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Thursday, January 4, 2018

Giles, Giles & Fripp: The Cheerful Insanity Of Giles, Giles & Fripp


1) North Meadow; 2) Newly-Weds; 3) One In A Million; 4) Call Tomorrow; 5) Digging My Lawn; 6) Little Children; 7) The Crukster; 8) Thursday Morning; 9) How Do They Know; 10) Elephant Song; 11) The Sun Is Shining; 12) Suite No. 1; 13) Erudite Eyes; 14*) She Is Loaded; 15*) Under The Sky.

General verdict: An eccentric, charming, and overall kooky anti-prequel to King Crimson.

Enlightening fact: if you only listen to the three compositions on this album that are credited to Robert Fripp, this does not sound that unlike In The Court Of The Crimson King. Granted, ʽLittle Childrenʼ is a fluffy jazz-pop number (though slightly weighted down by the Mellotron in the background) that fits in very well with the Giles' brothers materials. But on the second side of the record, ʽSuite No. 1ʼ is a multi-part mix of jazz (including Robert doing some credible Wes Montgomery impersonations), baroque, and psychedelic influences, some of whose ideas would later crop up in ʽMoonchildʼ; and ʽErudite Eyesʼ is a sentimental waltzing ballad that, nevertheless, hosts a whole array of different guitar tones and styles, showing how this newcoming guy can easily outplay the likes of The Jefferson Airplane and The Grateful Dead, at least, even if his lack of flashiness still does not allow us to decide if he's as good as Jimi.

That said, links may be links, but the overall tone of The Cheerful Insanity certainly has little to do with either the ambitious bombast of early King Crimson or the geometric perplexity of later King Crimson. Rather, this music belongs to the same boiling pot that gave us the Bonzo Dog Band and, in a different medium, Monty Python — with slightly less emphasis on comedy and slightly more reverence rather than irreverence towards the good old British stereotypes: some­thing that would actually go on to be firmly upheld by Ropert Fripp in his personality, if not necessarily in his music. How in the world did Fripp manage to get mixed up with the Giles brothers remains a bit of a mystery, particularly given the circumstance that the advertisement they placed called for a «singing organist», whereas Robert was a taciturn guitarist; but I guess that blindly trusting fate was somewhat of a common place back in 1968.

It did not hurt, either, that brother Michael, at least, was a genuinely talented fellow: a well-trained drummer with a knack for effortlessly knocking out tricky jazz patterns, and a gifted songwriter at the same time — he has more songs on this album than Peter, and most of the best ones are his. Peter Giles is no slouch, either — listen to his expressive and agile zoops on ʽNewly-Wedsʼ, for instance — yet it is perhaps not surprising that he was the first to back out of the business when it became clear that the group was not geared for success. In any case, the common causes that brought them all together are clear — a love for jazz, a desire to integrate jazz elements with pop and rock styles, and a penchant for eccentricity. The latter being, above everything else, well reflected on the cover of the album, although, frankly, a cover like that probably cost them most of the sales back in 1968.

On the surface, the first side of the album is far more eccentric than the second one. Dubbed «The Saga Of Rodney Toady», it is a string of short, light, coquettish musical vignettes separated by bits of a spoken word piece — the only time that Robert Fripp himself ever stooped to putting spoken word pieces on an album of his. The spoken word piece may have been slightly autobiographical, even though I have no evidence of Robert Fripp being called «fat and ugly» back in his teenage days — but somehow I do not doubt that the man shared Rodney Toady's interest in «rude books with rude pictures», although, happily enough, the prophecy of the protagonist being destined to hook up with a fat and ugly girl did not come to pass (unless you think Toyah Willcox is fat and ugly, the first of which would be objectively untrue and the second of which would probably depend on her choice of her next scenic image). In any case, the importance of the spoken word piece is singular: it tells you the story of an outcast, implying that this whole experience may be for outcasts — or for downright whackos.

Which it is only partially, because if you take something like ʽOne In A Millionʼ, you end up with a perfectly normal, pretty, catchy Brit-pop song that would seem to come right out of Ray Davies' pocketbook, if it weren't that deeply rooted in the jazz paradigm. The lyrics make perfect sense, the atmosphere of simplistic, sympathetic melancholy rings genuine, and the swirling flutes add this complacent pastoral flavor that will be enjoyable to anyone with an ear for melody. The other single, ʽThursday Morningʼ, is an even more sentimental little ballad, cleverly mixing rhythm guitar jazz chords with a baroque classical string arrangement; taken outside the context of the album, it is perfectly normal and certainly does not require having an odd sense of humor — then again, it might have sounded a bit too fluffy and hookless for the single-buying public.

