Sheer Visceral Power
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2019 Anil Prasad.
The Bloomsbury district in London’s West End is typically buzzing with activity during business hours and the evening. The area engagingly combines arts, education, business, natural beauty, and trendy residential elements. However, at 10am on Saturday mornings, it’s largely quiet and uneventful. An exception occurred on April 6, 2019 at October Gallery, a prestigious center devoted to innovative and avant art. That morning, King Crimson’s Robert Fripp hosted a highly-anticipated media briefing to celebrate the band’s 50th anniversary.
King Crimson’s music is associated with many genres, including psychedelic rock, art rock, prog-rock, avant-garde, and new wave. But it could be argued that King Crimson is its own genre. The group’s output is instantly identifiable via its unique compositions and Fripp’s mercurial, processed guitar approach—even as it combines infuences as diverse as classical, minimalist, jazz, ambient, and industrial into its work. The group’s current lineup, including saxophonist Mel Collins, lead singer and guitarist Jakko Jakszyk, bassist Tony Levin, keyboardist Bill Rieflin, and drummers Gavin Harrison, Pat Mastelotto and Jeremy Stacey, expertly handles music from across the band’s history during its three hour performances.
Typically, Fripp prefers to let the music do the talking. Simply put, the guitarist, composer and band leader dislikes engaging with the media. He’s unenthusiastic about the potential for his words to be taken out of context, not to mention having to answer the same questions over and over. To say he doesn’t suffer fools gladly is an understatement. But on this particular morning, Fripp extended his goodwill to those assembled, with the hope that "burning questions" might be addressed to everyone’s mutual interest. To that end, for four hours, he spoke with the small, invited group of journalists from across the world, including Innerviews. Jakszyk and official biographer Sid Smith also fielded some questions.
In addition, the band’s manager, producer and archivist David Singleton previewed forthcoming anniversary release plans, including two new box sets devoted to the band’s 1969 debut In the Court of the Crimson King, and its 1997-2008 period within a set titled Heaven & Earth. He also discussed the band’s 50-plus tour dates in 2019, including large-scale shows at Santiago’s Movistar Arena and the Rock In Rio festival. Filmmaker Toby Amies was on hand to showcase clips from Cosmic F*kc, his documentary on the group set to debut this fall.
At 72, Fripp remains a formidable presence onstage in multiple environments. And while he prefers to sit during concerts and intensely focus on performance, during this event, he chose to stand for much of it. Elegantly appointed in a tailored, plaid blue suit, Fripp was articulate, soft-spoken and patient with attendees. He infused humor and playfulness into his responses. On occasion, he was highly emotional, at one point holding back tears when discussing the 2017 passing of John Wetton, the band’s lead singer and bassist between 1972-1974.
Fripp began with prepared remarks read from a laptop, infused with spur-of-the-moment perspectives and anecdotes. During the media question and answer sessions, Fripp pulled journalists’ names out of a hat in order to give the approximately 40 attendees an equal shot at addressing him. The choice of a hat evoked a practice he used in Guitar Craft and Guitar Circle—guitar and personal development courses Fripp has been involved in teaching since 1985.
“In Guitar Craft and Guitar Circle courses, the hat was always very important,” said Fripp. “Because, for example if we had maybe 35 people on the course and a performance challenge was being presented, we'd put all the names on individual pieces of paper and place them into a hat. Then we would pull out the names in various groupings. Maybe trio, quartet, quintet, sextet, or septet. And the feared one was the solo. On one course, the hat we used was the one David Bowie wore on the Serious Moonlight Tour in Germany in 1983. It had been given to our guitar course organizer Hernán Nuñez, an Argentinian chum, who has lived in Germany for many years. At one time in his life, he was professional security at rock shows, including the Serious Moonlight tour. And he was given David's hat, which we used. At the end of the course, Hernán gave me the hat. I wore it back to England, and in a toilet in Heathrow Airport, I put it down and forgot it. So, someone, somewhere, most likely, entirely unbeknownst to them, has a very highly eBay-marketable item.”
What follows is an edited version of Fripp’s dialog with the media.
Robert Fripp’s Presentation:
Welcome, on behalf of King Crimson, Discipline and myself, to our little meeting event here. I don't know what your personal aims are for today, but I'll declare mine. My primary interest is to introduce King Crimson to innocent ears. That is, to the audience who have never before seen King Crimson live. It doesn't matter very much to me if they don't like King Crimson. It matters to me very much that they actually see Crimson as it is, free of the veil of received opinion over some 49-50 years, and shared journalisms.
The received opinion on King Crimson would suggest it's “prog rock pond scum set to bum you out," to quote the L.A. Weekly headline from 1995, which I may say caused the band no offense whatsoever. An ongoing source of humor. I will be very, very happy if people can come and see King Crimson for what it is.
My second aim is discover what it is in King Crimson that's touched people. I don't know what it is that King Crimson may have stirred in any of you good people, that has nevertheless brought you here over time and space. I accept that for some of you, your interest may be professional and that's as far as it goes. And that's fine. Some of you may have found something of more value in King Crimson like the music speaks to you. And for some of you, it might go further than that. With the framework of the day, I hope that we're able to address whatever level of interest you bring.
My third personal aim is to gratefully celebrate 50 years of King Crimson, noting that I have been trying very hard to escape from it for at least the past 45 years without seemingly much success.
My fourth aim is to have some fun.
Although I'm on the platform, I think it's very likely that most of you know more about King Crimson than I do. In 2003, I gave myself permission to stop carrying all the details, all the narrative history of King Crimson which I had been carrying since the first interview. I gave myself permission to let go of the accumulated narrative history. And this permission came not long after a series of press conferences in Tokyo, nominally, to present The Power to Believe to Japanese audiences.
The young press lady from the record company came up to me and she said, "I've been told you're the Yoda of progressive rock." If enough wasn't already enough after that time, now it was. Therefore, I have increasingly allowed myself to forget all the details of the tangled history of King Crimson. I've no doubt it's there, and is available to prompting. I'm not sure that I would really wish to be prompted on all the details, but nevertheless, you have my best shot today.
Today, I assume goodwill. Conventionally or historically I would have said, "I assume goodwill even towards the English music press." I accept that most of my comments, in terms of the history of King Crimson, drawn from me, involve much younger people. They were mainly doing the best they could in conditions which weren't always ideal for any of us. We were all younger people. We did the best we could. Now, we're a little more mature and I hope that we can engage with goodwill. All of us. Noting that the goodwill is to be cultivated and very rarely comes without a little support from ourselves.
In terms of today, there are the six principles of the performance event. The first principle is that when people get together, something happens that would not otherwise happen. Well, that's fairly clear. If we weren't here, we wouldn't be here.
Secondly, moving on from that, when people get together with goodwill, something remarkable can happen. Things can go much better than we anticipate or could reasonably have expected.
The fifth principle of the performance event is that the possible is possible. Because otherwise, let's face it, there's not much hope.
The sixth principle is a very interesting one. The impossible may happen. Now, anyone who's walked on stage with music and an audience that are on their feet know that's a given.
There is the seventh principle, but that resides in silence. Nothing is said of it.
In terms of received opinion, there seems to be broad areas, mainly geographic. One is English, which is quite unlike anywhere else in the world. I was discussing this with David Singleton this morning. England is very English. And I said to David, what is the primary characteristic of an island? And the answer is, it’s insular. Anyone who's been following recent political news in Great Britain would probably get on board with that simple notion. The second broad area of received opinion and shared journalisms would seem to be the Northern territories: North America and North Europe, which engage in a different way that’s mainly rational.
One example has just come to mind which I wasn't intending to present now, but I will. There was a review by Lester Bangs in Creem. Maybe some of you have known Lester personally. Maybe some of you know Lester by reputation. When I moved to live in New York in 1977, I got to know Lester socially. But he wrote a review of a small King Crimson chamber piece on the Islands album which I conducted waving a pencil called “Song of the Gulls.” Lester’s review was "It sounded like music for the advert of a vaginal deodorant." As I say, I have never taken personal offense with that. It continues to amuse me and hopefully a few others too.
I met Lester personally at the Talking Heads session for the Fear of Music album, in which I was playing on “I Zimbra.” Lester was in the studio with Brian Eno visiting. At the time, he was anticipating writing a biography of Eno. Lester said, "Can I have a word with you?" So, we stepped outside the studio. He then said "I very much like your work with Eno. But I haven't very much liked your work with King Crimson."
I did not say, “Well, thanks Lester.” I'd already come to the same conclusion. But what Lester was saying, because he was an honorable man, is I have been somewhat critical of you in public, yet I realize you're in a creative situation with Eno and the Talking Heads, and I would like to put my cards on the table. I said to Lester, "That's fine." I did see Lester actually singing in his band not long afterwards. And it was truly appalling. I had a word with Lester afterwards and I think he realized that was also the case.
The fourth principle of the performance event is that each performance is unique. This has never happened before. It will never happen again. We're here or we're not. Each performance is also a multiplicity of performances. We all have our own experiences of today which are unique to us. There we are.
