Creem FEBRUARY 1982 - by Richard Grabel


In The Court Of The Crimson King, Phase II

Hey, you know what happens to Japanese people who go crazy? They Fripp out!

But seriously, folks, Robert Fripp is a man of many accomplishments. In 1969 he formed and led King Crimson, a band that paved the way for the progressive school of British rock. Okay, we'll try to forgive him for that, since after King Crimson disbanded he almost immediately began making up for it. He collaborated with Brian Eno on records like No Pussyfooting, hypnotic and vaguely disturbing music. He contributed incisive, lyric guitar playing to records by David Bowie, Blondie, Talking Heads, Peter Gabriel, Hall & Oates and The Roches.

Concurrent with all of these projects, Fripp made a name for himself with a series of interviews and articles he wrote himself, beginning three years ago, in which he denounced the record industry as being dominated by dinosaurs, stated that he wished to operate as a small, mobile, intelligent, self-sufficient unit and proclaimed the Drive to 1981. He conceived of an electronics experiment called Frippertronics in which he played guitar through a series of interlocking tape recorders. He took Frippertronics to venues such as an art gallery in New York and a pizza shop in London. He released an album of the stuff called Let The Power Fall, and two other solo albums. Exposure and God Save The Queen. In the last phase of the drive, Fripp formed what he called a dance band, The League Of Gentlemen.

And now, after all that, Fripp is bringing back King Crimson. Or at least, a band that is called King Crimson. The band includes the original Crimson's last drummer, Bill Bruford, guitarist Adrian Belew, known recently for recording with Bowie and touring with the expanded Talking Heads line-up session bassist Tony Levin, and Fripp himself.

King Crimson is a legendary band, the first to venture into a certain area of experimentation in rock music. But it has been dead for seven years, and throughout those years Fripp repeatedly denied any intention of ever reforming the band. So why do it now?

A meeting is arranged at the offices of Warner Brothers (who will distribute the new King Crimson album, Discipline), to answer this question. Before the meeting I get a quick listen to the album. The first thing that strikes me is how much Adrian Belew's vocals sound like David Byrne's, and how the first track could have come off Talking Heads' last album. The rest of the record is a jumble of textures and rhythms both of a rock and a third-world nature. Interesting.

Fripp in the flesh has a kind of quiet, concerned gravity about him. He approaches the business of an interview as a business - sit down, talk seriously about the matter at hand, try not to stray. He asks me how many words I need for my article, mentally calculates how much talking he will have to provide them, and stops at that point. Very business-like.

Fripp's answers to questions are often cut-and-dried, but rarely simple. He has a scheme in his mind for everything to fit into, a program into which all his activities must fit in order to be justified.

"You ask why have a band called King Crimson," he says, "and my answer is that it is King Crimson, that's simply the name for what it is. But that's the second aspect of it. The first thing is that I decided to form a first division band."

"You have first, second and third division bands. Third division is research and development, artistic lifestyle and civilized, but you don't earn a living. Second division is where you are professional, respectable and earn a living, but you don't change the world. And first division is where you have access to the latest, current ideas, the best musicians. And it's part of popular culture, you get the kind of attention associated with popular culture. Not mass culture, mass culture is the lowest common denominator. Popular culture is, in a couple of words, because you're good."

"So the decision to form a first division band was taken while I was touring with The League Of Gentlemen. We had just fired our drummer for misbehaviour. It was a lovely band, but I needed to know that there would be a drummer there that night, or that everyone would be sober enough to play, basic stuff like that."

"So I decided to have a go at a first division band, which at first we called Discipline. In the first week of rehearsal, I knew the band I was hearing. There was no doubt that the band playing was King Crimson."

"King Crimson had never died, in the sense that the interest in the band is still out there, probably greater than when we were first playing, and also, this is hard to get across, it looks a bit silly in print, I think... I became aware of the iconic aspect of King Crimson, that there was a potential energy there, that was kind of hovering behind the band and that was available to us if we wanted to plug into it. And we did."

How will the old fans of King Crimson feel?

"They will recognize the band. Sure, this is King Crimson. But we're not playing period pieces, we're not playing the old Crimson repertoire. It's a modern rock band playing in 1981 and I dare say that some traditional King Crimson fans might come out expecting us to go through the routines, music by old numbers, and will be surprised."

Many will be disappointed.

"Sure. But if I'd followed King Crimson I would expect not to get what I expected to get. King Crimson, whenever it could have taken the obvious moves to push the buttons for commercial success, moved on. And I expect that King Crimson will do the same thing."

A few weeks after we talk, King Crimson play the Savoy in New York and I get the chance to check how Fripp's expectations will be bourne out.

The Savoy is a large club, fancily decorated to appeal to an up-market audience. For King Crimson it is jammed with a somewhat scruffier crowd than it usually gets, and a more enthusiastic one as well.

There are some die-hards calling Court Of The Crimson King - some people never give up. I expected to someone cry out Where's Greg Lake? any minute. I did overhear one guy say to his friend: If they keep playing the new album maybe they'll run out of songs and they'll have to play the old stuff.

In fact the band did play two old King Crimson numbers, one from Larks' Tongues In Aspic and one from Red, but otherwise the show was entirely material from the new album, and the crowd loved it.

Fripp, as usual when he performs live, is seated on a stool at the side of the stage. On the opposite side, bassist Tony Levin stands in bald head and moustache looking like a refugee from The Village People. Drummer Bill Bruford knocked out highly proficient rhythms but never played anything that really excited me.

Adrian Belew is the front man. His between-song patter was the most jive I've heard in ages: It wasn't too long ago that King Crimson was in Paris - that's in France (hisses from the audience). Belew spent a long time on the road with Talking Heads and the experience of working with famous loony David Byrne obviously affected him deeply. His vocals are very much like Byrne's; conversational, chocked up, scatting over the rhythm. Belew tries for strangeness but he lacks Byrne's neurotic edge. He ends up just sounding silly.

