Guitarist, producer, educator
“Find the new.” This phrase characterizes Robert Fripp, guitarist extraordinaire whose career has been a strobe-light session of brilliant exposure and self-imposed retreats. Fripp leapt into public consciousness in 1969 as guitarist for King Crimson, the inventive assemblage that blended jazz and classical orchestration with rock rhythms on their first release, In the Court of the Crimson King. The record went gold, and Fripp’s biographer, Eric Tamm, insists that the first generation of King Crimson continues to exert tremendous influence on rock and helped to launch “several musical movements, among them heavy metal, jazz-rock fusion, [and] progressive rock.”
Fripp remains best known for his role as guiding spirit of the four incarnations of King Crimson that appeared intermittently from 1969 to 1984. Yet throughout the 1980s Fripp served as dazzling soloist, producer of Peter Gabriel, Talking Heads, and other talents, and sessions player for and/or colleague to rock innovators Brian Eno, former Police guitarist Andy Summers, and pop star David Bowie. He also found time to explore dance-club music with the League of Gentlemen and, between 1985 and 1991, found and lead the Guitar Craft school, which trained 700 students, some of whom appeared in the school’s acoustic ensemble, the League of Crafty Guitarists.
Through these endeavors Fripp opened rock’s frontiers to classical music, jazz, avant-garde electronics, and worldbeat influences while enhancing his reputation as rock intellectual. Guitar World writer Bill Milkowski dubbed Fripp “the Mr. Spock of rock,” and Rolling Stone critic Mark Dery dryly remarked that “Robert Fripp... makes music for would-be Mensa members.” Many Fripp projects, in fact, can be described as brainy, and his work has received consistently mixed reviews. In 1991 Guitar Player reviewer Andy Widders-Ellis praised Fripp’s “intelligent lyrics, odd meters, highly-crafted guitar parts, and weird processed sounds [that] make for superb progressive rock.” But a year earlier Melody Maker’s Simon Reynolds had panned some of King Crimson’s early work as “dated … a baroque’n’roll calamity … scrofulous, overwrought improvisation.”
Some observers feel that Fripp has used his intellect as a defense; from his podium in Musician, Player and Listener, and Guitar Player magazines and in record liner notes, he has espoused his musical philosophies, attacked music industry “dinosaurs,” and promoted his Guitar Craft school. While such efforts have kept Fripp
For the Record…
Born in 1946 in Wimborne Minster, Dorset, England; father owned a real-estate business; married Toyah Willcox (a singer and actress). Education: Attended real-estate management program at Bournemouth College.
Guitarist, producer, educator. With drummer Michael Giles and bassist Peter Giles, recorded The Cheerful Insanity of Giles, Giles and Fripp, Deram, 1968; member of rock band King Crimson, 1969-1984; toured with Peter Gabriel, 1977; performed and recorded with the League of Gentlemen, early 1980s, and the League of Crafty Guitarists and Sunday All Over the World, early 1990s. Session player on recordings by Blondie, David Bowie, Brian Eno, Flying Lizards, Gabriel, Andy Summers, David Sylvian, Talking Heads, and Toyah Willcox. Producer of recordings by Gabriel, Daryl Hall, the Roches, and Keith Tippet, among others. Student and innovator of plectrum (picking) guitar technique; founded, 1985, and led school Guitar Craft, Charles Town, WV, and Cranbourne, England, 1985-1991. Contributor to periodicals, including “Guitar Craft” column in Guitar Player, 1989-90.
Addresses: Record distributor —Caroline Records, 114 West 26th Street, New York, NY 10001.
in the public eye, he also has interrupted his musical career for concentrated periods of self-examination and spiritual development. It’s little wonder that Robert Fripp author Tamm tagged him as “somewhat of an enigma.”
