Robert Fripp and Toyah Willcox on Their Viral Quarantine Videos: ‘We’re in This With You’
On April 5th, 2020, music fans stuck in their homes and cruising the web for diversions were greeted with one of the most unusual sights in a season filled with them: King Crimson auteur Robert Fripp and his wife, singer and actress Toyah Willcox, both elegantly dressed and dancing to Bill Haley and the Comets’ early rock anthem “Rock Around the Clock.”
Filmed on Willcox’s iPhone in the kitchen of the couple’s home near Birmingham, England, the head-scratching clip launched one of the year’s least likely and most talked-about viral series. Every Sunday since, “Toyah and Robert’s Sunday Lunch” (sometimes called a “Lockdown Lunch”) has presented a new clip of the couple having quick, good-natured fun at home. The ever-upbeat Willcox sings and vamps (while wearing a variety of costumes, from workout suit to cheerleader costume) while a deadpan Fripp accompanies her on electric guitar.
Occasionally, the couple is seen dancing together, as in a minute-long performance to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, where both wear tutus. But in most, they offer up abbreviated, roughly one- to-two-minute takes on songs no one would ever expect King Crimson’s guitarist to cover: classic metal and hard-rock songs, from “Smoke on the Water” to “Sweet Child o’ Mine”, as well as Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” (for this past Valentine’s Day), “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and “Purple Haze” (with Willcox changing the line in the chorus to “excuse me while I kiss this guy”).
And they’re clearly connecting with people: Their tribute to “Enter Sandman” has over 5.7 million views on YouTube, their version of Britney Spears’ “Toxic” nearing 900,000. The song choices reflect Willcox’s back story. Emerging from the Seventies British punk scene, where she made her name as an actress (in projects like the film made of the Who’s Quadrophenia), she fronted her band, Toyah, before going solo in the Eighties; her music integrated punk, hard rock, and goth. She and Fripp married in 1986 and have collaborated in the early-Nineties band Sunday All Over the World and on her own records.
With the first anniversary of the videos approaching — and Willcox preparing a new album of original songs, Posh Pop, out this summer — the couple sat for a Zoom interview in the very kitchen where they’ve become viral stars. “Here’s a mature couple that love each other having fun,” Fripp says. “Astonishing, isn’t it? At home in their kitchen!”
“What’s the alternative if we weren’t having fun the whole time?” Willcox adds. “It isn’t even worth thinking about.”
Whose idea were these videos to start with?
Fripp: [Points to Willcox.]
Willcox: It started with “Rock Around the Clock.” I wanted to get Robert moving. This whole thing about being in lockdown was people were stopping moving, and our generation must move. So I taught him how to jive to “Rock Around the Clock,” and we filmed it. It’s the first time we’d ever posted anything like it, our first step into that form of social media. And we got a million hits within a couple of hours as far away as the Philippines and Australia. And we thought, “Wow.”
Fripp: Mine is a slightly more nuanced view of this. My wife has been insistent. Performers have a responsibility to perform and at this particular time to keep people’s spirits up. This is a very English cultural tradition. Essentially, when things are really bad in England, what you do is begin laughing and do silly things. A good reference point is the Ministry of Silly Walks on Monty Python. Now it’s, “Robert puts on a tutu and dances to Swan Lake at the river’s edge with his wife.” So I have followed my wife’s sense and vision of these things.
Willcox: The one thing that kept coming back to us was that people were desperately lonely. All these messages were coming back from people going, “Thank you — I was on the brink.” And you say, “Well, the brink of what?” “The brink of not being able to continue.”
And we realized that if we kept posting these with a continuity, we were saying we’re not in some big mansion somewhere, drinking champagne and laughing it off. We’re actually in this with you and we’re sharing this with you. We realized we could still be the performers that connect with our audience. Swan Lake — I’ll let my husband describe that to you because I’ve not really been forgiven for it.
What do you mean?
Willcox: With Swan Lake, it seems so obvious that one of the funniest things we could do not leaving our home was to go to the bottom of the garden and perform Swan Lake. I happen to have two tutus in the house. I cut one up and got Robert in it, and that is literally a couple of takes. No rehearsal. I’m saying, “Robert, just go across camera.” “Robert, mimic me. Follow me.” I was treating it with this British sense of humor, and Robert was treating it as the best he could do. And that is why it’s such a beautiful, charming piece. When we released it, it got a lot of positive response, but there were a few headlines in Europe saying we were mocking people with our lifestyle.
Fripp: We live in the center of a nice, very traditional, almost modest English country town. We have a very nice traditional English terrace, with the garden, which goes down to the River Rea. We are exceptionally fortunate and we don’t have an attitude of privilege. And there was some commentary, “Look at these rich people showing off their stuff, flaunting it to us.” But I understand people who are stuck in [apartment buildings] not allowed to go out to the park. I can understand that it might be seen as rich people flaunting their stuff. In fact, it wasn’t like that. It was what the English do. When things get tough, they begin looking ridiculous.
