INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Uncut DECEMBER 2013 - by David Cavanagh
...In which the extraordinary Robert Fripp discusses Bowie, Eno, Noddy Holder, Gurdjieff, Emmanuelle, a night in with Doris Lessing, an appearance on Mr & Mrs with Toyah Wilcox... oh, and the return of King Crimson. "I have a terrible reputation for being heartless and venal..."
He may have the gentle manner of a clock repairer or an antiquarian bookseller, but few people underestimate Robert Fripp and live to tell the tale. "He was the superior intellect with a silver tongue, in possession of some arcane or possibly occult knowledge to which the rest of us weren't privileged," writes ex-King Crimson drummer Bill Bruford in his autobiography. Last month, after reforming Crimson for live dates in 2014, Fripp sent a round-robin email to his bandmates. "Dear brother Crims," it began, "we have one year to prepare for action of the savage variety."
Like George Smiley interrogating a Soviet attaché in a le Carré novel, Fripp is able to apply his meticulous intelligence to the harnessing of terrifying power. He's just overseen the production of a Crimson boxset, The Road To Red, an eye-popping document of a 1974 tour. Fripp hears "a driving remorselessness" in the music; others may sense a palpable diabolism. They were turbulent times. Fripp disbanded Crimson soon afterwards, vanishing into a spiritual retreat in Gloucestershire to study the esoteric teachings of Gurdjieff. Fripp's next stop, in 1977, was New York, and then Berlin to play on Bowie's "Heroes" (both RCA, 1977). This, in turn, reflected the U2's distancing itself from the American roots of rock and roll that. By 1978, Fripp was more post-punk than prog-rock.
Today, he lives in Worcestershire with his wife Toyah Willcox, but runs his record label (DGM) from a cottage in a sleepy village in Wiltshire. His modest Vauxhall is parked outside ("papyrus-coloured, apparently... I prefer 'light green'"). In the kitchen, visitors are served coffee in Larks' Tongues In Aspic mugs. On the day we meet (September 19), Fripp, who's pursuing a long-running legal case against Universal Music, is officially in a state of retirement. However, as we'll see, he has an exclusive for Uncut. Fripp's clouds are lifting. Action of the savage variety can start to occur.
Charlie Parker once said, "Master your instrument, master the music, then forget all that shit and just play." Do you agree?
Yes. It's called freeforming. My sister is a superb barber. She still cuts my hair on occasion. I was asking her how she did it, and she said she freeforms. In other words, all the skills involved are so within her that she can look at my hair and just go. That's exactly what Parker was saying. Parker also hated the term 'bebop'. Parker was as enamoured of 'bebop' as I am of 'prog'. Whenever I'm asked to do anything that involves the word 'prog', I say no. I am not available.
Did you always want to play music for a living?
No. I was an estate agent. I'd been brought up to take over my father's estate agency and auctioneering firm. After three years in the office in Wimborne, it was fairly obvious that nobody making the biggest purchase of their life was going to take any notice of a seventeen-year-old negotiator like me. I was going to the College Of Estate Management in South Kensington to take a degree, so that I'd emerge at twenty-four with a qualification of the highest order and people would take me seriously. But then music came along and I couldn't be a dutiful son anymore.
The Road To Red comes from a 1974 American tour with Robin Trower and Ten Years After. What a context: King Crimson sandwiched between two blues bands.
We did other gigs with Black Sabbath and ZZ Top. We shared bills with Slade. Noddy's a nice man and he knows my wife, so we meet socially from time to time. He reminds me of an announcement I made onstage. Someone in the audience shouted "Boogie!" And I went to the microphone and said, "We shall not boogie."
During one gig on the boxset, you plead with the audience to buy Crimson's records and make them "a Top 10 band". Why did you do that?
One: irony. Two: sense of humour. Three: we don't know if there was an Atlantic Records A&R man standing at the side of the stage.
Would Crimson party after a gig, like a normal rock'n'roll group?
It's interesting going back to my journals, where I comment on the successful socialising of various Crimson members. I myself was not a party animal. At the Irving Plaza in New York in 1980, [Fripp's band] The League Of Gentlemen were coming out onto the street at one am and there was a stunning young woman at the entrance. I said, "What are you waiting for?" She said, "You." I then went back to my hotel room alone and read my Doris Lessing novel, The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four And Five.
How did you discover that your music had been plagiarised in the soft porn movie, Emmanuelle?
