Riding on the Dynamic of Disaster
An Interview with Robert Fripp
by Allan Jones
Melody Maker -- April 28, 1979
As part of his plan for The Drive To 1981, Robert Fripp is undertaking a world tour of record shops. Allan Jones meets the world's most rational rock star.
Fripp is at the station to welcome me to Bournemouth with a keen handshake and an eager smile.
Fripp is small and neat and enormously polite. He might have been designed and manufactured by the Japanese as the world's first transistorized small, mobile, intelligent unit. He suggests lunch, ushers me quickly toward the green Volvo. His conversation is brisk; ideas flip up and flash by like addresses on a rotarex card index.
The Volvo pulls away from the station. My ears are already punch drunk.
Fripp takes the motor car carefully through the lunchtime traffic, around the one-way system to the town centre.
"Funny old place," he says affectionately of Bournemouth, his Dorset accent joining together the dots of his conversation. "You wouldn't believe how it's changed. They even have muggers here, now."
Fripp has lived the for the last two years in New York, in an apartment just off the Bowery. "A very different kind of place to Bournemouth," he adds, deadpan. He has, however, retained his cottage in Wimbourne, a small village 10 miles outside Bournemouth. Fripp is spending the weekend there, preparing himself for what he describes as his return to the marketplace.
This week his first solo album, the exciting and novel "Exposure," is released. It's five years since he announced the dissolution of King Crimson to pursue - as he declared at the time - a career as "a small mobile, intelligent unit." He seems, as Michael Watts remarked last week in his review of "Exposure," to have been away for an age.
He has not been idle, of course. He has recorded with Peter Gabriel, Brian Eno and David Bowie; he as produced albums by Darryl Hall and Gabriel. He has involved himself generally in a disparate variety of musical activities in New York, guesting with everyone from Blondie (whose guitarist, Chris Stein, is a close friend) to the Screamers.
His decision to return to the marketplace is nothing if not neatly timed. Ten years ago to this very month, King Crimson made their debut at the Speakeasy in London. Coincidence or symmetry, I ask Fripp over lunch.
"A bit of both I suspect," he replies, tucking into some kind of nut cutlet. "But let's not talk about me - what about you?"
Oh-oh, I think: the Mike Oldfield treatment.
"What have you been up to recently? Where do you live now? Are you married?" I knock back my apple juice and wit for opening time.
An hour later Fripp parks us in a convenient pub.
It's still crowded with lunchtime drinkers: office workers planning the weekend over halves of bitter, secretaries filing their nails to dry martinis, supermarket supervisors with blue-dos sipping gins and complaining of varicose veins, young managers of boutiques with kipper ties and Kevin Keegan perms dripping DD down their shirt-fronts.
Fripp plants me at a table opposite two chaps who look like the kind of salesman you find selling glass ashtrays to foreign tourists in overpriced gift shops on the seafront. Fripp returns with the drinks.
The salesmen look at us suspiciously as I set up the tape recorder.
Fripp has decided that he would like to preface the interview(should I have no objection) with a short speech outlining his present plans and his schedule for the immediate future.
I have no objections.
"Thank you so much," he says and begins to speak. He speaks directly into the microphone, as if delivering a carefully rehearsed address to a public meeting.
"Last summer" he stars, "after having considered for a couple of years what I should do with myself, I decided to undertake a three-year campaign, characterised by the title, The Drive To 1981. For three years I shall be engaged in activities in the marketplace, although I shall not be confined by the normal values of the marketplace. In other words, I'm committed to hustling and working very hard for a period of three years in a very public situation." He pauses. He continues.
"Now - the first thrust in The Drive To 1981, which culminates in September 1981, is a trio of albums - 'Exposure', 'Frippertronics' and 'Discotronics.'"
"The first album, 'Exposure,' is just about to be released. The second album, 'Frippertronics,' is completed and just has to be assembled. It will be released around September or October this year. I'm currently writing 'Discotronics' which will probably be released sometime around September 1980."
