Robert Fripp, the amazing guitarist (5): KING CRIMSON sabbatical

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    Robert Fripp, the amazing guitarist (5): KING CRIMSON sabbatical.

    King Crimson can be seen as an experimental laboratory for the combining and recombining of living musical strains – for the production of “recombinant do-re-mi,” to borrow a phrase from the title of a recent book by Billy Bergman and Richard Horn.

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    Fripp reminds me a bit of Miles Davis in this respect: a subtly energetic electromagnet into whose force-field any number of leading musicians have found themselves drawn, only to have their musical genes reshuffled and to be ejected back out into the world with a different perspective. Several Crimson graduates went on to perhaps less experimental yet more lucrative pastures: Greg Lake (Emerson, Lake and Palmer), Ian McDonald (Foreigner), Boz Burrell (Bad Company), John Wetton (Asia), and Bill Bruford (who toured with Genesis in 1976). KC graduates also made solo albums: McDonald and Giles (McDonald and Giles, 1971), Gordon Haskell (It Is and It Isn’t, 1971), Pete Sinfield (Still, 1973), and Bruford (four albums between 1978 and 1981).

    British rock, particularly British progressive rock (whatever “progressive” may mean or not mean), is like a club or select society: the more you find out about it, the more you realize that practically everybody in the club has played in practically everyone else’s group at one time or another. You can start almost anywhere you want and trace any number of interconnections, for instance: Cream to Blind Faith to Traffic, whose Dave Mason coproduced Family’s debut album; Family’s John Wetton was Roxy Music’s bassist for a spell, Roxy Music’s first synth player was Brian Eno, who used Phil Collins as a session drummer, who was Genesis’ drummer behind Peter Gabriel, who worked with Fripp, whose later band the League of Gentlemen featured former XTC keyboardist Barry Andrews and whose bassist Sara Lee went on to play with Gang of Four. And so on.

    It would be silly to say that Fripp, or anyone other single person, was at the center of this tangled mass of perpetually mutating strands of double-helical do-re-mi. Yet the Crimson King was inarguably one of the ribosomal focal points of creative synthesis, touching, in his eccentric way, all the musicians he worked with, and leaving his decisive stamp on the history of rock in the early 1970s and beyond.

    Of the classic heavyweight progressive rockers, who had laid down a more convincing legacy than King Crimson? By 1974 Yes had lost themselves in grandiosity beyond all reasonable bounds (though continuing to play to huge popular acclaim); Emerson, Lake and Palmer were grandstanding with thirty-six tons of equipment and labored flashes of lasers and psychedelic music-hall brilliance; Procol Harum were drifting into repetition and stagnation with Exotic Birds and Fruit, less than a mere shadow of their one-time life and soul.

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    Faced with such examples of dinosaur burnout, and listening to the records of all these groups today, I come away with a feeling that King Crimson’s music of the period sounds infinitely less dated – Fripp, though he may have faltered from time to time, never completely lost sight of the goal. He was clearly in it for the music. It might be remarked that Fripp, in disbanding King Crimson in 1974, simply knew when to quit; like the Beatles in 1970, he knew when the dream was over, when to continue following the accustomed path meant certain creative death. But then, one of the marks of the superior creative talent is precisely knowing when to quit, when to seek out a new vision.

    As hinted at in the previous chapter, particularly grating to Fripp was the commercial/music-industry aspect of the whole progressive rock spectacle. In the October 1974, Melody Maker interview where he explained his reasons for disbanding King Crimson, Fripp said that successful rock bands often “originally start out to service a need but you now have a situation where, being creative, they have to create needs in order that they may continue to exist. In other words, they’ve become vampiric.” (YPG 31, MM, Oct. 5 1974) On the subject of the music itself, in 1987 Fripp dismissed early progressive/art-rock music as “a badly cobbled pastiche of a number of badly digested and ill-understood music forms.” (Diliberto 1987).

    A sense of no new worlds left to conquer, of the exhaustion of a particular set of possibilities. For an artist, to stay in the same place is to go backwards, to stop growing is to die.

    As for Robert Fripp – who disbanded King Crimson in the face of what seemed to him insurmountable cosmic, business, and personal obstacles, and who effectively erased himself from the musical scene – for the moment, late 1974, he was indeed gone, top of head blown off, wandering around without a sense of ego. The Faustian pact was over, just like Lennon’s dream. Music itself had stymied him, the presentation of meaningful music no longer seemed a real possibility.

