The Crimson King Seeks a New CourtRolling Stone — Hank Shteamer
When Robert Fripp looked out from the stage of the Anfiteatro Romano in Pompei during a King Crimson show there in July 2018, he saw something he didn’t expect: women.
“Seeing men sitting next to their wives,” he marveled during a recent press event in London’s West End. “Seeing young men sitting next to their girlfriends. And a lot of old people, mainly male, too. But nevertheless, a lot of them were young, and a lot of them were women. This is astonishing.”
The day after the press conference, at his hotel room a few blocks away, the topic of audience makeup was very much on the guitarist’s mind as he sat down for a wide-ranging interview ahead of an enormous year for the band he’s led on and off for a half-century. King Crimson first rehearsed on January 13th, 1969, in the basement of a London café, just five miles southwest of where Fripp met with Rolling Stone. In honor of that anniversary, they’re reissuing their landmark ’69 debut, In the Court of the Crimson King, bringing their entire studio catalog to streaming services and playing more than 50 concerts around the world.
Not just hitting the band’s customary halls and theaters, the tour will also stop at populist festivals like Rock in Rio and Spain’s Doctor Music Festival, where King Crimson’s current lineup, an imposing eight-member ensemble that positions its three drummers at the front of the stage, is billed alongside the Strokes and the Chemical Brothers and where, Fripp hopes, they’ll encounter plenty of “innocent ears.”
Asked to elaborate on that booking strategy, Fripp doesn’t mince words: “A primary aim of the present band is to move outside the conventional male prog ghetto.”
In short, Robert Fripp gets it. He’s well aware that, whoever you are, you probably already have a very clear preconception of what King Crimson are, and who might go to see them in 2019. Whereas many of his contemporaries seem perfectly content to ride the nostalgia wave into the sunset — consider the popular Cruise to the Edge, hosted by Crimson contemporaries Yes and regularly featuring current and former members of Genesis, ELP and even Crimson itself — Fripp has no interest in waving the flag for a style that now, ironically, feels distinctly anti-progressive.
In its current usage, “prog” tends to signify a fossilized culture where 20-minute songs, “odd” time signatures and lofty or esoteric themes — all groundbreaking in the early Seventies — now act merely as signifiers of a bygone age. Fripp is quick to praise his peers from that first generation. “I loved Yes,” he stipulates. But he never felt like King Crimson had much to do with prog as a movement, and 50 years on, he’s lost all patience with a genre that now, in the minds of both detractors and ardent fans, serves only to keep him in a box. “[I]t’s a prison,” Fripp said of prog in 2014. “If you walk on stage and you’re playing music, fine. But if you’re walking on stage and you’re playing progressive rock: death.”
Interestingly, at the moment he’s planning his escape, King Crimson are performing more old music than ever before. In practice, it’s a shrewd strategy. Jumbling together material from the past 50 years, the band’s current sets — documented on dazzling, epic recent live releases like Meltdown: Live in Mexico City and Live in Chicago — force the listener to reckon with the fact that King Crimson have been evolving and mutating almost right from the start, never yoking themselves to any one style or approach.
A given gig will feature everything from monumental proto–math-metal to crackling improv and tender art pop, as staples like “21st Century Schizoid Man” and the first two installments of the “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic” series sit alongside obscurities from early-Seventies albums like Lizard and Islands, and new pieces such as “The Errors” and “Meltdown.” Every player in the lineup — from longtime Crimson members like bassist Tony Levin and drummer Pat Mastelotto to newer additions like guitarist and lead singer Jakko Jakszyk and saxophonist-flutist Mel Collins, who played in the band in the early-to-mid Seventies and returned in 2013 after a near-40-year break — is brilliant, but what stands out is the richness of the repertoire.
“It doesn’t matter to me very much whether someone likes it or not,” Fripp says of the band’s current incarnation. “It’s that they see it and hear it for what it is, from their opinion, their viewpoint, not through a veil of received opinion.”
Fripp knows that received opinion, and what he calls the “shared journalisms” that have dogged the band for decades, by heart. His speech — unfailingly orderly and precise, delivered in a crisp West Country accent — is peppered with pet digs mined from old reviews. During the weekend, he cited an old Lester Bangs interview that likened a 1971 King Crimson instrumental to “music for the advert of a vaginal deodorant,” fully embracing the hilarity of the line, and frequently trotted out another one of his favorites, a 1995 headline that pegged the band as “Prog Rock Pond Scum Set to Bum You Out.”
