leave it to robert fripp

leave it to robert fripp.  only fripp could do this.

since 1968, robert fripp has produced some of the most consistently challenging, musically advanced work of the modern age of rock music.  musicians have marvelled at his guitar playing in a huge range of very different settings: as de facto leader and muse of the great king crimson; as tape-recorder experimenter buddy of the remarkable brian eno; as the guitar-sparring partner of andy summers; as the leader of an amazing 1980 “dance band” called “the league of gentlemen”; as the secret weapon of david bowie on various tracks from the “berlin years”…the list goes on and on, fripp’s own solo records, many of which feature him on “soundscapes”, meaning, fripp, a guitar, and whatever guitar / looping system he has on at that moment, to the remarkable “exposure” (in it’s many, many guises) with it’s many, many singers and crop of amazing songs…the list just goes on and on…even in the strange late 60’s trio “giles, giles, and fripp” – robert fripp played a lot of really very remarkable guitar on the band’s odd records – their one official release, and the more recent and very interesting “the brondesbury tapes”…

…fripp was also the onboard lead guitarist (remarkably, sharing that role with michael brook) in the absolutely underrated “sylvian / fripp” (as the name hints, a collaboration between fripp and japan leader david sylvian) – and the even more obscure yet fascinating “sunday all over the world” – fripp’s first of two bands that feature his wife, toyah wilcox, on vocals…and all the while, many, many versions of “king crimson” would form and dissolve, form and dissolve…

some of these releases, are “division one” releases, large scale, well marketed, well received – others, more low key, or “division two” releases, but no less significant for that.  it didn’t matter how much or how little media fanfare accompanied any particular fripp or fripp-related release; you knew, if a new album came out from robert fripp, say, entitled “a blessing of tears” – that it was going to be good – really good.  over time, based on your very real experience – you recognise that works by this artist, are generally, works of great quality.

and somewhere amidst all of this work, amidst all of these remarkable and interesting collaborations, amidst the ongoing work with king crimson – the most incredible, most astonishing release of all appeared, with no fanfare whatsoever – and I am not really sure just how many people know about it.

this is what fripp has done – he’s released a masterwork, a really, really important work – one of the earliest examples of the use of looping on stage – with almost no fanfare whatsoever.  to my mind, that’s similar to miles davis releasing “sketches of spain” but not mentioning it to anyone; just letting a few fans discover it, but not really bothering to acknowledge that it’s a key work in his canon – one of the best albums he ever produced.

THAT is what fripp has done – basically, he has released the best (guitar) album he has ever done, bar none, without really mentioning it to anyone !

I was late to it – I found out about it by accident, months after it was released.  I immediately downloaded it, all of it, and set out to listen to it.  thirteen hours later – I was still reeling from the shock of just how perfect, just how beautiful, just how intense, this amazing release truly is.

I am speaking, of course, about the frippertronics tour of europe, which kicked off on may 7, 1979 in amsterdam and completed in madrid on june 1, 1979 (although no recording exists for that show – the last recorded show being the may 29th show from zurich, switzerland – we think) and these 15 long, live frippertronics looping performances – are simply staggering in their scope, diversity and incredible beauty. overpowering beauty, musical intensity of a kind you rarely, rarely ever get to hear or witness – loop music as it was in the beginning. (and shall be, looping without end, amen, forever).

leave it to robert fripp to release 15 mind-bogglingly good shows of live frippertronics, after allowing them to sit, unreleased for decades – all that time – I had assumed that the tapes did not exist, were not viable, or had just been lost or forgotten – but, they were handed to alex mundy, dgm’s resident necromancer, and alex has lovingly restored the solos to the loops, the lectures to the looping…  there are a few remaining bits of robert’s spoken portions, in one or two of these shows, but this is mostly just guitar, guitar and more guitar – heaven for someone like myself – as it was seeing fripp play at tower records that made me want to become a looper – which I did, about a decade later – and I’ve never stopped since.

