wWhen Robert Fripp was considering who should direct a documentary proposal on King Crimson – the band he has dedicated most of his life to – he quickly realized what kind of person he shouldn’t be. “We were contacted by some very good professional music documentary makers who would make a nice, conventional documentary that I wouldn’t learn anything from,” Fripp said of Zoom from his home in the West Midlands.
Rather than going in that direction, he chose director Toby Amies, “who was not at all familiar with King Crimson. For me, that was ideal, “he said.” I thought, ‘here’s an indie director with his attitude of him coming in and showing me aspects of King Crimson that I may not know about.’ “
Also, he hoped the Amies movie “would tell me what King Crimson is.”
It might seem like a strange goal for Fripp, who not only helped conceive this one-of-a-kind beast of a band in 1969, but has been its only consistent member ever since. Yet, as the documentary, titled In the Court of the Crimson King cleverly presents, this is not an easily binding band by description, even by those who are part of it. In all of Crimson’s splendid incarnations, they have always been more of a method than a sound. Or, as Fripp said, “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 can’t live it. A litany of rude and colorful descriptions of former and current group members attest to this in the film, which premiered this week at SXSW before an official release later this year. Bassist Trey Gunn compares being in Crimson to “a low-grade infection. You’re not really sick, but you’re not feeling well either.” Former member Adrian Belew said his time with the band made his hair fall out. “It was so intense to be under that microscope,” he said in the film, as multi-instrumentalist Mel Collins – who has served two shifts in Crimson, in the 1970s and last decade – described his initial run as ” has a trauma. If you were wrong, it was the end of the world. “
Common perception would point to Fripp as the tough overseer who whips his whip on anyone who doesn’t meet his standards. And while, in some cases, the guitarist admits he was that person, one of the film’s first goals was to “remove this absurd idea that Robert Fripp is King Crimson,” the guitarist said. “King Crimson is an ensemble.”
He likens it to a cooperative, citing as proof that the money the band generates is split equally, while observing “not everyone who has been in King Crimson was happy to get paid the same amount as the other band members.”
Amies (who previously directed the acclaimed documentary The Man Whose Mind Exploded) says another source of anxiety for some members stems from their own internal struggle to make the most of the vast creative space that Crimson offers them. “It’s not like you have a tyrant telling you what to do,” he told her. “It’s that you have someone who gives you the opportunity to be your own personal tyrant. I think it would be possible to go crazy in that space, especially when you have someone like Robert, who is clearly willing to make great personal sacrifices in the service of their work. “
To that end, a key part of the film documents Fripp’s never-ending desire to make the band what it dreams it can be. “What’s possible for this band remains in potential,” he says in front of the camera. “And this is a sharp pain.”
Mel Collins says that only after decades of experience with Fripp did he realize that “whatever he put me through, Robert got it 10 times”.
In the film, Fripp describes the first 44 years of his time with Crimson as “unhappy”, adding that it wasn’t until 2013 that he settled into a lineup where “no band members actively resent my presence”.
Part of her negative experience, she said, came from feeling the need to go to school or scolding some members when “they felt they were of more value or importance than others.” That is, when they haven’t honored what he calls “the ethics of improvisation,” which requires each musician to listen deeply to the other rather than trying to drag him into his orbit. At other times – mainly during the era of the Islands and Larks Tongues albums in the 1970s – Fripp’s ire grew when various musicians ruined their performances due to drug use. “When that happens,” he said he, “it is awesome. It burns. And there’s a fair amount of anger involved. “
The problems within the band go back to the beginning, despite the excitement surrounding them even before they released a single recording. Four months before the release of their debut album, In the Court of the Crimson King, the group had already caused enough stir 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 overshadowed the headliners. When the band’s debut finally appeared that fall, an infatuated Pete Townshend wrote a copy for a Rolling Stone ad in which he called it “a disturbing masterpiece.”
However, half of the band members – multi-instrumentalist Ian McDonald and drummer Michael Giles – left the group within a year. In the film, McDonald (who died in February) said that one of the reasons he left was because he could no longer bear to “inflict” the darkness of the music on the audience. But, for the fans, the depth of that darkness was a big draw. The first time I heard the swinging, gate-to-hell Mellotron riff on the 1970 track Cirkus, I jumped under the bed in terror. Fripp roars with an approving laugh when I tell him. “That it was the power of the King Crimson to be in your room, “he said.
