INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Mojo JULY 2019 - by Ben Thompson
THE MAN WHOSE HEAD EXPANDED
Fifty years leading King Crimson might be described as a "calling" but, by his own admission, Robert Fripp has strayed from the path. Celebrating his group's anniversary as only he can, he tells how Gurdjeff, Eno, the C of E and his own cussed conscience have shaped his journey - one that forges on with the miraculously revived Crimson. "Even if you're a real jerk and an arsehole, there's hope," he assures Ben Thompson
There will be a few people on this planet - least of all, one imagines, Robert Fripp himself - for whom the concept of a nine-hour King Crimson press conference is an entirely welcome one. And yet, as this day-long fiftieth anniversary event, held in the crowded upstairs room of a Bloomsbury art gallery, unfolds at the stately pace of a twenty-nine-CD King Crimson box set, none of the assembled fifty representatives of the rump of the international rock media can deny we are learning something.
For current King Crimson vocalist Jakko Jakszyk - a one-time member of Level 42, recruited via a semi-authorised Crimson tribute band to join the ensemble who first blew his teenage mind at Watford Town Hall in 1971 ("Inside my head," he admits, endearingly, "I'm still a thirteen-year-old boy who can't get over the fact that I'm now in my favourite group") - the big take-home moment is when Robert Fripp is asked if King Crimson could exist without Robert Fripp and he answers with an unequivocal, "No."
"I've heard him say that in private before," Jakszyk admits afterwards, "but never in public." To anyone outside the inner circle, the idea of a Fripp-less Crimson is no less absurd than a Mark E Smith-free Fall, but Fripp has traditionally preferred to describe himself as the band's "glue" than as its leader.
What's remarkable about the performance Fripp gives over the course of the day - first standing at a lectern referring to notes and numerical formulae on a laptop, almost as if giving a TED talk, then answering questions pulled randomly from a hat ("The hat is impartial, I am not fiddling the hat") - is the way what initially resemble protective strategies ultimately enable him to reveal himself. There's a prickly diatribe about unauthorised photographs and other unwanted intrusions on his personal space - "No one 'only wants to say hello', they want to attach themselves to your psyche and suck" - but the day's two extended Q&A sessions both end with Fripp moved to tears: the first time pondering the ineffable mysteries of creativity, the second remembering the 2017 death from cancer of former Crimson bass player John Wetton.
In person, Fripp cuts a compact and dapper dash - there's even a costume change in the lunch break, from electric blue suit to more relaxed but still hanger-fresh jacket and jeans. If Mod actor Martin Freeman's dad had run a chain of estate agents, this is how he might have presented himself. Of course in another life, had the late-teens, mid-1960s Robert Fripp not made the decision to become a professional musician, he would have very likely ended up taking over his own father's Dorset estate agency. As it is, half a century later, he has the keys to the rambling, grandiose and currently very much lived-in property that is King Crimson; a house of many rooms, some (but not all) of which contain Adrian Belew.
The tour of the premises he conducts in Bloomsbury takes us from the 1969 Hyde Park performance with The Rolling Stones that launched King Crimson into the pre-prog art-rock big time - when Fripp found himself identifying from the side of the stage with the mass of dead butterflies left behind in the bottom of Mick Jagger's sack - through his acrimonious legal struggles with EG management and Universal Music Group, to the more diffuse and yet somehow integral question (playfully framed in the third person, as many of the day's most pertinent inquiries are) of "the personal unpleasantness of Robert".
Fripp quotes sardonically throughout the day from the often critical judgements of him in former band-mates' memoirs, but it's the regular, traumatised, post-break-up lacunae that have given the King Crimson story its unique rhythm - not least because without them we'd have been denied the visionary innovations and inspired sidemanship of Fripp's solo career. The real mystery - one which remains defiantly unsolved at the end of the press conference - is how did this half-century-long carnival of dysfunction bring King Crimson to their present state of higher collective consciousness?
With a lavishly-appointed back catalogue thriving in the care of their own independent record label and a miraculously ongoing-since-2014 touring lineup - Fripp's fabled "Seven-headed beast of Crim" (now an eight-headed beast, with the arrival of sax and flute specialist Theo Travis) - adding to the lustre of their reputation with every ecstatically rigorous performance, the start of the band's second half century finds them provoking peer group envy in a way that would have once seemed unthinkable. Listening to the CD that accompanies this edition of Mojo, for example, the spectacular version of Cadence And Cascade featuring vocalists of four different eras, from Greg Lake to Jakko Jakszyk via Gordon Haskell and Adrian Belew, it would not be entirely fanciful to imagine Fripp and co - in accordance with the Third Principle of King Crimson ("All the music is new, whenever it was written") - as the best new rock band in the world.
