King’s not dead, long live Crimson

by Steve McClure

Robert Fripp is rock ‘n’ roll’s quintessential English eccentric. Not in a flamboyant, over-the-top way like the late Vivian Stanshall or Keith Moon, but in an offbeat, understated manner — like a country vicar whose avocation is the study of reptile eggs or quill pens. Fripp’s quirky, yet iron-willed sense of individualism has helped him pilot his band, King Crimson, through the choppy seas of pop music ever since the group’s 1969 debut. Along with bands such as Yes, Genesis, Van Der Graaf Generator and Emerson, Lake and Palmer, King Crimson was seen as one of the prime exponents of the now mercifully extinct musical genre known as progressive rock, which was neither progressive nor rock, when you get right down to it.

With the arrival of punk rock in the mid-’70s, “prog rock” as a genre went the way of the dodo. But against all expectations, Fripp has managed to maintain King Crimson, amid countless line-up changes, as a cutting-edge musical project through the ’80s and ’90s, and now into the new millennium. Despite crap lyrics (thank you, Pete Sinfield) and an occasional tendency to typically prog-rock rococo excess (the Mellotron comes to mind), there was always an edge, a dark undercurrent, to King Crimson’s music, missing from that of its contemporaries. This does not make for easy listening, it should be pointed out.

The emphasis in King Crimson is on exploring the boundaries of the rock band, in terms of both ensemble playing and improvisation. Fripp is always experimenting with different combinations of players and instruments as he tries to stretch the King Crimson concept just that much further.

Besides Fripp (the only person who’s been in the band since day one), the latest incarnation of King Crimson comprises guitarist/vocalist Adrian Belew, bassist Trey Gunn and drummer Pat Mastelotto, all of whom are outstanding players.

Fripp is one of the most brilliantly original rock guitarists ever. But unlike most other guitar heroes, he keeps a very low profile onstage, preferring to stay seated in the half-darkness, away from the spotlight, huddled behind his array of amps and special-effects gizmos. Fripp’s low-key onstage persona is just another aspect of the single-minded nonconformism that runs like a constant thread through his life and art.

I first became aware of the Frippian sense of eccentricity when interviewing him along with other scribes in the office of Vancouver record store Quintessence Records way back in 1979. At that time, Fripp was well into the teachings of Russian mystic/charlatan G.I. Gurdjieff, and I recall Fripp telling us about a revelatory experience he’d had while pushing a wheelbarrow at a Gurdjieff/Ouspensky center, and his desire to function as a “small, mobile, intelligent unit” within the context of the music business.

Later that week he played a solo gig featuring guitar and “Frippertronics” — Fripp using a reel-to-reel tape recorder to record bits of his playing, which were then played back repetitively to create an ethereal, steadily intensifying sound collage.

At the end of the gig, Fripp stood outside the door of the hall, shaking the hand of everyone who attended the gig, looking and acting like a friendly clergyman wishing his parishioners good health after a service.

The next time I encountered Fripp, backstage at a gig here in Tokyo, I decided to ask him about his infamous comment some years before in Guitar Player magazine about Jimi Hendrix’s “primitive” guitar style. Fripp said that, yes, he had indeed said that.

“His style was Neanderthal,” Fripp reiterated. But what was important, Fripp added, was Hendrix’s musical vision and passion, without which all the technique in the world is nothing. Fripp then said he’d met Hendrix following King Crimson’s debut gig at London’s Speakeasy club in 1969. “He was the most luminescent person I ever met,” Fripp noted, ending the conversation with that rather intriguing remark.

Almost exactly a year later I once again found myself backstage at a King Crimson show here in Tokyo, and decided to ask Fripp — a man who uses words in a precise, almost legalistic way — what exactly he had meant when he said Hendrix was “luminescent.”

“Did you mean that literally or figuratively?” I asked Fripp. Without a moment’s hesitation, Fripp replied. “Literally — he glowed.”

I decided to leave the matter at that, Fripp’s status as rock’s gentle eccentric more than ever firmly etched in my mind. While Fripp is unlikely to exhibit any overt luminescence during King Crimson’s Oct. 15 and 16 shows at Nakano Sun Plaza, you can expect a display of musical pyrotechnics that will make it clear why King Crimson is still around more than 30 years on.