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Robert Fripp, the amazing guitarist (6): KING CRIMSON IV and Andy Summers
In the late fall of 1980, Fripp wanted a new top-notch band, but he had no conscious intention of re-forming King Crimson. King Crimson, he would always insist, was not something that anyone had the power deliberately to re-form. Rather, borrowing a classification scheme from British soccer leagues, he conceptualized the new band as a “first division” venture. Ever fond of systematized lists, Fripp saw three qualitatively different kinds of music-making:
1) Third division. Artistic research and development, a “civilized” style of life, and little or no financial remuneration. Where ideas and art exist and are experimented with for their own sake.
2) Second division. Gainful employment as a working professional musician; respectability and a certain level of commercial success, but little impact on mass culture: “You won’t change the world.”
3) First division. Exposure at the level of the mass media, with all its rewards and risks. For better or for worse, you become a mythical figure on the screen of contemporary consciousness. Access to the best musicians and to all current ideas, musical trends, and technologies. “Total commitment of belief, energy, life-style and time.” (See Fripp 1981B, 40 and Grabel 1982, 58)
It was an admirably logical progression: Frippertronics, third division; League of Gentlemen, second division; King-Crimson-IV-to-be, first division. Fripp’s theory of the three divisions is not however without its apparent contradictions. First division sounds suspiciously like mass culture, radio-formula music for youth markets (who buy most of the records), leveling of taste at the lowest common denominator, corporate rock – in short, anti-art; whereas all music that is really any good in an artistic sense is shuttled off into the culturally all-but-invisible third division, as “research and development.”
It is necessary to recall Fripp’s distinction between mass and popular culture. He thought of mass culture as when the music is awful and everybody goes “Yeah!” and of popular culture as when the music is great and everybody goes “Yeah!” As has been observed more than once in these pages, Fripp firmly believed in rock as the most dynamic – and hence potentially “popular” in the positive sense – music of our time. And hence good music in the first division – the Beatles, Hendrix – carried a unique potential. The saga of King Crimson’s public reception from beginning to end can be considered a case study of the degree to which first division music can be artistically “advanced”: how unconventional can the artist be before mass audiences, which apparently can be manipulated into saying “Yeah!” to almost anything, cease to be able to appreciate the artist’s work?
First division bands have a unique opportunity to experiment with massive energies at the level of the psychological collective, because in a real sense they are among the mythical gods and heroes of our time, embodying and acting out the archetypal quests of our culture, whether this takes place for good (at the conscious level of all concerned) or for evil (at the unconscious level). First division bands, plus all the other public, political, and otherwise popular personages of our time, together make up a grand star map by means of which the impartial observer can read the constellated meaning of our collective life and judge our state of psychological health or illness. First division bands become actors in a cosmic drama, figures in a pantheon no less real and functional than the gods and goddesses of ancient Greece (or any other ancient civilization).
This carries enormous hazards and responsibilities, of which Fripp was acutely aware. As he wrote, among the potential dangers for the individual first division musician are loss of health, sanity, and soul in the deluge of public acclaim and denigration: on the one hand, being torn apart by negative judgements, bad reviews, poor audience response – and on the other hand having adoring fans consider you to be personally deific, and starting, as the saying goes, to believe your own press releases.
Discipline: The Band
Fripp’s account of the re-birth of King Crimson was published in Musician as a running column, “The Diary of King Crimson.” (Fripp 1981B, Fripp 1981C, Fripp 1982A) Fripp called up Bill Bruford, who since the breakup of King Crimson III in 1974 had made three solo albums which had less than a compelling impact on fans and critics. In late 1980 or early 1981 Fripp and Bruford met at the latter’s house. According to Fripp, the two “talked frankly about what I have in mind, musically and industrially, for the group.” (Fripp 1981B, 41)
In Bruford’s account of the meeting, Fripp “asked me, ‘What would you do if I did this?’ I’d say I’d do something and he’d say, ‘Wrong, try something else.’ We didn’t talk about it all that much … when musicians get together they tend to play their instruments more than they talk.” Evidently there was creative tension between drummer and guitarist from the outset. But this time around, Bruford tried to distance himself from Fripp’s inevitable philosophizing: for him a new band had to be fun. He said, “I just hope we look at the cheerful, optimistic side of this and don’t take ourselves too seriously – just play some music and don’t get too carried away with discussion. I don’t want people to feel they need a Ph.D. in behavioral sciences to understand King Crimson. It’s not like that.” (Fricke 1982, 25)
Around the same time, Fripp made a call to Adrian Belew, a versatile guitar colorist who had worked with Frank Zappa, David Bowie, and Talking Heads. Belew’s own group Gaga had played five gigs in support of the League of Gentlemen. Belew, from a slightly younger generation of rock musicians, held Bruford and Fripp in the highest esteem, and was initially star-struck at the prospect of working with these giants, feeling he had to play catch-up to get on their musical level. For his part, Fripp indicated by choosing Belew that he envisioned a completely new and different band sound – never before had Fripp been in a working band with another guitarist, but at this point he was hatching a number of musical ideas specifically designed for two guitars.
The name of the new group was to be Discipline. For a bass player, Bruford suggested Jeff Berlin, with whom he had worked extensively. Eavesdropping on a Bruford/Berlin session, Fripp was impressed but decided their collective style was not what he wanted – it was too, as he put it, “busy.” (Fripp 1981B, 41) So with Belew on tour with Talking Heads, in February 1981 Fripp and Bruford went to New York in search of a bassist. At the auditions, Bruford would pop in a cassette of a 17/8 riff and the would-be Discipline bassist would be asked to play it back. This in itself was sufficient to sort out as it were the men from the boys, but Fripp was also looking for a certain quality in the very person of the bassist.
On the third day of auditions, Tony Levin came by. Levin was a perennially active session player whose credits included work on Lennon and Ono’s Double Fantasy and touring with Peter Gabriel. Fripp, fully aware of Levin’s reputation and credentials, had assumed Levin too busy to consider joining a new band, otherwise he “would have been my first call.” (Fripp 1981B, 41)
Besides bass, Levin could play the Chapman stick, an electric instrument with five higher strings played by the right hand and five lower strings played by the left. Stick technique involves elements of both of guitar and keyboard fingering: as on piano, widely-spaced chord voicings and simultaneous independent melodic lines can be negotiated, while the player’s fingers’ direct contact with the strings makes possible bent notes, vibrato, and other subtleties of guitar technique. Fed through various kinds of electronic processing equipment, the stick is capable of producing a wide array of timbres.
