Pete Tomsett’s Fifty Shades of Crimson tells the "warts 'n' all" story of Robert Fripp and his legendary band, King Crimson. With a much-anticipated King Crimson documentary getting a worldwide release, the Harrow author – and former Brent Council officer – explains why Fripp was, and still is, so significant in the rock world. 

Formed in December 1968, in a flat on Brondesbury Road, Kilburn, King Crimson would take the world by storm over the following twelve months, quite literally changing the course of rock music. For the preceding year however, nothing of that order seemed remotely likely. In fact, Robert Fripp’s previous band had flopped so badly that his decision to leave Dorset to pursue music, rather than become an estate agent, looked rather questionable.

Brent & Kilburn Times: 93 Brondesbury Road, where King Crimson formed93 Brondesbury Road, where King Crimson formed (Image: Pete Tomsett)

His fortunes were transformed when he met multi-instrumentalist Ian McDonald, and then enlisted his vocalist friend Greg Lake to his new band.

Signed up after supporting the Rolling Stones at their 1969 Hyde Park gig, Crimson shot to world-wide fame with the release of their debut album, In the Court of the Crimson King. While others had been opening doors to colourful new possibilities, Fripp and co. had stepped through those doors and, by mixing rock with jazz, folk and classical, had created something new and dramatic which in turn triggered the rise of prog-rock. 

Despite achieving more than they could ever have dreamt of, Crimson’s original line-up abruptly fell apart, and Fripp found himself with a band in name only.

As a man with immense sense of purpose, he rebuilt, and emerged as one of those rare people who are true innovators and leaders. The line-up changes continued with alarming regularity, but amidst the instability, and rejecting Elton John and Bryan Ferry along the way, Crimson put out a string of acclaimed and influential albums.

Fripp was not easy to work with, but what set him apart from others, and kept people queuing up to join him, was his disdain for the conventions and cliches of rock. The band’s sound would constantly evolve but there was always the driving force behind their music of Fripp’s desire to go somewhere new and interesting. In the process they inspired a great many others, with Genesis, Roxy Music and Radiohead amongst the most prominent. 

Brent & Kilburn Times: Robert Fripp at a Westbourne Grove record store gig in 1985Robert Fripp at a Westbourne Grove record store gig in 1985 (Image: Pete Tomsett)
In their early years Fripp’s band hit the same commercial heights as contemporaries such as David Bowie and Pink Floyd. However, as an intellectual who came to despise the practices of the music business, Fripp preferred to be an innovator rather than chasing big sales.  

Achieving a second peak in 1974 with the heavier prog of the album, Red, Fripp shocked everyone by breaking up the band. Reading about a philosophy called The Fourth Way, he had become convinced that society was racing towards collapse and that he needed to withdraw from the music business to prepare for this.

Three years on, he was tempted back, and after some innovative solo albums, he reformed Crimson to much acclaim in the eighties, fronted by exuberant American, Adrian Belew. 

Brent & Kilburn Times: King Crimson in 2014King Crimson in 2014 (Image: King Crimson)
For all its significance, King Crimson is only really half the Fripp story. As well as working with Bowie, Eno and Peter Gabriel, he has created his own forms of instrumental music, run his own unique guitar courses, married pop star/presenter Toyah and set up his own ethical record company.

Probably his best known work was in fact away from Crimson, being responsible for the layers of evocative, spine-tingling guitar sound that give Bowie’s anthemic Heroes it’s character.

Having survived the years when older artists were often dismissed as dinosaurs, Crimson have since been through more incarnations, giving further generations the chance to see what all the fuss was about. It’s been heartening for me to find lately that, although the band have now toured for the final time, their global fan base includes a great many younger people, rather than just the older fans you’d expect.

Their legacy and influence, which arguably outstrips most others in rock, will live on for decades to come. It’s been a tortuous road at times, and Fripp has been a man of many contradictions. However, it’s safe to say that, while the world may have been deprived of a legendary estate agent, Fripp has made it a far better place for having chosen to follow that more powerful desire.

Pete Tomsett's Fifty Shades of Crimson: Robert Fripp and King Crimson is out now.

Brent & Kilburn Times: Fifty Shades of Crimson: Robert Fripp and King Crimson, by Pete TomsettFifty Shades of Crimson: Robert Fripp and King Crimson, by Pete Tomsett (Image: Pete Tomsett)