Robert Fripp Speaks
(Yesterday’s Frank Zappa piece reminded me of an earlier interview I’d done in Detroit with Robert Fripp in 1979. That was when he was predicting the death of the record industry, only slightly prematurely. Ever the small, mobile intelligent unit, Fripp was dry, very witty, and apparently an excellent presser of trousers. –dd)
Robert Fripp is in his twelfth-floor room at Detroit’s Pontchartrain Hotel, speaking with two curious — and late — interviewers who’ve just arrived. One of his hands holds a portable iron, the other smoothes out the pair of trousers laid neatly across the hotel bed.
“When I do interviews and people show up on time,” Fripp remarks, “I don’t have the time to do this.”
Soon after, Fripp sits down and explains why his only major performance in Detroit proper is taking place in scant hours at, of all places, a record store. He voices fears that the store may be larger than what he’d desired — and all this is coming from a fellow who’s used to performing in crowded stadiums.
Robert Fripp, the interviewers soon decide, is an odd one.
An album entitled The Cheerful Insanity Of Giles, Giles and Fripp was released in the fall of 1968 and went nowhere fast, thus providing guitarist Robert Fripp a simultaneous first-tasting of both success and obscurity. His next exposure, however, was considerably more grandiose. In a revamped grouping Fripp surfaced on one of the milestone albums of ’60s rock — In The Court Of Tthe Crimson King — with one of the strangest and most influential bands England has ever produced. The band, of course, was King Crimson, and the music — well, it’s still being played on the radio 10 years later. King Crimson was a major success story among the ranks of British bands; producing a series of inconsistent but never less than astounding albums, the band became less a success story and more a way of life for its founder, Robert Fripp.
Now Robert Fripp in on his own. He’s made friends with rock’s elite, most notably Brian Eno, Robert Wyatt, David Bowie, Peter Gabriel and Blondie and a host of others, several who appear on Exposure (Polydor PD-1-6201) and several who don’t. He’s received nothing but raves for his superb production work on the Roches’ newest album, and he’s played guitar behind Linda Ronstadt and Phoebe Snow on a recent Saturday Night Live segment. His talents are extended in all directions, and despite this odd habit of performing unannounced in strange record stores, Fripp’s importance and influence are being felt more every day.
“I don’t work rationally,” Fripp tells the two reporters at the Pontchartrain. “I present my ideas rationally, because I find that, on the survival level, if one can articulate and seem to be sensible, it’s a lot safer than if you just come out with oddball ideas. And since I do come out with what people consider to be oddball ideas, ideas that only become sensible after the event, it’s a survival matter. So I work intuitively and instinctively and then discover — by examining what I’ve done — just what it is I’m doing. And my instincts are pretty hot. I know what I’m doing is the right thing.”
What exactly is it that Fripp is doing? To hear him tell it, he’s taking his music to the people, to the street level. This current tour, he mentions, is costing his record company $25,000. Strictly a non-profit venture. He’s doing it to give Exposure exposure, and, he says, he’s doing it because it may be the last time he’s allowed to do it. Allowed not so much by his record company as by what he views as a collapsing economic system in a swiftly changing world. He hasn’t brought a band with him for a number of reasons, he says, and among those reasons is the fact that he hasn’t a quarter of a million dollars to lose.
“This seems to me to be a very good way of combining a number of different factors,” Fripp says of his current low-key tour. “This seems to me to be the most human marketing campaign I know of. I simply go into the record shops, play to people, and persuade them to buy my record. That seems a great idea to me.”
Fripp’s musical and political views have merged into one, he says, and even the most basic of musical questions asked of him are answered in political and philosophical terminology. This current tour and Exposure are all part of his comprehensive world view and his “drive to 1981” campaign, which he readily defines:
“The drive to 1981 is two things really, two levels. On one level it’s a campaign in the marketplace — but not incorporating the values of the marketplace. In other words, it’s not cynical. On another level, it’s a way of promoting in an implicit fashion a number of ideas which are very close to my heart. I think they’re very important.
“It doesn’t seem to me that if I know more about the workings of the marketplace it makes me grubbier or nastier or a degraded human being. It enables me to do my job in a better fashion. I believe in the records I make, and I don’t compromise my work w
ith the records — but I don’t have to go and sell them. Initially, almost everything I do doesn’t have a format; consequently I have to get by an initial prejudice not only in the industry, but also in the media and in the public. Therefore, what I have to do is persuade people to listen to the record.”
Fripp’s comments are inevitably laced with interesting terminology, the most notable term being “Frippertronic,” what he uses in reference to his present-day playing approach. The current tour, he says, is his Frippertronics tour.
Frippertronics is a musical experience, resulting at the crossroads between Fripp, his guitar, the Fripperboard — which is “Fripp pedal board” contracted from “Frippdalboard” — two Revoxes and a public address system. It’s a combination of intermediate and appropriate technology — to wit, Fripp.
“As a form of music you can divide it into two categories: pure and applied Frippertronics. Applied Frippertronics is an alternative to traditional orchestration or the use of synthesizers; pure Frippertronics — for example “Water Music 2” or “Urban Landscape” — divides into two categories. The first has an imperative for listening, a demand upon the ears which must be met. The other branch can be considered “ambient,” in Eno’s sense of the word. I’m thinking here of my going and playing in restaurants, where the music is deliberately constructed not to interfere with the digestive processes of the people eating. I consider eating to be a fairly sacred activity, and I don’t wish to intrude upon the digestion. I was eating at a restaurant in Paris, for example, where they played disco music. The bass drum disturbed my digestion on every one of its 126 beats-per-minute. I consider that a folly.”