The musicians of Discipline were in place. Early exploratory rehearsals, under way by March or April, were inspiring for Fripp. In the rush of ideas and musical camaraderie, he wrote that “Music can present a picture of the ideal society and bring it a step nearer … If one views music as a blueprint for an ideal society, how the society of players organize themselves has to be in step with the imaginary society presented in the music they play.” (Fripp 1981B, 42) In spite of all the optimism, within three years this band would come apart like the others Fripp had worked in and believed so much in, and for similar reasons. Fripp – earnest architect of doomed utopias?
With Discipline, at any rate, he was from the outset aware of a certain personal paradox, which he discussed with the group’s members, describing it as “my problem of having a firm idea of what the band should sound like but not wanting to be a band leader.” (Fripp 1981B, 42) The idea of an autocratic band leader contradicted everything he saw himself standing for in the way of a creative, collective music-making process. If he let himself become a band leader, he would be no different from all those Western musicians who in presumptuously designating themselves Composers with a capital “C” had succeeded over the past two hundred years or more only in sucking the life out of classical music, turning performers into score-deafly-reading automatons, and audiences into sheep all too willing to wallow in pathetic hero-worship under the guise of initiated appreciation of the Great Music of the Masters. Yep, Fripp had a problem.
But for the moment, the sheer pleasure of practicing music with the new band was enough. Fripp’s “Diary” bursts with enthusiasm when describing the sessions. The very first encounter with Levin, at the afternoon “audition,” Fripp described as “one of the best musical experiences of my life.” (Fripp 1981B, 41) He called the two-guitar sound at the first official rehearsal, on April 2nd, “fabulous.” Together the group “began to sound like a rock gamelan.” (Fripp 1981B, 42) (The playing of the gamelan orchestras of Indonesia features tightly interlocking rhythmic and motivic patterns on an assortment of xylophones, pitched bells, and other instruments; Indonesian scales correspond to no Western well-tempered equivalents, and lend the music a harmonic sheen of exotic piquancy.)
In the rehearsals’ better moments, the leadership question seemed to work itself out; Fripp wrote that the role of leader “shifts among the players.
There’s often good anarchism, where we all have our own parts, eachworth listening to and autonomous, but played together. The listener can switch attention from one instrument to another.” (Fripp 1981B, 46)
By April 22, the group had some sixty-five minutes of presentable music (Fripp 1982A, 35), and on April 30th they played their first gig, at Moles restaurant in Bath. Fripp was throwing himself into the music and the development of ideas for its presentation and marketing with all his energy, and his published “Diary” reflects his mood swings, which tended to follow the quality of rehearsals. One day he would be elated; another he would write, “I’m exhausted, irritable and just hanging in there.” (Fripp 1982A, 103)
As far as the music was concerned, Fripp’s main battles were with Bruford, over finding an appropriate drumming style. Fripp described Bruford as a vigorous and expressive drummer with a never-ending flow of ideas; the problem for Fripp was how to get Bruford to calm down, to play less, to trust that the music’s structure called not for lots of fancy fills and dramatic, dynamic phrase articulations but rather for restraint, control, and less busy-ness.
Fripp was concerned that the rhythmic subtleties of the guitar, bass, and stick parts not be covered up by drum thrashing. In a long list of suggestions for Bruford, which he published for the world to see in his Musician column, Fripp advised, “If you fill space, you deprive the band of space, or other musicians the opportunity for filling space.” (Fripp 1981B, 48)
Bruford had been emotionally bruised by Fripp’s breaking up King Crimson III in 1974, an action which in 1982 Bruford said he still didn’t understand. Having played the part of the “jilted lover,” as he put it, in the breakup of KC III, he was understandably wary of investing too much emotionally in the new band. But he welcomed the renewed opportunity to play with Fripp and company, figuring to learn enough in three years with the band to keep him busy for five or more after that.
Bruford spoke of the band members dealing gingerly with Fripp at first, nervous that the wrong note or attitude might result in the collapse of the whole project: according to Bruford, Fripp “was returning to the battlefield and I don’t think anyone wanted to scare him off.” (Fricke 1982, 25) As the group’s work together developed, Bruford rose to the challenge of dealing with Fripp’s very specific ideas for the group sound, and even seemed to thrive on their prickly exchanges. Of Fripp’s list of suggestions for his drumming, Bruford said, in a 1982 interview, “It starts out as a stream of negatives first off, which cracks many a lesser man. ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that, and I suggest you don’t do this. By the way, I also recommend you don’t do that.’ You’re in a prison and you’ve got to find your way out of things. I quite like that. I must be a masochist or something, but I don’t feel right unless I’m imprisoned and told to find a way around it. That’s the challenge.” (Fricke 1982, 25)
With Belew, Fripp’s concern was the reverse: how to coax him out into the open, how to encourage him to contribute genuine aspects of his own musical personality to a group which he initially felt was playing at a level way over his head. It was up to Belew to deliver lyrics and vocal lines for existing instrumentals the group had worked up, and in time he began to find his voice. Fripp was constantly impressed with Levin’s musicianship and personal qualities; the bass player, whom Fripp described as the best he’d ever worked with, seemed to have a certain solid, silent strength. Fripp wrote that “Tony is always on: he doesn’t seem to have our concerns.” (Fripp 1982A, 103)
King Crimson Born Again
During rehearsals the sense that Fripp, Bruford, Belew, and Levin were King Crimson had been creeping up on Fripp little by little, and he struggled over whether or not to use the name. On the negative side, calling the group King Crimson could set up false audience expectations and kindle attitudes that Fripp had tried to lay permanently to rest in 1974; it would also inevitably be perceived as a shameless publicity ploy. On the other hand, King Crimson – the idea, the name – had earned a certain iconic status in popular culture, and represented for Fripp a source of powerful energies waiting to be tapped.