The morning after a nine-hour press conference should theoretically be the worst possible time to lock horns with this famously short-fused seventy-two-year-old, especially given that Robert Fripp has largely forsworn mano-a-mano encounters with journalists since the fateful day in 2003 when an enthusiastic Japanese press officer told him how excited she was to meet "the Yoda of progressive rock". Yet the Fripp I encounter in a comfortable but not lavish West End hotel room is courteous and forthcoming, so long as Mojo respects the one condition on which his only face-to-face interview was granted: that we should wax fearlessly metaphysical, to avoid reprising the nuts and bolts concerns of the previous day's presentation.
Towards the end of that session, Fripp had made an intriguing equation between people in Alcoholics Anonymous and those in monastic orders, suggesting he regards them as very humane and sustaining structures in which to live. "They're both astonishing disciplines," he enthuses when the subject is broached again, "where the practitioner sits on the razor's edge.
"I have quite a few chums in AA," he continues, "and they're the most reliable, supportive people, because they have no room for bullshit in their lives. One slip and that's it - another seven years gone... I've also visited orthodox monasteries on Cyprus, and the day to day existences of those monks are quite astonishing, because it's life and death, but spiritually. Some of them experience demons in physical form which actually scratch them: something we can't possibly conceive of, but which for those monks is entirely real."
Isn't that roughly what people imagine life on the road with King Crimson to be like?
"Well," Fripp grins, "the scratches come perhaps from other members of the band. They're not essentially demonic in nature, in fact they're quite well-intentioned, it's just that sometimes they stray from the path..."
There seems to be an obvious connection between that 'razor's edge' condition of hyper-alertness and the kind of discipline Fripp imposes on himself - and his band - in recording and live performance. "Well, you have to be present," Fripp concedes. "So, do I have my own personal practice and discipline which supports that? The quick answer is yes, and it's daily and it's ongoing..."
A recent entry in Fripp's online blog proclaims: "If I wish to change the world (as it might once have been expressed) I have to become a better guitarist." You just don't get that with Joe Satriani, and Fripp's almost ascetic determination to channel creative energy in the right direction is the driving force behind the workshop retreats he has staged all around the world for large groups (ie. up to a hundred) of aspiring guitar players. Without ascribing too cultish an atmosphere to these mass jam sessions, their tone seems to be more reminiscent of a Shaolin monastery than Jack Black's School Of Rock. "Like martial arts with a guitar" was how one fleet-fingered alumnus put it, to Fripp's evident satisfaction. While many a rock deity has looked East for spiritual sustenance, Fripp's sense of mission seems to have its religious roots closer to home.
"Most of the retreat houses where we've held the courses have been in Catholic institutions," he explains, "but it's become increasingly difficult for us to get into those, because in the light of recent scandals the church has had to put very rigorous safeguards in place which restrict outside bodies from coming in."
One of the highlights of a brief showreel from MTV-host-turned-film-maker Toby Amies' forthcoming full-length King Crimson documentary - aired for the first time at the Bloomsbury press conference - is an interview with a Polish nun of the Dominican order, who talks about the band's music as proceeding from a quasi-mystical quest for truth. One Prog Rock Nun does not a wholesale reassessment make. But is it possible that Fripp's celebrated openness about the darker and more malevolent side of his character - "Can you stop saying nice things about me?" Jakko Jakszyk was once asked after complimenting him in an interview. "You're ruining my reputation" - might camouflage a reluctance to go public about King Crimson's spiritual dimension?
"I'm wary of talking about that in England," Fripp admits, "because this is a post-Christian country, and you can't really have that conversation here at this time. What I would say is that within those communities that engage with theology there is an active discussion underway about how to reframe the spirit of theology as something that can be more easily engaged with, and one easy answer to that conundrum is you play music."
Before the ink can dry on our 'King Crimson In Christian Rock Shocker!' exclusive, Robert Fripp adds some background colour. "When I was being prepared for my confirmation in the Church of England at the age of twelve by the Reverend Stanley Epps - vicar in Wimborne Minster - the Reverend Epps said to my mother, 'Make sure your son keeps up his Latin.' Meaning, Stanley Epps saw me as a future vicar in the Church of England!"