"'Exposure' deals with tweaking the vocabulary of, for want of a better word, 'rock' music. It investigates the vocabulary and, hopefully, expands the possibilities of expression and introduces a more sophisticated emotional dynamic than one would normally find within 'rock.'"
"'Frippertronics' deals with expanding the vocabulary and emotional dynamic of that form of music normally referred to as Muzak -- but a better term for it would be Eno's term, ambient music.
"The third album expands the possibilities of disco music as a vehicle for carrying a wider range of propositions than normally one would expect. 'Discotronics' is officially defined as the musical experience resulting at the interstice of disco and Frippertronics."
"This will be the first thrust. That's not all that will happen on The Drive To 1981 - just the first thrust."
This concludes Fripp's opening statement. He looks at me.
I'm speechless, momentarily overwhelmed.
"ONE LANCASHIRE HOTPOT AND A CHEESE FLAN - THANK YEWWWWW!" bellows the barman over the heads of the crowd.
I sense an opening and jump for it - what provoked the decision to commit to his three year campaign, I ask.
"Well" says Fripp off again, "when I withdrew from the music business to official retirement in 1974, I had no intention of returning at all. I thought it unlikely. But when I went to America in February 1977, to join Peter Gabriel, I was in a sense putting my elbow in the water and finding out whether this was a world in which I could receive an appropriate education. As I became more busy, producing Darryl Hall and Peter Gabriel, it occurred to me - probably around the Spring of 1978 - that I was in no way officially retired."
"Now, when I was 18 and I planned my life for the next 12 years, one of the aims was to retire at the age of thirty. Which I did. But in the Spring of 1978, I realized I was no longer retired. I was working, if you like, as a professional musician and, yes, it was possible for me to use my job as an education. It was also a valid occupation in itself."
"So, rather tan tap about, and knowing that the devil uses idle hands, I thought I might as well keep my hands busy. There were other considerations which we can go into later - a side aspect of The Drive To 1981 is to help finance a number of interests and ventures outside the music business."
Fripp pauses, waits, it seems for the next question.
I ask whether, when he declared the Crimson experiment to be over, he had in mind any specific collaborations or projects to pursue.
"No," he says firmly. "At the time Crimson dissolved, although there was a forthcoming Fripp and Eno tour in Europe - which was, in effect, an archetypal small, mobile, and intelligent tour - I had no plans whatsoever. Other, that is, than to spend a year winding up my affairs so I could go to Sherbourne and participate in the Fifth Basic Course at the International Academy For Continuous Education. That would constitute my activities for the second year."
The two salesmen exchange puzzled looks.
"And the third year?" I inquire.
"That," says Fripp, "would be spent recovering from the second year. There was a three-year block, you see: preparation, withdrawal, recovery. I didn't wind up Crimson so I could do something else in a purely musical sense. In terms of Crimson it simply became apparent to me on a night in July, 1974, that I would have to leave - even though the following day we were to begin recording 'Red.'"
"Can you tell me why you suddenly realised you had to leave?" I ask, anxiously. The supermarket supervisor with the blue rinse, who's sitting behind Fripp cranes her neck over her shoulder, clearly intrigued.
"It was a very, very strong personal experience," Fripp says solemnly.
"Which you want to remain personal?"
"Not especially," Fripp replies. "It's just difficult to explain without sounding like a pompous air-head and making claims that would sound more appropriate coming from a vacuous egocentric. I was a very strong personal experience - I had a glimpse of something."
The two salesmen knock back their drinks quickly.
"The last interviews I did, when Crimson broke up, I didn't know how to explain it" Fripp continues. "The top of my head blew off. That's the easiest way of describing it. And for a period of three to six months it was impossible for me to function. In a different world, with a different set of responsibilities, I would have been incapable."
"My ego went. I lost my ego for three months. We were recording 'Red' and Bill Bruford would say, 'Bob - what do you think?' And I'd say, 'Well - 'and inside I'd be thinking how can I know anything? Who am I to express an opinion? And I'd say - 'Whatever you think, Bill. Yes, whatever you like.'"
