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Progressive Ears Presents
ROBERT FRIPP - FROM CRIMSON KING TO CRAFTY MASTER
by Eric Tamm
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Chapter Eight: Out of Retirement - The Drive to 1981
Small is beautiful.
-- E.F. Schumacher
During his period of retreat, Robert Fripp had 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 verité.
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!'"
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." 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 "Neuköln" 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."
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."
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."
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," 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." 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."
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." 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 verité 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."
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.
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."
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 ..."
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."
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." 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.
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."
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."
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."
• 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." The collage-effect is heightened by the frequent splicing-in of bits of conversation, radio broadcasts, neighbors' arguments, lectures by spiritual leaders, concrète 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. 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 ...
PREFACE (Fripp). Like Sergeant Pepper, Exposure begins with a bit of musique concrète, that is, sounds taken from real life. In the midst of muted conversations at a Greenwich Village falafel restaurant, we hear an earnest Brian Eno saying, "Uh - can I play you - um - some of the new things I've been doing, which I think could be commercial." A few gentle dissonant vocal chords, the voice of an engineer calling for another take - a phone rings - footsteps - the phone keeps ringing - the phone is picked up - over the phone we hear a series of fast electric guitar chords - which lead straight into ...
YOU BURN ME UP I'M A CIGARETTE (Words by Fripp; music by Hall and Fripp). Hammill agreeably spits out a rare complete set of song lyrics by Fripp, a curious mixture of pop banalities ("You hold my hand I begin to sweat / You make me nervous") with intellectual-sounding multisyllabicisms ("Strategic interaction irreducible fraction / Terminal inaction and a bitter hostile faction"). Does it work? I suppose it depends on whether the listener can appreciate the spectacle of Robert Fripp parodying himself. The music is punk-modified blues. In the middle is an indecipherable recording of the Shivapuri Baba, holy man of Nepal who was reportedly 137 years old when the tape was made (he died two tears later). He is saying, "Think of God alone. Dismiss every other thought from your mind and you will see God."
BREATHLESS (Fripp). This instrumental, featuring fine drumming by Walden, recalls the hard-hitting artistic heavy metal of King Crimson III in the Red period, overlaid with Frippertronics. Fripp called Exposure "my most recent attempt to 'tweak' with rock and roll, working with the possibility of extending its vocabulary and its capacity for handling a wider range of experiences." In line with this goal, "Breathless" is a study in rhythm and exotic tonality. In Fripp's own analysis, "The main theme is in 7/4, the middle section is in 3/3 plus 3/8 with the guitar in 9/8 over the top of it, but it's still identifiably rock and roll ... " On the other hand, "If one were to score it for string quartet it wouldn't sound inappropriate at all."
DISENGAGE (Words by Walton; music by Fripp and Hammill). Opens with some long minor-mode Frippertronic tones laid over the toilet training interview with Fripp's mother, all I can make out is her saying repeatedly, "You never remember", then slams into more heavy metal. The evocative words by Walton and the ferocity of Hammill's delivery almost make up for the lack of a real melody. Then again, lack of a real melody is due to the way the song was made: Fripp had made the backing tracks, then stuck a lyric sheet in front of Hammill and said, "Sing." This is not so much songwriting as collaborative layering, a criticism that, in the following chapter, I will not hesitate to level against a number of songs with Adrian Belew lyrics and vocals from the King Crimson IV period. (It is only fair to report that Michael Bloom, in his Rolling Stone review of Exposure, had a different view of the matter: Bloom called the vocal improvisations by Hall, Gabriel, Hammill, and Roche Exposure's most avant-garde idea, and it had its successes: the genuine tenderness in Roche's 'Mary' and Hammill's furious realization of 'Disengage' might never have happened in conventional sessions." I would counter only by saying that "music," in one specific sense of the word, can be improvised, but "composition," in another specific sense, cannot; I shall return to this point in the final chapter of this book.)
NORTH STAR (Words by Walton; music by Fripp and Hall). Hall's white-soul vocalizations, Fripp's gentle seventh chords, and Walton's tender lyrics gel into a stylized ballad.
CHICAGO (Words by Walton; music by Fripp and Hall). Dark blues with surrealistic Frippertronic overlays.
NY3 (Fripp). The voices in this rather terrifying piece of urban audio verité were taped by Fripp one night from his Manhattan apartment. His neighbors' violent argument is counterpointed with an angry rock romp at an impossibly fast tempo in some impossibly arcane meter (Jon Pareles in the Village Voice says it's 17/8 - he also points out the riff lifted from Hendrix's "Foxy Lady").
MARY (Words by Joanna Walton; music by Fripp and Hall). Terre Roche delivers a characteristically innocent yet wounded vocal. (This was one of the songs which Daryl Hall sang on the original, unreleased Exposure; Roche learned the vocal part by listening to Hall's improvised versions.)
EXPOSURE (Fripp and Gabriel). A miniature collage all unto itself, the title track integrates Frippertronics; Roche screaming out the word "Exposure" Yoko Ono style while Gabriel spells it out letter by letter; a tape loop of Bennett saying "It is impossible to achieve the aim without suffering"; and a one-chord rock rhythm section percolating underneath it all. (A different version of this song appeared on Gabriel's 1978 Fripp-produced solo album.)
HÄADEN TWO (Fripp). More spoken quotations (some even played backwards) from a variety of sources over what Eno, in one of the quotations, calls an "incredibly dismal, pathetic chord sequence."
URBAN LANDSCAPE (Fripp). Brooding, menacing long-tone Frippertronics. Major and minor modes sound simultaneously ... leads directly into ...