We now move to the prolegomena. A few weeks ago, the question I held was, how to view 50 years of King Crimson? Bearing in mind that for some four or five years, I'd been more concerned with the present King Crimson and my guitar playing within it. My first banner headline was "Life is messy." That's a very good introduction to 50 years of King Crimson. Life is messy. Conventionally we think we know what's going on. My sense is that most of the real action goes on just below the surface where we find the riches. What a mess. Maybe there's intention. But even our own intentional actions carry consequences. Looking at this, what came to mind were the four qualities of ignorance. Imagine a cross and on the left, there is “not knowing what we’re doing.” This is basically how we simper our way through life. We don't know what we're doing, but we think that we do. And on the right, we actually see that we don't know what we're doing. Then at the top, there is “unknowingness.” I see this as a form of creative ignorance, where we escape, although conventionally we might believe ourselves to know. It’s also something like a creative openness. A welcoming vacuum. And at the bottom, below all of this, we have “plain stupid.” Unknowingness or creative ignorance was my beginning point to move. Then I moved on to what is King Crimson.
What is King Crimson? Any suggestions? Go on. Mr. Prasad?
Prasad: An act of creative anarchy.
Something like creative ignorance or unknowingness, perhaps. Alright. What is King Crimson, Sid Smith?
Smith: The Robert Fripp Band!
Sid is mistaken. Sid is profoundly wrong on that and I shall prove it later. Jakko Jakszyk?
Jakszyk: An evolving musical entity.
Jakko is the singer and second guitarist in King Crimson. So, what is King Crimson? It's where we find ourselves. It's certainly where I found myself. It's what happens when this particular group of individuals all find themselves in a room. There we are. I would say that was one of the conditions for Crimson takeoff. Rostow’s stages of economic growth from the mid-‘60s, which I dipped into studying economics at Bournemouth College, stated a pre-condition tor takeoff was 10% of gross product being invested in social capital.
King Crimson is a way of doing things. This way of doing things is not specifically limited to King Crimson. It's also active within DGM, Guitar Craft and the Guitar Circle.
A second way of looking at King Crimson is as a body of music, even an evolving body of music. The third way would be as a group of players. The fourth is a society in microcosm. And the question here for me would be, in terms of putting a band together, is how to create an ideal society. And the fifth point is an actual manifestation in the world. This is more or less an outline of my thinking at the time.
So, here's the headline, "What are the recurrent characteristics of King Crimson?" Sub-banner headline change, note, "King Crimson regularly breaks up." Have you noticed that? This has to do with the nature of a creative process. There are points which you can anticipate when the process is likely go off course or go wrong. And when you get to that point, to maintain the original or intended trajectory of that process, you need a redirection.
In an interview in 2010, Adrian Belew commented that "When Robert wants to change the music, either the musicians change the music they're playing, or Robert changes the musicians." I'm not sure that I would particularly put it like that, but it is close enough to be indicative. In any creative process, if for example in the trajectory of a band, if that band becomes successful, the more likely and the stronger the going off-course becomes. And because of that, the redirection will necessarily require a lot more energy and focus.
If someone in the band is insufferable, when the band gets to be very successful, they're going to be very insufferable. And that can prejudice the overall trajectory of the band. I'm asking you to believe me, but I'm presenting that with at least 50 years of experience directing and dealing with it. There are limiting characteristics and forces on the creative trajectory being maintained. One is that the audience knows what it likes, and wants what it likes. And I'll note that progressive fans want anything that doesn't progress. And boy, if you change your repertoire, oh! If you change a member in the band, oh!
For many years, Adrian Belew suffered commentary. Does anyone remember the Elephant Talk mailing list? I remember him coming over to me when I was staying in the apartment in the basement of Chateau Belewbeloid in Nashville. He was coming down the stairs saying "It's a turd! It's a turd!" And what Adrian had done, which he very, very rarely did, was read Elephant Talk, the name of which was actually taken from one of his lyrics. And the highlight of that edition was "Should Adrian Belew be in King Crimson?" Then, after 2014, one of the cries was, "Why is Adrian Belew not in King Crimson?" So, the audience knows what it likes and any performer who walks onstage knows you cannot tell an audience how to behave. You can welcome, you can invite, you can make suggestions, you can plead, but an audience has a life of its own.
Another very limiting force on the creative process, in this case the musical process, is the music industry. Any business I have been seeing on the news lately wants certainty. In the creative process, certainty is death. If you need a guaranteed outcome, the process cannot be creative. So, the music industry will do all it can to derail the creative process, which it cannot control, and give it a guaranteed outcome.
And a third limiting characteristic is if someone within the band is content at the level they are, in a sense becomes a good professional rather than aspiring to something more, things are going to go off-course and they will require redirection. In the creative life, comfort is death. Or when you know what you're doing, you really don't know what you're doing, which comes back to this sliding quality of ignorance.
Then I move to continuity. In terms of King Crimson, what are the factors which support continuity? And the first ongoing thing is the way of doing things. Whatever we might understand by that at the moment. What is ongoingness about the music? Energy, eclecticism and intensity. I wrote that in '97, but it still seems to hold true.
The third point, in terms of continuity, is how can you tell when a group is a group? It shares the money. In terms of King Crimson, this is actually part of the way of doing things, which can be expressed as distributive justice, one of the four pillars of the ethical company as a responsibility: equity and goodwill.
And the fourth factor of continuity is Robert. Much as I've tried to escape from this responsibility, it keeps coming back. Thank you. Thank you, God.
In terms of how to view 50 years of King Crimson, the next large heading is, "How to come to an opinion of King Crimson?" There are three overall approaches. Firstly, systematic progression of categories. Secondly, and this is a way of establishing criteria for judgment in any field of endeavor, consider time, place, person, and circumstance. In terms of a world with "ology" in it, it's more to do with sociology and musicology. Consider time, place, person, and circumstance. And the third thing is the narrative history of King Crimson, which is covered expertly by Sid Smith in his book (In the Court of King Crimson). What is being done? When was that done? Where was that done? Who did that? How has that been done? Why has that been done?" So, that's Sid's narrative history, and the second edition of what was known as "the toxic tome” is forthcoming this year.
In the autumn of 1999, when I was spending almost three months as a guest, generously accepting the hospitality of Adrian and Martha Belew, I got up every morning at 6:00am. I began at 8:00am with manuscript book, pencil and guitar, creating a blueprint for the music of the band. I would receive an email from Sid which basically came to, "This former member of Crimson has said this thing about the awful Robert Fripp. How would you respond?" After quite a few of these, and reading in fairly clear terms how former members viewed their band mate Bobby, I named this the toxic tome. Would it be true to say that this tome has less toxicity, Sid?
Smith: People hold grudges. But actually what comes through, particularly in the later period, is how touched they are by the music. There are times when, for example, when Ian Wallace started off quite vociferously, but came to love the music. He kind of made peace. And that's the other narrative within the band—people having a lot of trouble, then coming out of it and thinking, "You know what? We did some pretty good music." And in some cases, this is a value judgment by me of course, it was the best music they ever did. The late, lovely, great John Wetton would never stop telling me that some of the best things he ever did were in King Crimson, even though he went on to much greater success, financially. He looked fondly back. I think he was astounded when the band folded in '74, but he also came to peace with that. So, there's a bit of toxicity in the second edition, but there's a lot of hope as well, I would like to think.
Alright. In looking back over how to come to a judgment on King Crimson, what I refer to as the systematic progression of categories, you begin with music. Everything emerges from music. When music so wishes to be heard, it sometimes calls on unlikely characters to give it voice and ears. So, this is primary. This is where it all emerges from. Within the broader aspects of music, what is music? You can move from that if you like, the objective or qualitative character of music, through to the general music of the world, the functions it serves, to specific examples of music within genres and categories to particular examples of music, for example in King Crimson. Nevertheless, hopefully, there is an ongoing connection from the primary source which is music. And when you lose contact with that, it's like lying to your mother. It's awful.
So, from the one, music, you move to music and the musician. What is the musician? What is the role of the musician? How does the musician engage with music? And for me, there are four qualities of musicianship. Once again, imagine an equilateral cross with four qualities. At the bottom, you have the happy gigster, if you like, the amateur. From another view, the apprentice. On the left, you have the professional musician, who is reliable, repeatable and responsible. It's a high quality of attainment, but it doesn't interest me.
And on the right, we have master musician. Now, for feminine lady persons in the room, I apologize for this gendered expression. Mistress musician is a difficult one, but in discussion with Spanish lady persons, it was said to me, "Well, it may be the master musician, but in terms of Spanish, the mystery is in the feminine." At the top, we have genius, whatever we might understand by that. So, these are our four qualities of musicianship. The genius, the apprentice, the happy gigster, and the aspirant. On the left, the professional or the craftsperson. On the right, the master musician or the musician who embraces the mystery of music. So, those are our first two categories, music and the musician. And the third category is the audience.
The audience is mother to the music. However much we enjoy playing music at home, it doesn't go further. For it to go further, you need an audience. And once the audience enters the equation, everything is up for grabs. You cannot tell an audience what to do. Particularly if you're working at the Iron Rail Bar in Charlestown, West Virginia. The perhaps discourteous expression and description of the bar would be that its patronage was redneck. This is insulting and I apologize to all the rednecks who went to the Iron Rail, but they didn't very much like the performances presented to them that I was present at. In fact, this is where early Guitar Craft courses would go to learn performance. Within Guitar Craft, you learned to play the instrument within the context of performing with others, but then extending that into an involvement with an audience.