At the same time, Crimson made sure to balance the apocalyptic shock of the music with passages of enchanting beauty. “Life is rich,” Fripp said. “And if music reflects life, it will have a broad dynamic.”
Another attraction for fans was the mystery created by the band. Not a single photo of its members appeared on their first three albums and as they weren’t touring during most of that time, listeners were left wondering what form the creatures that created these otherworldly sounds might take. Were they also human? According to Fripp, this 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 conversations, Fripp often emphasizes the mystical power of music, favoring abstract statements like, “You have the notes, you have the music, and then there is something above it,” he said. “It is silence itself, which moves in the music and then the music moves in the notes that people are playing.”
Similarly, the film sees Fripp saying that when Crimson perform, they “tune the air”.
When asked to explain what he means by this, he replies: “Would you ask a poet to explain his prose poem?”
At the same time, Fripp is fully aware that his less cutting-edge descriptions of the power of music can make some people’s eyes roll. “It’s easily filed under the title of cosmic horse shit,” 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 carries them. Fripp compares 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. “
In parts of the film, Fripp speaks with an almost religious awe of sound. “There’s definitely a spiritual element to it,” Amies said.
To emphasize this point of view, the director introduces in the film someone he calls “the prog nun”, a middle-aged woman of the cloth who appears to be a crimson devotee. “You say the process of making music is not unlike a liturgy,” said Amies.
In one of the film’s more intense and unusual segments, Fripp recalls an encounter with the late philosopher JG Bennett, with whom he studied in the early 1970s. When she recounts a key exchange with him, Fripp stops and appears to enter a kind of trance, which Amies boldly retains in a nearly three-minute cutscene filled with nothing but silence. I asked Fripp what was on his mind at that moment. “I went to a place,” he replied. “What is that place? That place is where Robert is. And where Robert is, so are everyone else.
Fripp admits that only a select group of people can relate to such comments. Within the recent band, only one member could: Bill Rieflin, a drummer and keyboard player who previously worked with industrial groups such as Ministry and Revolting Cocks. One of the most moving and raw parts of the film covers Rieflin’s dreadful diagnosis of late-stage colon cancer. He talks at length about facing certain death with unwavering honesty, great articulation, and even humor. “Bill intentionally embraced the cancer of him,” Fripp said. “He Became his personal discipline of him to free himself from this life so that when he left, he flew away clean.”
The word “discipline” has great resonance for Fripp. He gave his company its name and lives it as a kind of mantra. While many view the word harsh or condemning, Fripp sees it as a vow of honor. “It means when you say you’re going to do something, you can rely on yourself to do it,” he said.
In turn, Fripp expects the musicians he works with to understand 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, after a while you will come up with something interesting. , if they didn’t kill each other. “
Often, apparently, various members have wanted to do just that. Some of the most contentious exchanges have occurred between Belew and Fripp. The two don’t even agree that the former resigned or was fired from the band. In structuring the film, Amies aligned quotes from musicians from different eras with those of those who now play the same instrument. “Older members have a keen understanding of what current members are going through,” Amies said. “Older members become a Greek choir to comment on the ongoing action.”
Despite the presence of players from previous eras, they are only seen in new interviews, keeping almost all of the action from the film in the present. Amies said he used this approach to avoid telling King Crimson’s centuries-old story so that he could instead capture “the Experience by King Crimson “.
Part of that experience makes Fripp seem stern, combative and, at times, horribly involved in himself. In an indelible moment he says “I don’t have the problem. The problems are elsewhere “.
In our interview, Fripp said the quote was taken out of context. Likewise, he believes the film only captures a part of him. “My wife [the musician Toyah Willcox] he was disappointed, “he said. He told him he wanted the film to show more of the funny side of him, as captured in the couple’s Covid blockade 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 did is 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 And. “
For that, he said, you have to immerse yourself in music. “Ultimately,” he said, “King Crimson is a force entirely by himself.”