Fripp's King Crimson brought a new meaning to the word "tight". For a short time the band represented a pinnacle of British rock achievement. Since then Robert Fripp has been through several bands, most looser than the first. Now Fripp's had enough. He's provisionally playing a London date in June, but he's had enough. Where will the quiet genius go? Our U.S. correspondent Jon Tiven dared ask the question.
Why have you finally disbanded Crimson after all these years?
Well, there are three reasons: The first one represents a change in the world: the second reason was that the education I was receiving as a young man, which I considered to be the best, was no longer the best. I wasn't learning what I needed to. And the third reason, the energies involved in the music were no longer appropriate to my way of living.
Could you clarify what you mean by "Changes in the world?"
I can give you an example of this quite easily: I went to see Jethro Tull last night, and they fought incredibly hard all the time to keep control of the audience. One gets the feeling that the spirit of the late sixties has completely evaporated. This I find quite considerably when I'm working with Crimson. The atmosphere which you obviously recall from the late sixties, say '69, was quite different. It seems to be a thing when everyone was involved in trying to do something. Even if it was enjoying oneself, it seemed to be a fairly relaxed way of doing it. But the mood now is completely different. There's no magic in the air, or atmosphere from either the audience or the musicians. It's a very uptight and unsettled situation, which, taking the broader picture of change in the world, it's a very good example.
I see a breakdown of social and political and economical order over the next 15 or 16 years which will culminate in the 1990's. And rather than put forth a gloomy and pessimistic approach to the subject. I'm putting forward a positive opportunity to change things. The world is in a considerable period of transition. The natural order in a time of transition — well, is chaos. So, it's only to be expected that the normal way of doing things is going to break down. It has this advantage — that all the outmoded systems which we have been carrying along will be left behind, and it will give us an opportunity to rebuild with far more mobility in a human structure. That, in a nutshell, is the first reason. The second point: When I first entered the profession as a young man I thought that travelling the world over would give me the best possible education one could know. One would have to make people work very hard and one of the essential points was this: how to create a society in a microcosm — how to get a band together, how to make it work together under pressure with the road team, and so on. How do you take a good idea, like an ideal community, and make it work? But, that ran out; I couldn't learn any more from that situation. I had to find a better opportunity for me to gain an education, which I'm taking care of now.
How is that?
Well, for the present I'm on a sabbatical. For the moment I'm on a semi-retirement, verging on a complete retirement, which will effectively carry me through the next year-and-a-half or two years. The only activities I'm really involved with at the moment is a little work with Eno. We're playing the London Palladium on June the Eighth — one of the most unlikely events I could think of: "Fripp and Eno live at the London Palladium", and a short European tour. But the most exciting thing I can think of, I've started teaching guitar! We can come back to this in a minute if you like. So the education thing has to be outside the music business. The third point is that the energies involved are no longer appropriate and it has to do with the fact that life is not what it used to be. And I don't mean in terms of running around and having a "groovy time" all the time. It's just that things are not nice; the whole business has moved on to a very heavy ego situation, and a money situation. I'm not blaming the people who are doing it, say, in the situation of a big band, where the overhead expenses are so colossal they have to work incredibly hard just to make enough money to keep going, even the biggest units. But this isn't really enough. I think you will recall in 1969 there were some ideals — we were supposedly trying to change the world, and all that thing. But I don't see any of that thing any more. So, the decision was taken, and an enormous sense of relief flooded me. It was quite fabulous to try it after all these years, and I haven't regretted it since. It was a perfectly right decision, and it gets righter and righter as things go on. There!
In the more specific sense, did you still enjoy playing with John Wetton and Bill Bruford, or was that sort of losing its excitement for you as well?
Well, John and Bill are incredible musicians. We talked about why we were working together during Red, which I suppose was the last thing we did together, and we sort of decided that the reasons we were working together was that we really couldn't think of any better musicians to work with. For example, where am I going to go about finding a better drummer or bass player? You'd be very hard pushed. I can't think of a better bass player anyway, and you don't get better drummers than Bill, you just get drummers as good playing in a slightly different way. But it didn't have the right kind of future. Ian McDonald was going to join the tour with us, which I think would have been a very good musical unit. But that would have meant a commitment for another two years, and I wasn't prepared to do that.
Did David Cross fall, or was he pushed?
Oh — I suppose David was asked to go, but in these situations, where a man is sensitive, and as genuine and sincere as David, it's not a question of being moody or unpleasant — these things are well sensed beforehand. If anyone says anything it's really a question of who says it first. And then, once again, not in terms of business or unpleasantness... Sensitive people can not exist on the road, it's as simple as that.
And so King Crimson folded with you and the band on pretty much good terms?