    Fripp wanted to wrap up his unfinished business, however, and did so in a number of projects, among them putting together The Young Person’s Guide to King Crimson, a double-album “greatest hits” package which pointedly omitted “Schizoid Man.” The album included a detailed chronology of King Crimson I-III compiled by Fripp from record and concert reviews, conversations with musicians, and Fripp’s own journal entries. This was also the period when Fripp worked on preparing USA for release, recorded Evening Star with Eno, and appeared with Eno in a few small-scale European concerts.

    On the break-up of King Crimson III, Fripp calculated that he had enough money to pay his bills for three years. (Dove 1974, 14) And indeed, even in his disoriented frame of mind, he was hatching a personal three-year plan consisting of preparation, withdrawal, and recovery. His activities of the first year – winding up his affairs – would prepare him for a decisive withdrawal from the music industry – and effectively from the outside world – at J.G. Bennett’s International Society for Continuous Education at Sherborne House, following which he would survey the inner and outer landscapes and decide what to do next.

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    It is quite possible that Fripp’s transformational experience at Sherborne – which is, if obliquely, the subject of this chapter – cannot be understood by anyone who has not undergone something similar. It is just possible, however, that some inkling of what was involved may be got by reviewing the historical backdrop of his experience. Since Fripp’s subsequent music and public posture was deeply affected by his encounter with the Gurdjieff/Bennett tradition, and since only the most superficial information on that tradition was dispensed by the music press in the course of reviewing Fripp’s work, I offer here a somewhat more substantial summary for the interested reader.

    In recent years Fripp has publicly distanced himself from the Gurdjieff/Bennett tradition, preferring to claim only that he speaks for his own school, Guitar Craft. It was not so long ago, however, that he was splicing Bennett tapes into his albums and quoting Gurdjieff in his articles. It may in part have been the rock press’s open hostility and ridicule of Fripp’s apparent conversion to a “mystical cult” – though as far as I can make out, the Gurdjieff work is neither mystical nor a cult – that led him to his present position of reserve.

    During his period of retreat, Robert Fripp had no concrete plans for returning to music; before breaking up King Crimson III in 1974, he had concluded that being a rock star was no longer conducive to his continuing self-education, that it was, in fact, counter-productive to his aims. With the self-imposed retreat drawing to an end, Fripp did not thus return to the music world with a loud splash, making his presence known to one and all in a grandiose gesture. Rather, he stuck his toe in the water bit by bit, carefully considering whether the world of the professional musician was a suitable arena for his activities.

    Fripp loves to formulate little paradigmatic lists, and in 1982 he was to formalize what he called the “four criteria for work”: work should earn a living, be educational, be fun, and be socially useful. As he leaked out of retirement in 1977 and 1978, Fripp was gradually able to acknowledge that for him, working in the music industry could be all of the above. Although in some respects Fripp seems a solitary introvert, living in a world of his own, on a plane of symbolic structures of his own devising which very few others are able to understand, let alone accept whole-heartedly, he was to receive much encouragement from friends old and new during this period, and was to succeed in carrying his musical odyssey through the next several island links in the archipelago of his life’s work.

    In retreat he had reached the point of realizing he could choose what he wanted to do, so now, he could choose music freely – spontaneously after reflection, to paraphrase Kierkegaard.

    With Peter Gabriel

    The first step out of retirement came in response to a call from Peter Gabriel, who in early 1977 was in Toronto making his first solo album Peter Gabriel (for Atco), having left Genesis in 1975. Genesis, one of the prototypical progressive rock bands of the early 1970s, was known for its elaborate stage shows and psychodramatic pyrotechnics sparked in large part by Gabriel’s magnetic stage presence, vocal abilities, and wonderfully imaginative songwriting; the zenith of Genesis’ early period of activity was their 1974 rock opera, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway.

