Interview with Robert Fripp in Melody Maker (1981)
Date Submitted: 20-Dec-1996
Submitted By: David Kirkdorffer (SayAaahh at aol dot com)
Do you want me to sell you an album…or a treatise on neg-entropy?
Robert Fripp lectures Lynden Barber
Melody Maker interview
March 21, 1981
You know how it goes. Artist brings out new album, interview is arranged in music paper, artist puts across positive views about album to wide audience and record company sells more "product" at no extra cost.
This time, though, the formula is blurred. By passing his record company press office Robert Fripp rings up and asks if I want to interview him. He's keen to find out my views on the about to be released League Of Gentlemen since if I don't like it I "might not want to talk" to him. Wily old Fripp knows how to avoid a slagging, I suspect.
And how about bringing Allan Jones for a three-way interview, asks the genial West Country voice on the other end of the line? I politely turn down the idea. Aren't Fripp interviews confusing enough without inviting a second journalist to try and unravel the famed cat-and-knitting tangle of verbiage?
As it is we hardly talk about the album at all, which suits me fine. I have no strong views on the record – parts of it I quite enjoy, parts leave me cold. The League Of Gentlemen was principally a live band and the record is an adequate representation of what they were about.
Take it or leave it.
Note the use of the past tense. The League is now officially "on halt"
A few days after the phone call we meet in the Chelsea ambiance of EG Records headquarters in the Kings Road.
"The LOG was originally put together for three months work, and then it was innocent," Fripp tells me.
"After that we had two or three subsequent bouts of working for maybe three weeks or a month or whatever and we never managed to get the same kind of coherence."
"I have no idea whether the band will work again. To do that would need a well-taken decision and a lot o commitment. I'm not sure whether it would be there or not."
It comes as no surprise that the League were not so much a "band" as a project that fit neatly into a typically Fripperesque conceptual framework which he describes as a "three tier" system of working.
"You need the first division level which is, I suppose, the Blondie, Talking Heads, Bowie and Police level – it has a high level of commercial success and public visibility. Then you have the intermediate level of working when you're earning a living and a good pro."
"And then you have the R & D (research and development) department, or art level. Any healthy system needs a certain amount of its energies and resources going into exploring new ideas. The League for me was a kind of R & D department – finding out what it's like for a group with no money with high emphasis on spirit rather tan high level of technical competence."
"My R & D used to be Frippertronics which has now moved up to the intermediate level."
Yes, Frippertronics lives…
You may remember the 'No Pussyfooting' album with the immodest but accurately titled side 'The Heavenly Music Corporation,' recorded in 1972 wen Frippo dropped round to Eno's for tea one day.
Together with the Soft Machine's first experiments it was one of the first successful attempts by rock musicians to use the tape delay methods of the American minimalist figurehead Terry Riley and according to Fripp was a great influence on Bowie.
Nearly ten years later and Frippertronics is still going, turning up in fragments on the 'Exposure' album and on a whole side of 'Under Heavy Manners / God Save The Queen,' not to mention a ludicrous 'Barbertronics' event at the Virgin Megastore on Oxford Street last week involving Fripp and a hairdresser by the name of Mary Lou Green. What was once fresh and startling has now become stale and cliched.
Why, I ask, is he still doing it? It's nothing that hasn't been done before.
"Yes, but in a sense that's fine," replies Fripp, obviously keen to escape the pressure of being seen as a constant innovator.
"Because one is working in a generic are, it doesn't mean you can't have newness on the inside, if you like."
"Another answer would be that it gives me a way of working with intimate contact with members of an audience. You can't play Frippertronics and coast. It's never that safe. It's almost an excuse to put me in a situation where one has the audience, performer and music, and in a certain kind of way something remarkable can happen. And hat has happened to me, and it's not possible in a group."
"Frippertronics is the most enjoyable means of playing I've ever found. Of all the tours I've done over 12 years, the only one I can look back on without being revolted or feeling grubby is the Frippertronics tour of 1979, the most crushingly hard work I've ever done."
Okay, but what has always narked me is the way that Fripp seemingly claims certain ideas as his own when other people have got there first and deserve the credit.
Terry Riley discovers a tape delay system, then several years later Fripp and Eno do the same thing and tout it as some major discovery. Fripperblodytronics indeed….it's Rileytronics!