And on one occasion, the Guitar Craft students and their various consorts and ensembles were playing music in this small room and this West Virginian local woman of a certain age, who was blonde, put her head through the door, holding the expression which conveyed negative criticism. So, I invited her in, asked her to join my table, and bought her a drink. In other words, one of the things in which an aspirant, apprentice musician has to learn is how to engage with an audience.
In Greg Lake's early, semi-professional life, one of the main things you had to do in the West Country was duck the beer bottles. I believe Greg also became adept at hurling heavy microphone stands back at the audience. I can tell my own stories of working on a Friday night at a pub in Shaftesbury, where every other pub in town closed at 10:30pm, so everyone, mainly drunk, came to where we were playing. We learn on our feet, the audience has a mind of its own and, often, minds of its own.
So, there we have the triad of music, musician and audience. Now, the fourth term is music industry. But since it's a nice day, we'll move on from there.
The fifth category is why music, musician, audience, and the music industry come together, which is to make performance available. And performance, for me, is where the juice resides. This is where it is. King Crimson has always been a hot date. It's always been a live event. And however good some of the albums have been, none of them ever quite compared to the power of the band in live performance.
And the sixth category is its place in the world. Now, in terms of King Crimson's place in the world, this is not a judgment I can make, I'm not able to make it. You are all probably more capable of making that judgment than I am. So, that's the outline of the systematic progression.
The next banner headline is "What is different about this incarnation of King Crimson?" We can look at the music, the musicians, the audience, the industry, the performance, and its place in the world. In other words, applying all these six categories in terms of how we look at what is different about this King Crimson. And musically, this is the first King Crimson that has embraced the entire repertoire.
It's the first King Crimson that's had the capacity to actually do that. Then moving on to the musicians, what is different about the musicians in this King Crimson? Well the first is, there's a lot more of them. There's currently eight with a ninth member. And what I'll say here—and this is the first time this has been mentioned publicly—for performances this year, Bill Rieflin has to remain in Seattle to address family responsibilities and will not be accompanying us for the tours this year. There is a lot for Bill to address, however, in terms of accessing the recorded live work. In other words, there's a lot of studio work for Bill when he's able to take it on. But in Bill's chair on the road, will be Theo Travis. His primary role as the current eighth member, will be on keyboards.
This King Crimson is more English than American. This since 1981. There is an exceptional array of musicality and experience. If we remember Bill Bruford's autobiography of 2009, where he was commenting on the differences he saw between Yes and King Crimson, he said "Yes was song-based." It followed the singer in a sense. He also said "King Crimson were really more a group of players." So, within King Crimson, the playing standards have always tended towards exceptional. However, with these, there are eight people. They're all a lot older and their breadth of musicality and experience is utterly astonishing to me.
Fourth, the group serves the music. The shadow form of this principle is the music exists to support the personal, professional and musical interests of the player. Now, going back to the Jamie Muir King Crimson of '72, Jamie said to Bill Bruford "We're here to serve the music." Well, that's a very lofty aim, but this is the first band where that's actually fully happened. No one has an agenda. It's astonishing. Is that true, Jakko?
Yeah. Our singer agrees. It must be true! Alternatively expressed, there are no prima donnas in this band. Is that true Jakko?
There was a little more hesitation there, but I agree.
Five, they share the money. This is not the first time, but this time no-one believes they should get more than anyone else. How are we doing, Jakko?
Alright, so far so good. Moving on to point six, what is different about this King Crimson? Robert's role. This is the first King Crimson where Robert's role in King Crimson has been accepted. This is also the first King Crimson where there is not at least one person in the band who resents Robert's presence. Unless, something has not been said to me.
What is different about this King Crimson in terms of the audience? There are members of the audience coming to this King Crimson who have never ever seen it before live. For example, in the amphitheater in Pompeii, June of last year. Looking out into the audience, we saw men sitting next to their wives. We saw young men next to their girlfriends. And a lot of old people, mainly male, too. But nevertheless, a lot of the audience were young and a lot of them were young women. This is astonishing. Going back to an earlier thing, it doesn't matter to me very much whether they like King Crimson or not. It matters to me that they see King Crimson and come to their own independent judgment on it.
The current aim of King Crimson's touring this year is to play to as many innocent audience members as we can find. There have been some online posts from King Crimson fans who know what they like and they like seeing King Crimson in relatively small theaters, where a lot of young people who've never seen the band before can't get tickets. So, what we're doing is playing, for example, three days at an open air festival in Spain. We're also playing Rock in Rio to 100,000 people.
Now, in terms of King Crimson and our concern with the quality of sound in an event and performance practice to do with engaging directly with the music, rather than via cameras and little devices, it's a challenge. But going back to a little earlier, a challenge is necessary to main a trajectory of a creative process—also known as the pointed stick. You walk onstage, see the 100,000 people, they all have cameras. What do you do? I’ll let you know mid-way through October. I don't know at the moment. I don't mind that I don't know. This is the creative ignorance. We'll go onstage and we'll deal with it.
So, then we move on to what is different about this King Crimson in terms of the industry. Well, King Crimson is more independent than it's ever been. It’s independent within DGM. There have been historical examples of where King Crimson had degrees of independence. To begin with, within E.G. management. But that changed, with coercive control over a period of years. However, now, within DGM, it's very different. The second primary factor in this band is our manager David Singleton, who is also our business partner in DGM. David serves the music. David serves the best interests of the band. David doesn't want the job, or to put it more positively, David wants to not have the job, but nevertheless it was necessary that David step forward. Management of this quality is very rare. I can present a few other examples, but right now in the world, David sets the standard for management.
What is also different about this King Crimson is the quality of our record distribution. Panegyric Records and Declan Colgan also serve the music. As with DGM, Panegyric has committed to ethical practice within the music industry. Now, one effect of this, if you're committed to ethical practice within the music industry, is different elements within the music industry are going to attack you. We could spend the rest of the day talking about practical examples of how DGM and Panegyric are doing that, but it's a nice day, so let's move on.
What is also very different about this King Crimson is the musicians' well-being. The management travels in the same class as the musicians on flights. It used to be, for example, with E.G. management, they'd be in first class and the band would be at the back. They would be staying the Drake Hotel in New York and the band would be staying at a variety of very modest accommodations in Midtown. Can anyone remember the Gorem Hotel? It's one main advantage was you got very large rooms for the same price as other rooms in Midtown. The disadvantage was the larger rooms were much dirtier, and the carpets were grubbier and older. You'd look at the bed and think "Ugh." And we learned later it was actually a hooker's hotel. It was also a musicians' hotel and I spent many nights there.
Alright, what is different about this King Crimson in terms of performance? King Crimson has always been primarily a hot date. It can only really be experienced in live performance. That used to be going against the grain, where the conventional wisdom in the music industry was, "You play live to sell records." I always found this rather insulting to the audience. You play live to play music to people. You're not there to sell records. You might lie to the record company and say "We're here to promote." You're not. That's what they believe and it's a fiction I was always prepared to maintain. However, today, within the conventional wisdom, you make a record in order to bring more people to shows. That's another nonsense, but whatever.
Today, it would seem that King Crimson's way of doing things in presenting itself in the live process is in tune with the times. And secondly, the performance practice which we've long advocated, which is "bring your ears and put the cameras and phones aside," would now seem to be increasingly accepted. But we'll see in Rio.
And then moving on to what is different about this King Crimson and its place in the world, it’s that it's being seen as it is rather than through received opinion.
Media Question and Answer Sessions:
Describe how King Crimson constructs set lists.
Every King Crimson set list is unique, even if it were exactly the same as the day before, which so far it's never been. Breakfast is the most important part of my personal day when on tour, because it's my time to sit, reflect and perhaps read some mind food. And at the end of this time, Robert's time for Robert, generally listening to music of choice, I move to the set list for the day. And it's always for the first time. Here is today, this is the audience. We may or may not know the venue or audience we're playing to. If we have three performances in the same venue for example, the first set list is as good a guess for holding the sense of the place we're playing in. Playing in England is very different to playing in Italy, is very different to playing in Boston, is very different to playing in Mexico City, is very different to playing in Buenos Aires, is very different to playing in Berlin and so on.
Music is organized in terms of time, place, person, and circumstance. There are different performance practices in different parts of the world. Audiences respond differently. The audience has different performance traditions and conventions. The venue also has its own performance traditions and conventions. For example, playing at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw is very different to playing in a burlesque hall in New Jersey, where you go on stage after the stripper. This is not imagination, you understand, this is experience. This is what Peter Gabriel did. The burlesque show ended and Peter's live show during his first solo tour and first performance in New Jersey began. I was with him—kind of. The actual space has its own spirit. And if we've never been there before, we have to offer our best guess. We intuit. If we're there for the second evening, we have a better sense of it. During the second evening, you know how that particular audience in that location in that part of the world has engaged with the material. And you make adjustments. So, that the flow of the evening has a different narrative trajectory, if you like.
Then we say, well, if it's in the open air, what's it like? Well, in the 1980s and sometimes in the 1990s, King Crimson would perform in the summer in what they call the sheds. These would be open air venues with basically 2,500 seats. And then in the green out behind were another 2,500 people. You can sit on the green and you have a wonderful summer evening. The sun is going down. It's a far more open and relaxed spirit than if you're working in a very well-established symphony hall in Europe.
