Coming onstage at 10:30 a.m. London time on Saturday, Robert Fripp got right to the point. “I don’t know what your personal aims are for today, but I’ll declare mine,” the guitarist and longtime King Crimson bandleader said. “My primary interest is to introduce King Crimson to innocent ears, that is, to audiences who have never before seen King Crimson live.”
Chances are, very few of the people sitting before him fell into that category. The room — an intimate upstairs space in the October Gallery in Holborn — was filled with around 40 journalists, assembled from all over Europe and North America for a rare public audience with Fripp, one of the few times he’s spoken to the press since 2014, when he came out of effective retirement and started performing with an all-new jumbo-sized King Crimson lineup known as the Seven-Headed Beast. The occasion is the shapeshifting avant-rock outfit’s yearlong 50th anniversary festivities — an upcoming deluxe reissue of their classic 1969 debut In the Court of the Crimson King, a documentary on the band and 50-plus shows worldwide, including appearances huge populist festivals like Rock in Rio — which Fripp hopes will attract the “innocent ears” he’s looking for.
Fripp emerged looking like he just strode out of a retro-themed GQ shoot, dapper in a blue plaid suit, accented by stylish glasses and trilby hat. He took off the latter, revealing his close-cropped gray hair, and after a few introductory remarks, placed a bunch of paper strips inside, each printed with the name of one of the writers present. For a staggering four hours, two in the morning and two in the evening, with a lunch break and other Crimson-related presentations in between, Fripp — a musician legendary not just for his work with King Crimson but for his collaborations with rock-and-beyond icons like David Bowie, Brian Eno, Peter Gabriel and Talking Heads — stood onstage, sans podium, and fielded questions from the audience or, when he felt like it, consulted his laptop and switched to a kind of highly systematic lecture mode, as though he were a college professor teaching Crimson-ology 301.
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Going in, there was no way of knowing what to expect, especially given Fripp’s avowed distaste for doing press. But despite his stated “personal aims,” the day’s dialogue was surprisingly spontaneous and open-ended. For a guy who’s no great fan of interviews, he’s one hell of a talker.
Nothing seemed out of bounds. Fripp was generally patient, genial and up for anything, whether an interrogator wanted to know what he had in mind when he recruited three drummers for the current King Crimson incarnation (“But I’m a guitarist,” he chided, when he heard the writer in question was representing Drumhead magazine); what music he’s been digging lately (he cited Korean composer Unsuk Chin, saying her music “upsets my thinking” in a stimulating way); whether, via one of the few female writers in the room, he felt King Crimson was “too male” (“I agree,” said Fripp) and if he would consider including a woman in the lineup (Fripp said he’s absolutely open to the idea — a statement backed by his non-Crimson discography, which features collaborations with Sara Lee, bassist in his 1980 “instrumental dance band” League of Gentlemen, as well as Blondie and the Roches — but that he never considers gender when he recruits, only what’s needed for his vision of the band at that time); or whether King Crimson might make another studio album (no definitive answer there, though Fripp says there’s already plenty of new material to draw on). There were even several surreal photo ops throughout the day, where Fripp pointed his own lens at the the audience as dozens of camera phones clicked away.
Disarmingly well-spoken, with a gentle delivery and a musical West Country accent, Fripp would make an excellent documentary narrator. He’s also a born dramatist, conveying exasperation with heavy mock-sighs (such as when he recalled a Japanese press agent calling him the “Yoda of progressive rock”), awe with stagy exhales (when discussing the eerily dialed-in improv savvy of the band’s celebrated 1973–74 lineup with bassist-vocalist John Wetton, violinist David Cross and drummer Bill Bruford) or amusement with a gleam-in-the-eye grin (an expression that accompanied his refrain-like repetition of the phrase “prog rock pond scum set to bum you out,” which another writer used to described the band in a mid-Nineties piece and which Fripp has since adopted as an ironic rallying cry). Maybe most striking, though, was how emotionally open he was. Surely no one in attendance expected to see this legendary musician fighting back tears as he recounted a 1981 revelation about the “inexpressible benevolence which moves out through music.”
