INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
New York Times JULY 23, 1978 - by John Rockwell
THE ODYSSEY OF TWO BRITISH ROCKERS
Robert Fripp and Brian Eno are alive, well, working industriously and based in New York. This news may not seem important to a rock fan whose taste is defined by Andy Gibb and John Travolta. But, in fact, it's very important - both for what it should mean to the rock and even "serious" music scenes here, and for what it tells us about the whole fascinating interchange between London and New York music over the past decade.
What it tells us is that both men, who are closely identified with the two principal waves of British progressive rock in the late 1960s and early 1970s, have recoiled from what they consider to be the monolithic sterility of both mainstream rock and progressive rock and of the business apparatus that supports that sterility. Instead, they have turned themselves into "small, mobile, highly intelligent units" - to use a phrase of Mr. Fripp's that has become something of a slogan for other such units. They scurry about creatively, pursuing their own work and collaborating with those whom they find interesting.
Those whom they find interesting tend to be the punks and the new-wavers, whom many people - especially fans of Mr. Fripp and his seminal British progressive-rock band, King Crimson - might consider to be antithetical to their previous work. Furthermore. both men have based themselves in New York in part because they find the new-wave bands here more congenial to their own impulses - more deliberately artistic and experimental - than the London punks. The result of their work here will surely reinforce those tendencies still further, and contribute to a fusion of the energies of the London progressives of both the King Crimson period and the Roxy Music period - Roxy Music was the early-1970s band that Mr. Eno founded with Bryan Ferry - with the restless searchings of the New York art-bands.
Their work ranges from Mr. Fripp's King Crimson records, which helped define modern-day British rock but retained a hard focus and purpose to his later, dreamier, more mystical solo guitar performances - which were anticipated by two records be made with Mr. Eno on synthesizer. Mr. Eno's work first came to public attention in Roxy Music, with its febrile yet brittlely-mechanical variant of progressive rock. Since then he's produced a series of solo rock albums that are simultaneously clever, eerily moving and deliberately disorienting in terms of electronically altered sound. But there are also quieter, more overtly avant-garde albums, which conform to strictly worked-out systems - true aural conceptual art - and a plethora of collaborations with a wide range of vanguard rock performers. The overall impact of both men's music is a fascinating marriage of energy and quiescence, suffused with mechanistic and electronic implications and defined by a virtuosity that is never exploited for its own sake.
In the past year or so both men have been almost hyperactively busy. Mr. Fripp has produced solo albums for Peter Gabriel and Daryl Hall, as well as collaborating (along with Mr. Eno) on David Bowie's "Heroes". He's working on a solo album on his own, and will play on a forthcoming Eno solo album, both to be recorded here. He's also planning a double album of his own "guitar meditations," which he calls Frippertronics and which consist of guitar and tape-loop improvisations, for projected spring release. He's editing talks by the late J. G. Bennett, a disciple of George Gurdjieff, the mystic philosopher. And he's considering more informal, sketchily announced concert appearances, such as the two Frippertronics concerts he gave a couple of months ago at The Kitchen, the Lower Manhattan avant-garde loft, or his fascinating guest appearance with Blondie, the new-wave band, at CBGB's recently.
Mr. Eno, meanwhile, is not exactly lying about lazily. He's finished producing a documentary record of several vanguard New York new-wave bands, and before that he produced albums by two better-known new-wave bands, Devo and Talking Heads - and may go into the studio with the Heads again later this summer on a more experimental basis. He's also planning his solo album, and has two disks of film and environmental music ready for release, as well as a second (and, he says, superior) album of a collaboration with a German progressive band, Cluster. He's working on two more film scores, has just finished a long essay on the relationship between music and cybernetics and will collaborate with Mr. Bowie this September on another album, which will be the last instalment of what Mr. Bowie refers to as "our supposed trilogy."
Both men quit their established bands within a year of each other. Mr Fripp was continually forming and reforming King Crimson over its five-year existence, and finally broke it up for good in 1974. Mr. Eno had left Roxy Music the year before, partly because of clashes with Mr. Ferry but mostly because he wanted his freedom.
"I knew I was going to leave - it was building up, and I was quite nervous about it," he said. "But what happened was that I stepped out of the band and I suddenly thought, 'God. I'm free. I'm really free.' I ran up the King's Road shouting, I can remember, and I was just jumping around, really with joy. Suddenly everything seemed exciting again. All the things that I'd been storing blossomed, ready to be done."
If Mr. Eno's self-liberation was a joyful experience, Mr. Fripp's was a more anguished one. He had what be hints was a nervous crisis, spent a year studying at a monastic Gurdjieff-Benett centre in the British countryside, wrapped up his English affairs and has based himself in New York for a little over a year.
"I felt I had to stop performing in the rock circus because the reciprocal relation between audience and performer dropped markedly, to a point where it was just antithetical to what I wanted to do," be said. "Rock rendered me emotionally immature, stunted my development. A lot of this was obviously my fault; I have to accept responsibility for it. You become seduced by your own egocentricity, your own conceits, in extreme cases by your own addictions, by the seductions of the business. The structure of the rock world is one that deliberately keeps the artist retarded, because were he to wake up to the enormity of his situation, he would rush screaming from it.