"You realise, that in our normal view of ourselves we think we're justified in having an opinion, and the simplest expression of that it can provide day-to-day friction necessary to generate any kind of activity. For instance, if I had said to you 'Allan, what do you think about the weather?' and you said to me, 'I'm a nonentity. I have no right to express a personal value judgement on the weather,' well, I'd say 'oh fine' - and walk off. You wouldn't be worth talking to. And that was roughly my situation. It took me three to six months before a particular kind of Fripp personality grew back to the degree that I could participate in the normal day-to-day business of hustling."
Fripp looks fleetingly grave at this memory.
"ONE CHEESE FLAN AND A COTTAGE PIE - THANK YEWWWWW!" bellows the barman over the heads of the crowd.
This personal crisis clearly contributed to - though it did not alone provoke - his decision to retreat to Sherbourne, where he was to remain for ten months. Sherbourne, it should be explained, was an institution founded by J.G. Bennett, a disciple of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky and based, in fact on Gurdjieff's Institute For The Harmonious Development Of Man.
Fripp's reasons for entering Sherbourne are multiple and complex, too involved, really, to précis conveniently here. It would do no justice to his motives to offer a garbled, abbreviated account of the psychological and emotional confusion that lead him to Sherbourne.
We might, however, say hat he sought at Sherbourne to strip say the affections of the fame he had enjoyed as a rock star; it returned him to a more reasoned perspective of the world and his involvement in it.
"That was part of the general reason," he says. I remember just before I went to Sherbourne, I went to the Reading Festival in August, 1975. A band came on stage who were actually friends of mine. Anyway, we'd been waiting an hour-and-a-half while their laser show was being set up. I went out to the front. It began to rain. I was standing in six inches of mud. It was drizzling. A man over here on my right began to vomit. And a man over here on my left puled open his flies and began to urinate on my leg."
"Behind me there were some 50,000 people who maybe for two or three evenings a week, for amusement or recreation, would participate in this imaginary world of rock'n'roll. Then I looked at the group on stage - their lasers shooing off ineffectually into the night, locked into this same dream. Except they're in it for 24 hours a day, seven days a week for the rest of their lives."
Fripp says that the course he attended at Sherbourne helped return to his life a sense of purpose and direction; it relieved him of a feeling of uselessness that had haunted him for years. The course involved the study of cosmological, religious and philosophical beliefs and most specifically those propagated by Gurdjieff, but Fripp is keen to attest to the practical nature of the course. It was certainly no holiday camp for intellectuals.
"There ere 100 people living in the house," he says. "They'd come from all different walks of life, from different countries. Their ages ranged from 18 65 in my year. And in that year we lost 2- per cent of the pupils. Three of them to the asylum."
"Sounds pretty grim," I reflect.
"It was very hard going," he replies. "When I went to do my interview to see if I was worthy material, the man said to me - 'It's physically uncomfortable, psychologically uncomfortable and spiritually daunting.' And it WAS one of the most uncomfortable physical experiences of my life. It was always horribly cold. Everyone who went there, more than anything will probably remember the cold. And it wasn't just the physical cold."
"The was a kind of cold that at times could chill the soul."
"ONE SAUSAGE EGG AND BEANS AND A CHEESE FLAN - THANK YEWWWWWW!" bellows the barman over the heads of the crowd.
" I shared a dormitory with five other men," Fripp continues. One from Alaska, two Americans, an Irishman, a Polish American and an Italian."
("Heard it!" I'm tempted to interrupt.)
"The Italian," Fripp goes on "would wake up most mornings at 3 a.m. and fart sufficiently loudly to wake me up, although he would be able to turn over and go back to sleep. The Alaskan had his bed next to mine. He was always rather depressed and unhappy. His head was hunched into his shoulders like this."
Fripp impersonates a deformed Alaskan. People begin to move away from us.
We usually got up at six, unless we were doing the breakfast service and ten we were up at half-past-four."
"This really sounds horrendous," is all I can say.
