Before King Crimson there was Giles, Giles & Fripp – a trio who released a barely-noticed album of eccentric songs in 1968, the impact of which was barely understood until the behemoth that rose out of the project’s ashes. Prog looked back in 2012.
Proto-prog pilgrims visiting London may be miffed, if not mortified, to discover that there is still no blue plaque affixed to the front edifice of Kilburn’s 93a Brondesbury Road to commemorate the significant role that establishment played as lodging house-cum-home studio to Messrs Giles, Giles and Fripp.
It was here between September 1967 and June 1968 that the mischievous threesome conceived and recorded a series of demos for what would become an aural oddity of incurable nonchalance called The Cheerful Insanity Of Giles, Giles & Fripp. Never was an album more aptly titled, yet it would prove to be the catalyst for King Crimson; those pioneers of all things progalithic.
Prior to the formation of G,G&F, the brothers Giles had spent over seven years working as a rhythm section with a number of semi-pro and professional bands, including Johnny King and the Raiders, The Interns and Trendsetters Ltd, playing mostly cover versions and releasing a succession of singles that never troubled the charts. In the summer of 1967 they co-formed a demented quartet called The Brain, who managed to release one single – Kick The Donkey backed with Nightmares In Red has since attained a subcultural status among Krimheads, with a copy recently selling on eBay for £90.
Disillusioned with their lack of success playing others people’s songs in other people’s bands, the Giles boys Peter (bass) and Michael (drums) decided to form a trio under their own terms, and so began advertising for a keyboard player who was also willing to sing lead. Among many hopefuls who auditioned was one Robert Fripp, who later recalled: “I was told that the Giles brothers were forming a new group and were looking for a singing organist. Since I was a guitarist who didn’t sing, I went along for the job.”
Fripp had cut his teeth playing with several local bands; in particular The League of Gentlemen, which also included Gordon Haskell. Having quickly earned a reputation as a more than proficient guitarist, Fripp was much in-demand with hotel bands and dance combos, while also offering his services as a tutor.
The three musicians struck up an instant rapport, and a period of intense rehearsal followed. On occasion they would augment their sessions with local pianist Al Kirtley, who recalls their dedication. “The main thing about all three of them was the musicianship they had. They were a joy to play alongside... magic! Those guys were players whom fellow- musicians would follow anywhere – if only out of curiosity.”
Before long they decided to leave their home town of Bournemouth and make their way to London in search of mass adulation and three square meals a day. Once ensconced in the spacious ground floor flat in 93a Brondesbury Road they set up their own studio and began recording a series of demos on Peter’s second-hand Revox F36 stereo tape deck.
Almost all their previous studio work had been unsatisfactory, as Michael recollected: “Our bass and drums on some of those early recordings were somewhat blurred by the primitive recording techniques employed by even the professional studios of the day. Usually the music was crushed with compression and swamped with reverb, or both. It was not until Peter built a humble Heath Robinson home studio in the front room for the benefit of the Giles, Giles & Fripp project that we could hear the bass and drums played back with some balance and criticality, even after several track bouncing overdubs.”
Peter, with the aid of his friend, electronic engineer Russell Medcraft, was able to calibrate the tape deck, thus allowing them to make high quality home recordings. Soon, armed with a decent set of demos, the group began peddling their own special brand of high jinx and harmonious jokes around the major record companies.
Following a studio test, it was Deram – a progressive subsidiary of Decca – who signed the three-piece, advancing the not inconsiderable sum of £750, appointing Wayne Bickerton as in-house producer and Bill Price as engineer (who would later earn his stripes in the punk era). The group entered Decca No 2 studio in Broadhurst Gardens, West Hampstead on February 26 to commence recording The Cheerful Insanity Of Giles, Giles & Fripp. Decca allocated several top notch session musicians including Rolling Stones sidekick Nicky Hopkins, while Ivor Raymonde – best known for his work with Dusty Springfield – was brought in as arranger.
The album was completed in May, and in the same month a first single was released: One In A Million b/w Newly-weds. It was accompanied by a satirical press release penned by Peter Giles: “This is just another single from one of the countless groups who have come to London in the vain hope of making good. Later this year an LP of their compositions will be tentatively released to take its tentative place in a thick catalogue of other LPs on current release.”
Few punters, apart from music mad deviants like myself, bought this first offering, but those who did were amply recompensed. As two acutely observed vignettes of ordinary life in Little Blighty, these songs inhabit the same world as the Beachcomber column in the Daily Express, humourist Gerard Hoffnung and Peter Cook’s EL Wisty, and are no less engaging.
The album was released to a muted response from the music press and cloth-eared indifference from the public. Nevertheless, as Peter explained: “Artistic evolution is not logical or linear, but merely follows the artist’s drawn-to-do impulses. Hence, The Cheerful Insanity... album was simply what the three of us were drawn to do at the time.”
Interspersed by two humorous narratives, The Saga Of Rodney Toady and Just George (recited by Fripp and Michael Giles respectively), the album contains 13 songs of varying quality that consistently display the prowess of the musicians, far beyond the ken of most of their contemporaries. The opening song, North Meadow, is a fine example of their collective inventiveness. Written and sung by Peter, the lyric succinctly captures scenes from a country childhood, judiciously underpinned by his own basslines, Michael’s precision drumming and Robert’s jazz-voiced guitar chords.
There is an air of lost innocence (or should that be intelligence?) that permeates the whole album, brimming with words and music that owe less to psychedelia than the village hall or Vaudeville. Much of the recipe is infused with generous helpings of goonish humour, as evidenced on One In A Million, Newly-weds, Call Tomorrow, Digging My Lawn, How Do They Know and the surrealism of Elephant Song.
While never intended as a grandiloquent statement, the album retains a certain English sensibility that has stood the acid test of time and still evokes the good natured spirit in which it was made. ‘Hearken to the raging seas, the singing trees and feel hell’s heat in every groove. Come closer now; listen to their dreams and your cares are a world away.’
Herein the album attests to three committed musicians who may not have always taken their songwriting too seriously, but amid the many jocular japes that form the main ingredients can be found two especial delicacies: Suite No. 1 and Erudite Eyes, which signal the onset of a more purposeful direction the group would soon be taking.
Suite No. 1, split into three pieces, showcases Fripp’s nimble-fingered fretwork as he flits effortlessly from Bach to Burrell and George Formby in between, while Erudite Eyes highlights the interplay of the trio and their ability to improvise with conviction. Indeed there is an intuitive synergy here that suggests that a need for spontaneity was becoming an inspirational element of their music-making. As Michael recently reflected: “The Crukster and the coda on Erudite Eyes are examples of our early improvisations, which Robert and I developed in 1969 to become a strong part of King Crimson’s repertoire.”
It was not long before impecunious circumstances forced the group to seek live work. Through the musicians wanted ads in Melody Maker they met Ian McDonald and Judy Dyble. Fresh from her stint with Fairport Convention, Judy recently recalled her first impressions of G, G & F: “Tea at the kitchen table, two moustached gentlemen; the Giles Brothers who could almost have stepped out of Country Life, but intermingled with Monty Python, and one very smiley round-faced bespectacled, be-bearded, (but not be-moustachioed) Mr Fripp, while they interrogated us and we tried to fathom them out.”
As a five-piece they began to rehearse and demo new material. Ian soon warmed to his fellow funsters. “Wise beyond their years, I thought them good musicians; very interesting, funny and witty too,” explained McDonald, adding playfully, “and I’m sure my scintillating personality must have attracted me to them.”
He also remembers: “Fripp sat me down and showed me some of his guitar exercises, and demonstrated his cross picking techniques. He had an immense knowledge of chords; inversions, substitutions and so forth. He sometimes developed his guitar exercises into full blown instrumentals as with Suite No. 1, Tremolo Study In A Major and later for the stop/start sequence in 21st Century Schizoid Man.”
Judy also remembers the period with affection. “All through there was giggling and a terrific air of musicality. I was not really aware of history being made, just that here were more musicians that were blending in the way that my version of Fairport had blended, naturally... like breathing.”
As a multi-instrumentalist, Ian soon brought his gifted compositional skills to bear upon proceedings, and before long was contributing material – including three notable songs: Make It Today, Under The Sky and I Talk To The Wind, all of which he had co-written with his lyricist friend, Peter Sinfield.
When Judy departed in July to form Trader Horne with Jackie McAuley, Sinfield joined on a permanent basis and so began to sow the seeds of artful cognisance. “I found them to be peculiar, parochial and possessed of that odd snobbery that some English jazz musicians and pit players had towards successful pop music. I witnessed their very English eccentricity, how they often underplayed their talents in many ways. But they were extraordinary musicians, absolutely brilliant; far above the average. They had paid their dues and learned their lines.”
Sinfield recognised a good thing when he saw it. “I was terribly grateful that Giles, Giles & Fripp existed, and that Ian took me to meet them. I knew if I could be there it could be fun. Once we started working together I knew we had something going somewhere... probably.” His lyrics invoked the curse and altered their alignment with the stars. And to say that Sinfield had a way with words would be rather like saying Monet had a way with colours. My dear Claude, pass the palette. Elfin Pete has an epic to paint.
And so it was that Giles, Giles & Fripp played their part in unleashing the beast we now call prog rock (not Rodney Toady, as some numpties proclaim). In the wake of King Crimson lay a group who had first crawled that cracked and broken path to Bedlam and beyond. America may have had their Guthrie, Ginsberg and The Fugs, but England had been blessed with Giles, Giles & Fripp – need we say more? No, but we should allow Michael to say a few words. “I have continued to enjoy the album’s silliness, seriosserty, whimsy, satire, parody, pathos, humour, ambiguity, incongruity and absurdity; a unique cheerfully insane experience, something completely different.”
Perhaps Peter should have the final say. “The Cheerful Insanity... album WAS WHAT IT WAS in 1968, and IS WHAT IT IS now. It has a musical ingenuousness. That’s what I liked about it then, and that’s what I like about it today.”