In person, Fripp doesn’t come across as much of a prog-rocker, or any kind of rocker, for that matter. Answering the door for his Sunday morning interview in a trim blue suit coat and matching vest, worn over a white shirt with a tie decorated with images of bees, smartly complemented by jeans and brown dress shoes, the 72-year-old looked more like a stylish architect about to head into work.
Highly personable — he made a point of asking how his American visitor, in for a whirlwind visit, was handling the time change — he’s also a seriously learned old-school conversationalist. During a mic check, he recited the opening lines of Shakespeare’s Henry V and later went off on tangents about everything from the history of sewage disposal in his birthplace of Wimbourne Minster, Dorset — a small town in the southwest of England — to Oliver Cromwell’s coinage of the phrase “warts and all.”
“You’re in England now, dude, you’ve got to get used to that!” he teases after one such digression.
Charting Fripp’s career, you start to see why he’s grown especially weary of all that prog pigeonholing. For one thing, the original King Crimson was extremely short-lived. Released in October 1969, In the Court of the Crimson King helped to define a new rock era with its blend of menacing riffage, free-form improvisation and sumptuous ballads accented by Mellotron and flute. Seeing the group that same year, Jimi Hendrix proclaimed them the best band in the world.
“He was right, but only for a period of three or four months,” Fripp says now of the Hendrix comment. “Then the focused aim common to all those young men began to disperse.” Before the end of the year, the original King Crimson — Fripp, bassist-vocalist Greg Lake (who would go on to co-found ELP), saxophonist-keyboardist Ian McDonald, drummer Michael Giles and lyricist Peter Sinfield — had played their final show.
The band continued with Fripp as the nominal leader. Since then, King Crimson have split up and re-formed frequently, typically with a mostly new lineup and entirely fresh aesthetic. Fripp has been the sole constant member. Obeying what he calls a “moving spirit” that he seems to regard as part muse and part creative conscience, he’s led various lineups through bruising, angular, exotically textured avant-rock; a kind of mutant New Wave, buoyant, sometimes whimsical and equally informed by gamelan music and Talking Heads (a band that both Fripp and Crimson’s then-singer and second guitarist Adrian Belew had worked with); and a clangorous and futuristic style performed by a so-called “double trio” featuring two sets of guitars, bass and drums. None of these later lineups have sounded anything like the original King Crimson, or much like each other.
It’s a marvelous swath of sounds that has influenced everyone from St. Vincent to Tool, who brought King Crimson on tour in 2001 and invited Fripp to sit in. (Fripp says he and Tool guitarist Adam Jones began work on a duo album that was never finished.) Kanye West even prominently sampled “21st Century Schizoid Man” for 2010’s “Power.” Fripp relates the story about how he called West personally to iron out a last-minute sample clearance before a BET performance. “What I said to Kanye was, ‘I’ll make it happen,'” Fripp says, pronouncing the rapper’s name “can-yee.” “‘Cause here was an artist who effectively had been fucked over by his record company, who was just about to do a live broadcast on major TV and he didn’t know whether he could do the piece he was rehearsing or not.”
Though Fripp has acknowledged plenty of influence from his rock contemporaries, often naming Hendrix and the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper as particular favorites, he credits other sources for inspiring his staunchly evolutionary approach to bandleading. One prime example is Miles Davis, who was in the midst of his own plugged-in sonic rebirth around the time King Crimson emerged.
“Going back to a 1969 interview, Miles said he looked on his need for constant change as a curse,” Fripp says. “However, Miles, along with Duke Ellington, in terms of looking for models of how you strategize with a band, have been there constantly in the background for me. Not the Beatles as a construct for a group, not Led Zeppelin, not the Floyd. My guides have always been Miles and Duke.”
Another parallel between King Crimson and those jazz innovators is that Fripp has always sought to recruit some of the world’s most accomplished players and urge them toward real creative risk. There’s a clear parallel to be made with the way Davis brought out some of the most vigorous performances to date from musicians like John Coltrane or drummer Tony Williams, and the way Fripp has done the same with everyone from former drummer Bill Bruford, who left Yes to join King Crimson in 1972, or Levin, who has worked with John Lennon, Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel and Buddy Rich, and has been in Crimson on and off since 1980.