The other main point is, when you're working in the open air, clearly the acoustics are very different. This can be "good." This can be "bad." Within the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, which we played recently, the acoustics were the worst of my professional life that I can recall. Even on headphones. I'm hoping the event was more than the sonic quality of the performance. When we're in Spain, we're in the open air. When we're in Rock in Rio, we're in the open air. The sound will be mediated by Chris Porter, our front-of-house engineer.
Why are we doing these performances near Barcelona? To present the music and the band to people who most likely will not have seen this band and heard its music live before. And on the second morning of the second performance, I'll have a better idea of where the set list is going than on the morning of the first.
You mentioned the current lineup can play material from different periods of the band’s history. Why couldn’t previous lineups with Adrian Belew perform the older work?
There are a number of reasons. Firstly, in 1981, it was impossible to play very much of the material from the earlier band, because we were prog rock dinosaurs. In other words, in terms of the audiences of the time, the music would have been perceived as historic and out of date. Here, 50 years later, we've moved outside fashion. Within music, there were generations of music, musicians and audiences. It shifts in a major way about every seven years. The immediately succeeding generation looks on the immediately preceding generation as old hat.
The birth of rock and roll was 1954. What preceded Elvis? I’d say Muddy Waters and electricity. The next major generation involved The Beatles in the early ‘60s. What followed next was underground rock. It began as underground rock, then it moved to wild rock and it really went downhill from then. And then in the ‘90s, it was called prog. And then it was called math prog. And then old prog. Oh! But anyway, you have what we might refer to as the progressive movement. And after that in 1976, you had punk. And then after that, what did we have? Well, for me, it was King Crimson. And on we go.
My sister and I share a birthday. She's born on April 18, I'm born on May 16 with one year, one month, two days, and 12-and-a-half hours in between So, we were brought up as twins and were very close. And what our parents would do would be we'd share our birthday. So, on my sister’s birthday, it would always be my birthday. But this is wonderful, because on my birthday, it was also her birthday. We got presents twice. We went out for my eleventh birthday and bought two records: Elvis Presley’s “Don’t Be Cruel” and Tommy Steele’s “Rock with the Caveman.” Elvis’ guitarist was Scotty Moore. Energy leapt from the grooves. There was conviction and power. And later, I would experience it as pure sexuality. I mean, let’s face it, Elvis was a sexy dude. Bill Haley was more a grosser. Tommy Steele's guitarist on the session was Bert Weedon. I don't like to be unkind to professional musicians of a certain age, but Weedon's guitar background was from the previous century. And he was a professional doing his job.
Moving sideways, associatively, the producer of Tommy Steele's “Rock with the Caveman” was Hugh Mendl. When Giles, Giles and Fripp met at Decca Records, I said "One of the first two records I bought was ‘Rock with the Caveman.’" And Hugh Mendl (who was then on the Decca A&R team) said "I produced it." In response, I didn't say "What did you think of Bert Weedon's guitar playing?"
So, when we were playing to punk, post-punk and new wave characters in 1981, “Bolero” wasn’t really going to go down a storm. “Cirkus?” No, I don't think so. “Cadence and Cascade?” You have to be joking. An entirely new repertoire was needed given the time, place, person, and circumstances for those musicians playing that music at that time in those particular locations in the world. In Italy, it would have been different. However, in New York, it was very, very different. And at the time, I was living in New York.
Now, we're older and we're younger. The defining limits no longer apply. An example from my own experience: Between the ages of 18 and 21 I worked at the Majestic Hotel in Bournemouth in the hotel dance band. There were five musicians. Two of them were 33, one was 38, I was 18, and the band leader was within his sixties. And his inspiration in music was Al Bowlly. You get a sense of generations' changing taste in music.
But Duke Ellington in 1965 at Bournemouth Winter Gardens performed two shows. The first show was at 6:30pm. I went down and saw the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Thinking about this fairly recently, two of the seemingly most obvious things about Duke Ellington were—bearing in mind this character was 18—is that Duke was a very, very old man. Second, he’s a black dude. Neither of these registered. Duke was free of any ethnicity or class. And Duke was young. And it was astonishing.
Although I'm not putting King Crimson on a par with Duke Ellington and his Orchestra, I am hoping that young characters can come in and see King Crimson and hear the music, whenever it might have been composed, and have it have the same charge for them that Duke had for me.
There are other versions of the answer, too. Like the musicians in King Crimson in the ‘80s were very different. These musicians couldn’t play the music the earlier bands played. And neither should they. Because it's not part of who they are. The present characters don't get in the way of what they're playing. And they don't get very much in the way of themselves or each other. It's a remarkable band to be in.
Two of the main ingredients of King Crimson are spontaneity and precision. How do you bring them together?
You need a third element to bring them together. Precision, from where I'm sitting onstage, is a relative term. Here's an example from two people in the room. Jakko would always think that he was making mistakes, because Robert was playing something else. That is, until Jakko would be listening to the tapes of the live performance and discover that there is a very good reason why he is playing something different to Robert—because Robert was lost.
Now, personally, I don't mind when good musicians make mistakes. Actually, I love it, because what you see is the quality of the musician responding to the mistake in the moment in front of an audience, say 2,000 people, many of whom know the repertoire better than we do, because they spend many long nights in the privacy of their bed chamber with headphones or loudspeakers.
So, what to do? Well, for example, at the Count Basie Theater in New Jersey a couple of years ago, Tony Levin came in two beats early. Now, if you bear in mind that every member of the band pretty much is in a different time signature, two beats of one member forward means the others have nowhere to go. Since this particular spontaneous composition had never seen the light of evening before, what to do? There are various possibilities. Robert and Jakko can jump in or everyone else in the band stops and lets Tony keep going. And it was a wonderful Stick solo. And then the question is, when do you come back in? What do you do at the end of that? And there was a kind of ongoing reengagement from time to time from the other members of the band. And this was such an informative representation of “The Construkction of Light,” that we released it on the DGM website as a free download.
So, precision is a relative term. Alright, so here's spontaneity and discipline. What a discipline will enable us to do is engage more directly and reliably with the truth, if you want to put it like that. In terms of a musical analogy, to be in tune, in time, in tone, and in timbre. Tune, time and tone.
Now, another characteristic of discipline goes back to the cross with genius, happy gigster, professional, and master musician. Let’s say that the point of interest is the slide between being a good professional, if you like a craftsperson, and a master musician. You move from the craft of art to the art of craft. This is the quality of attention we bring to bear. And you can actually express this in terms of time. Actually, measuring on a clock. For example, the volitional attention span of a good professional is 45 minutes-ish. For the master musician, it’s an hour-and-a-half-ish. For the happy gigster, it’s generally 20-30 minutes. When engaging with a discipline, primarily we practice the quality of attention.
Another, perhaps simpler way of saying it is, if we have a personal discipline, it means we can be reliable, repeatable and responsible. I might think “I don't feel like playing. I feel awful. I'm not interested in music. The audience sucks. The venue is shit.” But alright, let's go and do the show. Regardless of what we like or feel like, we can be relied on to walk onstage and be superb. This is part of what a discipline makes possible for us. So, we've come back to where we have two terms. We have spontaneity and we have reliability. What might be the third element that brings it together?
So, our third element might be the spirit of music. That's what makes it possible. Improvisation is where there is innovation. Something comes in, which has not been in the equation before. But it all comes from this, if you like, the spirit of music. And for those of a rational inclination, this is a difficult one to articulate. However, the good news is, it's entirely within our experience. No belief systems are needed. Did this music move you? Did this music redirect the trajectory of your life? Because if it did, you know what the spirit of music is.
Will there be further King Crimson studio recordings?
I can't definitively answer that, because with King Crimson, no-one ever knows. If I woke up in the morning and I thought it was time then I make phone calls. But until then, no. If you said could I conceive of how a studio recording of King Crimson might take place, yes. But what is of primary importance is for this King Crimson to perform live. Because this is really what King Crimson does.
King Crimson performance is an ephemeral art. It's like gardening. Most mornings, at the beginning of the day, I walk down our garden. And every morning at the moment, it changes. It's different. Some blossoms come out and if you don't catch them this morning, you've missed them. They're gone. Gardening is an ephemeral art, as is live performance. You're in the moment or not.
Charlie Parker flying wild was almost completely lost. A few bootlegs were done. John McLaughlin has also said "I wish I'd recorded that particular show." What King Crimson does is record everything all the time, so that no-one in the audience need feel that they have to. The DGM catalog is mainly of live performances, some of which are considered historic now. But there are very few studio albums.
Take for example, the live improvs on The Great Deceiver. The Red album came close to that power, including on “Providence.” The music on Larks' Tongues in Aspic had something, but the record didn’t convey it. Red conveyed the power, but the power was really in the live performances on The Great Deceiver. For King Crimson ’81 to ’84, that was on Absent Lovers.
So, right now, there are no plans for studio recordings.
How did King Crimson’s music first emerge?
The larger form of this question is, where does music come from? Let me give you an example from my direct experience. It was back in 1981. I was then mainly living in New York as I had done for three years. And then, for the next four years, I lived there part-time. I didn't have an ongoing apartment. I'd stay at friends' apartments. In July 1981, I was sleeping on the sofa of a good friend who was an editor of the Village Voice named Karen Durbin, who is now a well-known film reviewer.
Karen had two cats called Fripp and Eno. And when the sun came up, Fripp and Eno would begin running around the apartment. And they were in the part of the apartment that I was sleeping in—the lounge and I was on the couch. And about five minutes past eight, one of them ran over my head. As Karen said, “Fripp is frisky.” However, it might have been Eno, and Eno was also frisky. Suddenly, I woke up and saw how it is that music comes into our lives. This is slightly different from the question where does music come from?