King Crimson's appeal comes down to the guitars. There are lots of long guitar passages from Fripp and Belew, conducted in a high-pitched, Guitar As High Art Tone that I find grating. To me, it sounded like the kind of display of virtuosity for its own sake that has long strangled rock, or like two Jeff Becks engaged in a cat fight. Most of the audience couldn't have been more pleased.

At the interview, I had suggested that King Crimson had been the forerunner of some of the worst aspects of progressive rock, the tendency to be epic and overblown. Fripp had agreed.

"When, yeah. Dear. In a sense I'm embarrassed to be part of that musical generation. It went tragically off-course. When I heard punk I thought, I've been waiting for six years for this. You see, King Crimson began in its own way as punky and spikey and as angry as any of the team. What I hoped Crimson would do right at the beginning was find a new way of working in the industry. But then it was just executives who would listen to me and say 'some bum kid' and dismiss my ideas."

"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, it's twentieth century classical repertoire as a means of aping middle-class language to promote their own personal mobility. In other words, it adopted pretension. The guys doing it 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."

What makes you think that this time you can keep King Crimson from going off course again?

"There's always a risk. If there weren't a risk it wouldn't be worth doing. But I have a different relationship with myself. I have a personal discipline, a kind of internal structure which I can rely on."

There follows a discussion of something called The Fourth Way, which is based on the teaching of one Gurdjieff, as interpreted by J.G. Bennett and his associates (sounds like a firm of chartered accountants to me). Fripp takes this, as he does most things, very seriously. "There is apart of me I can call on when the chips are down," he says. "The problem is keeping in touch with it. For that I have a personal discipline, a regimen to hold me to it. It's hard work."

Discipline is a recurring theme with Fripp. It's the title of the new King Crimson album and was to have been the name of the band. Fripp's own discipline towards work no doubt contributes towards his great output. His playing has contributed something important to every record he's been on. But as this interview is meant to discuss King Crimson, he seems reluctant to spend much time talking about the other people he's worked with. I ask if he has any comments on the experience of working with any of them.

"I learn from everyone I work with. I've been very fortunate. I've worked with some of the best people at work today."

Do you ever feel like a guitar for hire?

"No, I've never been a guitar for hire. I'm not available."

Unless the project is right.

"Well, certainly, but only if it fulfills my four criteria for work. First, it has to earn a living. Second, it has to be educational. Third, fun. I want fun. Vitally important. Can't work long without fun. Fourthly, is the work socially useful?"

Fripp's next project is an album with guitarist Andy Summers of The Police, which he calls "my next division venture". What's it like?

"Like two very good guitar players. It's the first time I've concentrated purely on being a guitar player since 1969. We'll be touring, just the two of us, no band. It's very enjoyable working with Andy, he's a lovely guitarist."

Looking back on the projects of the last three years, Frippertronics and the albums comprising the Drive to 1981, how do you feel about them?

"Frippertronics was third division. Research and development. I couldn't have done this without Frippertronics. I tested ideas in the marketplace, tested ways of relating to the audience. New places to play, ways of walking onstage. I had no particular wish to do it, and I had to do it, so I found what part of myself to call on."

"The Drive to 1981 I'd say was sixty-five to seventy percent successful. It was partly unsuccessful because of the values of the marketplace. It was in the marketplace but not governed by the values of the marketplace intruded. As a testing of ideas, no reservation. The political and economic theory of the industry, the articles I wrote for Musician, are critically important for me."

"Its main success was it got me here. It prepared me. In 1977 to reform King Crimson would have been completely wrong. Now it's completely right."

How do you reconcile your view of the record industry as a bunch of dinosaurs with your need, with King Crimson, to work within the industry?

"There are different ways of working. One is to work on the outside, if it's possible to work on the outside of any organization, and become an independent unit. But my feeling is that we're all connected, and that it's not possible to really work by themselves. So my commitment is to change from the inside in the spirit of critical good will. I'm not going to punch Warner Brothers executives on the nose. But I argue with them, have disputes with them. Or I could agree with them. And at this point I know enough about how the business is structured so that I will be heard. Warner Brothers is a most efficient first division record company. If I wanted to work a third division venture this isn't really the best place."

A more cynical observer might suggest that there is another matter hidden behind Fripp's reasons for calling his newest project King Crimson. That is that there is a large market of fans of bands like King Crimson and those that followed them - Genesis, Gentle Giant, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, etc. - who aren't being supplied with many new records these days and is just waiting to be tapped. But Fripp presents such tight-lipped dignity that I can't find the necessary gall to suggest this to his face.

Fripp has about him the air of an old-fashioned, straight-laced and hide-bound European professor. I'm sure he doesn't mean to, but even when he's telling me about the importance of fun, he sounds like a pedantic old bore. I ask him whether he worries about the fact that in interviews he comes across as dry and overly serious.

"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. And maybe try to prod things along. You know, I spend more time thinking about dessert than I do thinking about the ramifications of the industry."

Well, we serious young intellectuals read your previous interviews and we get an impression of, wow, Fripp is a serious guy, I just can't go in and ask him about...

"What he's thinking about at the moment. Chocolate cake at Un Deux Trois, actually, is currently on my mind. I'm hoping to get down to the pub sometime later. Fripp is a very passionate animal. And he has a very strong, wry sense of humor."

"I try to be clear. I'm painfully straightforward. Sometimes trying to be clear seems to be complicated. But I stand on two feet. My right foot is serious and my left foot is rolling around in laughter. For walking you need two feet."

Well now you know.

And, by the way, do you know what sound a Japanese camera makes?