Robert Fripp is prone to a certain pithy phrase when on the topic of merchandise, here employed with regard to a new line of King Crimson branded t-shirts and glassware:
“There are many men impatient to covet such delights and fondle them in the privacy of their chambers.“
– Robert Fripp, DGMLive.com Diary, April 6, 2011
As is typical for a Fripp aphorism, there is a lot to unpack in this statement.
First, his use of the word “men” to describe his prospective customers is not an example of casual sexism. Rightly or wrongly, much of Fripp’s recorded musical work has been characterized as progressive rock, a genre notoriously appealing to predominantly male audiences. Any good marketer of prog rock wares, artifacts, and collectibles would be conscious that the target audience is male. Second, note this statement is coming from a man. Fripp himself is no stranger to coveting and fondling, for he often details his taste for fine art and antiquing in his online diary. It takes one to know one, as it were.
Far more than a working guitar player and bandleader, Fripp’s longtime parallel career has been as a kind of antique dealer himself, albeit of delights of his own making. He has served as maestro and caretaker of the King Crimson legacy, on both commercial and artistic fronts alike, throughout the band’s tumultuous, phoenix-like cycles of deaths and rebirths. The music is what matters in the end, of course, but attendant to that are the merchandise, printed matter, advertising, and album art, the latter often housed in increasingly deluxe packaging as the music is periodically reissued. Fripp is directly responsible for many of the most desirable “delights” that he gently teases his fans for coveting. He has a certain responsibility to maintain the catalog — to exploit the brand or property, as it were — but he could get away with a lot less. The albums might not be so lovingly remastered, ancient live recordings might not be so painstakingly restored, and the album art and packaging might not be so well appointed.
Fans used to the notion that Fripp is the boss of King Crimson might be surprised to learn, as I did, from Sid Smith’s band biography In the Court of King Crimson that co-founder and original lyricist Peter Sinfield oversaw the band’s presentational aspects for the key first few years. Fripp first asserted his visual sense beginning in 1973 with the Larks’ Tongues in Aspic sleeve. Fripp continued to godfather subsequent sleeves, and later supervise their periodic modernizing and repackaging — aside from a few interesting exceptions: Red was largely handled by the record company, and band members contributed to other sleeves, such as Tony Levin for THRaKaTTaK and Trey Gunn for The ConstruKction of Light. In the field of graphic design, Sinfield and Fripp’s visual responsibilities would fit the job description of Creative Director.
The demarcation of duties among the design hierarchy is often blurry (Creative Directors, Art Directors, Senior Designers, etc.), but the group duties essentially boil down to representing a company, individual, or brand’s identity through design for various media (printed matter, online, television, etc.). For a musical artist or group, this means everything from album art, tour programs, music videos, stage designs, logos, magazine ads, online websites, ad banners, even Twitter avatars. As tours wrap up and advertising campaigns run their course, most of these are proven ephemeral. For many musicians, live performance is where the action is, but in the end it’s usually the studio albums that comprise the legacy. Similarly, all the design work generated during a band’s life fades away from history except for the album art. So it’s important to get it right. Sinfield and Fripp often did, ensuring the King Crimson catalog is clad in more design classics than most artists manage. Of their immediate contemporaries, perhaps only Pink Floyd or Yes produced the most album covers that are still talked about today.
King Crimson’s entire recorded catalog has been issued several times in multiple formats and configurations, with varying degrees of impact upon the artwork. Unsurprisingly, cassettes and 8-tracks were the least friendly, providing the smallest canvases and often precluding interior artwork, lyrics, credits, and liner notes altogether. Just as
snobs audiophiles tend towards the vinyl LP as the ideal audio format, design aficionados also claim the record sleeve as the preferred package for recorded music. I personally own a few King Crimson releases on vinyl (In the Court of the Crimson King, Earthbound, Starless and Bible Black, USA, A Young Person’s Guide, and even the Sleepless 12″ single), and undoubtedly it is the ideal medium to present the artwork.
Album art and package design suffered the most during the 8-track era
The advent of the compact disc era was initially cruel to many artists, but especially King Crimson, with poorly mastered and perfunctorily packaged editions first appearing circa 1986. My first exposure to Crimson was an original CD edition of Three of a Perfect Pair purchased sometime in the late 80s, and I can assert it was an ugly thing. I managed to sell it off to some poor sucker years ago, and replace it with the 30th Anniversary Edition, vastly superior in every way. But I still recall one shoddy little detail of the original CD: the tray inlay was not even properly perforated or folded. In retrospect, I ought to have kept it as a collector’s item, for I believe it may be the only CD appearance of an usual mix of Sleepless with a noticeably different drum track. As an aside, I’m probably one of the few Crimson fans that started with Three of a Perfect Pair, not that it is a bad album, but let’s be honest: its peculiar mixture of a few pop-oriented songs with a whole LP side’s worth of bleak, atonal improvisation makes it a little hard to love. It was an accident of my age at the time when an interest in Yes led me on the trail of Bill Bruford and Tony Levin from Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe to King Crimson, and Three of a Perfect Pair happened to be the one I picked up first. Luckily, the music was intriguing enough for me to seek out Discipline, which cemented me as a fan for life.
