Robert Fripp

An Appreciation

by Ron Kozar

22 March 2012


Fripp's aim was to move his music in new directions that others did not always understand.

The vision that drove Fripp, however, justified his bizarre methods. His aim was not to win points for congeniality, but to move his music in new directions that others did not always understand. In Crimson’s early years, Fripp’s goal was to wed jazz sounds and forms to traditional rock. To that end, and uniquely among rock bands, Crimson brought in saxophonists and trumpeters—not merely as sessioners, but as integral members of the band. Crimson’s worthiest achievement in those years was “21st Century Schizoid Man”, the signature song from In the Court of the Crimson King. It’s a crowded musical thicket, foliaged deep with thorny brambles of sound and daubed with brash lyrical flowerings, “Schizoid” features dramatic full-stops, from roaring tutti one second to complete silence the next. The discipline necessary to pull that off is a trait one instinctively attributes to Fripp. (A decade later, Fripp wanted to name a new Crimson lineup “Discipline”.) 

Crimson’s first four albums between 1969 and ’71 were a mix of brilliant successes and disheartening failures. But these uneven efforts provided a testing ground for methods that would shortly gel into something richer. When King Crimson resumed its on-again, off-again career in 1973, Fripp sought a purer sound, with thick, propulsive, hard-rock chords hauling the music forward with locomotive strength. That sound powered three albums that, for some, were Crimson’s best: Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Starless and Bible Black, and Red. Fripp’s benevolent dictatorship did not exclude creative contributions by others; on those three records, Fripp saw to the inclusion of one of rock’s only violinists, David Cross. Aspic also featured a sometime-percussionist and general noisemaker named Jamie Muir, whom the liner notes credit not with this instrument or that, but with “allsorts”. Fripp encouraged Cross, Muir, and others to experiment with sound in ways that challenge the superficial listener; contrasting with the mighty, riff-powered tracks on Aspic, Starless, and Red are somnolent, atonal, rhythmless passages that stretch the definition of music. Fripp made room for it all, but it was always clear that these other artists served at Fripp’s sufferance.

When Crimson came back to life in 1981 after another hiatus, Fripp re-invented the band yet again. This time, he sought a machinelike, minimalist sound—a pointillist sonic texture of notes crammed densely beside each other, endlessly, motorically repeated, to form a single, hypnotic fabric. That aspiration drove three albums: Discipline, Beat, and Three of a Perfect Pair. You can’t listen to them without being amazed at Fripp’s sheer endurance; by the end of a five-minute song with nonstop 16-note picking, those fingers had to be tired. Fripp’s approach on these three albums turned one of the usual formulae on its head; where most bands build their music on a foundation of drums and bass guitar, Fripp made his omnipresent riffing that foundation, leaving others—especially bassist Tony Levin and guitarist Adrian Belew—to build their own outcroppings upon it.

When Crimson re-formed yet again in 1994, Fripp evolved with it. The Discipline-era lineup of players returned that year for Thrak, but Fripp’s sound seemed to reach back to an even earlier era, with shrill, trebly, chugging chords that built upon the Aspic-Red sound. Thrak’s signature song, “VROOOM”, is a veritable feast of guitar rocking that out-Reds Red. With The ConstruKction of Light in 2000 and The Power to Believe in 2003, Fripp reprised that sound, but with a weird overlay of Dadaist experimentalism, hints of which rear their heads again on Scarcity.

Through this entire musical odyssey, Fripp has remained faithful to his own muse, never seeking mere popularity. Though “21st Century Schizoid Man” was always the band’s biggest hit, Fripp disdained performing it after 1970, despite the urging of agents, record-company executives, and even fellow bandsmen. Fame and fortune were not his aims. Bandmate Greg Lake later made millions with Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and John Wetton, Crimson’s bassist from the Aspic era, went on to fill stadiums with Asia. But Fripp never sought the low-hanging fruit of commercial success, even when it was within his reach; if you need a few laughs, watch Fripp’s half-hearted performance in the record-company’s ill-conceived 1982 video of Crimson’s “Heartbeat”. Fripp’s imperviousness to commercialism eventually ripened into open contempt for the business of music. Consider this tut-tutting that appears in the fine print on Scarcity:

“The phonographic copyright in these performances is operated by Discipline Global Mobile [Fripp’s company] on behalf of the artists, with whom it resides, contrary to common practice in the record industry. Discipline accepts no reason for artists to assign the copyright interests in their work to either record company or management by virtue of a ‘common practice’ which was always questionable, often improper, and is now indefensible.”

Whatever brought this on, it is clear that Fripp’s experiences with record companies and agents have not been happy ones.

Though Fripp’s indifference to audience preferences kept Crimson from scaling the heights of commercial acclaim, the band always commanded a loyal, intelligent following, especially among students of the guitar. Crimson’s middling position surely helped protect Fripp’s musical integrity. Great art is usually the child of hunger, not of plenty; Crimson has always had enough of a fan base to keep the lights on, but not much more, leaving Fripp and his bandmates just hungry enough to keep creating, changing, returning to the drawing board.

And so it is that, to this day, Fripp keeps striking out in new directions, and with new musicians. A Scarcity of Miracles presents an entirely new combination of bandsmen to go with its unique, jazz-ambient sound. Mel Collins, a saxaphonist from Crimson’s early days, has returned, along with Tony Levin, the Discipline era’s peerless bassist. They are joined by guitarist Jakko Jakszyk, veteran of a Crimson spinoff called 21st Century Schizoid Band. Jakszyk’s vocals are nondescript, but designedly so—sparing and unintrusive in a musical landscape where the vocals do not take center-stage as, indeed, they never have in any Crimson album since the first. On the drums is Gavin Harrison, a new face in the Crimson pantheon, whose drumwork resembles that of his predecessor Pat Mastellotto. A superficial first hearing would lead you to conclude that the sax dominates, since it is the instrument you hear the most. But Fripp’s guitar provides the most compelling sound on Scarcity. With repeated hearings, his guitar’s plaintive, ambiguous cadences will pull you deeper and deeper into the music.

Fripp offers A Scarcity of Miracles to the world not as a King Crimson album, but as a “ProjeKct”. Fripp invented that word to denote separate efforts made by fragments of the band in the decades since Thrak. Fripp has spoken of Crimson’s “ProjeKcts” as the band’s research and development program.

If that is the case—if A Scarcity of Miracles adumbrates yet another new creative turn for King Crimson and Fripp—then listeners may look forward to another variation or two on the jazz/ambient theme until Fripp, and Crimson, find another neglected corner of the musical spectrum to explore.

Ron Kozar is a lawyer in Dayton, Ohio. He may be contacted at [email protected]

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