Yes. I phoned John up and said "John, I've decided not to go on ahead" and he said "I understand completely; no bad feelings at all". Bill was upset because Bill was very committed to the group, he was still getting an awful lot from it. But he came down to hear the rough mixes on the new live Crimson album, and I invited him round to dinner, and he was looking forward to coming around. So, it is friendly, with just a bit of a shock inside.
Bill's not still playing with Gong, is he?
No, Bill was going to join Jack Bruce, but Bruce let him down there. They said he was definitely in, but they changed their minds. Bill at the moment has been doing the Chris Squire solo album and doing some session work. He's doing well; it's not as if he's sitting around doing nothing, but I think for Bill, he enjoys working on the road more than the studio, it's more Bill's forte.
How are you fixed financially for the rest of your life?
The rest of my life? (Ha!) Well, I can get through for two years. I've tried to tie things up... I'm planning to do an intensive course for ten months, and while I'm away all the bills will be paid. I'm certainly not in the great financial state, but my life-style is such that, not being interested in comfort and luxury rather more of a reasonable basis to work from, then I can get by. I don't have very expensive social or personal habits, or I couldn't go for very long.
So what are these courses you are taking?
I've applied for a ten month extensive course at the International Academy of Continuous education, and there's a very good chance that I'll be accepted. It lasts from October 1975 until July 1976.
What kind of course is it?
Oh, difficult to answer that! The Academy is owned and run for the Institute for the Comparative Study of History, Philosophy and the Sciences, which probably won't run for a lot more. It's a course which involves the intensive development of the mind, body and spirit. It's basically seven years of work pushed into one year.
Sounds like a very intensive study.
It's quite — most incredibly hard work.
What level of education have you risen to already?
Well, I'd say - that education is a process of learning how to learn.
But I mean formal school training...
Oh, well that's nonsense anyway...
I know, but for the record anyway.
Well, I was going to the university until I turned professional. The Social Sciences were the ones that particularly got me. I was good at economics and history. It seemed to me like being in an ivory tower finding all these very clever answers sitting in a study room. Just... it was meaningless. I had to find away of getting the good answers and putting them into good practice, and, hence it became the different experiments within the Crimson band. To me, Crimson was, I've said this before, a way of doing things. It was trying to create a microcosm.
Was that the reason why people were leaving and coming into the fold — the social side was almost like a separate entity from just simply being a musical band?
Certainly! King Crimson was a personality all its own. People have often said that I am King Crimson, in terms of Robert Fripp being King Crimson, and I often get introduced as "this is King Crimson" and wince with embarrassment, and smile through it. It's so annoying, and it's so missing the point. King Crimson was a personality very much his own, and I would very much resent anyone really identifying me as him.
Which King Crimson was the most valid and musically pure in your mind at this point?
Well, I really think that there were two King Crimsons — the first one and the last one. In between was a question of fighting to get back to what we achieved with John and Bill. The first band was the most magical, and the last was the most musical. Probably better music was played with Bill and John, but the first one had a magic. It was completely outside the band; in a way the band had nothing to do with it. It was just exactly the right thing at exactly the right time. So many different elements all together that one could never conceive of. And... it just took off! There was nothing we could do wrong. Every thing was blessed.
Did you feel, at the time, that there were any bands that were social organisations as such, like Crimson? For instance, the Pink Fairies or something like that?
Well, I can't speak for the internal workings of other bands. The thing about the Pink Fairies the drummer was an old friend at school. Russ Hunter, he used to sit next to me at school. In fact we used to call up and do our Latin homework over the phone, while we were in the fifth form at the Wimbledon Grammar School. The point is with the bands that have set out from primarily social and political background, often the music doesn't reach a very high level, though probably the essential organisation does. This is the difficulty, how do you get a band together that works on the proper principle and plays very good music, how do you get all these things going at once?
What is your least favourite Crimson album, other than Earthbound or do you like Earth-bound?
Earthbound isn't a Crimson album.
Right, I can understand that.
Well, I'd say probably Lizard. Lizard has lots of good ideas, most of which don't work. And I listened to In The Wake Of The Poseidon the other day, and I couldn't listen to that, either. It had "Cat Food" of course, which was quite magnificent, quite ahead of its time, and I think very few things have topped it. It's still a remarkable record.
The first album is very strong.
Yes. You can't make albums like that, they make themselves.
Did you have a lot of musical ideas from over the years stored up that suddenly came out or what?
