Robert Fripp: An Appreciation in 15 Tracks

This is a non-exhaustive list of fifteen of my favorite tracks by or featuring Robert Fripp, presented in no particular order.

by Marshall Bowden

I consider Robert Fripp to be the greatest guitarist in the rock, pop, prog, fusion, ambient, whatever you want to call it sphere, and that opinion is not without controversy. While many acknowledge Fripp’s excellence and his contribution to multiple genres of popular music, most would not place him above many others on the list. To me Fripp easily rises above the usual rockist suspects–Jimmy Page, David Gilmour, etc. I place him in the company of some modern European guitarists like Terje Rypdal, but Robert Fripp has had the opportunity to insert himself into the pop landscape by virtue of his collaborations with rock/pop artists who are themselves outside the box–Bowie, Eno, Sylvian spring to mind. 

This is a non-exhaustive list of fifteen of my favorite tracks by or featuring Robert Fripp, presented in no particular order.

You Burn Me Up, I’m A Cigarette  The leadoff track to Fripp’s solo album Exposure is a punky rocker, filled with what Brian Eno referred to as ‘idiot energy.’ Indeed it bristles with the same energy and features the same oblique lyrics as any number of tracks from Eno’s Here Come The Warm Jets and Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy. It’s a rare straightforward rocker from the guitarist, aided by the rockabilly style vocals from Daryl Hall, who had quickly become Fripp’s ideal vocalist. There’s no big statement here, no big solo, just the promise that you’ll be taken on an energizing journey.

The Mincer  I know there are a ton of King Crimson tracks where Fripp features prominently and his work in the prog/experimental rock/free jazz area cannot be overemphasized. This track from 1974’s Starless and Bible Black album has the grating bite of some industrial rock or the noise rock that Bowie would become enamored of in the 1990s. Fripp is at times reminiscent of Pete Cosey during his tenure with Miles Davis. Then it settles into a funky groove. The piece was improvised and recorded at a live performance in Zurich, with John Wetton’s vocals overdubbed in the studio. The lengthier improvisation that included ‘The Mincer’ was released as “The Law of Maximum Distress” on the live 4 disc set The Great Deceiver and is also included on the reissue of Starless and Bible Black. The entire piece demonstrates the path that Robert Fripp took with Crimson, away from the typical prog sounds being emphasized by British and American bands and towards the free improvisational path of experimental European groups. It was a path that made Crimson a more enduring and influential band than most of its peers.

Starless  This track is included on the album Red, not to be confused with the title track from Starless and Bible Black (which is an improvisation), even though the Dylan Thomas phrase turns up in the lyrics here. The thing that gets me about this one is Fripp’s searing, melodic guitar line. It stops me in my tracks no matter how many times I hear it. There is also the texture provided by Fripp’s Mellotron work, the instrument having been used since the group’s debut record, and Fripp having become quite familiar with its use. Mel Collins provides some lovely soprano saxophone as well, and David Cross’ violin makes an appearance. Wetton wrote the original song, which was comprised of the vocal section alone. Fripp was reportedly cool to the number initially, but later added an introduction by David Cross and the second half, which is a freewheeling improvisation that ends with a Fripp’s burning guitar erupting in a frenzied, heavy ending section that sounds a lot like the band that Fripp started touring as Crimson in the late 90s and early 2000s.

Don’t Blame It On Love (Hall & Oates) This was from the Hall & Oates album Along The Red Line, released in 1978. The album marked a change of direction for the duo as they worked with producer David Foster for the first time as well as a backing band that included former Elton John band members Kenny Passerelli, Roger Pope, and Caleb Quaye (Quaye had also played with Lou Reed, who had recently gone solo), the same musicians who had toured with the group and recorded the Livetime album. There were various guest artists, including Todd Rundgren, George Harrison, and Robert Fripp. Fripp adds an ambient, No Pussyfooting introduction before the song kicks in. He riffs along with Quaye and provides a serious kick in energy level, not at all surprising considering where he’d left off with Crimson only four years earlier. Fripp embarked on a fruitful period as a solo artist, collaborator, and hired gun. He worked closely with Peter Gabriel and Daryl Hall on several projects, including appearances by these artists on his solo project, Exposure. I get a kick out of hearing a Hall & Oates track with Robert Fripp on it, but bottom line is that he adds to the track and if you know his work, you know it’s him.