"It was wonderful," Fripp declares. "So funky, so down-to-earth. Bennett used to say - 'Spirituality is above all a practical thing.' The whole idea was to remind us of that.
"One of my favorite memories is of being in a trench digging for a water main."
"There I was at the bottom of an eight-foot trench, which has taken two days to dig, with 28 other people, all of whom without distinction I detest - suddenly it begins to rain. And then a cheerful voice at the top of this trench as one looks up says, 'HELLO! We're digging in the wrong place! The water main is over here! We'll have to start again.' How, at that moment, can you find some way of hanging on to these bright ideas? That was the test. And it was marvelous to have your lofty ideas deflated. I mean I think everyone who went to Sherbourne thought that God had selected them uniquely and specifically to same the universe, so it was a very, very useful deflation."
"Oh yes. Certainly. I thought I was special. And besides, I was a rock star."
I'm beginning to wonder whether I should ask one of the salesmen to keep Fripp talking while I phone for an ambulance, but the feeling passes. I ask Fripp what plans he had for life after Sherbourne.
"My idea was that I would be ordained as a minister," he answers calmly. "But I wanted to continue to function within the rock world. I would have been a rock guitarist and a priest simultaneously."
"Church of England?" I enquire weakly.
Fripp's first step back to total involvement in music came with his work on the first Peter Gabriel album, produced in Toronto by Bob Ezrin.
"It was a very demoralizing and a depressing experience," he recalls.
"I found it difficult to work with the producer. I liked him as a man, but I couldn't express myself fully in the circumstances. Neither could Peter. It wasn't Robert Fripp on that album. It wasn't until the end of July 1977 - when I went off to do 'Heroes' with Bowie in Berlin - that Fripp was able to be Fripp. There were no limitation on Fripp in that experience."
"I actually said to Peter when he asked me to play on the album, 'I'll come along and make the record on the sole proviso that if it's not appropriate for me to do it I can leave after three days.' Peter agreed. But after three days, having discovered it wasn't appropriate, I didn't want to leave. I didn't ant to leave my friends to be ravaged."
'LASSSS ORDURRRRRS LAYZANGENMENN - TANK YEWWWWWWWW!" bellows the barman over the heads of the crowd.
Fripp returned to England after his sessions for 'Gabriel I.' He worked on the editing, publishing and marketing of the tapes of J. G. Bennett's speeches at Sherbourne. There are 23 titles so far available, and Fripp hoes hat the profits from The Drive To 1981 campaign will finance the production and release of the remaining tapes.
He returned to America to tour with Gabriel in February, 1977, and decided "to use New York as a centre of gravity."
"I felt it to be the right decision for a number of reasons," he says. "It was a means of buying time while I released myself from internalized psychological archetypes."
It was during this period in New York that Fripp renewed his friendship with Darryl Hall. They had met originally in September, 1974, when Hall had flown Fripp to Toronto to see Hall & Oats. Hall was interested in Fripp producing the duo. The idea, Fripp says, appealed to him, but wasn't at the time "appropriate."
However, in 1977 Hall was recording his solo album, 'Sacred Songs.' Fripp was invited to play guitar. The first day he appeared in the studio he was promoted to producer. The album was completed on November 2, 1977. RCA immediately shelved it.
"It terrified the record company" Fripp says. "Terrified them. Their official description of the record was 'strange.' They simply refused to release it. The record scared off the company and his manager."
"It was a beautiful working experience, though. It contains some excellent music, some of the best work Hall's ever done. Certainly some of the most honest and personally revealing. I think the people around him were disturbed by what he'd done. One of the things that has become evident is that Darryl doesn't have the freedom he thought he had."
The kind of conflict that occurred between RCA and Hall at that time was sparked off again because of his involvement with Fripp on 'Exposure.' Hall was originally the principal vocalist - "I just couldn't keep him out of the studio," Fripp says - and appeared on some 17 minutes of the album. 'Exposure' was completed in August 1978, and Fripp returned to England to master the album in September. Then, because of the contractual problems that arose over Hall's involvement, the original metal-work of Fripp's album had to be smashed. He was left with 30 per cent of the album to rework.