Isn't this so, Fripp?
"In terms of the technique I've never made any claim on it being my technique," come the case for the defense.
"I've always been very happy to say it was introduced to me by Eno in July '72 – he told me he discovered it independently. Riley was obviously using it in the Sixties, the same system was even included in a book on electronic music in the late Sixties. Now, having made all the acknowledgments as far as I can, I adapted it as a way of working for me."
Believe it or not, the answer to this simple question actually lasts for about ten minutes! Not that Fripp appears ruffled. Just over-defensive perhaps.
After a brief lecture on Anglo-Saxon poetry (!) he explains how making money from someone else's idea must involve social responsibility.
"I'm involved in a farming project in Cornwall, I was involved in a hospital project in Hampshire but it went bankrupt. I'm involved in an experimental adult education center in West Virginia and am releasing a series of lectures on various psychological matters."
"That's how I work with the contradiction of getting paid for ideas which aren't mine. This is an imperfect world…that's my way of working with it."
A thin figure appears at the door and exchanges brief greetings with Fripp before disappearing again, which is a cue for Fripp to change course.
"Bryan auditioned for me in 1970… I'm one of the very few people ho have heard that man sing 'Schizoid Man' and The Court Of The Crimson King.' He was good, but he wasn't right for Crimson."
Ah hah… the man at the door was Bryan Ferry. The sight of Ferry would be enough to make a million secretaries swoon onto the office floor and I hadn't even recognized him.
"Elton John was going to do 'In The Wake Of Poseidon' for 250 pounds but I cancelled," says Fripp continuing the irrelevant anecdotes.
Irrelevant anecdotes? But most Fripp interviews sound like an Open University maths lecture! Has a miraculous transformation swept over the man?
The answer is, of course, no.
If the whole interview was printed it would run for several pages…. As Fripp interviews quite often do… including a treatise on 'neg-entropy' and a jamboree bag of other assorted flavours.
But Fripp is not the genius some would see him as – and conversely neither is he, as cynics would have it, a charlatan.
He is one of the more intelligent, well-read musicians in rock but also one who has an annoying habit of dressing up quite commonplace ideas in extravagant, neo-academic language so that they seem more intriguing at first sight than they are in reality.
He tells me his series of articles on the politics and economics of the record industry printed in Sound International in Britain and Musician and Player and Listener in the States "have had a remarkable influence up to now, particularly in America."
"Nine months after I'd got to work for Polydor in New York all the things I said were going to happen began to happen… the first quarter of last year was the biggest drop in record sales for years, you had no room to pay the bills anymore when gross errors were made."
"So the top two people in Polydor left, and instead of being seen as a kind of likeable but eccentric turkey, I was suddenly an economic visionary.
But when pressed to be specific about what effects his ideas have had the reply seems less than stunning.
"A little group in Pittsburgh is now printing and pressing its own records and cassettes. Bowie said 'I've read your ideas on touring.' Blondie are going to do four or five gigs in clubs. Now I don't know how much is directly from that (his ideas) but its a part of a consensus."
This Pittsburgh group could have taken their inspiration from looking at the English independent labels, I comment skeptically.
"Ideas are like epidemics," comes the reply (apparently a quote from Renoir).
It's probably air to say Fripp's music has had a far deeper influence than any of his verbally expressed concepts – Bowie's 'Scary Monsters' carries a very heavy Fripp stamp all the way through, for instance – yet ironically he's less ready to discuss this side of things.
All he has to say about 'Monsters' is that he "went in for three sessions, working very quickly and off the cuff and put what normally would have come under the heading of a 'collaborative stamp' on it."
As for the future there are a number of possibilities. Bowie has asked him to work on his next album, although he doesn't know if he will take up the offer yet; he'll be recording a two-guitar album with the Police's Andy Summers in July ('the only player I know who's taken the Sixties jazz style – Wes Montgomery and all that – and updated it into the eighties"); and he's been rehearsing with Bowie's guitarist Adrian Belew and ex-King Crimson colleague Bill Bruford in New York for a recording project which he's slightly reluctant to discuss.
A colleague has suggested this will be the new KC. More likely it's the next stage of Fripp's R & D… or maybe there's a new tag already gesting itself within the depths of Fripp's exceptionally active brain.