I MAY NOT HAVE HAD ENOUGH OF ME BUT I'VE HAD ENOUGH OF YOU (Words by Walton; music by Fripp). In what had by now become one of Fripp's more irritating mannerisms, the opening chord slams the head of the unsuspecting listener, who had been lulled into a state of somnambulent profundity by the preceding Frippertronics. I have concluded only that the man wants to irritate you - and that if you're lucky, you might take that irritation as a sign of waking up. This frenetic song leads into ...
FIRST INAUGURAL ADDRESS TO THE I.A.C.E. SHERBORNE HOUSE (Bennett). What one writer reports is "a forty-minute J.G. Bennett lecture condensed to three seconds by raising it 6,500 octaves." This description makes little acoustical sense to me, since raising any humanly audible sound by more than eleven octaves suffices to take it completely out of the range of human hearing. Yet I am prepared to believe that Fripp did indeed condense the Bennett lecture by some electro-acoustical-mechanical means. This seems an apt place to report that according to Fripp, Bennett's wife believed Bennett himself would have been "very pleased" with Exposure; Bennett had been captivated by Jimi Hendrix and the Isle of Wight festival in 1970, and had thought that rock music exhibited the "essence of a place more real than life itself."
WATER MUSIC I (Words by Bennett; music by Fripp). Over indescribably poignant Frippertronics, Bennett prophecies global apocalypse and natural disasters ... leads straight into ...
HERE COMES THE FLOOD (Gabriel). Gabriel, accompanied only by acoustic piano, with occasional delicate Eno synthesizer and Frippertronics, delivers a simultaneously heartbreaking and terrifying reading of a song he had originally recorded for his first solo album in a heavier rock arrangement.
WATER MUSIC II (Fripp). Frippertronics - and yes, you can surely see the slow sad sweeping of ocean swells surrounding the shore.
POSTSCRIPT (Fripp). After the last seaside sibilants have died away, we hear friendly Eno in the falafel restaurant once more: "So the whole story is completely untrue - a big hoax - ha ha ha," he chuckles gently. "big hoax - heh heh heh" is repeated/looped a few times, loses fidelity; and then the phone is hung up and the footsteps walk away.
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.'" 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]." 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."
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." (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." 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."
When I call Exposure to mind from memory and see it/hear it cast across the screen of my awareness, it stands as a masterwork, as an inspired work of art, as a particular apotheosis of rock music, of Western music as a whole, of the late 1970s. This is how it stands in my memory. Putting the record on the turntable and actually listening to it, however, induces a somewhat different experience. By around the middle of Side One I invariably wonder what all the fuss is about. I can't keep the beat, all the emotive vocal screaming has me on edge, I hear on the one hand extraordinarily accomplished guitar playing and beat counting, yet the overall sound is just so irritating that I wonder whether indeed it is all some kind of cruel hoax. "Mary" restores my confidence in some kind of soul values, and turning to Side Two I am in a somewhat more receptive frame of mind. The first three tracks on Side Two coax me along and beguile me with their minimalistic humor, until "I May Not Have Had Enough" blasts into my now delicate consciousness, shattering any illusions that I am dealing with a musician who harbors any regard whatsoever for conventional standards of beauty or propriety. This is the crisis point: not only is the blast rude, inappropriate, and by now a Fripp cliché, but I have to ask myself exactly what he's trying to accomplish here. Then - miracle of miracles - all that follows is sheer wonder, worlds opening into worlds, musical revelations: Bennett's restrained yet impassioned message, "Water Music I & II" framing Gabriel's "Here Comes the Flood" ("Water Music II," at six minutes and ten seconds, is by far the longest piece on Exposure - it was edited down to 4'16" for the remastered, remixed version of the album later released), and finally the "Postscript," in which Eno says yes, maybe it is all a big hoax, and then the phone hangs up, as if the whole album had been some sort of mediumistic communication from the mysterious cybernetic beyond. It is at the end of the album that memory begins, and thus my impression that we are dealing with a masterwork.
Exposure gels as a whole but not in its individual parts. Fripp doesn't seduce you until the end, by which point if you are not irritated to the point of distraction you are lucky. Fripp makes you work; he doesn't make it easy. And why should he make it easy? There is so much music out there that does. But this brings up another point. I have called Exposure Fripp's Sergeant Pepper. But Sergeant Pepper, along with so many pieces by Mozart, for instance, is consistently beautiful, tuneful, seductive, and beguiling in addition to being intellectually irreproachable: you are irresistibly attracted to the sounding surface of the music first, and later, if you are lucky or if you have the requisite background, you begin to understand that a depth of psychological and structural meaning lies below the surface: the music then takes on added dimensions of resonance.
Not so with Fripp, Bartok, or Schoenberg: here, the dissonance of the sounding surface can only drive one away screaming or - if one is lucky - produce in one a sensation of such fantastic melodic intricacy and incomprehensibly complex and self-propulsive rhythm that one develops the patience and the conviction to stick it out and to receive the rare moments of seduction as pure gifts, made all the more valuable for their very rarity.
Music, among other things, is playing with time, rhythm, and meter, which intimately reflect the human sense of existence through motion. Exposure contains lessons in time ranging from the straight-ahead blues tunes to the convoluted meters to the condensed Bennett lecture to the duration of the album as a whole, with its framing phone calls. In terms of the frenetically odd-metered songs on Exposure being bona fide rock and roll with an expanded vocabulary, Fripp got it partly right; but he was soon to draw back (if temporarily) into a kind of dance music that you could actually tap your foot to, without worrying about intellectual disgrace - with Discotronics and the League of Gentlemen.