I was lucky enough to witness a live frippertronics show myself, on the US leg of the tour later that year (and I am hoping that this will eventually be released, assuming at least part of it does… 🙂 at a tower records store in san diego, california where I lived at the time, so I had a very personal interest in hearing the first live performances, in europe, of frippertronics – a tape-based looping system developed with the help of fripp’s friend and musical partner, brian eno.  I was also fortunate enough to see a “lecture” at mandeville auditorium at UCSD in 1983, which turned out to be…a frippertronics show – this time, as we entered the hall, robert was already looping…amazing.  I’ve just noticed that DGM have that show in their download archives, so that’s one I will definitely download…sigh.  but anyway, returning to the earlier, european version of frippertronics…

the set up was straightforward: two full-sized revox tape decks, with a large space between them, and a long piece of tape (the “tape loop”) running between the two machines; a black gibson les paul guitar, and a very small, minimal guitar pedal board – amplifier and speaker cabinets – that was the entire thing, but the one ingredient that really brought this “small, intelligent unit” to life, was it’s creator and operator: robert fripp himself.

with only an astonishingly short “four to six seconds” of loop time available to him via the revoxes; fripp was able to use his knowledge of music, counterpoint, and harmony to introduce notes, phrases or even “pickup selector switch switching sounds”, into the loop in the appropriate way as to build up pieces that were alternately serene, terrifying, beautiful, or very, very dissonant.  most of the frippertronics loops are on the serene, beautiful side; with the occasional leap over to the dark side, and some of those “dark” loops are some of the best performances here.

but, whether you prefer the heavenly, melodic, beautiful waves of sound that robert often performed, or if you prefer the dark, dissonant, disturbing pieces he sometimes favoured – there is something for everyone in this 15-show set.  I love all of these loops, dark, light, and every musical shade in between, and the beauty of the loops themselves, is set off wonderfully by the confident, high-speed, accurate solos that fripp almost casually layers over the top of the loops.

he is so confident, so accurate, that it’s almost miraculous to behold – and there are a lot of surprises – notes you don’t expect; sudden endings you don’t expect, and so on…it’s quite surprising sometimes.  a sudden, very loud low note will, out of nowhere, underpin what was moments before, a lovely, high-pitched floating cloud of beautiful looped guitar…

that dark, powerful note overwhelms and overtakes the lovely floating cloud; turning light to dark momentarily, but perhaps, allowing for a different kind of overlaid solo to then occur. fripp steers the compositions where he wants to; altering the running loop on the fly to change it’s character; and then launching into another impossibly fast crimson-esque guitar solo – you could just about hear the wheels turning in fripp’s head, it all comes out – every idea, every doubling of a note, every harmony, every intentionally dissonant harmony – it’s all to plan, and that plan is executed with frightening precision and overwhelming confidence – the power of robert fripp, lead guitarist, is absolutely laid bare on this series of live, loop and solo recordings.

as a looper myself, albeit with about 10 years’ less experience than fripp, I can speak first hand to just how difficult it is to loop with only a four second loop!  four seconds is a very, very short space of time in music. one of my first digital loopers, the digitech rds-8000, sported just eight seconds of loop, and working with that was possible, but never easy 🙂

as the technology improved, the digital loopers became more capable – I moved from 1 second to 8 seconds and eventually on up to 196 seconds (with the remarkable echoplex digital pro) – quite a leap, from eight seconds to over three minutes! – and once you have a looper with that kind of capability, the problems mostly disappear (although, very long loops have their own challenged).  fripp used his four to six seconds, with the revoxes, off and on for about four years.

while fripp did embrace digital loopers, it wasn’t until the early / mid 1980s, so for these performances – it was done strictly with the tapes, and four seconds was all robert had to work with.  and what he does in those four seconds, is simply remarkable guitar playing.

oh my god – what fripp can do with a four second loop; it’s absolutely astonishing, and I am quite certain that many weeks or months of meticulous rehearsal preceeded this short tour – when he starts out on his first loop of that first amsterdam show – it’s with complete and utter confidence, and he sounds relaxed, well practiced and so, so accurate – he builds up a loop, it ends up smooth, beautiful and lovely – and then, begins to solo, but not just any solo, truly beautiful, melodic, thick sustained-notes soloing, as only fripp can – and to have these performances restored – loops and solos – is a sonic miracle, but to my mind – these performances demonstrate the true quality of robert fripp, the guitarist, that even his best work with king crimson could not quite demonstrate.

because here – there is no john wetton or tony levin (king crimson bassists at different times) thundering away in the low frequencies; there is no cymbal splash or electronic percussion madness from bill bruford (king crimson drummer since 1973, on and off), and there is no david cross (violin) or adrian belew (lead guitar, vocals) to “spar” or harmonise with – all of that is gone, and in it’s place – a four second span of time; to be filled with beautiful, harmonising notes, or to build up loop counterpoint, or to layer long, sustained notes or trills – and then, this loop becomes the band, it becomes the music that robert then solos over – but we can now really hear what he is playing, far more clearly than one can in some king crimson recordings – and while these recordings are of varying quality, the beauty and simplicity of what fripp accomplishes here is not diminished in any way, shape or form – it’s guitar heaven, it’s undoubtedly one of the première examples of man v machine where both win; fripp has taken what eno (and others) developed, and made a few modifications to the system to make it as suitable for guitar as possible – and has created a brand new kind of music: frippertronics.