"I was thoroughly demoralized and depressed. My life was completely knocked askew," he recalls.
He was allowed to use Hall on two tracks, and set about looking for suitable vocalists for the remainder of the album. Peter Hammill had been a friend for about nine years. Fripp telephoned him and asked if he'd appear on his album. He flew out to New York from his home in Wiltshire almost immediately.
"He came into the studio dressed in a rather svelte and smooth fashion, took off his nice cloths and got into a smelly dressing-gown, poured himself liberal dose from the bottle of cognac he'd brought with him, and went in there and started delivering the goods. Great man. Very nice an. He said that wen he began singing he wanted to be the vocal equivalent of Hendrix. Conceptually, he was right on the beam. And he delivers, I think."
The contractual difficulties precipitated by Hall's participation wee repeated when Fripp asked Chrysalis for Blondie to play on a version of a Donna Summer song (the title of which escapes Fripp completely).
Chrysalis' refused to allow Blondie permission to appear.
"The kind of decision that prevented Blondie from appearing on my album represents a value system I'm not prepared to work with. It's a value judgement which belongs to an old world. It's not a world 'm any longer involved in," he says.
"DRRRINKUPPP PLEEZE LAYZANGENMEN - THANK YEWWWWW!" bellows the barman over the heads of he crowd.
We leave the pub to continue the conversation elsewhere.
Fripp takes a seat in the corner by the window, in the Salad Centre. We're talking about David Bowie's 'Heroes.'
When I did that album I was completely out of my brain. I didn't know whether I was coming or going. I hadn't played as Robert Fripp for three years. I had no idea what I was going to do, no preconceptions. I just went in and did it."
"I said to Mr. B, 'Look, I haven't played for three years. I don't know what I play like.' And he said, 'Well, do you think you can play some hairy rock'n'roll?' I said, 'I don't know. I 'spect so. I'll try.' So I went in to listen to what they'd been doing and they said, 'Well you might as well plug in.' 'I suppose I might,' I said. And the very first thing they did was put up 'Beauty And The Beast.' And I played straight over it. This is the way I did the rest of the album. They'd put up a track and 'd play. I wouldn't bother rehearsing it. I'd just play."
This, he says, is the way he prefers to work; responding completely intuitively to the unexpected. This was the manner in which he and Eno recorded 'No Pussyfooting,' the first side of which he has long considered his finest work.
"Bowie told me that it was one of his great influences; which to me means that it was his one heavy influence. He's right of course. A man of sound taste, is Mr. B. I like him immensely. I don't know him that well, though. In the same way I would consider Brian to be a friend, I think Brian is a friend of David. I find him a very attractive man, but I don't share that intimacy with him that Brian does."
"I think though, that there are similarities between the three of us. We're all about the same age, with more or less working-class backgrounds. We're all part of that breed of keen self-publicists, self-promoters. Each of us accept the responsibility of having feelings. So we tend to work toward cerebration and bodily involvement rather than exposure of one's feelings."
"The three of us are very sensitive, and at the same time have the capacity to be as cold and hard as a polished diamond. In the way a diamond has many facets and can be very useful, we're multi-faceted, we can glitter, we can look very nice. But we can also be very cutting."
"Have you finished these cups, dear?" asks the waitress, clearing the table.
'Exposure,' according to Fripp's elaborate sleeve-note, was originally intended as the final installment of a trilogy of albums; the other two being 'Sacred Songs' and 'Peter Gabriel 2.' Because of the delay in the production of his own album and he rejection by RCA of 'Sacred Songs,' the trilogy was abandoned in favour of the one that will now contain 'Exposure' and its successors.
"What I was trying to do in the original trilogy" Fripp explains, "was to investigate the 'pop song' as a means of expression. I think it's an incredibly good way of putting forward ideas. I think it's a supreme discipline to know that you have three- to four minutes to get together all your lost emotions and find words of one syllable or less to put forward all you ideas. It's a discipline of form that I don't think is cheap or shoddy."
