February , 2012
By Craig Hunter Ross
The Legendary Voice Of King Crimson And ELP
An Exclusive JAM Magazine Interview
"Welcome back my friends, to the show that never ends."
Without a doubt, this signature line introducing "Karn Evil 9" perfectly summed up the musical adventures involving one of the greatest rock bands to ever strike a chord - Emerson, Lake & Palmer. The author of those infamous words, Greg Lake, today considers himself to be one ‘lucky man' who was fortunate enough to surround himself with extraordinary musicians ‘from the beginning' of his career.
For Lake, it all started in 1969 with his involvement on the groundbreaking release of King Crimson's In the Court of the Crimson King. That album single-handily sparked the art rock movement, but a restless Lake moved on. He decided his future rest in the hands of keyboard virtuoso Keith Emerson and drummer extraordinaire Carl Palmer. It proved to be a very wise choice. While bands like YES and Genesis needed five musicians to pull off their progressive rock sounds, ELP proved you could do more with less. As Lake put it, he and his mates had a more European approach to their music that blended the classical sounds of antiquity with a modern subdued rock and roll twist. With each band member drawing on a wide range of influences, the band's self-titled debut in the fall of 1970 was a stunning success.
Lake's presence in the group, particularly his voice, brought a somewhat British pop sensibility to ELP. It allowed Emerson to meld romantic and modernistic era classical music, into an ambitious rock formula, that struck a note with the public. Though others would attempt to copy the comingling of rock with contemporary classical pieces, (King Crimson for one), no one quite succeeded commercially like this three-man group. Over the course of three years, the band released four magnificent pieces of work - Tarkus, Pictures at an Exhibition Show, Trilogy and Brain Salad Surgery - that elevated rock music to new levels of artistic credibility. In the process, they sold millions of records around the globe, and entertained countless tens of thousands of fans as well.
Over the many years since those heady days of the early ‘70s, Lake's magical voice has been a staple on radio thanks to classics he penned like "Lucky Man," "Still, You Turn Me On" and his Yuletide staple, "I Believe in Father Christmas." A versatile guitarist and bass player, the musician is also blessed with one of the most recognizable voices in music. Today, those vocals are still actively sought after as a collaborator and producer by top recording artists. This coming spring, Lake will bring his four decades of musical history to venues throughout North America. In the following interview, the gifted musician talks about his life, his music and indeed, ‘what a lucky man he was'. Or in this case, still is.
JAM: To what do you attribute the longevity of your music?
Greg Lake - I think really, there was a time of honesty in it. Honesty with quality, you know? We really did try. I've always tried to give 100 percent in as much as I could, to make it as good as I possibly could. I think that's the key to longevity. Anything that lasts a long time was probably made quite well. If you look at a vintage car, it's lasted because it was made well, it was designed well. People went back to it because of that.
JAM: That being said, did you find yourself with some sort of foundational pattern with which you approached your writing, or did it really vary upon who you were working with?
The key thing about my career is this. When I really started in music, most of the acts here in England were basing their musical creativity on American music - the blues, gospel, jazz, soul music. Everybody was doing that. The thing that made me different, as well as the bands I was with, was this. We based our music more on European roots. It sounded different because it came from another place. In many ways, I look back and I almost regret it because I really do love soul music. I love country music as well, but my career never had much of that in it.
JAM: It still could in the future at some point.
That is true, absolutely right! It's funny that you should mention that because it is something that I really intend to do. I want to embrace a little of that because it is so wonderful. I mean look, European music adapted. I think it was a good thing to have done. It influenced a lot of people, for the better I would say. It made music richer in some ways. But it sort of came at this cost, in not having a lot of music with that "street feel", that great simplistic soul feeling. So as you rightly point out, it's great that I could make a new album and encompass some of that.
JAM: Did you always intend to be a musician? Was there a song you heard, an artist you saw that caused that light to go off in your head, or heart, that made you decide that yes, this is what I was born to do?
Funny enough, I'm just writing an autobiography of my life and I was saying the exact same thing. You know, "What was it that got me going?" I think when I was a very, very young child, I'd say maybe seven years old, I recall being moved by a piece of music. It might have been "Greensleeves" and I remember it quite upset me. It reached me in some way. I started playing guitar when I was twelve years old and of course I had tons of influences. Most of which were the same as everybody else's. The first records I bought were Elvis Presley, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. Those were not European at all! Using European music as a basis for inspiration was a very conscious decision. It wasn't something that was sort of natural in that way.
