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Robert Fripp, the amazing guitarist (Part 1)
Fripp, the man
Robert Fripp (b. May 1946, Dorset, England) – band leader, recording artist, rock star, virtuoso electric and acoustic guitarist, producer, writer, composer, and, currently, music educator – has been a fixture on the contemporary music scene since 1969.
On July 5 of that year, Fripp’s first commercially successful group, King Crimson, catapulted themselves to the forefront of public awareness by playing in front of 650,000 people at the Rolling Stones’ free Hyde Park concert.
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For all his public exposure in the twenty-one years since then, Fripp has remained something of an enigma. Since the drift of what he does tends to be determined by experiences of inner upheaval, it has always been impossible to predict his next move, though in retrospect the logic of the development may seem clear enough. With almost every new venture he has startled his audience and opened up new doors of perception and music.
The music press has had a great time with Fripp. He has been called “the world’s most rational rock star,” “the Mr. Spock of rock,” “the owlish one,” a “persnickety plectrist” and a “plectral purist.” He has been characterized as a “nouveau conceptualist,” a “tin woodsman with a microtonal heart,” and as “a riddle wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a guitarist.”
One writer described him as having “the air of an old-fashioned, straight-laced and hidebound European professor.” That’s not the way he came across to me at Guitar Craft XII; well, there was an “element” of the learned professor, perhaps – even of the streetwise priest – but more striking was how genuinely funny he could be, able to make great fun of himself. Fripp possesses a bitingly pointed sense of irony.
The liner notes to God Save the Queen/Under Heavy Manners, for instance, are hysterical if you read them in the right spirit; if you read them somberly or defensively, they sound like the most god-awful pomp. (Years ago I noticed a similar phenomenon when reading the manifestoes of the nineteenth-century Danish Christian existentialist Søren Kierkegaard.)
Fripp isn’t above ordinary, earthy bathroom humor, either. Rolling Stone writer Fred Schruers describes an encounter with Fripp and his tour party in the men’s room at Boston’s WBCN: “What does one do? Walk over to meet this ferocious intellectual composer guitarist as he lines up at the urinal? As I lurk uncomfortably, the investigator of archetypes addresses his companions: ‘I don’t see how you can piss without waggin’ your willies afterward.’“
Fripp is robust, poised, and physically nimble; he moves gracefully. A peculiar thing about the man is that he must be one of the world’s most unphotogenic people. Having seen dozens of photographs of him from every stage in his career, I can attest to the fact that almost none of them look anything like he does in person. Fripp’s face, which in pictures can look muggish, leering, or frozen (sorry, Robert!), is in reality a constant dance of expression, handsome and fascinating (that’s better).
Although he is moderately small in stature, Fripp’s presence has a way of filling up the room. He is indeed one of the most present people I have ever met: present to those he is with, acutely sensitive to the situation of the moment, capable of exceptionally keen concentration.
Fripp does have something of a reputation in the press for keeping his emotions carefully under wraps, for being cool and considered, for being something of a mechanical marvel. An interviewer from Creem relates: “He asks me how many words I will need for my article, mentally calculates how much talking he will have to do to provide them, and stops at that point.”
For his part, Fripp laments: “One of the disadvantages of having the particular stereotype I do is that I tend to get serious interviewers. When I have a serious interviewer coming in my heart sinks. But what can you do? Either refuse to answer his questions, or speak to the serious young intellectuals in the vocabulary serious young intellectuals understand.”
Jungian theory postulates four basic psychological functions – thinking, feeling, sensation, and intuition – any of which may dominate the others in a given individual personality. Fripp rejects the notion that he is primarily a rational thinking type:
“I’m instinctive [intuitive, in Jungian terms] by nature … I analyze and rationalize after the event in order to persuade people of something I think to be right.” Nevertheless, he presents the image of a man to whom self-control is a cardinal virtue, who is aware of his lower nature but struggles to keep it in check. Fripp will instantly retract a remark that in the next moment he considers “flippant” or “inconsidered.”
Fripp’s studied objectivity about himself has disconcerted some and charmed others. He indulges in the habit, frequently to comical effect, of referring to himself in the third person, as “This Fripp …” But indeed this detachment from the multiplicity of inner selves gives rise to the question: where, or who, is the real Robert Fripp? He is a self-conscious role player, moving in and out of entirely convincing personas seemingly at will.