How does music come into our lives? As a working musician with much of his musical life devoted to putting bands together and presenting musical blueprints to the bands, my concern had been how to create music. In a sense, how to write music. And what I saw in that flash was that music never goes away. What goes away is us.
As a practical working musician, how I lived my life as a musician changed. The question was not how to create music, but how do I remain engaged and available to music? To put this slightly differently, the musician doesn't create music, the music creates the musician. But the musician has to be available to music. And bring a sufficient skill set for that to happen.
Part of this is the sense of the inexpressible benevolence which moves in through music. Music so wishes to be heard. It so wishes to give itself away, if only we listen. If only we make ourselves available. And all of this realization was maybe within two, three, four, five seconds, and just at the end of that, as if looking through a space as a door is closing, I saw just a glimpse of where music comes from.
Would you consider including a woman in King Crimson?
The choice of members is not arbitrary. This King Crimson I saw on the evening of June 22, 2013 had seven musicians. They were individual, specific musicians, and they were all men. If they had all been women, I would have made the phone calls. But they weren't. Are we open to women members of the band? Sure, if they're the right women in the right time, right place and right circumstance. And there is a wonderful woman named Maria Barbieri that plays “Larks' Tongues In Aspic Part Two.” But she didn't spring to mind on June 22, 2013. If she had, I would have made the call. She’s doing a great job.
You composed some of the sounds for the Windows Vista operating system released in 2006. How does sound play a role in the way we think about technology?
I can speak directly about the recording sessions for Windows Vista. It failed. Everything about that launch failed. So, I've got to say the music must have been part of that, too. But did I enjoy the process of it? Yes, I did, actually. I was working with a very good friend, a brother on the way, Steve Ball.
It was a very high level of professional challenge for me, which is a primary interest. One of the prime techniques of any discipline is to engage with challenge. And that challenge means essentially engaging with what we don't know how to do. When we know what we're doing, we really don't know what we're doing. Because if we know what we're doing, the outcome cannot be creative. Part of my professional challenge in life is the question of how to engage with a professional life when I have no interest in it.
Did Jimi Hendrix play guitar to earn a living? John Lennon? Bob Dylan? I'm sure it helped. But, no. And Hendrix's record contract provided for one-percent royalties, which the family had to fight over for years. So really, Hendrix didn't play guitar for money, because he didn't get any. Lennon might have got more, but even then if you go through the history of The Beatles and EMI royalties, I'm back to spitting on the floor.
So, the role of technology. Each incarnation of King Crimson tends to engage with the latest forms of technology. And when digital technology came in, it was very, very, very limited. I think criticism of the early digital recordings or early digital equipment are very fair. They don’t sound as good as analog and vinyl. Today, 35-40 years later, I think we can say yes, digital can be convincing. It's still different to analog, but it's workable.
What are your memories of Jimi Hendrix attending a King Crimson show in 1969?
It was on July 9 and he attended the show at the Revolution Club in Mayfair. It was the first time I sat down on a bar stool to perform with King Crimson live. I said to the band and management “Look, I can't play standing up, because I've always learned to play sitting down. Besides, I've got no good moves. Come on. That's as far as I go.” And Greg Lake said "You can't sit down. You look like a mushroom." What I didn't point out was that the mushroom in many cultures is taken to be a symbol of virility.
So, anyway, E.G. management, in the good days of E.G. with David Enthoven and John Gaydon, bought me a bar stool. We played three sets. During the first hour, I sat down and came off. And after the first set, in the dressing room, which I believe was beneath the stage, this man came up to me in a white suit, with his right arm in a sling. And he shone. He was luminous. He said "Shake my left hand, man. It's closer to my heart," with a wonderful, shining smile. And this was Hendrix.
The second part of my Hendrix story occurs in 1981. We were working in Portobello Road, recording the Discipline album in May. We were staying in the Portobello Hotel, up the hill in Notting Gate.
In May 1981, we had just got back from three weeks live in Europe. And there was a book shop just off the corner of Portobello Road. And since my bibliophilic activities kept me sane at the time, I popped into the book shop to have a look if there were any new releases of interest. And the woman who worked behind the counter said "Robert Fripp, can you remember me? I’m Loretta Land." And this was the sister of Mary Land, who was married to Michael Giles, King Crimson's first drummer, and the father-in-law of Jakko Jakszyk.
Loretta said, "Do you remember the night that Hendrix came to see you at the Revolution Club?" I said "Of course, that's my Hendrix story." She said "Did you know I was sitting at the next table to Hendrix?" And I said "No." Then she said "He was jumping up and down, saying this is the best band in the world."
In your diary entries, you’ve said you listen to contemporary classical composers such as Pierre Boulez, especially when he conducts his own work. What do you get out of his music?
Well, moving on to someone a little more contemporary, this morning over breakfast I was listening to Unsuk Chin. She’s a Korean composer living in Germany. If I'm thinking or in a reflective process with music during my morning reading, which can be a little challenging on occasion, what much contemporary music from the conservatory tradition does is to shake up my thinking. If you, for example, take Beethoven’s late string quartets, which are also a regular listening treat for me, they have a sense of a musical narrative leading you somewhere. With Unsuk Chin, I'm not sure her work is leading me anywhere, but it's there, so it upsets my thinking. Most of our thinking isn't thinking at all. Most of our thinking is thoughts that are thinking us, if you like.
So, how to shake that up? Well, there's a fair bit of the work associated with Boulez as a composer or conductor. In fact, if you buy the complete recorded works of Boulez, you'll have a guide to just about everything you're ever going to need from the 20th century. You'll also find some Handel in there. So, how to move on from the late Boulez? Well Unsuk Chin is one way to go. I've also been listening recently to a young English composer and pianist named Thomas Adès whose work I find very challenging, but in a different way. Also in the theme music to Colette, the recent film with Keira Knightley, Adès has a piano theme utterly unlike his orchestral pieces. It is breathtaking in its beauty and its simplicity. It's astonishing.
I think in the early 1970s I saw an interview with Boulez on television, which had to do with the division of attention. It discussed developing the discipline and cultivation of the attention span. He was explaining how to beat five against four. Now, beating five against four is not in itself particularly complex, but to have a conversation while doing it does place a demand on one’s attention. And beating five against four and alternating hands is also not in itself a huge challenge, but again, if you're having a conversation at the same time, it can demand extra effort. That's just associational rambling. I wondered for many years what Boulez was talking about, but it stuck with me.
Can King Crimson exist without Robert Fripp? When you stop performing, is that the end of the band?
I've been trying to give King Crimson away to someone else for at least 45 years. Going back to 1974, when I was overwhelmed with the sheer terror and stupidity of the professional life in which I was involved, another direction was calling to me. However, at the same time, I felt responsible to the other members in the band, the roadies and the music. I'm sure the roadies could have got work with someone else, but nevertheless I felt a responsibility. So, what I did is I spoke to Ian McDonald, then living in New York, and asked him if he would be prepared to rejoin King Crimson. My thinking was that this would give a lineage from the first King Crimson, so that the projected next step in the band would have authority, and that it would be relatively straightforward. If King Crimson were to get another guitarist, Steve Hackett came to mind.
I mentioned this idea to David Enthoven of E.G., and he said we're not interested in King Crimson without Robert. At that point, I called Bill Bruford and John Wetton, and said, “That's it.” Ian McDonald, according to a later interview I read, felt that I had deliberately asked him to join to wind him up in effect, and get revenge for him leaving in 1969. None of this was true. I had not asked him to join a new form of King Crimson, because it wasn't in existence, and I wouldn't have been a member of it if it had happened. I sought out the level of his interest so that I could then go to Bill, John and E.G. and say “Ian will join the band if you'd like to run with it.” But because David Enthoven said “No, we're not interested in King Crimson without Robert,” that was the end of it.
So, that was the first time I tried to get rid of my responsibility to King Crimson. Most recently there was the idea of Crimson DNA. Jakko, who were the members of Crimson DNA?
Jakszyk: Gavin Harrison, Mel Collins, John Wetton, and myself.
The Crimson DNA lineup met with David Singleton and myself in the crumbling offices of DGM in the dirty kitchen. Before that particular venture got underway, the present King Crimson was conceived and initiated. In other words, it was clear it felt to me that if something was going to happen, Robert would have to be involved.
The time immediately before that was The Crimson ProjeKCt. Before that, there was the 21st Century Schizoid Band, which as I understand it was initially a suggestion of Peter Sinfield. Peter’s idea was there's Robert in King Crimson, but that all these other King Crimson members that can also be a form of King Crimson. Several former members of King Crimson came together with my full support. I believe I even gave them the name 21st Century Schizoid Band. Some excellent music came out of that band.
But then coming back to the Crimson ProjeKCt, where Robert was not Crimsoning, but there was The Stick Men and the Adrian Belew Power Trio. They were working together and doing King Crimson material, once again with my full blessing and support. I even mentioned the name Crimson ProjeKCt to them, which they took on and went touring. I went to see them at the Shepherd's Bush Empire, very excited, may I say, prepared to jump up and down, and shout out loudly demanding for “Schizoid Man.” What I saw with the excellent Stick Men, the excellent Adrian Belew Power Trio, and of all the King Crimson music they played, is they had the notes and none of the music. In other words, King Crimson had not left the building, King Crimson had not even entered the building. I was angry and I walked out of the Shepherd’s Bush Empire wishing never, ever again to play a note of King Crimson. Two great trios and nothing to do with King Crimson. The next day I had to make the choice of whether the seven-headed beast of Crim, the 2014 incarnation, would go ahead or not. It was a hard choice.