This all sounds jolly spiffing and neatly expressed (though hardly a novel thesis). But I couldn't contain my skepticism: "You don't think you were trying to impose a structure on three disparate records for the sake of it, to suggest a larger, more important statement?" I asked.
I could have bitten my tongue out immediately.
"It's all interlocking," Fripp begins. "As Eno would say, in a complex system one can never accurately forecast al the possible outcomes. So one takes a decision and rides on the dynamics generated by that. I would express that in the phrase, 'riding the dynamic of disaster.'"
"One very concise way of expressing that would be to say - since everything fucks up, you might as well learn to bodge it."
Why the hell not?
"And this bodging, which is the universal hazard, is a creative ongoing process. It's the active hand that does the bodging and the mind which tries to find an order within it. They're not separate elements. Hey go on simultaneously. And having made a simple decision to make a record, everything proceeds from there. What I do is make the record and ten discover what I'm doing. The assumption being that there's a part of me that knows what I'm doing and my mind has to discover it. There's an innate order, you know. People aren't turkeys. If you listen to yourself, you might find out what you're saying."
But I wonder, on a more mundane level, how highly he regards 'Exposure?'
"I understand," he says, "from a journalistic point of view that it would be nice to get a good hot quote from me."
You don't think he's going to dry up now, do you?
"It continues to surprise me," he begins immediately alleviating such apprehensions "in the sense that it's so good I'm familiar now with the more superficial nuances. But more than that, it continues to surprise me that it works so completely. As a whole it's so good. So good."
"I think probably, in terms of the genre, it's conceivably the best record in the past five years, perhaps longer. I don't think of it as a 'progressive' rock album. I think in a sense it rises above ALL categories. In a sense it's a compendium, none of the components are in themselves innovatory, but nothing is dated."
Fripp will be promoting his new album with a five-month world tour.
The venues will consist mostly of record shops and the offices of record companies around the world.
"Anyone who wants to see me in London," he says "should go along to the Pizza Express on Wednesday night, where they'll hear Music for Restaurants."
He will also be playing at a Virgin Records shop in Oxford Street.
The motto of the tour is human contact, he says.
"I'll simply go along as one human being and make contact with other human beings who are, coincidentally, selling my records. The key phrase here is 'a qualitive leap inwards expands outwards in all directions.' You see, if I go along to play in a record company office, as I intend to do next week, and say, 'Look - here you are, I've made a record which I have considerable faith in and I'd like to persuade you to play it' then human contact in itself will do the rest.
"That one act will work on a number of different levels. Part of the act works on a promotion level, and another part seeks to validate some of my more personally held beliefs about small, mobile and intelligent units. Although it's feasible that I could form a band and go around playing 3,000 seaters that doesn't seem appropriate to me."
"It would introduce its own restrictions. It seems far better for me to go around playing in record shops. So I have a tour of the world playing in record shops. Clear away the records in the middle of the shop, set me up at the end of the shop, and anyone who wants to come in can buy my record at the counter - which gives the shop and the record company the incentive - and anyone who comes in gets a concert in a very human and direct way, along with an excellent record for the price of either."
"I have the opportunity to play, to meet people, and to sell records. Perfect. I have so much faith in simple ideas. It's so obviously one of the ways to go. Elvis Costello could take a guitar into a record shop, plug in and play his songs. Peter Gabriel could walk in, set up a Fender Rhodes and do it."
"You see, it's not necessary to fill in the details. You just go along and say 'Hi - I'm Robert Fripp, I'd like to play in your shop!' And you play and that's all that matters. Gurdjieff said, 'Speak roughly, it's only necessary to indicate the sense.' And it's true."
It's decided that I shall catch the 6:00 p.m. train back to London.
Fripp drives me to the station.
"I'm working on a new theory," he says as we pull up outside the ticket office.
"Oh yeah?" I say, opening the door to the Volvo.
"Yes," he says, "I'm working on the theory that Christ spent the missing 12 years of his life in Wimbourne."
I slam the door of the Volvo and run for the train.