The Americans in the group – Belew and Levin – were uncomfortable with the name Discipline, though prepared to put up with it if Fripp insisted. Belew explained: “For me, being the kind of person I am, I’m not real disciplined, I’m kinda loose, and being an American, the
term discipline is not a good, friendly, outgoing term, you know. It’s not the kind of thing I would call the band. And Tony felt the same way.” (Dallas 1981B, 27) Bruford was glad to reclaim the King Crimson name, though he did wish to distance himself somewhat from Frippian philosophics: “I’m honoured. It was an honourable name … Mel Collins may have come and gone and Keith Tippett may have come and gone and Boz Burrell may have come and gone, but basically this thing, King Crimson, continues, because there was a spirit about it and an attractive way of thinking about music, some ground rules, which continue. Robert will talk endlessly about icons and things, but to us plain Englishmen it just seems a very good idea for a group and we’ve reharnessed this, we’ve kind of gone back into it.” (Dallas 1981B, 27)
In a press release coinciding with the release of Discipline in September 1981, Fripp stated that “It was never my intention to re-form King Crimson, that eclectic, forward-looking band of unsettling nature.” Anticipating a cynical reception from critics who would deem him “an opportunist turkey, a fraud, and a charlatan,” he offered several answers to the question of why the group was calling itself King Crimson. The most cogent and direct was that “King Crimson has a life of its own, despite what its members say and do. Any thought-form which attracts interest becomes partly iconic, and since the group ‘ceased to exist’ in 1974 interest has continued. At the beginning of rehearsals during the first week of April, I recognized this potential hovering behind the band, an available energy if we chose to plug in.” (The full text of the press release is printed in Barber 1981A.) Fripp’s recognition of this “available energy” was a direct and palpable experience: one day, driving over to Bruford’s house, he felt it hovering above his head to the left.
The moment when Discipline became King Crimson occurred near Paris when the band was touring France. Fripp, Bruford, and Belew were talking over the name situation on their tour bus, and it emerged that they wished to be known as King Crimson. When Levin came in, they asked how he felt about it, and he agreed. Over the next few years, most critics seemed to accept the King Crimson Name: it was as legitimate as any other top-notch band formed by Robert Fripp.
Debra Rae Cohen, reviewing a November 1981 concert at the Savoy, wrote in the Village Voice: “On stage, each member has a distinctive presence – Bruford, the drummer-jock, powerful behind his kit, Tony Levin looming in his spotlit virtuosity; Fripp seated, purposely in shadow; most importantly, Adrian Belew as charming frontperson.” (Cohen 1981, 57) Fripp may have been the band’s effective leader, but onstage he was as inscrutable and undemonstrative as ever; it fell to Belew to flirt actively with the audience, to be the extrovert.
Fripp is fond of referring to the King Crimson of the second half of 1981 as “the best performing rock band in the world.” (Mulhern 1986, 94) There is little doubt that it was among the most technically proficient touring rock outfits, but some critics wondered whether the virtuosic displays were enough to make the music really work as music. Cary Darling, reviewing a 1982 concert at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles, wrote of “technical prowess and instrumental overkill at the expense of true inspiration … a classic example of skill over passion, brain over heart.” (Darling 1982A, 35)
Ethlie Ann Vare, who reviewed a 1984 concert at the same venue, echoed the sentiment: “The trouble with having four certified musical geniuses on stage at the same time is that if you aren’t enjoying the show, you assume it must be your own fault. After poking yourself awake for the third time, you realize that it may, in fact, be the fault of the performers; this is supposed to be a concert, not an IQ test.” King Crimson “offered up almost two hours of atonality, syncopation, and cacophony.” (Vare 1984, 47)
Even John Rockwell, the New York Times music writer who in 1978 had supported Fripp’s New York sojourn with a sympathetic, understanding, and complimentary article, was not wholly convinced by King Crimson’s performance at New York’s Pier 84 in June 1984. Rockwell wrote, “Tuesday’s set was intricate and intelligent, if a little staid … Mr. Belew’s voice is undistinguished and his songwriting elusive and fragmentary: when it evinces any personality at all, it sounds like David Byrne and Talking Heads. And the long instrumentals too rarely built, Tuesday at least, to a satisfying climax. Everything sounded cool, careful and a bit too calculated.” (Rockwell 1984, C17) Even those critics who found live King Crimson IV excessively cerebral, however, pointed out that the audience’s reception of the group was for the most part spirited and enthusiastic.
King Crimson IV: The Albums
When it comes to assessing King Crimson IV’s recorded output – the handsomely packaged trilogy of Discipline, Beat, and Three of a Perfect Pair – my mind is in such a muddle that I feel I must first digress to a consideration of what such an assessment might really mean. Against the prevailing atmosphere of insanity – that is, insane and/or idiotic views and arguments about music – that characterized my graduate school education, a few moments stand out in memory as crystallizations of … well, as moments when at least something with interesting implications was being said with conviction. One such moment occurred in a seminar on the idea and practice of music criticism, when Professor Phillip Brett declared, “Music criticism involves making judgements about pieces of music, and that’s one thing that adult human beings do – they make judgements.” I chewed on that for a long time.
A little later I read, in the scholarly journal Popular Music, William Brooks’ article “On Being Tasteless.” Brooks argued that to allow our own personal taste to leak into our scholarship was to sacrifice objectivity, and that there was plenty to be learned from dispassionate, “objective” analysis of popular music and its cultural impact. Still later I confronted the thinking of British and Continental sociologists of rock, who, so far as I could make out, were uninterested in what you had to say about music unless your thesis was grounded in – and ultimately merely a supporting argument for – some sweeping geopolitical theory, preferably socialist in nature. Finally I found myself reading the likes of Coomaraswamy and Gurdjieff, whose concept of “objective art” seemed to blow all the other stuff right out of the water. (We will return to “objective art” in the final chapter of this book.)
I may have thought some of my professors insane, but, like every graduate student, I assumed they knew everything. So when I realized by degrees that many of them had never heard of King Crimson, let alone heard any of their music, it was with some considerable astonishment. A lot of my thinking about the aesthetics of music began to take a new turn when I started recognizing the extent to which genre expectations and pure “sound” values shape people’s responses to, and judgements of, pieces of music.