Although Fripp began performing at 14, his first success was in 1967, with a little-known psychedelic rock novelty act that included drummer Michael Giles and bassist Peter Giles. After the flop of the band’s 1968 album The Cheerful Insanity of Giles, Giles, and Fripp, the trio dissolved. Michael Giles and Fripp, however, decided to further explore their musical alliance. They formed King Crimson in November of 1968 with bassist Greg Lake (who would later form Emerson, Lake, and Palmer), composer and multi-instrumentalist Ian McDonald (who would go on to a career with Foreigner), and lyricist Peter Sinfield.
Tamm chronicled in Fripp’s biography how the musicians allowed their songs to evolve, inviting inspiration through collaborative improvisation—a method Fripp has adopted as his guiding modus operandi. Although he consistently maintained that King Crimson was primarily a band for the stage and not the studio, performances led to the release in October of 1969 of In the Court of the Crimson King, which enjoyed more than 500,000 in sales. Almost half of the album’s songs, including Fripp’s compositions “Twentieth Century Schizoid Man” and “Epitaph,” continued to appear on Crimson compilations released as much as two decades later.
The first King Crimson was short-lived, disbanding the same year as their performing debut. Fripp later wrote that he was crushed but determined to carry on the Crimson project. The band reformed featuring a shifting roster of musicians from reed player Mel Collins and pianist Keith Tippet to bassists Lake, Gordon Haskell, or Boz Burrell and drummers Mike Giles, Andy McCulloch, or Ian Wallace. Fripp remained the group’s guitarist and composed or co-wrote many of Crimson ll’s songs.
Between tours the second King Crimson released four albums: 1970’s In the Wake of Poseidon and Lizard, 1971’s Islands, and the live Earthbound, from 1972.In the Court of the Crimson King and Poseidon are Fripp’s only recordings to hit the Billboard Top 40; the ever-wilder experiments of Lizard and Islands mystified many fans. When critics lauded or damned these recordings for their ambitious/pretentious, daring/jarring mixes of orchestral music, rock, and jazz, Fripp shrugged—he was exploring rock’s frontiers. As he later told Musician, Player and Listener’s Vic Garbarini, “Since rock music is for me the most mobile of the musical forms, one can, under the general banner of rock music, play in fact any kind of music whatsoever.”
In light of Crimson ll’s mixed reception, it was no surprise that between 1973 and 1974 a new, third King Crimson appeared. It was comprised of Fripp, Yes drummer Bill Bruford—he takes second to Fripp in Crimson longevity—and bass player John Wetton, also known for his work with Uriah Heep and Asia. This trio was supplemented by string and Mellotron player David Cross and percussionist Jamie Muir. Sharply contrasting the increasingly mellow Crimson II, the new band offered a driving, almost heavy metal sound, kicked to overdrive by Fripp’s power chords and Bruford’s assertive rhythms. The rock press couldn’t ignore the disparity between the old Crimsons and the new band’s output on their 1973 recording Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, as well as the 1974 releases Starless and Bible Black and Red. Asked by Rolling Stone’s Cameron Crowe to clarify the band’s intentions, Fripp replied, “I’m not interested in being pegged down with narrow definitions ... as soon as one defines, one limits.”
From 1972 to 1974 Fripp defied other rock boundaries in conspiracy with synthesizer player and sound-treatment wizard Brian Eno, of Roxy Music fame. Their records No Pussyfooting and Evening Star, released in 1973 and 1975, respectively, can be viewed as lab notes on the use of the signal loop and layering technologies that Fripp later refined with his improvised “Frippertronics.” Crimson production work also engaged Fripp at the time; he edited the band’s live recordings Earthworks and USA, as well as Fripp, Bruford, and Wetton’s Starless and Bible Black.Fripp’s production of Starless was so subtle that few critics noted that the “live recording” was enhanced with studio touches.
