Robert Fripp's only proper solo album, Exposure, has a tortured history that reflects everything Fripp loves about the creative process of making music and everything he despises about the music industry in microcosm. Fripp had walked away from music in 1974, following yet another dissolution of King Crimson and the mounting headaches of fame, management, and record companies. He returned to music in 1977 at the request of David Bowie and Brian Eno to play "some hairy rock guitar" on Bowie's Heroes, and these sessions allowed Fripp to regain contact with his creative side and a new album was planned. Working with an incredibly wide range of musicians (including Daryl Hall, Peter Gabriel, Tony Levin, Eno, Terre Roche, and former members of King Crimson), Fripp recorded an album with the working title The Last Great New York Heartthrob. Then, things got ugly. Hall's management (Tommy Mottola) said that Fripp could only use two of the seven tracks with Daryl Hall's vocals unless the album were co-billed to Fripp and Hall and released on Hall's label, RCA. Fripp refused, and decided to use the two allotted Hall vocals and redo the other tracks Hall appeared on. However, rather than simply replace the vocals with another singer, Fripp recut the songs in their entirety using the original musicians if he could, and replaced the original players if he couldn't. Of course, this delayed the intended release of the album and ended up changing the album itself, becoming the original version of Exposure, which was released in 1979. When CDs came along, the album was remixed by Fripp, so the "original" Exposure has never been available on CD until now. That's the first disc of this special edition. The second disc has the remixed versions of the songs, but instead of a straight reissue of the remixed version, three more of the original (and previously unreleased) Hall vocals are substituted back in to the album, and the remaining alternate vocals (some unreleased, some from the remix) are added at the end as "bonus tracks." And that doesn't even go into the debacle with the Fripp-produced Daryl Hall album, Sacred Songs, which is another aspect of the same ugly story. Confused yet?
OK, travails aside, what about the music? Fripp himself introduces the album by saying "Can I play you, um, some of the new things I've been doing which I think could be...commercial?" "Could be" is certainly the operative phrase there (although a few of the songs might have thrived in today's AAA marketplace), but this album is quite amazing in its breadth. From stomping, pounding, nearly punk rock ("You Burn Me Up I'm a Cigarette") to beautiful ballads ("North Star") to avant weirdness ("Disengage," "NY3") to incredibly beautiful, not-quite ambient Frippertronics ("Water Music II") to jagged instrumentals that would point the way toward the re-formation of King Crimson ("Breathless"), Fripp and company cover a ridiculously wide range of material and never miss a step. The album careens back and forth between beauty and power, tied together by Fripp's incredible guitar and Frippertronics. The vocals are uniformly excellent, with Daryl Hall and Terre Roche turning in some surprisingly feral performances alongside their beautifully sung ballads (Peter Hammill's feral vocals are less out of character). It's also interesting to contrast the songs that feature different vocalists in their different incarnations, like "Disengage" and "Exposure." Especially interesting is the previously unreleased Hall version of "NY3" (retitled "New York New York New York"), where the audio vérité of "NY3" is replaced by completely different lyrics and vocals by Hall. The version of Peter Gabriel's "Here Comes the Flood" on Exposure replaces the bombastic orchestrations of Gabriel's version with just synth (Eno), Frippertronics, and Gabriel's piano and vocals, completely transforming the song. Tony Levin's bass playing is fantastic, giving good reason why he's still working with Fripp more than 25 years later. Exposure was an underground masterpiece: there wasn't anything like it before and there hasn't been since. The passage of time has done nothing to dull its luster. Given the album's success on purely creative terms, it's interesting to note the paths here that Fripp didn't really investigate further -- i.e., the more pop-oriented stuff (probably induced by the commercial wranglings of management rather than lack of interest in the material). This deluxe reissue not only offers the first digital opportunity to hear the album as it was originally released, it's a boon for the Fripp faithful who finally get to hear what the album might have been as well. It's an amazingly creative burst and a landmark album that sounds just as fresh today as it did decades ago.