Toyah, I’m going to assume that you chose most of these hard-rock covers.
Willcox: Yes! I give Robert a list and out of that list of six songs Robert chooses which one he feels he can honor, playing in his tuning, and then we take it from there. I choose the songs because I know that visually I can make them work in this space. For instance, with “Girls, Girls, Girls,” I had to erect a screen halfway through the kitchen so I didn’t smash anything with the tennis balls.
What is so extraordinary about the songs in this particular last 12 months is that the lyrics have more meaning than ever before and that could never have been planned. So with “Girls, Girls, Girls,” when a lot was going on between Prince Harry, Meghan Markle, and the Royal Family, I decided to do the tennis playing and the to-ing and fro-ing — the whole idea that girls are only one thing. And then you put it with Mötley Crüe, who completely objectified girls as pole dancers. You then just have this phenomenal amount of comment within 90 seconds.
Fripp: It reflects the different cultural conventions, norms and values of L.A. and England. The clues are there, with the volleying between the parties.
What was another song whose lyrics seem relevant now?
Willcox: “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” It was coming up to Christmas and that really was one where we wanted to point out that that spirit of teen spirit is still alive in us, but we’re not encouraged to ever use it once you get over 30 years old. “Rebel Yell” exactly the same, which I think I did on a trampoline. The spirit is still in us. It doesn’t fade. I’m 62 going on 63, and Robert is 73 going on 74. But I think nothing was quite ever as beautifully placed as “Girls, Girls, Girls” the day we did it. That was the sweet spot.
Toyah, were there songs you presented to Robert that took some convincing?
Willcox: Actually, “Girls, Girls, Girls,” for quite a while. But he’s becoming more and more open. He hasn’t actually said no to anything, especially in the context of how popular these songs are with a mass audience. And we realize these songs have formed people’s lives, that these people had discovered these songs when they were in love with someone, when they were getting married. These are really great punctuation songs for people’s lives. [Turns to Fripp] So you don’t really say no anymore, do you? We find a way of doing it.
“These are really great punctuation songs for people’s lives.” —Toyah Willcox
Fripp: I look at the challenging technical aspects. Can I play it on guitar? Is one guitar sufficient to support my wife? Can I honor the music? If it’s an orchestral ballad, it’s not really going to be a go.
Willcox: Yeah, it’s got to be up. It’s got to get you on your feet.
Fripp: Rockin’ out.
Robert, have you ever played songs like “Smoke on the Water” or “You Really Got Me” before? And what was it like learning them?
Fripp: Essentially no to the first question, although if we go back to 1965 to 1967, I was a hotel musician in Bournemouth [in the south of England]. As the young guitarist in the band, the band used to turn to me and say, “What twists do you have, Bob?” in other words, it’s the guitarist’s responsibility to present the band with the latest hits that young people in the audience would want to hear us play. Moving forward 50-odd years, nowadays, were I in that position, essentially that of a cover band, you would be expected to know all these tunes — everything from the Eighties forward — and be able to present honorable versions of them. In a sense, that’s what I’m doing today. It’s not a giant leap, although for the past 50 years my primary repertoire has been King Crimson, not other bands.
How did you pick “Enter Sandman,” where Toyah is singing while on a treadmill?
Willcox: “Enter Sandman” came about purely because I wanted to make my husband laugh his head off. So sometimes, you know, you get great commentary. Sometimes you’re just having fun. I just bought the exercise bike because in lockdown, the people who do exercises online are hugely successful. And it was this whole idea of, here we are, all rock entertainers, and we’re doing our exercises and we’re doing what we should be doing onstage, which is playing and singing.
And then there’s also the added element that I went braless to make my husband laugh, which was purely an act of innocence where the lighting really just helped turn it into something else. There was a flurry of sending that particular clip around to my online team, and me saying, “Does this disturb you? Does this look wrong?” And of course, my team are male and they went, “No, we love it.”
Which song made you think, “You know, this is a pretty great tune …”?
Fripp: Well, actually, pretty much all of them. My personal favorite at the moment is “Enter Sandman.”
Willcox: And [Alice Cooper’s] “Poison”! They’re all brilliant songs!
Fripp: I mean, they’re all utterly stunning things. I’m blown away by the original guitarists on these tracks. Phenomenal development and playing primarily since the late Seventies and early Eighties, Van Halen onwards. Steve Vai, Satriani, the Metallica boys … The originators of the riffs are phenomenal players. I go back, listen to the original versions on record, see live performances, look at different interpretations and guitar covers on YouTube. Then I have to honor the spirit of the music while making it my own.
Robert, how did you decide to perform a rare vocal on Nat King Cole’s “When I Fall in Love”?