But anyway, assuming the positive and you know, this is kind of everyday life in King Crimson, or at least it was to that point, I said yes, and the present King Crimson moved into action. So, I have to accept now that for King Crimson to be King Crimson, Robert has to be there. So, the question might be asked, what is Robert’s role in King Crimson?
First of all, the tetrad of the music system is for me, a very useful way of thinking in terms of how four connected elements come together and work together. If we go back to the systematic categories, we begin with music, then we move on to the musician, then we move on to the audience, and then we move on to the industry. So, in terms of King Crimson, here is King Crimson, King Crimson music or music which only King Crimson can play if you like, at the top.
So, you have music, musician, audience, and industry. At the bottom, you have musician, or in this case an awful lot of musicians since 1969. From one point of view, it’s an orchestra of musicians spread in time, which come together in different sections. So, you have the ‘69 Crimson section, '71, '72, and on we go.
The phrase I used in 1997 in the sleeve notes to the Epitaph box set was “raison d'être”—the reason to be. The word I'd use today would be “decision.” In other words, Robert takes the decision. King Crimson. No one else historically has stepped forward to take that decision. For example, after ’74, well, you know, there are possibilities. John could have said to Bill, “Let’s phone up Ian. Let's get Steve Hackett in.” Bill could have said to John, “Why don't we call Ian McDonald and get another guitarist?" The point is neither of them did.
Then the same question at the end of 1984, when it just stopped. There's an interview with Bill and Tony Levin from 1985 saying “Well, you know, it stopped.” Adrian could have said to Bill and Tony, “Let’s get another guitarist and on we go.” But no one did. No-one took the decision.
The second one is that I have a very strong sense of what Toby Amies, the filmmaker, referred to earlier as "the otherness of King Crimson." Going back to 1969, within the band there was very much a sense of the otherness of King Crimson present. It was referred to as the “good fairy” or “the moving spirit.” There was something quite apart from the four young failed musicians and former computer programmer Peter Sinfield who wrote words and played very bad guitar. There was something quite apart from those young men, and we were very much aware of it.
Then after the dissolution of the '69 band, for me a defining formation of King Crimson, of which there have been four defining formations. At the beginning of 1970, it was fairly clear to me that whatever we—and at that point it was Peter and Robert—did would be wrong from one point of view. But, nevertheless, we had to do it to get to the other side. It was a period in between. The Mel Collins and Boz Burrell band was quite a kicking band with some excellent players, but it wasn't for me a defining formation of King Crimson.
Were you to ask me what the defining formation of King Crimson is, nothing is the same afterwards, something has changed. So after '69, rock music changed, specifically because of the moving presence within that band, which had very little to do with the young men. Then in mid-’72, seeing that particular formation, there was something remarkable about it, but then we go into, well how does Robert put a band together?
There were different possible answers to that, one of which includes the balance. You hold the people before you in your mind’s eye and see the lines of connection between them and the balances of forces which they hold. So, looking at those five people, there was Bill and John, Jamie Muir, and David Cross, with Robert in between. Jamie is an exceptional character. Jamie is quite remarkable and he brought something that was extra-musical. When Jamie left to go off to a monastery in Scotland for seven years, all the configurations changed. You had Bill and John getting increasingly loud and powerful, and busy, and David and Robert. At the time, there was no way a violin could compete with the sheer power of John's bass amp, and Robert at the front. The best I could do was hang on over the top of it.
But finally, it came together in the last one hour of its performing life in New York, Central Park, on the first of July, 1974. It took a couple of years to get to that point, and in that last performance it arrived somewhere. So, we returned to England, David left the band and the trio recorded Red, one of Crimson’s definitive albums. So, holding the sense of the music is something entirely apart. In the Discipline formation in 1981, when it began rehearsing in Bill’s studio in Surrey, I believe in March, I was driving up the hill from modest accommodations, and I became aware of a presence in the passenger seat. It was made to be known that if these four musicians, known as Discipline, wished to accept this presence, it would be King Crimson. Now, I know that may sound like horseshit. But this is one of Robert’s fundamental roles in King Crimson: I have to be able to recognize when King Crimson is in the room. I have to be able to recognize the moving presence of King Crimson. That's the second.
Third, Robert holds the global overview of King Crimson, the music, the musicians, and the industry. The other players historically have mostly held varying views of the local. So, Robert holds the global view. I used to describe it as a general who plans the campaign, digs the trench, climbs in, and ducks bullets with the other troops. So, it was the global involvement. None of the other characters did this. For example, when management or any form of the industry would like to discuss the strategy for the next year, or various industry elements, they go to Robert. When endless grief was beginning and litigation was underway between myself and E.G., and Virgin were included in this, Ken Berry, the big cheese of Virgin Records was prepared to engage with Robert because "Robert is a safe pair of hands." In other words, we're not going to talk to the drummer. We're not going to talk to the bass player. We're not going to talk to the singer. We're going to talk to Robert and if it's not Robert, there's no deal. The industry falls away. I've also spent most of my attention and energies within different forms of King Crimson handling the musicians, and the industry, and engaging with the audiences in various ways, to a greater extent than concerning myself with the music. As I mentioned earlier, music can take much better care of itself than the musicians, the music industry or the audiences. It seems absurd to say that I spent less time and attention playing music than anything else, but historically that's been the case.
Moving on to point four, and this from one point of view is the most significant. Robert puts the band together. So, this is a fun one, how do you form a band? How do you form a band that is King Crimson? One approach to this is you hold the question. If King Crimson were playing tomorrow, what would it be? In 1994, I was holding this question and driving away from our crumbling DGM offices in Pengelly House, South Street, Broad Chalke. Past the church on the left, and the school on the right, there in a flash came the idea for a double trio. You have two trios side by side. That was a flash as a picture that presented itself. Having seen it, it became possible. So, I made the phone calls.
Then going on to June 22, 2013, my wonderful wife Toyah was visiting two chums Richard and John in their home in Vauxhall. We were drinking a little Prosecco this happy summer evening. Some cheers went up from a house nearby. Twenty minutes later came the announcement that the new King of England has just been born. The cheers were from the extended royal family—maybe some chums who'd just had a phone call. The news went public 20 minutes later. It was about the time when the idea for three drummers, with Tony Levin, and the back line that eventually became the front line emerged. If King Crimson were playing tomorrow, that's what it would be. But I wasn't sure that I was prepared to take it on, because after 21 years of endless grief, which came to a substantial conclusion not utterly and forever, but substantially. In 2012, I began to be happy for the first time in my life. An aim in my life—being happy—has never factored into what I do. My concern is to do what I see to be right and necessary. If we do what we see to be right, a byproduct or outcome of this is that you're happy. But nevertheless, in the ways that we might conventionally describe personal happiness, the default state was unhappy. Hey, this is King Crimson.
Occasionally the guns fall silent. In 2012, my default position, endless grief, had come to a kind of conclusion. I was living with my wonderful wife in our wonderful home, in our wonderful town, and not on the road in King Crimson. Having in fact ceased to perform in public forever, in 2010 at the World Financial Center in New York on December 4. I was basically happy with a few wrinkles. So, then in 2013, I thought “Oh no, here comes the next major problem in my life: King Crimson returns.” I wasn't sure I wanted to take it on. A month later, I phoned everyone that I'd seen in the lineup, and it was quite clear that if any one of those characters said no, that was it. These specific people—all of them—had to say yes, and all of them did.
Point five: Robert presents a musical blueprint with examples conventionally referred to as composition. Note: not all the music was the right music for the band playing it. Conversely, the musicians playing the music weren't always right for the music they were playing. From '99 through to 2003, there was some excellent music, but I'm not sure that incarnation was the best to play much of the music. Some certainly, but others not necessarily. It's only with the present eight-piece band that I feel we're actually able to properly take on some of that material, like for example, “Level Five,” or as it was originally called, “Larks' Tongues in Aspic Part Five.”
Point six: Robert interfaces with the band and the industry. This comes back to the way of doing things, which acts not only through King Crimson, but also through DGM. In other words, the business structure through which the band operates has to operate on the same principles that guide the music and the band. Otherwise, you get a disjunct, or as a simple example, you get the coercive force of E.G. Management. However, in DGM we have David Singleton, unsung, underpaid hero of this all—King Crimson's current tenth man. David gets paid the same as everyone else in the band. Conventionally, a manager would be getting paid a lot more. So, to some extent it falls to Robert to find an industry construct through which King Crimson can operate in a way which supports its aims, rather than compromises, limits or undermines them.
Point seven: Extending King Crimson to the audience, for example, via the media with lots of interviews. I'll move on from that.
Point eight: Most of my attention is being directed towards handling individual players, dealing with the business, interviewing, composing, and co-creating the music.