Here is Fripp on the matter of the first round of compact disc releases, taking pains to emphasize the costs involved to artists and fans alike:
“The original transfer from tape to CD was poorly done. It took place without my involvement, and the artists were charged with the costs of changing format. Punters and musicians, we all paid the price on this one. So, in 1989 Tony Arnold and I re-mastered the Crimson catalogue, which was released in Japan and America as The Definitive Edition. The artists paid for that one too.“
– Robert Fripp, Frame by Frame: The Essential King Crimson booklet page 3
Fripp subsequently maintained the legacy with 30th Anniversary remasters in 2000-01 and the ongoing 40th Anniversary Series that began in 2009. Improved audio fidelity was always the main selling point, each time taking advantage of a decade’s worth of improved audio technology. But relevant to this discussion, the richness and quality of the packaging also improved with each go around. The 30th Anniversary editions are particularly lovely, initially issued in a beautiful matching set of faux-gatefold “mini-lp” sleeves, whether the original vinyl editions were or not (THRAK was doubly unusual in that it was never released on vinyl in the first place). The 40th Anniversary editions released to date are vastly superior in terms of audio quality, even to an untrained ear. But if you’re more of a design snob than an audiophile, I recommend seeking out a full set of the now out-of-print original 30th Anniversary limited editions. Many of the archival releases also approach the status of art object, especially the 1975 compilation The Young Person’s Guide to King Crimson and the lavishly imposing 1991 boxed set Frame by Frame: The Essential King Crimson.
Recall Fripp specifying the gender of his fanbase. There is no greater example of the male fetishization of music than Nick Hornby’s novel High Fidelity, adapted into an excellent feature film in 2000 by director Stephen Frears. Music obsessive Rob (John Cusack) is literally surrounded by the physical embodiments of music every day. He owns an indie music shop and shares his home not with a lover but with his massive, meticulously curated vinyl collection. Rob and his circle of friends and enemies (including the never-better-cast Jack Black) have tastes that most likely align to the demographic reading this very essay. More than a few Fripp-related items make conspicuous appearances in the film. His personal library includes a copy of Brian Eno’s Before and After Science, and a surprisingly discerning shoplifter swipes a copy of Music for Films from his shop (both albums feature guest appearances by Fripp). A copy of King Crimson’s 1981 classic Discipline also makes cameo appearances in several scenes set in the shop. I’d love to learn more about which albums were selected to appear onscreen and why, but perhaps the production’s art department simply liked how Discipline’s distinctive red sleeve looked.
Spot the copy of Discipline in the record shop in the movie High Fidelity
Rob is a lustful, red-blooded male, but the true love of his life is music. He and his fellow obsessives misdirect their energies away from their personal fulfillment, towards honing their passionate opinions and compiling lists of trivia. As three males jostling for position in their tiny clique, they challenge each other to one-up their level of music geekery (for example: “Top five musical crimes perpetuated by Stevie Wonder in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Go. Sub-question: is it in fact unfair to criticize a formerly great artist for his latter day sins? Is it better to burn out or fade away?”). As he finds himself lonely and single in early middle age, Rob sets out to revisit his past lovers and figure out where he went wrong. He views these women much as he does songs on a mixtape, rather than signposts along the progression of his maturity.
Just as Rob tries to make sense of his life in terms of a music nerd compiling the perfect mixtape, Fripp and company have periodically attempted to define and contextualize King Crimson’s legacy through archival compilations and live recordings. Live King Crimson was not well represented until 1991, when the exhaustive four-disc boxed set retrospective Frame by Frame was released (an occasion made possible by the sale of the EG Records catalog to the more artist-friendly — at the time — Virgin Records, but that’s a whole other topic). From its voluminous booklet, here is Fripp on the inclusion of a full disc of mostly unheard live material:
“Studio and live are two worlds. Would you, the audience, prefer to have a love letter or a hot date? Each have their value. Crimson were always a band for a hot date. From time to time they could write a love letter, too, but for me they were better in the clinches.“
– Robert Fripp, Frame by Frame: The Essential King Crimson booklet, page 3
While I’m sure it amuses him to to raise eyebrows by speaking of music in terms of love, dating, and sex, his analogy is clear and serious. Especially from the point of view of a musician, the real event happens in the immediate performance of music in front of an audience. It’s a communion between two parties: the artist and the listener. Any recording, be it made in the studio or captured live via soundboard, is one or more steps removed, and by definition a very different thing. By Fripp’s analogy, concerts are sex and albums are mere souvenir artifacts, the keepsake relics left behind after a love affair: yellowing love letters, unplayed mixtapes, and underwear lost under the bed.
