I’ve written about this one before, so please excuse me for returning to a favourite.
Once again, we must confront the Dark Lord of Skronk. Dare ye look upon his face a second time?
Oh yeah, Robert Fripp: the gentlemanly looking guitar torturer behind some of the finest uses and abuses of the instrument in rock music.
Every solo I’ve looked at over the years has had an emotional point. I’ve never been a fan of shows of virtuosity for their own sake. Robert Fripp’s playing on Starless radiates emotion, though the feelings being communicated are, to say the least, ambiguous.
The song begins in a minor key, with held Mellotron chords. Fripp plays a haunting melody over these chords, demonstrating his total control over tone and articulation. Every note has the right amount of sustain and vibrato. His choice of which string and fret to play the notes is equally precise and assured.
After three verses sung by Wetton (the main writer of this section of the song), the band drop out and Wetton plays a threatening-sounding 13/8 bass riff in C minor while Fripp plays a G note across two strings (he’s fretting the G string at the 12th fret and the B at the 8th, producing two Gs with slightly different tones and picking them alternately). Then as the riff switches to F, Fripp plays a discordant Gb, then back to G when the riff returns to C. This sequence repeats, and the tension starts to build via a long held G (major or minor? Neither Wetton nor Fripp is spelling that out yet).
How long can anyone play just two notes? If you’re Robert Fripp, quite a long time, long past the point where it begins to make the listener uncomfortable. Wetton and drummer Bill Bruford go through the sequence a second time, and it’s only towards the end of this repeat that Fripp starts climbing, semitone by agonising semitone, upwards in pitch. As he and Wetton begin to play with more volume and distortion, Bruford (the author of that bass riff) joins in. After another repeat of the full sequence, during which Bruford has kept things moderately quiet, playing games with backbeat placement and generally adding to the rising tension, the band finally abandon restraint and go at it hard.
Fripp plays oblique bends with a thicker, more distorted tone, Wetton’s bass is, likewise, now truly distorted, and Bruford switches to the ride, playing less abstractly and more like a conventional rock drummer (albeit one who can count odd-numbered beats in the bar), hitting hard and keeping things straighter. As Fripp goes higher and higher, the cumulative effect goes a long way beyond tense into hysterical, with Fripp’s guitar positively shrieking. Finally the tension breaks, and the band goes into a double-time section, with saxophonists Mel Collins and Ian MacDonald playing dueling solos.
What does it all mean, this eight minutes or so of profoundly uneasy music? In an earlier piece on this song, I commented that while the lyric was straightforwardly about a personal pain so deep that the singer becomes unable to experience any other emotion and is thus alienated from everyone around him, the music was working on a bigger canvas:
“Starless presents an apocalyptic, blasted-heath landscape, where something unimaginably terrible, possibly something world-ending, is about to happen.Such a vast song has to be about more than one man’s personal pain.”
I’d pretty much still go along with that. This music has an evocative power I’ve not heard anywhere else. I’m not sure whether any of what Fripp and co did here was improvised or whether it was all through-composed. I suspect the latter, but either way, it’s guitar playing of the highest order, so far ahead of what the band’s contemporaries were doing in 1974, it’s untrue. It seems scarcely believable that the day Starless was released, the number-single in the UK was Annie’s Song by John Denver, having taken over the day before from Carl Douglas’s Kung Fu Fighting.