During the summer of 1974 Fripp took the first of his hiatuses from rock. “[An] accumulation of doubts and powerful personal experiences had led Fripp to a position when he felt compelled to disband King Crimson,” Tamm wrote. Fripp wound up his affairs and relocated to Sherborne, England, where he installed himself at the Academy for the Harmonious Development of Man. There he studied for ten months under John G. Bennett, a disciple of mystic George Gurdjieff. Notoriously tight-lipped with interviewers, Fripp has issued few public statements about his stay at the Academy. Its monkish surroundings were most likely ideal, however, to the rock guitarist who told Musician in 1984, “Me and a book is a party. Me and a book and a cup of coffee is an orgy.” After this spiritual sojourn, Fripp remained in retreat for two more years, enticed to perform only on Brian Eno’s 1975 outing Another Green World and his Before and After Science, of 1977.
That year was one of a resurgent Fripp’s most productive. He inched his way back into rock with session work on Peter Gabriel’s first solo album after the singer’s departure from Genesis. Fripp impressed Gabriel so much that he was invited to produce and perform on Gabriel’s second solo recording and to share the stage during a 1977 tour. Fripp further shattered his self-imposed isolation by moving from England to New York City, where the punk and new wave musicians of the seminal club CBGB were assailing the corporate music industry. Here Fripp took up development of the tape-loop technology he’d begun exploring with Eno, formerly christening the system “Frippertronics.” In 1977 Eno and David Bowie coaxed Fripp into a studio in Berlin, where his session work enlivened several songs on Bowie’s Heroes.
From Berlin Fripp joined singer Daryl Hall, of Hall and Oates, in New York and produced an album so removed from Hall’s popular blue-eyed soul that RCA Records and Hall’s handlers refused to release it. Fripp nonetheless fought to get the disc into stores, and Sacred Songs finally reached the public in 1980. In defending Sacred Songs Fripp was actually defending Frippertronics, which made its recording debut on Hall’s album. In a 1986 Guitar Player article, Tom Mulhern described Frippertronics as a system that allowed Fripp to improvise “with himself using a pair of tape recorders, his pedalboard, and a variety of guitars.” Frippertronics inspired Fripp to begin a new era in his musical development and a period of great activity in the music industry.
Improvisation is one of Fripp’s musical obsessions, and Frippertronics enabled him to probe its potential. Using tape recorders, Fripp could lay down a musical line, loop it through a tape replay, and improvise over his own playing. The method came to full bloom with Exposure, the guitarist’s first solo recording, released in 1979. Predictably, critics greeted the LP with ambivalence. Even Tamm—usually sympathetic to Fripp—commented “Exposure gels as a whole but not in its parts.” Tamm conceded, however, that perhaps Frippertronics was most exciting at Fripp’s 1979 live dates.
These concerts and Frippertronics were actually part of a bigger project that Fripp tagged “The Drive to 1981,” in which he mixed Frippertronics with another of his inventions, “Discotronics”—dance music with a cerebral edge; Fripp even coined the term “Barbertronics,” to describe his guitar work at London’s Virgin Records store, where he was accompanied by a beautician cutting hair. “Drive” it was; Fripp whirled like a dervish—granting interviews; recording and releasing the dual Frippertronics/Discotronics works God Save the Queen/Under Heavy Manners and Lei the Power Fall: An Album of Frippertronics; pumping Frippertronics in a 72-date 1979 tour; and publishing articles in Musician, Player and Listener. Aside from all this, there was Fripp’s session work with Talking Heads, David Bowie, Flying Lizards, the Screamers, and Janis Ian. Plus, Fripp produced the first two recordings of the folk-feminist trio of sisters called the Roches.
Frippertronics/Discotronics was further synthesized in 1980 when Fripp spawned the League of Gentlemen, a dance band featuring XTC organist Barry Andrews (later of Shriekback), bassist Sarah Lee (who would graduate to Gang of Four), and drummer Johnny Toobad. Their 77 performance dates in 1981 resulted in Robert Fripp and the League of Gentlemen, released the following year.