In other words, this was no mere tour promo; it was an extended glimpse into the mind of one of rock’s most unusual, mercurial and uncompromising figures.
Some of the day’s revelations were straightforward: for example, that King Crimson would have a new touring member this year, Theo Travis, temporarily replacing Fripp’s longtime collaborator Bill Rieflin on keyboards; that there would be “pieces added to the repertoire which have not been played for a long time”; and, as revealed by Crimson manager David Singleton during his own afternoon presentation, that the band’s full studio-album catalog would be coming to Spotify and other streaming services in time for the start of the upcoming tour in June. Other moments went way deeper. Here are 15 things we learned.
1. Fripp finally feels comfortable performing songs from the band’s entire catalog.
A key feature of the current and now longest-running King Crimson lineup — a first seven- and now eight-piece “Double Quartet” behemoth, active with only slight personnel shifts since 2013 — is that material from all the band’s many eras is in play. This wasn’t always true: King Crimson’s Eighties lineup, for example, didn’t touch iconic In the Court of the Crimson King songs such as “21st Century Schizoid Man.” “In 1981, it was impossible to play very much of the material from the earlier band, because we were prog-rock dinosaurs,” Fripp said Saturday, when asked about that shift. “In other words, in terms of the audiences of the time, the music would have been perceived as historic, out of date. Here, 50 years later, we’ve moved outside fashion.” For Fripp, though, it’s not just a matter of timing — it’s also a matter of personnel. “Musically, this is the first King Crimson that has embraced the entire repertoire,” he said. “It’s the first King Crimson that’s had the capacity to actually do that.”
2. That’s probably because he’s in awe of the current lineup — which has “no prima donnas.”
In the liner notes to last year’s live King Crimson release, Meltdown, drawn from five 2017 shows in Mexico, Fripp calls the current group the “best band I’ve been in, musically, personally, professionally.” It’s a bold claim, but given the astonishing scope of that release — which features songs from 11 of King Crimson’s 13 albums, including relatively obscure early-Seventies efforts such as Lizard and Islands, as well as brand-new pieces — and the eight-piece band’s immense power and range, maybe not so far-fetched.
On Saturday, Fripp delved further into what makes this King Crimson lineup different from any other. “Their breadth of musicality and experience is utterly astonishing to me,” he said. He went on to describe how the members have worked with everyone from the Rolling Stones (saxophonist Mel Collins played the solo on “Miss You”) to Yoko Ono, Phil Spector and Buddy Rich (all former employers of bassist Tony Levin), and how stories about these and other legendary artists often swirl around the tour bus.
Fripp then quoted the band’s brilliant ’72–’73 percussionist Jamie Muir, who said at that time to then-bandmate Bill Bruford, “We’re here to serve the music.”
“Well, that’s a very lofty aim,” Fripp said on Saturday, “but this is the first band where that’s actually fully happened. No one has an agenda. Alternatively expressed, there are no prima donnas in this band.”
3. He’s so over the idea of “prog” that he sometimes can’t bear to say the word.
At one point in Saturday’s session, Fripp reflected on the past 50 years of rock and King Crimson’s place in it. “Within music, there are generations of music, musicians and audiences — it shifts in a major way about every seven years,” he said, and went on to pinpoint those shifts. “For example, when was the birth of rock & roll: ’56, ’57? What preceded Elvis? I’d say Muddy Waters, and electricity, ’49-ish? So what followed Elvis, the next major generation? Beatles, ’62, ’63? What followed that next generation? Probably…” Here he stopped short of using the p-word, trailing off and sighing good-naturedly. “I hate to use this word — I’ll use another. ‘Underground rock!'” he said with a satisfied smile, and the whole room cracked up.
