If I had a flag, it would be flying at half-mast today. I just learned that Crispian St Peters died on June 8, aged 71.
Crispian who? You might well ask. But if I mentioned his 1966 hit song The Pied Piper, still a staple of classic hits radio formats, the name might mean something.
St Peters (real name Robin Peter Smith) is almost as well remembered for the speed with which he faded from the pop scene as he is for his few hit songs. Rarely has a star shot into the firmament so spectacularly and then so quickly sputtered and died – a fate often attributed to his inflated self-regard, which attracted the derision of the British music press. (Well, when you start comparing yourself with Elvis and the Beatles after only two hit singles, you’re asking for trouble.)
But no one can take away from St Peters those few terrific songs, which stand as vivid reminders of the classy pop music emanating from British recording studios in the mid-60s.
He first came to attention with You Were On My Mind, a cover version of a song that had been a hit in 1965 for the preppy American pop-folk group We Five. St Peters gave the song a darker, more brooding quality. The song opens with his rich, supple baritone over a spare, chunky bass-and-drum backing and gradually builds into a pounding crescendo featuring a punchy sax and a Hammond organ. It made the Top 10 in Britain but as I recall, didn’t replicate the success of the breezier American version here.
The Pied Piper came next, and again it opened with a distinctive, chunky bass motif (faint echoes here of Chas Chandler in the Animals’ We Gotta Get Out Of This Place) – but this time it introduced a jaunty element in the form of a piccolo dancing behind St Peters’ vocal in the chorus. It proved an irresistible hook (I remember even my mother liking it) and The Pied Piper became his biggest hit, rising to No 4 in the US, No 5 in the UK and Australia, and No 2 in New Zealand.
And that was just about it, at least in Britain and the US. But I reckon St Peters’ best song was the third in his trilogy of 1966 singles – and other New Zealanders liked it enough to push it to No 9 on the charts here. The song was Changes, a haunting, elegiac song written by the American folk singer Phil Ochs but given an up-tempo treatment by St Peters’ arranger. St Peters sang his own harmonies on his two earlier hits but here he demonstrated his vocal range by singing alternate verses an octave apart, then both parts simultaneously. (Sounds gimmicky, but it worked. Just listen - you can find it on You Tube.)
Once again, the musicianship on this great record – notably Jimmy Page’s mournful guitar and a crisp, military-style drum tattoo that adds an ominous, almost funereal tone – is exemplary, reminding us how good those largely unknown 1960s British session musicians were. (Studio veteran Vic Flick and the youthful Page, in his pre-Yardbirds/Led Zeppelin days, played guitar on St Peters’ hits. Harry Stoneham played the organ, Rex Bennett was the drummer and Ronnie Seabrook contributed that distinctive bass – household names all.)
Changes remains one of my favourite songs, but it got only as far as No 57 on the American Billboard chart. After that it was pretty much over for St Peters. Dubbed the Cassius Clay of pop by the musical press because of his apparently incorrigible hubris (he reckoned he was a better songwriter than Lennon and McCartney and a more exciting performer than Tom Jones – a laughable claim when you see him lifelessly miming The Pied Piper on You Tube), he slipped into obscurity and ended up playing working men’s clubs. The irony was that the boasting was his manager’s idea; St Peters went along with it, believing the mantra that any publicity had to be good.
His later songs, including several he wrote himself, leaned toward the country idiom – an appropriate genre, given that St Peters seemed determined to emulate the self-destructive, Crazy Heart career path blazed by countless faded Nashville stars. His marriage failed, he suffered several breakdowns and in 1995 he had a stroke. He finally gave up performing in 2001.
He deserves to be better remembered than he is. His best songs are shining classics of British 1960s pop.