To put it simply, I understood that some of my professors – who were world-class music scholars in their fields – would never be able to form a right judgement about a group like King Crimson, simply because the “sound” of rock music was a closed book to them. Nearly a century ago, one of musicology’s founding fathers, Guido Adler, defined the new discipline’s agenda in terms of documenting the historical evolution of musical style. But, as I was coming to see, when a scholar has no ingrained sense of the vocabulary and musical values of a particular style, when he hasn’t “experienced” the style’s power and subtlety in a direct, intuitive, physical way – regardless of whether it’s Chuck Berry, Ravi Shankar, or Ludwig van Beethoven – then no meaningful assessment of style is possible.
They are indeed a cohesive set, those three albums – Discipline, Beat, and Three of a Perfect Pair – sporting similar layout and typography on their respectively red, blue, and yellow covers. In what follows, I will treat the albums as a trilogy – that is, as a single body of music. In the short span of their existence, King Crimson IV created and developed a new rock style, almost unparalleled in its sophistication. Elements and sources of inspiration: the beat(s) and instrumental format(s) of rock; world music, notably Indonesian gamelan and African percussion; high technology, notably guitar synthesizers, effects, and synth drums; and minimalism.
Complex meters, polymeter, ostinatos, short note values and slashing or delicately wafting guitar chords, precisely controlled instrumental textures, overlapping non-synchronizing phrasing between instruments, ambiguous/shifting tonality, and driving yet often understated percussion. King Crimson IV’s basic framework, or sound-ideal, which included certain approaches to form, rhythm, harmony, melody, and texture, was rich enough to permit considerable experimentation without the group’s ever exactly repeating itself. When they did start almost to repeat themselves, they called it quits.
The recording process itself Bruford described as “agonizing … quite slow. If we systematized this and we had Lennon and McCartney and the drummer was quiet and behaved himself and shut up, and the other guitar player didn’t say that much, then you’d have a system and presumably you’d produce your product off your assembly line faster … We have no method and we can never seem to find one … or perhaps we’re not looking for one.” (Hoffmeister 1984, 11) In the academic world this is known as the perils of committee work.
I originally intended to organize this discussion according to specific song types, but on listening and re-listening to the music concluded that there are few if any song “types” here – rather a situation where a number of specific controlling ideas manifest themselves to one degree or another from track to track, often with more than one controlling idea in a single piece. On record, King Crimson I and King Crimson II worked with well-delineated song types and their juxtapositions: an album was like a set of contrasting paintings hanging in a gallery. Recorded King Crimson IV – all three albums’ worth – is more like a continuously sustained vision, a set of possibilities that permutate from piece to piece, a view through a kaleidoscope that shifts at each slight turn of the barrel, a sculpture in the round seen from different angles as one slowly circles it. And by and large, like Beethoven’s, it is an architectural rather than a lyrical style. And I am bound to say that it appeals to this head somewhat at the expense of this heart.
On all three albums, the composition of the music is credited to King Crimson, that is, to all four musicians without distinction. Belew wrote all the lyrics, with the exception of “Two Hands” on Beat, whose lyrics are by his wife Margaret Belew.
One firm typological line can be drawn, for what it’s worth, and that is between songs (with vocals) and purely instrumental pieces. On the three albums there are exactly twice as many songs (sixteen) as instrumental pieces (eight). And I suppose it is here that I must pronounce a judgement, to wit, that as a group, the instrumental compositions are superior to the songs, if not in originality and complexity then at least in diversity and clarity. To put it simply, Belew’s lyrics and singing are largely a distraction; the vocal melodies, for the most part, smack of being laid on top of existing instrumental tracks as an afterthought, they don’t strike me as having grown organically with the rest of the music, but rather as somewhat laboriously and manneristically following the rhythmic and harmonic backings, which get covered up, pointlessly, because they are by and large much more interesting and vital than the sung tunes and lyrics themselves. There are exceptions, “Frame by Frame,” “Matte Kudasai,” “Waiting Man,” “Two Hands,” “Three of a Perfect Pair” – all are songs with genuine melodic contour and interest.
Among the vocal songs, distinctions can be drawn between those with pitched melodies, those with spoken (or shouted) text, and those that are both sung and spoken.
But back to King Crimson IV’s “controlling ideas.” A list of these might include rock and roll, the rock gamelan, the rock ballad, metrical complications, guitar synth colors, industrial noise elements, jungle feel, improvisational feel, and the use of radically different textures within a single piece. Let’s look at these ideas more closely and see how they affect and shape specific pieces in the trilogy.
Rock and Roll
Well, it’s all rock and roll – sort of. It’s rock and roll if rock and roll is “our most malleable art form” and the rest of it. In a narrower stylistic definition, King Crimson IV on record played little bona fide rock and roll – they played eclectic late-twentieth century compositions orchestrated with electronic rock timbres. “Sleepless” is among the few pieces that just plain old rocks out in straight-ahead 4/4 with a couple of elementary chord changes; and even “Sleepless” may have started out as something more adventurous – according to Belew, “the best mix of ‘Sleepless’ has never seen the light of day … Bob Clearmountain did the single remix and then someone at Warner Brothers decided that the LP version should match the single version,” over the wishes of the band. (Hoffmeister 1984, 8)
The Rock Gamelan
King Crimson IV’s most distinctive contribution to the rock vocabulary was an outgrowth of Fripp’s experiments in fast staccato picking patterns with the League of Gentlemen. He continued to develop this technique with the new King Crimson, and among the most impressive passages in their music are those where two, three, or all four musicians are playing rapid-fire ostinati that interlock and counterpoint each other in a glittering pointillistic texture reminiscent of the gamelan orchestras of Indonesia. Such intricate textures can be heard on “Elephant Talk,” “Frame by Frame,” “Discipline,” “Neal and Jack and Me,” “Waiting Man,” and “Three of a Perfect Pair.” Following the demise of King Crimson IV, the gamelan concept would live on in the precisely controlled communal polyphonic pointillism of the League of Crafty Guitarists. For Fripp, who in his own words felt he had already “done the great-soloist thing to death,” the gamelan concept reflected a musical interest in time and rhythm, and, as he put it, “stepping back into the group structure and blending into the communal dynamic.” (Garbarini 1984, 40) For Fripp to play his rhythm-lead-point style was also a kind of sacrifice; he was laying out the carpet, as it were, for the other musicians to stand on – creating a space in which the music could happen.