This whole concept of Fripp’s playing in restaurants and record stores appears to tie in with his perception of his present role being that of the Troubadour. He is the musician, bringing the music to the people without need of a middleman. Almost without a middleman, that is. It all ties in with his view of the next five years.
“At the moment, the dinosaurs have all the resources,” Fripp says. “The small units have all the intelligence, and therefore a compromise is needed. I need Polydor’s resources and they need my intelligence. But since dinosaurs by definition don’t have intelligence, since by definition they’re a doomed race, this liaison, this period of transition is very important to enable small units to become independent in the genuine federal sense.
“My picture of Europe — and America, though there’s a different situation here because of the size involved — is that soon instead of London, Birmingham and Manchester being the centers of activity, it’s more likely to be the small towns. Just as it was 500 years ago, each of them being marketplaces as it was back in Roman times, all within 10 miles of each other — where it would be quite possible to cycle between them, quite possible to go there by horse.”
Fripp points to the current gasoline shortage as an indication of economic and social difficulties to come. Already things are changing, he says; already he’s had to alter the usual patterns. He’s flying from city to city on this tour, when clearly it would be less expensive to drive. Yet the chance that gasoline might be unavailable during the tour was sufficiently large that Polydor deemed it best that he fly. And this isn’t in two or three years, Fripp emphasizes, this is now. In America.
Lifestyles will change, Fripp says, and thereupon comes his role of the Troubadour.
“Imagine the situation in 10 or 15 years, where the Troubadour is the role one accepts as part of, if you like, one’s sense of commitment to a large view of society. There are different approaches. In my hometown of Wimbourne, I shall return as part of the second three-year campaign. The first three-year campaign, the drive to 1981, expires on September 11 concurrently with the second three-year period beginning, the decline to 1984. With the increasing geographic immobility at that point — difficulties in transport which will be substantially generated in the autumn of 1981 — I shall have to establish myself in a fixed geographical sense.
“This is when I’ll pay more attention to establishing a guitar school and taking my part in the cultural life in Wimbourne. Wimbourne will have to accept its own responsibility for health, education, sewage disposal, garbage disposal, and a cultural and entertainment life as well. And it seems reasonable to me, in addition to participating with garbage disposal and the other things which will be an inevitable part of any community, to participate in the cultural life.”
One of the reporters thinks through all Fripp’s comments and brings up a question. — Why all this pre-planning? Why all this anticipation of the way things will be? Why schedule your life in three-year block intervals and then act accordingly when you might easily be killed in a car wreck on your way to Peaches later this afternoon? You, of all people, must put great value on spontaneity — what’s the deal?
“Well,” Fripp replies, “It’s a situation of perceiving a number of different levels working simultaneously. Some situations are fixed, so you might as well accept them and learn, to live within them. For example, at this moment I have no choice but to be here in this context because the tour’s been set up in a certain kind of way.
“And,” Fripp chides with a smile, “although you’re late and might not have arrived here — you might have been killed in a car crash.
Sorry, the interviewer immediately apologizes. S
orry for bringing up the imagery.
“No, not at all,” says Fripp. “It gave me the opportunity to press my trousers. I’m grateful. No, that was my free choice — I could have gone to sleep, I could have wasted my energy waiting, but I used it as an opportunity to do something else.
“A number of different levels go on simultaneously,” Fripp continues without the slightest pause, “and part of any psychological discipline, I suppose, is to try to understand in a practical kind of way how that can be used. So, to use an analogy with music, the so-called classical composers in the classical period — Schubert, Haydn, Brahms — the musical forms that they worked within were considerably more limiting than those of writing a six-minute disco single. Their limitations were a lot more severe, but it didn’t prevent them from coming up with something.
“Now some situations may be more fluid, and seemingly offer a greater opportunity for choice, but that’s not necessarily so. There’s always the possibility of choice even in a seemingly rigid situation. And although on the mechanical level of making plans for the future,” he smiles, finally getting to the initial question, “yes, this all seems very well planned and documented. It breathes and lives and develops of its own. Every new plan for the future has been generated in part by something that has happened so far. One does have to make a decision to begin, and how you begin will determine, to a degree, the outcome. But if one can accurately predict what will happen, then, for me, it’s not worth doing.”
Fripp talks some more about the “hazard” factor, about speaking to Eno over the phone just an hour ago, about the top of his head blowing off and a lot more. He tells the interviewers that the already-recorded collaboration with Daryl Hall has been officially scrapped by RCA and will never see the light of day. Not only that, he says: He’s been told that the master tape for the album has been mysteriously removed from RCA’s hallowed vaults. Nobody knows where it is, he says, or if they do they’re not telling. “A very nasty, shabby, disgusting episode,” Fripp calls it.
Soon it’s time to leave. We take separate cars and arrive at Peaches, where a few dozen lucky people manage to hear two hours of Robert Fripp’s superb guitar playing. The loyal audience of Fripp fans asks many questions, most of them dealing with Eno and/or King Crimson. Fripp is well-mannered, extremely courteous and quite insistent that he’ll be happy to autograph any copies of his new LP that the audience would like to buy. Fripp — the Troubadour — is taking his music to the people.
(Michigan State News, 6/29/79)