The League’s dance music spurred Fripp to regenerate King Crimson. Late in 1980 he sought out veteran Crimson drummer Bill Bruford, who had spent the 1970s hybridizing progressive rock with Genesis and on solo projects. Bruford and Fripp fleshed out their troupe with noted guitarist Adrian Belew and bassist I Chapman stick player Tony Levin. Their goal: to compose improvised dance-club music that pieced together cutting-edge influences from art-rock, mysticism, minimalism, and new wave.
Introduced on the 1981 King Crimson album Discipline, these ideas were embellished with worldbeat touches and Frippertronics on 1982’s Beat ana Three of a Perfect Pair, from 1984. Some critics greeted these efforts with superlatives. Guitar Player dubbed Fripp’s work of this period “exciting adventurism”; Rolling Stone seconded that assessment with “a marvel of control and technique.” Others reviewers, however, complained of a cerebral chill that undercut the music’s passion—even at King Crimson IV live shows. One 1984 concert, in fact, was chastened by New York Times contributor John Rockwell as “cool, careful, and bit too calculated.” Billboard critic Ethlie Ann Vare seemed to concur, tagging the concert “an IQ test” conducted by “four certified musical geniuses.”
Tamm suggested that for Fripp, the collaboration of these great musical minds degenerated into a clash of “egotistical aspirations.... Clearly, by 1984, Fripp’s heart was already elsewhere.” He turned to Police guitarist Andy Summers, with whom Fripp released the collaborative recordings I Advance Masked, from 1982, and 1984’s Bewitched. By the mid-1980s, though, Fripp had devoted himself to teaching.
With the disbanding of the fourth King Crimson, Fripp once again withdrew from the rock stage to renew his ties with his guru, John G. Bennett—only this time, he landed not in a monastic cell but in the seminar rooms of the American Society for Continued Education in Charles Town, West Virginia. There Fripp founded Guitar Craft. As Joao Botelho da Silva wrote in The Christian Science Monitor, Guitar Craft represented “a whole new way of approaching the guitar, including a new tuning, a precise study of how to play with a pick, and underneath the technical details, something of a way of life.” Between 1985 and 1991 more than 700 students attended the guitar master’s residential seminars in the U.S., UK, and Europe. Fripp proteges were treated to a regimen of daily individual and group guitar lessons, instruction in relaxation, meditation, and concentration techniques, discussions of musicology, and practice.
Like other Fripp endeavors, Guitar Craft evolved over time. Fripp nurtured its growth not only through teaching but by popularizing his pedagogies and philosophies through interviews or in his Guitar Player “Guitar Craft” columns published from 1989 to 1990. Eventually Guitar Craft became a complex enterprise engendering instructional monographs and an informal network of “Crafties” linked by newsletter, as well as the all-acoustic performing ensemble the League of Crafty Guitarists.
Five Crafty Guitarist recordings were issued between 1986 and 1991, 1988’s Get Crafty, land and the following year’s Show of Hands deemed the most important. As was expected, they garnered mixed reviews, as did Crafty Guitarist concerts. A Variety reporter perched firmly on the fence while describing a March, 1990, show as “viscerally and technically appealing... achieving a sort of terrible beauty ... but one wonders what kind of career can be ahead for Robert Fripp clones.” Down Beat’s Art Lange, for his part, condemned the ensemble’s 1990 Victoriaville, Quebec, Musique Actuelle performance as “the fest’s biggest flop.”
Such notices perhaps prompted Fripp to entrust Guitar Craft to other hands in 1991. As of 1992, his income reportedly came not from music or teaching, but from real estate. Nonetheless, Fripp occasionally surfaced with new recordings, including collaborations with his wife, singer Toyah Willcox, and the ephemeral band Sunday All Over the World, whose single recording,Kneeling at the Shrine, was issued in 1991. Fripp also renewed his collaboration with Brian Eno, providing session work for Eno’s 1992 release Nerve Net.
By 1993 Fripp’s principal musical pursuit appeared to be management of the King Crimson properties. He remastered the studio recordings of all four generations of King Crimson; the work, marketed in single albums or sets, was widely available in 1992. A three-disc compilation of previously unreleased King Crimson concert recordings from 1973 and 1974 also made its way into record stores in 1993.