Frippertronics: The Idea, the Tour, and the Recordings
I have already discussed several aspects of the Frippertronics idea: the technological set-up whereby two reel-to-reel tape recorders were connected together and to Fripp's electric guitar; the musical style, that is, the potential for creatively shaping ever-fluctuating masses of sound in real time, ordinarily upon a tonal, pandiatonic, modal, or multi-modal basis; and the various uses of Frippertronics - as music performed solo, or as one timbral/structural element within a more conventional song, or as a "thematic sound" used to unify a large musical collage such as Exposure.
The Frippertronics tour of 1979 was an anti-tour by an anti-rock-star; or to put it the way Fripp frequently did, it represented deliberate work in the marketplace against the values of the marketplace. The tour involved seventy-two performances between April 5 and August 19, in Canada, England, Holland, Belgium, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, France, and the United States. The sole performer was Fripp with his hardware; and the chosen locations were typically small clubs, restaurants, art galleries, record shops, radio station studios, museums, record company offices, and even the occasional pizza parlor. The Frippertronics tour was the small, mobile, intelligent unit in action.
The motto or theme of the tour was "human contact." Fripp would be able to see the audience for a change; they would be able to watch him up close and personal, to become an active, perceptive, and expressive part of the musical process, to ask questions and make comments. The whole tour was designed as a protest against the corporate-industry-dinosauric approach to rock performance and marketing. Since most of Fripp's appearances were non-paying engagements, the tour lost money - about $25,000 by one estimation, which was still, according to Fripp, only about one-eighth the normal loss for a rock tour by a normal band. Bands undertake tours to promote record sales, and indeed Fripp claimed that the Frippertronics tour boosted sales of Exposure to twice the number - some 78,000 units sold during the tour - Polydor had expected to sell. Fripp rejected the idea that massive advertising, promotion, and touring budgets were needed to sell records. Furthermore, he was against such mammoth budgets from an ethical point of view: "With real tour support, there would be pressure to behave as people with that kind of budget are expected to." Exposure sold unexpectedly well, with little if any play on commercial radio.
(As a parenthetical note, it might be recalled that one of Fripp's musical heroes, Igor Stravinsky, in 1917 at the age of thirty-five, planned to undertake a small, mobile, intelligent tour of Switzerland, performing his small theater piece L'Histoire du soldat with a handful of fellow-musicians. The music was a jaunty mixture of popular, dance, jazz, and neo-classical styles. The tour did not take place because following the premiere in Lausanne, a number of the performers came down with a bad case of flu. I suppose the analogy could be extended still further: Stravinsky's Rite of Spring (1912) had culminated a period of redefining the rhythmic and harmonic vocabulary of ballet music, just as King Crimson's Red did for rock. Fripp was thirty-three at the time of the Frippertronics tour.)
The Frippertronics tour became a vehicle for a grass-roots spreading of Fripp's ideas. A typical day in America might involve doing four hours of interviews and one or two improvised performances in record shops. Fripp regarded the interviews "as being in some senses more important than the music I was playing."
Fripp would say the darndest things to his miniature audiences, he would lecture ironically on the music business, or speak passionately about the nature of creative listening to music, or cooly display his erudition, or play the part of a stand-up comic. Since so much of what he said, however, seemed to hinge on the way he said it - timing, body language, tone of voice, facial expression, rhetorical tricks of the trade - few of the many concert reviews that were duly written up were able to capture the man's elusive presence in any significant way. This, of course, is precisely the way Fripp must have wanted it.
As reported in Variety, at the July Frippertronics dates at Madame Wong's in Los Angeles,
Jones further remarked on Fripp's air of confidence and good humor, how easily and good-naturedly he bore with the background conversations, giggles, and intentional disruptions (such as a loud fart). After the music, Fripp "held the majority quite spellbound" explaining the idea of the small, mobile, intelligent unit and his forebodings of imminent apocalypse, but also "elaborating hilariously on the Drive to 1981 and the subsequent Decline into 1984."
There probably was no "typical" Frippertronics concert, and this was precisely the point: each event was shaped by the individuality of the location, time of day, character of the audience, and frame of mind of the performer. At some concerts where admission was charged, as at the Kitchen gigs in June, Fripp included a cassette of a Bennett lecture in the price of admission. Such actions, and Fripp's own frequent references to matters of the Fourth Way, led to inevitable reactions and accusations: Fripp was trying to propagandize, he had been brainwashed by Gurdjieffian mysticism, and so on. (Not that Fripp's accusers, in the reviews I have read, bothered to find out and explain just exactly who Gurdjieff was.)
The more balanced reviewers - that is, those who felt no need to entertain their readers with loud proclamations of the superiority of the sex-drugs-rock and roll (and maybe politics) myth over music that was contemplative and intelligent - were receptive to varying degrees. Jon Pareles, reviewing Exposure and a 1979 Kitchen concert, wrote, in what was nonetheless a fairly positive appraisal of Fripp's music, "The expansion of Fripp's own slavish cult isn't exactly a prospect I relish, but he's at least as deserving as Ted Nugent and fully entitled to hype himself."
The Frippertronics idea left behind - as residue, distillate, precipitation, artifact - one and a half officially released albums, several small-scale pieces that appeared here and there, and a smattering of illicitly recorded and distributed bootlegs. Of the bootlegs, made against Fripp's repeatedly expressed wishes, and being contrary to the whole spirit of the Frippertronics tour, we shall say little. The album and a half are Let the Power Fall (1981) and the God Save the Queen side of God Save the Queen/Under Heavy Manners (the other side will be considered in the following section on Discotronics). The small-scale pieces include the likes of "Night I & II: Urban Landscapes," which came out on Recorder Three, a magazine/record published in Bristol in 1981 which also contained one of the most revealing interviews with Fripp I have seen.