4. Break-ups are written into King Crimson’s DNA.
Fripp has always stressed that King Crimson is more of a “way of doing things” than a conventional band, and part of that M.O. involves semi-frequent break-ups and starting-from-scratch reactivations, often with very different personnel. On Saturday, he reflected on that idea during a partly pre-written treatise on the Crimsonian method, which began with a rhetorical question: “Here’s the headline: ‘What are the recurrent characteristics of King Crimson?'” he said, reading off his laptop. “Sub-banner headline: ‘Change. Note: King Crimson regularly breaks up.’ Have you noticed that?” he asked sarcastically. “This has to do with the nature of the creative process,” he continued. “There are points which you can anticipate when the process is likely to 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.”
Fripp went on to quote a 2010 interview given by Adrian Belew, who played in King Crimson from 1981 through 2009 but isn’t in the current lineup. “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,” Fripp said. “But it’s close enough to be indicative.”
5. For him, the band’s studio albums don’t come anywhere close to the live experience.
In Fripp’s terms, studio albums have long been “love letters,” while a live show is a “hot date.” On Saturday, he made very clear which one he prefers. “Performance, for me, is where the juice resides. This is where it is,” he said. “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.”
6. Two of his early musical epiphanies came from Scotty Moore and Duke Ellington.
Delving into his past, Fripp talked about how he and his sister Patricia would share a birthday when they were growing up. She was born in April and he in May, and as Fripp put it, every year, “we got presents twice.” On one of Fripp’s two 11th birthdays, the siblings got two 45s: Elvis Presley’s “Don’t Be Cruel” and British rocker Tommy Steele’s 1956 single “Rock With the Caveman.” Fripp wasn’t yet a guitarist, but the first of these singles helped steer him in that direction. “Elvis’ guitarist was Scotty Moore,” Fripp said, taking a deep breath for emphasis. “And energy leapt from the grooves of this. Conviction, power and, as a later man, [what] I would experience as pure sexuality.”
A Duke Ellington show he saw in February 1965 in Bournemouth, England, was another game-changer. “Thinking about this fairly recently, two of the seemingly most obvious things about Duke Ellington — bear in mind [I] was 18 — one, Duke is a very, very old man; two, 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. So although I’m not putting King Crimson on a par with Duke Ellington and the Orchestra, I am hoping that young characters can come in and see King Crimson and hear the music, whenever it might have been composed, that has the same charge for them that Duke had for me.”
7. He still gets emotional talking about the night he met Jimi Hendrix.
Fripp has told what he calls “my Hendrix story” many times. The short version is that Jimi was in attendance when King Crimson played at the Revolution Club in London’s Mayfair neighborhood in 1969. After the first set, Hendrix, wearing a white suit, with his right arm in a sling, entered the dressing room, walked up to Fripp and said, “Shake my left hand, man; it’s closer to my heart.” Fripp related the anecdote again on Saturday — adding in colorful descriptions like “he shone; he was luminous” — but this time, there was an added twist: When he got to the “closer to my heart” line, his eyes suddenly welled up, and he seemed to be fighting back tears as he got through the rest.
He also retold another one of his favorite anecdotes from the same night. That show at the Revolution Club marked the first time that Fripp sat down on a stool while playing onstage, something he’s done ever since. Hearing about Fripp’s decision, Greg Lake, King Crimson’s then bassist-singer, said, “You can’t sit down; you’ll look like a mushroom,” referring to Fripp’s poofy hairstyle in those days. “What I didn’t point out was that the mushroom in many cultures is taken to be a symbol of virility,” he deadpanned on Saturday, causing another outbreak of laughter.
8. The upcoming King Crimson documentary will feature a “prog-rock nun.”
In between the two marathon Fripp sessions, director Toby Amies screened a few brief clips from Cosmic F*Kc, his upcoming King Crimson documentary. DGM, the band’s in-house label, overseen by Fripp and Singleton, is backing the film, but Amies stressed on Saturday that they’ve made it clear that they aren’t looking for any kind of rote, orthodox rock-doc. The film won’t skimp on either performance or interview footage — among the clips Amies showed were an excerpt from a private concert by the current band, performed exclusively for the the film, and revealing commentary from former longtime Crimson members Adrian Belew and Bill Bruford. But other moments were simply about mood-setting, including a poetic sequence of a nighttime rainstorm with shots of deserted city streets, shot during a recent European tour.