Although Fripp retained his low profile, the continued availability and sheer range of King Crimson and Fripp solo material perpetuates his reputation among rock audiences. His persistent record of innovation also keeps him in the back of critics’ minds. As Garbarini noted in Musician, Player and Listener, “If there’s any one thing that’s predictable about Robert Fripp, it’s that he’ll consistently do the unexpected.”
With King Crimson
In the Court of the Crimson King: An Observation by King Crimson, 1969, reissued, Editions EG, 1989.
In the Wake of Poseidon, 1970, reissued, Editions EG, 1989.
Lizard, 1970, reissued, Editions EG, 1989.
Islands, 1971, reissued, Editions EG, 1989.
Earthbound, Editions UK, 1972.
Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Editions EG, 1974.
Starless and Bible Black, Editions EG, 1974. Red, Editions EG, 1974.
USA Editions EG, 1975.
Discipline, Editions EG, 1981.
Beat, Editions EG, 1982.
Three of a Perfect Pair, Editions EG, 1984.
The Compact King Crimson, Editions EG, 1987.
The Essential King Crimson: Frame by Frame, Editions EG, 1991.
The Abbreviated King Crimson, Caroline, 1922.
The Great Deceiver Live 1973-74, Virgin, 1992.
With the League of Crafty Guitarists
Live!, Editions EG, 1986.
(With Toyah Willcox; featuring the League of Crafty Guitarists) The Lady or the Tiger?, Editions EG, 1986.
Get Crafty, I, Editions EG, 1988.
Show of Hands, Editions EG, 1989.
(With Brian Eno) No Pussyfooting, Antilles, 1973.
(With Eno) Evening Star, Antilles, 1975.
Exposure, 1979, reissued, Editions EG, 1985.
God Save the Queen/Under Heavy Manners, Polydor, 1980.
(With the League of Gentlemen) Robert Fripp and the League of Gentlemen, Editions EG, 1980.
Let the Powers Fall, Editions EG, 1981.
(With Andy Summers) I Advance Masked, A&M, 1982.
(With Summers) Bewitched, A&M, 1984.
Network, Editions EG, 1984.
(With Willcox)Ophelia’s Shadow, 1991, Caroline.
(With Sunday All Over the World) Kneeling at the Shrine, Editions EG, 1991.
(With Michael Giles and Peter Giles)The Cheerful Insanity of Giles, Giles and Fripp, Deram, 1968.
Also produced or contributed session work to Brian Eno’s Here Come the Warm Jets, Island, 1973; Another Green World, Island, 1975; Before and After Science, Island, 1977; Music for Films, Polydor, 1978; and Nerve Net, Warner Bros., 1992; David Bowie’s Heroes, RCA, 1977; Peter Gabriel’s Peter Gabriel, Atco, 1977, and Peter Gabriel, Atlantic, 1988; Blondie’s Parallel Lines, Chrysalis, 1978; Talking Heads’ Fear of Music, Sire, 1979; Daryl Hall’$ Sacred Songs, RCA, 1980; The Roches’The Roches, RCA, 1980, and Keep on Doing, RCA, 1982; and David Sylvian’s Gone to Earth, Virgin, 1986.
The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, edited by Jon Pareles and Patricia Romanowski, Rolling Stone Press/Summit Books, 1983.
Tamm, Eric A., Robert Fripp: From King Crimson to Guitar Craft, Faber & Faber, 1990.
Billboard, June 23, 1984.
Christian Science Monitor, November 5, 1990.
Down Beat, February 1991.
Guitar Player, February 1982; January 1986; July 1991.
Guitar World, September 1984.
Melody Maker, February 3, 1990.
Musician, February 1989.
Musician, Player and Listener, August 1979.
New York Times, July 23, 1978; June 28, 1984.
Rolling Stone, December 6, 1973; May 10, 1984; August 8, 1991.
Variety, April 14, 1990.
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