    Fripp had ambivalent feelings about returning to active involvement in music, and hence felt obliged to stipulate to Gabriel that he would be free to withdraw after three days if his presence turned out not to be “appropriate.” In the studio sessions themselves, although he got along well enough with producer Bob Ezrin, Fripp felt constricted musically, unable to express himself fluently. He found himself caught on the horns of a dilemma: “After three days, having discovered it wasn’t appropriate, I didn’t want to leave. I didn’t want to leave my friends to be ravaged.”
    Fripp’s contributions to Gabriel’s first album are minimal: discreet touches here and there on electric guitar, classical guitar, and banjo.

    The following year, Gabriel invited Fripp to produce his second album (also titled Peter Gabriel, but on the Atlantic label). Comparing the two albums side by side reveals vastly different production values. With Ezrin Gabriel had cultivated a wide-open approach: huge orchestral textures, ample synthesizer padding, cavernous drum fills, exotic percussion, luscious reverb and echo on the vocal tracks, a sense of limitless expansive spaces, of gigantism and melodrama.

    If Peter Gabriel 1977 sounds like it was recorded in a heavenly cathedral, Peter Gabriel 1978 sounds like it comes out of a dingy garage: Fripp persuaded Gabriel to cut back drastically on the electronically-induced spaciousness and instead opt for the close, tight, dry, realistic “live”-type sound King Crimson’s recorded music had nearly always had – the production strategy Fripp was later to call audio verite.

    Perhaps Fripp succeeded (however temporarily) in bringing the sound of Gabriel’s music closer to “reality” – out of the inflatedly progressive early 1970s into the stripped-down late 1970s. But in the long view, I’m not sure Fripp in his role as producer, in his zeal for sonic sobriety and acoustical honesty, fully appreciated the nature of Gabriel’s talents – Gabriel the superb harmonist, the luxuriant-dream-weaver, the transcendental vocalist, the peerless timbralist and rock song-texture-crafter.

    It might not be stretching it too much to say that Fripp has essentially never accepted the making of records as a valid artistic medium in its own right, but rather views the whole studio process as a necessary evil whose sole purpose is to produce inevitably second-rate reproductions of the real thing, live music. Peter Gabriel 1978 shows us a very Frippicized Gabriel, as though Fripp was doing his utmost to incorporate Gabriel into his own scheme of things. In the long view, I think we should be thankful he didn’t succeed.

    In addition to producing the album, Fripp played on many of the pieces; he shines particularly brightly in the angular electric guitar solo on “White Shadow” and in the cascading, foreboding Frippertronics of “Exposure,” a song he co-wrote with Gabriel.

    Living in New York City

    After the 1976 sessions with Gabriel, Fripp returned to England to work on editing taped Bennett lectures and preparing them for publication. Even after what he called the “very demoralizing and depressing experience” of working on Peter Gabriel I in Canada, Fripp agreed to do some shows with Gabriel in America in February 1977. At the beginning Fripp, not quite ready for full exposure, sat offstage and played guitar hidden from the audience’s view; by the end of the tour he was performing onstage with the rest of the band. Immediately before the tour, Fripp had moved to New York City, which would remain, as he put it, his “center of gravity” for the next several years.

    The downtown Manhattan arts and music scene seems to thrive and stagnate in cycles. In the late 1970s it was thriving on a peculiar constellation of elements – ideas about art and cross-pollination between the arts – as well as a rich crop of talent: Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and Glenn Branca’s music mixing classicism and minimalism, sophistication and rawness; the futuristic tongue-in-cheek moral fables of multi-media artist Laurie Anderson; the strange otherworldly theatrical warblings of Meredith Monk; the stage productions of Robert Wilson. And then there was the punk explosion.

    Though musical and spiritual precursors of punk can be seen in the Beatles’ riotous early Hamburg performances, in 1960s American garage/garbage rock, in the Velvet Underground, the New York Dolls, MC5, Iggy Pop and the Stooges, Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band, and even King Crimson (“Schizoid Man” and much of KC III), punk rock proper (and the lighter, more melodic and danceable new wave) came down like an avalanche in 1975-1977 and the following years with Patti Smith, the Ramones, Talking Heads, and Television leading the way in New York City. Fripp’s friend Brian Eno was in New York a great deal from 1978 to 1980, producing Talking Heads, Devo, and compiling the punk anthology No New York.

