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Robert Fripp, the amazing guitarist (and 8): Fripp’s Musical Legacy
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In a sense, Fripp’s musical identity is as elusive as his personality. “Schizoid Man” indeed – for the titan of screaming distorted rock guitar was also the merry prankster of Giles, Giles and Fripp and “Ladies of the Road”; the avant-garde jazz enthusiast of “Groon,” collaborator with Keith Tippett, did double duty as the ambient-music landscape architect of Evening Star, fellow artiste of Eno; the classical British progressive rocker of Lizard and Islands metamorphosed into the new wave savant, with Exposure, Blondie, and the League of Gentlemen; the initiated member of the white brotherhood of soul, closing ranks with Daryl Hall, David Bowie, and David Byrne, found himself feminist fellow-traveler with the Roches; the devoted Les Paul technophile of Frippertronics, the minimalist world music/gamelan conductor of the 1980s King Crimson, became the uncompromising champion of new acoustic guitar music with The League of Crafty Guitarists.
Our schizoid man has been continually inventive in his use of what traditional analysts call music’s “elements” or “parameters”: form, rhythm, harmony, timbre, and melody:
Fripp has always shown a refreshingly empirical approach to problems of unity, diversity, and coherence in musical arguments – concocting novel, unusual forms out of respect for the demands of the unique musical situation, for the specific piece, rather than simply pouring melodic and harmonic content into pre-existing song-form molds, as happens so often in popular music and traditional jazz.
Though sheer length is in itself certainly no indication of musical virtue, the successful articulation of large-scale forms can be one indication of compositional vision, and here Fripp has been from time to time sufficiently convincing – as in the raga-like melodic elaborations of “No Pussyfooting,” the sonatoid clarity of “Starless,” and the sustained album-length epic musical poetry of Exposure.
Fripp is among those rare rock musicians – Frank Zappa and Paul Simon also come to mind – who have relentlessly battered away at the tyranny of four: four beats to the measure, and four measures to the phrase, that is. Odd, complex, shifting, and overlapping meters churn and surge through most of his albums, beginning with the first bars of “Schizoid Man.” Harmony. Fripp’s relationship to harmony presents itself as a curious mixture of naïveté and sophistication. On the one hand, many of his earlier pieces exhibit ordinary, stock chord progressions – banal if often ingeniously voiced.
On the other hand, he has explored a variety of linear modal and whole-tone/tritonic tonal structures, and, particularly with King Crimson IV, the kind of block-shifting harmony described in Chapter 9. The fierce linear counterpoint may derive from Bartok; the block-shifting approach to harmony may come straight out of Stravinsky. I am not completely convinced that Fripp has ever come to terms with the gravitational power of functional tonality.
That is, I’m not sure he really understands harmony in the sense that Bach or Beethoven understood it: as a force of paramount importance in the articulation of phrases, cadences, climaxes, and large forms. On some composed pieces on Red, and in some of his later music, tonality is not so much engaged with as sidestepped, structural articulation being achieved through other harmonic, textural, rhythmic, and orchestrational means.
From the beginning, Fripp has shown a creative and unpredictable approach to orchestration and texture – witness the variety of sheer sounds in the albums all the way from In the Court of the Crimson King to Get Crafty. Along with this studied concern for timbral interest goes a formidable production control, allied with a concerted effort to make even studio-produced recordings sound as believably live as possible – enormous dynamic range, and, all things considered, an absolute minimum of electronic “tricks” (excessive reverb, compression, overdubbing, sound effects, artificially spread-out stereo mixes, and so on.). Unlike his friend Brian Eno, Fripp emphatically does not use the recording studio as a compositional tool: he uses it in an effort to capture the feeling amongst real musicians playing in real time.
Even if some elements of Fripp’s guitar style were in place as early as The Cheerful Insanity of Giles, Giles and Fripp – tasteful chordal punctuations, a capacity to play very fast, and a fascination with the noise potential of electric guitar – his playing has matured and deepened beautifully over the years. There is Fripp the power-chord thrasher (King Crimson III), Fripp the delicate acoustic guitarist (Guitar Craft), Fripp the gamelan pointillist (King Crimson IV), Fripp the colorist (with Andy Summers), Fripp the long-sustained-note modal melodist (Frippertronics), and Fripp the jagged linear contrapuntist (all periods).
From the outset, you knew Fripp had at his disposal an almost superhuman set of chops. The question with Fripp was never, could he dazzle and stun his audience with amazing displays of speed and virtuosity? Everyone took that for granted from the beginning. The question has always been, rather, how to coax music out of those killer licks, how to put all that athletic technique at the service of a higher inspiration, in a particular band or other music-making situation. Fripp has faced the same dilemma as John McLaughlin: now that I can play anything I want to, just exactly what do I want to play, and why? And I suppose it must be said that at times both musicians have succeeded in answering such questions to the satisfaction of themselves and their audiences, and at other times they have failed.
In Fripp’s case, the success stories include, for instance, the “Sailor’s Tale” solo on Islands and the twenty-minute rhapsody of “The Heavenly Music Corporation” on No Pussyfooting – both pieces requiring, when you think about it, not so much in the way of technical virtuosity as sheer inspiration and the ability to listen.
One of the pass defenders on the Cincinnati Bengals, the team that was to play the San Francisco Forty-Niners in the 1989 Super Bowl, bragged to the sports media that he could run the fifty-yard dash significantly faster than the Niners’ star receiver, Jerry Rice. Rice responded to the taunts by saying, “This ain’t no track meet – this is football.” In the game, Rice made a fool of the defender with his subtle maneuvers: speed was no match for artistry. San Francisco won the Super Bowl, and Rice the Most Valuable Player award.
In his mature years, the eighteenth-century composer Joseph Haydn, speaking ruefully of his youthful compositions, said, “I thought then that everything was all right if only the paper was chock-full of notes.” (Hughes, Haydn, 1970) The twentieth-century Viennese musical revolutionary Arnold Schoenberg was onto something similar: he said, “Rests always sound well!” (Reich, Schoenberg, 1971) Fripp is aware that when you can play anything, the challenge is to know what not to play. One, two, or three notes are often more expressive than ten, twenty, or thirty.
This is one of the meanings that can be read into his aphorism, “Honor sufficiency.” (GC Aphorisms Monograph) Fripp may have been thinking along these lines when he used an athletic metaphor in a 1989 interview: “It may be that the visual appeal of the Tai Chi master is not equal in appeal to the heavyweight [boxing] contest. But I would prefer to see a Tai Chi master do nothing, superbly. I can see the appeal of two large men attacking each other, but only just.” (Drozdowski 1989, 31)
Fripp as Composer and Improviser
I said earlier that music, in a specific sense of the word, can be improvised, whereas composition, in a specific sense, cannot. For reasons I shall now attempt to explain, I have come to regard Fripp as more important for his qualities as a musician than for his talent as a composer. To begin with, Fripp himself has repeatedly complained that his best music has never been put on record – despite, I might add, over twenty years of ample opportunities to do so. What he means, I think, when he says his best music has never been recorded, is that the special quality arising from direct contact between musician and audience in a live performance is inevitably missing from a recorded account of the event. As we have seen, that special quality is for Fripp more important than the sound itself, and may be fully present even if what is happening musically – that is, compositionally – is “a real turkey.”
For Fripp, that special quality of human contact is the primary substance, is the “music”; the organization of the sounding materials – the “composition” – is a secondary vehicle. This position does not satisfy that part of me which subscribes to the idea that some musical compositions are inherently more interesting, true, valuable, rewarding, and profound than others. This part of me, for better or for worse, is bound to argue that there is more genuine harmonic interest – a deeper revelation of tonal relationships – in almost any short twelve-measure four-part chorale by Bach than in many an extended King Crimson piece; more timbral vitality and nuance in Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun than in many an electronic Fripp soundscape; more rhythmic drive at the service of convincing formal architecture in Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” than in any Fripp piece based on polymetrical procedures, no matter how complicated.
And if earlier I called Exposure Fripp’s Sergeant Peppers, I am bound to say that in the final analysis it doesn’t quite measure up. Why? Because its control over all the elements of composition is not as complete. Thus one answer to the question of why King Crimson IV, as Fripp put it, never “found a way of putting [their best music] on record,” is that the pieces, as compositions, were simply not good enough. (DeCurtis 1984, 23)
If it appears fatuous to compare Fripp’s compositional efforts to the canon of Western musical masterpieces, I might respond, polemically, that he asked for it. The historian in me finds some of his remarks about the art music tradition smug, self-serving, ill-informed, and unnecessarily inflammatory – destined, if not quite intentionally, to turn many young musicians away from a careful study of the tradition – a study which, I happen to believe, many young musicians with rock and the contemporary popular music industry as their sole reference point sorely need.
I might respond, more neutrally, that what I am really after is a clarification of what Fripp is after, and that what he is after is ultimately not the production of compositions as such, but rather the cultivation of a certain set of relationships between music, musicians, and audience. Every now and then he cuts through the obfuscation of his own theorizing and hits the nail on the head: “Whether Orlando Gibbons excites you, Japanese Koto classics make you foam at the mouth, Hendrix bites your bippy or the Sex Pistols had you on your feet gobbing, whatever it is, you know you’re alive for that moment.” (Dery 1985, 56)
It could be argued that we simply do not need more towering compositional masterpieces so much as we need enlightened instruction as to the inner meaning of music as a human experience: how to be able to use music to come alive. And it is precisely such instruction which Fripp, in his difficult, idiosyncratic way, has over the years endeavored to provide.
Priest or Pythagoras
The connections between rock music and the religious impulse are so multifarious that whole books have been written on the subject – see, for instance, Davin Seay and Mary Neely’s Stairway to Heaven: The Spiritual Roots of Rock’n’Roll. African tribal music, New World Christianity, voodoo, blues, gospel, Bible Belt country music, R&B, rock and roll: it’s all a continuous circuit. In a chapter titled “Hear That Long Snake Moan” in his book Shadow Dancing in the U.S.A., Michael Ventura dwells on the voodoo connection. Voodoo, a volatile blending of tribal rites and Christian symbolism, was, in Ventura’s words, “a metaphysical achievement as great as … the building of Chartres or the writing of the Bhagavad-Gita … These people built their cathedrals and wrote their scripture within their bodies, by means of a system that could be passed from one generation to the next. That system was rhythm.” (Ventura, 115) Ventura goes on to portray the rise of rock and roll as the revenge of a spirituality of the body that white mainstream religion had done everything in its power to suppress.
Little Richard, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Carlos Santana, John McLaughlin, Eric Clapton – the list of major popular performers influenced at one time or another by religious ideas goes on and on. Beyond such clear-cut cases, one could compare the contemporary musical landscape to an ideological geography of tribal affiliations – each tribe with its own slant on the truth, its own icons and heroes, whether it’s the Grateful Dead tribe, the Barry Manilow tribe, the hardcore punk tribe, the New Age tribe, the academic/straight tribe, the jazz tribe, the dance club tribe, the inner city tribe, the Guitar Craft tribe, or any other tribe. Each of these tribes, with their rituals and mythologies, does what any effective religion does: they help give their members an identity, defining their place in the cosmos – against other tribes perhaps inevitably, but most decisively against the ever-present threat of existential meaninglessness, chaos, non-being.
Fripp strove with his demons through King Crimson, and had himself photographed more or less as a priest for the cover of The League of Crafty Guitarists – Live! He has linked Gurdjieff’s idea of conscious labor and intentional suffering with the Christian Orthodox idea of spiritual pain. (Milkowski 1985, 17) He has called himself a monk of the musical world (Dery 1985, 56), and has written of Indian classical music and European medieval music as attempts to “quieten the mind to render it more susceptible to divine influences.” (Fripp 1981B, 41) And then there is the whole body of Guitar Craft teaching, and Fripp’s central role in the school.
In Fripp’s case, perhaps more cogent than comparisons to conventional religion would be to go back to a time when the world was, in some ways, very much younger than it is now. Around the sixth century before the birth of Jesus Christ, an historically unparalleled group of spiritual leaders walked the earth, probably unknown to each other, but working as if from a common source of collective energy to transform mankind’s destiny: in Palestine, various prophets communicating the word of God to Israel; in Persia, Zoroaster, founder of the Persian religion; in India, Gautama, the Buddha; in China, Confucius and Lao-Tze; founder of Taoism. And at precisely this time in Greece, classical Western philosophy was being born. It is difficult to regard this uncanny series of upheavals in consciousness as related soley by accidental chronological coincidence.
Pythagoras (c. 582 – c. 507 B.C.) left no writings that have survived; yet scholars, using secondary sources beginning with Plato, have pieced together a tantalizing image of this seminal figure traditionally regarded as the father of philosophy.
Pythagoras is best known for two doctrines: the transmigration of souls (a concept with striking similarities to Eastern concepts of reincarnation), and the conviction that all things are numbers (a belief that seems to take on new significance in this age of quantum physics, the genetic code, and the digitization of all information, including music).
For Pythagoras there was no separation between religion and science, music and number. Applying mathematics to the study of musical intervals, he discovered that the Greek scale could be derived from proportions involving only the numbers 1 to 4. The most fundamental interval of music, the octave, was represented by the most fundamental of all number relationships, 1:2 (a vibrating string and half its length). The perfect fifth turned out to signify the ratio 2:3 (a vibrating string and two-thirds of its length); and archetypal relationship 3:4 translated musically into the perfect fourth. The fifth minus the fourth yielded the whole tone.
(Anyone with a guitar and tape measure can easily replicate Pythagoras’ epochal experiments. The series continues: 4:5 is a major third, 5:6 and 6:7 are species of minor thirds, then come the seconds. It was not until the early eighteenth century that the French composer Jean-Philippe Rameau discovered that the Pythagorean interval ratios corresponded to the acoustical harmonics of vibrating objects.)
Fripp, as should be evident by this point, fully embraces the idea of connections between numbers and musical relationships, seeing in such connections a sort of objective mathematics revealing a key to the order of the divine cosmos. Pythagoras is reputed to be the first to call the world kosmos, a word which, according to the Encyclopedia of Philosophy, for Pythagoras combined “in an untranslatable way the notion of orderly arrangement or structural perfection with that of beauty … By studying this order, we reproduce it in our own souls, and philosophy becomes an assimilation to the divine, as far as that is possible within the limitations imposed by our mortal bodies.” (Encyclopedia of Philosophy, vol. 7, p. 38) Fripp has mentioned Pythagoras from time to time in interviews. One such occasion was in his Musician account of the League of Gentlemen tour, when he wrote of the Rouens Cathedral that so impressed him: “Here I am again sitting in front of this symphony in architecture, but tone-deaf … In terms of Western culture the mathematics of music were explored by Pythagoras … This cathedral expressed, in mathematical propositions, combinations of proportions and distances of a form of universal order.” (Fripp 1980E, 34)
Fripp is but one of thousands of Western musicians who have gone back to Pythagoras for the source of their numerological speculations and historical validation of their intuitive insights. Pythagoras did more, however, than work out cosmic mathematics. Having migrated from his native Samos to Crotona, he founded a secret society with aims religious, political, and philosophical. The society’s rites had much in common with the Orphic Mysteries – a cult founded, according to legend, by the celebrated musician Orpheus, devoted follower of Dionysus, god of fertility and wine. Pythagoras’ society had an ascetic element, and his followers performed various purification rites. Believers were bound to strict rules of moral conduct and dietary practice – eating of meat was forbidden, respect for animals cultivated. The belief in the transmigration of souls led to an equal respect for both sexes, rare in the ancient world. It appears that the dearth of writings by Pythagoras himself and his immediate disciples was due to a rule of secrecy: like Gurdjieff, and like Fripp, Pythagoras was wary of freezing a living teaching into mere writ. Pythagoreanism, thus, was not primarily an abstract doctrine: it was a school of practice, a group of followers initiated into a certain way of life, a league of adherents to Pythagoras’ ideas – ideas said to have been born of visions bursting into the teachers’ awareness, revelations of the whole cosmic system.
Although no stranger to phenomena transcending irrational experience (I once fancied I felt the ghost of Gurdjieff floating up near the ceiling in the corner of a room), I scarcely wish to proclaim Robert Fripp a reincarnation of Pythagoras. But in broad terms the parallels between Pythagoreanism and Guitar Craft seem clear enough: philosophy as a way of doing things, a way of life; the emphasis on music and number as purveyors of absolute, objectively existing truth; the suspicion of written (and other recorded) media; the importance of right practice in moral conduct; the esoteric and ascetic atmosphere; the creation of workable channels for the religious impulse, fusing original ideas with elements of tradition – whether the Orphic Mysteries and ancient Greek mythology or the Gurdjieff system and Asian and Indonesian approaches to musicianship.
Today the word “philosophy,” at least in its academic setting, may carry certain connotations – abstruse ideas detached from life, linguistic research, sheer abstract thought, mere logic, an absence of compelling ethical insight in a world faced with abundant and momentous ethical dilemmas in medicine, international relations, genetic research, women’s rights, global population, ecology, and other areas. Much twentieth-century academic composed music – with its emphasis on formal structure at the expense of sound and accessibility, its tendency to grapple with head rather than soul issues – presents a curious parallel to the way branches of modern philosophy have become increasingly solipsistic.
In ancient times, philosophy – and tradition grants Pythagoras first use of the term – meant precisely what its roots implied: love (philos) of wisdom (sophia). I suggest, simply, that it makes sense to view Fripp as a philosopher in the original sense of the word.
As early as 1980, Fripp wrote: “In the West, where we lack the tradition of objective art, those touched by the ‘otherness’ of music are groping intuitively to find and express this in terms of our own cultural traditions, such as jazz, rock and electronic music … It is my conviction that music has the capacity to radically change far more of ourselves and ‘the world’ than we ordinarily believe.” (Fripp 1980D, 33)
How “popular” is/was the music of Robert Fripp and King Crimson? Not overwhelmingly, to judge from an informal analysis of data in Joel Whitburn’s Billboard Book of Top 40 Albums. The only Crimson albums ever to make it into the Billboard Top 40 were In the Court of the Crimson King (highest point reached #28) and In the Wake of Poseidon (highest point #31). In the Court of the Crimson King is the only Fripp or Crimson record to have been certified gold (500,000 units sold) by the RIAA. By way of contrast, eight of Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s albums between 1971 and 1978 hit the Top 40 and have been certified gold. (Whitburn’s data reflects of course only the American situation.) The discography that follows includes Fripp’s major recorded efforts, but is not to be considered an exhaustive listing.
In the Court of the Crimson King: An Observation by King Crimson. 1969. In the Wake of Poseidon. 1970. Lizard. 1970. Islands. 1971. Earthbound. 1972. Larks’ Tongues in Aspic. 1973. Starless and Bible Black. 1974. Red. 1974. U.S.A. 1975. The Young Persons’ Guide to King Crimson. 1976. Discipline. 1981. Beat. 1982. Three of a Perfect Pair. 1984.
Fripp Solo Albums and Primary Collaborations
Giles, Giles and Fripp: The Cheerful Insanity of Giles, Giles and Fripp. 1968. Fripp and Eno: No Pussyfooting. 1973. Fripp and Eno: Evening Star. 1975. Fripp: Exposure. 1979. Fripp: “Silent Night” a la Frippertronics [Flexi-disk in Praxis 3 (Dec. 1979).] Fripp: God Save the Queen/Under Heavy Manners. 1981. Robert Fripp and the League of Gentlemen: Robert Fripp/the League of Gentlemen. 1981. 198 Fripp: Let the Power Fall: An Album of Frippertronics. 1981. Summers and Fripp: I Advance Masked. 1982. Summers and Fripp: Bewitched. 1984. Fripp: Network. 1984. Robert Fripp and the League of Gentlemen: Robert Fripp and the League of Gentlemen/God Save the King. 1985. Fripp: Easter Sunday [Tear-out Soundpage in Guitar Player 20 (Jan. 1986).]
Robert Fripp and The League of Crafty Guitarists: Live! 1986. Toyah and Fripp, featuring the League of Crafty Guitarists: The Lady or the Tiger? 1986. The League of Crafty Guitarists: Get Crafty I. 1988. Fripp: How I Became a Professional Guitarist. 1988.
Keith Tippett: Blueprint. 1971. Keith Tippett: Ovary Lodge. 1972. Matching Mole: Matching Mole’s Little Red Record. 1972. Keith Tippett’s Centipede: Septober Energy. 1974. John G. Bennett: tapes of various lectures. Peter Gabriel: Peter Gabriel [II]. 1978. Daryl Hall: Sacred Songs. 1980. The Roches: The Roches. 1980. The Roches: Keep On Doing. 1982. Elan Sicroff: Journey to Inaccessible Places and Other Music (Music by George Gurdjieff and Thomas de Hartmann.) Produced by R.F. and Tony Arnold. 1985. Keith and Julie Tippett: Couple in Spirit. (Mixed by R.F.) 1988.
Contributions to Other Recordings
Van der Graaf Generator: H to He Who Am the Only One. 1970. Van der Graaf Generator: Pawn Hearts. 1971. Colin Scott: Colin Scott. 1971. Peter Hammill: Fool’s Mate. 1972. 199 Brian Eno: Here Come the Warm Jets. 1973. Brian Eno: Another Green World. 1975. Brian Eno: Before and After Science. 1977. Brian Eno: Music for Films. 1978. Peter Gabriel: Peter Gabriel [I]. 1977. David Bowie: “Heroes.” 1977. Blondie: Parallel Lines. 1978. Talking Heads: Fear of Music. 1979. David Bowie: Scary Monsters. 1980. Various artists: Miniatures – A Sequence of Fifty-One Tiny Masterpieces Edited by Morgan-Fisher. 1980. Flying Lizards: Fourth Wall. 1981. Various Artists: Recorder Three. 1981. David Sylvian: Alchemy – An Index of Possibilities. 1985. David Sylvian: Gone to Earth. 1986. •
Robert Fripp, the amazing guitarist (7): Guitar Craft
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Birth of Guitar Craft
One day in late 1984 Robert Fripp sat in a room signing a stack of posters of the Bewitched cover for use in the record’s publicity campaign. In the room were Andy Summers and Vic Garbarini, who had been dispatched from Musician magazine to do a joint interview with the two guitarists. Fripp was in a good mood, wryly reflecting on his work as a professional musician, saying that he hadn’t thought being a musician involved sitting around signing posters. When the last of the hundred posters was signed, Fripp looked up with a beatific smile and announced, “I’m off to clean latrines in West Virginia!” (Garbarini 1984, 38).
It had been seven years since he had leaked back into the music industry in 1977, and Fripp, who with the posters and interview was completing his last official obligations, was ready for another sabbatical. He was about to enroll in a three-month residential course at the American Society for Continuous Education at Claymont Court, the 369-acre property of forest and farmland near Charles Town, West Virginia where Bennett had established the ASCE as a permanent community and school shortly before his death. As an early-1980s pamphlet outlining the ASCE’s objectives explained, “The focus is on helping to restore an ecological balance to the environment and on creating conditions favorable for man’s development in harmony with nature.”
In addition to carrying on work in agriculture, horticulture, cottage industries, building, and alternative energy sources, the ASCE offered residential programs of up to nine months based on Gurdjieff’s, Ouspensky’s, and Bennett’s methods as outlined in Chapter 7 of this book. Formal meetings, manual labor, spiritual exercises, work on the Gurdjieff movements, and study themes combined to place the student in a situation of personal growth and awareness of others.
As the pamphlet said, “Every experience can be used to develop presence, intention, and balance between the inner and outer life. The Residential Program creates conditions which can lead to the threshold of genuine work beyond which the significance of life and one’s own purpose become manifest.” (The ASCE has recently been renamed the CSCE – Claymont Society for Continuous Education – and as of this writing no longer offers long-term residential courses.)
In late 1984, with King Crimson IV behind him, Fripp had no further plans for working in bands; like ten years before, he had no specific plans at all, other than to go on his Claymont retreat and then to “let the future present itself.” (Garbarini 1984, 38) As it turned out, the future presented itself with crystal clarity. Fripp had been involved with the operation of the ASCE since 1978, and had been on its board of directors since 1982. After his three-month retreat, Fripp was elected president of the ASCE, and was asked if he would give a few seminars based on music. (A regular feature of life at Claymont was then, as it is now, a variety of educational seminars led by permanent residents and also by outside speakers.)
As Bob Gerber, current Chairman of the CSCE, who was in continuous contact with Fripp at this time, put it to me, Fripp said “no” to the idea of guitar seminars twice, then the third time realized this was something he was meant to do. Thus was Guitar Craft born.
(By 1990, Fripp was no longer officially involved with the CSCE; although Guitar Craft continues to offer seminars on the Claymont property, it is purely a business arrangement, Fripp renting space to house students and hold classes.)
Robert Fripp had been thinking about teaching for many years, however. As far back as 1974, immediately after the breakup of King Crimson III, Fripp had spoken to Rolling Stone writer Ian Dove of his interest “in creating a new kind of guitar technique that is really working on three levels of being, heart, hands, and head. A way of life. More akin to yoga than formal guitar technique, actually an approach to living.” He had gone on to speak with admiration of Pablo Casals, Yehudi Menuhin, and Ravi Shankar – musicians who through personal discipline had been able to achieve contact with higher energies. Most rock musicians, by way of contrast, Fripp had seen as “hopelessly inadequate, rooted to the earth … thrashing around on stage using a very low-grade energy [which] comes from a very nasty quarter.” (Dove 1974, 14)
In an interview with Guitar Player’s Steve Rosen, also from 1974, Fripp had talked about the importance of relaxation, of establishing a relationship between one’s head and one’s hands, of practicing “like hell” in order that the limitations of one’s technique not get in the way of the free expression of ideas. “I suggest,” he had said, “that guitar playing, in one sense, can be a way of uniting the body with the personality, with the soul and the spirit.” (Rosen 1974, 38) All of these ideas would turn up much later in the context of Guitar Craft.
Long fascinated with both the mechanics of playing the plectrum guitar and with systematic means of coaxing the Muse out of hiding, Fripp had been searching for a teaching method, and he would press the musicians he came into contact with for their insights into their craft. When in 1982 Fripp interviewed his peer in picking, John McLaughlin, for Musician magazine, he repeatedly tried to get him to be more concrete about the way he worked on music. Both guitarists readily agreed on the importance of getting the ego out of the way in order to let music in, but Fripp wanted more details: “How do you get out of the way? Do you have specific techniques or regimens that you use? Can you just get yourself out of the way without thinking about it?” (Fripp 1982B, 54) McLaughlin’s responses, although colorful and suggestive, were on the vague side.
From conversations like this, Fripp had to be realizing that even the greatest musicians often operate intuitively, that is, using those parts of the mind which mere language does not easily penetrate – thus a musical genius may find himself or herself unable to articulate exactly what his or her inner processes consist of.
This may all be commonplace, but the position did not satisfy Fripp. If he were to have students, he had to be able to conceptualize, to concretize, to verbalize his relationship with music in order to pass it along. The method he came up with is the subject of the remainder of this chapter.