Fripp had originally planned a trio of albums: Exposure, "Frippertronics," and "Discotronics." Due to the delay of Exposure's release, and to other factors not entirely clear, he proceeded to condense the latter two albums into one, calling it God Save the Queen/Under Heavy Manners, with the Frippertronics and Discotronics neatly segregated on separate sides. In the liner notes, written on January 4, 1980, at his office in Wimborne, Dorset (which he was by now calling "Fripp World Headquarters"), Fripp outlined the history and philosophy of Frippertronics and the Drive to 1981. Here he offered perhaps his most succinct summary of the ways the Frippertronics tour attempted to counter the "trend to idiocy" in rock performance (the trend characterized by "the escalation in the size of rock events, ... the general acceptance of rock music as spectator sport, ... [and] the vampiric relationship between audience and performer"): Frippertronics audiences would be limited in size (ten to 250), the audience would be invited "to listen actively which places the listeners in a position of equal responsibility with the performer," and the performer and audience would try to decline "to humour each other's mutual pretensions, egocentricities and conceits." In the liner notes Fripp also points out that he had originally intended to call the album "Music for Sports," and that in the spirit of that title, the music could be used either "as an accompaniment for a wide range of healthy activities or as a field for active listening."
The three improvisations on God Save the Queen are taken from two Frippertronics performances in Berkeley, California, on July 30, 1979. The title track is an improvisation based on the British national anthem, which Fripp supplied when a member of the audience requested a rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" - the tune Jimi Hendrix had used as the basis of an extraordinary flight of imagination at the Woodstock festival.
Frippertronics was first and foremost a live experience; it is thus perhaps not difficult to understand the bafflement of rock reviewers who, confronted with the mere sound of the music out of its natural habitat, heaped upon it such characterizations as "muzak/ambient/mood music ... simply the ultimate sleep inducer with its cotton-candy strata of melody and chords." Lester Bangs, who, after all, was Lester Bangs, called Fripp's philosophizing liner notes "stuffy, self-righteous, and self-contradictory"; the Frippertronics itself he found "pleasant" enough as background music, though as for active listening, Bangs commented, "preferably while stoned, I say, as you probably will too." Tom Carson did take it upon himself to blast Fripp's "mandarin jargon about 'small, mobile, intelligent units'" as amounting to "a repellent brand of technocratic elitism" that set "new standards in art-rock pomposity," but went on to characterize God Save the Queen's music as "striking in a cryptic, deliberately elliptical way."
In 1981 Let the Power Fall: An Album of Frippertronics, sort of an official memoir of the 1979 tour, was released. It contained six improvisations (starkly titled "1984," "1985," "1986," 1987," "1988," and "1989"), a complete dated list of the tour's gigs, six paragraphs of densely worded text, and three collections of seven Fripp aphorisms each. By 1981, the lines had been firmly drawn, and for those who felt they had taken stock of what Frippertronics had to offer there was little point in further listening. This perhaps explains the almost complete dearth of reviews, in major music magazines, of Let the Power Fall. The only one I have been able to dig up was written by John Diliberto for Down Beat. Diliberto called the album "another testament to the versatility of Fripp's structure and clarity of vision. The opening track, '1984,' is an architectural wonder ... There's an erroneous tendency to think of Frippertronics as sophisticated background music, but any serious listening to Let the Power Fall reveals a highly charged emotional intensity."
My feeling is that Diliberto was on target in drawing attention to the music's deeply emotional nature, a depth of emotion married to an intellectual rigor which is evident to anyone with the ears to hear this music on a structural level. There is no doubt that for all Fripp's reserve, for all his careful gentlemanly concealment of emotional manifestations, he put his heart and soul into his Frippertronics improvisations. Not everyone, raised beyond himself by the spirit of music, is going to jump about the stage in "wild abdomen," to use Lennon's phrase; for the introvert like Fripp, the moment of contact may happen quietly. He describes such experiences quietly, as when speaking of a Frippertronics concert that took place on June 16, 1979 at the Washington Ethical Society: "The music itself wasn't very good ('as' music it wasn't very good), but a door definitely opened ... Using a kind of traditional terminology, the Muses were supposedly that level of intelligence responsible for the direction of certain artistic currents or whatever; in a sense there was a Muse present - there was a considerable presence in that room."
Two years later, playing Frippertronics for a benefit concert at a Philadelphia college radio station, Fripp felt something similar: "I was soloing over the Frippertronic loop and I heard the next note and played it and heard the next note and played it, and I was weeping as I was playing because something was beginning to move." For Fripp, the moral of this story was not the emotion itself, but the new sense of effortlessness - each note presenting itself - that he was just beginning to feel in his music, which he had approached for a long time in a spirit of toil and travail: "I've been going at music for twenty three years, from a person who was wholly unmusical - tone deaf with no sense of rhythm - and now something is beginning to open and I'm 'just' beginning to hear something about the music on the inside, just about."
On a lighter note, in 1987 Fripp recalled how, fifteen years before, Eno had shown him the two-tape-deck system, and how he had instantly had a glimpse of great possibilities: "There it was, a way for one person to make an awful lot of noise. Wonderful!"
"Discotronics": The Idea and its Realizations
It would make a nice neat conceptual closure to say that Frippertronics represented the art-music component of the Drive to 1981 and Discotronics its popular music thrust. But of course it is not quite so simple. Fripp himself would point out the similarities between Frippertronics and commercial Muzak - and Muzak is, if nothing else, the ultimate lowest common denominator in contemporary musical culture. Discotronics, for its part, was far from being solely functional music for dancing; its manifestations were frequently sophisticated enough to be called art, that is, to serve as material for listening for its own sake.