Two people told me about that. One was [Crimson bassist] John Wetton, the other was Richard Williams. So I went to a cinema off Leicester Square and recorded it. I found the film rather boring, but I noticed that every time there was a sex scene, along came Larks' Tongues In Aspic, Part Two. So we sued. The story was, the composers had been at work for six months on the music, and one week after Crimson appeared on French TV playing Larks' Tongues In Aspic, Part Two, all the music was written! I still get pitiful amounts of money from re-showings of Emmanuelle around the world.
Did playing Crimson's music every night take you into some pretty dark areas of your psyche?
I wouldn't look at it quite like that. After thirty-eight days on tour, you enter a different zone. You see things differently. The comparison with young men going into battle is disrespectful to young men going into battle; people on tour don't generally get killed. But they don't all come back quite the same. The experience can be destructive or it can be transformative. Very few people are cut out for it.
When did you first read J. G. Bennett?
In 1974 I was just coming across him. Questions had been appearing which weren't being answered within my immediate environment, like "What am I doing here?" My first entry was the occult, as it was called then.
How deep did you go into that?
I'd been practising exercises and keeping a record of dreams, but it became obvious that I'd need one-on-one tuition. I didn't fully trust the characters in the occult. But here was Bennett, an uptight Englishman who spoke a language I understood. This was no character from India wearing orange. And Bennett had a school in Gloucestershire. I read Bennett's Is There "Life" On Earth?, a series of lectures from 1949, and at the back was an inaugural address to the Second Basic Course at Sherborne House. Mr Bennett was speaking to me. These were the very questions I'd been asking.
Your friends noticed a change in you. Bill Bruford recalls you being virtually silent during the recording of Crimson's Red album.
I was speaking, but I wasn't expressing an opinion. My role was one of radical neutrality. In the playing life of a musician, you have three modes: active, supportive and doing nothing. And the third is the radical one. Doing nothing - or, in Gurdjieffian cosmology, 'the third force' - is actually where all the action lies. You see, silence is very different to quiet. Quiet is the absence of sound. Silence is the presence of silence. It's as if silence walks into the room and sits down next to you. It's an entirely recognisable and tangible presence, even though there seems to be nothing there.
So you went to Sherborne?
Yes, from September 1975 to July 1976. There were about ninety other people on the course. I got Brian Eno to come down one day to open the village fête.
At that point, had you given up music?
Yes, utterly. I played guitar a little at Sherborne, but not serious playing. I came out of Sherborne with no intention of ever being a professional musician again.
What were you going to do?
I had no idea. I went to New York in February 1977 to find out. Brian Eno moved there in November. John Rockwell did a piece on us in the New York Times: "These two Englishmen in the New York scene..." It was a remarkable scene, very alive. It wasn't like punk in London. There wasn't the political sense. It was more art-rock. If you think Talking Heads rather than The Sex Pistols, you're closer to the sense of it. Blondie, The Ramones, James Chance & The Contortions... I sat in with a lot of these characters. The key to that period was openness, mutuality and interaction. For me, it was very welcoming.
So you became a professional musician again?
Partly as a result of the Rockwell article, I was asked to play on Daryl Hall's album [Sacred Songs], which I then produced. I was asked to produce Peter Gabriel's [second] album. And I began recording my own LP, Exposure, at the Hit Factory. New York's leading session drummer approached me and said, "I'd like to play on your album." I said, "I can't use you. You know what you're doing." I also did Frippertronics at the Kitchen [in NYC] in '78. It was completely improvised music, with two Revoxes. I said to Eno, "How do you get these Revoxes working?" He drew me a diagram. I said, "You've just done yourself out of a job."
EG Management and Island Records acted together to prevent it having a proper release. They thought it might hurt Eno's commercial chances. I remember at Air Studios getting a sheet of white paper, writing "No pussyfooting" and putting it on the mixing console, to remind us not to allow this music to be undermined. However, it was put out by EG on a budget label, which means "We don't take this seriously and neither should you."
Was David Bowie on your radar by then?
Yes, we met socially in the spring of '72. I went to his Rainbow concert, where Roxy Music were the support act. It was a stunning show, really remarkable. In July '77, Eno phoned me in New York and asked me to come to Berlin and do David's album ["Heroes"]. I flew in overnight, first-class on Lufthansa. I went to the hotel, which was a former SS headquarters. I got to the studio at about quarter-to-six and Eno said, "Plug in." I plugged in, Eno played me the track [Beauty And The Beast], and I was off. They always encouraged me. I've worked with people who don't want me to play well. I've even had some of my finest playing removed from a record, because another musician felt threatened by it. But working with Eno and Bowie was an utter joy. The key thing was lots of laughs, which is a necessary part of the creative process. King Crimson? Not so many laughs.
