Saturday, June 17, 2006

Robert Fripp exposed

After manning art-rock legends King Crimson for over five years, guitarist Robert Fripp had enough in 1974. He wasn't just sick of the band and their music but also of the industry itself. He needed to get away and "find himself."

Though he did take up the teachings of mystic G. I. Gurdjieff, Fripp didn't retreat to a mountain top to meditate. He hooked up with Peter Gabriel (producing his second solo album and touring with him) and David Bowie (recording the memorable guitar line on "Heroes") and eventually settled in New York City in the late 70's. This was the same time that his old friend Brian Eno had also taken up residence in the area. It was a good time and place to be. CBGB's had cultivated a punk scene that Fripp (unlike many of his art rock peers who were detractors) would immerse himself into, appearing on records by Blondie and Talking Heads. Compare that with his old band mates- Ian McDonald would wind up in Foreigner, John Wetton would made hits with Asia, Greg Lake was of course in ELP, etc.. all successful and schlocky as hell.

Another interest he had at that time was finally making his own album. As Arto Lindsay noted, a 'solo' album is only really solo if you do everything yourself. Fripp wasn't ready for that yet (though soon would), calling on a group of musicians he was surrounding himself with at the time. In addition to Eno and Gabriel, he was producing folkie sisters the Roches and planning to also to produce an album by then-hot-commodity Daryl Hall. Much the same way that Eno's label/management told them that a record with Fripp would be commercial poison (eventually their collaboration records did come out though), Hall's people didn't like the idea of an art rock guitarist producing him. They not only shelved Hall's solo album (Sacred Songs, which would come out later) but for Fripp's record, they at first suggested that it should be a Fripp/Hall album and when that fell through, they told him he could only use two Hall vocals on his record.

Fripp looks back on this with utter rage even today. Is it any wonder that he's had such a sour view of the industry? I subtitled my other blog (Crazed By the Music) with another quote of his which describes his view of the music business: exploitation and theft.

In any case, Fripp soldiered on, corralling other musicians to take up the vocals on his album. What was eventually released in 1979 as Exposure was a revelation. Though parts of it inevitably bore the stamp of Crimson, it was as if Fripp was presenting an intriguing possible direction for Crimson that was never taken (and has never been taken since unfortunately). Even the substitute vocals help give the album a kaleidoscopic view that having only Hall there to sing would never have done. In addition to taped voice fragments that dotted the record, Fripp employed Frippertronics, an ambient looping technique for his playing that he developed with the help of Eno. The album went through a seamless mix of moods from blinding anger to aching tenderness from one song to the next. In many ways, it was more ambitious than anything that Crimson did before or after that.

The album begins with a voice (Eno? Fripp?) saying "I'd like to play you something..." A phone rings, gets picked up and then we're launched into "You Burn Me Up, I'm A Cigarette," a title worthy of Bobby Braddock. What's remarkable here is that Fripp himself wrote the lyrics (something he hadn't done before) and that the song is nothing less than a stomping piece of rock and roll that you could almost hear Jerry Lee sing (though he might wince about the line about "the sage"). Hall sings the tune and does a fine job of it too.

After a metal-battered piece of Crimson memorabilia (sounding like where Red left off) comes one of the secret heroes of the record. One of Hall's substitutes for the vocals was Van Der Graaf Generator's Peter Hammill- his hysterics on "Disengage" and sly insanity on "Chicago" show more range or wisdom than any singer that Fripp worked with in Crimson could. The lyrics for those two songs come from the album's other hidden treasure, poet Joanna Walton. She also provides tender words for "Mary" (sung by Terre Roche) and "North Star" (a prospective single, sung by Hall).

Along with the bizarre title track (its letters chanted by Fripp and Eno, its title screamed by Roche), the second side has a few beautiful Frippertronics pieces, a funny piece of self-criticism ("Haaden Two" where voices complain about the song's "pathetic chord sequence" and that "it has no qualities of your work that I find interesting"), a shouting match between Hammill and Roche (written by Walton) and Gabriel's now-prescient, lovely, apocalyptic "Here Comes the Flood." In the "Postscript," a voice explains "the whole story is untrue... it's a big hoax." The phone conversation which began at the start of the record now ends with a hang up and then we hear footsteps and someone walking out of a screen door (to where?) as the album ends.

In all, Exposure is a powerful, wonderfully odd album which charted/marked Fripp's life at the time. Though he would try to repeat the schitzo formula in 1981 on God Save the Queen/Under Heavy Manners (with assistance from David Byrne), embark on Frippertronics tours and form the League of Gentleman as his first attempt at a post-Crimson band (with former XTC organist Barry Andrews and future Gang of Four bassist Sara Lee), Fripp did eventually reactivate Crimson with Bill Bruford back from the mid-70s line-up along with Exposure bassist Tony Levin and Bowie/Talking Heads guitarist/singer Adrian Belew. Kudos to Fripp for not resting on his laurels and engaging with such a interesting range of musicians usually much younger than him (rather than only sticking with the old art rock crowd) but Exposure is where he really shined brightest and sounded most inspired.

The album can be experienced again on a recent reissue that Fripp helmed, which includes not just the original recordings all cleaned up but also lyrics, detailed notes and even a bonus CD of the unreleased Hall vocals and other out-takes. A quarter-century after the fact, the album is still well-named- it was his highest profile outing up to that time and a real expose into the mind of an erudite guitar-god.

2 Comments:

Blogger Jab @ BZT said...

Jason, I'm glad you reviewed this album. I have this on vinyl and have only listened to it once since I bought it a year or so ago. It seems it's time to dig into it again.

I do recall it getting the "whoa," reaction from me a number of times on the first listen.

10:21 AM  
Blogger Matt Stevens said...

I love this record - as good as any Crimson

11:17 AM  

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