At the head of the liner notes corresponding to the Under Heavy Manners side of the God Save the Queen/Under Heavy Manners album was a typically Frippelistic pronouncement: "Discotronics is defined as that musical experience resulting at the interstice of Frippertronics and disco." As we have seen, Fripp had been planning an album of Discotronics for some time. But now that it was finally to be released, he drew back from his own terminology. The days of "disco," he seemed to acknowledge in the liner notes, were numbered, and rather than risk the label "Discotronics" becoming quickly dated, Fripp mock-seriously weighed the virtues of such substitute slogans as "'Roscotronics' (that musical experience resulting at the interstice of Frippertronics and any rock idiom to which dancing is likely or feasible)" and "'Dorotronics' (from the label 'Dance Oriented Rock')."
Discotronics, Roscotronics, Dorotronics - whatever it was, it had two primary manifestations: the half-album Under Heavy Manners and Fripp's work in 1980 with the League of Gentlemen.
In December 1970 Fripp called Buster Jones (bass), Paul Duskin (drums), and "Absalm el Habib" (David Byrne) into the studios of the Hit Factory in New York to play and sing alongside loops recorded during the Frippertronics tour. The result was the two long tracks, "Under Heavy Manners" and "The Zero of the Signified," that comprised Under Heavy Manners.
Fripp wrote the lyrics that Byrne inimitably croaked out in "Under Heavy Manners," a song which indeed is musically nothing more than Frippertronics over a more-or-less disco rhythm section. The words are not so much lyrics as they are a litany of "-isms," from the familiar (conservatism, liberalism, fascism) to the obscure (cataphatacism, scofistism, theandricism, just to choose three at random, are not in my dictionary - Fripp found them in Vladimir Lossky's Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church). On the surface, in spite of Byrne's valiant efforts, "Under Heavy Manners" may appear merely a poor (and irritatingly) academically arcane, imitation of what one critic once called Bob Dylan's "laundry list poetry," or of John Lennon's "God" - another "list" song. And calling attention to the fact that we live in an age of isms is little more than a cliché.
In one interview, however, Fripp amplified the meaning of two key lines: "Remain in hell without despair" and "I am resplendent in divergence." Beginning with the opinion that "You have to find a way where the language confuses itself to the point where anything can come through," Fripp related that he had written the first line the morning after having completed a visit in December 1979 to Mount Athos monastery in Cyprus, and that the words were a paraphrase of the moral of a story told by one of the monks. As Fripp describes it:
"One of the Saints was suffering the torments of hell - however one would wish to express it in modern technology - but really going through a bummer and at the end of this particular period of personal turbulence or freak-out or whatever, said, 'Christ, how could you desert me and leave me with all this nonsense going on?' and Christ said 'I didn't desert you, I was with you through all of it; admiring you work.' So the advice was to remain in hell without despair. In other words, one learns how to suffer - but the necessary suffering, not the nonsense - and, a lot of my personal life was remaining in hell with despair. But I think Sherborne shifted that away you know." "Under Heavy Manners" is thus "about how far one can go with a process of logical thought and how much is possible through the intellect and it's only when you go beyond that that something happens. The mind, of course, has its use - a well-ordered mind has its use but the geezer obviously goes through the different possible things he can go through" from politics to religion, "and with the long scream with forty-seven A's in it ... obviously it's confused him to the point where he has to go a bit beyond that. And 'his' solution is that he's resplendent in divergence - he's found a way of working in a different kind of way which goes beyond merely the process of, if you like, subjective meditation." (The reader who wishes to pursue this further is referred to The Monk of Mount Athos by Archimandrite Sofronii, who is the source of the aphorism, "Keep thy mind in hell and despair not," and whom Fripp met in Cyprus.)
Trivia and not so trivia: "Sunder here navy man" is an anagram of "Under Heavy Manners", the only actual Fripp coinage in the song is "cleverism," which ended up being printed under the word "neologism" on the lyric sheet, some of the more obscure words are clumsy English renderings of ecclesiastical Greek, the bells heard in the song were the bells of Wimbourne Minster, recorded through the window of Fripp World H.Q. on a cassette machine, the phrase "Under Heavy Manners" is a reference to police brutality and oppression in the West Indies, "Urizel" is a garbled reference to William Blake's "Urizen," the name the poet gave to the jealous and fearful God of the Old Testament, embodied in the oppressive institutions of state and church, and which Fripp called simply "Blake's personification of the dry intellect."
"The Zero of the Signified" is a song having to do with aspects of repetition. The technological repetition of the Frippertronics loop contrasts the physical repetition of the solo guitar part (a very fast phrase repeated for some ten minutes). Furthermore, talking about the piece in an interview, Fripp called attention to two contrasting psycho-philosophical views of repetition. One was Eno's idea that "repetition is a form of change"; Eno had formulated this axiom after having performed LaMonte Young's X for Harry Flynt - a performance involving bringing both forearms down on a piano keyboard at regular intervals for an hour. The other was semiologist Roland Barthes' axiom, "To repeat excessively is to enter into loss; this we term the zero of the signified." (Fripp said that he had become interested in the science of signs on account of "being an English person trying to work out my background and what it is that people were telling me.")
The degree to which the uninformed rock listener could enter into Fripp's music at such levels is open to doubt; and not everyone sensed the vivifying humor behind the liner notes' exaggerated intellectual posturing. One critic panned the whole album as "Borotronics." Michael Davis in Creem called "The Zero of the Signified" "dull. True, you can dance to it but big deal, you can dance to a lot of things, from eggbeaters to washing machines (if you think pogoing to the Ramones at 78 r.p.m. is the ultimate, try getting down to a spin cycle)."