Was there something inspirational about Berlin?
Yes, there was. An artist inhabits the liminal territory: the in-between. Berlin at the time was right in the middle. It was the frontline in the Cold War, with no man's land in between. There we were in Hansa Studios, and looking out the window there was an East German turret. I walked through Checkpoint Charlie with David, and on the way back he said [casually], "Don't run. There's a machine gun up there." That was life in West Berlin. It was on the edge. And on the edge is where an artist goes.
When was the last time Bowie asked you to work with him?
My wife, who is a considerable Bowie fan, has never forgiven me for saying no to David when he did Meltdown [in 2002]. I was in Adrian Belew's basement, and Adrian came downstairs and said, "David's on the phone for you." David said, "I'm curating Meltdown. Will you do it?" The way my calendar was, I was just coming in from doing something in Europe, and I only had five or six days in England before going to America. It didn't give me time to focus at the level that I needed to honourably take part. So I said no. It was a terrible thing. My wife still tells me off for that.
What did you think of The Next Day?
I don't comment on the work of other artists. If David asked me for my opinion, I'd give it. I have a terrible reputation for being heartless and venal. I don't tell people what they want to hear.
Who have you offended recently?
I offend people fairly regularly. Here's an interesting one. When you're a man of a certain age, you're no longer seen as dangerous. People are polite about you, and they say nice things about your work from forty years ago. You're safe. You have no impact on people's lives. It's like Anthony Wedgwood Benn in retirement; he can go to town halls and give speeches, and his points of view remain as cogent as ever, but he's not dangerous. But there are some recent stirrings in my life where, once again, I impact on other people's lives. And I can be dangerous to them.
What's this? Are you coming out of retirement?
I never retired. I merely stopped performing in public. Am I interested in making more albums? No, not at all. The Guitar Circle - the current form of my Guitar Craft activities - is ongoing and getting busier. I'm off to Argentina in October, then Italy in January. I do sometimes perform in public with The Orchestra Of Crafty Guitarists, but my role is very different to being a member of King Crimson. [Pause] King Crimson is returning to active service. We are on-call to be ready for a live performance on September 1, 2014. Seven members. Four English, three American. Three drummers.
What brought this on?
I was in dispute with Universal, which had been grinding on for six years. I can't enter a creative space when I'm dealing with litigation and conflict. After six years, there's now a man at Universal who has the will to settle it. We seem to be moving to a conclusion. Secondly, my book, The Guitar Circle, is now assembled and no longer requires my ongoing involvement. So then we move to, "What factors would make a Crimson reunion possible?" My wife and I were visiting friends in Vauxhall on the night the future king of England was born. We were in the garden and there was a party next door, and we heard a shout of "It's a boy!" I think they were part of the Middleton family and had been given a heads-up. It didn't go public for another 10 minutes. Anyway, we were drinking Prosecco. It was a nice, relaxed, creative evening. And I was looking at this problem. If you look at a problem long enough, it speaks back to you, generally. And I saw how, if Crimson were to be onstage, what it would look like. A seven-piece, with exact reversals of conventional roles. King Crimson reconfigured.
Will you be playing new music?
[Silence] New music is a quality... you may think you've heard the music before, but that doesn't mean it's not new. You've certainly never heard three drummers playing it.
On what continent will the first gig take place?
An interesting question. Either North or South America. At the moment, you have more information than the rest of Crimson, as I haven't had time to send out all the emails. There is a plan to include the UK in the tour dates, but it depends on a number of circumstances.
You haven't heard the lineup play together yet?
No. But the key thing is taking the decision. In 1994 I had the idea for Crimson's double trio, which is not something I'd heard in music before, but we all turned up to Woodstock on April 18 and there it was. The same was true of Discipline [who became King Crimson] in 1981. You've seen it. You commit to it. You follow it through.
Did you get into a negative frame of mind when you weren't performing? You described your career in one interview as "wretched".