Everything came together and exploded simultaneously. Five people who just took off at once at just the right time, with the right management and the right record company all around. It was impossible to plan, it just happened. In America you had Frank Barcelona with Premier, although established, was establishing itself more and more, so it was still thriving and growing all the time; the market was expanding; Frank's wife was handling the publicity at Atlantic, and the American management was Dee Anthony, a friend of Frank's so it was all a family, a very tight unit. And in England Island Records was becoming the progressive label, and Chrysalis, and E.G. Management, all these things were coming together so incredibly well. All these new people working together at the same time.
How do you feel about the press at the time?
We didn't, in fact, have a King Crimson press man until the band broke up. Pete Brynes once referred to King Crimson as "Captains of Publicity". In fact, we didn't have a press man until the band ceased to be. B.P. Fallon, who worked for Island Records, handled publicity for us there. But, even then, that wasn't until right at the end of the band's English career, anyway. It's just that the press picked up on it. Everything fell into our laps, it couldn't go wrong.
What sort of thing did you listen to while in Crimson, or did you not listen to other people's music?
No, I didn't. You mean during the five years? Well, I would have to give you a list. Judy Collins stole my head in 1968 with Wildflower and in 1969 with Who Knows Where The Time Goes. Lord Of The Rings and Who Knows Where The Time Goes I think, saved me at the break up of Crimson. Without those two fine entities life would have been rather more difficult. The Satie "Trois Gymnopedies" made a very strong impression upon me, also Messian's "Grace and Creation" I think it is, both of which King Crimson turned me on to. But from my point of view, because my ears were always getting "battered", I, in private moments, preferred to well, listen to the wind and the songs of the birds, this was the main listening I did.
Well, since you've sort of "semi-retired" have your listening habits changed? Have you been listening to contemporary music?
Yes, I have. I've been getting a hi-fi system together in London; I had one in the country, which I got by accident. It came to me by accident about a year ago, but it hasn't been used much. In London I'm putting one together. Ah, I listened to the Beatles the other day, much of the Beatles' catalogue. I've always loved them; they were so remarkable. Joni Mitchell I think is quite amazing. The Blue album, I think is quite a classic. Ian Wallace turned me on to that.
How do you feel about the so-called "heavy" bands in England?
There's only one: Robin Trower. And he's amazing. Robin Trower, I think, for the moment is the only thing that is really doing it for me in terms of working bands. Amazing. He plays with spirit; he's made a very real connection with the spirit of music. The press in England have been slagging him off, saying that he sounds like Hendrix, and I can't really see it. I could only see having to compare him with Hendrix because there's not really another category you can put him in. He's not rock and roll, he's not blues, he's not "English Twitch Pube" Rock, so they say, "oh, he sounds like Hendrix" and put him down for this. This is not important, because it doesn't really matter what form of music you use anyway as long as you make that connection with the spirit of music, which Robin does. And with the new drummer, Billy Norton, it's really quite amazing. I went to see them three weeks ago. It really took me off.
Tell me about your guitar lessons, and all that. You're giving them in England, I suppose.
How many students do you have?
Well, a very strong response; I haven't seen very many, because one cannot just rush through lots of pupils. The system of guitar mechanics is based on this idea; that in order to improve as a guitarist beyond a certain point one has to change as a person. It's not a question of practicing so that your fingers run around a lot quicker. So one has to change as a person. In order to change as a person one needs a discipline, and a system included. It doesn't really matter what system you have provided a struggle is involved in changing. So, you could, as a discipline, take on guitar playing. So then you've got this situation where in order to improve as a guitar player you must change as a person, and to change as a person you take on the discipline of playing the guitar. The techniques are not only calisthenics and physical, but they're also... well, I use some psychological and spiritual exercises as well. Which is something of a departure. You see, there's a lot more involved in guitar playing than one would find the truth in, in fact it has nothing to do with guitar playing on one level. It works on a number of different levels. It's up to the people who come to take what they need. Once again, it's just a way of doing things, it's just some ideas, it's a different kind of approach to the unit.
How much guitar playing do you do per day?
Well, it varies. If I'm rushing around in America for ten days, then I'm not doing any. In England, because I've been doing some teaching, I've been playing a bit more. But I have quite a few commitments outside of the musical sphere. I like to do an hour a day. It's hopelessly inadequate really, but if I can get fifteen minutes to half-an-hour a day... You can teach yourself a new technique in half-an-hour if you use the time properly, and in an intensive fashion. You see, I reached a point where practicing for eight hours a day any longer — and I used to practice, on tour in America for example, used to be six hours a day in front of the telly, and when I turned professional it was anywhere from four to twelve hours a day — and I reached a point where I was not improving anymore. Something else had to change. And, consequently, my activities and disciplines are in extra-musical areas, but they obviously have repercussions in the musical senses. In other words, it's not just a question of sitting down and flexing my digital muscles all day; the approach is from a different angle.
Interview by Jon Tiven
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