    Without rehashing the millions of words that have been written on the meaning of the punk movement in the U.S.A. and the U.K., I might say here simply that punk was, among many other things, a repudiation of the values, styles, and tastes of the corporate music industry: punk was putting music back in the hands of the people, at least in the movement’s early stages. The early punk and new wave bands were intent on slaying the establishment-corporation-Goliath-dinosaur; and to Robert Fripp, the prototypical punk band seemed to represent something close to the “small, mobile, independent, intelligent unit” he had prophesied in 1974.

    Downtown New York around 1977 was in artistic/musical ferment characterized by a fluid mixing of genres, forms, and media, as yet mostly untainted by the commercial cynicism and big-bucks mentality that had toppled many musicians of rock’s first three generations (1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s). Fripp was drawn to this center of activity as a hunk of red iron ore to a magnet. He was determined, moreover, not to play the role of one of the grand old men of rock, not to entertain any illusions of self-importance, not to indulge in any of the trappings of the star’s lifestyle. To ground himself firmly in reality, he drew up three personal rules for living in New York: he would use only public transportation, do his own laundry, and do his own grocery shopping.

    Settling into a loft in the Bowery, two blocks away from CBGB, Fripp surveyed the cultural jungle scenery as a prelude to beginning a new phase of work, although it would still be a while before he would officially come out of retirement. Although little is known about his day-to-day movements in New York in 1977, it was during June of that year that what Fripp has called his “own work” with the tape-loop-delay system, or Frippertronics, began. Fripp formally defined Frippertronics in 1980 as “that musical experience resulting at the interstice of Robert Fripp and a small, mobile and appropriate level of technology, vis. his guitar, Frippelboard [effects pedal board] and two Revoxes [reel-to-reel tape recorders].”

    The musical uses to which Frippertronics were put will be noted and elaborated on in due course, but for the moment the image to dwell upon is that of Robert Fripp experimenting with and fine-tuning the Frippertronics process in the summer of 1977, in his New York loft and occasionally in actual studios. It was around this time that he began saving particular Frippertronics improvisations on tape that would pop up later on his solo album, Exposure – for instance “Water Music II,” recorded in July 1977 at the House of Music in New Jersey.

    With David Bowie

    On numerous occasions Fripp has told with relish the story of how, in late July 1977, David Bowie and Brian Eno coaxed him out of quiescence. One version goes like this: “I was in New York and I got a phone call one Saturday night: ‘Hello, it’s Brian. I’m here in Berlin with David. Hold on, I’ll hand you over.’ So Mr. B. came on the line and said, ‘We tried playing guitars ourselves; it’s not working. Do you think you can come in and play some burning rock’n’roll guitar?’ I said, ‘Well, I haven’t really played guitar for three years … but I’ll have a go!’“ (DeCurtis 1984, 22).

    At Bowie’s “Heroes” sessions in Berlin, Fripp was able to open up musically once more. He enjoyed the freedom Bowie gave him: Bowie would roll a tape he’d been working on, and Fripp would simply ad lib straight over the top, with little or no premeditation or planning. The first song Fripp played on was “Beauty and the Beast,” the album’s opener; Fripp describes his contribution as “a creative high spot” for him – “I had an opportunity to be what I was with a guitar.” (DeCurtis 1984, 22) Run through Eno’s “sky saw” treatments, which lend them a sort of digital-age wah-wah sonority, Fripp’s guitar lines seethe with educated rock primitivism – too bad they weren’t mixed louder. A different, magisterially restrained Fripp appears on the title track, “Heroes”: here the guitarist makes maximum use of a minimalistic handful of notes, providing a melancholy ostinato against which Bowie’s vocal posturings unfold in all their desperate glory.

    “Heroes” occupies a special place in David Bowie’s musical development: the album’s B side in particular shows the chameleon-like poseur at the height of his experimental musical tendencies – the instrumental pieces “Sense of Doubt,” “Moss Garden,” and “Neukoln” being among the most compositionally interesting pieces he has ever produced. Rock music is only partly about musical composition, of course, and in subsequent work Bowie was to lapse back into more familiar musical territory. Fripp later contributed guitar parts to Bowie’s “Scary Monsters” and “Fashion.”

    In 1987 Fripp said, “The solo on Bowie’s ‘Fashion’ happened at 10:30 in the morning after a long drive back from Leeds gigging with The League of Gentlemen. There’s nothing you feel less like in the world than turning out a burning solo – fiery rock and roll at 10:30 in the morning – just out of a truck. But it doesn’t matter much how you feel, you just get on with it.” (Diliberto 1987, 50).