In Guitar Craft seminars he adopts the role of the Teacher and sits as it were enthroned smack at the middle of the head dining table, surrounded by a Da Vincian phalanx of subordinate teachers; but the moment the seminar is officially declared over, he deserts his central position and carries his breakfast tray to a side table, mingling among his students.
When a student now asks a question he deems inappropriately deferential, Fripp brushes it off with an exasperated twinkle in his eye, saying, “Do you want me to go back and sit over there?” motioning with his hand to the head table.
David Bowie once remarked that being a person is like maintaining a car: you can alter parts of your personality, just like you might decide one day to change the oil or install a new carburetor. Laurie Anderson has said, “I operate my body the way most people drive their cars.” While Fripp refrains from the automotive analogy, he has expressed a similar idea:
“One has to see that one’s personality is not what one is. It’s an organ through which I experience life. So, how can one come to see that? Years of observation, years of discipline … Not long after I was born – I think I was between about three and six months old – I had a clear moment of, I suppose you’d say, waking up in my body. Here was a little Fripp baby in a pram, and I saw quite clearly that this was the animal that I inhabited …
Then, in March 1976, when I was in retreat in England, as I was wheeling a wheelbarrow of compost in the garden, in a flash I saw quite clearly that Robert Fripp did not exist … Robert Fripp consists of a collection of impressions and experiences over a period of years that seem to have some coherence, but the level of coherence is very, very fragile.”
If one thing is clear, it is that Fripp is a person of concentrated self-discipline. He likes to keep regular habits and daily routines, beginning each day with a relaxation exercise before breakfast.
(Although he has not divulged much publicly in terms of other specific personal exercises or disciplines, the general nature of his work in this realm will be considered more fully in Chapter 7 and 10. Certainly guitar practice itself has been a major discipline for Fripp.
In 1979, he described himself as having “a very modest lifestyle, one that some people would call ‘mean.’ )
I don’t have a string of fast cars or fast women, and I don’t take any drugs at all, not even aspirin.” He does, however, go for a good strong cup of coffee, or a beer or two at the local pub.
Robert Fripp is known as an avid reader with an extensive personal library containing volumes on religion and philosophy, politics, psychological theory, and economics. In the articles he wrote for Musician, Player, and Listener magazine in the early 1980s, he quoted freely from Plato, Shakespeare, Jacques Ellul, E.F. Schumacher, T.S. Elliot, Stafford Beer, Proudhon, and other writers. As the “world’s most rational rock star” has said, “Me and a book is a party. Me and a book and a cup of coffee is an orgy.” (Freff 1984, 106).
Fripp, the professional musician
In the chapters to follow we shall come back and look at the music of each phase of Fripp’s career in greater detail; for now let us trace the development in broadest outline.
The original King Crimson comprised Fripp (guitar), Ian McDonald (reeds, woodwind, vibes, keyboards, mellotron, vocals), Greg Lake (bass guitar, lead vocals), Michael Giles (drums, percussion, vocals), and Peter Sinfield (lyrics). This band began rehearsing on January 13, 1969, and made their debut at the London Speakeasy on April 9.
King Crimson was “a way of doing things.” In all its manifestations, King Crimson represented, at least in Fripp’s eyes, a certain approach to music-making and a certain approach to the relationship between the performers and the audience.
The exact nature of these approaches was never defined explicitly, at least not for public consumption: King Crimson was, for Fripp, a powerfully motivating if deliberately nebulous concept. The following extract is taken from a “Rolling Stone” interview conducted in 1973 by Cameron Crowe:
Crowe: You often say that you feel King Crimson is a way of doing things.
Fripp: I gave that to you as your key. That’s your key to the core of the band. King Crimson, you see, is a magical act.
Crowe: In what way?
Fripp: Every act or thought is a magical act.
Crowe: You seem to tell many interviewers that King Crimson is a way of doing things … what?
Crowe: Then why don’t you simply say that King Crimson is a way of being?
Fripp: It’s that as well. I’m not interested in being pegged down with narrow definitions … As soon as one defines, one limits. I don’t want to define what King Crimson is. I’d rather let you do the thinking.