The gamelan-like texture readily lends itself to polymeter – where the players share a common pulse or beat, but group their beats in measures of different lengths. Such is the premise of the instrumental piece “Discipline,” for instance, where beat groupings of two, three, four, five, and even seventeen jockey for the baffled listener’s attention. Less complicated, but equally upsetting to the casual listener’s sense of time, are the many passages in five and seven, often with unexpected accents on subdivisions of the measure. The refrain of “Model Man,” for instance, being in 7/4, sounds oddly out of whack, coming on the heels of the plain 4/4 verses.
Only two songs on the three albums have a real “ballad” feel – the gentle “Matte Kudasai” and the yearning “Two Hands.” “Matte Kudasai” gently lopes along like electronic country and western mood music. “Two Hands” is pure transparency, framed by brief guitar bagpipe sections. Two other songs – “Model Man” and “Man with an Open Heart” – feature ballad elements, but overall have a bigger, less intimate sound.
King Crimson IV was formed at precisely the time when a vast array of new timbres was becoming available to guitarists through guitar synthesizer controllers, and the three albums are virtually a catalog of imaginative effects. Even when playing ordinary electric guitar, Fripp and Belew were apt to run the signal through all manner of devices – chorus, flanger, and delay boxes – giving the music a distinctively 1980s sound.
In keeping with the spirit of the band, in many pieces these colors are largely blended in with the overall band sound, rather than used as a pretext for extended soloing. Such solos as there are tend to be restrained and understated, choice aphorisms rather than lengthy dissertations. Especially gratifying are those pieces where Fripp’s and Belew’s very different personal styles complement each other, neither guitarist grandstanding but rather allowing himself to become part of a larger whole. “The Sheltering Sky” represents such a process: Fripp’s precise punctuated picking and strumming complements Belew’s lush, coloristic orchestral sounds. Fripp said that the piece “wrote itself. We were simply trying to discover who we were for each other. We were in a fourteenth-century hunting lodge in Dorset and we just played. It was a group composition. It came simply out of the air, while everyone was looking the other way. And it kind of played itself.” (De Curtis 1984, 23)
The three albums are a guitarist’s garden of delights.
• Belew’s squeaky mouse and trumpeting elephant noises on “Elephant Talk.”
• The Fripp versus Belew, pointillism versus slashing rhythm duel on “Frame by Frame,” and the same song’s coda with polyrhythmic points.
• The guitar synth “seagulls” and Fripp high-sustain countermelodies and brief solo on “Matte Kudasai.”
• Fripp’s tasty outbursts on “Neal and Jack and Me.”
• The “backwards” solo on “Heartbeat.”
• Belew’s screeching glissando solo on “Waiting Man.”
• The bittersweet “weeping” solo on “Two Hands.”
• The moment of marvelously tinny solo rhythm guitar on “The Howler,” and the following insane synth-noise solo.
• The plucked and careening rhythm guitars in “Model Man”‘s refrain.
• The savage punctuating chords during the instrumental portions of “Sleepless.”
• Fripp’s rhapsodic soloing on “Requiem.”
Industrial Noise Elements
The marriage of industrial sounds with performed music goes back to the Italian futurists of the 1910s and 1920s, who proposed a new aesthetic of the machine age and whose compositions included all manner of noisemaking devices, including both found objects and newly invented instruments. Futurism was not restricted to music; it touched literature and other arts as well. Long before John Cage systematically obliterated the distinctions between sound and music, composition and chance, audience and performer, life and art, the painter Luigi Russolo (1885-1947) advanced the idea that all sounds were available to composers as potentially musical materials. In 1925 George Antheil (1900-1959) staged his Ballet mecanique – an “industrial” art-work for player pianos, percussion, and airplane motors.
Industrial rock was becoming a genre unto itself in the early 1980s; the German group Einsturzende Neubauten used power drills, jackhammers, broken glass, elevator springs, and toy keyboards on their 1981 debut album Kollaps. King Crimson IV toyed with the concept: several songs (“Indiscipline,” “Neurotica,” “Dig Me,” “No Warning”) contained an imaginative array of metallic clashes, clangs, sirens, factory sounds, and the like. One instrumental, “Industry,” was a dedicated study in nuanced noise: over an ominous one-pitch bass ostinato repeating every nine beats unfolds, with rising intensity, a succession of guitar synthesizer layers, spasmodic drum fills, mechanical sound effects, orchestroid outbursts, and sky-saws. “Industry,” a brilliantly effective tableau, may sound improvised, but Belew said it was the result of much pre-planning: “Bill had the idea of the orchestral snare drum. Robert and I developed all the guitar ideas very carefully – the harmonies and things. It’s supposed to give you a feeling of walking through a factory.” (Hoffmeister 1984, 8)
Another trend in twentieth-century music and art has been primitivism, ever since Stravinsky (The Rite of Spring, 1912) and Picasso (Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907) unlocked the gates. Rock has always been jungle music to some listeners – I remember my seventh-grade music teacher playing the fade-out of the Stones’ “Salt of the Earth” from Beggar’s Banquet next to a recording of African drumming, inviting the class to contemplate the similarities. By 1990, needless to say, in worlds academic as well as everyday, labeling some cultures and art forms “primitive” and others “advanced” or “sophisticated” has become rightfully suspect.
“World music” seems a less pejorative handle.1981 was a watershed in the deliberate fusion of rock with world music: David Byrne and Brian Eno’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts melded musical elements from Africa and the Middle East with a pop beat and tape loops of American radio evangelists. It’s all one, the album seemed to be saying, and before long there was a growth of interest in authentic African traditional and popular music, leading to the world beat phenomenon of the 1980s, and to today’s diversified ethno-pop scene. (Fripp sat in one of the sessions for Bush of Ghosts, but his playing does not appear on the album.)