Elements of Guitar Craft
First, a few facts. The first Guitar Craft course was given at Claymont in March 1985. The original idea was to give three seminars of five-and-a-half days each, but due to unexpected demand, the number of seminars was soon augmented to eight. At a certain point Fripp decided to make Guitar Craft a continuous, ongoing process, and as of this writing, without any signs of slowing up, there have been some thirty courses in the United States (mostly at Claymont but also in other locations), plus others in England, France, Germany, Switzerland, Holland, and Norway. More than six hundred guitarists have participated in seminars, and the latest GC Directory, which serves to facilitate networking among active Crafties (the colloquial name for one who has attended a seminar and keeps in touch), lists the addresses and phone numbers of over one hundred and sixty musicians. Fripp is the primary Guitar Craft teacher, but he is assisted by a number of experienced guitarists intimately familiar with his methods, and by non-musical teachers whose function will be explained in due course. The League of Crafty Guitarists, which represents the performing presence of Guitar Craft in the world, has played concerts in America, Europe, and Israel, and has released three albums, with plans for a fourth in the works.
As Guitar Craft has grown in size it has generated its own organizational infrastructure, complete with its own newsletter, literature (the Guitar Craft Monograph series), folklore, mythology, advertising, and merchandising (guitar accessories, decals, cassettes, bumper stickers, T-shirts, logos, and posters). For the seriously committed Crafty, Guitar Craft is indeed a whole way of life, centered on the discipline and practice of music.
Like all such groups which have passed beyond initial groping stages into existence as more or less streamlined organizations with a more or less strictly defined protocol, Guitar Craft has had its inner conflicts, and Fripp’s control over the diffusion of his ideas has been less than total – on occasion he has had to chastise those enterprising yet unauthorized disciples who, after taking a seminar, have had the gall to bill themselves as bona fide Guitar Craft teachers for the sake of attracting private guitar students. Not that Fripp rules out any possibility of his students being teachers – to the contrary, as we shall see, he views teaching as its own genuine form of apprenticeship, a logical step for the committed musician. What he objects to is superficial students who greedily apply the imprimatur “Guitar Craft” to their own feeble methods, tapping into the iconic source without the requisite preparation.
It’s an age-old story – disciples bringing grief to their teacher on account of having only dimly understood the teaching, and going out and telling the world all about it. It is a dilemma facing the discoverer of any great idea which is right for the times. Carl Jung disliked the idea of “Jungians,” and dreaded the inevitable institutionalization of his insights: on the wall of the lobby at the Jung Institute of Los Angeles hangs a plaque quoting Jung which reads, “If you must have a Jung institute, for God’s sake make it as disorganized as possible!”
In 1989 the forty-two-year-old Fripp called Guitar Craft his “life’s work now.” (Drozdowski 1989, 29) After a grueling public career battling the fickleness of public taste, critical fashion, and the music industry, and after harrowing experiences in bands which just could not seem to stay together but inexorably degenerated into yapping egos, Fripp could say, “Within Guitar Craft is the first time I’ve been able to live in a sane world.” (Drozdowski 1989, 32) Fripp has always formed mental constructs and systems through which to channel his energies – King Crimson, the Drive to 1981, Frippertronics – and Guitar Craft is the grandest and most systematized of them all. Aside from his role as a teacher, Fripp personally gets a charge out of playing with students in his seminars: he says it “can be as good as King Crimson, playing in front of thousands of people.” (Milano 1985, 34)
The goals and ideals of Guitar Craft are lofty enough. Fripp aims at no less than inaugurating a tradition of pedagogy for the flat-picked steel-stringed guitar. He believes that there is one best way to approach the mechanics of guitar playing, and that he has found it. He is quite uncompromising on this point: although sincere in his admiration for the likes of Hendrix, Beck, and Clapton as musicians, he is quick to find fault with the mechanics of their technique. Just examine any photograph of guitar heroes in action, he will say: right hands sloppily and inefficiently disported, left thumbs craning over the top of the fretboard. (Personally, I really doubt we would see so many of these wayward thumbs if there weren’t some good reason for it. Fripp himself, though he’ll bend a note here and there, doesn’t use a whole lot of string-bending vibrato in his playing; if he did, he might find cradling the neck between the thumb and first finger more effective than planting the thumb in the middle of the back of the neck, which is his recommended position.)
Along with the dissemination of a scientifically precise method of playing goes the creation of a new repertoire of exercises, etudes, compositions, and improvisational formats, all of which have grown and are continuing to grow organically out of Fripp’s and his students’ engagement with the playing technique, the new tuning Fripp invented and teaches to all Guitar Craft students, and the whole mind-set that goes along with Guitar Craft. The new repertoire is conceived as fulfilling more than a merely aesthetic function in the sense of new music for its own sake: it also fulfills a social purpose, bringing Crafties into a special relationship with each other through creating and practicing the music. As Fripp put it in 1987, “You can construct music in such a way on a purely structural and technical level that it pulls musicians together.” (Diliberto 1987, 52)
Guitar Craft, like King Crimson before it, is conceived as a microcosm of society at large, or, perhaps more accurately, as one possible model blueprint of the inter-relationships in an ideal society. To put it somewhat less grandiosely, Guitar Craft music works by give-and-take, communal effort, selflessness, cooperation, and listening to others. Fripp has said, “If you wish to draw people together, get some of them playing in five and some of them playing in seven in a certain kind of way and it will inevitably draw them together while they’re playing it. If when they leave that room they have been together in a certain kind of way, if only for a moment on the outside meshing together, perhaps they go back in and perform it again, and maybe something can come together on the inside.
Well, that begins to be very interesting stuff. Now imagine, just as a possibility, an idea of a repertoire of music which will guarantee, by its performance, to unify the people playing it. Even as an idea that’s worth shooting for. I’ve seen it happen here [in Guitar Craft].” (Diliberto 1987, 52) This sounds very Platonic – Plato with his musical modes that had certain definite, inevitable effects on the human soul – and also echoes Gurdjieff’s ideal of objective art.
In a recent interview, Fripp compared himself to thirteenth-century English carpenters who took large numbers of apprentices into their homes. Extending the analogy, he likened Crafties to anonymous cathedral builders of the late middle ages: “They didn’t carve their names in the stones and leave testimonials to who they were because it would have gotten in the way.” (Diliberto 1987, 52) Once again, the selfless and humble devotion to one’s craft, the idea of working in the service of a purpose unimaginably greater than oneself.
Jung had a similar idea, which he relates in his autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections: he dreamed of the men and women of today working for consciousness as the myriad builders of an immense new cathedral of human fulfillment – each builder playing perhaps only a small, anonymous part, but nonetheless contributing significantly to the realization of the overall design. How long would the construction of this vast symbolic cathedral take? In Jung’s view, about six hundred years.
In Guitar Craft courses, Fripp and his students use acoustic guitars exclusively. This is partly due to purely practical considerations – the prospect of fifteen, twenty, or more electric guitars simultaneously playing raises possibly insurmountable balance problems and equipment hassles. But there was more to the choice of acoustic instruments than that. Fripp’s first guitar had been an acoustic, but in the early King Crimson years he had switched over to electric almost completely. In 1974, while allowing that the acoustic had a potentially lovely tone if properly played, he called acoustic guitar “an anachronism … As a form of contemporary expression, the electric guitar is the only hope for the guitar at the moment as a creative instrument.” (Rosen 1974, 34)
In the early 1980s, particularly in his work with King Crimson and Andy Summers, Fripp delved into the latest effects and guitar synthesizer technology. Like many guitarists, though, he was frustrated with the slight tracking delay of even the best guitar synths – and like many musicians, after initial flirtations with the awesome sound capabilities of MIDI rigs, Fripp seemed to come around to the conclusion that music is more important than sound – and that good music could not be purchased at the local electronics hardware/software store but was every bit as elusive as it had ever been. (Even Milton Babbitt, twelve-tone guru of the early RCA synthesizers of the 1950s and early 1960s, had concluded that “nothing gets boring so quickly as a new sound.”)
Fripp also spoke of the disturbing distance, in playing an electric guitar, between the sound (coming out of an amplifier speaker somewhere) and its source (at the fingers of the guitarist). He said, “As soon as you plug in you have a state of ‘schizophrenia.’” (Diliberto 1987, 52) This distance or schizophrenia was something a professional player could learn to work with, but only at some cost in terms of a sense of intimacy with the music. In playing the acoustic guitar, the sound emanates directly from its source, and both are held close to the body, so that a certain direct proximity to the music inheres which is intrinsically impossible with an electric guitar.
For the type of group playing practiced in Guitar Craft, it is vitally important for each player to be able to hear what everyone else is doing, for there to be no ambiguity between the sound and its source. Fripp settled on the acoustic Ovation Legend 1867, which features a gently rounded super-shallow body design that may be about as close to the shape and depth of an electric guitar as is possible without an intolerable loss of tone quality. Fripp liked the way the Ovation 1867 fitted against his body, which made it possible for him to assume the right-arm picking position he had developed using electric guitars over the years; on deeper-bodied guitars, the Frippian arm position is impossible without uncomfortable contortions, as I found out with my beloved Yamaha dreadnought.
The Ovation 1867 also features a built-in pickup and graphic equalizer for use in performance situations where amplification is necessary; of course, the moment it is plugged in, the guitar no longer sounds like the guitar itself, but like the speakers it is running through, and the source/sound schizophrenia rears its head again. But – shall we say – life is full of compromises, and the Ovation 1867 has become the officially recommended Guitar Craft model.
So what is Guitar Craft? Perhaps I should have begun with the concise definition given in the 1989 Guitar Craft Services Brochure. “Guitar Craft,” it is therein written, “is three things: 1) a way to develop a relationship with the guitar; 2) a way to develop a relationship with music; 3) a way to develop a relationship with oneself.” The name Guitar Craft itself implies a certain concentration on the attainment of a level of competency in very practical terms.
Competency may then pass into fluency, and fluency into mastery. But the emphasis in Guitar Craft is on concrete methods, not speculative metaphysics or “bright ideas” as they are known in Crafty folklore: as the Brochure goes on to say, “We approach the intangible by working on the tangible. At a certain point of application, of concentrated effort, craft becomes an art.”
The League of Crafty Guitarists
Live Guitar Craft music has been heard by audiences under a variety of circumstances. Even Level One student’s have been thrust into public to display their craft, as at the Iron Rail gig described in the previous chapter. On other occasions, Fripp has had students at particular seminars mount more formal concerts and make radio station appearances. In early 1987 Fripp took a six-week Level Three/Four group on a performance tour in Holland and Israel. Various local groups of Crafties, with names like the New York Chapter and the Potomac Working Group, have organized themselves and given performances without Fripp, sometimes with his blessing and sometimes without. Fripp has talked about Guitar Craft in terms of an image of “one guitarist in many bodies”: at least in theory, wherever two or more Crafties are gathered in the name of that metaphysical guitarist, there is professional-quality music.
But the League of Crafty Guitarists proper is Guitar Craft’s primary performance vehicle, and over the past few years Fripp and various incarnations of the LCG have toured extensively, particularly in the United States. As the League is envisioned as a visible presence of Guitar Craft in the world, Fripp is concerned to put his best foot forward, and only the most committed Crafties are admitted to this exclusive group. Guitar playing is only part of it; among other things, to become a performing member of the League of Crafty Guitarists you must be able to look Fripp in the eye and say you have not taken any kind of drugs during the past year.
In the Guitar Craft Newsletter of May 3, 1988, Fripp announced, “There will be a Special Project in California during the second half of January 1989. This will require a high level of performance skill. Should any Crafty be considering this, begin your preparation now.” In time, a team coalesced, and, billed as Robert Fripp and the League of Crafty Guitarists, presented concerts in five cities from San Diego to San Francisco in the week of January 14-21.
The venue for the two sold-out appearances in San Francisco on January 15 was the Great American Music Hall – maximum occupancy 470 persons. A handwritten notice on the door read: “NO cameras or recording devices permitted at this performance. Persons found in possession of cameras or recorders – in use or not! – will be asked (then told) to leave. No refunds will be issued. Ya wanna tape – go to a Grateful Dead concert.”
No longer an active Crafty (not that I ever really had been, save for my week at Claymont), I came as a member of the audience for the early show. I squeezed into a chair at a front-row table and contemplated the Music Hall’s strange baroque architecture and the audience – mostly white males in their twenties and thirties, a few young women, lots of beards and intelligent-looking faces.
Fripp and company made a grand entrance, walking in single file from the door at the left of the stage to the back of the hall, then up the central aisle to the stage. Standing in neat semicircular formation, the League suddenly looked at the audience, with exaggerated expressions of curiosity – as the audience looked back and giggled. This seemed to be a gesture in the direction of breaking down the barrier between audience and performers, or even reversing their roles entirely. Someone from the balcony yelled out, “Starless!” and Fripp threw a mock-peevish glance up in the offender’s direction.
The music was mostly memorized, with portions of some pieces possibly improvised. The fifteen Level Six guitarists sat on their chairs with perfect poise and concentration, almost expressionless, occasionally looking around the hall with an air of slightly self-conscious bemusement. The League performed on amplified acoustic Ovations with built-in pickups. What the League of Crafty Guitarists lacks in visible passion it makes up for in an awesomely understated display of discipline and technique. At the San Francisco concert the overall musical impression was one of a smoothly-functioning V-8 cruising along comfortably at ninety miles an hour, sometimes downshifting into low gear with a tremendous release of energy.
The music – a carefully planned sequence of full ensemble playing, duets, trios, quartets, and larger combinations – whether fast or slow, intricate or thrashing, was almost uniformly difficult, impressive, and peerless executed. The audience, almost throughout, seemed quiet, attentive, blown away, responding to almost every piece with thunderous applause. There is nothing like it – a virtuoso acoustic guitar orchestra playing all original material in styles that blend rock and minimalism, Bartok and blues, gamelan and extended tonalities.
The only real negative criticism I could muster was to the effect that most of the pieces were on the allegro side, structurally static and non-developmental, somewhat at the expense of expressive shifts of dynamics and tempo. But even this seemed perhaps less a critique of whom the League were than a concept of what I would fancy doing, compositionally, with such an extraordinary ensemble at my command. After the first fifty-minute set, Fripp stood up and, in that smiling gentlemanly way of his, asked the audience if they had any questions about Guitar Craft “or what we do.” Someone said, “Well – what exactly is it that you do?” Laughter. Fripp eyed the questioner with feigned exasperation and said, “Where have you “been” for the past fifty minutes?” Gesturing gracefully to his ensemble, he added, “This is what we do.”
Someone else asked how he would classify the music. “I wouldn’t,” he said, and, after a pause, “‘Contemporary music for guitar ensemble,’ but that doesn’t really tell you much.” In general, Fripp’s manner of fielding audience questions resembled the way he interacted with students from the head table at Claymont: confident, cheerful, ironic, and witty – rather like an impish fount of wisdom.
The second set was considerably shorter than the first, and after six pieces – the final one a big loud polymetrical chordal thrasher – the League rose from their chairs to a standing ovation, took their bows, and filed neatly back out the way they had come in, following a beaming Fripp, who nodded to acknowledge the acclaim.
The League of Crafty Guitarists: Recordings
Fripp has always considered most of his music difficult if not impossible to record properly, and the problem of conveying the sense behind the sound is particularly sticky when it comes to the Guitar Craft repertoire. The ideal way to hear Guitar Craft music is live and unamplified; live and amplified – as at the concert just described – is second best; and on the home stereo a distant third.
Live and unamplified, the sound of the guitar orchestra evokes a feeling of immense depth and spaciousness: a circle or semi-circle of five, ten, fifteen, or twenty guitars playing concerted polyphony can be a marvel of acoustics, presenting a thrilling experience of translucent three-dimensional musical space. Quite aside from the philosophical issue of live versus canned music, there is simply no way that this music will sound the same coming out of loudspeakers, no matter how immaculate the mixing, no matter how sophisticated the playback and/or amplification equipment, no matter how well-engineered the recording.
Live and unamplified, the sound of a fifteen-piece guitar ensemble is emanating from fifteen distinct points in space, animated by subtle acoustic harmonics and reverberations reinforcing each other and canceling each other out in a fantastically complex way that speakers cannot physically duplicate. In live, unamplified situations, the Guitar Craft sound surrounds the listener or participant with a tangible yet chaotic, turbulent yet oceanic expanse.
I felt this directly at the GC XII seminar in February 1986 as we sat around the circle in the ballroom and played. When the first Guitar Craft album came out a few months later, I was inevitably disappointed at the sound, which seemed to be completely lacking in depth. But Robert Fripp and the League of Crafty Guitarists – Live! is an affecting, impressive record nonetheless – the more so given the facts surrounding its recording. The “challenge” of GC XII, the reader will recall, was to present an evening of original music at the Iron Rail.
Two months previously, Fripp had given the two-week GC IX group of seventeen guitarists a set of challenges: preparing music for a live radio broadcast, a recording session in the Claymont mansion ballroom (with a mobile twenty-four track studio parked outside), and three concerts at George Washington University.
Of the eleven pieces on Live!, eight were recorded at the University concerts. One (“Crafty March”) was a take from the sound check at the University. Another (“The Chords That Bind”) was recorded in the mansion ballroom. “The New World” consists of solo Frippertronics recorded live, overlaid with a linear studio solo (the liner notes don’t clarify exactly what this piece is doing on a Guitar Craft album). Eight of the pieces are by Fripp, two are by Fripp and the League, and one is by Andrew Essex, one of the Crafties.
Most of what I have already said about Guitar Craft music applies to Live!: it’s relentlessly intellectual and rhythmically difficult, stimulating and challenging to the listener; its sources are Indonesian gamelan textures, Bartokian counterpoint, Stravinskian tonality and meter, and rock rhythms; it’s predominantly polyphonic and linear, even the slow pieces; it’s admirably executed for the most part. And it is almost literally unbelievable, a vivid testimony to the power of an idea (Guitar Craft) – that the intricate, precise, and altogether coherent and accomplished music on the album was whipped into shape in such a short space of time. “Guitar Craft Themes I and II” (subtitled “Invocation” and “Aspiration”) are the foundation of the entire repertoire: an introduction to the new tuning, the style of group playing, and the characteristic picking and fingering patterns in Fripp’s method. Every Level One Crafty learns the “Themes”; they are the same pieces my seminar played in our final “concert” described in the previous chapter.
Live! was released with a “companion” album, Toyah and Fripp, Featuring the League of Crafty Guitarists – The Lady or the Tiger? The premise of the album consists of Toyah Wilcox reading, to the accompaniment of gentle modal music by Fripp alone (Side One) and by Fripp and the League of Crafty Guitarists (Side Two), a pair of allegorical stories by a certain Frank R. Stockton (1834-1902). Stockton, Fripp explains in the liner notes, was a wood engraver and writer who bought Claymont Court in 1899 and lived in the mansion until his death; the room on the second floor he made his study is the room Fripp uses for private guitar lessons at Guitar Craft seminars.
Stockton’s stories, “The Lady or the Tiger?” and “The Discourager of Hesitancy,” beguilingly recited by Wilcox, are metaphorical fairy tales set in a mythical kingdom, written in a studied, deliberately archaic, romantic style; little more can be said about them without depriving the reader of this book the opportunity to be drawn into their special paradoxical magic in as it were a virginal state. I shall thus refrain from further explication except to point out that unless you are exceptionally fond of fairy tales, it is unlikely you will find yourself wanting to play through the album more than once or twice.
The Guitar Craft music that accompanies “The Discourager of Hesitancy” was recorded in the mansion ballroom by GC IX, the same group that made Live! It is unclear whether the evocative music – a long piece titled “The Encourager of Precipitation” – was conceived with the intent of using it as the soundtrack to Wilcox’s reading, or whether it was originally a long independent instrumental; it could easily stand on its own.
The third GC album, Get Crafty I, was recorded by Fripp and a twenty-six-member incarnation of the League of Crafty Guitarists in October 1988, in Wessex. Some of the selections were taped at concerts, others during rehearsals. To the best of my knowledge, Get Crafty was never distributed to record stores, but exists solely as a cassette available by mail order through Guitar Craft Services. Which is too bad, because it is far and away the best of the three Guitar Craft recordings to date.
The album represents a quantitative, if not quite a qualitative evolution within Guitar Craft in the three years that had elapsed since Live! The music on Get Crafty is much more difficult and complex, the playing of a uniformly polished and virtuosic character, as opposed to Live!’s occasional lapses. If Live! can be compared to the eight-year-old Mozart’s valiant and inspired if somewhat raw and naive attempts at symphonic composition, then Get Crafty is Mozart in his early twenties, in total command of a sparkling idiom he has completely assimilated.
Get Crafty also represents a maturing Guitar Craft in the sense that the sixteen pieces were written by a total of ten Crafty composers: Fripp, Tony Geballe, Ralph Gorga, Curt Golden, Trey Gunn, Steve Ball, Burt Lams, P. Walker, Spazzo Ray, and Juanita. In other words, by late 1988 the ongoing creation of the Guitar Craft repertoire had become a collective enterprise; although Fripp composed five of the tunes (more than any other individual), his students at this point were eminently capable of tapping into the creative source and producing from their own imagination music in certain immediately apparent respects equal to Fripp’s own efforts in the genre.
Now, this brings up some interesting issues. On the one hand, I find it hard to write about Get Crafty without lapsing into breathless superlatives – awesome, incredible, intense, sans pareil, fantastic, incomparable, musicians’ music. On the other hand, viewing the music dispassionately (which I am honestly unable to do), one might comment that in spite of having ten different composers, Get Crafty sounds rather as though it came out of a single mind, a single fount of style and inspiration. A cynic might say that Fripp had finally succeeded in finding a way of cloning himself, growing experimental cultures of his musico-genetic code and devilishly standing back to observe the resulting mutations.
A musicologist might point out that the greatest composition teachers (Bach, Schoenberg, Nadia Boulanger, Olivier Messiaen) have historically been those who have guided their students to their personal voices rather than imposing their own style upon them. In a paradoxical formulation, Fripp himself has said that in the early stages of King Crimson IV individual egotism – the urge for self-expression at the expense of a higher-level musical organism – was not a problem … because he himself was “emanating” to the other members of the band what the music should sound like.
There are a couple of pieces that strike me as being more individuated. Ball’s “The Breathing Field” uses graded dynamic swells and contrasting textural planes to good effect; Lams and Walker’s “Chiara” is a lovely, slow, almost achingly hesitant harmonic essay. Fripp’s own compositions on Get Crafty stand well above those of his imitators – they have real shape, real contour, real inner motion and line as opposed to a mere illusion of motion produced by a lot of fast notes. The juxtaposed textures of “Intergalactic Boogie Express,” the exploitation of open-string resonance on “The Moving Force,” and many other touches, show that Fripp is still (or was still in 1988) Guitar Craft’s master composer.
But for the most part, the approach to rhythm, texture, harmony, and melody is interchangeable from piece to piece, with slight variations on the overriding stylistic theme. Why aren’t there slower and medium-tempo Guitar Craft compositions? Why so little true harmonic variety? Why so many dazzling ostinati and so little melodic lyricism? Why so few structural crescendi and diminuendi? So few real contrasts of mood and texture within individual pieces?
Complicated stuff, this. Even though one can point to the relative lack of compositional differentiation in an artifact like Get Crafty, there is something uncanny precisely about the way all the music seems to be flowing from a single group mind – a mind seemingly so much greater than the sum of its individual parts. And I suppose there is nothing inherently wrong with an artistic movement wherein unity of stylistic language is stressed at the expense of self-expression. When I was a graduate student, we used to have a little game where someone would play obscure compositions by Mozart and Haydn and see if the others could guess which composer it was – the point being that the idioms of the Viennese masters were so very similar.
Rather than accuse Fripp of cultivating clones in Petri dishes, I am disposed to remind the reader that the whole Western concept of the composer as an individual Artist with a capital A is a phenomenon that dates back only roughly to Beethoven (1770-1827), successor to Haydn and Mozart in the classical tradition. It is probably safe to say that before Beethoven’s time, the composer, though he may have enjoyed a certain privileged status on account of being affiliated with specific prestigious institutions of church or aristocracy, was inclined to view himself – and was apt to be viewed by the society he moved in – more as a craftsman than as a prophet, a more skilled worker than a genius.
And thus we come full circle to the idea of Guitar Craft as such. Across the horizon rises a new, or renewed concept of art: not individualistic but wholistic, not personally confessional art set apart from life on a podium but communally experienced craft which blends into life itself; not designated musicians entertaining designated audiences, but rather crafts manlike musicians participating with fellow human beings in the universal drama of time, tone, music, rhythm; not the “me generation” but spaceship Earth.
New communities that embody such insights in their everyday activities, productivity, nurturing spirit, craft, and art – maybe Guitar Craft, for all its very human weaknesses, is one such community.
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.
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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. Overall style?
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.
King Crimson – Radical Action (To Unseat The Hold Of Monkey Mind)
Mel Collins: Saxes & Flute Tony Levin: Basses & Stick Jakko Jakszyk: Guitar, Voice & Flute Robert Fripp: Guitar & Keyboards Pat Mastelotto: Drums Bill Rieflin: Drums & Keyboards Gavin Harrison: Drums
Dave Salt: Tour manager Mark Vreeken: FOH sound design Trevor Wilkins: Video/Audio Recording Jason Birnie: Stage Manager/drums Biff Blumfumgagne: Guitars/Sax & Flute Michele Russotto: Bass/drums John Armitage: Guitars/backline Ian Bond: Audio Tech Russ Wilson: Audio Tech Adrian Holmes: Merchandise Katrina Doy: Production Assistant David Bushong: Driver
Audio pre-production – Jakko Jakszyk & Gavin Harrison Digital Assembly – Alex R Mundy Mixing Engineer – Chris Porter Mixed by Chris Porter, Robert Fripp and David Singleton
“Cyclops” Cover Painting – Francesca Sundsten Additional Artwork & Cyclops re-imagining – Ben Singleton DGM logo – Steve Ball Booklet photography by Claudia Hahn www.heliocyan.com (P. 5, 9, 11, 12 left, 14, 16, 17, 18, 19) and Trevor Wilkins (P. 2, 6, 10, 12 centre, 13, 15, 20, 22) Gatefold inner sleeve photos by Scarlet Page Design and layout – Hugh O’Donnell All artists own the copyright in their work. Produced by Robert Fripp and David Singleton on behalf of King Crimson.
The original chords and melody for “Starless” were written by John Wetton, who intended the song to be the title track of the group’s previous album Starless and Bible Black. Robert Fripp and Bill Bruford initially disliked the song and declined to record it for that album. Instead the group chose an instrumental improvisation as the title track.
However, “Starless” was later revived, its lyrics altered and a long instrumental section (based on a bass riff written by Bruford) added to it, and performed live between March and June 1974. For the Red recording sessions, the lyrics were again altered (with contributions by Richard Palmer-James). The introductory theme, originally played by David Cross, was taken over by the guitar, with Fripp making minor alterations to the melody. As the title “Starless and Bible Black” had already been used, the original title was shortened to “Starless”.
The piece is 12 minutes and 18 seconds in length, the longest on the Red album. It starts with mellotron strings, electric guitar and a saxophone. These introduce a vocal segment in conventional verse-chorus structure.
The middle section of the song builds, in 13/4. Starting with John Wetton’s bass, shortly after joined by Bill Bruford on percussion. Robert Fripp’s guitar repeats a single note theme on two adjacent guitar strings. Bruford’s drumming maintains its irregularity.
The song’s final section begins with an abrupt transition to a fast, jazzy saxophone solo with distorted guitars and bass, expressive tribal drumming, and the tempo doubling up to a time signature of 13/8. Variations of the middle section’s bassline are played under Fripp’s layered and overdriven guitar parts. The saxophone returns to play a reprise of the vocal melody, then the final section is repeated with more overdubs from Fripp. Finally, the song ends with a reprise of the opening melody, played on the saxophone instead of the guitar.