But maybe the most fascinating, and unexpected, preview clip was an interview with a Oslo-based Dominican nun, Sister Dana Benedicta, who happens to be a huge King Crimson fan. Standing in her chapel, she discusses the impact the band’s music has had on her. “When I heard Red, for example ‘Starless’ … it gave me this opportunity to see what I have within myself, the different layers of myself,” she says. “She’s known as the prog-rock nun,” Amies said of Benedicta after the screening. He also shared an anecdote about how Crimson singer-guitarist Jakko Jakszyk spotted her in the crowd at one of their shows and noticed something white flashing on her chest. At first he assumed it was a cross, but then he realized what it really was: a backstage pass.
9. Fripp has officially externalized a part of his brain.
Fripp freely admitted early in the presentation that many present probably knew more about King Crimson than he did. There were clearly some serious heads in the audience, but towering over them all was Sid Smith, a seasoned journalist who wrote the definitive biography of the band — 2001’s In the Court of King Crimson, set for an expanded and updated reissue this year — and regularly contributes to their reissue efforts. As Fripp described it, at a certain point, he “gave [himself] permission to stop carrying all the details” regarding Crimson’s history in his head. What that meant in practice on Saturday was that whenever Fripp needed to recall some arcane Crimson-related date — the day the Wetton/Cross/Bruford version of the band played its last ever show, in New York’s Central Park, or the day of the Hendrix encounter — he’d simply call out “…on what date, Sid?” Each time, Smith would answer instantaneously and correctly.
10. Fripp once left one of David Bowie’s tour hats in an airport bathroom.
Riffing at one point on the picking-names-out-of-a-hat concept used for Saturday’s Q&A, Fripp mentioned how he often used that same method when choosing student performers at sessions for Guitar Craft, a series of courses he launched starting in 1985. He recalled how one year, the hat they used was a serious collectors item: the actual headwear worn by Fripp collaborator David Bowie on the singer’s Serious Moonlight Tour in Germany in 1983. One of the Guitar Craft staffers had worked on the security detail for that Bowie tour, and he was given the hat as a souvenir. He then generously gave it to Fripp, but its new owner didn’t hold onto it for long. “I wore it back to England, and in a toilet in Heathrow Airport, I put it over there and didn’t take it with me — I forgot,” Fripp said. “So someone, somewhere, entirely unbeknownst to them, has a very highly eBay-marketable item.”
11. There will be no King Crimson without Robert Fripp.
One of the day’s briefest exchanges was also one of its most telling. “Can King Crimson be King Crimson without Robert Fripp?” one writer asked. “No,” Fripp replied with little hesitation. “So when you stop performing, is that the end of King Crimson as a band?” “Yes.” Fripp made it clear that the band’s live future is open-ended, but now we know: When he stops, so does Crimson.
12. But he did once consider replacing himself with Genesis’ Steve Hackett.
In 1974, Fripp abruptly broke up King Crimson and left the music industry to study the spiritual teachings of J.G. Bennett and G.I. Gurdjieff. “I was overwhelmed with the sheer terror and stupidity of the professional life in which I was involved,” he recalled of the period on Saturday. But, he continued, “I felt responsible to the other members of the band, the roadies and the music.” So in an effort to see if he could step away without ending the band entirely, he talked to saxophonist Ian McDonald — an ex-member and fellow co-founder — about possibly rejoining. “My thinking was that this would give a lineage from the first King Crimson so that the projected next step in King Crimson would have authority,” Fripp said. From there, he continued, he figured it would be be “relatively straightforward for King Crimson to get another guitarist,” specifying that one of the players he had in mind was Steve Hackett, Genesis’ then-guitarist. But that Fripp-less King Crimson never came to pass. As their management told him at the time when he proposed the idea, “We’re not interested in King Crimson without Robert.”
This wasn’t the first time Fripp had attempted to split. When McDonald and original drummer Michael Giles exited the group in late ’69, Fripp offered to leave instead. They declined — saying, according to Sid Smith’s book, that Crimson was “more (him) than them” — and Fripp became the band’s de facto leader. As Fripp put it on Saturday, “I’ve been trying to give King Crimson away to someone else for at least 45 years.”
