Andy Summers & Robert Fripp: Two-Guitar Telepathy Take 2

Andy-Summers-I-Advance-Masked-77760Regular readers will know that I’m a big guitar connoisseur, and the ’80s offered up a smorgasbord of great players. My brother is three years older than me and he was into ’80s King Crimson and Fripp’s fantastic solo album Exposure long before me. We listened constantly to an old cassette of Discipline which abruptly cut out in the middle of ‘Thela Hun Ginjeet’ and didn’t have any labelling on it, but after some detective work we found out that this incredible music was a band called King Crimson featuring a rather odd but fascinating character from Wimborne named Fripp. And we were both huge Police fans so were well acquainted with Summers.

With hindsight, it seems completely logical for the two to record together, and their two collaborations are engaging if annoyingly inconsistent.

i-advance-masked-robert-fripp-andy-summers1982’s I Advance Masked (great title, surely Fripp’s) is under-produced, tentative and unfinished-sounding, and this approach works fine on the beguiling title track and evocative ‘Hardy Country’ where strong themes carry the day.

But the duo’s limitations as multi-instrumentalists hamper the rest of the album – the drum programming is limp, bass playing sometimes amateurish and the synth playing simplistic (though sometimes perversely enjoyable in a kind of sub-John Carpenter way).

The shorter tracks seem to be searching in vain for some status as ‘ambient’ or ‘environmental’ music but are just too quirky for that purpose. To coin a phrase, it’s all a bit ‘two men and a drum machine’.

What the album does offer are fascinating examples of the kinds of guitar woodshedding the players were doing in the early ‘80s. Summers is in full-on Ghost In The Machine mode with meshes of swelling guitar synth and simple, incongruously bluesy solos, while Fripp explores the arpeggiated, polyrhythmic ideas which would find fruit on Crimson’s Three Of A Perfect Pair a few years later.

But, for me, some of the album, especially ‘Hardy Country’, will forever be associated with Fripp’s corner of Dorset, mainly due to its use in a brilliant Fripp BBC2 documentary from the mid-‘80s. Take a walk around Badbury Rings with ‘Hardy Country’ playing in your lugholes and you’ll see what I mean.

summers and fripp1985’s Bewitched is a dramatic improvement on the first album. In the main, it features attractive melodies, well-thought-out song structures, (mostly) real drums, some incredible playing from ex-League of Gentleman/Gang of Four bassist Sara Lee, pristine mastering and much more of a ‘band’ sound.

The opener ‘Parade’ flies out of the traps with New Wave drums and an engaging little synth guitar melody. With its major-chord exuberance and very short duration, it could easily have come from side one of Bowie’s Low.

‘What Kind Of Man Reads Playboy’ is pretty much a perfect distillation of the state of the electric guitar in the mid-‘80s, if you can take the incessant boom-bap of the drum machine. Fripp must have grinned at the simplicity of the blues chord changes and catchy melody. Summers’ ingenious layering takes in wah-wah funk, harmonic washes, Charlie Christian-style bebop, bluesy leads and tasteful guitar-synth textures. Fripp also plays one of the most extreme solos of his career and Sara Lee impresses with her high-speed soloing and tasty grooving.

Unfortunately, side two is more in line with the debut album, a series of rather uninteresting, short and surprisingly-badly recorded tracks. Think ‘Behind My Camel‘ in demo form but without Stewart Copeland. But the best is saved until last, the stunning closer ‘Image And Likeness’ featuring Summers’ gorgeous cascading harmonics.

On these two albums, Fripp generally takes a back seat and basically provides a framework for Summers’ talents to shine through. An admirable, modest position for sure, but he was becoming a bit like the Wayne Shorter of guitar at this point, happy to be in the shadows despite legions of fans wanting bolder musical statements. But this is in general a really intriguing and somewhat overlooked two-guitar collaboration calling to mind a brilliant era when big labels were putting some serious money behind instrumental music and rock was allowed to be intelligent.