Evening Star In 1973 Fripp and Brian Eno went into Eno’s studio and recorded No Pussyfooting, an album that essentially launched the ambient music movement in popular music. Using a system of tape loops that interacted with his live guitar playing, which he dubbed ‘Frippertronics,’ Fripp brought new relevance to the guitar in terms of the development of electronic music. Evening Star, recorded two years later, repeated the formula but with a more delicate touch from Fripp. The title track, with its gently repeating guitar figure emphasizes just how much Fripp had developed his concept in the intervening years. 

Baby’s On Fire and St. Elmo’s Fire (Brian Eno)  Fripp contributed an incendiary solo on “Baby’s On Fire” from Eno’s solo debut Here Come The Warm Jets. Eno’s record was recorded in late ’73, as King Crimson was moving into a heavier sound which would be heard on Starless and Bible Black and Red. Here guitar busts loose at 1:27 and solos like a Roman candle, with ideas spinning off one another. This has always seemed to me like Fripp’s most rock and roll solo, though it is far from cliched. It simply calls attention to itself in ways that Fripp has not usually done, even with Crimson. He solos for a full three minutes until Eno returns with additional vocals at 4:27. An amazing triumph.

In 1975 Eno was on his third album, Another Green World, and he called on Fripp to play guitar on a few tracks. “St. Elmo’s Fire” stands  out partially because of Eno’s lyrics, but Fripp again excels at painting the picture that Eno is talking about with his guitar, ‘splitting ions in the ether’ and bringing the track to its conclusion. Fripp and Eno have continued to collaborate throughout both artists’ careers. 

Heroes (David Bowie)  So, here’s the deal. Bowie was in the midst of a progressive move in the direction of incorporating art into his rock and pop music, and on this particular track he was inspired by German synth group La Dusseldorf and a track they recorded titled “Silver Cloud.” It chugs along–and ‘chugs’ is the appropriate word here, indicating a certain plodding quality but also generating a sense of picking up momentum as it goes along. Bowie’s “Heroes” track creates a similar sense of moving towards something, but the song is somewhat aimless, a fact that both Bowie and Eno realized in the studio. Enter Robert Fripp who came to Berlin after a phone call from Eno, and who played his parts, packed up his axe, and hit the road, the professional musician to a tee. But the motif he created for “Heroes” is not only the organizing factor that pulls the track together and makes it into a SONG, but his guitar work makes it a rock track rather than merely an imitation of German groups. He put down three separate parts–celestial guitar sounds that gave the song its distinctive character. In my opinion, Fripp should have received a cowriter credit.

It’s No Game and Fashion (David Bowie) Robert Fripp is a huge presence on Bowie’s 1979 album Scary Monsters, playing on many of the tracks. He stands out in particular on the opening tack, “It’s No Game” and the club number “Fashion.” On both tracks he contributes some nice intervallic lines that also cross the line into noise a bit. Unfortunately, Bowie didn’t work with Fripp again as he pivoted to a more aggressive noise rock sound in the 90s, and Fripp seemed genuinely surprised and maybe a little hurt that he didn’t get the call for The Next Day. Fripp has been in an argument with the Bowie estate as well as PPL over not being categorised as a Feature Player, a distinction that did not exist at the time these records were made. Such a designation relates to rights and royalties for reuse of a track, such as the use of “Heroes” during the 2012 Olympics. PPL refuses to grant Fripp such a designation in regards to “Heroes” and the tracks on Scary Monsters because no such designation existed at the time. The Bowie estate refuses to grant the designation on grounds that it is the job of PPL to do so. Brian Eno provides a very concise commentary on why Fripp’s contributions were that of a collaborator rather than a session guitarist: 

“Robert Fripp’s contributions to the David Bowie albums are of a singular nature. He is a unique musician who doesn’t do ‘sessions’ in the normal sense: when people work with him it is not only for his prodigious gifts as a player, but even more for his unusually fruitful and original imagination He has the ability to send a piece of music into a quite different direction, and indeed did so several times on these albums.” 

That quotation comes from a piece by David Singleton about the dispute that is included, in its entirety, in this post on the DGM Live website.

Babs and Babs (Daryl Hall)White Shadow (Peter Gabriel)  Fripp produced Sacred Songs, Daryl Hall’s first solo album as well as Peter Gabriel’s second solo album (known as ‘scratch’ by its cover image) and his own album Exposure as part of his self-pronounced ‘Drive to 1981.’ He considered these albums to be part of a loosely-conceived trilogy, and listening to them back to back, one can understand how they could be grouped together. Themes of alienation, inner turbulence, and the frantic yet exciting energy of a major city (NYC, in this case) run through all three records. Fripp was living in a small apartment in New York City and was taking in the city’s punk and no wave music scene and using its energy as inspiration.