King Crimson I released their first album, In the Court of the Crimson King, on October 10, 1969. Each song on the record was different from the others: some had the melancholy “classical” sound of the Moody Blues and Procol Harum, others featured glittering, painstaking arrangements reminiscent of the Beatles, still others offered the raw rock and roll energy of the Rolling Stones, but jazzified, kicked into overdrive. Some writers in the rock press proposed King Crimson as heir to the throne of the Beatles, who were at the time in the process of abdicating.
King Crimson I, however, fell apart immediately following a U.S. tour in the late fall of 1969. 1970-1972 represents what Fripp has called an “interim” period for the group; King Crimson II, as I shall call it, was a sort of concept band with an almost revolving-door policy in terms of the musicians who comprised the group at any given moment. Among King Crimson II’s participants new were Mel Collins, Gordon Haskell, Boz Burrell, Andy McCulloch, and Ian Wallace; Greg Lake and Michael Giles contributed to studio sessions.
Four albums were released during this period: In the Wake of Poseidon, Lizard, Islands, and the live Earthbound. It was a time of enthusiastic if sometimes injudicious musical experimentation, with often dubious results. Some of King Crimson II’s songs were hard rock, some were jazz-tinged, several were classicized, overly precious ballads. The music was astringently dissonant one moment and vacuously airy the next.
Many of the rhythms were either skittish and jumpy or obvious and foursquare. The attempt at a grand fusion of styles was difficult to bring off; Sinfield’s lyrics, originally so evocative and in tune with the late-1960s Zeitgeist, seemed increasingly improbable and contrived. Critics in the press began to be put off and confused, and Fripp himself was later to voice grave doubts about the validity of his music of this period.
King Crimson II broke up definitively in April 1972, following the Earthbound U.S. tour; it had been a long time coming. In July, Fripp was introduced to a new interactive tape technology by his friend Brian Eno: whatever the human performer played – typically one or two notes on electric guitar – would be heard again, at a slightly lower volume level, several seconds later. S
everal seconds after this, the sound would be heard again, slightly softer; in the meantime, the performer could add more notes, which then began their cycles of gradual repetition and decay. In September Fripp and Eno recorded “The Heavenly Music Corporation” in Eno’s home studio, a piece that was to become Side One of their first collaborative album, “No Pussyfooting.”
The simplicity and novelty of the signal loop and layer technique must have been refreshing to the Crimsoned-out Fripp, who was later to refine the technique and call it, for his own performance and recording purposes, “Frippertronics.”
Also in July 1972, Fripp assembled the all-new lineup that would constitute, more or less, King Crimson III: David Cross (violin, viola, mellotron), John Wetton (bass and vocals), Bill Bruford (drums), and Jamie Muir (percussion). Taken as a trilogy, the three King Crimson III albums (Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Starless and Bible Black, and Red, released between 1973 and 1974), present a more muscular sound than most earlier Crimson efforts; by the time “Red” was recorded, the group had been pared down to the basic power trio of Fripp, Wetton, and Bruford.
Wetton was capable of playing bass lines that fused harmonic backing with gritty melodic interest; Bruford’s drumming was more rock-oriented than previous Crimson drummers, with less emphasis on trebly cymbal and snare drum colors, yet with a unique straightforward attack; Fripp’s guitar work had developed a new emphasis on big power chords, without sacrificing its original melodic intensity; violinist Cross proved more than equal to the task of blending into the Crimsoid alchemy, contributing many sensitive melodies and counterpoints; and it is to Muir’s percussion that Larks’ Tongues owes many of its most exquisitely surreal passages.
The King Crimson of 1973-4 played, in effect, artistic heavy metal, in what was one of the most convincing syntheses of hard rock, instrumental virtuosity, and compositional artifice to come out of the period.
A live album, USA, was released in April 1975; it was more consistent and well recorded than the previous live album, Earthbound.
By July 1974, an accumulation of doubts and powerful personal experiences had led Fripp to a position where he felt compelled to disband King Crimson III unilaterally: “I felt I had to stop performing in the rock circus because the reciprocal relationship between audience and performer dropped markedly, to a point where it was just antithetical to what I wanted to do …
Everything deteriorated through 1970 and 1971, and it was very much a struggle to try to find the spirit that had interested me in 1969. The tremendous burst of energy that kicked off King Crimson became steadily refined and sophisticated, to the point that for me, absolutely nothing was happening. When Crimson finished in 1974, it was the last possible moment for anything to have stopped.”