As a first step towards possibly one day taking holy orders, Fripp became a serving boy at the Minster. Did he sing in the choir? "I have no singing voice, so I wasn't interested in doing that. However, what I did do was assist the priest at Holy Communion in the mornings... and a few years later, age twenty-nine, when I was in retreat at J.G. Bennett's International Academy for Continuous Education at Sherborne House, the notion of becoming a non-stipendiary minister briefly resonated with me, until it became clear that this wasn't actually my proper calling and music was."
So he sees his relationship with music as a vocation?
And has he always pursued it as such, despite the best efforts of his fellow musicians and the music industry at large to stop him doing so?
"The quick answer to that question is also yes."
As missions from God go, "Get thee to the Big Apple and play shit-hot lead guitar on a sequence of classic new wave releases with Blondie and Talking Heads" certainly falls within the upper echelon of desirability. "That was a wonderful time to be in New York," Fripp concedes graciously. "The spirit moves."
It's the period just before Fripp left Britain for New York in February 1977 that seems to hold the key to his subsequent creative evolution. In the midst of what turned out to be a seven-year hiatus from King Crimson, he had dropped out of the public eye to spend a year studying the counterculture's harmonium-playing Armenian mystic-of-choice George Gurdjieff, as applied by the aforementioned J.G. Bennett and his wife Elizabeth (the woman Fripp describes as "my spiritual mother"). What first drew him to this esoteric branch of self-improvement philosophy?
"I was on my way home to London from what was then to be the last King Crimson performance - in New York on July 1, 1974," Fripp remembers, with characteristic precision, "when some words in Mr Bennett's introduction to his second inaugural course just blew the top of my head off. The actual quotes are online, but it was something to the effect of, 'If you have an unpleasant nature and dislike people, that is no obstacle to work.' So even if you're a real jerk and an arsehole, there's hope for you still, if you want to get on and do something about it..."
After acting as an usher at a sequence of Bennett's meetings in London (he was happy to find himself "recognised by no one"), Fripp signed up for a ten-month stint at Sherborne House in Gloucestershire. It was in the ensuing fervent atmosphere of self-exploration that Fripp pondered his suitability for the priesthood. He saw no contradiction between Gurdjieff 's teachings and his own Church of England roots, and to prove it set himself to learning Greek with an Anglican clergyman, so they could read the Gospels together in their original form.
For the man who'd just spent a year of studious contemplation in a rambling English stately home modelled on the Prieuré in Fontainebleau near Paris (Gurdjieff's '20s retreat), plunging into the dangerous ferment of late '70s New York must have been a shock.
"New York had always terrified me," admits Fripp, "because it was so intense and overloading. I remember being driven into Manhattan in a taxi at some point in 1971-2 and I put my coat over my head, because I simply couldn't take in all that information. So going back there in February of 1977 was a challenge. And I took it on as a catalyst to get me to the other side of where I was. I didn't know where that would be, but if we ask the future to present itself, we have to be willing to listen."
For anyone curious about the origins of Fripp's somewhat oracular speech patterns, a visit to the J.G. Bennett Foundation website (a course of action the guitarist fervently recommends) will certainly prove illuminating. There is also some great YouTube footage of people formation dancing in white robes. His time at Sherborne House seems to have been very influential on what Fripp calls his "medieval monastic librarian" persona - a shtick which was much better received on the other side of the Atlantic than it probably would've been at home.
"In England, by the time you got to the punk and post-punk eras, as a member of King Crimson, I was The Enemy," Fripp says, "whereas what mattered in New York was that I'd worked with Eno and later Bowie. So within the overall trajectory of Robert's Musical Life, there was this conundrum: he's the villain with King Crimson and he's the hero - if you'll forgive the pun - with Bowie and Eno. 'Eno and Bowie are the two untouchables' was how Steven Wilson put it when I was working with him a few years ago..."
Does he think some of their untouchableness rubbed off?
"Well, maybe a little bit," Fripp laughs. "Although may I say I was always very touchable? Either way, The Enemy had redeeming features. Besides, in New York, King Crimson was seen in a different way to back home, more as an authentic musical action but perhaps of the immediately preceding musical generation, whereas Eno and Bowie were seen as part of the present musical generation. Which conceivably would also be true of the 1981 Crimson, but we hadn't got there yet."