13. Fripp is fiercely protective of the King Crimson aesthetic.
King Crimson has had various satellite groups over the years, Fripp-less offshoots where current or former members play the band’s material under different names. Fripp has often been supportive of such efforts, for example, the 21st Century Schizoid Band — including McDonald, Giles and future Crimson member Jakszyk — which he actually named. But one of Saturday’s most striking moments came when Fripp described his dissatisfaction with the Crimson ProjeKCt tour that featured Stick Men (a band including current Crimson members Tony Levin and Pat Mastelotto) and the Adrian Belew Power Trio. He went to see the group at London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire in March of 2014, feeling “very excited,” and as he put it, “prepared to jump up and down and shout out loud, demanding for ‘Schizoid Man.” But his mood soon took a turn.
“What I saw with the excellent Stick Men, the excellent Adrian Belew Power Trio, and of all the King Crimson music they played, they had the notes and none of the music,” Fripp said. “In other words King Crimson had not left the building; King Crimson had not even entered the building. And I was angry.” Here he gritted his teeth to totally un-comedic effect and repeated, “I was angry.”
“And I walked out of the Shepherd’s Bush Empire wishing never, ever again to play a note of King Crimson,” he said. “Awful. Two great trios and nothing to do with King Crimson.” Of course he would relaunch Crimson soon after, but he said, “it was a hard choice, because I was really fucked off.”
14. Fripp had a good-natured repartee with Lester Bangs, who once described a King Crimson track as “music for the advert of a vaginal deodorant.”
Along with Fripp’s “innocent ears” campaign, he’s hoping this year will be an opportunity to dispel and shake up “received opinion” about the band. (Cue the “prog rock pond scum set to bum you out” take.) At one point on Saturday, he presented a kind of taxonomy of the various ways the band has been unflatteringly portrayed in the press. He brought up a review by Lester Bangs in Creem of King Crimson’s 1971 album Islands, in which, according to Fripp, Bangs wrote that the instrumental chamber piece “Song of the Gulls” “sounded like music for the advert of a vaginal deodorant.” Naturally, the room exploded with laughter. “I have never taken personal offense to that,” Fripp said. “It continues to amuse me, and hopefully it will [amuse] others too.”
Fripp then described how he later met Bangs at the sessions for Talking Heads’ Eno-produced Fear of Music LP, on which Fripp made a cameo appearance. Bangs asked for a word with Fripp outside the control room, and he said to Fripp, “I very much like your work, but I haven’t very much liked your work with King Crimson.” Describing Bangs as “an honorable man” and stressing again that he bore the critic no ill will, Fripp did mention that he later got a chance to return the backhanded compliment. “I did see Lester actually, singing in his band not long afterwards,” Fripp added. “And it was truly appalling. I had a word with Lester afterwards, and I think he realized that was also the case.”
15. Despite Fripp’s reputation for perfectionism, he’s a big fan of mistakes.
Asked how he was able to reconcile the seemingly opposing ideas of precision and spontaneity, two of the band’s central qualities, Fripp pointed out that as far as King Crimson is concerned, precision is a “relative term.” To illustrate, he mentioned how once Jakszyk joined the band, he frequently thought he was making mistakes, while really “Robert was lost,” as Fripp put it. “Personally, I don’t mind when good musicians make mistakes — actually, I love it,” he continued. “Because what you see is the quality of the musician responding to the mistake in the moment in front of an audience, say, of 2,000 people, many of whom know the repertoire better than we do.”
By way of illustration, he then cited a 2017 New Jersey show, where bassist Tony Levin came in two beats early at one point, a serious problem because in the piece they were playing, 2000’s epic release, “The ConstruKction of Light,” every band member was counting in a different time signature. Listening back to a recording of the show, Fripp realized that the performance had its own strange appeal. “There was a kind of ongoing reengagement from time to time from the other members of the band, and this was such an informative re-presentation of ‘The ConstruKction of Light,’ that we released it as a free download.”