“Whenever King Crimson is in active mode there is nothing else I can do with my life… to be able to focus on being more of a guitarist is the right place for me”: Robert Fripp’s new lease of life

Robert Fripp and Toyah
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Now the Covid-19 pandemic seems an age away. The disrupted routines and lockdown days that drifted into weeks and months are a foggy memory for many, but they were perilous times and King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp recalls the atmosphere in his home town, Pershore. “The fear was palpable,” he says. “It was pretty terrifying, as if the Black Death had revisited the community.”

With it came a sudden and unprecedented need for isolation, and Fripp’s wife Toyah Willcox was concerned about the adverse effects all this was having on him. “She would look in the door and see me here in the study, and I can imagine she was thinking, ‘Here is a little man gently withering away,’” he says. “The actuality was that with touring not on the agenda, there was a wonderful opportunity for me to visit and revisit interests and writing my Crimson Commentaries.” Fripp holds up some handwritten pages. “Actually, there was a very great deal going on.”

It was a time when creative people needed be resourceful and Fripp’s musical career took an unexpected turn: “My wife took the initiative and led me down the garden, passing me a tutu and a pair of tights, and got us dancing to Swan Lake and jiving in the kitchen as well,” he says. “She certainly shook up my life and work.”

This was the start of the Toyah & Robert’s Sunday Lunch weekly YouTube videos. The couple had briefly been in a band together in the early 90s, Sunday All Over The World – which included King Crimson’s Trey Gunn on Chapman Stick – but now they were playing boisterous cover versions of classic rock and metal tunes in their kitchen. “My wife said to me repeatedly that it is the responsibility of performers to raise people’s spirits in difficult times and this became the brief,” Fripp says.

A large part of the initial appeal of Sunday Lunch was that Willcox, and particularly Fripp, were seen out of their usual context. Fripp is best known for being the sole constant member of King Crimson. He describes the group as “a way of doing things both musically and in business” and in his role as their “raison d’etre” Fripp produced some extraordinary music and also received a considerable amount of grief, particularly his years of litigation with EG management – still not fully resolved – and Universal, who acquired the group’s catalogue.

Fripp plays seated and for 90s Crimson shows literally moved out of the spotlight and into the shadows of stage right. So witnessing his table- dancing homage to Right Said Fred, singing ‘I’m too sexy for King Crimson’, is the last thing one would have expected from the Fripp of yore. “Well, doing things that aren’t normally associated with Robert Fripp has my full support,” he comments. “I call it giving a heavy kicking to received opinion.”

Those who think of Fripp as being exacting and difficult will have had that opinion reinforced by Toby Amies’ acclaimed documentary film In The Court Of The Crimson King: King Crimson At 50. Although initially happy to participate in the project, at times Fripp comes across as irascible and truculent.

“My wife feels that were she to have interviewed me rather than Toby, or alongside Toby, a very different sense of her husband would have become available to the public,” Fripp explains. “And since it didn’t, I think part of her interest is also to show that Robert Fripp is not quite the character who’s perceived in conventional wisdom – particularly, may I say, in Prog magazine.”

Fripp describes the positive response to the Sunday Lunch videos as “remarkable and overwhelming”. But with the overtly sexual nature of Willcox’s outfits and Fripp mugging at the camera in makeup and a mohawk, some think that he’s demeaned himself and King Crimson’s legacy.

“There are Italian King Crimson fans who have been outraged at my conduct,” he admits. “But some Italian commentators have pointed out, ‘Well, can you remember Giles, Giles And Fripp?’ So there has been this aspect of Robert, which has been submerged for years, but within the Crimson camp there are acknowledgements that Fripp’s humour is dry, but nevertheless it is there.” Anyone who has heard Fripp’s recitations on The Saga Of Rodney Toady on that trio’s sole album from 1968, The Cheerful Insanity Of Giles, Giles And Fripp, or seen him larking about in group photos will understand.

He also draws parallels between the Sunday Lunch format and playing with artists such as David Bowie, Brian Eno, Blondie and Peter Gabriel. “Robert as a guitarist has a very different brief working with other players to that within King Crimson, and addressing rock classics is fabulous fun,” he says. “I should emphasise on both Toyah’s and my behalf, all these songs we engage with respectfully and in homage towards the artists.”

Having to play in standard EADGBE tuning rather than the new standard tuning he’s used for decades has made the process difficult and on-camera mistakes are often accompanied by a hearty exclamation of “Bollocks!” “Korn, for example: two seven-string guitars and a different tuning. How do you approach that?” he asks rhetorically. “So this is a learning curve for me. Slipknot? I mean, how do I engage with that tuning?”