Though the phrase “Starless and Bible Black” serves both as the chorus for the song’s vocal segment and as the title of an instrumental track on the album Starless and Bible Black, there is little apparent similarity between the two pieces.
The song has been covered live by Asia, a supergroup of which John Wetton was a founding member; 21st Century Schizoid Band, a group made up of earlier members of King Crimson (save for Jakko Jakszyk, who would later join King Crimson); After Crying, a Hungarian symphonic rock band, with guest vocals by Wetton; U.K., one of whose members was once again Wetton; and District 97, yet again featuring vocals from Wetton.
The Canadian band FM performed a live version of “Starless” in concert in 1977 which was captured on reel-to-reel by band member Nash the Slash, shortly after the recording their classic 1st album Black Noise . It came to light as part of a rarities CD, Lost In Space in 2001. It is a unique cover version as the band consisted of a non-traditional trio; Cameron Hawkins (vocals, bass, keyboards/synthesizers, bass pedals), Martin Deller (Drums & Percussion) and Nash the Slash (electric mandolin, electric violin, synthesizers).
The track “Providence” was a free improvisation recorded at their 30 June 1974 concert at the Palace Theater in the city of the same name. Parts of some of the pieces were conceived during previous improvisations performed by the band live. “Starless” was originally considered for their previous album, Starless and Bible Black (1974), but was considered incomplete at the time. The lengthy version included on this album was refined and performed during concerts throughout 1974.
Red is a progressive rock album with a noticeably heavier sound than their previous albums; it was later called one of the 50 “heaviest albums of all time” by Q. This was achieved with the performances of just three band members: guitarist Robert Fripp, bassist and vocalist John Wetton and drummer Bill Bruford. The dense sound of the album was achieved by significant layering, multiple guitar overdubs, and key guest appearances by musicians including founding King Crimson member Ian McDonald, classical oboist Robin Miller and English jazz trumpeter Marc Charig.
Roughly two weeks prior to the release of Red, King Crimson disbanded. The album turned out to be their lowest-charting album at that time, spending only one week in the UK Album Chart at No. 45 and the US Billboard 200 at No. 66. However, it was well received among fans and critics. It has received further praise retrospectively, being recognized as one of the band’s best works, and has been re-issued many times.
Near the conclusion of King Crimson’s 1974 US and Canada tour, the decision was made to ask David Cross to leave the band. EG, the band’s management, urged Fripp not to tell Cross until after the final date of the tour, but he would not be able to do this anyway; Fripp would not return from the United States until after Cross would return to Europe. Fripp reached an agreement with EG management that they would tell Cross, “on proviso that [Cross] is told that I objected to not telling him personally.”
Despite reaching this agreement, Cross would not be told by EG until the day before the recording of Red began. In his stead, the band brought back several contributors to past albums: Robin Miller on oboe, Marc Charig on cornet, former King Crimson members Ian McDonald and Mel Collins on saxophones, as well as an uncredited cellist and acoustic bassist.
Red sees King Crimson follow in the direction established by their previous two albums, Larks’ Tongues in Aspic and Starless and Bible Black, but in contrast to those albums, Red features more layered production with multiple overdubs, as well as the return of the earlier instrumentation of the guest players. Red’s heavier tone was largely due to the influence of the rhythm section, Wetton and Bruford, whom Fripp has referred to as “a flying brick wall”.
During the recording of the album, Fripp took a “backseat” when making large decisions. He had decided to take “a year’s sabbatical … at Bennett’s Institute,” and offered the idea of McDonald rejoining the band in his absence to EG. When this idea was met with disinterest, Fripp abruptly disbanded King Crimson on 24 September 1974, and Red was released two weeks later.
Writing and recording
Much of the material on Red has origins in improvisation. Motifs that would eventually be used for “Fallen Angel” were first played by Robert Fripp in 1972, as part of improvs performed with the quintet lineup that would record Larks’ Tongues In Aspic. These improvisations are documented as “Fallen Angel” and “Fallen Angel Hullabaloo” in the Larks’ Tongues in Aspic: The Complete Recordings box set, as well as standalone releases of their respective concerts.
The distinctive introduction to “One More Red Nightmare” was also deployed by John Wetton and Robert Fripp in various improvs throughout 1974, which can be heard in the Starless (box set) and The Road to Red box sets. One notable performance is titled “The Golden Walnut”. Lastly, “Providence” itself was an improv, taken from the group’s show on 30th June in Providence, Rhode Island. It was included in its uncut form as part of various live sets, such as The Great Deceiver, as well as the 40th Anniversary Edition of Red itself.
“Red” was composed solely by Robert Fripp. In an analysis of the piece by Andrew Keeling, he describes “Red” as “an instrumental piece scored for electric guitar (multi-tracked in three layers), bass guitar and drums,” as well as “one of the more muscular pieces of Robert Fripp’s, in particular the deployment of open strings and heavily attacked and syncopated bass and drums.” In an online diary from 2012, Robert Fripp speaks about the development of “Red”: “A motif; moved from [the missing piece] “Blue” to “Red”: the opening and closing theme of “Red” itself.
The driving, relentless figure that follows it, and the middle figure played by the basses, weren’t enough for a complete piece.” Speaking about it in the book accompanying the Larks’ Tongues in Aspic: The Complete Recordings box set, he says, “After we had just recorded the track “Red” in [Olympic Studios] … we played it back and Bill said, ‘I don’t get it, but if you tell me it’s good, I trust you.’ … I said, ‘We don’t have to use it.’ John was in no doubt: ‘We’ll use it.'”
An unused variation of the song’s middle section would later emerge in 1983, during the writing rehearsals for Three of a Perfect Pair. Though it went unused, it finally saw light in 1995, more than two decades later, as the middle section of the instrumental “VROOOM VROOOM” on THRAK.
“Starless” was originally written by Wetton, with the intent of it being the title track for Starless and Bible Black. At the time, the piece consisted only of the vocal section of the song, and Wetton claims that it got a “cold reception” from both Robert Fripp and Bill Bruford. Later, an introductory theme was written by Robert Fripp and performed on violin by David Cross, and two additional sections were added after the vocal, one being contributed by Bruford. The final section reprises various themes from earlier in the song, and it also re-uses a bass part which was originally written for the song “Fracture”.
This early arrangement of “Fracture” can be heard on discs 1 and 25 of the Starless box set, as well as the standalone releases of their respective concerts. The lyrics went through several iterations, with one early verse later included by Wetton in “Caesar’s Palace Blues,” a song he would perform with U.K. Since the title “Starless and Bible Black” was already used for an improvisation on the group’s previous album, the song’s title was shortened to “Starless”. On Red, “Starless” is credited to the quartet, as well as lyricist Richard Palmer-James.
The lyrics to the three songs on the album were not originally included as part of the packaging for the album, unlike all previous Crimson studio albums, which always had lyrics printed either on the inside of the gatefold covers, or on the custom innersleeves. This led to some occasional confusion amongst listeners about precisely what was being sung, particularly on the song “One More Red Nightmare.” The first printing of the lyrics would occur 26 years after the album’s initial release, on the 2000 ’30th Anniversary Edition’ release.
Release and reception
Released in October 1974, Red spent only one week on the British charts, at No. 45, whereas all the band’s previous studio albums had reached the Top 30. In the United States, it reached No. 66 on the Billboard 200. However, it remained a popular album with fans and critics.
Retrospective reviews were resoundingly positive. In theirs, AllMusic declared Red to be weaker than its two predecessors, but nonetheless a superlative work: “few intact groups could have gotten an album as good as Red together.
The fact that it was put together by a band in its death throes makes it all the more impressive an achievement.” Robert Christgau also applauded the album, having been generally critical of the group’s past work, calling it “Grand, powerful, grating, and surprisingly lyrical” and commenting that “this does for classical-rock fusion what John McLaughlin‘s Devotion did for jazz-rock fusion.” Classic Rock reviewer considered Red “a walk down a lightless corridor and an unhappy and ferocious counterbalance to the frolics of King Crimson’s beginnings”, and described it as “dark, brooding and laden with heavily distorted sections and a decidedly melancholic vibe”.
Like most of King Crimson’s catalogue, Red has been re-released numerous times since 1974. First issued on Compact Disc in 1986, it has also been released as part of the “Definitive Edition” series in 1989, and the “30th Anniversary Edition” series in 1999. In 2009, Red was chosen, alongside In the Court of the Crimson King and Lizard, to launch the “40th Anniversary Edition” series.
As part of this series, each album is presented in a CD/DVD-A package, with new stereo and 5.1 surround mixes crafted by Steven Wilson. Unlike the other editions in the series, however, Red launched with no new stereo mix. In 2013, Wilson and Fripp created a new stereo mix for The Road To Red boxed set, and this mix was also issued separately as part of a 2CD package.
In 2001, Q magazine named Red as one of the “50 Heaviest Albums of All Time” and Pitchfork ranked Red number 72 in its “Top 100 Albums of the 1970s” list, stating that “For a band that was very obviously about to splinter, King Crimson’s music sounds remarkably of a single mind. On Red, they achieved a remarkable balance between bone-crushing brutality and cerebral complexity.” Rolling Stone ranked the album at number 15 on their list of the 50 best progressive rock albums of all time. Kurt Cobain had reportedly cited the album as a major influence.
“Red” was covered by Canadian rock band Glueleg in their 1994 debut Heroic Doses, with this version featuring saxophone and trumpet. “Red” was also ranked as the twentieth best progressive rock song of all time by PopMatters, as well as number 87 in Rolling Stone‘s list of “The 100 Greatest Guitar Songs”. Additionally, “Red” has been considered an influence on avant-garde metal.
Musicologists Eric Tamm and Edward Macan both consider Red, particularly the track “Starless“, to be the highlight of King Crimson’s recorded output. “Starless” is played over the opening titles of the 2018 horror film Mandy.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
EXPOSURE • 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).
Robert Fripp, the amazing guitarist (4): KING CRIMSON and Brian Eno
The Formation of King Crimson III
King Crimson II disbanded after the “Earthbound” tour, whose last gig was in Birmingham, Alabama, on April 1, 1972. Fripp was looking for something new. In November he was to say of the Earthbound period, “Having discovered what everybody [in the band] wanted to do, I found I didn’t want to do it.” (YPG 21, quoting from Sounds, Nov. 4 1972) On the following page is a condensed chronology of activities taking us from this point to the end of the King Crimson III period.
References to the printed booklet included in The Young Persons’ Guide to King Crimson are herein indicated by the abbreviation YPG followed by column numbers. The booklet itself, however, contains neither page nor column numbers. Therefore, if you wish to find the exact location of a YPG quotation listed in these Notes, you must number the columns in YPG yourself. Begin with “1” at the first column (1968-June 1).
Immediately following the Earthbound tour, in May 1972, Fripp set about forming a new King Crimson. This time, you can practically hear the man muttering under his breath, it’s no more Mr. Nice Guy. In point of fact, Fripp was determined to make a break from the chaos and instability of KC II as well as from some of the musical styles of that “interim” period, to get back somehow to the intangible spirit of King Crimson that was continuing to haunt him like a demon. Perhaps as a symbol of the changes to be made, Fripp cut his long frizzy hair around this time and sprouted a neat little beard – changing his visual appearance from latter-day hippie to fastidiously groomed young intellectual musician.
A man like Fripp does not believe that things happen by accident, but rather looks for synchronistically significant signs, reading the screen of his perceptions as a metaphorical psychic tableau. In the late spring of 1972 a number of such signs seemed to present themselves in an auspicious constellation, and Fripp’s confidence was high.
To begin with, there was the matter of enlisting the talents of experimental percussionist and notorious mystical crazy man Jamie Muir, whose list of avant-garde credits included work with saxophonist Evan Parker, guitarist Derek Bailey, the Battered Ornaments and Boris. Muir’s name had been crossing the screen of Fripp’s awareness for several years. Fripp had felt it inevitable that some day they would work together. He told an interviewer in 1973, “When I finally phoned him up, we talked as if we’d known each other for a long time. He expected to be in King Crimson and had been waiting for my call.” (Crowe 1973, 22)
Then there was the matter of bassist/singer John Wetton, who, like Muir, had been on Fripp’s mind for some time. Wetton was, like Fripp, Greg Lake, and several other musicians in the King Crimson circle, from the Bournemouth area – Fripp and Wetton had known each other in college – and had worked his way up in local bands before joining the eclectic progressive rock group Family in 1970. Wetton left Family to briefly join Mogul Thrash, and when that band fell apart in early 1971, Wetton, looking for work, called Fripp up in late January, a week after Fripp had concluded his torturous and lengthy auditioning of bass players by choosing Boz. By October 1971, Fripp had a proposition for King Crimson II members Collins, Boz, and Wallace, as well as for Wetton: Wetton would join the band, freeing Boz to concentrate more on his vocal duties. The band members rejected the idea; they wanted Boz to continue on bass.
For his part, Wetton declined; he later said, “I didn’t think I’d get on with that band at all. Fripp was just using me then as an ally. Saying ‘Listen, I’m outnumbered; there are three people who want to play this kind of music and only me who wants to play this kind of music. Help.’ I didn’t think that was a very good pretext for joining the band so I said no.” (Rosen 1983, 22) Score one for Wetton’s strength and independence; so far so bad for Fripp’s designs on Wetton’s talents. But when KC II finally came apart, the time was ripe: what had been out of sync now fell together, and Fripp and Wetton finally seemed to need each other at the same time.
Wetton later said the idea was to rebuild the band from the ground up: “We totally re-designed the band, we updated it. I felt that the band before ours, the Islands band, was a little dated. They were trying to play pseudo kind of pop funk and it just didn’t gel. So we put it back on the rails again and headed it in a progressive direction with Larks’ Tongues in Aspic.” (Rosen 1983, 22) Wetton, who after KC III was to play with Uriah Heep and Asia, had a vigorous, muscular touch with the bass and was known for his habit of breaking strings.
Then there was the business of Yes drummer Bill Bruford, who had also been filtering in and out of Fripp’s line of vision ever since March 1970, when Yes had asked Fripp to join the band to replace guitarist Peter Banks. Fripp had declined, intent on pursuing his musical goals within the framework of King Crimson (even though King Crimson at that point in time was rather in disarray). From then to the spring of 1972, Yes went on to do what many, feel was their best work, culminating in the epic rock sonata “Close to the Edge.” Around May or June 1972, Fripp, guitar and amplifier in tow, joined Bruford for dinner at the latter’s house one evening. After the repast they played a bit of music together at Fripp’s suggestion, and before you could say “incredible drummer – obvious choice,” Bruford had accepted a post in King Crimson.
Thus was born a musical collaboration which in a sense endured for over a decade, since Bruford was back when King Crimson was born again, mark IV, in the 1980s. Perhaps more than most of the musicians who have played in King Crimson, Bruford bought into the Frippian philosophy ever hovering somewhere amid the shadowy columns of the Court – a philosophy for which Fripp, of course, refused to take direct credit (or in a sense responsibility), preferring to reserve that honor for the mythical entity of “King Crimson” itself.
When KC IV broke out in 1981, for instance, Bruford, simultaneously endorsing and distancing himself from the philosophy, would say that despite the endless personnel changes over the years, “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 re-harnessed this, we’ve kind of gone back into it.” (Dallas 1981, 27)
There were those in the music press who wondered aloud why Bruford would choose to quit Yes, a group that precisely then was sitting on top of the pinnacle of commercial and artistic success, to join King Crimson, a somewhat suspect band, not quite on the same rank from a sales viewpoint – a band which had by this time become almost a joke in terms of its perpetual instability and volatility, and whose music was perceived as uneven, risky, and of dubious commercial value.
But for his part, Bruford felt he had learned all he could musically from the Yes lineup; an artistic adventure with Fripp and company held out potentially greater personal rewards than continuing to beat time for one of progressive rock’s unquestioned supergroups. He was also eager to work with percussionist Muir, who appeared to Bruford as a direct link with “the world of free jazz and inspiration,” as he put it. (Crowe 1973, 22)
Fripp, as part of his overall effort to banish immediate musical memories and habits, to rejuvenate his imagination, decided against using a reed player, saxophone had been a big part of the whole King Crimson sound right from the beginning, one reason why the group was so strongly associated with jazz-rock. Fripp instead opted for a violin and viola player who could complement his own melodic guitar work with a new range of tone color, and who could also double on mellotron and other keyboards in certain situations.
That player was David Cross, a musician with a classical background who had floated around the music scene and had worked with a pop-rock singer named P.J. Proby and folk-rock band the Ring. Cross described his recruitment casually: “Yeah, Robert came down and we got it together and had a couple of blows.” (Corbett 1973, n.p.) Like Bruford, Cross found the prospect, and then the reality, of working with percussionist Muir exciting; in 1973, he was to say, “We all learned an incredible amount from Jamie. He really was a catalyst of this band in the beginning and he opened up new areas for Bill to look into as well as affecting the rest of us.” (Corbett 1973, n.p.)
By July 1972 King Crimson III – Fripp, Muir, Wetton, Bruford, and Cross – was complete. Rehearsals commenced on September 4. The following year, Fripp would tell Rolling Stone writer Cameron Crowe: “I’m not really interested in music; music is just a means of creating a magical state … One employs magic every day. Every thought is a magical act. You don’t sit down and work spells and all that hokey stuff. It’s simply experimentation with different states of consciousness and mind control.” (Crowe 1973, 22) This from a man who had made (and to this day still makes) a deliberate practice, even a personal crusade, of not using drugs – from a musician some have perceived as the world’s most rational rock star.
Robert Fripp viewed King Crimson as something outside himself, an entity, a being, a presence, which he could respond to, whose instrument he could become, but which was somehow intrinsically beyond him, not of his own creation, and over which, in spite of his dogged efforts to serve, he could ultimately exercise no real control. Fripp could say King Crimson was “too important to let die,” and devote the better part of his life energy to keeping it alive, but in the final analysis he acknowledged it had a life and will of its own.
Struggling mightily with this force, a force perceived to be other, outside the realm of the personal ego, making journeys into the realm of the magical, the unknown, the unconscious, Fripp repeatedly persevered and brought back fragments of the world lying below or beyond everyday awareness. King Crimson, a name coined to stand for Beelzebub, the devil, prince of demons, was a power that Fripp felt called to contend with. Fripp was, in the latter half of the 1980s, to formulate and officially promulgate the image of a more benevolent presence to whose call he had responded: he would call it simply “music.” But in mid-1972, music’s alter ego, or shadow, or compellingly seductive twin, or bastard offspring, or fallen angel, still commanded the twenty-six-year-old Fripp’s imagination: he called it “King Crimson.”
Fripp and Eno
Throughout his tenure with King Crimson in the 1970s, Fripp found time to do session work with other musicians. He guested on Van der Graaf Generator’s H to He Who Am the Only One (1970) and Pawn Hearts (1971), as well as on Peter Hammill’s solo 1972 album Fool’s Mate. As a producer, Fripp’s credits included Centipede’s Septober Energy (1971), Matching Mole’s Little Red Record (1972), and Keith Tippett’s Blueprint (1971) and Ovary Lodge (1972). Fripp met many musicians in his travels; one planned collaboration that didn’t pan out was to have been an album with former Procol Harum guitarist Robin Trower, a project Fripp mentioned in a 1974 interview. (Dove 1974, 14)
One evening in September 1972, around the same time as KC III was commencing rehearsals, Brian Eno invited Fripp over to his home studio and showed him a system of producing music by using two tape recorders set up so that when a single sound was played, it was heard several seconds later at a lower volume level, then again several seconds later at a still lower level, and so on. The system permitted adjustments of various kinds, having to do with volume levels and length of delay; further, the live signal could be disconnected from the loop, so that the already-recorded sounds would repeat indefinitely while a live “solo” line could be played over the top. With this simple set-up, the two musicians set gleefully to work, and within forty-five minutes had produced a long (20’53”) piece they called “The Heavenly Music Corporation,” which was to become Side One of their No Pussyfooting album, released the following year.
Fripp had the highest respect for Eno, in spite of the fact that the latter’s instrumental skills were minimal. Fripp said in 1979, “Eno is one of the very few musicians I’ve worked with who actually listens to what he’s doing. He’s my favorite synthesizer player because instead of using his fingers he uses his ears.” (Garbarini 1979, 32)
With its drony opening, its rhapsodic modal guitar melodizing, its hypnotically returning cycles of phrases, and its sheer duration, “The Heavenly Music Corporation” could be called a
classic mixture of raga, minimalism, and rock, were it not for the fact that Fripp wasn’t using Indian scales in any systematic way, nor had he yet had much exposure to the American minimalists. A guitarist’s and technician’s tour de force, the piece rewards close listening with its slow changes of color, emphasis, and tonality. For once, Fripp did shut out all distractions, remove all superfluous musical elements, and just play his guitar. No Pussyfooting was a major point of departure for both musicians, and Fripp seemed to recognize it instantly as such. So much did Fripp like “The Heavenly Music Corporation” that when King Crimson went on the road in the fall of 1972, he would play the tape before the band came onstage and after they left. Fripp and Eno would continue to collaborate throughout the 1970s: 1975 saw the release of their joint ambient album Evening Star, Fripp’s first major release following the demise of King Crimson III, and Fripp guested on Eno’s solo albums Here Come the Warm Jets (1973), Another Green World (1975), Before and After Science (1977), and Music for Films (1978). A number of brilliantly inspired Fripp guitar solos are stashed away in these albums, notably on the songs “Baby’s On Fire” (Here Come the Warm Jets) and “St Elmo’s Fire” (Another Green World).
The “Larks’ Tongues” Period
With scarcely a month of rehearsals behind them, King Crimson III played four gigs in October at Frankfurt’s Zoom Club, followed by one at the Redcar Jazz Club. Between November 10 and December 15 they toured Britain, playing twenty-seven gigs. There was a renewed emphasis on improvisation in live performance in King Crimson’s music of this period – but not the kind of improvisation common in jazz and rock, where one soloist at a time takes center stage and riffs and rhapsodizes, running through his chops while the rest of the band lays back and comps along with set rhythm and chord changes.
In its best moments, King Crimson improvisation during this period was a group affair, a kind of music-making process in which every member of the band was capable of making creative contributions at every moment. Mindless individual soloing was frowned upon; rather, everyone had to be listening to everyone else at every moment, to be able to react intelligently and creatively to the group sound. This was a period when Fripp stressed the “magic” metaphor time and again; for to him, when group improvisation of this sort really clicked, it was nothing short of bona fide white magic.
Violinist/keyboardist David Cross described the process this way:
“We’re so different from each other that one night someone in the band will play something that the rest of us have never heard before and you just have to listen for a second. Then you react to his statement, usually in a different way than they would expect. It’s the improvisation that makes the group amazing for me. You know, taking chances. There is no format really in which we fall into. We discover things while improvising and if they’re really basically good ideas we try and work them in as new numbers, all the while keeping the improvisation thing alive and continually expanding.” (Corbett 1973) Bruford stressed the group participation in improvisation, using the image of “a kind of fantastic musical sparring match.” (YPG 22, Sounds, Nov. 18 1972)
Other than in the memories of those who went to King Crimson concerts in the Larks’ Tongues period, in the published reviews, and in bootleg tapes of the music, there is no record of what was by most accounts a musical phenomenon that had to be experienced to be believed. Bill Bruford, for one, was surprised by the positive reaction to the group’s playing: “After all, we walk on stage and play an hour and a quarter of music which isn’t on record, and they haven’t heard before, often with no tonal or rhythmic centre.” (YPG 23, MM, Dec. 2 1972)
Following the first KC III British tour (which concluded on December 15), in January and February of 1973 King Crimson went into Command Studios in London to make the album that would become known as Larks’ Tongues in Aspic. It was Muir who came up with the title. When the group was playing back a tape of an instrumental piece they had just made, Muir was asked what it reminded him of; he said without hesitation, “Why, larks’ tongues in aspic, what else?” (Crowe 1973, 22) (Aspic is defined as a jelly used to garnish or make a mold of meat or vegetables, or a lavender yielding a volatile oil. Take your pick.) The degree to which the music of Larks’ Tongues reflects King Crimson’s live playing of the period is open to debate, yet it seems that the two collectively-composed instrumental pieces, “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part One,” and “The Talking Drum,” contain, even in their studio versions, significant elements of group improvisation.
The other instrumental, “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part Two,” is listed as a Fripp composition, and the remaining three pieces are more or less carefully worked-out songs with lyrics by Richard Palmer-James. However well Larks’ Tongues represents or does not represent the live Crimson sound, though, at least the album was made in what Fripp considered to be the proper organic sequence: first you go out and make live music and get the audience’s feedback, then you go into a studio to record the music you have created in a live situation – rather than first composing and recording an album in sterile conditions and then going on the road to “promote” it.
Furthermore, with Larks’ Tongues King Crimson was decisively back in a situation of collective authorship; the music of the previous two studio albums, Islands and Lizard, had been entirely by Fripp (even the composition of Poseidon had been mostly Fripp’s affair). Cross put it this way: “We all did contribute equally to the ‘Larks’ Tongues in Aspic’ album, although Robert was definitely the unifying force behind it.” (Corbett 1973, n.p.) The album’s cover sported a symbolic tantric design of the moon and sun embedded in each other – a union of masculine and feminine principles.
LARKS’ TONGUES IN ASPIC
• David Cross: violin, viola, mellotron • Robert Fripp: guitar, mellotron and devices • John Wetton: bass and vocals • Bill Bruford: drums • Jamie Muir: percussion and allsorts Side One
LARKS’ TONGUES IN ASPIC, PART ONE (by Cross, Fripp, Wetton, Bruford, and Muir). Opens with Muir rapidly stroking a thumb piano. Bells/cymbals and a high flute enter. Crescendo of cymbal trill, descrescendo of thumb piano. Repeated notes on violin; fuzz guitar careens through diminished harmonic areas; Bruford warms up on drums, then whole band slams in. Shall I go on? In essence, what follows is an impressive and somewhat scarifying display of group togetherness, in a number of sections set off by contrasting instrumentation, textures, harmonic premises, dynamics, and mood. Conflict and contrast continue to be dominant issues in King Crimson music, in this piece there is everything from solo fiddle to crashing fusion band and quasi-oriental unison lines. (I don’t believe it – I just played the whole thing at 45 RPM while writing this – daughter Lilia was playing speeded-up Switched-on Bach this morning, as is her wont. So it wasn’t just that cup of dark French roast – I thought “Larks’ Tongues, Part I” was longer than that. Actually sounded pretty good, though – the structure was more evident than I’ve ever heard it before.)
BOOK OF SATURDAY (by Fripp, Wetton, and Palmer-James). An evocative, melancholy minor ballad. Not like earlier Crimson ballads however: more energy, movement, pluck, and a few little twisty harmonic and rhythmic complications to take it out of the 4 + 4 + 4 + 4 phraseology that dragged down some earlier songs.
EXILES (by Cross, Fripp, and Palmer-James). Strange burblings and percussives lead into another moody song, sung verses alternating with freer pulseless sections. The sung bridge contains some remarkable (for rock) modulations – Wetton taking a tip or two from the Brahms/Procol Harum harmonic cookbook. One thing one notices is how Bruford is able, and here willing, to keep himself out of the way more than previous KC drummers – more the Ringo Starr school of percussion, which in a song like “Exiles” is entirely appropriate.