    In Allan Jones’s entertaining Melody Maker interview from 1979, Fripp expounded on what he perceived as the similarities between himself, Bowie, and Eno. This trio of rock renegades, according to Fripp, were of similar age and “more or less working-class backgrounds.” They were all keen self-promoters. But at the same time, “each of us finds it difficult to accept the responsibility of having feelings. So we tend to work toward cerebration and bodily involvement rather than the exposure of one’s feelings.” (Jones 1979, 60).

    With Daryl Hall

    Immediately after his work with Bowie and Eno in Berlin, Fripp deepened his involvement in the music industry by undertaking to produce a solo album for Daryl Hall of Hall and Oates, the pop/rock/R&B duo that in the mid-1970s helped define the “Philadelphia sound.” In 1976 Hall and Oates had a string of hits with “She’s Gone,” “Sara Smile,” and “Rich Girl.” David Bowie, of course, had flirted with the Philadelphia phenomenon, having recorded the double live album David Live in Philly in 1974, and having cut 1975’s Young Americans in that city’s Sigma Sound Studios.

    “Fame,” from Young Americans, was Bowie’s first number one hit in the States – co-written by Bowie, John Lennon, and guitarist Carlos Alomar, the song stood for years as a paradigm of white disco music.
    Sacred Songs, the 1977 Hall/Fripp collaboration, however, represented a major departure from the commercial white soul style for the Philadelphia-born Hall. So different from the Hall & Oates sound was it that RCA records and Hall’s personal manager decided against putting it out. Fripp proceeded to wage a protracted battle for the album’s release, distributing tapes to industry contacts and urging people to write letters to the president of RCA. Sacred Songs eventually came out in 1979 – a bittersweet triumph for Fripp, who had originally conceived the album as part of a grand trilogy, the other parts being the Peter Gabriel’s Fripp-produced second solo album and Fripp’s own “Exposure.”

    In 1979, Fripp opined that “Had Sacred Songs been released when it was made, it would have put Daryl in a different category, with the Bowies and the Enos. Coming out now, it couldn’t have the same impact.” (Holden 1980, 20) (There will be more to say on Fripp’s planned triology in the section on Exposure below.)

    Hall and Fripp had met in Toronto in September 1974. In spite of their very different musical backgrounds, they hit it off personally and admired each others’ approach to music; from the beginning of their relationship they discussed the possibility of working together. In August 1977 Hall called Fripp from New York’s Hit Factory studios to ask if he would come in and put down some guitar lines. Fresh from the Bowie/Eno sessions in Berlin, Fripp warmed to the task with such enthusiasm that he was immediately made producer.

    Both Hall and Fripp recall the sessions fondly. Fripp called the situation “a beautiful working experience,” (Jones 1979A, 20) and waxed on the quality and honesty of Hall’s songs. He also offered a typically Frippian compliment, saying “Hall is the first singer I’ve met who can sing anything at all the way I ask him.” (Holden 1980, 20) For Hall it was a refreshing experience: “I have never made music as easily as I did with Robert.” Commenting on what had come to seem to him the “cold and sterile” Philadelphia veneer of Hall and Oates’s studio efforts, Hall stressed the artistic freedom he felt in the Sacred Songs sessions, saying that Fripp and he were able to “achieve a very spontaneous sound.” (Orme 1977, 29)
    According to Hall, Sacred Songs “is mostly me and Robert. We did the basic rhythm tracks, me on piano and Robert on guitar, and then Caleb [Quaye, guitar], Roger [Pope, drums] and Kenny [Passarelli, bass] came along and played.” (Orme 1977, 29) The album contains moments of gentle tenderness, for instance the inexpressibly melancholy electric piano/Frippertronics duet in “The Farther Away I Am.”

    Other song types include soulful, economically scored ballads and straight-ahead rock and roll. Fripp’s audio verite approach to production values continued: little or no artificial reverb on the vocals, drums that sound like real drums, true-to-life dynamic range and stereo balance, and an overall band sound that’s brilliant if not quite brittle, dry if not quite parched.

