You might remember the BASF commercial from a few years ago where the tagline was “We Don’t Make the ______, We Only Make it Better”. That’s usually the thankless job of background musicians and producers. On many occasions a producer is a musician also. In the case of Robert Fripp, he has been a member of The Leauge of Gentleman and one of the founders of the legendary prog rock band King Crimson. In those bands he has acted as and leader, producer and musician. Despite that deep history in the word of rock, most people would be hard pressed to name one song by him.
Fripp is at his best when he’s collaborating (often as a producer). I have found that on many of the projects he has worked on with various artists, his contribution is what ends up making that particular track or album a standout. It’s easy to pick out, usually in the form of a subtle departure from the approach of the artist he’s working with. Yet it is also difficult to peg in any general terms as Fripp is so versatile. His music can range from placid abstractions to jarring funk ( just listen to the song “Exposure”).
For anyone wanting a quick intro into Fripp’s genus, an frustratingly short 20 minute compilation called Network is a great place to start. It includes collaborations with Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins, Brian Eno and oddly enough Daryl Hall of Hall & Oats.
While Fripp is best known for experimental work, like the kind of music you might hear at an art instillation, the songs included here are more pop oriented. In some cases the music is a surprising juxtapositions of rock, pop and soul creating a Fripp-centric style of avant garde.
You can’t get any more pop than Daryl Hall, yet his song “Northstar” has an undeniable edge that comes with Fripps involvement, while maintaining Hall’s Philly Soul roots thanks to his soaring falsetto and inflections. It’s the album’s most beautiful if not accessable song. Another equally powerful track is more sober in tone and pairs Peter Gabriel, who is a musical force in his own right, with Fripp in a beautiful but grim tale of possible ecological apocalypse. It has the haunting gritty sound that Gabriel would fully exploit on songs like “Dirt” and “Steam” on his LP So years later.
The rest of the album features contributions from Genesis singer/drummer Phil Collins on. Songs from Fripps other band, League of Gentleman’s God Save The King are featured as well as a random sample from other projects. It’s all too short of an intro but gives some insight to Fripps ability to stay aloft in the avant garde world of prog rock while still coming down to earth to enhance pop music by giving it that edge.
The Network album itself is difficult to find, yet is rewarding for those willing to dig deep enough. Just as rewarding are the albums these contributions were made on. Daryl Hall’s Sacred Songs and Peter Gabriel’s second self titled album are two good starting points. As for Fripp’s own albums, they continue to be excellent examples of versatility and innovation making him all the more likely to be the element behind great music from somebody else – just like line from BASF about not making things, but making them better.