Side Two EASY MONEY (by Fripp, Wetton, and Palmer-James). Funny thing, having the accompaniment in 4 and the vocal in 7. Makes you feel like there’s a fifth wheel on the cart somewhere. But clearly, metrical complications do not in themselves music make. In spite of valiant “funny sounds” efforts by Muir, the long instrumental portions never really take off.
THE TALKING DRUM (by Cross, Fripp, Wetton, Bruford, and Muir). Sound effects move to tritone bass ostinato over softly percolating percussion and drums, Cross and Fripp come in with modal soloing (and a funny mode indeed it be) tonic of A, scale A-Bb-C-C#-D#-E-F-G#, with other notes from time to time), gradual crescendo, suddenly broken off molto appassionato by horrific squeals, which launch directly into …
LARKS’ TONGUES IN ASPIC, PART TWO (by Fripp). On the one hand, an intellectual metrical exercise (O.K. fellows, can you count this?) and an arcane study in whole-tone, tritone, and other exotic chord root relationships, and on the other hand a stingingly original and strangely rousing piece of instrumental rock and roll. Yeah, you can say that the rhythmic organization is “studied,” “labored,” “unnatural,” and so forth. But for Fripp music like this offers the opportunity for players and audiences to concentrate, to concentrate in that peculiar way only difficult music can make us. Try playing it at 45 (turning up the bass to compensate for lost low frequencies) – I just did (intentionally this time), and it sounds much more “musical.”
Dynamic contrast is of the essence in the music of Larks’ Tongues. There is a psychological difference between loud and soft, after all, and in an age when compressors and limiters have squashed the dynamic range of recorded popular music down to the point where a delicately plucked acoustic guitar note or sensitively crooned vocal phrase comes out of your speakers at the same actual volume level as the whole damned synthesized band when it’s blowing away at top intensity, listening to Larks’ Tongues’ startling contrasts of dynamics is a tonic for the ears. It’s more real, it’s more true. Y’know what I mean?
The “Starless” Period
King Crimson played two gigs at London’s Marquee on February 10 and 11, 1973 – dates booked, according to Bruford, for “pure enjoyment and relaxation” to take some pressure off the band during the period of the intense Larks’ Tongues recording sessions. (Crowe 1973, 22) At the first gig, Muir dropped a gong on his foot, causing an injury of sufficient seriousness to prevent him from playing the following night. Bruford, who viewed Muir’s presence as fundamental to King Crimson, assumed that they would have to cancel the gig, but the other members convinced him that they should carry on as a quartet. (Although Muir occasionally sat down behind a trap set to augment Bruford’s drumming, his primary role seems to have been to provide dynamism with his animated stage presence and to gloss the music with an assortment of unusual sounds from a wide variety of percussion instruments, chimes, bells, mbiras, a musical saw, shakers, rattles, and miscellaneous drums.)
King Crimson, minus Muir, went ahead and did the Marquee date, and shortly thereafter Muir left the group permanently, to pursue other – shall we say perhaps related – interests: he became a monk in a monastery in Scotland.
When the recording of Larks’ Tongues was finished, King Crimson – Fripp, Bruford, Wetton, and Cross – embarked on an extensive series of tours: Britain (nine gigs, March 16 – 25); Europe (nine gigs, March 30 – April 9); America (forty-four gigs, April 18 – July 2). Back in London, Fripp took time out from King Crimson to record “Swastika Girls” (Side Two of No Pussyfooting) with Eno at Command Studios on August 4 and 5. King Crimson rehearsals in August laid the foundations of four new pieces, “Lament,” “The Night Watch,” “The Great Deceiver,” and “Fracture,” all of which were to appear on the 1974 album Starless and Bible Black. Soon Crimson was back on the road again, with tours of America (nineteen gigs, September 19 – October 15), Britain (six gigs, October 23 – 29), and Europe (eighteen gigs, November 2 – 29). The live band continued to astound audiences and critics with their virtuosity, the scope and power of their music, and their unique outlook.
Fripp, King Crimson’s acknowledged leader, puzzled many and delightedothers with his inscrutable attitude and onstage banter. He reportedly told a Milwaukee audience on September 28, “We’re not to be enjoyed – we’re an intellectual band.” (Commenting on this remark and the sarcastic reaction it elicited from a Milwaukee critic, Fripp wrote in the Young Persons’ Guide to King Crimson, “We were surprised that so many people took everything we did so seriously.”) (YPG 27-28, Milwaukee Sentinel, Sept. 29 1973) The funny thing about Fripp, though, was that he could be so funny when he was on and when the audience was tuned into his peculiarly pontifical sense of humor. At the April 28 concert at New York’s Academy of Music, for instance, a Variety writer reported that Fripp delivered “a short comic rap plugging their new album” (Larks’ Tongues) that was “uproarious.” (Kirb 1973A, 245) When King Crimson returned to the Academy of Music on September 22, things weren’t so jolly: a breakdown in their complicated sound system caused a delay of more than two hours as a new system was hastily procured and set up. (Kirb 1973B, 272)
The exhaustion of touring, the technical problems, the surreal conditions of road life, the ever-questionable band-audience relationship, and the problematic nature of making music under such circumstances were beginning to take their toll on Fripp.
It was a pair of gigs at Italian sports arenas on November 12 and 13 that he was later to call the “turning point” for him in terms of his ability to “put up with the nonsense” that goes along with putting on a rock show. In one of his 1981 articles for Musician, Player, and Listener Fripp described the Felliniesque insanity that surrounded those two days in Turin and Rome: Maoists protesting for free admittance to the first show and crashing through a glass wall; Cross and Bruford getting drunk at an expensive dinner, throwing open wine bottles through the air and insulting the promoter’s homosexual partner; concert ticket collectors stuffing their own pockets with cash receipts; backstage machine-gun-toting security police; a stoned hippie who in full view of the audience was beat bloody by the promoter’s gun-carrying right-hand man for wandering onstage; and a desperate attempt at an encore almost scotched because members of the audience had pulled out the power cables. Fripp’s account of the whole fiasco is a miniature classic of rock tragicomedy, but the moral here is that the Italian gigs were the real beginning of the end for King Crimson.
As Fripp concludes his story, “A few months later King Crimson ‘ceased to exist’ and I began to talk a lot about small, mobile and intelligent units.” (Fripp 1981B, 48)
The frantic tours of 1973 concluded, King Crimson retired to London’s AIR Studios in January 1974 to produce their next album, Starless and Bible Black. (The title is a phrase borrowed from Dylan Thomas. By way of injecting some levity into a band situation that tended toward gravity, Bruford was fond of renaming Crimson albums; this one he called “Braless and Slightly Slack.”) (DeCurtis 1984, 22) Although edited and mixed in the studio, all but the first two pieces on Starless were recorded live at King Crimson gigs in the fall of 1973. The essentially live nature of Starless received little if any attention in the press, who treated it as a studio album; the recording quality is superb, and all audience noise save a stray distant shout here and there has been skillfully deleted. Perhaps no one knew this was a live album until Fripp spilled the beans in the fine print of the Young Persons’ Guide.
Starless was the first King Crimson album other than the live Earthbound not to provide the lyrics on the cover or inner sleeve – perhaps intentionally to de-emphasize the verbal content?
STARLESS AND BIBLE BLACK
• David Cross: violin, viola, keyboards • Robert Fripp: guitar, mellotron, devices • John Wetton: bass and voice • William Bruford: percussives
THE GREAT DECEIVER (by Wetton, Fripp, and Palmer-James). Studio recording. Slams off with a bluesy riff at hyperspeed. Sectional song contrasting instrumentals and vocals. Oblique references to the Devil. “The Great Deceiver” contains the only lyrics ever penned by Fripp for a King Crimson song: “Cigarettes, ice cream, figurines of the Virgin Mary” – a comment, he explained in 1980, on the woeful commercialization of Vatican City, which he’d visited on a Crimson tour in 1973. (Watts 1980, 22)
Reminding now a passage from the autobiography of spiritual teacher J.G. Bennett, who was to become a major influence on Fripp in 1974: “I can see how necessary it is to establish a new understanding of the Incarnation. The Church is equally astray in its conservative and in its modernist wings, nor is the center any better. The Catholic Church is the custodian of a mystery that it does not understand; but the sacraments and their operation are no less real for that.” (Bennett, Witness, p. 354)
LAMENT (by Fripp, Wetton, and Palmer-James). Studio recording. Slow Beatlish ballad that breaks out into rather more manic territory as the song progresses … a la Lennon in the White Album period. The Beatles never had a coda that jammed out for a few bars in seven, however.
WE’LL LET YOU KNOW (by Cross, Fripp, Wetton, and Bruford). Live recording. Instrumental. Gradually coalesces, as so many King Crimson pieces do, out of sensitively random, intentionally chaotic points of noise, into motives, rhythms, melodies: into music … of a sort.
THE NIGHT WATCH (by Fripp, Wetton, and Palmer-James). Introduction/beginning, live recording. Deftly spliced to the studio-recorded body of the song. Classic King Crimson minor ballad. Effectively understated ending.
TRIO (by Cross, Fripp, Wetton, and Bruford). Live recording. Peaceful, contemplative, tonal, somewhat out of character for a King Crimson III improvisation. Although Bruford does not play on “Trio,” he is listed as one of the co-composers. Fripp later wrote in admiration of his drummer’s restraint in this instance, explaining that Bruford was awarded joint authorship on the basis of his having “contributed silence.” (Fripp 1981B) The same role – the conscious embodiment of the presence of silence – would later occasionally be assigned to a particular member of the League of Crafty Guitarists in their live performances.
THE MINCER (by Cross, Fripp, Wetton, Bruford, and Palmer-James). Live recording, with a few overdubs. Another example of what Crimson III was liable to sound like in the throes of improvisation. The song ends unaccountably in the middle – it sounds like the tape ran out.
Side Two STARLESS AND BIBLE BLACK (by Cross, Fripp, Wetton, and Bruford). Live recording. More gradual coalescence out of chaos. The piece recalls the first chapter of the Book of Genesis, “And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” A lot of the high melodic stuff you hear is not Fripp but David Cross cranking up the distortion on his electric violin. Fripp ruminates meanwhile on his mellotron. Tonal center?
Pieces like this can sound totally improvised until, miraculously, everyone slams into a downbeat at precisely the same moment. You never know with King Crimson. As Bruford said, “What we’re really trying to do is to abolish the distinction between formal writing and improvising. Some of our most formal passages sound improvised and vice versa.” (Rosen 1983, 23)
FRACTURE (by Fripp). Live recording. Fripp lays down a typically edgy angular ostinato. There’s a lot of whole-tone-scale action going on in here. One of the most extensively worked-out pieces of the KC III period, “Fracture” places severe demands on technique. “One of the reasons I wrote ‘Fracture’ in the manner which I wrote it,” said Fripp, “was to put myself (and the band) in a certain situation where I had to practice every day because it’s so difficult.” (Rosen 1983, 23)
The “Red” Period and the Dissolution of King Crimson III
Inspiration continued to pay calls from time to time, but improvisation in the latter stages of King Crimson III grew increasingly frustrating. In February 1974, for instance, David Cross was reportedly having reservations: “It sometimes worries me, what we do – we stretch so far and our music is often a frightening expression of certain aspects of the world and people. It is important to have songs as well, written material, to counter-balance that so that they’re not actually driven insane … We’ve only had one moment of true peace in improvisation with this band, which was a thing we did with just violin, bass and guitar at a concert in Amsterdam. Most of the time our improvisation comes out of horror and panic.” (YPG 29, Sounds, Feb. 9 1974) (The “moment of peace” Cross refers to is probably “Trio” as heard on Starless; he got mixed up as to the instrumentation, which is actually violin, flute-mellotron, and guitar.)
In an interview published in May, Fripp went public with his own reservations. The group was still trying out improvisational formats in live situations, Fripp explained: “What we do live is maybe just say, ‘Bill, you just start playing, and we’ll follow you.’ But since this band isn’t very sensitive or interested in listening to everyone playing, the improvisation in the band at the moment is extremely limited and more concerned with individuals showing off than in developing any kind of community improvisation … I find it most frustrating that I can’t make the other players in the band take as much interest in my playing as I do in theirs.” (Rosen 1974, 35) With what was, from his perspective, one of King Crimson’s primary raisons d’être having stalled, it is not surprising that Fripp was beginning to lose interest in keeping the band alive. But there were other reasons too, as we shall shortly see.
Although not even Fripp was fully aware of the fact, King Crimson III after the Starless studio sessions in January 1974 was on its last legs. The band undertook three more road trips: Europe (eleven gigs, March 19-April 2); America (seventeen gigs, April 11-May 5); and a final U.S. tour (twenty-one gigs, June 4-July 1). The live album USA, released around April 1975, was recorded toward the end of this final U.S. tour: the song “Asbury Park” at the Asbury Park (New Jersey) Casino on June 28, and the rest two days later at the Palace Theatre in Providence, Rhode Island.
• David Cross: violin and keyboards • Robert Fripp: guitar and mellotron • John Wetton: bass and voice • William Bruford: percussives
USA clearly shows that in terms of sound, at any rate, there was little or no difference between live and studio King Crimson of this period: as the band runs through “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part II,” “Lament,” “Exiles,” and “Easy Money,” there are few discernible musical differences between these and the previously recorded studio versions. Very slightly choppy around certain edges, less dynamic range, not quite so beautifully recorded as the studio tracks, USA nevertheless demonstrates that very late KC III was eminently capable of delivering the goods live.
The one new track, “Asbury Park,” represents King Crimson improvising straight ahead in 4/4 with Fripp and Cross getting in some vintage licks over Wetton’s razor-sharp melodic bass lines and Bruford’s crisp drumming – but one does sense a certain lack of group consciousness: for long sections it’s four individual virtuoso musicians, each blowing his own horn.
The crowd’s rowdy shouting through the soft introduction to “Exiles” gives some indication of one predicament Fripp was finding himself in, namely, how to break their expectations down sufficiently to get them to shut up and listen.
USA closes with a rendition of “Schizoid Man.” Since the album was actually released after “Red,” one has the feeling that Fripp was seeking something of a framing effect for King Crimson’s total recorded output, which had begun six years earlier with the same song. In small print at the bottom of USA’s back cover are the letters: “R.I.P.”
King Crimson life was indeed finished with the “USA” tour, but no one recognized it at the time, not even Fripp, who said of the final gig, in New York’s Central Park on July 1 1974, “For me it was the most powerful since 1969.” (YPG 30, July 1) A week later the band – minus David Cross – was back in a London studio, at work on the album that was to become Red. Red would not be released, however, until after Robert Fripp had unilaterally disbanded King Crimson and talked to the press, offering three reasons why the King had to die: “The first is that it represents a change in the world. Second, whereas I once considered being part of a band like Crimson to be the best liberal education a young man could receive, I now know that isn’t so. And third, the energies involved in the particular lifestyle of the band and in the music are no longer of value to the way I live.” (YPG 31, MM, Oct. 5 1974)
At the cosmic level – the level of the changing world situation – Fripp spoke of a radical transition from the old world to the new. The old world was characterized by “dinosaur” institutions, social organizations, corporations, rock bands – as Fripp put it, “large and unwieldy, without much intelligence.” (Ibid.) Looking to the future, Fripp foresaw “a decade of considerable panic in the 1990s – collapse on a colossal scale. The wind-down has already started … It’s no doomy thing – for the new world to flourish the old has to die. But the depression era of the Thirties will look like a Sunday outing compared to this apocalypse. I shall be blowing a bugle loudly from the sidelines.” (Dove 1974, 14)
On the level of the music industry, Fripp had developed grave reservations: a dinosaur itself, “the rock & roll business is constructed on wholly false values, impermanent and mainly pernicious, although not in an obvious way.” (Dove 1974, 14) Later, toward the end of the 1970s, Fripp would develop a systematic critique of music industry practices, write it up, and publish it in Musician, Player, and Listener magazine. For now he simply knew that he had had enough, and was looking to a future of “small, independent, mobile and intelligent units” to replace the lumbering Mesozoic automaton behemoths that passed for rock acts in 1974. (SMALL, INDEPENDENT, MOBILE, AND INTELLIGENT UNIT became the Frippism par excellence of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Its first appearance in print is apparently YPG 31, MM, Oct. 5 1974.)
On the level of the role he himself was playing in the rock and roll circus, Fripp had long felt frustration. At gigs like the ones in Italy already discussed, for instance, in which, as Fripp put it, “the performance itself went quite well,” King Crimson’s artistic method had itself become brutal: “We battered the crowd with sound for forty minutes to make enough room for ten minutes of experimenting. Then, as attention wandered, we built up another level of pounding for twenty or thirty minutes, so a pulped crowd would feel it had its money’s value and go home happy.” (Fripp 1981B, 114)
Elsewhere Fripp spoke with despair of his perception that the marijuana and LSD of the sixties had been gradually replaced by the cocaine, speed, and alcohol of the seventies, and that along with that shift went a corresponding change in audience demeanor.
This is art? This is magic? This is music? Beating the audience back, an audience either in a blind stupor or artificially stimulated, fighting the collective aggression of five thousand people, having to use your own limited energy to do it, night after night – this was accomplished, as Fripp expressed it, only “at the expense of creating something of a higher nature.” (YPG 31, MM, Oct. 5 1974)
At the personal level, there was the matter of continuing his own “education”, as he later described his predicament, he felt he had to disband King Crimson “because I could not see how it was possible to be a musician and a human being simultaneously.” (Kozak 1981, 10)
But there was a deeper, and perhaps decisive reason why King Crimson had to be put to rest – an overwhelmingly powerful personal experience which so far as I know Fripp did not venture to disclose publicly until some five years after the fact, probably because it took him that long to understand what had actually happened. When he did talk to Melody Maker writer Allan Jones about it in 1979, he said that in the interviews done immediately following the Crimson break-up, he hadn’t known how to explain it.
I had a glimpse of something… The top of my head blew off. That’s the easiest way of describing it. And for a period of three to six months it was impossible for me to function … My ego went. I lost my ego for three months. We were recording “Red” and Bill Bruford would say, “Bob, what do you think?” And I’d say, “Well-” and inside I’d be thinking, how can I know anything? Who am I to express an opinion? And I’d say, “Whatever you think, Bill. Yes, whatever you like.”… It took me three to six months before a particular kind of Fripp personality grew back to the degree that I could participate in the normal day-to-day business of hustling … (Jones 1979A, 19)
Given the pressure-cooker atmosphere into which commitment to the ever intangible yet fervently embraced idea of King Crimson had plunged him for five years – the surging and dashed hopes, the sensitive perception of false values all around, the perpetual instability of the band, the press filled with acclamation and denigration by turns, the uncertainties about his own accomplishments, aims/ends, and means of attaining them – it would perhaps not be difficult to explain away Fripp’s loss of ego in banal psychological terms. But to do so would be to miss and trivialize the fundamental point, which is that Fripp, to put it simply, had a revelation.
The proverbial straw was reading the text of a lecture by J.G. Bennett the night before the Red recording sessions were to begin; the “Second Inaugural Address” to Bennett’s International Academy for Continuous Education in Sherborne. The Text was printed in the appendix to Bennett’s book Is There Life on Earth? This was the first time Fripp had come into contact with the teaching of Bennett, who had been a disciple of the infamous George Gurdjieff and had met many of the twentieth century’s leading mystical seekers. (REPORTEDLY THE FIRST TIME Schruers 1979, 16) Bennett and Gurdjieff taught that people ordinarily go through their lives in a state of relative unconsciousness; some of the methods Bennett and Gurdjieff used to “wake up” their students will be discussed in the next chapter. Fripp’s first encounter with Bennett’s ideas was electrifying, precipitating a major change of direction in his life.
Wetton and Bruford were both to express regrets with regard to Fripp’s unilateral decision to break up the band. Bruford, who had quit the highly successful Yes to join King Crimson, and who had viewed Crimson as a unique opportunity to expand his horizons as a musician, did his best to be philosophical: while pointing out that Crimson’s enviable position in the music world was the result of years of hard work by musicians, management, and devoted road crew, and that to have all that dashed at a stroke was “mildly irritating,” Bruford said nevertheless he could cope with his irritation since it ultimately represented a “false adherence to [materialistic] things.” (YPG 32, Sounds, Oct. 12 1974) Below his stoic surface, however, Bruford was profoundly disappointed.
By his own estimation, Wetton had not made the kind of commitment to King Crimson that Bruford had, and had not had to give up so much to join the group. But in retrospect, he admitted being “pretty pissed when it broke up. I didn’t admit it at the time … Robert called up and explained why he couldn’t go on in the manner that we had been. He felt the world was going to come to an end and he wanted to prepare for it. And I said, ‘Yeah, sure, OK, but let’s get a good tour in first.’” (Rosen 1983, 23) (There had been, in fact, plans for another King Crimson tour, with founding King Crimson member Ian McDonald back in the band. Rehearsals had already begun when Fripp pulled the plug.)
• Robert Fripp: guitar and mellotron • John Wetton: bass and voice • William Bruford: percussives With thanks to: • David Cross: violin • Mel Collins: soprano saxophone • Ian McDonald: alto saxophone • Robin Miller: oboe • Marc Charig: cornet
Backtrack to July 1974. Fripp had had the top of his head blown off, and in an ego-less state carried on, with Bill Bruford and John Wetton, with the studio production of Red. A number of previous King Crimson members (David Cross, Mel Collins, Ian McDonald) and sidemen (Robin Miller, Marc Charig) made contributions to the album. Red is a peculiarly retrospective album: glancing through the song titles (“Red,” “Fallen Angel,” “One More Red Nightmare,” “Providence,” “Starless”) one is struck as if by the facets of a diamond with the King Crimson myth/metaphor smoldering at its core.
The striking black-and-white cover photograph of Wetton, Bruford, and Fripp (first ever cover photo of band members on a King Crimson record) in lighting that casts half of their faces into shadow harks back, whether intentionally or unintentionally, to the cover of Meet the Beatles, in 1964 an image indelibly stamped into the minds of a generation. (According to Fripp, the photo of the band was Mark Fenwick’s idea; Fenwick was one of the three directors of EG Management. Fripp didn’t want the musician’s faces on the jacket; it reminded him less of Meet the Beatles than an album by Grand Funk Railroad.) On Red’s back cover is a stark photograph of a gauge with the needle pointing into the red (danger, overload) zone. Red was released in early October.
Side One RED (by Fripp). A divinely lurching, infernally flowing instrumental that exploits Fripp’s by-now entrenched penchant for odd metrical schemes and whole-tone-scale root relationships and melodic turns. In the recurring main theme, the predominant interval between guitar (soprano) and bass is the tritone – also the sonority that ends the composition. In traditional tonal music theory, the tritone – so named because it spans three whole steps or tones, in this case the thematic example being the interval E to A# – is classed among the most dissonant of the thirteen fundamental intervals in music: if you turn in your college harmony assignment and have idiotically included a tritone in the final chord, you’ll get it back marked in red.
Because of its searingly harsh, problematic sound, the tritone was called the diabolus in musica (“the devil in music”) by medieval theorists, and some forbade its use entirely. The King Crimson metaphor – it goes deeper than one might think.
FALLEN ANGEL (by Fripp, Wetton, and Palmer-James). You think it’s going to be just a genteel McCartneyesque ballad; then the distorted guitar comes careening in, in a middle section utilizing the fifth mode of the harmonic minor scale; transition back to the ballad theme; harmonic minor fade-out.
ONE MORE RED NIGHTMARE (by Fripp and Wetton). That darned tritone outline again, those gnarly whole tones, those insane metrical changes, those fabulous fills by Bruford, hammering on a piece of sheet metal. It seems almost impossible that this was the same Fripp who had made the delicate Islands a few short years previously – a record that one of KC II’s members had reportedly called “an airy-fairy piece of shit”: this music has real muscle. (Malamut 1974, 69)
Side Two PROVIDENCE (by Cross, Fripp, Wetton, and Bruford). This was recorded live at the Providence, Rhode Island Palace Theatre on June 30, 1974 – the gig at which most of USA was taped, the day before King Crimson III’s final performance in New York City. It begins with a delicate violin solo and goes into free-form improvisation, recalling the spaciness of “Moonchild” – but “Providence” has a ballsiness and level of aggression or even evil that “Moonchild,” in its benighted innocence, seemed to lack.
STARLESS (by Cross, Fripp, Wetton, Bruford, and Palmer-James). More retrospection, and not merely on account of the song’s title: at the outset, the mellotron’s minor tones and the stately drumming recall “Epitaph.” But “Starless” turns out to be more than just another gloomy minor mellotron epic, although clocking in at over twelve minutes it has the requisite duration. “Starless” is a grand synthesis, in one unified (if collectively authored) composition, of several of the styles Fripp and his various cohorts had cultivated since 1969: slow, melancholy minor-key epic/ballad; medium-tempo, abrasive riff-based linear counterpoint; extremely fast, frenetic group playing; and improvisational and compositional elements bound together in such a way that the seams are exceeding difficult to detect. “Starless” is more than all that, though: in my opinion it is simply the best composition King Crimson ever committed to record. It is also the only King Crimson piece that has ever made me weep – those tears that tend to issue out of a direct confrontation with what we feebly call “artistic greatness” but is really a portentous and rarely glimpsed secret locked away at the heart of human experience.
It is the curse of the scholar/writer/musician to be driven to rip apart that which he loves, dissecting and disemboweling, in a vain and perhaps pointless attempt to reduce the primal musical experience to words, formulas, theories, charts, diagrams, numbers, and so on – an exercise pleasing enough to the intellect and yet somehow painful for the heart. What follows, therefore, is not for the faint of heart, and if the reader does not give a hoot about formal musical analysis, she or he would probably do just as well to skip it. On the other hand, lest I paint myself into a corner of total futility, let me affirm my belief that at its best, analysis can be a valid form of translation – from the language of the heart into the language of the head. And inasmuch as head and heart are generally not so much in the habit of conversing amicably with each other as they could be, the translator’s enterprise is perhaps not entirely meaningless.
From listening to the music itself you can tell something about what the musicians are feeling, and open a door into that world of feeling within yourself; through analyzing the music seriously you can get some inkling of how the musicians think (and believe me, think they do, and think they must, in order to produce as coherent a piece as “Starless”), and in that process allow your intellect to go into sympathetic resonance with the intellects of those who are making the music.
Head and heart. Fripp would later develop a system of musical practice based on “hands, head, and heart,” where the “hands” represent the physical contact with the instrument and indeed with the physical world of sensation itself. We can address the head and the heart when we write a book like this, I’m not so sure about the hands, that is, about addressing the very physical presence of music in a live situation. I incline to suppose that the most we can do along those lines is to be aware of, or at least try to avoid completely losing touch with, our body as we are writing and reading.
“Starless” is a long (12’18”) sectional composition in a form that breaks down into essentially three parts; though “Starless” is not exactly a textbook example of classical sonata form, an analogy with sonata form’s three part structure (exposition, development, recapitulation) is tempting:
Song – Exposition Structured Instrumental Crescendo – Development Free Recapitulation of Song (without vocal)
As in classical sonata form, the opening section of “Starless” sets out a number of musical ideas (themes); the structured instrumental crescendo has something of the free, fantasia, associative, spinning-out, through-composed, quasi-improvisational nature of a development section; and the recapitulation contains both themes of the exposition material in a new, transformed aspect.