“Crimson was always a players’ band,” Fripp asserts, contrasting their approach with Yes’ more song-oriented bent. And that idea was there from the beginning. “My interest was to present platforms where you take good musicians to a certain point and then say, ‘Go,'” he says, kicking out his foot for emphasis on the final word, as though booting a reluctant skydiver out of a plane.
Fripp has also spent plenty of time on the receiving end of such spurring. Starting in the early Seventies, and on through the ensuing decades both contemporaneously with Crimson and during its many breaks, he’s moonlighted as both an ambient-music pioneer — as heard on a pair of early albums with Brian Eno, including 1973’s No Pussyfooting, where Fripp honed an analog tape-looping system that he called Frippertronics — and a sort of rogue guitar assassin. His radically abstract, often startlingly abrasive playing highlights a slew of era-defining Seventies and Eighties LPs, including Blondie’s Parallel Lines, Peter Gabriel’s first three self-titled solo albums and most famously David Bowie’s Heroes and Scary Monsters. His contributions to the latter two records — from the pealing feedback melody that runs through “Heroes” to the whirring power-drill effects that explode all over “Fashion” — are integral to those releases’ bracingly avant-garde soundworlds. Untraceable to prog, or to any other school, the playing is utterly alien, and purely Fripp.
“With both of them, it was the same,” he says of working with Bowie and Eno. “‘Here is a context. Robert, please go for it,’ with play and lots of laughter. Lots of fun.
“What I would ask for from David would simply be chords,” he continues. “So that I wouldn’t have to sit down and write out a chart for an hour, or whatever, so I could go in fresh. ‘Here is the map for the terrain — go.’ And it was wonderful.”
Asked what might account for his sui generis guitar sound during this period, he pauses and then offers up a concise list. “What are the musical materials behind, for example, the guitar part on ‘Fashion’? Bartok string quartets, Hendrix, the sheer energy of [Stravinsky’s] Rite of Spring — what we might refer to as primal ferocity — plus ideas that were beginning to emerge when I was 15 but have only recently begun surfacing in King Crimson. All of that might be your vocabulary but it doesn’t determine what you say; it’s simply the words you speak.
“So now in this remarkably supportive, and with David, charismatic presence, and Eno also a similarly charismatic presence, you are encouraged to leap,” he says. “And at the time,” Fripp adds, murmuring to indicate that he’s stretching conventions of modesty but not the truth, “Robert was quite a player.”
The last time Fripp recalls speaking with Bowie was in 2002 when Bowie reached him at the home of Adrian Belew, who had also played with the singer prior to joining Crimson. Bowie was curating London’s Meltdown event and asked Fripp to participate. Sadly, at the time, the guitarist’s schedule couldn’t accommodate it.
“[There] wasn’t enough time to do it properly, so I declined,” Fripp says. “My wife [singer-songwriter Toyah Wilcox] has never forgiven me. My wife is a very considerable Bowie fan. That’s an opportunity missed, but I don’t feel I could honorably have engaged with it.”
He goes on to stress, though, that in some ways, the collaboration never really ended. “I regularly have dreams of both Eno and Bowie,” Fripp says. “Always interesting, always wonderful in their way. And I’ll just say: Whenever you work with someone creatively and intensively, something changes; something is fused. It’s maybe something like having a lover, where they’re always part of your life.”
His relationship with King Crimson has been similarly constant, though somewhat more tortured. As he puts it, for around 45 years, he’s “tried to hand the responsibility on to someone else,” making overt efforts to pass off control of the band to other co-founders both in ’69, at the time of the initial breakup, and ’74, when he left the music business entirely to study the spiritual teachings of J.G. Bennett and G.I. Gurdjieff.
But, Fripp says, “no one’s ever picked it up,” and he’s remained at the band’s helm. He seems to view his role almost as a guardianship of some sacred flame: “I have to be able to recognize when King Crimson is in the room,” he said at the press conference, the implication being that he also has to be there to crack the whip, or pull the plug, when he feels that spirit is not present.
Over the years, his rigorous adherence to the band’s core principles hasn’t always made him popular with other members. In his 2009 autobiography, Bill Bruford likened Fripp to “one part Joseph Stalin, one part Mahatma Gandhi, and one part the Marquis de Sade.”
Considering that statement today, Fripp puts on his best mischievous grin. “What I would say, in terms of that quote: Stalin, De Sade and Gandhi, were all, in terms of their own individual fields, at the top,” he says with a dollop of irony. “They’re at the top of their game, let’s face it! I’m very flattered that Bill includes me in their company, but I think he overstates my place in the world.”