fast forward twenty years, and a similar, yet wildly different, kind of solo fripp music emerged: the soundscape.  this is the modern-day equivalent to frippertronics.  and while I love and admire both forms, frippertronics and soundscapes; for me, my money is on frippertronics – because it involves the pure sound of a gibson les paul (whereas, soundscapes are more guitar synthesizer-oriented, therefore, less guitar-like) and the fripp pedal board, captured, looped, and soloed over with an intensity and capability that few musicians ever reach – fripp worked very, very hard at this – and he got it right, and if you listen to these 15 shows back to back – you will not be disappointed – and in fact, that is exactly what I did, I downloaded them all on a friday night; then on the saturday, I put them on – and let them play in sequence, all day long. 

at ten pm that night, it finally came to an end – and I was left speechless, breathless, and utterly, utterly impressed – OK, I knew it would be good – but I never dreamed – my 34 year old memory of the 1979 frippertronics show I had seen, and the 30 year old memory of a second show at mandeville auditorium, told me “this will be incredible” but even those memories could not have prepared me for the reality of the speed, dexterity, power, and beauty of these live guitar loop and solo performances – they are out of this world, and for guitarists, are an absolute lesson in what can be accomplished with a very, very finite set of equipment, set up for one purpose – and then there is the way that robert plays.

it’s so, so powerful, because really, it was not that long before, barely five years, that he was onstage with wetton, bruford and cross, playing lead guitar night after night after night, and the power of his time with king crimson (ten remarkable albums in the short space of 1969 – 1974) – and the power of his playing in those various “king crimsons” (plural) is now matured; amplified; calmed; organised; and it’s so precise now, there is very little bending (something he would give up almost completely, eventually) and the melodies he plays are just exquisitely beautiful – especially when played over loops of incredible precision and beauty.

so to my mind, even just speaking as an average guitarist – this is the best guitar album I have EVER HEARD.  I have no other words, no other way of describing what it’s like to sit and listen to robert fripp solo for 13 hours over tape loops that he made on the fly; in a record store, restaurant or other non-traditional venue on this first-ever frippertronics tour.  there is simply no other music on earth like this, and it truly shows the talent, power and sheer chops that fripp has developed over time.

by eschewing traditional venues, and bringing the music directly to the people – and even more remarkable, by TALKING to, and with, the people – fripp bucked the whole system, which I am sure pissed off his record company and everyone else who would now not be able to make a buck off of these performances – this was a real dialogue now, between robert fripp and those who love the music he creates – and at every show, there was a question and answer session (and that just blew my mind, I could not believe that we were sitting on the floor of tower records, and fripp, a few feet away with his les paul still slung around his neck – was taking questions from the audience!).

an audience that was stunned, or I would say more accurately, completely fucking blown away, by what they had just seen and heard.  the power of robert fripp’s lead guitar playing alone is enough to frost your socks; passages of great speed and precision, wonderful melodies that fly from the fretboard – but also, a new component, those enticing, amazing loops – that support and blend with the solos so perfectly; hypnotic, repetitive – and the perfect musical “bed” over which to solo.

but – the loops weren’t static, they were often “changed” by fripp, who would solo for a minute or two, and then, add more notes to the loop, and then, go back to soloing over this “new” altered loop – and he might do this several times within one looped performance – change the loop, solo, change the loop, solo more, etc. – to beautiful effect.

I learned a lot from watching this process, a lot which I later put to use in my own work, but what I also learned was, just how difficult this process is – the concentration required, the precision required – it’s intense, and few people could pull it off.

leave it to robert fripp.

 

this is a link to the first show from the frippertronics european tour, may 7, 1979, follow the right arrows to find the rest of the shows (and much more).  there is also a link where you can purchase all 15 shows as a bundle (recommended – this is what I did).

I know that fans of king crimson and robert fripp have their favourite albums, tracks, and live performances by robert, working in king crimson, or, guesting on other albums by other well known artists such as david bowie, or, in collaboration with people like david sylvian.  I am one of those fans, and I can remember arguing about very important topics such as “which is the best version of ‘schizoid man’ ” or whether red or usa was the best late period king crimson album (at the time) and so on.