The opening “song” section remains in a single key (instead of containing a modulating bridge to a second key as in sonata form); and the structured instrumental section does not develop ideas from the opening song (as a sonata development ordinarily develops themes from the exposition), but rather stands on its own, with entirely new material. But these facts do not disqualify “Starless” from being considered a sonata form in the large sense; Mozart’s sonata forms were one thing, Beethoven’s another, Schoenberg’s something else again, Bartok’s a different species too. As music history went on, sonata form became something quite malleable indeed. Nor do I think it particularly relevant whether or not Fripp and his co-authors set out to compose a sonata form, nor whether some of them even knew what a sonata form was (Fripp and Cross probably did – the others may not have). Brian Eno said once in 1988 with a chuckle, “I didn’t know that piece of mine was in the Dorian mode.” But it was, and he was pleased to know about it with his head, though he had composed it entirely with his ears. The sonata analogy can perhaps enable those who are familiar with the sonata form process in music history to hear “Starless” in a more thorough, integrated fashion.
A more detailed formal outline of “Starless” is shown in Chart 7.
“Starless” as a whole can be seen as a carefully graded swell of energy: by the end of the instrumental crescendo, things have reached such a desperate peak that you think there’s nowhere else to go – but as happens so often in Beethoven codas, for instance, you are seized at that peak moment and hurtled into hyperspace. The recapitulation integrates and transforms the materials of the exposition and the crescendo, forcibly kicking them onto an entirely new level of intensity by means of dynamics, tempo, and orchestration.
The strange melancholy expressed initially in the words of the song (“Old friend charity / cruel twisted smile / and the smile signals emptiness for me / starless and bible black”) is deepened and purified in the recapitulation, when the words are left behind. The restatement of the instrumental first theme and the final minor ending carry the weight of tragedy.
In its dark intensity, in the singularity of its formal conception, in its emphasis on extreme contrasts within a single piece, in its drive to associate specific musical gestures with states, qualities, gradations, and degrees of psychic energy, and – perhaps above all – in the blinding power of its execution, “Starless” is a fulfillment of tendencies in Fripp’s music manifest from the beginning. With the final, hair-raising cadence of “Starless,” the door slams shut on King Crimson’s first period of activity, and, one could say, on the early era of progressive rock as a whole. When Fripp would emerge in the late 1970s with his solo projects, and in the early 1980s with a new, exceptionally streamlined King Crimson, the musical scene would have changed dramatically.
Robert Fripp, the amazing guitarist (3): KING CRIMSON (first part)
King Crimson I: the beginning
References to the printed booklet included in The Young Persons’ Guide to King Crimson are herein indicated by the abbreviation YPG followed by column numbers. The booklet itself, however, contains neither page nor column numbers. Therefore, if you wish to find the exact location of a YPG quotation listed in these Notes, you must number the columns in YPG yourself. Begin with “1” at the first column (1968-June 1).
Fripp was born in Wimbourne, a village ten miles outside Bournemouth. We know little about the young Bob Fripp’s life; occasional tidbits filter down through the press, such as that his favorite subjects in school were English and English literature. (Dery 1985, 51) Only very rarely has Fripp exposed anything about his childhood in interviews. One such instance was in 1980, when he talked about the double binds he found himself in as a boy, and which he later managed to work through in transactional analysis: “My parents made me crazy. My father didn’t want children and I’d say ‘Mum, Father’s irritable’ and she’d say ‘no he’s not!’ and there’s my father boxing me round the ears. So how can you process that information and experience?” (Recorder Three, 1980, n.p.)
From the age of eleven, when his parents had bought him his first guitar on December 24, 1957, Fripp had known that music was to be his life. From the age of fourteen, he had various miscellaneous performing experiences, playing guitar in hotels and restaurants and backing up singers. He soaked up influences: first American rockers like Scotty Moore, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry; a bit later, Django Reinhardt and modern jazz.
A turning point was reached at the age of seventeen; as Fripp describes it, “I went to stay with my sister on holiday in Jersey. And I took my guitar. I had lots of opportunities to practice there, which I found quite wonderful. It was there that I established a deeper relationship with the instrument. And upon returning home to England, I announced to my mother, ‘I am going to become a professional guitar player.’ My mother didn’t try to dissuade me. She simply burst into tears. I took her reaction to heart and my decision was delayed until I was twenty.” (Milkowski 1984, 29-30)
Fripp’s steadiest gig, beginning at age eighteen, was a three-year stint at the Majestic Hotel, in the band hired to entertain the Hebrew Fraternity of Bournemouth. If it is difficult to imagine Robert Fripp meekly chiming in on twists, foxtrots, tangos, waltzes, the Jewish National Anthem, Hava Nagilah, and “Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen,” consider that he got the job when the young Andy Summers (later guitarist for the Police) vacated the post to go to London. (Garbarini 1984, 39)
In the meantime, Fripp was being groomed by his father to take over the latter’s small real estate firm; having worked for his father for three years, Fripp felt that to educate himself further in the business he should get away from the office. He studied for a year and a half at Bournemouth College, taking A-levels in economics, economic history, and political history; the idea was to go to London and pursue a degree in estate management.
But at the age of twenty Fripp decided, in his own words, that he “could no longer be a dutiful son” (Drozdowski 1989, 31) and resolved to have a go at the music business. He felt that “becoming a professional musician would enable me to do all the things in my life that I wanted,” (Rosen 1974, 18) that it would provide him with the best possible education. He proceeded to form what he has referred to as an “incredibly bad semi-pro band” called Cremation. (Rosen 1983, 19) Cremation did land a few gigs, but Fripp ended up canceling most of them – the group was so awful he was afraid of jeopardizing what local musical reputation he had been able to earn.
Nineteen sixty-seven was perhaps the high-water mark of the rock explosion of the 1960s; anything could happen in music, and there was a sense that, for once, the groups that were the best in a creative sense could also be – indeed, often were – the most popular.
In provincial Bournemouth, Fripp was catching whiffs of this exhilarating spirit: “I remember driving over to the hotel one night and on the radio I heard Sgt. Pepper’s for the first time. I tuned in after they’d introduced the album. I didn’t know who it was at first, and it terrified me – ‘A Day in the Life,’ the huge build-up at the end. At about the same time I was listening to Hendrix, Clapton with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, the Bartok string quartets, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, Dvorak’s New World Symphony … they all spoke to me in the same way. It was all music. Perhaps different dialects, but it was all the same language. At that point, it was a call which I could not resist … From that point to this very day , my interest is in how to take the energy and spirit of rock music and extend it to the music drawing on my background as part of the European tonal harmonic tradition. In other words, what would Hendrix sound like playing Bartok?” (Milkowski 1984, 30)
Giles, Giles and Fripp
In Bournemouth in the spring of 1967, Fripp auditioned for a position in a band being formed by drummer Michael Giles and bassist Peter Giles. The trio rehearsed and moved to London that fall to work a gig accompanying a singer in an Italian restaurant. The gig fell through after a week, but Giles, Giles and Fripp persevered through 1968, managing to appear on a couple of television shows and to record and release two singles (“One in a Million” / “Newlyweds”) and “Thursday Morning” / “Elephant Song”) and an album, The Cheerful Insanity of Giles, Giles and Fripp.
For those whose exposure to Fripp’s music begins with King Crimson, the music of Cheerful Insanity, now something of a collector’s item, might come as a shock. For one thing, it’s not in the least heavy – it’s a collection of frothy little absurdist ditties. The tunes on Side One are interspersed with Fripp’s spoken recital of a sort of tongue-in-cheek morality poem he called “The Saga of Rodney Toady,” a fat, ugly lad who is the butt of cruel jokes. We are all familiar with McCartney music-hall nonsense verse along the lines of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”; a lot of Cheerful Insanity is kind of like that – light, whimsical, gently satirical – except that the orchestration is even sillier.
Fripp’s playing is accomplished enough, but to hear the Crimson king of Marshall-stacks distortion mildly riffing along in best cocktail-lounge-jazz fashion is a bit of a revelation. Even here, Fripp couldn’t resist showing off his chops a little, however; his “Suite No. 1” features him ripping along playing a continuous melody in sixteenth notes at a quarter note of 148 beats per minute. Only two other songs – “The Cruckster,” with its jagged, dissonant guitar effects and primitive reverb, and “Erudite Eyes,” which sounds at least partially improvised – give any indication of musical paths Fripp was later to follow.
Cheerful Insanity is a very English record. The Hungarian Bartok hadn’t quite yet made the acquaintance of the American Hendrix; the album sounds like a collaboration between Monty Python and the Moody Blues in one of their less pompous moods. After Giles, Giles and Fripp, Fripp’s sense of humor may have remained intact in his day-to-day life, but it went decidedly below the surface in his music.
The Genesis of King Crimson I
According to Fripp, on November 15, 1968, King Crimson was “formed in outline between Fripp and Michael Giles in the kitchen following a fruitless session of Giles, Giles and Fripp at Decca.” (YPG, 1) Fripp summed up the demise of Giles, Giles and Fripp as follows: “The dissolution of Giles, Giles and Fripp followed some 15 months of failure and struggle.
We were unable to find even one gig. World sales of the album within the first year were under 600. My first royalty statement showed sales in Canada of 40 and Sweden of 1. Peter Giles left to become a computer operator and finally a solicitor’s clerk although played on sessions for a while, notably ‘Poseidon’ and McDonald and Giles.” (YPG, 1) (McDonald and Giles, released in 1971, was another relatively lightweight affair, though not so bubbly as The Cheerful Insanity of Giles, Giles and Fripp; it was ample proof of the divergent directions Fripp and his early collaborators were taking after King Crimson I broke up.)
Drummer Michael Giles, born near Bournemouth in 1942, was the oldest of the members of the original King Crimson lineup. He began playing drums at the age of twelve, and played in jazz and skiffle groups in the 1950s, then in rock bands in the 1960s. When Fripp and Giles decided to form a new group, Fripp’s first move was to enlist the services of another Bournemouth native, Greg Lake, a singing guitarist with the group Shame who subsequently switched to bass during his stint with the Gods.
Giles and Fripp then sought out a songwriting team, which turned out to be lyricist Peter Sinfield along with composer and multi-instrumentalist Ian McDonald, who could play various reeds and woodwinds as well as vibraphone, guitar, and keyboards. Some of McDonald’s early influences were Louis Belson, Les Paul, and Earl Bostic, plus classical composers like Stravinsky and Richard Strauss; during a five-year hitch as an Army bandsman, he had studied traditional orchestration and music theory, and by the time he joined King Crimson he had played in dance bands, rock groups, and classical orchestras.
Both McDonald and Lake were more than competent guitarists; upon joining King Crimson Lake played only bass, and McDonald performed duties on reeds, woodwinds, vibes, and keyboards, leaving Fripp as the sole guitarist. This appears to have been a gesture of deference if not quite a sign of intimidation: as one of the early King Crimson musicians reportedly put it, “When Bob Fripp is in your band, you just don’t play guitar.” Fripp, in fact, would not actively collaborate with other guitarists until he enlisted the services of Adrian Belew in the 1980s version of King Crimson.
Sinfield had been working as a computer operator when he left the job to found the group Infinity; McDonald was Infinity’s guitarist, and after the band’s demise (Sinfield later called it “the worst group in the world”), McDonald and Sinfield stayed together in order to keep writing. Sinfield became an “invisible” member of King Crimson, providing words for the songs, acting as road manager and lighting director, and evidently serving as a sort of conduit between the hip London culture and the provincial members of King Crimson, telling them where they should go to buy the right kind of clothes, and so on. Sinfield’s role was also that of musical consultant, an in-studio audience off of whom Fripp could bounce ideas. (Williams 1971, 24)
Although he never performed with Crimson on stage, he was very much part of the evolving group dynamics of the band until his departure in late 1971. It is to Sinfield that the world owes the Mephistophelean moniker “King Crimson”: Fripp relates that “Pete Sinfield was trying to invent a synonym for Beelzebub.” (Schruers 1979, 16) Beelzebub, prince of demons, the Devil – for Milton in Paradise Lost Beelzebub was the fallen angel who ranked just below Satan.
Fripp has told some amusing anecdotes about band and bar life in swinging London in 1969 – for instance, how Greg Lake, with whom he shared a small apartment for a time, regarded him as “inept” in picking up girls, and “took it on himself to give me some help in strategy and maneuvers.” (Fripp 1982A, 35-6)
On January 13 1969, the first official King Crimson rehearsal took place in the basement of the Fulham Palace Cafe in London – the space that was to become their rehearsal room for the next two and a half years. It would have been fascinating to be a fly on the wall of the basement during the first few months of 1969 – to observe and try to understand how four musicians (and one lyricist) come together and fuse into a single organism.
In point of fact, it became a custom for King Crimson to invite an audience of friends to their basement rehearsals, and reports of a powerful new sound began to leak out. Fripp has written of this period: “Following several years of failure we regarded King Crimson as a last attempt at playing something we believed in. Creative frustration was a main reason for the group’s desperate energy. We set ourselves impossibly high standards but worked to realize them and with a history of unemployment, palais and army bands, everyone was staggered by the favorable reactions from visitors … With the fervor of those months I could write for a publicity handout: ‘The fundamental aim of King Crimson is to organize anarchy, to utilize the latent power of chaos and to allow the varying influences to interact and find their own equilibrium. The music therefore naturally evolves rather than develops along predetermined lines. The widely differing repertoire has a common theme in that it represents the changing moods of the same five people.’“ (YPG, 2)
Most of the pieces the group rehearsed were newly composed, but one or two came out of the Giles, Giles and Fripp repertoire, such as “I Talk to the Wind.” The group also played through versions of the Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and Joni Mitchell’s “Michael from Mountains,” which Judy Collins had recorded in an arrangement by Joshua Rifkin on her Wildflowers album of 1967. The “feminine,” soft-focus yet tightly orchestrated ballad was a feature of most early King Crimson albums; one reporter relates how the group would listen to Judy Collins records to unwind after difficult, tense rehearsals.
At this stage in the evolution of the band, compositional duties tended to be spread over the whole ensemble; for many pieces, it wasn’t a matter of one songwriter coming in with a chart and everyone following his directions. Rather, the group played, fought, improvised, ran through numbers, trying to catch the good ideas as they flew by. Curious to find out more about this process, I asked Fripp about it in 1986.
What was the genesis of “21st Century Schizoid Man,” for instance? Fripp’s memory was crystal-clear, and he answered very methodically, “Well, the first few notes – Daaa-da-da-daa-daa-daaaa – were by Greg Lake, the rest of the introduction was Ian McDonald’s idea, I came up with the riff at the beginning of the instrumental section, and Michael Giles suggested we all play in unison in the very fast section toward the end of the instrumental.” I thought it would be fascinating to know how a number of different King Crimson songs were stitched together like this, but Fripp declined further explication; he didn’t think it very interesting or particularly valuable. Perhaps he deemed King Crimson’s group identity – its “way of doing things” – more important and relevant than the specific contributions of individual members.
On other occasions, with other writers, Fripp has been a bit more forthcoming with regard to King Crimson’s compositional process. He admired and wanted King Crimson to emulate the Beatles’ proclivity for packing many strands of meaning into a song, so that a record could stand up to repeated listenings: “The Beatles achieve probably better than anyone the ability to make you tap your foot first time round, dig the words sixth time round, and get into the guitar slowly panning the twentieth time.” Fripp wished Crimson could “achieve entertainment on as many levels as that.”
Most of King Crimson’s recorded music appears to be tightly structured, but in fact the forms have a certain amount of flexibility built in. While the architecturally important lead lines that connect the music together are fixed, other elements are variable in live performance, such as the drum patterns, the choice of octave for the melodic parts, and even the harmonies. A great deal depended on the inspiration of the moment: “If you’re feeling particularly happy you can even forget the lead line.” (Williams 1971, 24) In fact, the King Crimson approach appears to be identical in this respect to the Guitar Craft approach mentioned earlier: any note is possible, provided it’s the right one.
Time and again, Fripp has called 1969 a “magic” year in his musical development and in the life of the nebulous collective entity known as King Crimson. The experience was intensely powerful, yet heartbreakingly evanescent. When it was over, that is, when King Crimson I effectively broke up at the end of the year, Fripp was faced with trying to understand what had happened. In 1984 he said, “It was a question of: magic has just flown by, how does one find conditions in which magic flies by? I’d experienced it – I knew it was real. So where had it gone, how could one entice it back? That’s been the process from then till now.” (DeCurtis 1984, 22) Sinfield said it was as though the band had “a Good Fairy. We can’t do anything wrong.” (Fripp quoting Sinfield in Milkowski 1985, 61) Again, Fripp put it this way: “Amazing things would happen – I mean, telepathy, qualities of energy, things that I had never experienced before with music. My own sense of it was that music reached over and played this group of four uptight young men who didn’t really know what they were doing.” (Milkowski 1985, 61)
In the Court of the Crimson King
The residue of this year of magic – the cultural artifact left behind, the spirit of those days frozen into stone (make that vinyl) the enduring physical product resulting from the process – is a long-playing record, released on October 10, 1969, In the Court of the Crimson King: An Observation by King Crimson. A great paradox, a sense of doubt, uncertainty’s edge, surrounds this album and virtually all of Robert Fripp’s recorded music. He will tell you that “If you record or film an event, you spoil it. A live event has a life of its own, it has a quality that you can never capture on record or video. It’s like this: If you’re making love with your girlfriend, the video of the event might bring back nice memories. But the event was something infinitely more.” (Milano 1985, 34) (John Lennon said somewhere, “Talking about music is like talking about fucking. I mean, who wants to talk about it? I suppose some people do want to talk about it …”) Fripp will even go so far as to say that “some of the most amazing gigs I’ve known weren’t ‘musically’ very good. Just listening to tapes afterward … I mean, there’s a real turkey happening. It wasn’t down to notes, it was down to an energy in the room, between the band and the people and the music.” (Fripp 1982B, 58)
What does one make of this? On the one hand, as a musician I too have felt that ineffable energy of really cooking – the music, the musicians, the audience, all in it together, all one – and listening to the tape later, indeed, have had cause to wonder puzzled what the big deal was really all about: it was there, somewhere, but evidently, manifestly, it wasn’t really in the notes themselves. On the other hand, on the negative side if you will, Fripp’s attitude could be seen as a cop-out of sorts: if the residue, the product left behind by the process, is not up to snuff, it’s all too easy to say “My best work has never been recorded and released,” as Fripp frequently does. It’s a clash of philosophies of music we’re dealing with here. Fripp says the music is not in the notes, but rather “music is a quality organized in sound.” (GC Monograph?)
That quality may be there even if the actual (played, sounding) music isn’t anything special from a compositional point of view. Indeed, that quality may be present in a single note, or in silence itself. In the Western tradition of musical composition, these ideas don’t quite make it: at the core of the Western tradition is an accumulation of acknowledged masterpieces, musical scores – testaments, epistles, prophecies – in which it is deemed the hidden knowledge of music resides, to be sought and found and brought to life by the initiate with the right stuff to feel and understand what is really going on there.
Philosophy aside, here we have this piece of plastic, In the Court of the Crimson King, which, in some sense or other, contains the music of the group’s magical year, 1969. The response in the rock press could have been predicted: some writers enthusiastically proclaimed it the music of the future (that is, of the 1970s); macho types endorsed the metal screech of “Schizoid Man” while dismissing “I Talk to theWind” as weak and derivative; comparisons were drawn with the Beatles, Pink Floyd, the Moody Blues, and Procol Harum. Some found the album pretentious, others awe-inspiring.
It is a delight to read the incorrigible Lester Bangs grappling with Crimson’s “myth, mystification, and mellotrons,” subsuming the band’s titanic efforts under his own peculiarly American way of seeing things: “King Crimson would like you to think that they’re strange, but they’re not. What they are is a semi-eclectic British band with a penchant for fantasy and self-indulgence whose banally imagistic lyrics are only matched by the programmatic imagery of their music.” (Bangs 1972, 58)
21ST CENTURY SCHIZOID MAN
(by Fripp, McDonald, Lake, Giles, and Sinfield). Ominous night sounds. An in-your-face metal phrase. Lake screaming the lyrics, voice electronically fuzzed. “Cat’s foot iron claw / Neuro-surgeons scream for more / At paranoia’s poison door / Twenty-first century schizoid man.” Long blisteringly fast instrumental solo section, then unisons at unreal tempo. Grinding downshift to metal lick, final verse, free noise, and out. What can be said about “Schizoid Man” after all these years? It instantly became Crimson’s signature, their anthem, their opener, their war-horse, their sine qua non – a mixed blessing, like Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” since for years afterward, it was all many people came to hear Crimson for.
It set up expectations, it put the band in a box: “Why can’t you do more stuff like ‘Schizoid Man’?” Perhaps the song succeeded in giving Fripp’s public iconic persona a certain authority – it established his masculinity, it made a man out of him. Thereafter he knew you knew he could stand in and thrash with the heavies; having proved that, he could go on and tackle other worlds.
Consider the meter. Count out the number of beats in the opening metal phrase: sixteen. But good luck feeling the music in terms of four bars of 4/4: the accents are all off. To write it out, the best way might be with measures of three, two, three, three, three, and two beats. This way at least the two sub-phrases begin on downbeats:
Fine and good. But now go ahead and try counting the whole thing as four measures of 4/4: if you succeed, and simultaneously feel the accents of the music itself (which are not for the most part coinciding with your counting) you are ipso facto in the realm of Frippian polymeter, revealed here in the very first King Crimson song.
Composition in broad gestures (bold, angular melodic profiles, striking textural contrasts, clear-cut formal schemes, sharply differentiated contrapuntal planes); overpowering intensity of conception and execution; meter and tempo changes, metrical modulation within a single piece; the fuzzy, sustained-note-type guitar lead, along with a tendency to use either very many or very few notes; concrete sound sources (the night sounds at the beginning); a passion for frenetic group sound/noise layers (at the end) … it is remarkable how many stylistic traits we would later come to recognize as characteristically Frippian are packed into this germinal piece.
So … is this what Hendrix would sound like playing Bartok?
“Schizoid Man” floors you (the metal riff), terrifies you (the sung verses), tries as hard as it can to dazzle and impress you (the fast instrumental section), does it all again, and then blows itself to smithereens … and leads without a break into “I Talk to the Wind” …
King Crimson I Live
King Crimson played seventy-eight official gigs in 1969, beginning with a show at London’s Speakeasy on April 9. The group played fifty-eight additional British gigs from April to October; Crimson’s first American tour took place in November and December. During this tour they shared the bill with many of the leading groups of the day: Al Kooper, Iron Butterfly, Poco, the Band, Jefferson Airplane, Joe Cocker, Fleetwood Mac, the Voices of East Harlem, the Chambers Brothers, the Rolling Stones, Johnny Winter, Country Joe and the Fish, Janis Joplin, Sly and the Family Stone, Spirit, Grand Funk Railroad, Pacific Gas and Electric, the Nice, and others. By many accounts, King Crimson out-heavied them all.
Robert Fripp would always contend that King Crimson, in all of its incarnations, was a live band first and a recording-studio band only secondarily. He has never expressed unqualified endorsement of any King Crimson record, insisting, like Bob Dylan, that the whole point for him has been making contact with a real audience in real time. Early on, in 1971, Fripp stressed the importance of crowd feedback, of “a feeling of involvement with the audience.” (Williams 1971, 24) Paradoxically, audience members at Crimson concerts have often felt Fripp to be distant, removed, unresponsive – locked in a world of his own, making few efforts to engage them directly. This perception was reinforced by his practice, adopted after only the first eight gigs in 1969, of sitting on a stool onstage while performing.
When interviewers would ask him, “Why do you sit down on stage?,” Fripp would respond, “Because you can’t play guitar standing up. At least I can’t.” He felt it wasn’t his “job to stand up and look moody. My job was to play, and I couldn’t play standing up.” (Rosen 1974, 18) It was a matter of concentration: “There are some things that are far easier to play standing up, and if it’s a very physical thing that’s required, you don’t want to be anchored too much, whereas if it’s something which requires a fair amount of concentration and technique you can sit down and just concentrate on it.” (Williams 1971, 23-4) But it was also a matter of Fripp’s rejecting what he called the “show biz thing,” the specter of empty gestures in the name of entertainment that forever haunts rock performances. He said wryly, “I can see the beauty of Emerson, ligging about the organ, but I could never do it and make it work satisfactorily. It’d look false, because that’s not the kind of bloke I am.” (Williams 1971, 23)
Consider something John Lennon said in 1970: “The Beatles deliberately didn’t move like Elvis, that was our policy, because we found it stupid and bullshit. And then Mick Jagger came out and resurrected bullshit movement, you know, wiggling your arse and that. So then people began to say, ‘Well, the Beatles are passe because they don’t move.’ But we did it as a conscious thing.” (“Lennon Remembers,” 34)
I TALK TO THE WIND
According to the album credits this is not a Fripp piece; it was written by Ian McDonald and Pete Sinfield. I always had trouble with this song: it seemed to take a long time (five minutes and forty seconds) to say not much of anything. There is some beautiful linear counterpoint – that is to say, the harmonies result from the directional leading of individual melodic lines – and the gentle clash of major and minor modes is poignant enough. But in the final analysis the value of “I Talk to the Wind” has more to do with its formal function on Side A of the record than with any intrinsic musical merit: you’ve got to have something soft and seductive between “Schizoid Man” and “Epitaph.” An idyllic interlude between the rape and the prophecy. I’m just not sure it had to be this long. “I Talk to the Wind” leads without a break into “Epitaph” …
Judging from concert reviews of the 1969 British and American tours, King Crimson had a way of flattening audiences and upstaging the acts it was supposed to be supporting. (Fripp reports that the Moody Blues refused to undertake a joint tour with King Crimson: he says Graham Edge of the Moodies felt that King Crimson “were simply too strong.” [YPG, 2]) The music was loud, it was powerful, it was gut-wrenching, it was an unbelievable wall of sound. Melody Maker writer Alan Lewis reported on the concert King Crimson did with the Nice at Fairfield Hall in Croyden on October 17: Crimson played “21st Century Schizoid Man,” “Epitaph,” “Trees” (never recorded), the “incredibly heavy” “Court of the Crimson King,” and closed with “Mars” from Holst’s Planets suite, “hammering out the menacing riff over an eerie wail from Ian McDonald’s mellotron.
Together with Peter Sinfield’s brilliant lights, they created an almost overpowering atmosphere of power and evil.” (Lewis 1969, 6) In Lewis’s view, the classical/rock menagerie of the Nice was no match for Crimson’s aggressive presence. In the nascent world of progressive rock, perhaps Keith Emerson was the movement’s McCartney, Robert Fripp its Lennon – the Lennon of the primal scream.