Between September 1974 and August 1977, Fripp retreated from the music industry for three years, a period he has described as having three phases: preparation (winding up his affairs), withdrawal (attending a ten-month course at J.G. Bennett’s Academy for the Harmonious Development of Man at Sherborne), and recovery (slowly readapting to reality, and easing his way back into the musical scene).
Fripp’s first step out of self-imposed retirement was occasioned by an invitation from Peter Gabriel in September 1976 to work on the latter’s first solo album in Toronto. In June, Fripp began working intensively with the tape-loop system Eno had shown him five years before. During this period he worked with David Bowie and Brian Eno on Heroes in Berlin, produced Daryl Hall’s solo album Sacred Songs, and played and recorded with the novelty/new wave band Blondie and the quirky acoustic feminist trio of sisters, the Roches.
As early as November 1977 Fripp was at work on his own first solo album, Exposure, which was not to be finished and released until 1979. Exposure was an oddly masterful piece of vinyl, as clearly influenced by the New York new wave aesthetic as it was to have a marked influence on that same genre.
Exposure represents a diverse stylistic spread, from punk to electric urban blues, from gentle emotional ballad to apocalyptic epic, from musique concrete to Frippertronics: all in all, a conceptual collage representing the artist’s diverse interests at the time, which seemed uncannily congruent with the interests of the contemporary musical public.
On September 11, 1978, Robert Fripp launched what he called “The Drive to 1981,” whose philosophy involved a sound rejection of ingrained music industry values of seeking greater and greater profit through the mindless and greedy promotion a few selected, almost prefabricated groups based on the lowest common denominator theory of public taste and sensibility.
Fripp railed against what he called the music industry’s “dinosaurs” – cold-blooded, reptilian corporate entities of immense size and dangerously little intelligence. As an alternative way of presenting music to the public, he proposed the “small, mobile intelligent unit” – a phrase which became the Frippism par excellence of the late 1970s.
In order to demonstrate his concept of the small, mobile, intelligent unit in action, Fripp undertook a solo world Frippertronics tour (April-August 1979); he released records of Frippertronics and Discotronics (God Save the Queen/Under Heavy Manners , featuring vocals by David Byrne of Talking Heads, and Let the Power Fall ); and he formed the League of Gentlemen, a sort of new wave dance band that toured England and America from April to November 1980 and released one album.
In the spring of 1981, Fripp began practicing with one of the recently available Roland guitar synthesizers, and began rehearsing a new group, originally called Discipline, with bassist/stick player Tony Levin, guitarist/vocalist Adrian Belew, and drummer Bill Bruford.
This was to become King Crimson IV. In a number of statements to the press, Fripp attempted to explain that the new band had not consciously decided to use the King Crimson name for commercial purposes, but that at a certain point it simply became evident that they “were” King Crimson.
King Crimson had always been a way of doing things, and indeed with the new band the historical King Crimson pattern played itself out once more: a short period of intense collective creativity resulting in a dynamic, new musical style, followed by a decline into somewhat mannered refinements and repetitions of the original insights and a fragmentation of group identity due to the individual creative leanings of the musicians.
King Crimson IV toured and released three albums between 1981 and 1984: Discipline, Beat, and Three of a Perfect Pair. The style typically involved complex meters, polymeter, short note values, precisely controlled instrumental textures, ambiguous tonality, and driving percussion.
The incredible complexity of the rhythms obtained from the interaction of high-speed guitar and stick ostinatos was offset by Belew’s quirky vocals and Bruford’s admirably precise and restrained drumming. The music of King Crimson IV was an intelligent and impeccably crafted synthesis of several of the musical trends animating the early 1980s: new wave, synthesizer rock, and minimalism.
Apart from Fripp’s work with King Crimson, his most significant collaborations to come out of the 1981-1984 period were two albums with Police guitarist Andy Summers, I Advance Masked (1982), and Bewitched (1984).
The first album was a virtual catalog of techniques and tone color possibilities available to the guitarist of the early 1980s. The pieces, all instrumental, ranged from structured improvisation over a disco-like beat to soft-edged fantasy soundscapes. Best were those passages in which Summers’ and Fripp’s guitars discernibly talked to each other; the music then took on the character of abstract conversation, of a communion of spirits.
Side One of Bewitched consists of three long dance-oriented tracks – perhaps “dance-oriented art music” in the manner of Bach’s keyboard, violin, cello, and orchestral suites. Side Two contained seven electronically-based soundscapes more or less in the vein of I Advance Masked, but with somewhat more distinctively shaped formal, harmonic, and textural outlines.
