In the court of Robert Fripp
The basement of the Palace Café in the Fulham Palace Road was where the first version of King Crimson got it together, as we used to say, and where Robert Fripp auditioned and rehearsed the subsequent editions of the band. One Sunday in late August 1970 Fripp invited me to meet him there. He knew that I’d been a drummer, but also that I hadn’t held a pair of sticks for several years. “Come and have a play,” he said. There was a kit set up in the basement, along with an array of amps and keyboards. And so for an hour or so we just played, improvising freely, Fripp on electric piano as well as guitar. We’d had a number of interesting conversations about music during the preceding months but I don’t remember any advance discussion about what we were going to do that day. We just played. At the end he took a reel of tape off the Revox, put it in a carton and handed it to me. I’ve still got it, although I’ve never listened to it. I really don’t want to know whether I’d get a pleasant surprise or, more probably, a dose of humiliating reality. We never spoke about it, and I never got behind a kit again. But Fripp is not a man who often does things without forethought, and all I can imagine is that he wanted to see how it felt to play freely without having to measure himself against someone who really knew what they were doing.
I thought about that day for the first time in years when the percussionist Jamie Muir turned up as one of the interviewees in Toby Amies’s In the Court of the Crimson King, a film portrait of the band, seen through its present incarnation and the views of some of its former members. Muir joined King Crimson a couple of years after my little session with Fripp, becoming the fifth member of the line-up that included David Cross on violin and keyboards, John Wetton on bass guitar and vocals, and Bill Bruford on drums. Muir was added as a kind of wild card. I’d seen him and interviewed him when he was in a band called Boris, in which he played a strange variety of percussion devices and did things like burst blood capsules in his mouth. Later he was with Derek Bailey and Evan Parker in the Music Improvisation Company. Highly skilled, and capable of playing perfectly conventionally, at this time he was a kind of performance artist whose presence in King Crimson was intended to shake his colleagues out of their strait-laced musicianly habits. He and Bruford got on surprisingly well; according to Muir, it was Fripp who, having invited him into the band, eventually tired of an approach that clearly failed to match his (Fripp’s) own love of order and preparation. He was invited him to leave after less than a year, having played on Lark’s Tongues in Aspic. He went off to a Buddhist monastery and is now a painter.
Originally intended to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the band in 1969, Amies’s film — first screened in cinemas and now available as a DVD — is on the one hand a kind of real-life Spinal Tap and on the other an acute portrayal of Fripp’s effect on the musicians with whom he has worked. Quite early on, Fripp tells Amies that he was “heartbroken” when the drummer Mike Giles and the saxophonist Ian McDonald became the first musicians to defect from the band, only months after their appearance on the bill of the Rolling Stones’ free concert in Hyde Park, the release of their debut album and a US tour had made them the sensation of the year.
“He’s always been good at recruiting people — he knows he can’t do it on his own,” Giles says, the implicit suggestion being that doing it on his own would be the preferred option, were it possible. But here’s what Fripp now recalls of the rupture in December 1969: “I offered to leave King Crimson if Ian and Mike would continue. It was more important to me that the band continued than that I continued with the band.”
Of the original gang, we also hear from McDonald, interviewed before his death earlier this year, and Pete Sinfield, their lyricist. Adrian Belew, a vital foil for Fripp in the various editions of the band between 1981 and 2013, is clearly puzzled over why they’re not still working together, and says of their partnership: “I don’t know where you’d ever get this again. Robert has a way of creating a situation in which music is going to occur that you couldn’t otherwise do.” Others are more ambivalent. Trey Gunn, a guitarist with King Crimson from 1994 to 2003, describes being in the band as “a little bit like having a low-grade infection — you’re not really sick, but you don’t feel well, either.” Jakko Jakszyk, the guitarist and singer who came into the line-up in 2010 after several years in a tribute band which featured almost all of the original line-up, sums up what many members must have felt: “You’re irreplaceable. Just like the next bloke.”
All this sounds very unsympathetic. But Bruford, with the perspective of a man who retired from playing in 2009 to study for a PhD, has a perceptive take: “Change is part of what the whole band is about. Change is essential. Otherwise you turn into the Moody Blues, for heaven’s sake.”
Fripp is given his say (and endorsed the final edit of the film), and the impression he leaves is of a complex, thoughtful and unyielding man who has found his own way through life, music, and the music business. Not mentioned here is his long struggle to obtain justice from those who formerly held the rights to the fruits of his labour, resulting in his freedom on recent years to release fastidiously compiled and remastered box sets of the band’s early output (a 26-disc summary of their complete recordings from 1969, for instance). But he does talk briefly about his discovery in the 1970s of the teachings of J. G. Bennett, a follower of Sufism and G. I. Gurdjieff, and his involvement in the Society for Continuous Education, which further Bennett’s work. The gleanings can be found in a hefty new book, The Guitar Circle, a 560-page hardback full of aphorisms and Zen riddles in which Fripp draws from almost four decades of work with his own League of Crafty Guitarists to produce a kind of operating manual for art and life, a typical aspect of which is perhaps best summed up in something he says during the film: “If you have an unpleasant nature and dislike people, that is no barrier to work.” His sense of humour — to which the term wry does not do justice — can be glimpsed here.
Throughout the film, the present band — three drummers, two guitarists, keyboards, returnee Mel Collins on saxophones and flute and long-standing bassist Tony Levin — is heard in concert and rehearsal often enough to give a clear idea of what they do nowadays with the familiar Crimson repertoire, revelling in negotiating its knotty contours and in their own exploitation of the available hardware and technology, to the delight of their legion of loyal fans. The extras in the box set of the film include footage of a rehearsal take of “Sailor’s Tale”, a song from the 1971 album Islands, containing a particularly brilliant version of the guitar solo in which Fripp breaks free of his familiar approach and produces a piece of music of staggering audacity and eternal value, a visionary moment and a justification in itself for King Crimson’s long and often tortuous existence.
* The film In the Court of the Crimson King: King Crimson at 50 is available as a two-disc Blu-Ray/DVD set or as an eight-disc box set including six audio CDs: http://www.dgmlive.com. Robert Fripp’s The Guitar Circle is published by Panegyric/DGM: http://www.guitarcraft.com