"Everything deteriorated through 1970 and 1971, and it was very much a struggle to try to find the spirit that had interested me in 1969. The tremendous burst of energy that kicked off King Crimson became steadily refined and sophisticated, to the point that for me, absolutely nothing was happening. When Crimson finished in 1974, it was the last possible moment tor anything to have stopped. But, instead, now you have the popularity of Yes and Genesis, for example, because the vocabulary has been so well drilled, it's no longer coarse - it's middle-of-the-road. I felt that a lot of the main points of my work with Crimson were misinterpreted. Rather than the spirit of what I was trying to do being picked up, the vocabulary was. So, for example, the Gothic-epic ballad, which was impressive if you liked it and pretentious if you didn't, dragged on to double and treble albums, instead of a three-minute song in which all your ideas came into a concise focus. I don't wish to listen to the philosophical meanderings of some English half-wit who is circumnavigating some inessential point of experience in his life."
Mr. Eno is similarly suspicious of mid-1970s British progressive rock and, indeed, of most of the rock of recent years. "At the end of the 1960s, there were two mainstreams, one that came from The Beatles, with big sales, and one from The Velvet Underground and the early Who and Bo Diddley - much rougher, more urban and less Gothic. I always felt I was part of that second thing. Technology [Mr. Eno is recognised as the foremost performer of the synthesizer in rock and roll, and perhaps in music in general] is a separate issue. It just happened that the fantasy bands got involved in technology because they could afford it, rather than because it was a particular predilection of theirs or particularly belonged with that kind of music."
Both men see a parallel between outmoded, monolithic rock bands of the Yes sort and the structure of the mainstream music business. "I gave a series of lectures in English universities last year," says Mr. Eno. "It was about the devolution from the old-fashioned pyramid structure in all aspects of life to Fripp's 'units.' I chose four areas to discuss - the army, sport, fashion and music. The hierarchical army to devolving, for instance - it's not a good kind of army for now; it doesn't win! The kind of army that's starting to grow up now is a modified guerrilla army."
Both men came to New York for a whole constellation of reasons, but both found themselves explicitly interested in the particular kind of new-wave rock that flourishes in New York. Oddly enough, though, since he's widely regarded as one of the finest guitarists to all of rock, Mr. Fripp hasn't been asked all that often to work with the younger bands. "People that me to work with them generally are very, very good musicians, but they lack for me the essential directness that I find with younger players."
Mr. Eno has had no trouble in a shorter amount of time making contact with the new local new-wave scene, partly because he's an easier, more outgoing sort than the guarded Mr Fripp. "The New York bands proceed from a 'what would happen if' orientation," he says. "The English punk thing is a 'feel' situation: 'This is our identity, and the music emanates from that.' I've always been of the former persuasion. A lot of the British bands now are based on personalities - Graham Parker, Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe. With The Velvet Underground and the new New York bands, you're conscious of personality, but it's almost incidental.
"But there's a difference between me and the New York bands. They carry the experiment to the extreme; I carry it to the point where it stops sounding interesting, and then pull back a little bit. What they do is a rarefied kind of research; it generates a vocabulary that people like me can use. These New York bands are like fence-posts, the real edges of a territory, and one can manoeuvre within it."
As both men talk, one realises that their sort of music operates right on that fascinating line between "art" and "popular entertainment," and that it owes its vitality in part to one's inability to make easy categorisations about it.
Mr. Fripp talks about his "inner" work, which is his electronic guitar meditations, and his "outer" solo albums in a more aggressive rock style. Mr. Eno, too, makes a distinction between his several solo "rock" albums and his more obscure work, which tidily enough he releases on his own Obscure label, devoted to overtly experimental work by composers that include such noted "classical" figures as Gavin Bryars and John Cage. Both Mr. Fripp and Mr Eno have made a comfortable amount of money, more than enough to support them in their projects; yet, both lead lives that could be called almost austere, especially in comparison to the lavish displays of the more dinosaur-like rock stars.
Mr. Eno especially finds the cross-fertilisation between "artists" and "rockers" to New York to be stimulating, and has trouble figuring out at any given point where be fits along that spectrum. For him, life is defined as a between his penchant for order and for cybernetically analysable systems and a wilder, more intuitive form of behaviour. He has even devised a kind of mystical game called "Oblique Strategies" - a series of illustrated cards with aphoristic instructions - to jar himself (and others) out of too systematic, overly concentrated ruts.
"Morse Peckham once said that art is anything that offers one the feeling of being an art-perceiver," he says. "At some point along the continuum from rock to art, it's possible to lose the consciousness that you are an art-perceiver, but that point is always different for different people at different times.
"Some of my works are systems pieces, in the sense that they are set up and then carry on. This is quite contrary to the way I work on my solo rock albums. The whole business of those is intervention, all the time, feeling that my role to to intervene at any level I want to, so that nothing is fixed, nothing to there for sure. But both kinds of work involve the simultaneous exploration of nostalgia and novelty, so that there will be points of contact for anyone who's interested.
"Artists work under all kinds of pretexts. If your pretext has to be, 'I'm working because this is what people like,' then work under that. If your pretext is 'I'm working became I'm exploring the frontiers of the human mind,' then use that one. It seems to me it almost doesn't matter to the business of actually being an artist, which of those pretexts you use. They're alibis that allow you to carry on.
"If I ever found I was doing work that nobody was interested in, I would seriously doubt it. I wouldn't want to be in the position of not feeling connected anymore. The paradigm of Western art is to go to the extremes, always. Artists end up on one of those edges somewhere, and get stuck there. It appears to them retrogressive to move back. The solution is not to see it as a polarity, but to recognise that what you're doing already exists on many, many other axes. Rock music, whether for commercial or other reasons, has always been an eclectic form. And It profits by that.
"The reason I carry on with making music to that it's the major source of information for me about living. You can use music as a deliberate model for real events in the real world. It's an interesting model because it exists in a false world, the conditions of which are partly culturally received and partly imported by you. You construct a world and you choose which expectations to defy and thwart, which ones to confirm, which ones to reimport from the past. You construct a little universe, and then you can see how it works."