JAM: So you really incorporated a bit of the best of both worlds?
Well, yeah. It was good because it was successful and anything that's successful, you're glad you did it! As I said though, there was always that tinge of regret in the back of my mind that we weren't playing more soul or black inspired music, because there is such an essence of great feeling in it. When you miss it, as an entire genre, it leaves a big hole in a way.
JAM: With King Crimson, you've said it was the chemistry you all had as people, more so than as players that created the music. Does that chemistry also contribute to the long lasting effect of the music?
Yes, undoubtedly. I believe with any great band, you have to have great personal chemistry. That's actually one of the things I discovered about Ringo (Starr) when I toured with him, is how much of a contribution he made, that he really must have made to the Beatles. He wasn't just that floppy-haired guy sitting in the back. Ringo was really a tremendous politician and an incredibly hard worker; a real disciplinarian. He sticks at it and sticks at it until past the midnight hour. Music is about people, especially music played by a group of individuals. The chemistry is absolutely the key to the whole thing.
JAM: I want to paraphrase Robert Fripp. He said that King Crimson lived on in different bodies, and at different times, in the particular form to which the group changes. How do things like revolving personnel within a group affect the writing and to an extent, the hierarchy?
My personal view of King Crimson was this - there's only one real King Crimson - and it was the original band I was in. After that, it was Robert's versions of King Crimson, using the same name, but they were no where near the same band. They never made an album that will remain iconic in the way that In the Court of the Crimson King is held to this day. That's because of the people that were involved. That's because of the chemistry. It's not that anybody was so great individually. It's literally about the chemical reaction that happens when those people came together.
JAM: Almost to the tune of "the sum of the parts."
That's right. For instance, in the case of Emerson, Lake and Palmer, we're really not that great of musicians, well...maybe Keith is a really good musician, but Carl and I not very much. You could probably find a good bass player within ten miles of where I'm sitting.
JAM: I don't know about that!
(Laughs) But really, it was the chemistry of when all three of us got together. There was something special about it.
JAM: Almost like a good recipe.
Yes, that's exactly what it is. In simple terms, it's a recipe.
JAM: That brings me to something I've found fascinating about your era and genre. Over time, King Crimson, ELP and YES became cross-pollinated in terms of the friendships, the line-ups, etc. Did the musicians all work well together in those varied times, and combinations, because of the established respect for one another, the friendships, what was it? You don't see that in music anymore.
Well no, because music changed dramatically over the years. I suppose that was inevitable. Perhaps there are even some good things about it changing, but certainly there are some things that are lost. Music was far more a shared experience. It was something to share back in the days when I started. In those days you would buy an album and you'd sit around with your friends listening to this album together. Together you would get pleasure from listening to the music, then discussing it. You'd look at the album cover, read the credits; it was a shared experience. When the Sony Walkman came out, it became a solitary experience. That changed the way music was really listened to. It was no longer shared; it was now a solitary experience. In the same way the industry changed, the groups changed with it. It became much more of a business. Everything was now commercial and done for commercial reasons. When Emerson, Lake and Palmer made albums, we strongly resisted putting out singles. Now we did at times because we were kind of forced to by the label, but in a way we resisted it.
JAM: That could really be said of Pink Floyd, King Crimson, Genesis, ELP, Yes and others. All of you were brilliant musicians composing intricate composition that were anti-format at the time. You weren't putting out the three minute radio hits; you were making music for the music's sake, not necessarily for a market.
Yeah, the idea back then was originality. Being original had currency in the music business at that time. Look, any album you play from 1968 until say 1973 or 1974, any of them by the top artists, when you hear the music, you know who it is within the first three seconds. You instantly know Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd or ELP music. You know its Led Zeppelin. When you hear a record nowadays, it could be quite awhile before you know who it is you're listening to. However, that said, there currently are some phenomenons; some fantastic people out now. I was watching the Grammys and this young girl Adele; she's just a miracle really. I mean it's just a wonderful thing. It warms my heart to see someone like that come crashing through the music business and just lighting up everyone with unstoppable force. It goes to show you that you can't keep a good song down or a good singer down. This is the hope in music now, that these inspired young artists find a way to rebalance the business, so that it's able to be self sustaining. If the artists don't get paid and all we do is bootleg everything or it's a copy, there won't be any new music being made. On a pure musical front, it gladdens me to see there is great music still being made. I'm actually very keen on a guy called Brad Paisley. He's a fantastic country artist, lovely guitar player, great lyricist and a great writer.