    A full critical appraisal of Sacred Songs would have to take into detailed account the lyrics, the different song types, Hall’s prodigious if mannered vocal gymnastics and other factors. While passing on such an appraisal, I would point out that the album’s most significant musical innovation is its integration of Frippertronics into an assortment of rock styles. At the time of its making, Sacred Songs represented the first recorded use of Frippertronics, and the eerie, haunting results can make one’s hair stand on end, notably on Side One’s suite, “Babs and Babs – Urban Landscape – NYCNY.” Hall put it aptly when he said, “When he plays it sounds like the universe crying.” (Orme 1977, 29).

    With his work on Hall’s Sacred Songs album in late 1977, Fripp’s involvement with the music industry picked up momentum, and it was only a matter of time before he would officially acknowledge that he had come out of retirement. In November, he laid down a track for the song “Exposure” at Relight Studios. Between January 1978 and January 1979 he worked on the recording and mixing of the album Exposure at New York’s Hit Factory.

    At the Kitchen

    On Sunday, February 5, 1978, Fripp made his first official solo appearance in over three years, at the Kitchen in Soho: this was also the first time he used the name “Frippertronics” for his tape-delay system. The concert came about almost by accident: originally Fripp and Joanna Walton had intended to give an intimate performance for invited friends in Walton’s apartment; evidently they feared it might get too noisy, and moved the event to the Kitchen. (Liner notes to GSQ/UHM)

    The concert was written up in the Village Voice by John Piccarella, who describes the atmosphere of anticipation, long lines of people waiting to get in wrapped around the block in the cold. Fripp, perhaps wishing to defuse some of his own anxiety as well as to brace the audience for some very un-King-Crimsonish music, began by comparing his new music to intimate “salon” music; he reportedly “reserved the right to be boring and unintelligent.” (Piccarella 1978, 54).

    The sound, if not the ineffable presence and ambiance, of this event has been preserved on a two-LP bootleg, Pleasures in Pieces. This curious artifact contains five Frippertronics pieces, starkly titled “The First,” “The Second,” “The Third,” “The Fourth,” and “The Fifth,” as well as a text-music piece by Walton, Fripp, and others, which functioned as an interlude between two Frippertronic sets. Piccarella described Walton’s piece as follows: “A taped series of quotations from linguistic philosophers was rendered both sensible and ridiculous by a series of silent physical performances. ‘Oblique Strategies,’ the set of directional cards written by Eno and Peter Schmidt, were circulated among several performers whose movements were, presumably, improvised according to the cards presented. One woman wrote on a large screen what appeared to be transcriptions, literal or otherwise, of the words on the cards …” (Piccarella 1978, 56).

    The Frippertronics improvisations from this concert are among the very finest I have heard, quite outstripping similar efforts on Let the Power Fall and other records. Particularly noteworthy are the almost constant changes of texture, from drone-based to melodic/motivic to harmonic, so that the overall mass of sound, though formed out of almost endless repetition of fragments, tends to develop significantly from one minute to the next. Fripp’s potential for seemingly unending flights of melodic imagination is nowhere more evident. From a musician’s point of view, I find Fripp’s control of mode and key in these pieces masterful. “The First,” for instance, begins with staccato points outlining the F-major triad; a short melodic riff C-Db-Eb introduces a menace of F-minor modality; before long, the note Gb darkly plays against the prevailing F tonic; A and Ab make explicit the tension between major and minor; eventually, after many ambiguities and modal excursions, the music slides effortlessly into Bb major, and later into Gb major.

    Reading through certain pieces in Bach’s late monument to strict polyphony, The Art of the Fugue, at the keyboard, I have a vision that the Baroque master was in effect thinking in several keys at once, that the nominal tonic of D minor is expanded to embrace a whole system or complex of closely-related keys – A minor, F major, E minor, G, C, and so on – which magically cohere to form one unified super-key or super-mode through which Bach leads his lines with effortless grace. Something similar happens in Frippertronics from time to time, Frippertronics, like fugue, being an art-form of (technological) imitative polyphony. In less technical language (though what is music theory if not a language of the spirit?), Piccarella summed up Fripp’s Kitchen soloing as “dazzling, wandering up and down scales like John Coltrane, bending and screaming atonalities like Schoenberg gone punk. He warps notes into imaginary territory the way television spills electrons into an image.” (Piccarella 1978, 56).