Fripp: Well, actually, I have performed that live. I performed it live with King Crimson in the bar of a hotel in Japan in December 1981 with Tony Levin on piano. This was simply King Crimson band humor. And strangely enough, two and a half years later, March 1984, we were in another Japanese hotel, I believe in Osaka, and Bill Bruford was on piano: “Bill, E flat, please!” On that second occasion of performing this, Air Supply were in the lounge when I was singing. I have always loved the song from seeing Nat King Cole perform it in the Errol Flynn film Istanbul. Nat King Cole — stunning musicianship. I seek to emulate that.
Toyah, what are your challenges while singing these type of songs?
Willcox: As a singer, I have to think about the amount I’m going to do in 90 seconds. Firstly, that I present myself as a singer, and secondly, that I hold this culture of 90-second viewing because the attention span is apparently now about five seconds. So I’ve got to grasp people within that time. Very, very rarely do I think I can’t hold the attention. “Everlong” was an example because it’s an expression in the guitar, not in the voice. So at that point we had the opportunity of bringing in a live snake, which I used to hold the attention of the viewer. I felt as a vocalist on that particular song and the style it’s sung, I wouldn’t be able to hold the attention.
Fripp: The snake belongs to my wife’s guitar teacher and my guitar student.
How much effort did it take to talk Robert into having fake tattoos stuck on his face for “Paranoid” while he was in some sort of vault in your house?
Willcox: He was so, so up for that! The guitar tutor I use, who is also Robert’s pupil, is head to toe in tattoos. So I said to Robert, “We are going to cover you in tattoos.” I got them online; they’re transfers. I knew I wanted a crown on his forehead.
Fripp: I was actually in the vault with my wife outside, and that terrified me.
Fripp: Essentially I sit on the side of the stage, preferably in the dark, and I play. And there I was in full view in camera, in the [former bank] vault, with the vault door closed. I had terrible claustrophobia. That was a heavy one.
Willcox: I do have to position Robert in a way where he doesn’t feel the oppression of the camera on him. It’s just something about Robert. So we just move him slightly back. I’ll never be able to have him there in front of the camera. He just doesn’t like it.
Robert, what kind of feedback have you gotten from King Crimson fans at the sight of you dancing or covering songs by Alice Cooper and Joan Jett?
Fripp: In one word, surprise. One of my personal interests in this is to give a hefty kicking to received opinion. In terms of the received opinion of Fripp, it’s: “We know he’s in terrible man, he hates his friends, he’s nasty to people, he’s heartless, raging and venal,” and all the rest of this nonsense. In terms of actually engaging with this, I don’t think it’s possible. But in terms of the Sunday Lunches, there is an entirely different aspect of me that my wife has actually been keen to present for a very long time, the side of Robert that really no one gets to see. I probably would not have done it without the lockdown either.
“One of my personal interests in this is to give a hefty kicking to received opinion.” —Robert Fripp
How has the making of the videos changed during the course of the year?
Willcox: We decide on the Friday what is going to be the song for the Sunday 10 days later. We start rehearsing Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. We do a test run Wednesday evening. What I don’t tell Robert is sometimes I run the camera without him knowing because that very first run-through usually is the sweet spot.
“Poison,” we actually did 20 takes. And we did that because it was technically a great song, but technically a lot going on onscreen and we wanted to get it right. We realized that our audience was growing and growing and growing. So since then we do a lot more prep. A lot of the earlier ones were only ever one or two takes without rehearsal.
Fripp: Often filmed on the morning they went up.
Willcox: Yeah, we can’t do that anymore.
How long do you see yourselves doing these?
Willcox: What we might do is move to once a month or once a fortnight. We’re in discussions with our media team about the most effective way we can keep impact, and what we all need to remember is that the virus isn’t going to go away until we eradicate it completely. So there’s still going to be people locked in. And we very much started this to say to people who were locked in that we’re with you here. You’re not alone. We’re point of contact. So we will never stop completely.
You two have been married since 1986. What’s something new you each learned about the other while making these videos in lockdown?
Willcox: With King Crimson, Robert has written music that has to be held within an invisible boundary to stop the train coming off the tracks. Robert has written music by which he has learned to be the rivet pin that must never be fractured. I’ve now seen that Robert has put himself in a position musically where he can’t quite go up on the stage, stand up, and have fun just doing a rip-roaring solo, because everything is on that line.
And I love that Robert has compromised that to take part in these videos and to understand [that] if something is slightly off the rail, that has broken every rule Robert has set for himself in his career. What has been remarkable about these films is Robert has done it full stop. That is quite miraculous. He’s done it with an open heart. He’s learned rock songs. He’s made the commitment.
Fripp: It’s confirmed what I already knew. My wife is a force of nature and my wife leads the way. My wife is a star. One thing has really pissed me off increasingly. Currently there is a debate ongoing about women’s role in the world generally, specifically now in the music industry. My wife is a cultural influencer from the late Seventies through the Eighties. And I’ve seen her airbrushed from history in a way which I continue to find incomprehensible. So here we are at home presenting essentially my wife’s visions, here and immediately.
Willcox: I didn’t pay you to say it, either.