JAM: Well maybe that could be the future country music hook up we were talking about earlier!
Yeah, me and Brad! (Laughs)
JAM: Talking about music today, you'll hear a cover band playing some of the more simple popular hits and that's great, nothing wrong with that. However, it's rare you'd hear someone even attempt to cover say Emerson, Lake & Palmer or King Crimson. I've only experienced it once, walking along the beach one night I heard "Karn Evil 9" just blasting on the boardwalk.
JAM: I walked over to the pavilion and there was a group named Deja, just nailing the song. I remember it vividly to this day because hearing something like that was so rare, and still is. The music of your era, the progressive rock movement, was it just too difficult for today's musicians to handle? Does the complexity involved in creating that particular music make it harder for it to "live on" years after it was made?
Oh, I think it is a tall order and it is a lot to learn, and hard to play. It truly is. Bands that accomplish it however, they feel great when they do it. Of course, they are a better band, better musicians for it, because they have accomplished something that was difficult. It's like when I was young. I would learn whatever it was, even Paganini violin solos. Once you'd learned it, you had accomplished something and were better for it; even richer for the experience. Then you turn around and apply that which you learned to your own music and that's what makes the new music have energy. I'd even say it's an informed energy. Now it's not a sheer pent up yelling kind of energy. It is actual knowledge. It's a way to create some excitement in the music, where perhaps before they didn't have that tool at their disposal.
JAM: Maybe that's why some people refer to it more as "a thinking man's music."
Well the only thing I don't like about that statement is that its not "better" music; it's not better than the blues, it's just different, more complicated. That doesn't make it better. For instance, classical music, I think ELP were, at least to some extent, responsible for making classical music accessible to younger people. Before ELP did Pictures at an Exhibition, classical music was really looked upon as something for the elite, something for clever people, not for your ordinary person. Now you get classical music on your cell phone, at sports game, or the Three Tenors in a stadium like a rock band. What I believe part of that was, maybe the embryo of it, was ELP doing Pictures at an Exhibition. At least that was partly it, you know?
JAM: Let's fast forward to 2012, your upcoming Songs of a Lifetime Tour. It's a brilliant title for what you're going to do. The title suggests you'll be performing not just songs of your lifetime, but of moments shared in the lifetimes of so many of your fans lives as well. Can you reflect on that a bit?
I just think what you said is important, the journey that we've shared together. What made me think of this really was writing my autobiography, which unsurprisingly is going to be called Lucky Man. It really sums up my life. As I'm writing it, these songs would pop up that were crucial to me, crucial to my life. They were pivotal moments, not just my songs, but other people's as well. They were tunes I would hear that would influence me and have a lasting impression. Just like you talked about Deja playing an ELP song earlier, I too benefited from these musical inspirations. It's just about the journey that I and the audience have been on together. Maybe not all of it together; you may find some of the audience was on the journey from 1969 until 1975. Others maybe from 1980 on, you know it depends. Some of course have indeed been on it all the way through.
JAM: Was there anything you wanted to particularly avoid?
I did not want to have a show, where it's been like all the other shows in my career, like "Ladies and gentlemen, Emerson, Lake and Palmer!" The crowd goes ‘rah', you jump on the stage, play your set and then you leave. That's okay, but it will be nice on this tour to actually talk to the audience and for them, if they want, to talk to me! It's not going to be an ongoing two way conversation, but they will have a chance to ask some questions and I will talk about why I did things the way I did, with stories that are poignant to certain songs. There will be some very surprising moments in the show. It's not going to be just me sitting on a stool with a guitar singing folk songs. It will be an intimate show, but it will be a celebration, with a real sense of sharing the last forty years journey together. Maybe we should serve hot dogs and some wine to celebrate having come down this long road together! (Laughs)
JAM: You seem to be looking forward to these intimate gatherings you're going to have.
I want to play for the audience songs that trigger those magic moments, those recollections, and those nostalgic moments of their lives attached hopefully to good things; maybe even bad things that they survived. There will be elements of surprise though that I do not want to give it away! I really just want it to be an intimate journey, because I feel it's a bit like a dream where you go from one song into the next. There are stories here and there, and two hours later the show is over and you feel like only a minute has passed. I will say though - no two shows will be the same!