Any lingering tension with Crimson alums seems to have dissipated, though. Fripp calls Bruford an “English gentlemen” and a “class act,” and says that he’s also on good terms with Adrian Belew, a member of every lineup since the early Eighties but not a part of the current band. “The band had no role for Adrian as the frontman, and this is what Adrian does,” Fripp says, while not ruling out the possibility of future collaboration and saying that he considers Belew to be King Crimson’s inactive “11th man,” following recent member Bill Rieflin — who will sit out the band’s 2019 shows, with Fripp associate Theo Travis taking his place — and manager David Singleton.
Within the touring octet itself, all is unusually harmonious. “There have been prima donnas in King Crimson, and that can be a bit difficult,” Fripp says. “And if you have two prima donnas in the same band, that can be very difficult. And in this King Crimson, there are eight men, and no one is a prima donna.”
When Fripp speaks of the past, he often dwells on the brilliance of the playing: the bass prowess of Seventies-era member John Wetton, say, or the prodigious abilities of original drummer Michael Giles. (The band’s remarkably extensive, immaculately maintained online archive, masterminded by Fripp and Singleton — which includes hundreds of live shows available for download, some of which feed into massive period-specific box sets and reissues — speaks to Fripp’s pride in the band’s illustrious history.) In the present, though, he’s more apt to bring up the brotherly goodwill that exists within the current band, or the increasing diversity of its audiences. If anything, what’s most progressive about King Crimson at 50 might be Robert Fripp’s own mindset.
These days, he’s looking outward, catering not just to the band’s sizable, reliably devoted cult fan base, but to any open-eared music fan. In his mind, King Crimson’s current position now harks back roughly to the group’s earliest phase, when it could be found supporting the Rolling Stones at a high-profile Hyde Park fest in July 1969, an event that marked what Fripp has called the band’s “move to the international stage.”
“We’re playing Rock in Rio — 100,000 people, most of whom will never have seen King Crimson,” Fripp says. “For us, this is a considerable challenge. We’re also playing three nights at the festival in Spain. That’s a considerable challenge too.
“It goes back to a comment from David [Singleton] to myself, in terms of the size of venues we were playing in,” he continues. “David said to me that the music is now strong enough that it could speak in a larger space. Historically I’ve felt that the intensity of live performance is best conveyed in a relatively small space. So when David said, ‘No, King Crimson can speak in a larger way,’ I went back to Crimson playing in the sheds, larger venues, or, say, going back to 1969 and 1971 where festivals were regular undertakings of everyone. So I now have sufficient confidence in the band to present the music in a larger space.”
Asked if that mindset represents a new peak, he answers affirmatively. “I haven’t had a confidence to this degree to all the Crimsons,” Fripp says. Pretty impressive, especially considering that the launch of the current band immediately followed a period when Fripp briefly retired from music altogether following an extended legal battle with Universal due to unauthorized album sales.
While the current lineup, which brings the band’s entire catalog into play, might seem like a sort of ultimate King Crimson, Fripp says there’s no end for the band immediately in view. There are already engagements being discussed for next year. “The practical limitations on King Crimson, I see, are really more to do with the age of the members than anything,” Fripp says.
Fripp’s quest for innocent ears isn’t new. In a vintage TV doc, filmed circa Crimson’s 1984 LP Three of a Perfect Pair, he addresses a group of journalists: “It’s time that King Crimson extended itself,” he says. “We would like a new audience, so that we can get away from the expectations of our reliable audience.” Continuing that crusade 35 years on, Fripp fully acknowledges the extent of the challenge that still lies ahead: the difficulty of reframing what so many listeners, even die-hard fans, consider to be a legacy act as a freshly relevant entity.
“In terms of the audiences, I hope we escape what used to be young men and are now older men,” he says. “In terms of King Crimson’s position in the world, I think it’s now speaking in a wider way than it has for a couple of decades.”
For a 72-year-old man helming a 50-year-old band that could easily play sellout gigs to its base for the rest of its lifespan, the fact that Fripp is even thinking about expanding King Crimson’s reach is striking in and of itself. He seems to feel that after a half-century, this players’ band might finally have a shot at becoming a people’s one.
“The music is somehow more embracing,” Fripp says of the current Crimson, as if aiming for something only barely out of reach. “It speaks wider.”