Fripp's get-out-of-prog-jail-free-card collaborations with Eno and Bowie straddled his year at Sherborne House. (No Pussyfooting) - the glorious first fruits of this particularly fecund three-way entanglement - grew from a fortuitously syncopated interaction between the formative stages of King Crimson's '72-74 line-up and the final days of Brian Eno's association with Roxy Music.
"It's well known that Bryan Ferry auditioned for King Crimson and I turned him down," Fripp notes, "so Peter Sinfield and myself remain the only two people who've ever heard him sing 21st Century Schizoid Man and The Court Of The Crimson King. We usually recorded those auditions and I think for many years Bryan was concerned that we had his performances on tape - I never persuaded him otherwise, although sadly those were two that got away. It was obvious that Bryan had something and was going to succeed, but not as the voice of Crimson, so we helped him out by turning him down, as if he had joined us it might have been the end of his career."
Fripp did recommend the snappily dressed young Geordie art student to EG management - "a favour he might've thanked me for at the beginning of his career, but possibly not later on" - and it was in their west London offices that Fripp later, in June 1972, bumped into Ferry's by-then bandmate Brian Eno, who asked him to come over one evening. Fripp dropped round with his guitar and pedalboard. "So, we went in that front room, the room where Discreet Music was later left recording itself while me and Eno were in the kitchen, having a cup of tea. This time Eno poured a glass of wine and said, 'Would you like to plug in?' Which I did, and that, with a little help from two Revox tape recorders, was (No Pussyfooting)..."
Whatever the reason for Eno leaving Roxy Music soon afterwards - a Melody Maker article by Richard Williams praising Brian's new spin-off collaborative endeavour, or the more colourful version which has Roxy Music walking on stage one night to be met by a female voice shouting "Eno!" ("At least 'Brian/Bryan' would have been ambiguous," Fripp chuckles) - Brian with an 'i' was summoned to a meeting and told in no uncertain terms that he was ready to go it alone. But far from the enticing window of opportunity it might've seemed to present, this turn of events was bad news for (No Pussyfooting). In Fripp's telling of the story, EG and Island Records decided to down-scale the release so as not to muddy the waters of Eno's imminent solo career.
"It was sat on in England, and didn't get a release at all in America except on import," Fripp grumbles, forty-six years on. Luckily, one American who did hear this remarkable record - Iggy Pop - really liked it.
"Although Iggy, who I've met and have a great admiration for, never said this to me," he continues, "I was told he could whistle all the main themes from (No Pussyfooting). I don't know whether Iggy introduced Bowie to it when they were hanging out in '76, but David listened to it, and he called Brian and asked him to go to Berlin, at which point I was still in Sherborne House, so I don't think I was invited. But not long afterwards, when I'd just moved to New York in '77, the phone went, and there was Brian, and I was invited to go to Berlin and that was "Heroes".
"How often do you practise being a hero?" is one of the questions Fripp is asked by his sister Patricia in the motivational speaking videos they post on YouTube (Google them - Mojo is not making this up). His answer? "Every day."
As monolithic and immovable as the current three-drummers-at-the-front incarnation of King Crimson may seem, permanence is illusory in the world of Robert Fripp, and it's hard to see this as anything other than the final version of the band. Not least because it would be so difficult to surpass as an exercise in "redemption and completion", with Fripp having decided the messy fragmentations of the '90s and '00s were not how he "wished King Crimson to leave this world". Today's version of the band is also, in Fripp's own words, "the first where there is not at least one person in the band who resents Robert's presence."
Mojo can't let him go without asking him about the 'third person' thing. Is it a way of separating the man and the myth?
"All right then," he says patiently, "this is my ontology. The separation I make between 'Fripp' and 'Robert' is a distinction between who I am and the human animal I live inside" - 'soul' and 'body' would be the old-fashioned way of expressing this dichotomy - "and the important thing is how they act together.
"I date my awareness of this to March 1976 at Sherborne House. While wheeling a barrow of manure past the woodwork sheds, I saw in a flash that 'I' didn't exist. It was a vision of remarkable power, and it was instantaneous and it was terrifying."
So creatively nourishing was this moment of revelation that the next time King Crimson broke up, at the end of 1984, Robert Fripp went back for more, signing up for the inaugural three-month spell of study at the Bennett Foundation's new American centre at Claymont Court in Charles Town, West Virginia. Immediately afterwards, he started teaching his Guitar Craft courses, an endeavour he generally describes as "my proper working life".