Similarly, Chris Albertson, reviewing for Down Beat a Fillmore East (New York) concert in November where King Crimson opened for Fleetwood Mac and Joe Cocker, judged that Crimson was “clearly the superior group and all that followed was anti-climactic.” Albertson noted the quality of the group’s material, the extraordinarily high level of musicianship, the collective improvisation, and the jazz influence, concluding, “King Crimson has majestically arrived, proving that neither the Beatles nor Stones were the last word from England.” (Albertson 1970, 20-21)
Only a few months after their formation, King Crimson were being placed in fairly heady company. E. Ochs sketched his impressions of KC I live at the Fillmore East for Billboard readers: “King Crimson, royal relative and fellow heavy to Deep Purple, outweighed Joe Cocker and Reprise’s Fleetwood Mac 10 tons to two … when the new Atlantic group clashed ear-splitting volume with well-integrated jazz, yielding a symphonic explosion that made listening compulsory, if not hazardous …
King Crimson can only be described as a monumental heavy with all the majesty – and tragedy – of Hell … King Crimson drove home the point of their musical philosophy with the volume turned up so high on their amplifiers that, had they been electric blankets, they would have all broiled to death. Not to mention third-degree burns in the audience. The group’s immense, towering force field, electrified by the energy of their almost frightening intensity, either pinned down patrons or drove them out.” (Ochs 1969, 22)
EPITAPH including MARCH FOR NO REASON and TOMORROW AND TOMORROW
(by Fripp, McDonald, Lake, Giles, and Sinfield). The Gothic rock ballad is born. Slow gloomy minor key mellotron-rich. Sinfield’s text meditates pessimistically on the failure of old truths to bring meaning into contemporary existence (“The wall on which the prophets wrote / is cracking at the seams”), on the threat posed by the proliferation of technological means unchecked by a guiding moral vision (“Knowledge is a deadly friend / when no one sets the rules”), and on the bleak prospects the future holds (in the words of the refrain, “Confusion will be my epitaph / as I crawl a cracked and broken path / If we make it we can all sit back and laugh / But I fear tomorrow I’ll be crying”).
It gets down to what you can say in a slow (positive: deliberate, stately, majestic … negative: plodding, interminable, insufferable) rock song. Fripp has always contended that rock is our most malleable contemporary musical media: that you can say anything with it. Crimson was obviously going for the Big Statement here. Maybe Sinfield bit off more than he could chew; some of his metaphors are on the labored side, in danger of collapsing under their own weight: “… the seeds of time were sown / and watered by the deeds of those / who know and who are known.” It may not be Shakespeare, but the lyrics are really no more grandiose than the music, and in 1969 there was still an innocence about efforts like this to combine classical gigantism with rock, romantic lyric poetry with repetitive rock melodic types.
Consider the long fade-out: the progression VI-v in the key of E minor repeated eighteen times to gloomy vocalizations and clanging electric guitar dissonances. The harmonic domain is thus modal – in effect, B-Phrygian. Whether or not it was Fripp who contributed this modal chord progression, he was increasingly to draw on modal vocabulary in subsequent works, as an alternative to traditional major/minor tonality.
Fripp’s guitar work: electric guitar is used at selected points of emphasis, but the primary guitar sound is acoustic strumming and arpeggiation: like virtually all of Fripp’s “rhythm” guitar work, it never falls into incessantly repeated strumming patterns, but rather is animated by a highly imaginative textural instinct.
Consider, too, the minor tonality. Minor. Minor. It has to be minor. All the songs on In the Court of the Crimson King are in minor, except “I Talk to the Wind,” which is sort of in minor, but veers major at cadence points. Minor: traditionally the mode of sadness, regret, the dark side of life, despair, anger, sorrow, angst, depression, uncertainty, pathos, bathos, bittersweetness, ending, finality, death.
For all its minorishness, “Epitaph” is completely conventional harmonically, and sounds indeed harmonically rather than linearly conceived. I don’t know if it was Fripp who came up with the chord progression. But as his development progressed, he became less attached to traditional functional harmony; his textures became increasingly contrapuntal (with complex figurations of a harmonically implicative rather than declamatory nature replacing homophonically-conceived chord progressions); and in general rhythm, melody, texture, and timbre took precedence over harmony as the most significant purveyors of musical meaning.
For Fripp, Lake, McDonald, Giles, and Sinfield, touring had its hazards. At the focal point of the tremendous energies being unleashed, the band, according to Melody Maker reporter B.P. Fallon, would “admit to being physically and mentally shattered” at the end of a performance. (Fallon 1969, 7) Giles wrote a column for the same British magazine, describing the rigors of playing America’s large venues, meetings with other musicians, and the endless waiting that accompanies road life; there is an undertone of despair in his prose, even as he describes future projects King Crimson was discussing, such as writing, performing, and possibly recording a “modern symphony” for twelve or so “leaders in modern musical attitudes.” (Giles 1969, 23)
The impression is that even on the road, the members of the group at times had access to a furious white-hot creative maelstrom. On the other hand, the primary challenge seems to have been simply to avoid boredom and stay in touch with the music. Fripp indicated there was only one way he could keep himself together: “My answer to American hotel life was to put the TV on and practice for eight hours a day.” (Williams 1971, 24)
It was perhaps inevitable that the strains would rip the group apart. By the end of December, Mike Giles and Ian McDonald had officially announced their departure from King Crimson. Giles was quoted as saying: “I felt that sitting in a van, an aeroplane and hotel rooms was a waste of time even if you are getting a great deal of money for it. Ian and I feel that we’d rather have less money and do more creative, interesting and fulfilling things with all the travelling time. The main thing is for Ian and I to write and record using musicians of similar attitude with the accent on good music – really doing what we feel we should be doing with a lot of emphasis on production.
Part of the reason for the split was that I didn’t feel I could do this within King Crimson and they need the freedom to follow through what they need to do.” (Eldridge 1970, 13) Sinfield thought the split had to do with personalities: Lake and Fripp were by nature “strong, very forceful, almost pushy,” while McDonald and Giles were “very, very receptive.” Sinfield, who felt his personality was somewhere in the middle, said that the combination of the five “could and did work to a degree but the pressure got too much for Ian and Mike.” (Eldridge 1970, 13) For his part, McDonald expressed dissatisfaction with the overall tone of the music as it had developed. The gloom-and-doom aspect, he had decided, was not him: “I want to make music that says good things instead of evil things.” (Nick Logan, “Replacements,” NME (Jan. 24 1979), quoted in YPG, 7)
On December 7th, after four dates on consecutive nights at Hollywood’s Whisky A Go Go, McDonald and Giles told Fripp of their decision to leave. Fripp’s reaction appears to have been shock: “My stomach disappeared. King Crimson was everything to me. To keep the band together I offered to leave instead but Ian said that the band was more me than them.” (YPG, 6) Fripp’s view was that King Crimson had taken on an autonomous life of its own; it was an idea, a concept, a way of doing things, a channel, a living organism; music had spoken through it. He put it simply: “King Crimson was too important to let die.” (Crowe 1973, 22)
MOONCHILD including THE DREAM and THE ILLUSION
(by McDonald and Sinfield). Twelve minutes and nine seconds. You see, the thing is, I’ve been in jams like this. The feeling is totally there among the musicians (and whoever else happens to be sitting around, whether they’ve paid for it or not, probably, and preferably, not). You are close to silence, Silence with a capital S. You are in tune with silence, the deepest sound of them all. Every sound, therefore, that you make, make with intention, sensitivity, and awareness, has a meaning, an ineffability, a significance. You are listening, Listening with a capital L. You hear what everyone else is doing; you do whatever is necessary, which is usually as little as possible. It has nothing to do with self-expression: it has to do with a group mind. And yes, it is possible to become a group mind, to feel that sense of immersion in something so immeasurably greater and lighter and more sensitive and more conscious than your own paltry, complex-ridden, neurotic, solipsistic, pathetic self.
And no, such moments cannot really be anticipated and made to happen (although one can gain a certain expertise at setting up the conditions for them to happen). And yes, when those moments do happen it is all enough, the music, the sense of the music happening as it were of its own will and to its own purposes – you are in tune with the vibration of nature itself, you are its instrument – it is playing you and you are merely the rapt spectator of this spectacular play of sound in all its parameters which seem so lucidly there, so transparent, so available, all you have to do is stretch out your hand to feel its warmth, its fullness, its loving and terrifying infinity, there is nothing else you need or ever will need.
BUT – but: … the bitch of it all is that you put some of this stuff on tape and it just sounds like the most unbelievably aimless doodling, like the random toning of the wind chimes blowing on your front porch, or traffic noises outside your window. THEN you are faced with a philosophical bugaboo. Because, you see, music, in its very essence, is too great, too vast, too intangibly infinitesimal, too subtle for human conception. You are stuck with the sense that you might as well contemplate the sound of that wind chime on your porch, or listen to the screen door’s periodic groans and slams, or listen to the sound of your own breathing, or the silent sound of your own thoughts as they careen through the blank void of your pathetic awareness – you might as well do that as listen to this horrid tape you have made or to the residue of some 1969 studio session by five horrid British rock musicians called King Crimson. And well you might.
As it happens, a few of “classical music”‘s twentieth-century pantheon of composers were already hip to all this, and endeavored to enlighten recalcitrant audiences through their outrageous acts, pieces, ideas, concepts, noodlings, doodlings, and explications
One was the American John Cage, (whose final position was, and is, that “everything we do is music”) whose “silent” piece, 4’33” enraged some and entranced others as far back as 1952 (the unavoidable implication of 4’33” was that the sounds heard when attempting to listen to nothing were just as interesting as any Beethoven masterpiece), who devised methods of composing by chance so the “composer” could get his pathetic personality out of the way and let the perhaps ordered, perhaps random laws of nature speak for themselves – just like the wind chimes.
Another was the German Karlheinz Stockhausen, who took a more psychological, more practical approach, for instance in his 1968 “composition,” Aus den sieben Tagen (From the Seven Days). This is a set of prose instructions for musicians (or I suppose anyone) to follow in order to have a quality musical experience. Among the fifteen “pieces” in Aus den sieben Tagen, perhaps the most extreme is “Gold Dust,” which reads as follows: “Live completely alone for four days / without food / in complete silence / without much movement / sleep as little as necessary / think as little as possible //after four days, late at night / without conversation beforehand / play single sounds // WITHOUT THINKING which you are playing /// close your eyes / just listen.” (Stockhausen, 7 Tagen, ?) But perhaps more pertinent to our discussion of King Crimson 1969 is “It,” the piece just before “Gold Dust” in “Aus den sieben Tagen.” The instructions for “It” read: “Think NOTHING / wait until it is absolutely still within you / when you have attained this / begin to play // as soon as you start to think, stop / and try to re-attain the state of NON-THINKING / then continue playing.”
What would such music sound like? You do not have to guess. “It” was recorded by Deutsche Grammophon in 1968 and you can hear it for yourself. But in case you don’t have access to old German pressings (though the record is readily available in most university music department record libraries), it doesn’t matter much. It sounds much the same as King Crimson’s “Moonchild.”
THE COURT OF THE CRIMSON KING including THE RETURN OF THE FIRE WITCH and THE DANCE OF THE PUPPETS
(by McDonald and Sinfield). Along with “Epitaph,” this is the album’s other mellotron epic. The title track. Hence theme song/anthem for the laddies in the group’s early stages, though decidedly nothing like “Here We Come, We’re the Monkees.” Because it is not a Fripp composition, I will pass it over rather quickly here, except to note: the rather foursquare phraseology, which it would take Fripp a while to get away from; the ubiquitous minor modality; the false (major) ending, as in “I Talk to the Wind”; the odd circus-music woodwind/organ break after the false ending – one of those stark, unreasonable textural/associative contrasts which Fripp was to employ so effectively in later efforts; the Gothic heaviness of it all; and finally the abrupt ending – after having built up a whole album’s worth of momentum, a melodramatic climax is avoided in favor of a sort of musicus interruptus
* * * * * * * * * * * *
In retrospect, whatever one felt about this music, the seminal nature of the album cannot be denied: the variegated yet cohesive In the Court of the Crimson King helped launch, for better or for worse, not one but several musical movements, among them heavy metal, jazz-rock fusion, and progressive rock. As the Rolling Stone Record Guide was to put it some years later, the album “helped shape a set of baroque standards for art-rock.” (RS Record Guide, 1st ed., 204)
King Crimson II
After the breakup of King Crimson I in December 1969 a period of some two and a half years ensued during which Fripp struggled to keep Crimson alive and in some sense intact as a recording band, performing outfit, and concept. To make the almost continual personnel changes of this and the following period easier to visualize, I have concocted the chart which appears on page 40.
Looking at the period 1970 to early 1972 – King Crimson II as we are calling it – at a distance of nearly two decades, this writer has rather violently mixed feelings about it. It didn’t take Fripp long to figure out that somehow the music had lost its course. As early as 1973 he was talking about King Crimson II like this: “The time was spent preparing for the present, I suppose. This band [King Crimson III] is right for the present, just as the first band was right for its own time. The interim period was something I wouldn’t want to undergo again.” (Crowe 1973, 22) And in 1978 he admitted being “embarrassed” by KC II: “I went into catatonia for three weeks on a tour with that incarnation of the band. It was one of the most horrible periods of my life.” (Farber 1978, 27)
During the period itself, with musicians entering and exiting the Court at a rapid pace, with ideas flying by, attempts being made to catch them, improvisational situations being tried out, albums being made, Fripp did his best to put the best face on it. In 1971 he said, “The beauty of the set-up in Crimson is that it can handle having a flexible personnel around a “core” of more or less permanent members” – the core, getting right down to it, being Fripp and Sinfield, and ultimately Fripp alone. (Williams 1971, 24) At the least, Fripp was able to indulge his perennial fascination with “the way musicians work together as a unit. You see, I view King Crimson as the microcosm of the macrocosm.” (Crowe 1973, 22) By which one feels he meant that being in an evolving, complex, unpredictable, perilous yet potential-laden musical situation like King Crimson was verily analogous to being alive on planet Earth, or like being in some alchemical laboratory (the microcosm) for the purpose of investigating life itself (the macrocosm).
Fripp would also issue elliptical, contradictory, unfathomable statements concerning his exact role in King Crimson. On the one hand, it was obvious by the end of 1972 that he was the only person who had been in all of the band’s incarnations, that in some sense King Crimson was Robert Fripp plus whoever, that it was his band. Yet he seemed to shrink from assuming unambiguously the mantle of authority, which he felt belonged not to him but to King Crimson itself, the concept, the idea, the force, the music, not to one or several particular merely human personalities. In 1973 he would say things like, “I form bands, but I’m not a leader. There are far more subtle ways of influencing people and getting things done than being a band leader. Although I can be a band leader, it’s not a function I cherish. Who needs it?” (Crowe 1973, 22)
In the Wake of Poseidon and Lizard
In January 1970, after the departure of McDonald and Giles, King Crimson was temporarily a trio consisting of Fripp, Lake, and Sinfield. (McDonald and Giles went on to make their self-titled duo album, released in 1971; McDonald was subsequently one of the founding members of Foreigner in 1976.) The trio cancelled future gigs and set about composing, rehearsing, and looking for new members to fill out the group, with vague plans to resume live performances. In order to sustain public interest in the band, King Crimson released the single “Cat Food / Groon” on March 13.
King Crimson’s only gig in 1970 was an appearance on BBC TV’s “Top of the Pops” program on March 25, performing “Cat Food” with the lineup listed in the chart on page 40. By the end of the month Crimson had auditioned several drummers with the intent of finding a permanent replacement for Michael Giles but had succeeded only in enlisting the services of Circus’s flute and reed player Mel Collins. In early April, bassist/vocalist Greg Lake decided to leave the Court and form a band with the Nice’s Keith Emerson: this was, of course, the nucleus of the mighty Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. In the meantime, Fripp and the whole motley crew mentioned in the last couple of pages, in various combinations, had been busy recording In the Wake of Poseidon, King Crimson’s second album, which was released in May.
Islands and Earthbound
The period immediately after the release of Lizard was what Fripp has called “a time of desperation.” (YPG 11, Dec. 19 1970) King Crimson was looking for bassists and singers, and considered Bryan Ferry, among many others. After Fripp had auditioned some thirty bass players, Boz Burrell was chosen in February 1971. Or rather, it appears that having been selected as King Crimson’s singer, Boz (who was not a bassist) was one day noodling around on a bass and Fripp decided it would be possible to teach him to play the instrument, more or less from scratch. With the lineup of Fripp, Sinfield, Collins, Boz, and Ian Wallace (drums), King Crimson rehearsed through March and by April were ready to start performing, it had been almost a year and a half since the end of the American tour in December 1969, when King Crimson I broke up, and Fripp was nervous but exceeding eager.
After four April dates at the Zoom Club in Frankfurt, the band began a long and grueling tour schedule (1971 – Britain: May, fourteen gigs; June and July, two gigs; August, seven gigs; September, six gigs; October, eighteen gigs. Canada and U.S.A.: November, twelve gigs; December, six gigs. 1972 – U.S.A.: February, twelve gigs; March, nineteen gigs; April, one gig). The touring band drew on King Crimson’s by now fairly substantial repertoire.
(Historical footnote on the pecking order among British progressive rock bands in late 1971: at two concerts at the Academy of Music in New York on November 24 and 25, Yes opened, King Crimson played second, and the headliner was Procol Harum. The Variety reviewer, who noted the undue time necessary for equipment changes between sets by the three quasi-symphonic behemoths, allowed that Procol Harum was “in fine form” but “was put to the test by having to follow strong sets by Yes and the overpowering King Crimson,” who, he felt, “should headline next time out.” When King Crimson returned to the Academy of Music on February 12, 1972, they were indeed the headliners – supported by Redbone and the Flying Burrito Brothers.)
In the meantime, work was in progress on the studio album Islands, which was completed by October and released on December 3, 1971, almost exactly a year after “Lizard.” All of the album’s six pieces were by Fripp or by Fripp and Sinfield. Fripp used the contributions of nine musicians to get the sound he wanted, but if King Crimson was a way of doing things, for Islands that way involved following Fripp’s instructions to the letter. As drummer Wallace has testified, “Fripp was in one of his weird periods. You had to play everything the way he did it. There was no room to stretch out.” (Rosen 1983, 21)
As for Sinfield’s lyrics – well, let me let another writer carry out the execution. Don Heckman, reviewing Islands in Stereo Review: “What is there to say, after all, about lyrics that go ‘Time’s grey hand won’t catch me while the sun shine down / Untie and unlatch me while the stars shine,’ or ‘Love’s web is spun, cats prowl, mice run / Wreathe snatch-hand briars where owls know my eyes’? … With Yeats and Thomas and Keats and Lord knows how many other superb English poets available to me, I bloody well don’t intend to waste my time with absurdities like this.” (Heckman 1972, 101)
One of the strangest “rock” albums ever released, Islands presents stark, unreasonable contrasts: the three excessively precious and poetic ballad-type songs “Formentera Lady,” “The Letters,” and “Islands” (all of which nevertheless continue to use highly imaginative textures); the fantastic raunchy profundity of the guitar showcase instrumental “Sailor’s Tale”; the X-rated “Ladies of the Road”; the pure if not puerile classicism of “Prelude: Song of the Gulls”; and the oceanic spaciousness of the title track, “Islands.” Of all of Fripp’s albums, this is probably the hardest to understand, the easiest to ridicule, the most difficult to be generous to. And yet …
The last thing we hear on Islands, after a lengthy silent interlude following the final song, is the chamber group used for “Prelude: Song of the Gulls” tuning up and the soft yet persuasive voice of Robert Fripp telling them they’re going to do it twice more, once with the oboe and once without, then call it a day. He counts off the beat, one-two-three two-two-three, and … silence: Islands is finished. I suppose you can read into this whatever you want, but to me it seems as if Fripp is telling us (the audience), Look, this is music, and music is made by people, and people have to tune up and practice and rehearse, and there is so much more behind music than the sound, more than ever can be told.
For all its impenetrability, its self-conscious artistic excess, its woefully labored attempts to capture innocence, there is a certain quality in Islands making the sum much greater than its parts, even if this sum does not quite tally up to musical greatness. The strange thing is, I listened to the album today for the first time in a couple of years, and I found, almost against my will (since I’ve been telling people for some time that Islands is the absolute worst King Crimson record ever put out) – I found that I actually liked it. As an overall musical gesture. The whole album has that sort of fin-de-siecle manneristic feeling, like the over-refined music of the late fourteenth century, the twilight of the middle ages – a sense of worlds falling apart, new ones as yet unborn, grand heartbreaking nostalgia for what can no longer be, rough beasts slouching toward Bethlehem to be born.
In the composition of Islands, Fripp was learning to subtract, to take things away, to let the black backdrop of silence show through the music, to heed the oft-repeated but ill-practiced axiom that less is more. To borrow a phrase from Eno (who in turn derived it from filmmaker Luis Bunuel): “Every note obscures another.” (Grant 1982, 29)
As had King Crimson’s American tour in late 1969, their American tour in November and December 1971 produced many moments of tension and even hostility among the band’s members. Sinfield – who on tour played VCS3 synthesizer and worked the group’s lighting and sound – in particular found the turmoil and pressures of being on the road in America difficult to cope with, and made up his mind that he wouldn’t return to the States again with the band “unless specific conditions were fulfilled, and I didn’t expect them to be.” (YPG 18, quoting Williams, MM, Jan. 8 1972) It wasn’t long before Sinfield and Fripp had reached a point where it became clear that they were moving in irreconcilably different directions.
On New Year’s Day 1972, the New Musical Express (YPG 17) reported that Sinfield had left King Crimson, and a week later Fripp explained his view on the matter: “I suppose that the thing to say is that I felt the creative relationship between us had finished. I’d ceased to believe in Pete … It got to the point where I didn’t feel that by working together we’d improve on anything we’d already done.” (YPG 18, quoting Williams, MM, Jan. 8 1972) As usual with Fripp, his dealings with the outer world were intimately bound up with his inner development. Eight years after the split with Sinfield, Fripp explained to an interviewer that he came to the decision to make the break on the same day he changed the name he was known by from “Bob” to “Robert”: “I felt I’d made my first adult decision.” (Watts 1980, 22)
Sinfield had had increasing difficulties dealing with his position in King Crimson, especially on tour. Fripp said that “the band often found the lights distracting”, (YPG 18, quoting Williams, MM, Jan. 8 1972) he himself had grown suspicious of the visual “trickery” associated with the British tour of 1971, “however fine it may have been. I’m thinking of the lights, and the general blood and thunder.” (YPG 18-19, quoting MM, Jan. 15 1972) In other words, Fripp wanted the band to be judged on its purely musical merits – again the suspicion of the “show biz” aspect of rock and roll performance.
For his part, Sinfield, who had nevertheless expressed a desire to let his work grow in directions other than those offered by the King Crimson format, regarded the decision for him to quit the group as “entirely on Bob’s side”: “Bob rang me up and said ‘I can’t work with you.’“ (YPG 18, quoting Williams, MM, Jan. 8 1972) Fripp was at pains to present the split to the British press in the most rancorless possible terms, and was disturbed by the sensationalist manner in which the New Music Express handled it. (YPG 18, Jan. 8 1972) The many instances of press distortion involving King Crimson constituted one reason why, later in the 1970s, Fripp would undertake a one-man campaign to reject and re-write the ground rules of the whole music industry complex.
In the opening months of 1972 the remaining members of King Crimson – Fripp, Collins, Boz, and Wallace – were not exactly congealing into what one would describe as a happy family. Yet, as reports of inner dissent came out in the press, the band was booked for one more American tour. As Fripp was later to write, the “Earthbound” tour “was conducted in the knowledge that the group would disband afterwards.” (Fripp 1980F, 38)
While in America on KC II’s final tour (February-April 1972), drummer Ian Wallace bought a portable Ampex stereo cassette deck which the group plugged into the mixing board during live performances. Many performances were taped this way, and Fripp subsequently took the cassettes home and edited them down to a live album, Earthbound, released in England on June 9, 1972. Crimson’s American distributor, Atlantic, declined to put out the record, saying the sound quality wasn’t good enough. (My copy is a later Italian version on the Philips/Polydor label, featuring liner notes by a certain Daniele Caroli titled “Robert Fripp: musica psichedelica dal vivo negli USA” [“live psychedelic music in the USA”] and incongruously sporting a cover collage utilizing the photos from King Crimson’s 1974 album Red: Fripp, John Wetton, and Bill Bruford., Sound quality or no sound quality, Earthbound is an unusual cultural document, the sole officially released record of KC II live, music somehow emerging from the wreckage of a dream.
The contrast between Islands and Earthbound is extreme to a degree, a bit like mentioning Judy Collins and Patti Smith in the same breath. The split between studio Crimson and live Crimson had grown virtually to the point of schizophrenia: there was Fripp the painfully self-conscious composer of delicate neo-romantic refinements, refined almost to a point of transparently pellucid non-entity; and there was Fripp the jagged metal warrior, brazenly brandishing his electric guitar as a weapon, band of sonic renegade vagabonds in tow. Great musicians often have some such split musical personality – Beethoven can pat you lovingly on the cheek one minute, and wheel you around and kick you in the butt the next.
King Crimson II: a period of intensive searching by Robert Fripp, who managed, in trying circumstances, some of which were surely of his own (if unconscious) making – to put out four albums of some of the most experimental, eclectic, interesting, difficult, challenging, beautiful, ugly, and at times profoundly irritating music ever to come out of the rock orbit.
Robert Fripp said in 1986, “Music so wishes to be heard that it sometimes calls on unlikely characters to give it voice.” Fripp was – and is – the opposite of a musician like Mozart, whose seemingly divine, God-given talent enabled him, under his father’s tutelage, to be playing the harpsichord with facility by the age of five and composing sonatas and symphonies by the age of eight. Of his own natural aptitude, or rather lack thereof, Fripp has often said, “At fifteen, I was tone-deaf with no sense of rhythm, sweating away with a guitar.” (Fricke 1979, 26) He contrasts his situation with that of the supreme guitar hero of his generation: “One might have a very direct, very innate and natural sense of what music is, like Hendrix, or be like me, a guitar player who began music tone deaf and with no sense of rhythm, completely out of touch with it.
For Hendrix the problem was how to refine his particular capacity for expressing what he knew. For me it’s how to get in touch with something that I know is there, but also I’m out of touch with.” (Garbarini 1979, 33)
Little is known publicly about music in the Fripp household and extended family, though he has spoken admiringly of a certain great aunt, Violet Griffiths, a piano and music teacher: “As a young girl she practiced nine hours a day, five on scales alone.” Mrs. Griffiths has been highly successful in inspiring her students; she “regularly has the highest examination results for her pupils.” She attributed her success to “pushing”: “Aim for 100%, not 50%,” (Fripp 1981B, 44) Fripp quotes her as saying.
A similar work ethic permeates Fripp’s own approach to the guitar: what he has been able to accomplish, he feels, has nothing to do with talent, but has been the result of sheer effort. He has practiced guitar with varying degrees of intensity over the years, the most being “twelve hours a day for three days running,” and sometimes six to eight hours a day over fairly long stretches. Such a level of commitment has been necessary to attain the goal: “It’s a question of developing technical facility so that at any moment one can do what one wishes … Guitar playing, in one sense, can be a way of uniting the body with the personality, with the soul and the spirit.” (Rosen 1974, 37-8).
Fripp took up guitar at the age of eleven, playing with difficulty on an acoustic Manguin Frere. Fripp is naturally left-handed, but for some reason decided to go at the guitar in the normal right-handed position, with the left hand doing the fretting and the right hand doing the picking – unlike other famous southpaws like Jimi Hendrix and Paul McCartney, who turned their guitars upside down so they could play them “normally.” After struggling on his own for some three months, Fripp took lessons for about a year at the School of Music in Corse Mellon, a village a couple of miles from Wimborne, his hometown. His instructor was Kathleen Gartell, a piano teacher who was not a guitarist but who did give him some useful music theory background. The man Fripp has singled out as his most important guitar teacher was Don Strike, whom he called, “a very good player in the Thirties style.”