While we’re on the topic of sex, musicologist Eric Tamm quotes Fripp on the swinging London lifestyle he witnessed firsthand as an atypically sober and introverted rock star in the late sixties:
“The central paradox, or quandary, of Fripp’s entire career has revolved around the difference between, on the one hand, making art-objects for a product-hungry yet passive audience, and, on the other hand, actually making art with an audience on the basis of a vision of a shared creative goal. […] ‘I began to see how much hookers, strippers and musicians have in common: they sell something very close to themselves to the public.’ Once one has tasted real love (or real art), mere sex (or mere entertainment) may satisfy on a certain primitive level, but a deeper longing remains frustrated.“
– Eric Tamm, Robert Fripp: From King Crimson to Guitar Craft, page 18
To point out the obvious, Fripp compares the role of the professional musician to a prostitute. One could extend this notion to almost anyone who attempts to make a living out of their art, be it a painter, writer, sculptor, actor, etc. Experiencing live music firsthand is the real deal, and anything else is a physical byproduct. T-shirts, buttons, limited editions, boxed sets, compact discs, cassettes, vinyl, 8-tracks, etc. are all objects signaling the fetishization of music by people like High Fidelity’s Rob.
This is as good a point as any to consider the overt sexual connotations of Fripp’s phrase “fondle them in the privacy of their chambers.” Not that I don’t have a sense of humor (I suspect most King Crimson fans do, tapping our toes to such absurdist tunes as “Cat Food” and “Elephant Talk”, not to mention the downright filthy “Ladies of the Road” and “Easy Money”), but I’m going to continue examining Fripp’s statement at face value just to make a point. He compares the collection and appreciation of musical artifacts to, well… not to put too fine a point on it, masturbation. High Fidelity’s Rob makes sense of his life through music: expressing his feelings through mixtapes, asserting his dominance by challenging rival males to pointless trivia exercises, and sorting out his albums instead of sorting out his life. The beauty of High Fidelity is that we’re invited to laugh at and with Rob, to identify with him and yet hope he finds a way to thread the needle, and find a balance between life and music.
Far beyond High Fidelity, another movie that explores the intersection between music and sex (and quite literally so indeed) is Michael Winterbottom’s Nine Songs. In it, a disintegrating couple reflects upon the key moments in their relationship, each soundtracked by music significant to them at the time. Here, music has an intensely erotic meaning to a couple, inextricably tethered to their memories to their sex life and the parabolic arc of their relationship:
For most of human cultural history, listening to music was a communal experience tethered to a shared space. Even when music first could be recorded and broadcast or distributed, most households had only one phonograph or radio until the availability of mass-produced transistors in the 1950s. Affordable consumer electronics ranging from the phonograph to the Walkman to the iPod transformed listening to music into an increasingly solitary affair. Even the most ardent music fan spends vastly more time listening to music in solitude than attending live concerts.
Listeners could also start to build their own libraries of recorded music (much to the pleasure and profit of the music industry, but that’s another topic). In the digital era, what is iTunes (the actual jukebox software, not the digital download storefront of the same name) other than a blank slate — essentially a cold impersonal spreadsheet or database. As you fill it with your favorite music, it transforms into an extremely personal library. It’s only software and digital bytes & bits, but becomes much more when you fill it with songs that gives pace to your workout, makes you want to dance, gives you chills, helps you convince other people to make out with you, or reminds you of past lovers. Apple took care to design iTunes and its satellite products to present digital artwork for every album and track on glossy, high resolution screens. Even in this digital age, the album art is a key component in how we browse and identify the music in our collections, and how we share them with others.
As Rob carefully sorts and re-sorts his vintage vinyl collection in High Fidelity, he’s curating a very personal library not just for his private entertainment and edification, but to emblematize and codify his taste and identity. I believe this is what Fripp is referring to; part of his responsibility as custodian and protector of the King Crimson legacy is to ensure the music is always available in commercially feasible formats, designed to be appealing enough for fans to “part with their hard-earned pay” (another occasional Fripp aphorism). If comments like these may signal a derogatory attitude towards fans, is it a mark of hypocrisy or crass commercialism? I believe the key to understanding his attitude may come from his friend and collaborator Steven Wilson, interviewed by Prog Magazine:
“He’s a very modest chap. He can’t understand why the myths have grown up around him, and why there’s such an incredible passion, obsession about the music, but there is. But of course he’s not looking at it the way everyone else looks at it, and he can’t.“
– Steven Wilson, Prog Magazine, February 2011
The obsession and passion that’s going into this very series of essays is a key exhibit in the mythology Wilson refers to. While his music obviously means a great deal to Fripp, perhaps he is bemused and unsure about its significance to listeners that elect to include some or all of it in their own personal libraries, digital or physical. But to the extent that experiencing music makes up a part of most people’s lives, what we choose to acquire for our libraries is part of our accretion of memory, taste, and the emblems of our identity.
Buy any of these fine products from Amazon and kick back a few pennies to The Dork Report: