In praise of older men


Guitarists have always attracted hero-worship, and it has helped the best of them survive what would otherwise be the inevitable fall at the end of a brief pop career. Robert Fripp and Bill Nelson were gods of their ilk in the 1970s. In the 1990s they're middle-aged craftsmen, workaholics patiently documenting great swathes of music and presenting it to their respective cults with a meticulousness that each man seems to enjoy as much as the music-making. Both artists are now available via the Discipline Global Mobile, the self-sufficient label which Fripp - whose disdain and suspicion of the business is famous - started some years ago.

Sorting through Discipline's catalogue reveals how vast Fripp's body of work has become. Though best-known for his numerous King Crimson projects, the guitarist has been making multi-disc sets of solo guitar works, as well as resuscitating old concert and archive tapes. Crimson has been through many incarnations, developing from symphonic progressives to a brainy dance band, and the constant factor has always been Fripp's steely guitar, wound through the music like a coiled spring. His use of a thick, orchestral sustain on his sound makes him identifiable at once, no matter how much technology he uses.

One of Fripp's most productive contexts of late has been a trio drawn from the main Crimson group, with Adrian Belew and Trey Gunn. Space Groove, a banal title for an intensely vivid record, is credited to Projeckt Two; the same trio played an equally vibrant London concert earlier this year as Projeckt One. By the time they get to Projeckt Ten we may be sick of it, but for now this is scathingly smart and absorbing music.

Belew, usually a guitarist, patters on electronic kit drums that create a grid pattern of rhythms which the others have to step through like hopscotchers. Gunn plays an unearthly multi-string instrument that can sound like guitar, vibes, bass, almost anything. Fripp leads the way with guitar playing of such adroitness that it almost thinks for itself. As instrumentalism and improvisation have ebbed away from the mainstream of rock, guardians like Fripp have become rare, like backwoodsmen. If this kind of music can sometimes sound too clever by half, its sophistications are tempered by the kind of visceral clout which rock music, now usually tamed for radio consumption, rarely undertakes.

At his spaciest, Fripp often conjures up the hills and skies of his native Dorset as much as any interstellar wonderment. In the same way, Bill Nelson, though an obsessive science fiction follower, often makes one think of nothing so much as the Yorkshire where he has always lived and worked. What Now, What Next? (Discipline) is a two-disc retrospective of his work in the 1980s, recorded in his home studio with Nelson, previously recognised as the front man for the band Be-Bop Deluxe, doing nearly all the playing himself.

There are 31 miniatures with titles like "Windmills in a World Without Wind", shining little fragments, softcore technopop, all of it brightened when Bill steps away from his keyboards and drum machines and plays one of his melodious guitar solos. Another musician cocooned in the technology of it all, Nelson is a lot warmer than Fripp, though he misses the latter's piercing intensity. There's a homely, potting-shed quality to his music that fits his unfanciful demeanour. Unlike Fripp, who never opens his mouth on record and rarely at concerts, he sings some of the time. But one thing the two men do share is their idiosyncrasies of speech. When they talk, Nelson's northern vowels are as strong as Fripp's Wimborne burr.

This article first appeared in the 01 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, An earthquake strikes new Labour