Point nine: This is a bit of a hoot for me. A recurrent motif is the personal unpleasantness of Robert. You know it's got to be true. I can prove it. David Singleton is putting up 50 rare tracks for the 50th year. Good. Well, the most exciting part about these things for me are not David’s highly-informative comments on this music, but the comments of the public. It's very interesting to get uncensored comments from innocent audience members who've handed over their hard-earned pay. I will read you the comment from “kw19193” from YouTube about 10 days ago, who said “An insanely gifted, over-the-moon brill musician/composer with, like many geniuses, a flawed personality.” This comment was made on the 16th of March, 2019. Now, I take issue with this—serious issue. I am not insanely gifted. Hey, I was tone deaf with no sense of rhythm and I've worked very hard, for a very long time. No gifts are associated with this one. “Over the moon brill musician, composer?” No, I don't accept that either. I will say that there have been occasions which I gratefully acknowledge when music has lent over and taken us into its confidence.
Then he goes on, “like many geniuses, Robert is not a genius.” This is a comment from a person who clearly has not looked at the tetrad of musicianship nor personally examined to any great depth the four qualities of musicianship. So, then we move on and he says, “a flawed personality.” He might have said, “Everyone has a flawed personality, except me.” But he didn't, so anyway there we are, we move on down from there.
It remains astonishing to me how often people see but don't see at the same time. One post was the conventional "my encounter with that awful man and how I only wanted to say hello” one. Well, no-one only wants to say hello. They want to attach themselves to your psyche and suck. If they only wanted to say hello, they would stand there quietly and say nothing and extend goodwill. However, this character said “I only wanted to say hello, so I came up to Fripp and he put his hand on his heart and extended his arm.” This is true. At that time, I actually remembered the incident and I remembered my response, and the posting he made was entirely accurate. What he missed was Robert was in a position, which I believe was immediately before a performance, and to engage in verbal conversation would have drawn my attention from the musical into the verbal, and may I say, likely the trivial. But not wishing to rebuff him rudely I extended goodwill to him, which he entirely missed.
So, that's just one example of an awful encounter. I have seen one or two others, recently, 40 years late, but they’re lots of fun, like this one from Irving Plaza in New York in 1980 with the League of Gentlemen. This young man reported “I came up to Fripp and Fripp said ‘Follow the finger.’ And pointing in a direction away from him, Fripp followed where his finger was pointed.” That amused me. Now, yes there have been occasions when my behavior has been close to unforgivable. Well, actually it has been forgivable but, nevertheless needed addressing. Where possible, I've apologized. In the difficult history of King Crimson, for some of us who managed to last the course, there have been opportunities for redemption. For example, In the Mel Collins and Boz Burrell band, there were difficulties. But with Ian Wallace, who moved to Nashville in the noughties, when the Belews were being exceptionally generous in their hospitality, and I was spending a lot of time with them. I was able to reconnect with Ian and establish a good friendship. Just as an aside, in my view, Ian's finest playing is on the posthumous release The Crimson Jazz Trio, Volume 2, which was exceptional.
More immediately, in terms of an encounter with that awful Fripp, was from Daniel and seeking to redeem and apologize, I was in the lobby of the Rockefeller Plaza in New York. Some professional chums with whom I had a professional relationship were doing a TV interview. In the lobby, there was this character with his girlfriend and a camera. I said “No thank you.” My chums did the interview, we came down and there was the character still there with his girlfriend. Click. He saw the look in my face and turned and began to run away. But I ran quicker than him. I held him by his jacket and lifted up and banged him against the wall. That's the last time in my life I've ever laid hands on anyone. There he was at the end of my arm and I thought “Oh, what am I going to do now? I'm not going to hit him.” I let him down, and he walked away with his girlfriend, and she turned and looked back and shouted at me “We give you money.” What she was saying is our relationship is a commercial one and that because we give you money, therefore we can treat you anyway we like. We have the right. She was inaccurate. She didn't give me money. She gave the management money. She gave the record company money. She gave the agent money. She didn't give me money. Well, it occurred to me that I had from one interpretation of this event perhaps acted in a little overly direct fashion. I tried to find out through the characters around if anyone knew where he might be, so that I could extend my apology to him. I think I heard that he was in a queue for some show, and I did what I could to ask if a message might be passed on.
A more major example of extending an apology was made to me in 1991 by David Enthoven. David Enthoven, the E of E.G., became increasingly addicted to heroin. From one point of view, David’s addiction rendered him unable to honorably serve his function as manager. He was kicked out of the company by Sam Alder in 1977 and then the coercive control of E.G. really began to kick in. From one point of view, David was a direct cause of all the problems to follow. Although, I must say I didn't hold on to that one. But in 1991, David sent me a letter of apology. He was making amends. I accepted it. I put the letter in the drawer and have never returned to it. Post E.G., I went to David and his then partner Tim Clark in ie:music with a view to reestablishing our relationship. Rather than 21 years of grief, if Sam Alder had said to me “This is the situation and we screwed up,” I would probably still be with E.G., but he didn't. Instead, he threatened me with legal action to compel me to remain within E.G. That was it.
How much do you plan for King Crimson in advance and how much do you like to occur in the moment?
Well, both are part of the equation. What I do is walk onstage knowing exactly what I'll play if I can't hear a note that the other members will be playing, like for two nights at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw last year. In other words, there is a guaranteed standard of performance, which we can call professional. But if that's as far as it goes, I have no interest. I have no interest in professionalism. I have no interest in good professional musicians. May I say it's a considerable achievement, but it doesn't interest me. A good professional musician knows what they can play and plays it. I'm interested in musicians who play what they don't know they can play. For that, you have to introduce malleability into form, so the spirit may more freely enter. That's always risky and always hazardous. An example from King Crimson history is from '74 when it was playing large venues, including sports stadia in Italy. There you would have 10,000 excited Italians. So, the approach would be, for 35 minutes perhaps, we will play repertoire music, and anyone who knows that band from the The Great Deceiver box set or live engagement knows that because we were playing the material, it didn't mean it was as would now be called “fixed” or played to a click track. But after about 35 minutes, we might go somewhere. In retrospect, we may listen back to an improv on record and find a remarkable internal forming consistency in it, like “Providence” on the night there were 10,000 Italians that were very excitable who didn’t want that. So, after 10 minutes, it'd be very easy to sense the ripples in the audience. At that point, we had to bring back material that the audience thought they knew, although noting there's nothing fixed about it.
Today, because of the size of the band, and the nature of the venues we work in, we work to click tracks. This is today accepted as a necessary professional skill, one which Bill Bruford for example always resisted. Bill Rieflin also wasn't happy with it and I entirely understand it. Were I in a small club where I can actually listen to everyone else playing, then it's one thing. But in larger venues where what you hear is very much a translation of what's going on, you have to engage in a different way. So, I go onstage knowing what I can play on a bad night, not limiting myself or anyone else in the band by what they might do on a good night. Both are necessary.
Will there be more new music from the current King Crimson?
This year, there will be pieces added to the repertoire which have not been played for a long time. In terms of new writing, there's about 40-45 minutes available. During our rehearsal period, what we can engage with is somewhat constrained because we're introducing Theo Travis to nearly four-hours worth of music that he has to engage with. So, rather than shooting off in that direction, more focus is needed. However, both Theo and Jeremy Stacey are jazzers among other things, and those boys are going to shoot off in strange and interesting directions. So, who knows where that might lead?
How specific was your concept when you saw the three-drummer lineup in your mind?
I didn't want three drummers. I mean, one's enough. Some would say one is already too many. I wouldn't say that. After Michael Giles, there was no one drummer until Gavin Harrison that actually could cover the entire spectrum. So, that was the beginning of two drummers, and the ongoing two drummers. But, holding the question, “What would King Crimson be if it were playing tomorrow?” That's what presented itself very specifically.
Another question might be “What was the aim of reestablishing King Crimson in 2013-2014?” I had continuing dissatisfaction with King Crimson in 2008 and from 1990-2003. But although those bands did some very exceptional things, if you were putting a success rate on it, David Singleton suggested it might be 50 percent. Maybe you needed seven or eight people to play some of the music, and we were only four and five. So, there was a lingering dissatisfaction and it was not how I wished King Crimson to complete or leave the world with its last performance.
For me, the aims in putting the band together again was redemption, to repair the past, and completion. But a completion is a new beginning. So, if you complete, something else becomes available which you may or may not engage with. But there is energy in a completion, which enables the process to continue.
One thing I will say, when for the first time the stage set was established during a “family and friends” show, I walked into the room and there were the three drums, and there were the four in the front line at the back. I looked at it and knew we didn't have to play a note. The concept worked. I only had to look at the stage setting to know it worked. But nevertheless, we did play some notes.
In 2014, there was a very different Robert with a very different attitude regarding how you deal with the photography issue. Could you say something about that transformation?
It’s a different band. The band has an integrity and a strength which the earlier formations hadn't. Adrian Belew was always very happy with photography. Well, if you have one member in the band who doesn't give a hoot really for Robert's view of things, and in fact, takes a very different view, the band doesn't have a common policy or approach to photography and recording. This is entirely legitimate. My wife, for example, a remarkable performer, has no problem with photography and video. I do. I wish it were otherwise, but it's not.
It takes an enormous amount of work to put these seven or eight people on a stage, even four or five people on a stage, including carrying equipment hundreds of miles. And then for a show to be killed with one flash is heartbreaking. My performance life was compromised and undermined to such an extent that I could not honorably persist, which is why in 2010, December 4, that was it. I stopped live performance because I couldn't engage with the consensus of performance practice any longer.
