INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Melody Maker MARCH 15, 1980 - by Michael Watts
"I'M INSTINCTIVE BY NATURE"
Resplendent in divergence, Robert Fripp is following a unique path. Admiring of John Lydon and a fan of The Old Grey Whistle Test, he enters 1980 "warm, attractive, handsome", and ready for anything. "I amuse myself a lot more than I used to," he says. Might King Crimson be among these new amusements?
Conversations, and more particularly interviews, with Robert Fripp are not unlike tutorials. One is summoned to sit at his knee and receive wisdom, while now and then performing the function of stimulating him to greater heights.
He is conscious of the effect he creates, as might be expected of a man who has become associated in the public mind with David Bowie andBrian Eno. Like those cosmopolitan self-publicists, he often adopts the sly conceit of referring to himself in the third person, but it's as though "Fripp" were a combination of frontman and Indian spirit guide. There's nothing he enjoys more, it appears, than an audience for this thoughts.
He's artful, in fact, but a saving quality of self-parody goes far towards explaining the affection he's inspired in the late and lamented Mike Patto and the new and quite unlamentable Chris Stein and Debbie Harry. There is, indeed, concrete evidence of his personal popularity on the wall of the place where last week we met: a framed "certificate of love" from The Roches, that trio of kooky American feminists whose album he produced last year.
Although, indeed, he possesses one of the best minds of his generation (to be as facetious as himself), he explains that he tries not to present what he does as anything serious: "I have a good sense of humour, and I amuse myself a lot more than I used to."
We were in Wimborne, a little Dorset market town where he was born and to which he's returned after spending three years, off and on, in New York. Here he's set up Fripp World Headquarters (one of his many phrases) in a flat above as hop, not far from the twin-towered Minster whose bells, recorded one Tuesday evening during ringing practice, he's used on his latest album, Under Heavy Manners. Fripp Towers, where he sleeps and stores most of his library, lies just outside Wimborne, and he also has an interest in a farming project in Cornwall. He says that most definitely he's come back to Britain.
A main reason is that he wants to be near his parents. They are in their "mature" years, he says with filial reverence; also hanging on his wall is his mother's school certificate of merit, made out to "Edith Green" in 1927: snatches of her voice were featured on his previous, and first, solo album, Exposure. Every evening, at six o'clock, he has dinner with his folks, "one of the very enjoyable parts of my day's routine". He has only ever missed one Christmas with them, and that was in 1977 when he was staying with Eno in New York.
His father was an estate agent, a job to which the young Fripp was apprenticed, and at one point in our afternoon together Fripp indicated a building that had been one of his father's cottages. "This is now the town pisser," he said, the word gaining resonance from his accent, which still has the Dorset twang of an old longlow.
Fripp misses his New York Friends, the closest of whom are women "in their mid-thirties", but he insists on the social nature of Dorset life. Peter Hammill lives only fifteen miles away, and Peter Gabriel, who is in Bath, is two hours' distance by car (a Renault estate): both of them were on Exposure. And, he avers, there is "quite a good pub circuit in Dorset".
Still, the highlight of the month will undoubtedly be when Blondie play nearby Bournemouth. "They are remarkably sweet and unspoilt," Fripp remarks fondly of Stein and Harry.
I asked him when he'd known he would return to Wimborne.
"On January 5 last year," he replied instantly, "while driving to The Old Grey Whistle Test studio. I was talking to Sam Alder (a director at EG Management, who look after his business), and suddenly [he snaps his fingers], 'Go to Wimborne.' Of course, one has lots of little personal voices, and one has to learn to work with the one voice that should be trusted."
Fripp's terrible punctiliousness impressed me all over again. I recalled two anecdotes by someone who had to share his Chelsea at seven years ago: that once he'd been woken up by loud screams from a girl in Fripp's adjoining bedroom, and that his landlord also had a disconcerting habit of rising at 7am to vacuum the stair carpet.
For my benefit Fripp recounted how he currently began his day: "I'm getting up about 7.40am, having a shower - I sometimes shave the night before so that I can I get about my day a little earlier - and then I do my morning exercises, a system of psychological exercises we were given at Sherborne."
Sherborne, which is in west Dorset, is the seat of the "religious" institution founded by JG Bennett, the Gurdjieff disciple whom Fripp has "followed" since 1974 (and the breakup of King Crimson) Fripp's interest in him is not that of one dabbling in mysticism: copious numbers of books on religious and philosophical systems fill Fripp World Headquarters (I could see no novels), while in a little alcove, beside a crucifix, is set a (to my eye) garish ikon of the Virgin Mary and child which he was given just before Christmas, when he attended an Orthodox monastery in Cyprus.