Other session guitar work Fripp has done over the years includes work on Brian Eno’s solo albums Here Come the Warm Jets, Another Green World, Before and After Science, and Music for Films; with David Bowie on Scary Monsters; with David Sylvian on Alchemy – An Index of Possibilities; and with the Flying Lizards on Fourth Wall.
In the liner notes to the 1985 album The League of Gentlemen/God Save the King (a record containing revised versions of previous releases from the Drive to 1981 period), Fripp summed up the position at which he had arrived: “The period 1977 to 1984 was one of intense activity for me, following a three year retreat from the music industry. This intentional work in
the market place was presented as the Drive to 1981 and the Incline to 1984.” (The Incline to 1984 was never so formally defined as the Drive to 1981; my understanding is that it was a sort of self-parodying running joke in the manner of the late Beatles, “And here’s another clue for you all / the walrus was Paul.”).
Robert Fripp continued: “When the seven year commitment completed, once again I went into retreat, to allow the future to present itself. Currently, I am conducting a series of residential guitar seminars in West Virginia for players of all levels of experience.”
This rather innocuous-sounding announcement portended the launching of an entirely new type of enterprise, one for which Fripp had been preparing himself for at least a decade. Guitar Craft is not simply the title of a school of music or a particular method of learning to apply oneself to the technique of playing the acoustic guitar; it is not in itself a performance ensemble, a musical style, or a repertoire; it is neither merely a set of finger exercises nor a set of relaxation exercises.
Guitar Craft is all of these things, but perhaps most significantly, it is a virtual style of life – one embraced by Fripp himself, and by a number of the more than six hundred students who have attended courses since in the United States, England, Germany, and other countries around the world.
My own stimulating encounter with Guitar Craft will be discussed in Chapter 10. For now, suffice it so say that Guitar Craft represents, or represented for me, a systematic debunking of many popular myths surrounding the creative process, and the replacement of such myths with a novel and eminently practical approach to music in general and to the guitar specifically.
The Level One student (there are seven Levels in Guitar Craft – everyone, regardless of expertise, starts at the bottom, is invited to disorient himself at the outset by tuning his guitar in a new way; he is then enjoined to sit in a particular way, become aware of his body in a particular way, hold the pick in a particular way, utilize the left hand on the fretboard in a particular way, and memorize a set of exercises by rote.
The pedagogical technique of Guitar Craft involves daily group and individual guitar lessons, morning relaxation sessions, classes in the Alexander technique, classes in rhythm, instruction in concentration and attention, communal meals, and as much practice during “free time” as one can possibly fit into a nineteen-hour day.
King Crimson was a way of doing things that seemed to work for short periods of time and then fall apart. With Guitar Craft as a style of life, Fripp seems to be succeeding in training young musicians to exercise a certain quality of attention in the practice and execution of music: in the pedestrian sense, he is training professional performers. The next step – and it is a tall order, an enterprise of a qualitatively different nature – would involve training the audience.
One of Guitar Craft’s current projects is the establishment of a more or less fixed performance ensemble. To this point, the League of Crafty Guitarists has been an ad hoc affair – any number of Fripp’s students (including myself) have performed together in public in different circumstances. One early configuration of the League – which Fripp visualizes metaphorically or metaphysically as one guitarist in many bodies – recorded an album, The League of Crafty Guitarists – Live! in December 1985.
The album gives some sense of the style and atmosphere of the ever-growing Guitar Craft repertoire, but ultimately, and probably inevitably, fails to capture the spirit of the music itself, which, it can be convincingly argued, can only be experienced live by an attentive audience.
Over the last year or two, Fripp has performed with Sunday All Over the World, a band consisting of Fripp, his wife rock chanteuse Toyah Wilcox, Crafty Guitarist Trey Gunn, and drummer Paul Beavis. Since the group has neither, as of this writing, appeared in the United States, released any recordings, nor generated a great deal of press, I have little information to go on. In 1989 Gunn reportedly said that Sunday All Over the World was the result of Fripp’s “trying to find the right way to work with Toyah … So far it’s all built around the vocals, but everyone’s contributing pretty much equally. We’re not looking to be a heavy soloing band, but it’s sure there when we need it.” (Drozdowski 1989).
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