In fact, the only openly weird piece on the first side, barring the spoken word interludes, is ʽThe Cruksterʼ, a minute and a half of rambling poetry set to folk / jazz / free-form guitar impro­visation — a rather forgettable track, but one that offers us our very first, very sketchy glimpse into the endless world of Fripprovising. More glimpses will be offered on the second side, parti­cularly in the mid-section of ʽSuite No. 1ʼ, but all of them will remain glimpses: Giles, Giles & Fripp were all about pop songwriting, not about using skeletal ideas as launchpads for unpredic­table musical adventures.

For some reason, the most memorable musical moment for me is the brass riff of ʽElephant Songʼ — in fact, that brass riff is the only memorable musical moment in ʽElephant Songʼ, which other­wise consists of pseudo-Dylanesque absurd verses recited, rather than sung, against a rootsy background of guitars and harmonicas. This is arguably the most Bonzoish of all the songs here (Viv Stanshall should be proud), and one number for which it would really be a chore to locate any parallels in the King Crimson catalog. But it is fun, and the riff somehow manages to put together notes of martial triumph and thrilling suspense — in such a blatantly comical manner as would never again soil the gentlemanly purity of patented Fripp product. (Although, as the future would show, the man would still retain a subtle passion for elephants).

It does seem a bit unjust that The Cheerful Insanity has always existed largely as a curio piece, technically immortal because of the role it plays in King Crimson history but never seriously appreciated by the world at large. There is a certain streak of innocence and crystal clear humor in it that not a lot of albums from the same epoch can be said to share; and in some ways, it is one of the most inventive and accessible syntheses of light jazz, baroque pop, and avantgarde from said epoch. But it is also true that we do tend to judge art pieces by their «emotional fields», and as The Cheerful Insanity makes absolutely no pretense at «seriousness» — there is no way anybody could be driven to tears by ʽThursday Morningʼ, or enflamed with ardent passion at the nimble jazz picking of ʽSuite No. 1ʼ — its status as a historical curio seems to have been cemented once and for all.

Nevertheless, it is still a must-have if you are a fan of King Crimson (since it opens up a whole new dimension in one's understanding of the intricate ways of Robert Fripp), if you are a fan of jazz-rooted pop music, if you are fond of Monty Pythonesque absurdism in music, if you like dressing up in bowler hats and bowties, and if you like coming up with long lists of «ifs» because they look good at the end of your cheaply manipulative essay.

As it turns out, the album in question did not put a final stop to the career of Giles, Giles & Fripp. Subsequent sessions were held, of which two unreleased outtakes have subsequently been added to the CD re-issue of the record, both of them superb: ʽShe Is Loadedʼ is a fun, catchy pop-rocker that somehow manages to veer between Beatles and Beach Boys moods, while ʽUnder The Skyʼ is a transitional art-pop song that already presages the folksy vibe of ʽI Talk To The Windʼ. The detour into folk territory almost morphed into something serious when, in addition to new member Ian McDonald on saxes and flutes, the trio recruited the services of ex-Fairport Conven­tion vocalist Judy Dyble — for a very brief while (the final months of 1968), it might have seemed as if this new combo could work well enough to take the band out of the age of bowler hats into the age of codpieces. Fortunately, or unfortunately, it did not work out, but since the results of that brief experiment are now publicly available as The Brondesbury Tapes, this subject deserves a special discussion. The reality is that with the arrival of McDonald and Dyble, the «cheerful insanity» essentially came to an end anyway, so this is where we end our review.


  1. I have to thank you for introducing to both this album and The Brondesbury Tapes back in the day (really, most classic rock that I know and listen to, I wouldn't have known about if it weren't for a 13-year-old me discovering your reviews, subsequently having his life changed and finding more purpose in this fragile world, but I digress).

    There are so many gems here! "North Meadow" alternates between really gorgeous harmonized verses and labyrinthine Fripp soloing, "Digging My Lawn" is a jazz-pop masterpiece, and even though the bridge sections in "How Do They Know" let the song down a little bit, it is more than made up for by the verse melody. You're absolutely right in your assessment; there are very few albums that combine British humbleness and eccentricity with jazzy pop song structures (in this way), and a kind of ambition that it's hard not to describe in ways referring to what would happen with this band in less than two years' time.

  2. I have to echo Rasmus' appreciation for your words, George. I also discovered your site ages ago (in the early 00s at least) and it helped me discover so many classic and lesser-known masterpieces. And this is one of them. Though I feel The Brondesbury Tapes are a stronger overall listen (I'm hoping for another review soon?), Cheerful Insanity is a marvellous listen throughout. Essential and unique.

  3. Have you abandoned your alphabetical system of reviews and just gone back to reviewing who you feel like reviewing?