He sees a natural purpose in Bennett's work on Systematics, the science of organising divergent to General Systems Theory, which allows for creative or "spiritual" energy. He became interested in Systematics as Eno grew more involved in Cybernetics, an allied discipline of the art of control, which Allende attempted to employ in his reconstruction of Chile.
Fripp says he applies what he has learned to everyday matters, such as his rather embittered struggle over the past three years to get RCA to release Sacred Songs, the album he produced for Daryl Hall (to which the company has only just agreed). But why did he need to invoke a system for that, I asked, a trie naively.
"Because I couldn't get the fucking record out," he replied with some asperity.
Bennett, who died in 1974, had been an Englishman of the old school, a brilliant mathematician who in 1920 was only twenty-two when he headed British Intelligence in Turkey, which is where he met Gurdjieff. Tapes of Bennett's addresses to his followers, including a prophecy of apocalypse, interspersed tracks on Exposure, an album that sought to bring together the strands of Fripp's emotional and spiritual life since departing Crimson.
"I'll tell you what Bennett was to me," Fripp volunteers crisply. "He was living proof that if a creepy, uptight Englishman, with severe emotional problems, could become a human being through dint of effort, so could I."
Bennett's wife, Elizabeth, who in the late 1940s had actually been one of Gurdjieff's "calves" (young women who acted as his secretaries/handmaidens at his Fontainebleu foundation), had heard the record and said, "I think Mr Bennett would've been very pleased with that." After all, Bennett, who thought rock music exhibited the "essence of a place more real than life itself", had seen and admired Jimi Hendrix at the Isle of Wight in 1970.
I wanted to know why so many rock musicians eventually turned to a philosophy or religion, usually oriental. He answered that it was because music had an objective life of its own that had absolutely nothing to do with the performer, and musicians perhaps came to this realisation and had to seek the source. He also agreed with me, however, that often religion was a solution to personal dilemmas.
The lyrics on Under Heavy Manners, which is really the second, "Discotronic" side of his new album, are patently influenced by his recent stay at the monastery. Although the title itself is a reference, by way of the West Indies, to police brutality and repression, the majority consists of nouns, "isms", which are English renderings of ecclesiastical Greek.
One phrase, "Urizel O Urizel", was familiar to me; he said it was a corruption of Blake. "Blake's personification of the dry intellect." But what was it all about, Alfie? He smiled in an irritating way and said, "The solution to the world's problems, Michael," and he laughed. "Under Heavy Manners is 1984, no less."
On a secular level, "Discotronics" is an example of applied "Frippertronics", which is a system of building up a layer of notes at repeated intervals, using two tape machines and a guitarist (Fripp) as steersman; what could be more Systematic?
The beat, of course, is disco, supplied by Fripp and Busta Jones on bass (a marvellous cook), while on drums is one Paul Duskin, whom he met at an Eno session (where, memorably, part of the percussion was supplied by three electric dildos whirring away in metal ashtrays). David Byrne is the hot, sobbing vocalist, who concludes his participation by moaning the mysterious line: "I am resplendent in divergence."
Fripp declared himself immensely pleased with this phrase, which was a fruit of the inspirations he jots down in a workbook. He went off to find the book at my request, and came back having selected what he considered was a particularly meaningful inscription.
Recently, he had been driving along the King's Road, near EG's offices, and seen a lone man riding a tandem: this had struck him as typifying his own romantic life. He read out the resultant line: "My love life is a single rider on a tandem." I, and a third person present (whom at one juncture he had reprimanded, with heavy irony, for almost falling asleep), nodded appreciatively, a gesture that prompted another lyric: "You are my heart's desire, lamentation / My heart's on fire, cardiac incineration."
I enquired whether he had ever written lyrics for King Crimson.
"Only two." He drew himself up at the recollection. "'Chocolate cigarettes, figurines of the Virgin Mary'. From The Great Deceiver." He'd composed them, he said, after Crimson went to Rome ("spring 1973") and he wanted to comment on the dreadful commercialisation of Vatican City.
We then talked briefly about Pete Sinfield, Crimson's main lyricist. Fripp said the day that he decided Sinfield should no longer be the lyric writer was the day that he changed from being "Bob" to "Robert": "I felt I'd made my first adult decision."
