Robert Fripp Battles With David Bowie’s Estate Over Credits for ‘Heroes,’ ‘Scary Monsters’

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King Crimson cofounder and guitarist Robert Fripp is in a dispute with David Bowie’s estate over what he feels is improper credit for his work on the late singer’s albums “Heroes” and “Scary Monsters,” according to a series of posts on his Facebook page.

At issue is the designation of “Featured Player,” a term used by the British licensing and performing rights organization Phonographic Performance Ltd. (PPL). The term was not in use at the time of the albums’ releases in 1977 and 1980, respectively, but would entitle Fripp to greater renumeration and official credit than his status as a non-featured player.

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Bowie’s estate has not commented on the matter, but both Tony Visconti, who co-produced both albums, and Brian Eno, who co-wrote many of the songs on “Heroes,” have issued lengthy statements supporting Fripp’s position. Both argue that Fripp’s distinctive guitar work, particularly his iconic contribution to the song “Heroes,” entitle him to Featured Player status. The matter must have been a point of discussion for some time, as Eno and Visconti’s statements are dated August and May of this year, respectively.

Fripp wrote in his post, “The dispute centres on the refusal of PPL and the David Bowie estate to acknowledge that [Fripp’s] contribution to the ‘Heroes’ and ‘Scary Monsters’ albums is that of a Featured Player. This accreditation as a Featured Player is supported by Brian Eno, Tony Visconti, David Bowie himself (although the terminology was not then in use), and the Court Of Public Opinion over four decades. Essentially, the [Bowie] Estate argues that [Fripp’s] Featured Performer Status is not acknowledged by PPL rules; and PPL argues that as the [Bowie] Estate does not accept [Fripp] as a Featured Performer, [Fripp] is therefore not a Featured Player – and their rules confirm this. Anyone read Catch 22?”

For its part, the PPL has deferred the matter to the “relevant parties.”

“Whilst we are unable to comment on individual cases, performers are classified using a performer classification system set out in PPL’s published Distribution Rules,” the organization said in a statement. “All classification is made based on applying the information we receive from the relevant parties to these rules. It is important to point out that the classifications within these rules do not seek to make any value judgement on the quality, importance or extent of a performer’s contribution on a recording. PPL is always mindful of the different ways in which all of our members can be affected by our policies and we remain committed to operating a fair and straightforward system of distributing revenue to all performers.”

While many legal battles have been fought over individuals’ contributions to musical compositions and their compensation for them — recently in the “Blurred Lines” and “Dark Horse” copyright cases — there is little question that Fripp’s contributions to the albums in question are distinctive and prominent. His lead guitar is a key melodic component of Bowie songs including “Heroes,” “Fashion,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and “Scary Monsters,” among others, and his contribution to many other artists’ songs, ranging from Peter Gabriel’s “Games Without Frontiers” to Blondie’s “Fade Away and Radiate,” is unmistakable.

Fripp continues in his post, “The PPL’s rules and MO perpetuate an historic injustice. Rules are not God-given laws to maintain the universe: they are created by people to organise and facilitate interactions in a fair and equitable fashion; which, in the nature of things, can never be exactly foretold. So, with intelligence and goodwill, where the rules do not allow for what is Right to be acknowledged and addressed, the rules are modified to take exceptional / novel situations into account. … IMO the correct approach for the PPL is to change the rules to match what is right. …

“Dear innocent, reasonable reader: please note – we are dealing with the music industry here. Fifty-two years of direct, hands-on experience suggests to me that the majority of players who operate the system, operate the system to serve their own interests. There are a small number of players whose aim is ethical action in business; not directing the industry to promote their own personal interests; these assertions supported by decades of documentation.”

Fripp told Rolling Stone earlier this year of the sessions for the albums, “‘Here is a context. ‘Robert, please go for it,’ with play and lots of laughter. Lots of fun. What I would ask for from David would simply be chords. So that I wouldn’t have to sit down and write out a chart for an hour, or whatever, so I could go in fresh. ‘Here is the map for the terrain — go.’ And it was wonderful.”

In his statement, Eno wrote, “Robert Fripp’s contributions to the David Bowie albums are of a singular nature. He is a unique musician who doesn’t do ‘sessions’ in the normal sense: when people work with him it is not only for his prodigious gifts as a player, but even more for his unusually fruitful and original imagination. … Regarding HEROES: Robert arrived one evening from New York and we played him one unfinished song after another. There were no chord sheets and indeed no indications of song-structure at all. He reacted to each song with little or no direction from anybody else in the studio – and in each case discovered parts and moods that really were not implicit in the music. David, Tony (Visconti – the producer) and myself watched in awe – I think we were all dazzled. Nobody else would have come up with what he brought to the project. The title song of the HEROES album is a case in point: the guitar motif that underlies the whole song ( – and which is integral enough to its identity to be quoted in every other version of it I’ve heard) was entirely Robert’s invention. …

“If the terms ‘featured artist’ and ‘featured player’ have any meaning at all,” he concluded, “this is surely a case where they should be used.”

Visconti wrote, “It is my opinion that Robert Fripp is considered to be a Featured Artist on two of David Bowies very important progressive albums, ‘Heroes’ and ‘Scary Monsters.’ Mr. Fripp was chosen because of his unique style, a total original, as a featured artist in his groundbreaking work in King Crimson and his collaboration with Brian Eno on several albums. … As the producer of these albums I can testify that Mr Fripp was not ‘told’ what to play. We asked him to invent new parts as only he can for us. We were in awe of what he played, something we could never have imagined.

“Featured Artist and Featured Player are terms that were invented in the 1990s by record companies. But it also applies to artistes that played on records back to the beginning of the recording industry from Thomas Edisons’ time,” he concluded. “Its absence on a record sleeve cannot be held against an artist who is featured on recordings before Featured Artist and Featured Player came into use.”

Fripp is currently on North American tour with King Crimson observing the band’s 50th anniversary.


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