It is wretched. If you say, "Describe your professional life in one word", it would be 'wretched'. Now, within this wretched life, are there high spots of wonderment, joy and bliss? Yes! On the other hand, were you to say, "Has your professional life been one of joy, wonderment and bliss, with a few wretched moments?", the answer would be no. [Pause] I have been happy since March last year... It had a lot to do with no longer being involved in public life. My creative life had become primarily private. I was no longer dealing with the ongoing wall of negativity that accompanies any kind of public life.
Talking of public life, did you have to be talked into appearing on All Star Mr & Mrs?
No. My wife told me I was doing it, and I agreed with her. This is the key to a happy man. If you said, "Well, why did you do it?", it was because I'd been asked to affirm my love for my wife. And my answer to that can only be "yes". It raised money for my wife's local charity, the St Richard's Hospice, where her mother flew from this world. How anyone else takes it is not my concern. I'd refer you back to my "please buy our records" announcement on the boxset. I have a sense of humour, you see, even though it often comes with a straight face.
TURN ON, TUNE IN, FRIPP OUT...
Your guide to the albums Fripp discusses
THE ROAD TO RED (2013): A twenty-four-disc boxset released this month, The Road To Red is an aural document (some in bootleg quality; some professionally recorded) of King Crimson's 1974 American tour. Fripp's improvised battles with the super-loud John Wetton-Bill Bruford rhythm section are exhilarating to hear, but ultimately wore him down.
RED (1974): Made in London after the US tour, Red was Crimson's last studio album for seven years. Dark and powerful, it saw the return of founder member Ian McDonald (saxophone) on the epic Starless. Fripp ended the band a week before Red's release.
(NO PUSSYFOOTING) (1973): A collaboration with Brian Eno. Fripp plays guitar; Eno creates ambient loops and layers with two Revox tape recorders. In the eleven months between recording Side One (The Heavenly Music Corporation) and Side Two (Swastika Girls), Eno was sacked by Roxy Music.
PETER GABRIEL (1978): Using the pseudonym Dusty Rhodes, a retired Fripp dipped a toe back in the music business by guesting on Gabriel's self-titled debut in 1977. He then produced Gabriel's identically titled 1978 follow-up. Gabriel, like Fripp, had abandoned his prog past and been influenced by punk and new wave.
EXPOSURE (1979): Fripp's first solo album was gleefully diverse, from MOR pop to avant-garde post-punk. Guests included Daryl Hall, Peter Hammill, Phil Collins and future Crimson bassist Tony Levin. Also involved was XTC keyboardist Barry Andrews, with whom Fripp formed his next band, The League Of Gentlemen.
WHO WAS J.G. BENNETT?...
The strange life of Fripp's inspiration
Spiritual teacher GI Gurdjieff (1866-1949) believed that human beings are conditioned to spend their lives asleep, fulfilling none of their potential. Only by rigorous mental and physical application (known as 'The Work') can they awaken and develop. Gurdjieff's teachings changed the life of John G. Bennett (1897-1974), an Englishman who served in military intelligence in the Middle East.
A mathematician and scientist, Bennett was able to balance spiritual and practical matters for much of his life, rising to a prominent position in industrial research during World War II. After further travels in the Middle East, he opened a school at Sherborne House in Gloucestershire to teach Gurdjieffian initiates. Robert, eager to attend the school, met Bennett in 1974. "He was giving a talk at the Friends Meeting House on the Marylebone Road. I introduced myself. He made me repeat my name because he was going a little deaf. The last thing he said to me was, 'I shall remember you.'"
Bennett's death a month later did not dissuade Fripp from enrolling at Sherborne ("Quite the reverse"). Fripp later used recordings of Bennett's voice on Exposure (1979) and The League Of Gentlemen (1981).
FRIPP ON PUNK...
"The punk guys had the spirit," says Fripp, who cites a 1978 Clash gig as one of his favourite shows. In NY, Fripp played at CBGBs and sat in with The Screamers. He contributed to two seminal LPs: Blondie's Parallel Lines and Talking Heads' Fear Of Music. Later, in the UK, he appeared with The Damned at the Hammersmith Odeon. "I loved it. At the soundcheck, I set up fifteen feet from the front, so the gob wouldn't hit me. In fact, it went further than me and landed all over Captain Sensible. The audience wanted more encores, so he asked me, 'Would you like to play another two?' I said, 'What keys are they in?' He said, 'The first one's in E and the second one's in E.' It was great fun. Sensible said, 'We were onstage in Germany and I was naked. I got up on the cabinets behind Rat and tried to shit on his head, but nothing came out, unfortunately.' They were wild boys."