Rob Hughes 10/31/14 Telegraph.co.uk
Happiness isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. At least according to Robert Fripp. In the early part of 2012, having given up playing live altogether, he found himself in a curious position. “I began to be happy, personally happy,” he explains.
“But while paradise is a wonderful place to be, nothing happens. My wife told me that I was in danger of becoming dull. So what I’m doing now was partly a personal necessity. When you’re happy, it’s time to pull out the pointed stick.”
Fripp’s response was to try things he might not otherwise have done. Having more or less retired from public life, the first visible manifestation bordered on the perverse: an appearance on TV’s All Star Mr & Mrs, with wife Toyah Wilcox.
The second was the revival of his band King Crimson.
Founded in 1968, Crimson were pack leaders in what became known as progressive rock. The dizzying intensity of their recorded work – a dense fusion of freak-rock, jazz, ambient textures and neoclassical fugues – took the band into places that most others were simply incapable of reaching.
At the hub of things was Fripp, a guitarist of extraordinary fire, locking masterful technique to free improvisation. The results were often devastating. Albums like In The Court Of The Crimson King and Larks’ Tongues In Aspic achieved near-legendary status.
But King Crimson also came with a certain reputation. Or, more pertinently, Fripp did. With a line-up whose only constant was a state of flux, some band members described him as difficult, a forbidding autocrat with exacting standards.
Drummer Bill Bruford once called him an amalgam of Stalin, Gandhi and the Marquis de Sade. The music press were generally quick to wade in too, admiring the music but being less effusive about its guiding force. By 1974, just as they were poised to become as big as Pink Floyd, Fripp dissolved the band. Touring had never been fun, he declared, adding that King Crimson was “completely over for ever and ever.”
In person, Fripp appears to bear little resemblance to the mythic caricature of the ’70s. He’s eloquent, garrulous and frequently funny, fielding my questions with the kind of intellectual rigour – and alarming capacity to pin stories to exact dates – that you just don’t find in most rock musicians. We’re sitting on the balcony of a café, just across the street from his Georgian-fronted home in a bijou corner of Worcestershire. He looks immaculate in waistcoat, shirt and patterned tie, sipping tea and pointing out the building a few doors away that houses his extensive library.
One of the more impressive facets of Fripp is his sheer candidness. “When I read interviews with old King Crimson bandmates, they suggest that the difficulty lies with me,” he offers in his West Country lilt. “And I agree with that.
I’m a very difficult person to work with, because in King Crimson there was a founding statement to be honoured, going back to ’69. And if what is available fails to meet what I see as a responsibility to the larger Crimson, then that gap has to be met by someone. And it would fall to me. So it’s not a comfortable place.”
King Crimson in 1970
Fripp was so disillusioned after the first split that he withdrew from music soon after: “Everything was mad. But you can’t say to people – musicians, management, record companies and the rest – that huge commercial success is really an insane thing. So I left and went off in retreat. And when I re-emerged, I had no intention, ever, to go back to it.”
But come back to it he did. Another defining strand of Fripp’s career has been his collaborative work. Perhaps the most high-profile fan is David Bowie, who enlisted him to play “hairy rock’n’roll” on 1977’s landmark “Heroes” album.
The title track, one of Bowie’s best-loved songs, features some of the most soaringly expressive guitar of Fripp’s career. He later reprised his role on Scary Monsters, adding convulsive leads to standouts like Fashion and It’s No Game. Peter Gabriel, Brian Eno, Daryl Hall, Blondie and Talking Heads (that’s his Afro rhythm on the funky-as-chips I Zimbra) were just some of the people who sought out his services in the ’70s and early ’80s. Having decamped to New York around the time of punk, Fripp discovered that “I increasingly became sucked back into the life I never intended to return to.”
The following decades haven’t always been easy. Fripp has recorded solo albums and revived King Crimson in various formats over the years, including a series of splinter versions under the ’ProjeKCts’ banner. But his professional career has been soured by a long-standing legal dispute with Universal, over rights and royalties, that he traces back to 1991. This in itself was the result of being deceived by the money men at his old label, EG, in the ’70s. Fripp sums up his professional career in one word: “wretched”.
He’s explaining the finer details of this protracted wrangle when he suddenly catches sight of his other half, emerging from the driveway of their home. Toyah waves over, he waves back and even digs out his camera to take a picture.
“There’s my lovely wife, driving off in my car,” he muses, almost to himself. “I must’ve done something right to have Toyah as my wife. She’s a lot sharper than me, she has a very fine critical intelligence.”
Besides his loved-up domesticity, Fripp’s life does have a silver lining.
His dogged corporate pursuit was finally resolved last year, when he received an out-of- court settlement from Universal. Does it feel like a weight has been lifted? “Yes, it’s as simplistic as that,” he says. “For the past 29 years, my main work has been with guitar students, with [Fripp-led musicians’ courses] Guitar Craft, the Guitar Circle and The Orchestra Of Crafty Guitarists. I wasn’t even able to consider creative work in a professional fashion until the professional issues were resolved.”
The upshot of this new beginning has been to assemble an eighth incarnation of King Crimson. It was an idea that first took hold in the summer of 2013, in characteristically precise form. Fripp envisaged an Anglo-American seven-piece this time, with (improbable as it may sound) no less than three drummers. All of those involved have played in Crimson-related line-ups in the past, including renowned bassist Tony Levin and sax player Mel Collins, who first joined the group in 1970.
It’s gone swimmingly thus far. King Crimson have recently completed a hugely successful tour of the US and, all being well, there’s more to come.
“It’s the first Crimson where I don’t sense any animosity or resentment from at least one member in the band,” says Fripp. “Excepting, no doubt, that the responsibility for that falls at my feet. This is a group from the get-go, the money is divided equally.”
So will we see them play here anytime soon? “I’ve discussed the possibility of working in Europe next year, including the UK in September. There are still problems to do with the quality of venues, but it’s being looked into.”
At the age of 68, Fripp finally seems to be addressing the unrealised potential that all this represents to him. “I was looking for a sense of completion in King Crimson,” he admits, “so that if the last performance we ever gave was in Seattle this October, I would be able to let it go. My personal interest is in coming to a form of conclusion and satisfaction with this band.”