italian TV studio and disappearing into the sea of artificial fog which the director had chosen to fill the room with. Serious injury luckily avoided.

MSJ: If you could sit down to dinner with any three people, living or dead, for food and conversation, with whom would you be dining?
Louis Armstrong, Marlene Dietrich, James Joyce. Three seminal 20th-century artists who might entertainingly compare notes on being generally misunderstood.
MSJ: What would be on the menu?
Like Mr Leopold Bloom, I eat "with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls.” Sorry folks. (The others might prefer pizza, that’d be fine.)
MSJ: Are there any closing thoughts you would like to get out there?
Topically, on democracy: “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”
MSJ: This interview is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2017  Volume 1 at
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