Under Heavy Manners was a concept album; it was music about dance music (and, as we have seen, about semiotics and the salvation of the soul as well). Its musical dialect was a scruffy pidgin of new wave rock, disco, and Frippertronics vintage late 1979. The attraction and possibilities of such a combination became the focus of much of Fripp's attention in 1980, the year he formed, toured, and recorded with the League of Gentlemen. By the middle of March the band, which had considered calling itself the Rhythm Section, was rehearsing in a fourteenth century lodge near Fripp World H.Q.
By this point, Fripp's extended sojourn in New York was over. Even during his stay in the Big Apple, he had retained a small cottage in Wimbourne. By early 1980, having harkened to the call of an inner voice which said to him one day, "Go to Wimbourne," he had shifted his center of gravity to his home town, where he maintained the official Fripp World H.Q. in a flat above a shop, and where he was able to visit his parents frequently.
The League of Gentlemen was, as Fripp once put it, "a wonderful little bopping band" that played seventy-seven gigs in England, Europe, and America between April 10 and November 29, 1980, and produced one album. The personnel initially consisted of Fripp, keyboardist Barry Andrews (formerly of XTC, and who had played on Exposure), Sara Lee on bass, and Jonny Toobad on drums. Fripp had recruited Lee and Toobad after hearing them play in London in a band called Baby and the Black Spots. If Frippertronics was primarily a music of the mind, with the League of Gentlemen Fripp was interested in a music of the body, music of sexual energy, "energy from the waist down," as he called it. In another formulation, he said that "The League of Gentlemen works from outside the music inward, while [Frippertronics] works from the inside outwards." He added a remark on social setting: "It is very difficult to play Frippertronics to drunk people at rock'n'roll clubs."
For Fripp, the League of Gentlemen represented a sort of musical populism - a populism, however, not of a naive sort, but of a reflected, thoughtful quality. Much of his work with the musicians of King Crimson had involved virtuosity at a self-conscious level, but Fripp had come to be suspicious of displays of artifice for their own sake. He expressed the dilemma in terms of the contrast between competence and ideas: "I've found that musicians who can play 10,000 notes tend to play them, and the 10,000 notes I hear I don't enjoy." Better to have a limited set of chops and through them to express something of real significance.
Not that the League of Gentlemen were exactly a bunch of slackers. Organist Andrews proved he was equal to the task of balancing Fripp's speedy guitar ostinati with organ counterpoint of complementary dexterity and contrapuntal interest, while Lee and Toobad managed to keep danceable time in the midst of the angular electronic polyphony. In clubs, such as New York's Irving Plaza on June 28, Fripp would introduce the band with some such lingo as the following: "Welcome to the League of Gentlemen. This is another improbable event, full of hazard. We suggest that you listen and dance simultaneously." As in most new wave dance bands, group rhythm and texture was in, soloing was out; at the Plaza, Fripp took only one solo, over the slashing rhythms of "Thrang Perboral Gozinblux," a piece he was later to use as a study in meter with his Guitar Craft students.
The evo-/devolutionary pattern of King Crimson repeated itself with the League of Gentlemen: on the completion of the U.S. tour on July 22, 1980, after four months of work together, three of which were on the road, Fripp was growing restless and the cohesiveness of the band began to break down. He wrote the following year that after July 22, "The short rehearsals grew shorter and less productive, the recording depressing." A seven-day recording session produced only two pieces, "Heptaparaparshinokh" and "Dislocated." In Manchester on November 23, during the League's final British tour, Jonny Toobad was dismissed from the band; according to Fripp, "his performance was no longer reliable."
Toobad was replaced with drummer Kevin Wilkinson. Driving from Manchester to Liverpool for the next gig, Fripp was depressed and disappointed, and made a decision to form a new band with higher self-imposed standards, this was the moment of genesis of King Crimson IV, to which we shall return in the next chapter. With Wilkinson, the League of Gentlemen played five more British gigs, recorded the bulk of the album The League of Gentlemen at Arny's Shack (a recording studio in Dorset), and was laid to rest.
In some respects the album recalls "Exposure," what with the many short tracks, the appearance of taped Bennett quotations, the concrète sounds, the "indiscretions", in this case largely fragments of conversational interviews on the subject of rock and roll. Rock and roll, we learn, is a music of physical energy and sexual inspiration; the music on the album, it appears, is set forth to clinch this somewhat less than novel thesis.
But as a listening to "Inductive Resonance" will show, The League of Gentlemen, under cover of relatively lightweight new wave dance music, contained some of Fripp's most advanced - or at any rate most difficult - recorded guitar work to date. Here he presented in all its perfection a technique of rapidly flat-picking arpeggiated chord-melodies with a staccato attack. Such a technique is similar to what is called in classical music style brisé ("broken [chord] style"): "a texture in which melodic lines are subservient to the broken chords and composite rhythms they create," according to the New Harvard Dictionary of Music. Style brisé originated in French lute music of the seventeenth century and was taken up by French and German harpsichordists. J.S. Bach brought the technique to a pinnacle of fulfillment with his gloriously mind-bending suites for solo cello - music in which linear melody is so thoroughly suffused with harmonic implications as to make analytic separation of the two impossible.
The broken-chord style is also featured on "Cognitive Dissonance," a miniature lesson in Frippian tonality. (The title refers to a concept developed by psychologist Leon Festinger. In brief, human beings have an innate drive toward consistency; when some particular data we confront is at odds with our beliefs or theories of how the world works, we experience cognitive dissonance.) In "Cognitive Dissonance," the organ presents a harmonic entity based on the augmented triad Gb-Bb-D, over drums and bass. Fripp's guitar enters playing a broken Gb dominant seventh chord with added flatted third - Fripp's beloved major/minor ambiguity. The harmony shifts systematically to Bb7 and then to D7, as it were developing the implications in the original augmented chord. Simple and ingenious.