    The Drive to 1981

    By September 11, 1978, Fripp considered himself prepared to launch a new phase of his career. On that date he began what he dubbed “The Drive to 1981,” which he was to describe as “A campaign on three levels: firstly, in the marketplace but not governed by the values of the marketplace; secondly, as a means of examining and presenting a number of ideas which are close to my heart; thirdly, as a personal discipline.” (Liner notes to God Save the Queen) The end of the Drive to 1981 was timed to coincide with an event of astrological significance, an alignment of the planets to take place on September 11, 1981, at which time, Fripp evidently believed, mankind was in for an awakening of apocalyptic import. (Schruers 1979, 16).

    In concrete terms, the three-year Drive to 1981 spanned a number of projects: Exposure; the 1979 Frippertronics tour and the Frippertronic recordings Let the Power Fall and God Save the Queen/Under Heavy Manners (“Discotronics”); the League of Gentlemen tours (1980) and The League of Gentlemen album; the formation of King Crimson IV (Spring 1981); an extensive series of articles written by Fripp for Musician, Player and Listener (later simply Musician) magazine, beginning in January 1980; and miscellaneous session and production work, including producing “The Roches” 1978 debut album (Fripp also performed live with the Roches from time to time and produced their 1982 album Keep On Doing) and sessions with the Screamers, Blondie, violinist Walter Steding, and Janis Ian. Not bad for three years of work.


    Exposure’s extensive liner notes begin with Fripp’s comment, “This album was originally conceived as the third part of an MOR trilogy with Daryl Hall’s solo album ‘Sacred Songs’ and Peter Gabriel II both of which I produced and to which I contributed. With the non-release of ‘Sacred Songs’ and the delay by dinosaurs of this album it is impossible to convey the sense which I had intended.” Fripp goes on to say that the original trilogy will be replaced by a new one all by him: “Exposure,” “Frippertronics,” and “Discotronics.”

    Having pondered for some years what Fripp’s original “intent” might have been with the Hall-Gabriel-Exposure trilogy, I would guess that it had something to do with a concept of a fluid collective music-making situation: three musicians working on each others’ albums, sharing songwriting and arrangement duties, the result being three different yet recognizably parallel musical statements – in short, something similar to the King Crimson idea as it had evolved in 1969 and the early 1970s, though without the obligation of presenting the collective to the public as an actual band.

    Fripp offered another angle on his intent: “What I was trying to do in the original trilogy was to investigate the ‘pop song’ as a means of expression … I think it’s a supreme discipline to know that you have three to four minutes to get together all your lost emotions and find words of one syllable or less to put forward all your ideas. It’s a discipline of form that I don’t think is cheap or shoddy.” (Jones 1979A, 60).

    As we have seen, a couple of Exposure’s tracks go back to 1977, but real work on the album began at the Hit Factory in New York in January 1978. By August Fripp had effectively finished the album; Daryl Hall had sung on most of the songs. In September, while already in the process of mastering the record, Fripp was confronted with contractual problems that prevented Hall from appearing on Exposure in such a prominent role. Hall would be allowed to sing on only two tracks, and this meant that much of Exposure would have to be re-made. Fripp recalls, “I was thoroughly demoralized and depressed. My life was completely knocked askew.” (Jones 1979A, 60).

    Fripp responded to the crisis by calling up his old friend Peter Hammill, who agreed to fly to New York and sing for Exposure; Hammill appears on “You Burn Me Up I’m a Cigarette,” “Disengage,” and “Chicago.” Plans to have Blondie’s Deborah Harry sing a version of Donna Summers’ “I Feel Love” were nixed by Chrysalis Records. But by hook or by crook, Fripp managed to finish the revamped Exposure by January 1979, and the album was released later that year. Fripp’s original title for Exposure had been The Last of the Great New York Heart-Throbs, and he had gone so far as to have himself photographed for the album cover with the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall. On the album that was eventually released, we see a serious and dapper Fripp, looking tight-lipped and intensely straight at the camera, clean-shaven and under a head of hair cut sharply new-wave style by Mary Lou Green (in whose New York salon Fripp would sometimes set up his tape decks and engage customers in “Barbertronics.”) Into the disc itself was impressed the inscription “1981 is the Year of the Fripp.”