However, many artists have now come forward and said, "No, this is not an acceptable part of performance practice." I looked at this question for many years and wondered what is my problem with this? The key part in it is that the act is non-consensual when someone takes a photograph knowing Robert's policy. It does kill Robert's show. This is not imaginary and it has driven him out of performance. There have also been attempts to engage, with signs and photography at the end of the performance.
With the current band, with people’s legitimate wish to take photos at the event, we meet that, but in such a way that it doesn't compromise the performance. That seems entirely reasonable to me. Besides, Tony Levin would really like to take pictures of the audiences, and I'm having a ball taking pictures of the audience. So bring it on, but not when I'm playing “Fracture,” or almost anything else actually.
In terms of what has changed, consider time, place, person, and circumstance. Time, performance and practice have changed. It's a different band. Robert has matured to a different degree and is no longer being undermined by constant conflict with the music industry and circumstance. Something has changed in the world.
Earlier, you said conceptually and optimally that a band should function as an ideal society. How have you attempted to make that idea manifest itself within King Crimson?
Well, a good guide for the right action is ethical practice, honesty, responsibility, equity, and goodwill. Straightforwardness and transparency equate to honesty. So, can you be straightforward with the other members of the band? Are your actions with them entirely transparent? Are you responsible? If you've made a mistake, can you own up and apologize? Well, I hope so. Equity, fairness and distributive justice. We share the money. Goodwill, common decency and kindness. If these are straightforward guides to how we behave, you're on the way. The exact and precise reverse of all these points was how E.G. behaved—every one of them. In other words, E.G. was not the way to find an ideal society, but the working practices of DGM and King Crimson are on the way there.
What gets you up in the morning?
Well, my life has never been better. It's never been happier. I have a wonderful wife, a wonderful home, and a wonderful team. I'm very fortunate with the friends I have, which is the best possible thing I can say about myself because the quality of the people who extend friendship to us is really the best credential we can offer in life. I'm in a world-class band. I have a wonderful garden which is waiting for me to walk down at the beginning of the day, before I sit down with my morning reading—my mind food, and with my Unsuk Chin and her charms before moving into the rest of my day. I have to get up in the morning and practice because playing guitar in this King Crimson is already a sufficient challenge without anything else.
When Ian McDonald and Michael Giles left the group, they said there was a sort of evilness or paranoia about the group. Is your music positive or balanced with darkness?
Well firstly, it's not my music. The way I describe it is that some King Crimson music has a primal ferocity, which can disturb gentler spirits. Now, I'll give one example from the very first performance of King Crimson in the United States in 1969. Before we began if you like, the major circuit, we did a gig at Montpelier College in Vermont. King Crimson used to get confused in the early days with King Curtis. That was an entirely more mellow experience. So, here we were at this college in Vermont, with some nice gentle people, and probably they were stoned. We came on, and the first thing we played was “Schizoid Man.” My sense of it was something like the film Bambi Meets Godzilla. What happens in this film is little Bambi comes happily into this opening in the forest. Five seconds later, this huge foot goes plop. This is the foot of Godzilla. You see no more of Bambi squashed beneath it. My sense was the gig was something like a giant foot squashing butterflies. That image was probably in my mind because, at the Rolling Stones performance in Hyde Park in July 1969, where King Crimson really broke England at that point, I was at the side of the stage about one minute before the Hells Angels threw me off. But I did see Mick Jagger dressed in white, throwing this very large bucket of butterflies and releasing them into the open. However, an awful lot at the bottom had been squashed. What I saw were some butterflies flying away and others going plop. So, perhaps that was part of my visual sense of that. Is King Crimson evil? No. Has it at various times had sheer visceral power? Yes. Perhaps it was too much for Ian and Mike at that particular point in their life trajectories.
If you hadn't been in King Crimson or a band, what would you have been doing?
Guitar Craft and the Guitar Circle, which may I say represent and remain my proper work in life. Most of it has taken place outside the public eye. It's seen almost 4,000 characters over 31-and-a-half years participate—a fair proportion of whom had no interest in playing guitar. Even if they had some interest in playing guitar, it was not to take it to a professional level. A few have taken it to a professional level, but very few. Outside the hold and the limiting condition of performance as mediated by commerce, and the demands of audiences, something remarkable is available—the same spirit that is available to King Crimson when it walks in a room.
Now, here's an interesting one. You might think this is horseshit, but anyway, I'll present it. We began holding Guitar Circle courses in Tepoztlan, Cuernavaca, in Mexico in, I believe, 2013. Most of the Guitar Craft and Guitar Circle courses were held in religious and retreat houses of various kinds. In this particular place, it was in the shadow of the secret mountain of the Indians, who were the indigenous population. Boy! It was a hot spot.
One of the very interesting recurrent characteristics of the Guitar Circle was the presence of silence. Maybe 100 people would be sitting together in one room, and all of a sudden, silence would enter the room. Astonishing. It wasn't quiet. It was the presence of silence. It was like a friend walked into the room—a friend of authority, that you recognized. Into Tepoztlan, silence would walk into the dining room at 19 minutes past 8:00am, every morning during breakfast.
So, I put my watch on the table and saw it go from 8:15am to 8:19am. The silence would remain present for the extent to which we could engage, which conventionally would be 20 or 30 minutes. It's something like music that really speaks to you. Within the King Crimson repertoire, “Starless,” for example, is one that speaks to a lot of people. Now, imagine that the most telling, resonating moment in the music walked up to you, and sat with you for 30 minutes, and you engaged with it. And that it spoke to you every morning at breakfast beginning at 8:19am. So, that's my proper work in life. There we are.
How did the passing of John Wetton affect you?
In the last 10 years or so of John's life, we became very close—closer than we'd ever been. We were at Bournemouth College together, and I knew John a little from the local scene, when he was a member of the Palmer-James Group. Then, when we both moved to London, we were in touch. When the first band broke up, I called John and asked him if he'd be interested in playing bass. But at that time, John was with the group Family.
We remained friendly and in contact. There was a strange event around June-ish 1972, when I was living in a cottage in Holt, Wimborne, Dorset. I was leaning out of a top bedroom window when this rather swish car pulled up and stopped. It was John Wetton. John had taken a drive in the country, not really knowing where I was, and I certainly had no inkling he'd be visiting. But at the exact moment that I leaned at the window, I saw him. So, we reconnected.
Then, clearly John was a member of that band, but relations with John professionally became difficult because, John at the time, as he would later graciously and freely acknowledge, was doing a lot of coke and drinking. There were one or two very bad moments like at the Academy of Music on 14th Street in New York. We had two shows. The second show began about 1:00 in the morning, and we came on a little after that I think.
John was a bit revved from the first show with coke. So, management took him on the roof and gave him a donut and he washed it down with a little liquor. We walked onstage and played a piece called “Doctor Diamond.” I knew from the first minute that the show was dead. We came off and John said to me "The tempos were very fast tonight, weren't they?" John was for me, the best player of his generation. He was phenomenal, but he got lighter, lighter and lighter.
Because John was now also singing, it redirected John from being a player, to being a singer. John's own aspiration for Crimson or for the band he was in, was more towards a level of commercial success, which I saw as a handicap. This I say without judgment at all. We have our sense of where we go in life, and we follow that trajectory. Mine was a different way.
We remained in contact. In 1977, we worked together around the time of the Exposure album. There were jams with Phil Collins, seeing where that might go. Actually, slightly before that, there was the possibility of working in some kind of Crimson reformulation with Bill Bruford, which for various reasons I pulled out of, and it became U.K., but we remained friends.
I met John at a music therapy lunch in London in 1985, I think it was. He came up to me and said, "I've just recently been listening to the three Crimson albums we did together. I think it's the best work I've done."
We continued on in contact. I played on his solo record in Los Angeles I think in '91 and '92. His first marriage broke up, he moved to Bournemouth, and I visited him regularly. It was clear that John had issues he was dealing with, which he did very honorably. At that point in time, we could have a very straightforward conversation about what was real in our lives. John became one of the very, very small number of people that I could consult on verifying or not, my own particular experience of the times. The conversation which I was wishing to have with John was the nature of our work together in 1973, and that was high on my list.
From the Crimson tour bus in Europe, about three or four months before he died, I was listening to “Starless” on the bus and I sent him an email, and had a response. I got home and visited John just before Christmas, just before he died. It was a very good visit.
For me, John's greatest achievements were in the last 10 years of his life. I went to his funeral, not long afterwards, along with Jakko Jakszyk. He was on my right with Phil Manzanera. Just before the service began, Eric Clapton walked in and sat right behind me.
The most remarkable discipline I've encountered in people have been those in AA (Alcoholics Anonymous), because the steps are very well organized with a wonderful community of mutual support. It's life or death. This is the razor's edge. Every day, you have to meet that demand on yourself, and your challenge on yourself. Quite a few of my brothers are in AA. By and large, they're the most reliable, straightforward and ethical people.
For those on whatever we might understand as a spiritual path, for example Sister Dana Benedicta, the spiritual life for them is also the razor's edge. So, I find within my own deep chance, that there was a commonality between those in whom I recognize a genuine, if you like, spiritual authority, and characters who have accepted this is who I am, and this is the path that I need to tread.
I'd like to end on something of a more upbeat note. No, actually John is very upbeat. John's life was a triumph.