The overall texture of a piece like "Trap," with guitar and organ ripping along a rippling sea of short notes, running through triadic yet sometimes unexpected chord changes, bears a strong surface resemblance to 1970s musical minimalism like Philip Glass's Einstein on the Beach. Several essays in pure synthesizer Frippertronics round out the album.
The highly contrapuntal nature of some of The League of Gentlemen's music - whose direct source for Fripp was more likely Bartok than Bach, and which I find its most stimulating and enduring aspect - was a stumbling block to some reviewers. John Orme, for instance, reviewing the album in Melody Maker, wrote that "Logic in the hands of Robert Fripp has become an obsessive strength that folds music like aural origami into complex, neatly-creased shapes, and hinges on the development of a series of almost mathematical ideas, his fingers solving musical equations ... Pocket calculators will be making music like this before Fripp has driven much further." Although I cannot share Orme's negative appraisal of the music, in certain respects he may have been closer to the truth than he realized: for one thing, the sequenced horrors of mechanized MIDI rock were just around the corner - and as for mathematics, well, numbers and their symbolic significance had long been a keen interest of Fripp's. In May, while on tour with the League of Gentlemen, for instance, Fripp visited the fourteenth-century Town Hall building in Brussels, and in his Musician column waxed enthusiastic over its remarkable architectural proportions, finding therein an expression of Gurdjieff's "Law of Seven," which in turn is reflected in music's diatonic scale.
"Linguotronics": Fripp as Writer
Though "Linguotronics" is not a Frippism but rather of the present writer's coinage, the word could be Frippily, Frippishly, or Frippianistically defined as that conceptual experience resulting at the interstice of Fripp's ever-fertile brain and the printed page. In a series of articles for Musician, Player and Listener in 1980-1982 (as well as in album liner notes already discussed) Fripp set forth his views on a number of musical and music-industrial topics, and provided odd, quirky, yet often revealing glimpses into his own work in and outside of band situations - vignettes of rehearsals, group discussions, life on the road, and so on. This material is readily available to all who have access to a public or university library which keeps back issues of Musician. (See "Fripp" in the Bibliography at the back of this book for article titles, dates, etc.)
Fripp's best subject in school was English, and over the years he had given himself a writer's education by reading voraciously, particularly in the areas of philosophy and religion, social science and psychology, and economics. He made a habit of keeping a notebook of ideas and phrases, so when he began to go public in a big way with his writing, he was not entirely without craft. Yet his writing style, like his music, was often difficult, angular, not exactly forced or stilted, yet decidedly not what one would call graceful, elegant, or flowing. You can't speed-read the stuff; Fripp's sense of irony is so thick as to make his theses opaque to casual scanning. I have often wondered whether or not the difficulty of Fripp's writing is a matter of intent. It appears that he can write plainly when he wants to - but much of the time he doesn't want to. I am reminded of the different styles Gurdjieff adopted in his books. Sections of Life is Only Real, for instance, consist of torturously long sentences with interminable modifying digressions set off by commas: laboring to unpack such monsters, one feels a skilful editor would have broken the original sentence into at least four or five. Other passages however are plain as day.
One feels that with Fripp's writing, the medium - the form, the style, whether oblique and inaccessible or straightforward and clear - is as important as the message. And indeed, as with some of Gurdjieff's writing, some passages of Linguotronics boil down to portraits of the creative process taking place in the midst of all-too-oppressive and unyielding material circumstances.
Dipping into this problematic pool of essays, we find Fripp kicking off the new decade with "The New Realism: A Musical Manifesto for the 80's," an anti-dinosaur diatribe with hints on "raising mammals for fun and profit." Here Fripp lays out an approach to achieving "appropriate" levels of investment, publicity, and technology in the music business, with a view to the establishment of new attitudes toward the promotion of "an intermediate level of performer who will generate a respectable amount of business without colossal investment." E.F. Schumacher had foreseen a radically decentralized world economy of small, largely self-supporting city states; co-opting Schumacher's economic philosophy for his own ends, Fripp declared that the music industry had already collapsed under its own weight from a moral viewpoint. He cited numerous instances he had personally witnessed of the abuse of power and money. "Small," wrote Fripp, was not only beautiful, but "intelligent and necessary." In a later 1980 article entitled "The Vinyl Solution," Fripp explained his classic formulation of the "small, mobile, intelligent unit," where "intelligence is defined as the capacity to perceive rightness, mobility the capacity to act on the perception and small the necessary condition for that action in a contracting world."
Little snatches of what was later to become Guitar Craft lore pop up, for instance in the "Vinyl Solution" article: "Music is the cup which holds the wine of silence" would become one of those phrases whose evocative pregnancy of meaning could give birth to whole philosophical discussions. Its context in what may be its first appearance in print ran as follows: "New music is not a style, it is a quality. It is a human requirement to make music to express all that a person would wish to say but lacks the words. It is a social requirement to make music to express all that we wish to say to each other but lose in the confusion of politics and language. For me, rock music with its malleability of form, varied idioms and accessibility to nearly everyone is ideally suited to act as a music of social requirement. And for anyone who would wish to go as far, music is a cosmic requirement, it is a direct language common to God and man where subtlety is inevitable. In this sense, music is the cup which holds the wine of silence."