Willcox comes up with most of the ideas of songs to cover and there are some unexpected connections, for example, Lenny Kravitz’s Are You Gonna Go My Way? “Crimson toured with Lenny Kravitz on the HORDE tour in ’96,” Fripp recalls. “Toyah had joined me, so on several occasions we were in the wings watching Lenny. And Smoke On The Water – when I was 17, in Poole, Dorset, I saw an 18 year-old Ritchie Blackmore with The Outlaws; and in his early prime, Ritchie was phenomenal. So essentially, there is a connection to much of the music. 

“I’m humbled by all these astonishingly good players,” he continues. “Lenny Kravitz; Tony Iommi, defining guitarist in his field; Metallica, I love playing Enter Sandman and taking the solo at the end, in homage to Kirk [Hammett]’s solo. There’s no end to it.

“We did receive feedback that [ZZ Top’s] Billy Gibbons went around shouting, ‘Toyah and Robert have covered Sharp Dressed Man,’” Fripp says. “Well, I don’t know whether that’s an exaggeration but also Alice Cooper referred to it on one of his online ventures.”

Fripp doesn’t want to “sideline” any guitarist by picking a favourite, but gives special mention to Vernon Reid of Living Colour, who Crimson also worked alongside and whose Cult Of Personality they have also covered. So are any of these rock styles he has played on Sunday Lunch percolating into his own compositions? “No, this is taking precedence over any of my concerns as a writer,” is the rather disappointing reply.

Toyah and Fripp have moved from kitchen to stage with their Rock Party tour but without the more burlesque elements of Sunday Lunch. “Family attendance is safe,” Fripp says. The group are essentially Toyah’s touring band with Fripp on guitar. They debuted as special guests of The Trevor Horn Band at Cropredy Festival in 2022.

“If I applied any rational process to the event, I would have been terrified,” Fripp says. “Here you are walking onstage in front of 20,000 people sitting in with a band you’ve never played with before. But to go onstage and sit in with people, that’s part of my history as a working player.”

The couple’s festival gigs this year have included Glastonbury and the Isle Of Wight. Many of the choices of material are heavy and hard rock and Fripp has always enjoyed this style of music. King Crimson have an image of being rather cerebral, and Fripp never played Fracture with his foot on the monitor, but some of the group’s pieces are brutally heavy.

“Yeah, I agree. Maybe when playing Fracture, I should have stuck my foot up on the monitor,” he says. “In terms of my onstage demeanour, there were recent posts in response to YouTube [videos of Glastonbury]. ‘Fripp: is he alive?’ was one of the comments which I found rather amusing. The second one had me hooting even more so was, ‘Is he embalmed?’ In The Guardian’s review of our Glastonbury show I am referred to as ‘impassive’ – a considerable step up from ‘Is he alive?’ and ‘Is he embalmed?’

“I have been able to access my appearance onstage and I don’t see an impassive guitarist; I see a character who is centred and focused and alive. There is a stillness present, but within this focused and attentive state.”

Fripp has occasionally played some King Crimson pieces in the kitchen videos, but there will be no Crimson material played live. Rumours from a very credible source have suggested that had Tony Levin not been touring with Peter Gabriel, Crimson might have played at Glastonbury this year. “That’s a rumour that didn’t reach me,” says Fripp. Some more recent Crimson material has only been recorded live, and there were also rumours of a new studio album, but this now seems highly unlikely.

“There are no plans for King Crimson to play,” Fripp asserts. “The band members are already two years older than our final note, dying away into eternity in Tokyo at the end of 2021, and Toyah and Robert are up and running and the current focus of my endeavours. I am informed that offers are always on the table, but I’m going to be busy for at least the next three years, and then two of the band are going to be 80. And to put those musicians in a room with all their equipment to see if they still play well together today will cost £100,000. So, who is going to pay that?

“Whenever King Crimson is in active mode there is nothing else I can do with my life; it’s 80 per cent of anything,” he continues. “So to be able to focus on being more of a guitarist than I am within King Crimson and having lots of fun working with my wife in a group that’s rocking out, and audiences are having a fabulous time, is the right place for me.”

Sunday Lunch was essentially a diversion that has become a full stage show. But can it grow further? “Currently, there is a documentary underway on the phenomenon of Toyah and Robert, one of the two lockdown breakouts on social media, along with [Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s] Kitchen Disco,” Fripp says. “We are also being approached in terms of presenting programmes on television. But because we are touring for the rest of the year, it’s more difficult to follow those lines of enquiry. 

“The aim of Toyah and Robert live is the same as in the kitchen, to lift people’s spirits, and we go onstage to put something positive in the world.”

Mike Barnes

Mike Barnes is the author of Captain Beefheart - The Biography (Omnibus Press, 2011) and A New Day Yesterday: UK Progressive Rock & the 1970s (2020). He was a regular contributor to Select magazine and his work regularly appears in Prog, Mojo and Wire. He also plays the drums.