Today, Robert Fripp is widely respected as the mad genius at the centre of King Crimson and is widely watched as the guy who plays covers with Toyah Willcox. But back in the mid-1970s, Fripp was in a rut. Having disbanded King Crimson in 1974, Fripp mulled over his various collaborations, considering whether to join another band or continue as a solo artist. In the end, Fripp decided on something far more drastic: retirement from the music industry.
This was only five years after In the Court of the Crimson King made Fripp a god among the burgeoning progressive rock scene. He kept busy as King Crimson began haemorrhaging members, producing albums by artists like Centipede and collaborating on experimental works with Brian Eno. The latter would prove to be important to Fripp’s return to music, as Eno was one of the few figures in the music world who continued to pester Fripp into picking up the guitar again.
But he wasn’t the first: Peter Gabriel managed to convince Fripp to play on his solo debut LP, Peter Gabriel I, recorded in 1976. Gabriel even managed to convince Fripp to tour, but the guitarist insisted on being credited under the pseudonym Dusty Rhodes and often played offstage during Gabriel’s concerts. He was still unsure whether returning to music was worth it when Eno gave him a call.
“The voice came on the set, and it said, ‘Hello, Robert! I’m here with David Bowie. Hold on, I’ll pass you over,'” Fripp recalled in the BBC documentary David Bowie: Five Years. “So Eno passed the phone over to David, and he said, ‘Hello, Robert!’ blah blah blah. ‘Do you think you could play some hairy rock and roll guitar?’ What is hairy rock and roll: it’s dangerous. What’s the difference between pop and rock and roll? You might get fucked.”
“Fripp’s plaintive guitar cry really triggered off something emotive in me,” Bowie recalled in archival interviews from the same documentary. “And it was a song of triumph. It was like, ‘I’ve been a real idiot some of my life and put myself in ridiculously dangerous situations, and I’ve seemed to get through it.’ That became part and parcel to that song: that you can overcome some incredible odds.” Bowie is referring to ‘Heroes’, the title track which represented one of the first collaborations between Fripp and Bowie.
Now convinced that he once again saw a future in music, Fripp returned to the form full time. He guested on Gabriel’s second and third self-titled solo albums, as well as Bowie’s Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps). He also stung together collaborations with forerunners in American new wave music, including playing guitar on Blondie’s ‘Fade Away and Radiate’ from Parallel Lines and Talking Heads’ ‘I Zimbra’ from Fear of Music. He also assembled his first batch of material under his own name, Exposure, featuring some of his previous collaborators.
Pulling together some of the best studio musicians through his association with Gabriel and Talking Heads, Fripp also assembled a reformed lineup of King Crimson, featuring previous drummer Bill Bruford and new additions like Tony Levin and Adrian Belew. This ’80s version of King Crimson only lasted for roughly four years but managed to release three albums in that short span of time. More importantly, it proved to Fripp that he could come and go from his various projects at his own will, recognising that there would always be a demand for him to return.