In "Moving Off Center: New Concepts in Stereo Mixing," Fripp offered a capsule history of the recording of rock music, noting various unsatisfactory solutions to the problem of where to put each instrument in the left-to-right aural field opened up with the development of stereo. To Fripp's way of thinking, among the more flagrant abuses of stereo were "flying tom-toms and giant drum kits straddling the stereo, conform[ing] to no performance reality" whatsoever. His personal solution, exemplified in "The Zero of the Signified," was to place the rhythm section smack in the middle, effectively in mono, with the solo guitar and Frippertronics around it. In this column Fripp also discussed the approach behind his production of the Roches' first album.
More germinal Guitar Craft ideas appeared in "Creativity: Finding the Source." The essay's premise was simple: most musicians have experienced those moments of inspiration when magic seems to flow, when every note seems effortlessly right - but such moments are rare and their fleeting existence seems governed by capricious forces beyond our control. Is there any way to bring us into more consistent and productive contact with our Muse?
For Fripp the answer had a lot to do with the peculiar Western development of the ego: our tradition "identifies the musician as the originator of music rather than as one who enables music to take place." In some Eastern traditions, the initial stages of musical training - sometimes before the student is even allowed to play an instrument at all - concentrate on the psychological and spiritual preparation of the musician to "handle the current" that will in due course flow through him - a current sufficiently strong, in Fripp's view, to kill a person so unfortunate as to receive an intense dose of it unprepared: Charlie Parker, Jimi Hendrix.
Fripp suggested that the contemporary Western musician can adopt a three-fold discipline - of the hands, the head, and the heart - one of those germinal soon-to-be Guitar Craft phrases. In 1980 Fripp wrote of the discipline of the hands as having to do with "an understanding of the body and how to use it in a relaxed way, breathing and developing a sense of oneself." To the discipline of the head belonged "the vocabulary of music: melody, rhythm and harmony," an understanding of the mind's processes, and the division of attention. For the heart, some system of meditation was seen as a key to maintaining "our wish to be musicians." All in all, and it was a lot, Fripp concluded that "We cannot govern the breeze but we can learn how to raise the sail. This I have experienced, but infrequently." It is only fair to point out that in the midst of these deep ruminations, quotations of Plato, references to Shakespeare, Goethe, Gurdjieff, whole libraries of reading and reams of living and reflection, Fripp was never above poking fun at himself. The final line of "Creativity: Finding the Source" was, "Perhaps I should shut up."
(Under the assumption that some readers of the present book might be interested in following up on the concept of finding the source of creativity, I take the liberty of recommending, aside from Fripp's Guitar Craft Monographs, Silvano Arieti's Creativity: The Magic Synthesis, which includes an outstanding bibliography for still further reading, as well as a highly useful list and discussion of "simple attitudes for the fostering of creativity in the individual." Briefly: discipline, aloneness, alertness, inactivity, daydreaming, free thinking, intentional gullibility, a state of readiness for catching similarities, and the remembrance and inner replaying of past traumatic conflicts.)
In his article "The Musician in Politics" Fripp set down thoughts that would shortly be echoed on the back cover of the Frippertronics album Let the Power Fall, where it is written, "If we change our way of doing things, structural change necessarily follows." Fripp's view was that the revolution, if there was to be one, would come from a transformation in the lives and consciousness of individual people, and not from programs imposed from above, which inevitably breed counter-reaction. I suppose the real precedent for this line of thought is Jesus' words, "Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and all these things will be added unto you." Fripp quoted approvingly from Jacques Ellul, the French sociologist and theologian who had played a part in the resistance to German occupation and had written prophetically in 1948, "The 'style of life' is today one of the most positive forms of revolutionary action." Aside from a vision of sensitive musicians working within the music industry to change the values of that industry, Fripp felt that music had a role to play in this quiet revolution on a larger scale: "Music is a high-order language system; i.e., it is a meta-language. The function of a meta-language is to express solutions to problems posed in a lower-order language system ... If one were interested in political change one would not enter political life, one would go into music."
Fripp is thus not an overtly political musician - one writer has descried him as "radically apolitical" -in the sense of sloganeering for this or that political cause (except as he did develop a set of slogans for dealing with the "political" arena he knew best - the music industry). Rather, he has been concerned to bring "politics" down from a propagandistic to a human level, to the level of the personal life we choose to lead. Ellul, following in Kierkegaard's tradition of Christian existentialism, had concluded, after an exhaustive treatment of the subject in his tome The Theological Foundations of Law, that justice is not to be found where it has been theoretically legislated into being; on the contrary, justice is where the just person is. It is that tradition in which Fripp stands.
Several articles from Fripp's Musician series dealt with life on the road, a subject about which the veteran touring guitarist had no illusions. He spared no effort in illuminating the situation for those innocent magazine readers still beguiled by lazy dreams of glamour, fame, riches, even "art": "No one wanting a comfortable way of life would join a touring band; in fact, as soon as one has discovered what is really involved, only an idiot would do it."
Fripp chronicled fragments of the League of Gentlemen's 1980 tours, painting a picture of colorful contrasts: breakdowns of the group's rented Volkswagen Microbus and musico-architectural wonders glimpsed at the Rouens Cathedral; the sensual delights of Paris and exhausting eighteen-hour drives; conversations with David Bowie and with dinosaur promoters who had no sense of Fripp's avowed aims. One gleans the sense that touring for Fripp was mostly hell, with occasional startling, unexpected glimpses of heaven. As we have already noted, shortly before the end of the League of Gentlemen's final tour, Fripp took the decision to return to the "first division" of rock music - but that is the subject of our next chapter.
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Progressive Ears Presents
ROBERT FRIPP - FROM CRIMSON KING TO CRAFTY MASTER
by Eric Tamm
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