Wednesday, April 17

‘A force entirely of itself’: Robert Fripp on the difficult legacy of King Crimson | Documentary films

When Robert Fripp was considering who should direct a proposed documentary about King Crimson – the band he has devoted most of his life to – he knew right away what kind of person it shouldn’t be. “We had been approached by some very good, professional music documentary makers who would make a nice, conventional documentary from which I would learn nothing,” Fripp said by Zoom from his home in the West Midlands.

Rather than go in that direction, he chose director Toby Amies, “who had no familiarity with King Crimson whatsoever. For me, this was ideal,” he said. “I thought, ‘here is an independent film-maker with his own attitude who will come in and show me aspects of King Crimson that I’m perhaps unaware of.’”

More, he hoped Amies’s film would “tell me what King Crimson is”.

That may seem like a strange goal for Fripp, who not only helped conceive this unique beast of a band back in 1969 but who has served as its only consistent member since. Yet, as the documentary, titled In the Court of the Crimson King, cleverly presents, this isn’t a band easily bound by description, even by those who are part of it. Throughout Crimson’s many splendored incarnations, they have always been more about a method than a sound. Or, as Fripp put it, “King Crimson is a way of doing things.”

Unfortunately, the rigors of that way can become a nightmare for musicians who either don’t understand it, or fail to live up to it. A litany of rude and colorful descriptions from former and current members of the group attests to that in the film, which had its world premiere this week at SXSW before an official release later this year. Bassist Trey Gunn likes being in Crimson to “a low-grade infection. You’re not really sick, but you don’t feel well either.” Former member Adrian Belew said his time with the band caused his hair to fall out. “It was so intense to be under that microscope,” he said in the film, while multi-instrumentalist Mel Collins – who has done two tours of duty in Crimson, in the ’70s and over the last decade – described his initial run of he as “a trauma. If you made a mistake, it was the end of the world.”

Common perception would finger Fripp as the hard taskmaster cracking the whip on anyone who doesn’t meet his standards. And while, in certain instances, the guitarist admits he has been just that person, one of the first aims of the film was to “remove this preposterous notion that Robert Fripp is King Crimson”, the guitarist said. “King Crimson is an ensemble.”

He likes it to a cooperative, citing as proof that the money generated by the band is split evenly, while noting “not everybody who has been in King Crimson has been happy that they are paid the same amount as other members of the band”.

Amies (who previously directed the acclaimed documentary The Man Whose Mind Exploded) says that another source of anxiety for some members stems from their own, internal struggle to make the most of the wide creative berth Crimson affords them. “It’s not that you’ve got a tyrant telling you what to do,” he said. “It’s that you have somebody who is giving you the opportunity to be your own personal tyrant. I think that it would be possible to drive yourself mad in that space, especially when you’ve got someone like Robert, who is clearly willing to make great personal sacrifices in the service of their work.”

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Towards that end, a key part of the film documents Fripp’s unending desire to make the band what he dreams it can be. “What’s possible for this band remains in potential,” he says on camera. “And that’s an acute suffering.”

Mel Collins says that only after decades of experience with Fripp did he realize that “whatever he put me through, Robert put himself through ten times over”.

In the film, Fripp describes the first 44 years of his time in Crimson as “wretched”, adding that, only beginning in 2013 did he settle on a line-up in which “not one member of the band actively resents my presence”.

Part of his negative experience, he said, came from feeling the need to either school or scold certain members when they “felt themselves to be of greater value or importance than others”. That is, when they didn’t honor what he calls “the ethics of improvisation”, which dictates that each player listens deeply to the other rather than trying to pull them into their orbit. At other times – mainly during the eras of the Islands and Larks Tongues albums in the 70s – Fripp’s ire rose when various players ruined their performances through drug use. “When that happens,” he said, “it’s awful. Item burns. And there’s a righteous anger involved.”

King Crimson in 1971. Photograph: DGM Archives

Issues within the band date back to the very start, despite the excitement that surrounded them even before they issued a single recording. Four months before the appearance of their debut album, In the Court of the Crimson King, the group had already generated enough buzz for the Rolling Stones to invite them to open their historic show in Hyde Park. In a later piece about the event, the Guardian wrote that Crimson upstaged the headliners. When the band’s debut finally appeared that fall, a besotted Pete Townshend wrote a copy for an ad in Rolling Stone Magazine in which he called it “an uncanny masterpiece”.

Still, half the performing band members – multi-instrumentalist Ian McDonald and drummer Michael Giles – ditched the group within a year. In the film, McDonald (who died in February) said one reason he left was because he could no longer bear “inflicting” the darkness of the music on the audience. But, for fans, the depth of that darkness has been a better draw. The first time I heard the see-sawing, gates-of-hell Mellotron riff in the 1970 track Cirkus, I leapt under the bed in terror. Fripp roars with approving laughter when I tell him. “that was the power of King Crimson being in your room,” he said.

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At the same time, Crimson made sure to balance the music’s apocalyptic shock with passages of ravishing beauty. “Life is rich,” Fripp said. “And if music is reflective of life, it’s going to have a broad dynamic.”

Another draw for fans was the mystery the band created. Not a single picture of its members appeared on their first three albums and because they didn’t tour during most of that period, listeners were left to wonder what shape the creatures who created these otherworldly sounds could possibly take. Are they even human? According to Fripp, that was by design. “I wanted the people playing the music not to be seen,” he said, “because, ideally, the music has nothing to do with them.”

In conversation, Fripp often emphasizes the mystical power of music, favoring abstract statements like: “You have the notes, you have the music, and then there’s something above that,” he said. “It’s silence itself, which moves into the music and then the music moves into the notes that the people are playing.”

In a similar mode, the film finds Fripp saying that when Crimson perform, they “tune the air.”

When asked to explain what he means by that, he shoots back, “would you ask a poet to explain his poem in prose?”

At the same time, Fripp is fully aware that his less trenchant descriptions of music’s power can make some people’s eyes roll. “It’s easily filed under the heading of cosmic horseshite,” he said, with a laugh.

Even so, he insists that everyone has a vivid understanding of the experience he describes in those moments when music transports them. Fripp likens it to “when you close your eyes and someone you love walks into the room. You can’t see them,” he said. “But you know they’re there.”

Robert Fripp in 2019.
Robert Fripp in 2019. Photograph: Dave J Hogan/Getty Images

In parts of the film, Fripp speaks with an almost religious awe of the sound. “There is definitely a spiritual element to it,” Amies said.

To stress that angle, the director presents in the film someone he calls “the prog nun”, a middle-aged woman of the cloth who happens to be a Crimson devotee. “She says that the process of making music is not dissimilar to a liturgy,” Amies said.

In one of the most intense, and unusual, segments in the film, Fripp recalls an encounter with the late philosopher JG Bennett, with whom he studied in the early ’70s. When recounting a key exchange with him, Fripp pauses and appears to go into a kind of trance, which Amies daringly preserves in a near three minute stretch of film filled with nothing but silence. I asked Fripp what was going in his head at the time. “I went to a place,” I answered. “What is that place? That place is where Robert is. And where Robert is, so is everybody else.”

Fripp admits that only a select group of people can relate to comments like that. Within the recent band, just one member could: Bill Rieflin, a drummer and keyboardist who had earlier worked with industrial acts like Ministry and the Revolting Cocks. One of the most moving and stark parts of the film covers Rieflin’s dire diagnosis of late stage colon cancer. He speaks at length about facing certain death with unflinching honesty, great articulation and even humor. “Bill intentionally embraced his cancer,” Fripp said. “It became his personal discipline from him to free himself from this life so that, when he left, he flew away clean.”

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The word “discipline” has great resonance for Fripp. He named his company after him and he lives it as a kind of mantra. While many view the word as harsh or condemning, Fripp sees it as a vow of honor. “It means that when you say you’ll do something, you can rely on yourself to do it,” he said.

In turn, Fripp expects the musicians he works with to figure out what to do in the band. Former Crimson drummer Bill Bruford describes Fripp’s strategy this way: “Find the most interesting people you can, put them in a recording studio, throw away the key and, sure enough, you’ll come out with something interesting after a while – if they haven’t killed each other.”

Often, it seems, various members have wanted to do just that. Some of the most fractious exchanges have occurred between Belew and Fripp. The two can’t even agree on whether the former quit or was fired from the band. In structuring the film, Amies aligned quotes from musicians of different eras with those who play the same instrument now. “The older members have an acute understanding of what current members are going through,” said Amies. “The older members become a Greek chorus to comment on the current action.”

Despite the presence of players from earlier eras, they are only seen in fresh interviews, keeping nearly all the film’s action in the present. Amies said he used this approach to avoid telling the age-old story of King Crimson so he could, instead, capture “the experience of King Crimson”.

Part of that experience makes Fripp look strict, combative and, at times, horribly self-involved. In one indelible moment, he says “I don’t have the problem. The problems lie elsewhere.”

In our interview, Fripp said that the quote was taken out of context. Likewise, he believes the film captures only a part of him. “My wife (the musician Toyah Wilcox) was disappointed,” he said. She told him she wishes the film showed more of the fun side of him, as captured in the couple’s Covid lockdown series “Toyah and Robert’s Sunday Lunch,” in which they playfully performed unexpected covers of popular songs.

Even so, Fripp says he thinks the film is superb. “What Toby has done is to show me a specific part of King Crimson and I find it moving and informative,” he said. “What he doesn’t do is tell me what King Crimson is.”

For that, he said, you have to immerse yourself in the music. “Ultimately,” he said, “King Crimson is a force entirely of itself.”

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