Does this mean that in the earthly existence of Robert Fripp, King Crimson is best understood as the punctuation between keynote incidences of Gurdjieffian retreat?
"That would be your headline," Fripp laughs, "not mine."
THE CROWN JEWELS
Fifty years, thirteen King Crimson studio albums. Mike Barnes genuflects.
IN THE COURT OF THE CRIMSON KING  - Crimson's debut encompassed the jazz-fuelled aggression of 21st Century Schizoid Man - the extraordinary unison section had stunned live audiences - grandly structured mellotron ballads and ten minutes of free improvisation, while Peter Sinfield's fantastical lyrics, evoking imagined worlds, lent a uniqueness that helped make it progressive rock's first major statement.
IN THE WAKE OF POSEIDON  - With the departure of principal songwriter Ian McDonald and a line-up in flux, Crimson was close to falling apart. Side one followed the format of their debut, and while the Beatles-meets-jazz of Cat Food is witty and inspired, most of side two is given over to a reworking of their live version of Mars from Gustav Holst's Planets suite.
LIZARD  - More musical chairs saw jazz pianist Keith Tippett drafted in, and Yes's Jon Anderson deliver a vocal cameo. Lizard's juxtaposition of pseudo-classical mellotron fanfares, limpid ballads, free-form skronk and Gil Evans-style faux Iberian settings was both beguiling and baffling.
ISLANDS  - Robert Fripp has said that he realised he would make a number of recorded "mistakes" following In The Court Of The Crimson King, but if Islands fails, it does so in grand style. Another new line-up tackle ferocious instrumentals, sleazy R&B, and amid the moments of pastoral exotica there is even a piece for oboe and string ensemble.
LARKS' TONGUES IN ASPIC  - With drummer Bill Bruford, bassist and vocalist John Wetton and percussionist Jamie Muir onboard the "mistakes" gave way to a dazzling set of songs and exploratory instrumentals. Part Two of the title track saw the emergence of the angular, incrementally developing riff-based structure that would become a Robert Fripp compositional trademark.
STARLESS AND BIBLE BLACK  - Fripp has said that Crimson's albums were good but their shows were like a "hot date". This certainly explains the power of this collection of new material, three quarters of which - unbeknownst to buyers at the time - was recorded live. Fracture assumes some forbidding formal shapes, while the title track is an inspired live improvisation.
RED  - Crimson were becoming a big live draw in the US, delivering a near metal heaviness and intensity, and they channelled that power into Red, although it was released just after Fripp had disbanded the group. The guitarist's diamond-hard riffing contrasts with brass, strings and woodwind, and Red peaks on the majestic finale, Starless.
DISCIPLINE  - When Crimson regrouped in 1981, Fripp and Bruford were joined by Americans Tony Levin on bass and Chapman Stick, and Adrian Belew on guitar and vocals. Discipline was a completely new proposition, more groove-based post-new wave than prog rock, featuring the sort of fluid, interlocking figures that Fripp played on Talking Heads' I Zimbra.
BEAT  - Adrian Belew's songs form the core of this concept album about the Beat poets, which saw King Crimson reimagined as svelte avant-pop with '80s production gloss, taking a clipped Talking Heads-y approach on Sartori In Tangier and getting fidgety on Neurotica. Requiem moves from ambient drift to abstract group improv, and feels anomalous in context.
THREE OF A PERFECT PAIR  - The oddest of mixed bags. Side one comprised a batch of Belew songs, including the surprise club hit Sleepless, while side two sounded like a different group, being home to harsher instrumentals and improvisations. It went Top 30, but Fripp soon disbanded the line-up.
THRAK  - After an eleven-year hiatus came the recorded debut of the six-piece "double trio". Crimson had moved away from the '80s' rhythmic patterns, mixing some of Belew's strongest songs, like Dinosaur, with a return to Red on the instrumental Vrooom and the title track's pummelling power chords.
THE CONSTRUKCTION OF LIGHT  - Once past Belew's ProzaKc Blues, we are in the thick of complex compositions by a now four-piece group. Although Fripp felt unhappy with the production - which does sound oddly flat in places - the thirteen-minute Larks' Tongues In Aspic (Part IV) hits vindictive levels of sonic brutality.
THE POWER TO BELIEVE  - Fripp described writing Crimson's last studio statement to date as a difficult process. And while it has its delicate and lyrical moments, with metal and industrial producer Gene Freeman AKA Machine at the controls, the group's darker side comes through on compositions like Level Five and the brooding Dangerous Curves.