As previously mentioned, Daryl Hall had become Fripp’s preferred vocalist, but Hall’s record label, RCA, was not as enthused about the Fripp projects. They held Sacred Songs until 1980 (three years) and demanded that Exposure be credited to Fripp and Hall, causing Fripp to utilize only two of Hall’s vocals, re-recording tracks with additional vocalists Maggie Roche and Peter Hammill instead. 

The Peter Gabriel album represents a real break in style for Gabriel in many respects, and many of his fans have never liked the record. What they fail to hear, to my ears, is the way that the songs themselves are in many ways more characteristic of Gabriel’s work with Genesis, particularly his final Genesis album The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, than his solo debut had been. The record had a depth that just wasn’t there on previous Gabriel recordings. Fripp added a more technological view towards making the record and contributed some terrific guitar playing as well. On “White Shadow” he plays acoustic and electric guitars, and the track, the final song on the record’s first side, ended with Fripp’s guitar on an infinity loop. 

Breathless (Exposure)  There are times on Exposure where Fripp sounds like he’s still in King Crimson, and this is definitely one of them. Starting from a gentle Frippertronic haze it shifts to a pile driving guitar riff bolstered by intensive drumming by Narada Michael Walden and the solid, kinetic bass work of Tony Levin. It’s mind-bending that this same guitarist can play the ‘celestial sounds’ heard on tracks like “Heroes” and the fluttering ambient butterflies of Exposure‘s final vocal track, Peter Gabriel’s “Here Comes The Flood” which turns out to be so much more effectual than the overproduced, bombastic version on his first solo album. In any event, Exposure is a first rate album that documents an important moment in New York City’s musical history and it’s an important album that doesn’t get the credit it deserves for being influential–at least as influential as Brian Eno/David Byrne’s My Life In the Bush of Ghosts. 

Discipline (King Crimson) After the whole “Drive to 1981” it was an amazing thing when Fripp announced to a gobsmacked fan base and music press that he was reforming King Crimson. But, of course, not the Crimson of old. Whatever that meant, because by then there had been several lineups of the band and a couple of distinct periods in their recording career. Nonetheless, the new lineup, consisting of Fripp, guitarist Adrian Belew, Tony Levin, and Bill Bruford, was formidable. No one could call this a band without chops. And I found Fripp’s conception of a gamelan-based sound created by the interweaved parts played by himself and Belew to be compelling listening. It was a self-limiting project that only lasted for three albums, one of which is quite uncharacteristic of the Crimson repertoire, but it still makes me want to hear it forty years later.

God’s Monkey (David Sylvian)  Fripp’s work with British songwriter/peformer David Sylvian is bound to invite comparison with his work with David Bowie, but on their first record together, The First Day it sounds like they are in a band together, and indeed they might have been–Fripp initially asked Sylvian to join a new version of King Crimson in 1991. The singer declined, but the offer to work together was honored:

“That was at Robert [Fripp]’s instigation. It was at a time when I think I would have fallen silent anyway. I had no desire to work at that period in time, and Robert was really tugging at my sleeve saying, ‘Let’s do something, let’s do something,’ so… why not? And so that was an interesting journey in itself, and we worked together for a number of years before calling it quits. And then I was able to return to solo work…” (interview with David Sylvian on DGM website)

The result is an album with a decided funk angle to it, making it seem a bit like a Talking Heads or David Byrne project, but musically it’s a bit more intensive than that, with Trey Gunn, Jerry Marotta, and producer David Bottrill joining Fripp and Sylvian in what, at times, sounds like a dry run for what King Crimson will sound like when Fripp restarts it shortly after working with Sylvian. 

2 thoughts on “Robert Fripp: An Appreciation in 15 Tracks

  1. What a fantastic site. Thank you! Really enjoyed your treatise on Fripp. An astounding gentleman. Particularly liked hearing Starless again after so many years. Listened for the guitar work more carefully and I fully agree that it’s brilliantly played. Also God’s Monkey is new to me. I’m a big Sylvain fan but I was not aware and it’s great. Appreciate your efforts. I’ll be back.

    1. Hey, thanks so much for reading the article and commenting. I’m glad that you enjoyed it. Certainly an amazing musician and individual. Hope you will be back to read future articles.

      -Marshall-

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