King Crimson IV’s adaptation of world music elements was more subtle than My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. The “rock gamelan” concept was less an incorporation of exotic timbres than an internalization and transformation of Indonesian textural and compositional concepts. On a number of other tunes, such as “The Sheltering Sky,” Bruford plays tuned drums with soft mallets, or electronic percussion that gives the music a distinctly “ethnic” air. In “Thela Hun Ginjeet” (the title is an anagram of “heat in the jungle”), over a Bruford jungle rhythm and between sections of fine nasally nasty synthesizer guitar work, we hear a shaken and nervous Belew telling how he was mugged on the way to the recording studio. (Fripp had surreptitiously turned on a tape recorder as Belew was talking.)
Much of recorded King Crimson IV’s music was carefully worked out beforehand. With the metrical complications, it could be no other way. Another indication of the extent of compositional pre-planning lies in Fripp’s repeatedly expressed displeasure at Bruford’s tendency to change his drum parts. Several pieces, though, sound more improvisational:
“Requiem” begins with a Fripp guitar solo over Frippertronics backing. A gloomy minor mode, fully appropriate for a mass for the dead, prevails. Before long, as Fripp works his initial statement to a climax, the other musicians enter, and soon it is free-form freakout time, the spirit of “Moonchild” and improvising King Crimson III all over again. When the thrashing subsides, the Frippertronics backing has changed to an eerie augmented harmony – the transfiguration of the soul?
Also reminiscent of earlier King Crimsons is the haunting instrumental “Nuages (That Which Passes, Passes Like Clouds),” wherein acoustic and electric guitars paint sublime melodies over a strange backdrop of muted electronic percussion, bass, and mellotron-like synthesizer. Minor and augmented harmonies all over the place.
“No Warning” is another improvised piece, this time in the industrial noise mode. While by way of unifying elements “Nuages” has steady percussion, “Industry” has the bass ostinato, and “Requiem” has Frippertronics; “No Warning,” though not without a certain raw charm, was intentionally, shall we say, undisciplined. Belew’s account of the piece’s genesis is as follows: “The idea really came up, I think, through my suggestion to try to go into the studio and not play together, with simply one sort of direction in mind – that being industrial sounds. We wanted to go in and sound like a giant factory, but without really listening to each other. I think we got about forty minutes of industrial bashing and crashing and then we edited it down to a couple of bits.” (Hoffmeister 1984, 8)
Radically Different Textures within a Single Piece
Though the typical King Crimson IV composition is sectional, with several changes in overall texture, one or two are based on radically contrasting sections. The fierce “Indiscipline” begins with tentative atonal metallic sounds, then lurches into all-out guitar mayhem over bass ostinati. Belew described the song’s typically Crimsoid growth process: “‘Indiscipline’ started out as a vehicle for some pretty erratic drumming. Originally it was almost a throwaway, a drum solo with a riff hung on it. Eventually I came up with a little melody, Robert came up with a line for himself, and at that point we thought no, it’s still not enough … So I thought of doing these talk sections throughout the song. We did that the very last day of recording. I took a letter my wife had written me about a painting she had done. I just took all these lines out of context without specifically naming what the subject was, then added a few lines of my own.” (Fricke 1982, 24)
Likewise notable as a study in contrasts is “Dig Me,” where the verses consist of chaotic electronic and percussive noises and the refrain is a smooth vocal phrase over a single major chord.
In music theory the word “harmony” refers not to some vague idea about what sounds good, but to the carefully formalized principles of chord formation and chord succession – how one chord moves to another, and the structural and psychological properties of such chord successions. “Tonality” is a concept that embraces not just the movements of individual chords from one to the other, but the Western system of major and minor keys developed over a period of centuries. The trained musician or listener feels a sense of key, a sense that there is a central point of gravity, the tonic or keynote; and that sense is reinforced through conventional usage of melodies and motives in major and minor scales that tend to begin and end on the key-note. In classical tonal music, chord progressions are movements through tonal space, movements that give a sense of depth to the music, and, through constant reinforcement through repetition, a sense of logic and rightness, however learned and thus culture-specific that sense may be.
Specific tonal styles rely on specific emphases within the harmonic spectrum: the late-Baroque style of Bach on fast harmonic rhythm and lingering Renaissance modal usage as well as advanced chromaticism; the classical-period style of Haydn and Mozart on slower harmonic rhythm and heavy psycho-structural reliance on the tonic-dominant (I-V, C-G7) relationship, classic urban blues on a three-chord set (tonic-dominant-subdominant, I-V-IV, C-G-F), jazz on circle-of-fifths chord progressions (III-VI-II-V-I, E-A-D-G-C), early rock and roll on a four-chord set (I-vi-IV-V, C-Am-F-G, “Heart and Soul”), later rock on an interpenetration of parallel major and minor modes.
King Crimson IV almost completely abandoned such traditional patterns of chord succession in favor of what might be called shifting harmonic planes: the music moves along around one chord or harmonic area for a time, then abruptly shifts to another. King Crimson IV’s harmonic shifts often make little or no sense in terms of conventional tonal harmonic theory. You hear a sudden broad change of harmony, and hence change of “tonal color,” but the change follows no, shall we say, historically ordained precedent. Because of the reliance on triads and seventh chords, there may seem to be harmonic activity, but this is an illusion: there are changes or shifts, but no real sense of gravitational motion through tonal space. This is not necessarily a negative point: I am simply saying that the music relies more on rhythm and texture than on tonality.
A metaphor might clarify the position. In traditional Western harmonic procedure, whether Mozart or blues or jazz, the drive to the end of each phrase is accomplished at least in part through harmonic motion (chord changes), and the sense is one of a large boulder being pulled inexorably down a hill by the sheer force of tonal gravity. With King Crimson IV’s music, the boulder sits on one level spot and rumbles around for a while, until sooner or later the hand of God comes along and moves it to a different, perhaps seemingly arbitrary spot, where it again sits and rumbles.