Fripp’s lessons with Strike lasted about two years, between the ages of thirteen and fifteen. Strike laid the foundation for what was to become one of Fripp’s specialties, a rapid cross-picking technique. A few years later, when Fripp was eighteen, he ran into Strike again; the older guitarist, on hearing Fripp play, shook his hand and acknowledged him the better player. Today Fripp recalls this acknowledgement as an important milestone in his life.
During his teenage years Fripp also experimented briefly with flamenco guitar styles and took lessons from Tony Alton, a Bournemouth guitarist. All such experiences were doubtless helpful in channeling the young Fripp’s musical urges, but he did not feel entirely comfortable with any particular guitar style or discipline: in 1974 he said, “I don’t … feel myself to be a jazz guitarist, a classical guitarist, or a rock guitarist. I don’t feel capable of playing in any of these idioms, which is why I felt it necessary to create, if you like, my own idiom.” necessary to create, if you like, my own idiom.” (Rosen 1974, 18).
Fripp’s first electric guitar, purchased when he was about fourteen, was a Hofner President, which he played through a six-watt amplifier with an eight-inch speaker. He has also used Fender Stratocasters, a J-45 acoustic, a Yamaha acoustic, a Milner pre-war acoustic, and a Gibson tenor guitar. The main instrument with which he was associated in the 1970s was the Gibson Les Paul, a guitar he found ideal for his characteristic single-string work. In the 1980s he used Roland synthesizer guitars (notably with King Crimson IV and in his collaborations with Andy Summers).
Recently, with Guitar Craft, he has championed the Ovation Legend 1867 super-shallow-bodied acoustic. (Technically inclined readers who are interested in more details on Robert Fripp’s equipment – amplifiers, picks, strings, devices, and so on – are urged to consult Rosen 1974, 32; Mulhern 1986, 90; Drozdowski 1989, 32; and the liner notes to several of the albums.).
Almost from the very beginning of his guitar playing, Fripp realized that “the plectrum guitar [guitar played with a pick] is a hybrid system” for which no one had ever developed an adequate pedagogical method. Left-hand position and fretting technique, at least for the nylon-stringed guitar, had been established to a high degree of sophistication by classical guitarists, but right-hand position and plectrum technique had no comparable tradition. The use of a pick is derived from the playing of banjos and subsequently guitars in the jazz of the 1920s and 1930s, but every player essentially developed his or her own method; and since in the jazz context “the main function of the right hand was to enable the guitar to be heard above ten other pieces in a dance band,” the results generally lacked for subtlety.
“So there I was at twelve in 1958 and it was so obvious that there was no codified approach for the right hand for the plectrum method. So I had to begin to figure it out … It was very difficult because the only authority I could ever offer was my own.” Beginning then, Fripp devoted nearly thirty years to the development of the picking method he now teaches to his Guitar Craft students. Part of the development took place on a conscious level, but much of it was a sort of unconscious accretion of physical knowledge gained through constant practicing. Fripp says that when he came to consolidate the approach for Guitar Craft, “There was a knowing in the hand through doing it for years which I consulted. It’s interesting. My body knew what was involved, but I didn’t know about it.” (All quotations in this paragraph from Drozdowski 1989, 30).
Fripp’s view is that educating oneself musically is a never-ending process. From a technical point of view, his approach seems to involve systematically attacking theoretical entities like scales through the physical and mental discipline of learning to play them fluently. In rock music, he points out, only three or four scales are in common use – Major, Minor, Pentatonic (Blues), and slight variants of these.
But in fact, any number of other scale formations are available to the creative musician, ranging from the old Church Modes through the so-called synthetic scales (which have exotic names like Super Locrian, Oriental, Double Harmonic, Hungarian Minor, Overtone, Enigmatic, Eight-Tone Spanish, and so on, and on into symmetrical scales (what twentieth-century French composer and teacher Olivier Messiaen called the “Modes of Limited Transposition”) such as Whole Tone, Chromatic, and Octatonic/Diminished.
All of these can be learnt in various transpositions, that is, starting the scale on a different note (C Major, C# Major, D Major … B Major). In addition, most of these scales can be used as the source of other formations by changing the tonic note while retaining the pitch-set itself. Such was the basis of Western European medieval and Renaissance modal theory – a theory in which one basic scale (the diatonic scale, corresponding to the white notes of the keyboard) ultimately served as the basis of seven different modes, each of which was felt to have its own unique psychological and symbolic character:
Today’s enterprising musician may likewise construct “modes” based on some exotic (non-diatonic) scale, yielding still more inflections or tonal dialects, still more musical variety. For instance, the modes based on the Hungarian Minor scale would begin like this:
A further avenue of scalar exploration, which, so far as I know, Fripp has never mentioned in print nor worked with himself, is the raga system of India, with its rigorously logical array of seventy-two parent scales. The point of all this is that each individual scale carries with it certain musical characteristics, certain expressive possibilities, certain objective sound-qualities available to all who master them. Western classical music got along quite nicely for some two hundred years (let’s say 1650-1850, using essentially only two scale forms, major and minor; much twentieth-century art music has concentrated on a single form, the chromatic or twelve-tone scale.
Fripp has been eager to move into new territory: specific sources of unusual scales he has cited as having been useful to him include Bartok string quartets, Vincent Persichetti’s staid but readable textbook compendium of contemporary musical language, Twentieth-Century Harmony, the eccentric yet influential Joseph Schillinger System of Musical Composition, and jazz-rock groups of the 1970s such as the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Weather Report. (Fripp 1982A, 102) Fripp sums up: “The possibilities for extending [musical, scale] vocabulary are … quite immense. Since it takes three or four years to be able to work within any one scale fluently and utterly, there’s more than enough work for a lifetime.” (Garbarini 1979, 33)
King Crimson – Islands
Paradoxes of Process and Performance
From the foregoing discussion, the reader might get the impression that the technical side of music is all-consuming for Fripp. To the contrary, it is eminently clear that he views the discipline of guitar technique, scales, and so on, not as an end in itself but merely as a means to an end. The end, to put it simply, is to make contact with music. And to make contact with music involves work on the whole personality, a process which has social, cultural, and political ramifications; art and life cannot be separated. Although Fripp’s most developed ideas on the subject of making contact with music have been expressed in terms of his Guitar Craft teaching, and are best discussed in that context, here I might attempt a brief summary of the concept of “music” that has motivated Fripp since before the earliest days of King Crimson.
In talking, thinking, writing, and reading about music as an ultimate quality – for “Music,” as Fripp has written, “is a quality organized in sound” (GC Monograph One [A], VI: see note in hard copy for actual genesis of this quotation) – it must of course always be borne in mind that we are attempting to deal with the ineffable through the medium of language, with all its limitations. Prose has its own laws and grammars, having evolved, one might say, not in order to describe or explain the ineffable, but rather to convey information of a more mundane nature.
Music, conversely, has evolved as a subtle language of the emotions – or, if you prefer (and Fripp probably would), a language of the spirit. Poetry recited aloud, with its quasi-musical cadences, meter, rhythm, pitch, and vocal tone colors, is somewhere in between. The point is that words can never convey the meaning of music; often enough, verbal formulations of the ineffable bog down in paradox, antinomy, self-contradiction. This will happen in this book, and it has happened to Fripp from time to time.
In 1973 Fripp said, “I’m not really interested in music. Music is just a means of creating a magical state.” (Crowe 1973, 22) What he meant (I think) by this was that the outer forms of music, its styles, history, structure, even aesthetics – the stuff of the academic approach to music – were not the point for him. The point was the “magical state” that the practice of music could put one in. Seen from this vantage point, the actual notes and rhythms, the timbral surface, the sounds in themselves, hardly make any difference; it is the attitude and receptivity of the participants that matter. The focus is not on the object, but on the subject – not the sound, but the listener.
Not the knowledge, but the knowing. Paradoxically, of course, it is precisely the sounds you hear, whether you are the musician or the audience, that will enable you to draw your attention to the quality of the knowing: the sounds become the knowledge, but it is the knowing rather than the knowledge that is vital.
In 1974, Fripp told an interviewer: “When I was twenty-one I realized that I’d never really listened to music or been interested in it particularly. I began to take an interest in it, as opposed to being a guitar player who worked in certain situations. I’ve gotten to the point now where I see music as being something other than what most people see. I would say that the crux of my life is the creation of harmony, and music you take to be one of the components of that harmony.” (Rosen 1974, 38)
This statement seems related to the earlier one, but here the word “music” is used in a different sense. Here “m
usic” signifies that intuitively grasped quality, organized in sound, which constitutes the “knowing” of the true musical experience. What Fripp is saying here (I think) is that he had been a guitarist for about ten years before realizing that there was a sense behind the sounds he had been producing. Previously, he had worked on music purely as a craft, as a physical skill on a mechanical level, like a typist whose fingers fly about the keyboard without any recognition of the meaning or import of what’s being typed, or like a conservatory music student who practices for hours a day, never paying attention with his ears to the music there. And, in a sense, music isn’t there if no one is listening to it as such; there may be organized sound, but not a quality organized in sound. In this quotation, Fripp uses the visual analogy: “I see music as being something other than what most people see.” Not the seen, but the seeing.
articularly during the Frippertronics tour, Fripp would invite his audiences to become part of the creative process by engaging in active listening. When the audience expects the performer to do everything for them, the result is passive entertainment, diversion, escapism. When the audience participates sensitively in the creation of the music – for the real music is not “out there” somewhere, existing as an object, but “in here,” in the quality of attention brought to the mere sounds – then the result is art. At a Boston concert, Fripp told the audience, “You have every bit of the responsibility that I have. Because life is ironical, I get paid for it and you don’t.” (Schruers 1979, 16)
The central paradox, or quandary, of Fripp’s entire career has revolved around the difference between, on the one hand, making art-objects for a product-hungry yet passive audience, and, on the other hand, actually making art with an audience on the basis of a vision of a shared creative goal. Like making love, to make art you need equal partners; otherwise one or the other of the partners becomes a mere art, or sex -object for the other. Fripp may have had such thoughts on his mind when, in 1982, he remarked bittersweetly that in swinging London in 1969, “I began to see how much hookers, strippers and musicians have in common: they sell something very close to themselves to the public.” (Fripp 1982A, 42) Once one has tasted real love (or real art), mere sex (or mere entertainment) may satisfy on a certain primitive level, but a deeper longing remains frustrated.
Fripp saw King Crimson as a way of doing things, and though he never defined very precisely what he meant, I imagine one thing he had in mind was this idea of making music with fellow musicians on the basis of a shared intuitive experience of music as a quality organized in sound – and then taking that experience to the public in hopes of expanding the circle of sharing in the creation of art. King Crimson, Fripp always stressed, was primarily a live band, not a recording unit.
Ultimately, Fripp has concluded that recordings cannot convey a quality experience of music, and for this reason has very mixed feelings about his entire recorded output. An interviewer asked him recently, “Do you still think of making records as a bother and a burden?” Fripp answered: “Sure … Because it has very little to do with music. See, the end to music is a process. The end to recording is also a process. But a record is a product. Because of the restrictions and constrictions, the way of recording … it’s very difficult for that process to be reflected in the product.” (Drozdowski 1989, 37)
Nearly a decade earlier, Fripp had expressed the same frustration, in the context of producing an album for the Roches. “Translating from performance to record,” he wrote, is something like trying to put “Goethe into English or Shakespeare into German” and trying to express “the implicit rather than the literal sense.” (Fripp 1980A, 26)
Using a variety of images and metaphors, some of them religious, many musicians, irrespective of genre, have said that the key to creativity lies, in effect, in getting the ego out of the way and allowing a greater force to play through them. Felix Cavaliere: “We are like beacons from another source … I feel some of us as human beings are tuners to this vibration that comes through us.” Lamont Dozier: “I can’t take credit for this stuff. I’m only human and these things are the makings of God. Everything I do that’s good, at least, is a reflection of His hand.” Judy Collins: “Everybody’s a channeler. Every artist who walked down the street and whistled a tune
s a channeler. We don’t do it. It comes through us. It’s not ours.” Raffi: “I find the process of where these songs come from mysterious, because … I feel that, sure, I can take credit for these songs, but they come from another place.” (Song Talk 1989)
Robert Fripp’s formulation of the principle goes like this: “The creative musician … is … the radio receiver, not the broadcasting station. His personal discipline is to improve the quality of the components, the transistors, the speakers, the alloys in the receiver itself, but never to concern himself overmuch with putting out the program. The program is there; all he has to do is receive it as far as possible.” (Garbarini 1979, 31-2)
Fripp the Listener
When I was fourteen years old there was rock’n’roll – Fats Domino and Bill Haley – but frankly I thought it was stupid. I didn’t like rock’n’roll. I was a snob and I still am. I think rock n roll is interesting and some of it is more interesting than it used to be in the fifties. Yet basically it’s not something that means very much to me. If the whole history of rock’n’roll disappeared tomorrow morning, I wouldn’t care. I’m delighted that I’ve influenced rock’n’roll musicians. I’m pleased that David Bowie has said nice things about me and so has Brian Eno. Outside of [their] being complimentary, the only thing I admire about rock’n’roll [musicians] is how much money they make.
– Steve Reich (Vorda 1989, 16) One of the ideas that was important to me was that you could be a rock musician without censoring your intelligence. Rock music has a very anti-intellectual stance, and I didn’t see why I should act dumb in order to be a rock musician. Rock is the most malleable musical form we have. Within the rock framework you can play jazz, classical, trance music, Urubu drumming. Anything you like can come under the banner of rock. It’s a remarkable musical form … – Robert Fripp (Grabel 1982, 22)
The Agony of Rock
The war of words over rock goes on – telling us, if nothing else, that music is still alive, and that people (some people, anyway) care deeply enough about it to take a stand one way or the other.
Critics have often contended that Robert Fripp’s guitar concepts of the late 1970s and 1980s – you can hear them in Frippertronics as well as the League of Gentlemen, King Crimson IV, and Guitar Craft – owe a debt to the minimalist tradition of Steve Reich, Philip Glass, La Monte Young, and Terry Riley – a tradition that began in the 1960s as a rebellion against the academic serial music of the 1940s and 1950s. From its beginnings, minimalism seemed to have something in common with rock: a steady pulse, plenty of repetition, a grounding in simple tonality. Furthermore, the audiences for both types of music overlapped to a considerable extent. Albums like Riley’s A Rainbow in Curved Air (1969) were packaged psychedelically and marketed to the rock public; many of Philip Glass’s early performances took place not in classical concert halls but in downtown New York rock clubs.
The 1970s saw a parting of the ways, however. The music of the best minimalist composers grew more complex, more difficult – in a sense, more classical and less minimal. With a few notable exceptions, such as Brian Eno, rock musicians, after some flirtations with minimalism’s intellectual base, drew back into mainstream rock styles.
Fripp himself has denied that Reich had any direct influence on his work; when he made No Pussyfooting with Brian Eno in 1972, an album often cited as one of the crucial minimalism-rock connections, Fripp had heard neither the music of Reich nor of Glass (though Eno had). Later, Fripp got to know Reich’s work and said he enjoyed it, but only to a degree: “It takes me to a point at which something really interesting could happen, but doesn’t quite make that jump.
Because it is preconceived and orchestrated. What I should personally like to do is to add the random factor, the factor of hazard, to what he’s doing, to walk on stage unexpectedly during one of his performances and having become familiar with the tonal center, improvise over the top of it.” (Garbarini 1979, 32)
The “factor of hazard” is to Fripp an important criterion for judging the effectiveness of music. In the previous chapter we discussed his dissatisfaction with making records: the human factor of interaction between musicians and audience, the creative process, the “way of doing things,” the factor of hazard, are difficult if not impossible to capture on recordings. For similar reasons, he has repeatedly remarked that he is “not really a record listener.” (Watts 1980, 22) Fripp says, “For me, music is the performance of music,” while allowing that “of course, if you don’t go to Bulgaria very much, the best way for you to hear a Bulgarian women’s choir is on record.” (Drozdowski 1989, 36)
Pundits have debated for years the difference between popular music and art music. Fripp doesn’t use the word “art” much, but he has voiced a down-to-earth distinction between what he calls “popular culture” and “mass culture”: “Popular culture is when it’s very, very good and everyone knows it and goes ‘yeah!’ Mass culture is when it’s very, very bad and we all know it and we go ‘yeah!’ Mass culture works on like and dislike, and popular culture addresses the creature we aspire to be. Examples of popular culture: Beatles, Dylan, Hendrix.”
Although critical of mass culture from what might be called an aesthetic point of view, Fripp does not dismiss it entirely. He feels that under certain circumstances mass culture can be used for the good, citing the Live Aid concert in England – an event which awakened in people a genuine spirit of caring and generosity, regardless of cynical questions that were raised regarding how well the money was used and how much help the fund-raising actually did. (Drozdowski 1989, 34)
As noted in this chapter’s epigraph, Fripp sees rock music as “the most malleable musical form we have.” In my book on Brian Eno I defined rock as a specific set of musical style norms (involving certain song forms and rhythmic patterns, certain types of instrumentation and vocal delivery, and so on), in order to show how some rock musicians have gone “beyond rock” into other, new, hybrid musical genres of their own creation.
While viewing rock as a musical style complex is interesting enough as an exercise in analytical musicology, in the real world rock is more a spirit than a style, more an audience than a specific type of music. For the sociologist, rock is a demographic bulge; for the record industry, rock is a marketing category, a publicity strategy. Fripp has said, “One can, under the general banner of rock music, play in fact any kind of music whatsoever.” (Garbarini 1979, 32) I would add only that rock seems to move in cycles – periods of creative diversity followed by periods of stagnation, and that one problem for many musicians is getting their creative music accepted as “rock” by the music industry during periods of industry stagnation.
For Fripp, rock is a democratic music. Although a masterful guitar technician himself, and although he pushes his students to develop their musicianship to the utmost, he acknowledges that in rock, ideas count more than musical competence, sincerity more than virtuosity: virtually anybody who feels the urge can make a musical statement in the language and context of rock, regardless of how well, in classical terms, they can play or sing. The voices of Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, coarse and “untrained” enough to send classical purists into fits of derision, became the voices of whole generations. Eno, though perhaps an extreme case, was so unskilled at playing guitar and keyboard that he called himself a “non-musician.”
For Fripp, “rock is an immediate expression of something very direct. Rock and roll is therapy on the street, it’s available to everyone. Rock and roll is street poetry. It can also be more sophisticated, but it needn’t be.” (Garbarini 1979, 33) For Fripp, “a rock’n’roll audience is always far, far better than any, because they’re instinctive, they’re on their feet, and they can cut through the pretensions of the performer very quickly.” (Drozdowski 1989, 30)
As for stylistic qualities, the rhythm or beat of rock – its most salient and consistent musical characteristic, the thing that rock’s initiates ecstatically extol while its detractors daintily denigrate – represents to Fripp positive sexual energy, “energy from the waist down.” By contrast, developmental harmony – a musical development peculiar to the Western world, and a self-conscious feature of its music really only since the Renaissance – represents to Fripp an intellectual process belonging to the province of the mind. (Watts 1980, 22) Since his earliest music with King Crimson, Fripp has been interested in combining these two sources of energy, the physical and the mental, rhythm and harmony – making, as well as speaking out on behalf of, rock music that could “appeal to the head as well as the foot.” (Garbarini 1979, 31)
Fripp came to believe, however, that many of the progressive rock groups of the early 1970s were not so much intrigued with the intangible spirit of King Crimson – that special way of listening, of doing things, of making music – as they were intent on aping Crimson’s outer musical vocabulary: the virtuosic musicianship, the epic, extended forms, the exotic harmonies, the quasi-mystical, mythological lyrics, the wide variety of instrumental sound colors.
Full-blown Gothic rock was a genre for which Fripp had absolutely no use. Declared a majestically scornful Fripp to John Rockwell of the New York Times in 1978: “I don’t wish to listen to the philosophical meanderings of some English half-wit who is circumnavigating some inessential point of experience in his life.” (Rockwell 1978, 16) Fripp’s rhetorical attack on the movement he’d helped create continued in his own column in Musician, Player, and Listener in the early 1980s, ridiculing “enthusiastic art-rock space cadets whose sudden success seemed to validate pretensions on all levels; they huddled in unholy quorum with pliant engineers to generate excess everywhere.” (Fripp 1980A, 26)
Fripp’s critique of 1970s rock extended to jabs at the stars who had let themselves get fat: in his view, they “became more interested in country houses and riding in limousines, expensive personal habits and all that. The rock musicians who were public figures in the 70’s copped out, and now we have cynicism towards our public figures that is wholly justified.” (Grabel 1982, 58)
Fripp related a story in 1979 that indicated the depths of his disillusionment with the rock fantasy. In August 1975, when King Crimson III had been defunct for a year, Fripp having broken it up at least in part because of the impossible contradictions he had been trying to reconcile between his concept of music and the conditions imposed by rock industry realities, he went to hear a rock show at the Reading Festival: “We’d been waiting an hour and a half while their laser show was being set up. I went out to the front.
It began to rain. I was standing in six inches of mud. It was drizzling. A man over here on my right began to vomit. A man over here to my left pulled open his flies and began to urinate over my leg. Behind me there were some 50,000 people who maybe for two or three evenings a week, for amusement, for recreation, would participate in this imaginary world of rock’n’roll. Then I looked at the group on stage – their lasers shooting off ineffectually into the night, locked into this same dream. Except they’re in it for twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week for the rest of their lives.” (Jones 1979A, 20)
Robert Fripp has felt the agonizing paradox of rock: on the one hand, the possibility of a real magic synthesis, the merging of body/soul/rhythm and mind/spirit/harmony, the seemingly infinite malleability of the basic forms, the potential for direct communication between artists who are passionately committed to ideas and an audience that cuts through artistic pretension and snobbery; on the other hand, the reality of rock as escapist entertainment, the greed, the homogenization of taste through the corporate structure of the recording and radio industries, the tendency to aim for the lowest common denominator of mass culture, the meaningless repetition of formulas, the very unhealthiness of the typical rock lifestyle itself: the star syndrome, the drugs, the pointlessness of wasted talents and lives.
Both punk/new wave and disco, those musical explosions of the mid-1970s that so many felt to be diametrically opposed to each other, Fripp felt as a breath of fresh air. Both seemed to him to be music of the people, to return music to the people, throwing the dinosaurs of the music industry off track, however temporarily.
The raw energy of punk had been prefigured by the aggressive intellectual heavy metal sound of King Crimson III – and even earlier by the intense negative energy and profound frustration that bursts through King Crimson I songs like “21st Century Schizoid Man.” Fripp said, “When I heard punk I thought, I’ve been waiting six years for this.” (Grabel 1979, 32) As for disco, Fripp called it “a political movement that votes with its feet. It started out as the expression of two disadvantaged communities – the gays and the blacks.” As a vital form of social expression, Fripp viewed disco as “nihilistic, but passively nihilistic,” a movement that simply ignored the traditional social framework outside its boundaries. (Schruers 1979, 16)
Robert Fripp believes that one can learn just as much by listening to music one dislikes as by listening to music one likes – in other words, that there can be an educational purpose served by music beyond that of satisfying mere subjective taste. “I go and see people who I don’t like because I get something from it which is worth far more than having been entertained.” (Watts 1980, 22) Rock writer Michael Watts characterizes this view as “puritanical”; puritanical or not, it is consistent with Fripp’s view that the quality of attention one brings to the experience of music is more decisive than the quality of the musical sounds in themselves. Not the sounds, but the listening.
Many of the musicians Fripp has mentioned in interviews over the years are jazz or jazz-rock players – Ornette Coleman, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Tony Williams, Frank Zappa. One name that pops up repeatedly is Jimi Hendrix, whom Fripp cites as an example of pure embodiment of the spirit of music. The intensity of the musical current flowing through Hendrix is what killed him in the end, according to Fripp. Hendrix’s guitar technique itself, however, “was inefficient and, as an example, misled many young guitarists.” (Fripp 1975)
It seems Fripp has never been able to muster much enthusiasm for listening to guitarists for the sake of listening to guitarists. He has peevishly and somewhat inscrutably characterized his chosen tool as “a pretty feeble instrument.” Post-Mayall-Bluesbreakers Eric Clapton he found “quite banal,” while Jeff Beck he could “appreciate as good fun.” (Rosen 1974, 18) Of the entire 1970s and 1980s crop of rock guitarists, Fripp has said little; indeed he hasn’t appeared particularly interested. The whole rush to synthesizer guitars, MIDI, and digital signal processing in the 1980s left Fripp unimpressed.
He did use the technology for his own purposes in King Crimson IV and with Andy Summers, even deigning to endorse the GR-300 synthesizer guitar in Roland advertisements in 1982. But he is not especially thrilled with new sounds for the sake of new sounds, particularly if the new sounds are merely poor imitations of old sounds: “Why would a world-class guitar player [playing a guitar synthesizer] settle for sounding like a third-rate saxophone player, and then a trumpet player and then a synthesizer player?” (Drozdowski 1989, 36)
Taking on the Classics
Some of Fripp’s most perplexing comments on other music concern the Western art music tradition. On the one hand, the music of some of that tradition’s masters has figured prominently in Fripp’s own musical self-education.
He has often acknowledged his debt to Bartok, particularly the Bartok of the String Quartets, many of whose movements sound positively Frippian, with their intense linear counterpoint, percussive rhythms, odd metrical schemes, extended tonality, exotic scales, and piquant dissonances. Stravinsky’s name comes up from time to time, as when Fripp mentioned the Russian in a discussion of tuning, temperament, and enharmonic pitch notation (Mulhern 1986, 99); on another occasion he called early Stravinsky “really hot stuff.” (Garbarini 1979, 32) Fripp expressed admiration for Handel, Bach, Mozart, and Verdi in a 1980 essay, but he was not focussing on their music so much as he was making the point that these composers had had to teach themselves how to thrive creatively while working in “very difficult political and economic conditions … Surely the most surprising point is how much inspired work had prosaic origins.” (Fripp 1980G, 30)
On the other hand, Fripp’s assessment of the classical tradition as a living, functional organism is not particularly generous. His collaborator Eno has been blunt about it: “Classical music is a dead fish.” (Doerschuk 1989, 95) Fripp is more restrained, but has expressed major reservations about the classical orchestra’s viability as a source of a quality musical experience for the musicians – and hence for the audience. As a form of musical organization, Fripp has called the classical orchestra a “dinosaur” – gigantic, lumbering, possessing little discerning intelligence, and overdue for extinction. Although he can respect the discipline of orchestra life and musicianship, Fripp himself “would find it very frustrating” to be an orchestral player: “How awful that the only person who is expressing himself is the composer, with the conductor as the chief of police and the musicians as sequencers … It’s stuck.