    FRIPP : “Exposure” (vinyl special édition)

    • Robert Fripp: guitar and Frippertronics
    • Barry Andrews (formerly of XTC): keyboards
    • Phil Collins: drums
    • Peter Hammill: vocals
    • Daryl Hall: vocals
    • Peter Gabriel: vocals and piano
    • Brian Eno: synthesizer
    • Tony Levin: bass
    • Terre Roche: vocals
    • Jerry Marotta: drums
    • Sid McGinness: guitar
    • Narada Michael Walden: drums

    Exposure has eight tracks on Side One and nine on Side Two – decidedly a gesture against the Crimsoid/progressive rock tendency toward musical statements of interminably epic proportions. But taken as a whole, Exposure has the effect of a collage illuminating Fripp’s diverse musical and non-musical preoccupations in 1978: it is, as Fripp himself said in 1979, “a psychological autobiography about what caused me to leave the music business and what happened while I was out of it and coming back into it amid total confusion.” (Fricke 1979, 25) The collage-effect is heightened by the frequent splicing-in of bits of conversation, radio broadcasts, neighbors’ arguments, lectures by spiritual leaders, concrete sounds, breathing noises, even an interview Fripp conducted with his mother Mrs. Edith Fripp on the subject of his toilet training.

    Exposure is a synthesis of styles and ideas, and a concept album to boot. Fripp himself was proud of and pleased with his achievement: in 1979 he said Exposure “continues to surprise me in the sense that it’s so good … it works so completely.” Whether history will endorse Fripp’s assessment that Exposure was, in 1979, “in terms of its genre, conceivably the best record in the past five years, perhaps longer,” we should probably let history itself decide. (Jones 1979A, 60) We can acknowledge the brilliance of the record’s execution and the spirit of innovation that pervades the work; but one problem with calling it the best record in its genre lies in its very uniqueness. When something creates a category for itself, does it belong to any “genre”? And Exposure is, if anything, impossible to classify – perhaps we could call it Fripp’s Sergeant Pepper …

    Being the great Robert Fripp’s first major release since 1974, Exposure was greeted with a deluge of attention in the rock press. Jon Pareles noted the way the Frippertronics sound was used to unify the album’s almost perversely disparate song styles. Wrote Pareles in the Village Voice: “The self-indulgence, the pomposity, the shilling for Bennett, even [Fripp’s] referring to himself in the third person (a Gurdjieff-inspired exercise) can’t mar the delicacy of ‘Mary’ or the brute force of ‘I May Not Have Enough of Me But I’ve Had Enough of You.’” (Pareles 1979, 49) Michael Watts, writing for Melody Maker, called Exposure “stimulating,” revealing “more of Fripp’s personality than any record has … before. A truly original work, it satisfies these head, heart, and hips [sic].” (Watts 1979, 19) Tom Carson, in the course of a 1980 Rolling Stone review of God Save the Queen/Under Heavy Manners, wrote that Exposure had “clicked as an amusing grab bag: a portrait of the artist as an intellectual hustler.” (Carson 1980, 56).

    The reviews were not wholly acclamatory, and some were as mystifying as the music itself. Gary Kenton, writing for Creem, judged that Fripp hadn’t really advanced musically beyond his King Crimson days: “what was interesting, even avant-garde in the late 60’s only grates now.” (Kenton 1979, 56.) (One wonders how well Kenton studied the record or how much he knew about Fripp; he apparently thought it was Fripp singing on “Disengage” and “North Star.”) Jim Farber, also writing for Creem, ridiculed Fripp’s flirtations with “hifalutin’“ intellectuality (as allegedly epitomized by Fripp’s use of Eno’s Oblique Strategies in the 1978 Kitchen concert), yet celebrated the return, on Exposure, of “those classic Fripp mother-raping guitar lines.” (Farber 1978, 26) Michael Bloom’s Rolling Stone review was ambivalent. Bloom held Fripp “the artist” in “considerable respect.” He wrote that Exposure was “brimming with good ideas and experimental intentions. Regrettably, all the cleverness boils away, and the music seems slapdash and thin – more like a session player’s first tentative record than the work of a ten-year-plus veteran of demanding progressive music.” (Bloom 1979, 56).

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