The majority of King Crimson IV pieces employ this sort of static harmonic technique. Sometimes a classical tonal logic can be discerned in the shifts from one static harmonic area to another. “Sartori in Tangiers,” for instance, sits on D minor for a long time, then moves to F major, then to G major; it finishes on D minor again. More often, though, the harmonic shifts are among areas only distantly related, if at all, through the laws of traditional tonal harmony. “Discipline” shifts as follows: D minor – E major – F# minor – A minor – C minor – C# minor – E minor – F# minor. “Neal and Jack and Me” revolves around A minor, C# minor, F# minor, and D minor. “Thela Hun Ginjeet” shifts from F# minor to A minor to B minor to D minor. (This brief listing of harmonic areas may seem to reveal a preference for minor over major modes, but what I am calling “minor” is often a pentatonic mode articulated through gamelan-guitar motifs.)
A few other harmonic systems are employed. Sections of some pieces are virtually atonal – non-triadic, no tonal center (the spoken vocal sections of “Neurotica” and “Dig Me”). A few are resolutely tonal, with gravitational harmonic progressions (“Matte Kudasai,” “Two Hands,” the refrain of “Model Man”). “The Sheltering Sky” is based on continuous alternation of harmonic areas around E and G.
In Fripp’s analysis, later King Crimson IV was less a cohesive band with a group mind than four individuals pursuing their individual aims. And indeed, on Three of a Perfect Pair, the last record in the trilogy, we can hear Belew’s more poppish side coming to the fore on Side One, Bruford’s fondness for beating the stuffing out his drums on Side Two, and Levin’s synthesizer experiments on both sides. For his part, Fripp shines as a soloist on “Nuages,” and then has the last word in the final cut on Side Two: “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic Part III,” seemingly a deliberate effort at a culminating statement on this phase of his career. “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic Part III” is a complex, sectional, through-composed instrumental reminiscent of Crimson’s style circa 1974, but with the tone colors of the technological 1980s. Fripp kicks it off with a demonically swift guitar passage which he is quite possibly the only person on earth capable of playing with a flat pick. Quite a contrast to the resounding, earth-shaking closing bars of “Red”‘s “Starless” ten years earlier.
Clearly, by 1984, Fripp’s heart was already elsewhere. In 1981 King Crimson had meant something to him – a “second shot,” as he put it, of the spirit of music he had glimpsed in 1969; now it was in danger of becoming another dinosaur, a non-communal collective enterprise rife with egotistical aspirations. Fripp was ambivalent with regard to Crimson’s accomplishments. Shortly before the band’s breakup, he said, “In ‘81 when Crimson was out, I felt that it was the best performing live rock band in the world. My feeling is that Crimson is primarily a live band and has not yet found a way of putting it on record.” (DeCurtis 1984, 23)
Many recording and mixing decisions in the making of Beat, for example, had been left to the album’s producer, Rhett Davies, since the members of the band could not make up their collective mind about the sound.
Critical response to the King Crimson IV trilogy of albums was predictably diverse. The Melody Maker review of Discipline by Lynden Barber grudgingly conceded the album’s “moments of greatness” after waxing sarcastic about “The Sheltering Sky,” “a drippy, overlong piece of doodling that should have Genesis fans closing their eyes and muttering phrases like ‘distinguished musicianship’ while the rest of us fall asleep.” (Barber 1981B, 20) By Three of a Perfect Pair, Barber had completely had it: “If most of the first side keeps the mind politely bored with Adrian Belew’s increasingly irritating David Byrne tributes, its flip side is little more than tedious muso muck of the very worst order, clodhopping bass and senseless lumps of ‘improvisation.’” (Barber 1984, 27)
John Piccarella’s Rolling Stone review of Discipline contained qualified praise for “this band of virtuosos,” and his judgement of “The Sheltering Sky” was substantially more generous than Barber’s: “Bill Bruford’s gentle, tapped-out African slit-drum pulsations and Tony Levin’s growling bass drones combine with sinuous guitar-synthesizer lines into something like Jon Hassell and Brian Eno’s ‘Fourth World’ music.” (Piccarella 1982, 51) Other American writers heaped on the superlatives, Thomas Mulhern citing King Crimson’s “exciting adventurism,” (Mulhern 1982A, p. 140) Mark Peel proclaiming their “cohesiveness and clarity of vision,” (Peel 1982A, 71) Parke Puterbaugh calling Fripp and Belew’s “interlocking, cyclical guitar work … a marvel of control and technique that’s all the more remarkable given the contrasting dispositions of the two players. Belew: congenial, humanistic, creator of a menagerie of witty, animate guitar noises. Fripp: formal, methodical, rational in the pursuit of extremes.” (Puterbaugh 1984, 56)
In the latter stages of King Crimson IV, Fripp went public with his frustrations about the group’s evolution on a number of occasions. In May 1984 Record published a substantial interview with Fripp by Anthony DeCurtis, in which Fripp is quoted as saying of the group: “I feel I’ve created a field in which other people can discover themselves. I’m disappointed that they don’t create the room for me to discover myself. That is the dynamic of what happens: I get squeezed out. You have three guys who are very excited about someone providing them with room. And there’s me saying, ‘Great guys. The three of you are doing wonderful things. Can I come in, please? Is there a space?’ So all my best guitar work is done outside Crimson. I like space, if there’s an awful lot going on, I tend not to play.” (DeCurtis 1984, 22-23)
With Andy Summers
While toiling, often in pain and anguish, with King Crimson IV, Fripp found a measure of respite in his independent collaborations with Police guitarist Andy Summers, the old friend in whose footsteps he’d followed as guitarist for the Hebrew Fraternity at the Majestic Hotel in Bournemouth. Fripp’s work with Summers took place entirely during the King Crimson IV period, and resulted in two albums: I Advance Masked was recorded at Arny’s Shack in Dorset in September 1981 and Island Studios in London in May 1982, and Bewitched was “recorded in spurts” (Liner notes to Bewitched) at Arny’s Shack in April and May of 1984.
Though they’d known each other for many years, Summers and Fripp had never played music together. It was Summers who instigated their collaboration: wanting, as he put it, to “work with another guitar player and try to get an ongoing musical relationship started,” he first called Fripp at the end of a Police tour in 1980. (Darling 1982B, 48) In addition to their studio sessions together, Summers and Fripp contemplated a live tour, but were unable to find time in their busy schedules.