No More Protest Songs? Red Wedge 30 Years On

red wedge

The Red Wedge gang including Paul Weller, Jimmy Somerville and Glenn Gregory meet Ken Livingstone and Labour leader Neil Kinnock, 1987

Some might say that music and politics should never mix. But it’s less than two weeks to the General Election here in England. Looking at the music press or listening to music radio, you’d never know it.

Is politics just terminally uncool? Do today’s musicians not give a damn about who gets into power? It seems to be a mixture of both, though I was intrigued to see Paloma Faith hand-picking the writer Owen Jones to open some of her recent gigs.

The deafening silence (apart from a recent Jazz For Labour event at the Barbican) can’t help but beg comparison to the state of play 30 years ago when the movement known as Red Wedge got underway. Formed in 1985 initially as a Labour-supporting group to encourage young people to vote and get Margaret Thatcher out of office, it arguably politicised a second generation of music fans a decade after Rock Against Racism and punk. Though I was too young to fully understand Red Wedge’s aims (and too young to vote), I certainly took notice.

Red Wedge officially started on 21st November 1985 when Kirsty MacColl, Billy Bragg, Paul Weller and Strawberry Switchblade were invited to a reception at the Palace of Westminster by Labour MP Robin Cook. Major tours followed in the next few years leading up to the 1987 General Election featuring additional artists such as The Communards, The Style Council, Junior, Jerry Dammers, Madness, The The, Bananarama, Prefab Sprout, Elvis Costello, Sade, The Beat, Lloyd Cole and the Commotions and The Smiths. In short, this was no Mickey Mouse setup.

Unfortunately, their efforts amounted to diddly squat; the 1987 election resulted in a third consecutive Conservative victory. But at least they tried and their message didn’t fall on deaf ears. And where is the new batch of protest songs and protest singers? Unfortunately the current crop of musicians are just like most of the politicians: bland, middle-of-the-road, lacking in ideas and desperate not to offend.

Seven More Great ’80s Album Openers

7. David Bowie: ‘It’s No Game (Part 1)’ from Scary Monsters (1980)

Weird doesn’t cover it. We hear tape spooling around the reels and the machine being turned on, followed by drummer Dennis Davis whirling around a football rattle and counting us in in his best Cyborg voice. After this, Robert Fripp’s deranged solo and Michi Hirota’s strident Japanese outbursts sound almost normal.

6. De La Soul: ‘Intro’ from 3 Feet High And Rising (1989)

A whole generation of pop kids hadn’t heard anything like this before, and yet somehow it bears repeated listening. It’s just as fresh and original as anything The Small Faces or The Beatles tried 20 years before and arguably started off the whole ‘intro’ concept on hip-hop albums.

5. Genesis: ‘Behind The Lines’ from Duke (1980)

In musical theatre, I believe it’s called an overture. This bombastic piece previews many of the themes that will reverberate through the album. Tony Banks’ keys and Phil’s drums have seldom sounded brighter or tighter.

4. Lil Louis: ‘I Called U’ from From The Mind Of Lil Louis (1989)

This classic piece of bunny-boiler house is funny, weird and arresting (sorry about the sound quality).

3. It Bites: ‘Positively Animal’ from Eat Me In St Louis (1989)

Watch that volume dial. The talented, underrated four-piece jolt you out of complacency with a flashy, these-go-to-11 opener. Audacious and very un-English.

2. The Police: ‘Don’t Stand So Close To Me’ from Zenyatta Mondatta (1980)

Another moody classic. A brooding Oberheim bass-throb, a fudged Andy Summers chord, a hint of click track and then that brilliant, patented half-time groove. This full-length version hints at the darker themes of the lyric.

1. Talking Heads: ‘And She Was’ from Little Creatures (1985)

Hope you enjoy our new direction (though Little Creatures is probably my least favourite Heads album). Leaving behind the art-funk of Speaking In Tongues, this sprightly opener introduces a new stripped-down pop sound in no uncertain terms.