I am not ashamed or embarrassed in any way to say I love the music of king crimson, robert fripp, as well as “sylvian / fripp”, “the league of gentlemen”, the league of crafty guitarists, and the current working group, the orchestra of crafty guitarists (which I was, briefly, a member of) – I love all of that, and I would defend it’s high quality and musicality – these are works of quality.  their common denominator, is, of course, robert fripp.

however – as much as I love say…“exposure”, as much as I love king crimson, and would defend their amazing catalogue against any naysayers, with songs as beautiful as “starless” or “the night watch” – well, it puts a lot of other “prog bands” to shame, if I am honest – this music is so intense, and so, so beautiful…

…but in some ways – this 15-show frippertronics european tour, is the best album that fripp never made, and never made a big deal of. it’s release was incredibly low-key, it just appeared on the dgm website one day, but there was no marketing push, no attempt to big this up at all – it just appeared – and those of us who realised what it WAS – well, we snatched it up immediately.  but then – we KNEW – we knew what this contained.

because they (these live performances) are so real; because they are the first ever recordings of robert fripp creating live loops to solo over; because the soloing is so absolutely incredible, I would say that now, this is my favourite robert fripp recording – of all time.

I know – that seems like sacrilege.  how could anything be “better” than, say, “in the court of the crimson king” ?  the answer is, of course, it can’t, really, but, when I hear this music, I realise – this is really the kind of music that fripp was playing all along, but you couldn’t always hear it, because the band was playing so loud! 

this is the “real” fripp – hypnotic layers of intense, dark sound, guitars screaming like seagulls over the top, ominous low notes bending via the services of a tuning key, notes “played” by switching the pickup selector switch from “off” to full on (with the bass pickup turned all the way down, and the treble pickup, turned all the way up) – the selector switch becoming a rhythmic device that adds to the loop – fripp using his fuzz tone, the wah-wah pedal, and his other devices to add texture and form to the loops – and once happy, he would then let that loop play – and solo his heart out with an intensity at least as powerful as “1969 to 1974 king crimson”. 

you think that the guitar solos on “USA” are pretty darn powerful and quick (you are right – they are) ?  you should listen to these 15 live frippertronics shows. you think that nothing can top what fripp plays on “red” in songs like “red”, “fallen angel” and “starless”  – you should listen to these 15 live frippertronics shows.  you think what you hear on “the great deceiver”, a four CD live fripp-wetton-bruford-cross king crimson albujm, is a lot of amazing robert fripp lead guitar (you are right, it is)?  You should listen to these 15 live frippertronics shows.

about 13 hours in total, I believe, something like that – and a large portion of that, is robert soloing his heart out, at length, over those amazing four second loops.  I have since played these shows on a saturday, just letting them run all day long, and it really, really makes for a great “mood” – you would love the way it takes an ordinary saturday, and turns it into an amazing day and night of pure, pure music – the frippertronics way.

so, so beautiful – the best album that robert fripp never made.  15 live shows – this is the one album that is pure testament to the intense, quick, and breathlessly beautiful way that robert fripp plays lead guitar – truly, this is where you can really hear genius at work, on the fretboard of a black les paul guitar – at the hands of the master, robert fripp.

now – for the non-guitarist, it’s likely that you may continue to regard the “band” works of robert fripp more highly than this “guitar” based fripp work.  but for me, as a musician and as a guitarist – this is simply the ultimate fripp documentary, which might have been lost to us, but blessedly, dgm have taken the time to resurrect these shows (and others, as well) and release them via the dgm website (these are download only) – and I for one, thank alex mundy at dgm for doing this work, and I thank the big guy in the sky (whoever that may be this week) for preserving those fragile tapes for all those years until alex could do his magic with them.

I can only imagine how it felt to alex, and to robert, to hear these for the first time in 34 years – and it’s criminal that these were never really released in any form (except for the occasional loop based record such as “let the power fall” – which gives you an inkling of what these tour performances were like – but one short album of loops is no substitute for the real thing – the real 13 hours of music!) – please forgive me if I am repeating myself now – you should listen to these 15 live frippertronics shows. 

seriously.

you should listen to these 15 live frippertronics shows.

2 responses to “leave it to robert fripp

  1. Nice piece. You should give the Soundscapes tours another shot. I used to feel the same way about those recordings—too sterile and digital—but now I realize what an amazing bit of sound design he does on the Soundscapes music. It’s some of my favorite stuff of his.

  2. Pingback: leave it to robert fripp | pureambient / dave stafford | Stan Stewart's Blog

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