I Advance Masked was a true “solo” collaboration between the two guitarists: they co-produced the album and played all the instruments, which aside from guitars and Roland guitar synthesizers included Fender bass, Roland and Moog keyboard synthesizers, and various percussion. Bewitched, on the other hand, was produced by Summers, who enlisted the help of five other musicians to complete the tracks (Chris Childs, bass; Sara Lee, bass; Paul Beavis, drums; Chris Winter, saxophone; and Jesse Lota, tablas). While Fripp’s contributions to “Bewitched” are vital, his involvement with the album was less than it had been with I Advance Masked: he worked on Bewitched for only two and a half weeks before leaving for a King Crimson tour, and regarded it as “a lot more Andrew than me.” (Garbarini 1984, 42) Fripp is listed as co-author of only half of the album’s ten tracks.
The two albums contain some of Fripp’s most immediately attractive and accessible music, the atmosphere is for the most part light and playfully adventurous. This listener finds it difficult to put a King Crimson album on the turntable without a certain fear and trembling: am I really up for this? But if a King Crimson record is a breast-beating Beethoven symphony, the Summers/Fripp collaborations are charming Mozart divertimenti, a little night music for enjoyment on a delightfully un-heavy level.
One directly senses the good time the musicians had making the music. The two guitarists were able to relax, tossing around ideas informally for a week with a cassette recorder before beginning to record I Advance Masked. Summers reflected, “The usual thing is ‘who takes the most leads?’ That wasn’t a problem because we had the whole album, and there was only the two of us, doing a lot of work and a lot of playing, so there were no ego problems. We were working towards a common goal.” (Darling 1982B, 50) Fripp, who called Summers, “a lovely guitarist,” saw the project as a third division (artistic research and development) venture, and as an opportunity: “It’s the first time I’ve concentrated purely on being a guitar player since 1969.” (Grabel 1982, 58)
The albums’ emphasis on guitar sonorities opened the collaboration to comparison with other guitarists’ efforts. Jon Young wrote in Trouser Press that “John McLaughlin, Larry Coryell and less acclaimed artists … have done these things better before,” (Young 1982, 45) while Lynden Barber peevishly commented in a Melody Maker review titled “Too Much Pussyfooting,” “the dedicated guitarist would be better off buying, if a tasteful guitar album in the ECM style is required, a Ralph Towner record, or some Django Reinhardt if the interest is in virtuosity married to artistic brilliance.” (Barber 1982, 18)
The music of I Advance Masked, all instrumental, ranges from structured improvisation over a disco-like beat to soft-edged fantasy soundscapes. Working to the album’s advantage is the brevity of most of the pieces, their variety of color and mood.
A few annotations will suggest the profusion of ideas. In the title track, a sort of latter-day Discotronics foray, a “disco” bass drum keeps the beat of seven while Fripp’s rapid-fire sixteenth-note lines contrast with Summers’ concise rock-blues soloing. Some pieces, like “Under Bridges of Silence,” sound like geographical Eno studies overlaid with plaintive reverbed/flanged cries from an electric guitar. A few develop in timbrally distinct sections, such as “China, Yellow Leaver,” where slow waves of string synthesizer wash over Frippian ostinatos, the ostinatos drop out in the middle, leaving high shimmery synth tones and bagpipe guitar; a Frippertronic fade-in follows, then pentatonic short-note guitar riffs. “In the Cloud Forest” features Fripp’s thoughtfully meandering melodic improvisations against a Summers chord backdrop.
Sometimes the experimental attitude produces results that don’t seem to add up to much: in “New Marimba,” layers of “disco” bass drum and a one-note bass, a fast Fripp ostinato, soloing, chord punctuations, and a long string line lead to nothing but pleasant tedium. In other pieces, such as “Hardy Country,” Fripp’s rock gamelan puts in a mild-mannered appearance, laid over with lush synth sounds, changing meters, and fresh chord progressions. “Painting and Dance” is a restrained, carefully worked-out electric guitar duet with an almost acoustic feel. I Advance Masked concludes with two particularly interesting experiments: in “Seven on Seven” a short rhythmic motif takes one through practically atonal excursions, and “Stultified” consists of oriental clanging timbres and jarring dissonances.
Some critics objected to the clean, glossy production job, as if careful recording practices had squeezed the life out of the music, but I have always thought of I Advanced Masked as possessing a certain sketchbook quality – the pieces are not so much compositions as fragmentary ideas in sound, and it is precisely that generous off-handedness that gives the album its breath and life.
Bewitched, as already noted, is as a whole more a product of Summers’ imagination than Fripp’s. Indeed, with Fripp subtracted from the formula, one realizes that Summers left to himself is primarily interested in tone color. Summers parades his pop leanings in “Parade,” his penchant for distinctive rhythmic textures in “Train.” He floats in the ambient in the very Enoesque “Forgotten Steps.”
Side One of Bewitched is devoted to dance-rock-type pieces: the poppish “Parade”; the long “What Kind of Man Reads Playboy” by Summers and Fripp, featuring a somewhat obnoxious drum machine laying the foundation for alternating guitar solos, definitely a low-budget-jam-recorded-in-the-garage type of feel; and the almost Crimsoid “Begin the Day” by Summers and Fripp, a slasher with some trademark Fripp melodizing.
The seven pieces on Side Two are more adventurous – miniatures each with distinctive sounding surface and structural premise. While one may carp over the repetitiousness of a tune like Summers’ “Bewitched,” other tracks are stimulating enough, and they all work together as a very satisfying album side. Among the Summers/Fripp co-composed pieces, one might point to the dark atmosphere of the brooding minor/Phrygian “Tribe,” or to Summers’ lovely modal acoustic guitar melodies over Fripp’s low throaty backing guitar in “Maquillage” (possibly the first recorded piece to use Fripp’s “new standard tuning,” with its gutsy low C, a major third below the guitar’s normal sixth-string E – here prominently displayed as the tonic).
In all, the two Summers/Fripp albums show us the chemistry of two accomplished musicians at play. Unburdening themselves of the need to record music guaranteed to be mega-successful at the level of the Police or King Crimson, they produced a fine set of intimate études – diverse studies in guitar technique, early-1980s music technology, and musical nuance, with just enough reference to familiar rock rhythms and tonal practices to make them accessible to free rock spirits with open ears.