Later in our conversation, as an afterthought on Crimson, he said did I know that, a decade after it was first recorded, April Wine had made a version of 21st Century Schizoid Man?
"They played it on The Old Grey Whistle Test," he said triumphantly.
The Old Grey Whistle Test seemed to figure prominently in his viewing. The other week he had seen Public Image performing and been knocked sideways: "I've sent a message to the singer of that band saying l'd love to do some work with him."
"The control of energy," he enthused. "Very powerful. I like the way they were using major harmony, there was no cliché."
I said I found them interesting in theory but indigestible in practice, to which he offered a smart rejoinder: being limited by what one likes and dislikes is a very cheap way of living. He sounded quite puritanical. One has to accept, he said, that a lot of the best music has to be regarded other than in terms of liking: "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."
Nevertheless, he conceded that lately he had greatly liked Fear Of Music and The Police, whom he'd seen live: "I'm not really a record listener."
He'd enjoyed The Police principally because of their skill in combining old and new music. Andy Summers, a Bournemouth guitarist whom he'd known seventeen years ago, was one of the best guitarists in England, he maintained. He was the only one who'd taken the early-'60s jazz style - substitute harmonics, chords, inversions and the rest - and made it work within the structure of 1980s rock'n'roll.
In New York he'd tried to forge his own link with the jazz scene - or rather that area, revolving around James Ulmer, which met new wave rock.
He had invited to dinner Ornette Coleman, whom he wished to play on Under Heavy Manners, but he simply hadn't shown. Now he was rehearsing a young, British four-piece band - alas, he felt he couldn't yet announce their names; but he felt it was time to commit himself again to working with other musicians on stage.
He leaped up to switch on a rehearsal tape, and his little sitting room boomed with a heavy, insistent rhythm. The instrumental music sounded rough and fresh, but not nearly as sophisticated as one might have expected from him.
He answered this observation by saying that he liked its directness. Rock'n'roll, the "music of social requirement", would become more and more rhythmic, he thought, as music generally became less and less concerned with classical notions of harmony, which is fundamentally a province of the mind. He was all for music of sexual energy - "energy from the waist down", he described it. One name for the group was The Rhythm Section.
I thought this was all very well, but I confessed that I was bothered by the current wisdom that disregarded craftsmanship. Do It Yourself music had been a wonderful purgative, but after a point had been reached it was merely incompetence. For all his provocative ideas, I ventured, his friend Eno, who could barely play a note with Roxy Music, had been instrumental in glorifying incompetence.
Fripp regarded me for a while.
"Yes, it's something which concerns me as well," he said finally.
"But, having worked with competent musicians for so long, there's this practical difficulty that musicians who do have competence don't have the ideas that I want to hear, so the problem is: how does one get competence out of ideas?
"I always thought I'd like to see someone playing one note knowing he could play ten thousand, because then I would know that the note he'd picked was available to him by choice, not necessity. But I've changed my views on that. I've found that musicians who can play ten thousand notes tend to play them, and the ten thousand notes I hear I don't enjoy."
This was plainly true. I recalled every heavy metal band I've ever heard. But I also pondered the differences between Exposure, which was a craftsmanlike album, and Under Heavy Manners, which is much more immediate; they appeared to clarify polarities in Fripp's own personality, for earlier as we had talked, he had sternly rejected a commonly held view that he's naturally logical and analytical.
"I'm instinctive by nature," he'd insisted. "I analyse and rationalise after the event in order to persuade people of something I think to be right."
He went on to say that after the Frippertronics tour of America, a tape of which is the substance of the first side of his new album (God Save The Queen), his image had changed completely. People had been surprised to find that he was not the severe, overbearing and aloof figure he had been depicted in King Crimson days, but "warm, attractive and handsome", he had added, smiling.
He also told me, not to put too fine a point on it, of the devil that lurked within the Fripp personality.
"At times I have suffered from this gentleman who would go off with rising blood. Every now and then, of course, he has to be seen to and let out on the town for a little while, but not to the degree which can interfere with my other responsibilities."
Now, weighing him up, six-and-a-half years (his tally) after we last spoke, I had to allow that Robert Fripp was at least a very decent and dutiful chap. He was sitting, on the floor, in his contemporary uniform of white shirt and black trousers, and phoning his mother - he would be late for dinner this evening. "And I don't want to inconvenience my mum." To borrow a phrase, every good boy deserves favour.