There is a cap on how far it can go. There is a cap on what it can do.” And then Fripp moves on to his own agenda: “Within the league of crafty guitarists … the aim is not to follow any one person but to be sensitive to the group as a whole and respond to the group as a whole.” (Mulhern 1986, 96)
According to Fripp, Beethoven was undoubtedly one of the “Great Masters,” with direct access to music at its creative source. But listening to Beethoven’s music today, “transcribed through two hundred years of interpretation and analysis and a sixty piece orchestra with an intelligent conductor”, is for Fripp an indirect, incomplete experience. He would much rather have been present to hear Beethoven improvise at the piano in person. “My personal reaction listening to the [Beethoven] String Quartets is not the sense of passion that was obviously present at the moment when it came through. Rather I feel a sense of how remarkably intelligent it is, but I don’t get that direct touch that I’m sure Beethoven had, which I’ve had from the rock band Television.” (Garbarini 1979, 32)
The Guitar Craft repertoire is by and large learned by rote and performed from memory. One afternoon in February 1986 Fripp and a bunch of his students were standing around the coffee urn during a Guitar Craft seminar discussing the pros and cons of notated music. Fripp’s final word on the topic was, “I’d much rather have a date with my girlfriend than get a letter from her.” It appears he won’t budge from his basic position, which is that the process of playing from notation inevitably takes music “further and further away from the original moment of conception.” (Garbarini 1979, 32)
This position is congruent with Fripp’s professed mistrust of written media and recorded sound – perhaps strange for someone who has put out so many records and published so many articles, and is consistent with his insistence that the highest form of musical experience can take place only in a situation of direct human contact. To musicians who have tasted the rewards of a close, devoted study of masters like Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart – through live performances, keyboard score-reading, recorded media, and the process of intuitive analysis – this is a tough pill to swallow.
A parallel might be drawn between reading a Bach score and reading the Bible. Moses’ or Jesus’ impact was undoubtedly most intensely felt in person – just as to hear Bach improvise a fugue on the organ or harpsichord must have been an awe-inspiring experience, at least to those present with the ears to hear and the musical preparation to understand what was happening. Yet without notation, Bach’s fugues, which through writing out he was able to refine to high levels of perfection, would be lost to history. I for one am glad to have the Bible and the Well-Tempered Clavier on my shelf.
Of course, whenever you have spiritual or musical masters around whom a written tradition accrues, you inevitably have latter-day disciples of all colors and stripes who battle among themselves to claim the “true” interpretation, or, worse, believe that salvation lies somehow in the written documents themselves rather than in direct personal contact with the source. Perhaps, like a modern musical Martin Luther, Fripp is saying that we can all have direct contact with music through faith and effort, that to speak directly with God we don’t need all the accumulated ritual, regulation, and written tradition, that arguing for the inherent superiority of the written art music canon is something like arguing in the manner of contemporary Christian fundamentalists in favor of the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy at the expense of unmediated personal faith.
Classical musicians play notes that are written and fixed on paper. Guitar Craft performances consist of music that appears to be carefully composed and tightly disciplined, as if the musicians are simply doing their best to execute some sort of pre-conceived composition. But in theory, or in the ideal, there is an element of improvisation in both classical and Guitar Craft performances: according to Fripp, the guitarists “can play any note they like provided it’s the right one”. (Drozdowski 1989, 30) It seems to me that in any kind of musical performance situation there will always be a danger of the musician falling into unconsciousness, relying on technique alone, and becoming in effect a sound-producing automaton.
In order to place Fripp’s approach in perspective, perhaps a bit of historical background would be helpful. The Western art music tradition has a rich history of performers taking all kinds of liberties with the written score, in many instances in effect completely re-composing it, whether in actual notation or in the heat of an inspired performance. Many composers have also been improvisers, able to develop and transform themes into new creations on the spot. It was really only with the rise of positivist musicology in the twentieth century that this sort of thing went out of favor and that improvisation, in the art-music world, became a lost art. Nowadays, indeed, the original composer’s “intentions” are widely held to be primary and inviolable, and the best performances are commonly deemed to be those most closely in accord with those sacrosanct intentions.
In the twentieth century, positivist musicologists have industriously cleaned up the music of the masters, assiduously sweeping out all the editorial additions that had crept in through the nineteenth century, getting back to the composers’ manuscripts and first published editions in order to take a new, refreshed look at the music in its original form (though often enough, with composers’ revisions, discrepancies between sources, and so on, reconstructing the “original” score can be a bit of a headache, to the point that doubt may be cast on the very concept of a single “original score” or Urtext). This cleaning-up was a first step; the second stage, now in full swing, is the movement toward faithful reproduction of historically authentic performance practices involving the use of period instruments, original scores, and all the knowledge of style, ornamentation, improvisation, and so on, that musicology can manage to dig up.
In the contemporary historical performance scene, opportunities for whole new ranges of use and abuse of knowledge have opened up. On the one hand, the educated musician can respond to the situation by contacting the spirit behind the music and – not slavishly but with considered knowledge – playing with a range of embellishments and other expressive elements (tempo, dynamics, phrasing, and so on) not literally specified by the raw notes in the score but called for by the spirit of the music, internalized in the sensitive performer through study and practice.
On the other hand, the historical performance movement is all too full of musicians and academic authorities squabbling over obscure details of musical praxis, not unlike scholastic medieval theologians squabbling over the “correct” interpretation of a verse of Scripture.
The music of every historical period calls for different kinds of interpretation, and it is probably true that there is more freedom in interpreting the music of the eighteenth century and earlier than nineteenth- and twentieth-century music, since in recent times composers have become more and more meticulous in notating their intentions with regard to every last nuance of expression.
Be this as it may, surely one can speak of a range of possible interpretations of a given piece of classical music; when all that is played is the notes, with no hint of internalization of the style, of the music – such playing is (and has always been, I suppose) the bane of music departments and performance spaces around the world. But assuming cultivated sensitivity and intuitive musicality on the classical player’s part, performance of the traditional repertoire can surely approach Fripp’s ideal of a music where one can play any note one likes “provided it’s the right one.”
One thorny problem for classical musicians is that it’s just so awfully difficult to “improve” on what Bach, Mozart, and the lot wrote down on paper. To anyone who has not fully fathomed such composers’ consummate mastery nor directly felt the complex yet elegant system of emotional and structural checks and balances built into the interrelationships among even the smallest details in such music, this is probably impossible to explain.
With the possible exception of free-form avant-garde jazz, all music that I know of has a “program” of some sort, that is, a tacit or explicit set of conventions and directions to be followed; the paradox is that the sensitivity and meaningfulness of the performance increases in proportion to the degree the musician surrenders the ego to the will of the music itself.
This is as true of the King Crimson or Guitar Craft repertoire as it is of the classical. And it is no different even in most forms of “free” improvisation – the musician is not starting in a vacuum but, with the technique at his or her disposal, is drawing on his or her total knowledge of music (scales, theory, harmony, sense of rhythm, sense of continuity, principles of unity and contrast, and so on). Music plays through the performer, conditioned in a sense by the performer’s individual knowledge, experience, taste, and talent, but (in those rare moments) transcending such limitations and manifesting itself as Music in a pure state.
We have already noted Fripp’s lament, “How awful that the only person who is expressing himself [in classical orchestral music] is the composer.” Fripp has also said, “Whenever a musician is interested in self-expression you know it’s gonna suck.” (Drozdowski 1989, 30) Does anyone except myself sense yet another paradox lurking shadow-like in these two statements? Chew them over for a while; we will return to them in the final chapter.
Robert Fripp (b. May 1946, Dorset, England) – band leader, recording artist, rock star, virtuoso electric and acoustic guitarist, producer, writer, composer, and, currently, music educator – has been a fixture on the contemporary music scene since 1969. On July 5 of that year, Fripp’s first commercially successful group, King Crimson, catapulted themselves to the forefront of public awareness by playing in front of 650,000 people at the Rolling Stones’ free Hyde Park concert.
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For all his public exposure in the twenty-one years since then, Fripp has remained something of an enigma. Since the drift of what he does tends to be determined by experiences of inner upheaval, it has always been impossible to predict his next move, though in retrospect the logic of the development may seem clear enough. With almost every new venture he has startled his audience and opened up new doors of perception and music.
The music press has had a great time with Fripp. He has been called “the world’s most rational rock star,” “the Mr. Spock of rock,” “the owlish one,” a “persnickety plectrist” and a “plectral purist.” He has been characterized as a “nouveau conceptualist,” a “tin woodsman with a microtonal heart,” and as “a riddle wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a guitarist.”
One writer described him as having “the air of an old-fashioned, straight-laced and hidebound European professor.” That’s not the way he came across to me at Guitar Craft XII; well, there was an “element” of the learned professor, perhaps – even of the streetwise priest – but more striking was how genuinely funny he could be, able to make great fun of himself. Fripp possesses a bitingly pointed sense of irony.
The liner notes to God Save the Queen/Under Heavy Manners, for instance, are hysterical if you read them in the right spirit; if you read them somberly or defensively, they sound like the most god-awful pomp. (Years ago I noticed a similar phenomenon when reading the manifestoes of the nineteenth-century Danish Christian existentialist Søren Kierkegaard.)
Fripp isn’t above ordinary, earthy bathroom humor, either. Rolling Stone writer Fred Schruers describes an encounter with Fripp and his tour party in the men’s room at Boston’s WBCN: “What does one do? Walk over to meet this ferocious intellectual composer guitarist as he lines up at the urinal? As I lurk uncomfortably, the investigator of archetypes addresses his companions: ‘I don’t see how you can piss without waggin’ your willies afterward.’“
Fripp is robust, poised, and physically nimble; he moves gracefully. A peculiar thing about the man is that he must be one of the world’s most unphotogenic people. Having seen dozens of photographs of him from every stage in his career, I can attest to the fact that almost none of them look anything like he does in person. Fripp’s face, which in pictures can look muggish, leering, or frozen (sorry, Robert!), is in reality a constant dance of expression, handsome and fascinating (that’s better).
Although he is moderately small in stature, Fripp’s presence has a way of filling up the room. He is indeed one of the most present people I have ever met: present to those he is with, acutely sensitive to the situation of the moment, capable of exceptionally keen concentration.
Fripp does have something of a reputation in the press for keeping his emotions carefully under wraps, for being cool and considered, for being something of a mechanical marvel. An interviewer from Creem relates: “He asks me how many words I will need for my article, mentally calculates how much talking he will have to do to provide them, and stops at that point.”
For his part, Fripp laments: “One of the disadvantages of having the particular stereotype I do is that I tend to get serious interviewers. When I have a serious interviewer coming in my heart sinks. But what can you do? Either refuse to answer his questions, or speak to the serious young intellectuals in the vocabulary serious young intellectuals understand.”
Jungian theory postulates four basic psychological functions – thinking, feeling, sensation, and intuition – any of which may dominate the others in a given individual personality. Fripp rejects the notion that he is primarily a rational thinking type: “I’m instinctive [intuitive, in Jungian terms] by nature … I analyze and rationalize after the event in order to persuade people of something I think to be right.” Nevertheless he presents the image of a man to whom self-control is a cardinal virtue, who is aware of his lower nature but struggles to keep it in check. Fripp will instantly retract a remark that in the next moment he considers “flippant” or “inconsidered.”
Fripp’s studied objectivity about himself has disconcerted some and charmed others. He indulges in the habit, frequently to comical effect, of referring to himself in the third person, as “This Fripp …” But indeed this detachment from the multiplicity of inner selves gives rise to the question: where, or who, is the real Robert Fripp? He is a self-conscious role player, moving in and out of entirely convincing personas seemingly at will.
In Guitar Craft seminars he adopts the role of the Teacher and sits as it were enthroned smack at the middle of the head dining table, surrounded by a Da Vincian phalanx of subordinate teachers; but the moment the seminar is officially declared over, he deserts his central position and carries his breakfast tray to a side table, mingling among his students.
When a student now asks a question he deems inappropriately deferential, Fripp brushes it off with an exasperated twinkle in his eye, saying, “Do you want me to go back and sit over there?” motioning with his hand to the head table.
David Bowie once remarked that being a person is like maintaining a car: you can alter parts of your personality just like you might decide one day to change the oil or install a new carburetor. Laurie Anderson has said, “I operate my body the way most people drive their cars.” While Fripp refrains from the automotive analogy, he has expressed a similar idea: “One has to see that one’s personality is not what one is. It’s an organ through which I experience life. So, how can one come to see that? Years of observation, years of discipline … Not long after I was born – I think I was between about three and six months old – I had a clear moment of, I suppose you’d say, waking up in my body. Here was a little Fripp baby in a pram, and I saw quite clearly that this was the animal that I inhabited …
Then, in March 1976, when I was in retreat in England, as I was wheeling a wheelbarrow of compost in the garden, in a flash I saw quite clearly that Robert Fripp did not exist … Robert Fripp consists of a collection of impressions and experiences over a period of years that seem to have some coherence, but the level of coherence is very, very fragile.”
If one thing is clear, it is that Fripp is a person of concentrated self-discipline. He likes to keep regular habits and daily routines, beginning each day with a relaxation exercise before breakfast. (Although he has not divulged much publicly in terms of other specific personal exercises or disciplines, the general nature of his work in this realm will be considered more fully in Chapter 7 and 10. Certainly guitar practice itself has been a major discipline for Fripp. In 1979 he described himself as having “a very modest lifestyle, one that some people would call ‘mean.’
I don’t have a string of fast cars or fast women, and I don’t take any drugs at all, not even aspirin.” He does, however, go for a good strong cup of coffee, or a beer or two at the local pub.
Fripp is known as an avid reader with an extensive personal library containing volumes on religion and philosophy, politics, psychological theory, and economics. In the articles he wrote for Musician, Player, and Listener magazine in the early 1980s, he quoted freely from Plato, Shakespeare, Jacques Ellul, E.F. Schumacher, T.S. Elliot, Stafford Beer, Proudhon, and other writers. As the “world’s most rational rock star” has said, “Me and a book is a party. Me and a book and a cup of coffee is an orgy.” (Freff 1984, 106).
Fripp, the professional musician
In the chapters to follow we shall come back and look at the music of each phase of Fripp’s career in greater detail; for now let us trace the development in broadest outline.
The original King Crimson comprised Fripp (guitar), Ian McDonald (reeds, woodwind, vibes, keyboards, mellotron, vocals), Greg Lake (bass guitar, lead vocals), Michael Giles (drums, percussion, vocals), and Peter Sinfield (lyrics). This band began rehearsing on January 13, 1969, and made their debut at the London Speakeasy on April 9.
King Crimson was “a way of doing things.” In all its manifestations, King Crimson represented, at least in Fripp’s eyes, a certain approach to music-making and a certain approach to the relationship between the performers and the audience. The exact nature of these approaches was never defined explicitly, at least not for public consumption: King Crimson was, for Fripp, a powerfully motivating if deliberately nebulous concept. The following extract is taken from a “Rolling Stone” interview conducted in 1973 by Cameron Crowe:
Crowe: You often say that you feel King Crimson is a way of doing things. Fripp: I gave that to you as your key. That’s your key to the core of the band. King Crimson, you see, is a magical act. Crowe: In what way?
Fripp: Every act or thought is a magical act. Crowe: You seem to tell many interviewers that King Crimson is a way of doing things … what? Fripp: Being. Crowe: Then why don’t you simply say that King Crimson is a way of being? Fripp: It’s that as well. I’m not interested in being pegged down with narrow definitions … As soon as one defines, one limits. I don’t want to define what King Crimson is. I’d rather let you do the thinking.
King Crimson I released their first album, In the Court of the Crimson King, on October 10, 1969. Each song on the record was different from the others: some had the melancholy “classical” sound of the Moody Blues and Procol Harum, others featured glittering, painstaking arrangements reminiscent of the Beatles, still others offered the raw rock and roll energy of the Rolling Stones, but jazzified, kicked into overdrive. Some writers in the rock press proposed King Crimson as heir to the throne of the Beatles, who were at the time in the process of abdicating.
King Crimson I, however, fell apart immediately following a U.S. tour in the late fall of 1969. 1970-1972 represents what Fripp has called an “interim” period for the group; King Crimson II, as I shall call it, was a sort of concept band with an almost revolving-door policy in terms of the musicians who comprised the group at any given moment. Among King Crimson II’s participants new were Mel Collins, Gordon Haskell, Boz Burrell, Andy McCulloch, and Ian Wallace; Greg Lake and Michael Giles contributed to studio sessions.
Four albums were released during this period: In the Wake of Poseidon, Lizard, Islands, and the live Earthbound. It was a time of enthusiastic if sometimes injudicious musical experimentation, with often dubious results. Some of King Crimson II’s songs were hard rock, some were jazz-tinged, several were classicized, overly precious ballads. The music was astringently dissonant one moment and vacuously airy the next. Many of the rhythms were either skittish and jumpy or obvious and foursquare. The attempt at a grand fusion of styles was difficult to bring off; Sinfield’s lyrics, originally so evocative and in tune with the late-1960s Zeitgeist, seemed increasingly improbable and contrived. Critics in the press began to be put off and confused, and Fripp himself was later to voice grave doubts about the validity of his music of this period.
King Crimson II broke up definitively in April 1972, following the Earthbound U.S. tour; it had been a long time coming. In July, Fripp was introduced to a new interactive tape technology by his friend Brian Eno: whatever the human performer played – typically one or two notes on electric guitar – would be heard again, at a slightly lower volume level, several seconds later. Several seconds after this, the sound would be heard again, slightly softer; in the meantime, the performer could add more notes, which then began their cycles of gradual repetition and decay. In September Fripp and Eno recorded “The Heavenly Music Corporation” in Eno’s home studio, a piece that was to become Side One of their first collaborative album, “No Pussyfooting.”
The simplicity and novelty of the signal loop and layer technique must have been refreshing to the Crimsoned-out Fripp, who was later to refine the technique and call it, for his own performance and recording purposes, “Frippertronics.”
Also in July 1972, Fripp assembled the all-new lineup that would constitute, more or less, King Crimson III: David Cross (violin, viola, mellotron), John Wetton (bass and vocals), Bill Bruford (drums), and Jamie Muir (percussion). Taken as a trilogy, the three King Crimson III albums (Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Starless and Bible Black, and Red, released between 1973 and 1974), present a more muscular sound than most earlier Crimson efforts; by the time “Red” was recorded, the group had been pared down to the basic power trio of Fripp, Wetton, and Bruford.
Wetton was capable of playing bass lines that fused harmonic backing with gritty melodic interest; Bruford’s drumming was more rock-oriented than previous Crimson drummers, with less emphasis on trebly cymbal and snare drum colors, yet with a unique straightforward attack; Fripp’s guitar work had developed a new emphasis on big power chords, without sacrificing its original melodic intensity; violinist Cross proved more than equal to the task of blending into the Crimsoid alchemy, contributing many sensitive melodies and counterpoints; and it is to Muir’s percussion that Larks’ Tongues owes many of its most exquisitely surreal passages.
The King Crimson of 1973-4 played, in effect, artistic heavy metal, in what was one of the most convincing syntheses of hard rock, instrumental virtuosity, and compositional artifice to come out of the period. A live album, USA, was released in April 1975; it was more consistent and well recorded than the previous live album, Earthbound.
By July 1974, an accumulation of doubts and powerful personal experiences had led Fripp to a position where he felt compelled to disband King Crimson III unilaterally: “I felt I had to stop performing in the rock circus because the reciprocal relationship between audience and performer dropped markedly, to a point where it was just antithetical to what I wanted to do … Everything deteriorated through 1970 and 1971, and it was very much a struggle to try to find the spirit that had interested me in 1969. The tremendous burst of energy that kicked off King Crimson became steadily refined and sophisticated, to the point that for me, absolutely nothing was happening. When Crimson finished in 1974, it was the last possible moment for anything to have stopped.”
Between September 1974 and August 1977, Fripp retreated from the music industry for three years, a period he has described as having three phases: preparation (winding up his affairs), withdrawal (attending a ten-month course at J.G. Bennett’s Academy for the Harmonious Development of Man at Sherborne), and recovery (slowly readapting to reality, and easing his way back into the musical scene).
Fripp’s first step out of self-imposed retirement was occasioned by an invitation from Peter Gabriel in September 1976 to work on the latter’s first solo album in Toronto. In June, Fripp began working intensively with the tape-loop system Eno had shown him five years before. During this period he worked with David Bowie and Brian Eno on Heroes in Berlin, produced Daryl Hall’s solo album Sacred Songs, and played and recorded with the novelty/new wave band Blondie and the quirky acoustic feminist trio of sisters, the Roches.
As early as November 1977 Fripp was at work on his own first solo album, Exposure, which was not to be finished and released until 1979. Exposure was an oddly masterful piece of vinyl, as clearly influenced by the New York new wave aesthetic as it was to have a marked influence on that same genre. Exposure represents a diverse stylistic spread, from punk to electric urban blues, from gentle emotional ballad to apocalyptic epic, from musique concrete to Frippertronics: all in all, a conceptual collage representing the artist’s diverse interests at the time, which seemed uncannily congruent with the interests of the contemporary musical public.
On September 11, 1978, Fripp launched what he called “The Drive to 1981,” whose philosophy involved a sound rejection of ingrained music industry values of seeking greater and greater profit through the mindless and greedy promotion a few selected, almost prefabricated groups based on the lowest common denominator theory of public taste and sensibility. Fripp railed against what he called the music industry’s “dinosaurs” – cold-blooded, reptilian corporate entities of immense size and dangerously little intelligence. As an alternative way of presenting music to the public, he proposed the “small, mobile intelligent unit” – a phrase which became the Frippism par excellence of the late 1970s.
In order to demonstrate his concept of the small, mobile, intelligent unit in action, Fripp undertook a solo world Frippertronics tour (April-August 1979); he released records of Frippertronics and Discotronics (God Save the Queen/Under Heavy Manners , featuring vocals by David Byrne of Talking Heads, and Let the Power Fall ); and he formed the League of Gentlemen, a sort of new wave dance band that toured England and America from April to November 1980 and released one album.
In the spring of 1981, Fripp began practicing with one of the recently available Roland guitar synthesizers, and began rehearsing a new group, originally called Discipline, with bassist/stick player Tony Levin, guitarist/vocalist Adrian Belew, and drummer Bill Bruford. This was to become King Crimson IV. In a number of statements to the press, Fripp attempted to explain that the new band had not consciously decided to use the King Crimson name for commercial purposes, but that at a certain point it simply became evident that they “were” King Crimson.
King Crimson had always been a way of doing things, and indeed with the new band the historical King Crimson pattern played itself out once more: a short period of intense collective creativity resulting in a dynamic, new musical style, followed by a decline into somewhat mannered refinements and repetitions of the original insights and a fragmentation of group identity due to the individual creative leanings of the musicians.
King Crimson IV toured and released three albums between 1981 and 1984: Discipline, Beat, and Three of a Perfect Pair. The style typically involved complex meters, polymeter, short note values, precisely controlled instrumental textures, ambiguous tonality, and driving percussion. The incredible complexity of the rhythms obtained from the interaction of high-speed guitar and stick ostinatos was offset by Belew’s quirky vocals and Bruford’s admirably precise and restrained drumming. The music of King Crimson IV was an intelligent and impeccably crafted synthesis of several of the musical trends animating the early 1980s: new wave, synthesizer rock, and minimalism.
Apart from Fripp’s work with King Crimson, his most significant collaborations to come out of the 1981-1984 period were two albums with Police guitarist Andy Summers, I Advance Masked (1982), and Bewitched (1984). The first album was a virtual catalog of techniques and tone color possibilities available to the guitarist of the early 1980s. The pieces, all instrumental, ranged from structured improvisation over a disco-like beat to soft-edged fantasy soundscapes. Best were those passages in which Summers’ and Fripp’s guitars discernibly talked to each other; the music then took on the character of abstract conversation, of a communion of spirits.
Side One of Bewitched consists of three long dance-oriented tracks – perhaps “dance-oriented art music” in the manner of Bach’s keyboard, violin, cello, and orchestral suites. Side Two contained seven electronically-based soundscapes more or less in the vein of I Advance Masked, but with somewhat more distinctively shaped formal, harmonic, and textural outlines.
Other session guitar work Fripp has done over the years includes work on Brian Eno’s solo albums Here Come the Warm Jets, Another Green World, Before and After Science, and Music for Films; with David Bowie on Scary Monsters; with David Sylvian on Alchemy – An Index of Possibilities; and with the Flying Lizards on Fourth Wall.
In the liner notes to the 1985 album The League of Gentlemen/God Save the King (a record containing revised versions of previous releases from the Drive to 1981 period), Fripp summed up the position at which he had arrived: “The period 1977 to 1984 was one of intense activity for me, following a three year retreat from the music industry. This intentional work in
the market place was presented as the Drive to 1981 and the Incline to 1984.” (The Incline to 1984 was never so formally defined as the Drive to 1981; my understanding is that it was a sort of self-parodying running joke in the manner of the late Beatles, “And here’s another clue for you all / the walrus was Paul.”). Fripp continued: “When the seven year commitment completed once again I went into retreat, to allow the future to present itself. Currently I am conducting a series of residential guitar seminars in West Virginia for players of all levels of experience.”
This rather innocuous-sounding announcement portended the launching of an entirely new type of enterprise, one for which Fripp had been preparing himself for at least a decade. Guitar Craft is not simply the title of a school of music or a particular method of learning to apply oneself to the technique of playing the acoustic guitar; it is not in itself a performance ensemble, a musical style, or a repertoire; it is neither merely a set of finger exercises nor a set of relaxation exercises.
Guitar Craft is all of these things, but perhaps most significantly, it is a virtual style of life – one embraced by Fripp himself, and by a number of the more than six hundred students who have attended courses since in the United States, England, Germany, and other countries around the world.
My own stimulating encounter with Guitar Craft will be discussed in Chapter 10. For now, suffice it so say that Guitar Craft represents, or represented for me, a systematic debunking of many popular myths surrounding the creative process, and the replacement of such myths with a novel and eminently practical approach to music in general and to the guitar specifically. The Level One student (there are seven Levels in Guitar Craft – everyone, regardless of expertise, starts at the bottom, is invited to disorient himself at the outset by tuning his guitar in a new way; he is then enjoined to sit in a particular way, become aware of his body in a particular way, hold the pick in a particular way, utilize the left hand on the fretboard in a particular way, and memorize a set of exercises by rote.
The pedagogical technique of Guitar Craft involves daily group and individual guitar lessons, morning relaxation sessions, classes in the Alexander technique, classes in rhythm, instruction in concentration and attention, communal meals, and as much practice during “free time” as one can possibly fit into a nineteen-hour day.
King Crimson was a way of doing things that seemed to work for short periods of time and then fall apart. With Guitar Craft as a style of life, Fripp seems to be succeeding in training young musicians to exercise a certain quality of attention in the practice and execution of music: in the pedestrian sense, he is training professional performers. The next step – and it is a tall order, an enterprise of a qualitatively different nature – would involve training the audience.
One of Guitar Craft’s current projects is the establishment of a more or less fixed performance ensemble. To this point, the League of Crafty Guitarists has been an ad hoc affair – any number of Fripp’s students (including myself) have performed together in public in different circumstances. One early configuration of the League – which Fripp visualizes metaphorically or metaphysically as one guitarist in many bodies – recorded an album, The League of Crafty Guitarists – Live! in December 1985. The album gives some sense of the style and atmosphere of the ever-growing Guitar Craft repertoire, but ultimately, and probably inevitably, fails to capture the spirit of the music itself, which, it can be convincingly argued, can only be experienced live by an attentive audience.
Over the last year or two, Fripp has performed with Sunday All Over the World, a band consisting of Fripp, his wife rock chanteuse Toyah Wilcox, Crafty Guitarist Trey Gunn, and drummer Paul Beavis. Since the group has neither, as of this writing, appeared in the United States, released any recordings, nor generated a great deal of press, I have little information to go on. In 1989 Gunn reportedly said that Sunday All Over the World was the result of Fripp’s “trying to find the right way to work with Toyah … So far it’s all built around the vocals, but everyone’s contributing pretty much equally. We’re not looking to be a heavy soloing band, but it’s sure there when we need it.” (Drozdowski 1989).
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