GREG LAKE: STILL ONE LUCKY MAN

As Neil Young once sang, “It’s better to burn out, than to fade away.”

And ol’ Neil was dead on, the life and career of a rock and roll star always seems to take one of two paths.

One is arguably the more common road:  the rock star gets famous, then as they get older, and as they desperately cling to the lingering remnants of glory days past, the bygone aura they try to reproduce never measures up to what it once was. They can even slowly lose their chops and things begin to disintegrate, no one really cares, and they sadly fade away into oblivion. Sad, but all too true.

Or something special happens. The rock star stays dynamic and active into their later years, their chops remain intact and even improve, they find ways to positively collaborate with their equally legendary peers, they accept their place in rock history and embrace their legacy and actually capitalize on it, and their fans, well, they show that they really do care about the music. It’s rare, but it does happen.

That kind of rock star in scenario two is Greg Lake. To borrow from the most famous song he ever wrote as a member of prog rock gods Emerson, Lake and Palmer, oh what a lucky man Lake is, even forty-plus years after he began his illustrious career. During a recent long chat from London, the amicable and engaging  64-year-old Lake sounded vital, vibrant, excited and ready to go full speed ahead on his soon-to-begin “Songs Of A Lifetime” tour, which hits The Birchmere on April 24th and will joyously celebrate music from his King Crimson and ELP days while he also shares stories and anecdotes from his storied past.

“Part of the reason that I’m doing this,” Lake told me in his perfectly prototypical English rock star accent, “is that I’m just coming to the end of writing my autobiography, and I don’t want to be too high-minded about it but it’s the story of my life, and it’s been quite a remarkable life in a lot of ways.  When I was writing all of this, as I was going through, I noticed certain songs would come up, and they were pivotal to my life and my career.  And it occurred to me that all of these together would make an interesting concert.  And it’s not just my songs, but songs that other people had written and recorded as well.  And each song has a story attached to it. So that was the idea for the tour we’re calling ‘Songs Of A Lifetime.’”

Lake will also seek out involvement from his crowds on the tour because he clearly realizes that his  career has only been possible thanks to the fans that he has gathered over, lo, these many years. It’s an adept  realization that only the most self-aware musicians truly understand.

“I’ll give the audience a chance to participate because this is a journey that I was only able to take because they made it possible. It’s a journey we’ve shared. People often come up to me and say things like, ‘Oh Greg, Brain Salad Surgery (ELP’s classic gold record from 1973) got me through college.’ So this particular show is something I wanted to do, partly to coincide with the book, but partly because I wanted a chance to share, in the most personal way, the journey we went on together. ”

Lake’s illustrious career remains one of rock’s most stratospheric and successfully long lasting even amidst some typical bumps in the road most rock and roll paths often contain. He met keyboardist Keith Emerson first in the early 70’s while in the groundbreaking prog rock ensemble King Crimson, and then shortly afterward, the pair was introduced to drummer Carl Palmer by legendary music impresario Robert Stigwood.  Shortly after, in a simple London flat, ELP was born.

“[Stigwood] said, ‘Just give [Palmer] a try, I’m sure you’ll like him.’ So a day or two later, we rented a little room in SoHo in London, it was almost like the front room of someone’s house. We put the gear in there and we played, and instantly, we knew that the chemistry was right. The room just lit up, and the music was electrifying. It was obvious to all three of us that this was the band.“

So why did bands like King Crimson and ELP take their sound in a new and largely uncharted progressive rock direction, rather than the more hard rock genre that many bands of the day had become successful at? Simple, really…to be different and get noticed.

“At that time, the currency in the music business was originality. You needed to be original and different to stand out. In those days if you were to play an album by any of the great artists of the time – Hendrix, the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull, you name it – in three seconds of playing the record,  you would know who you were listening to. They all had an identity and a personality. And King Crimson realized that we needed to be different. And we also realized that most bands looked to America and to American musical roots for their inspiration: the blues, country-western, gospel. We decided that we’d be better off to look in a different place, and that place was in European classical music, basically. Our roots were more European than they were American. And that was the real difference in how progressive rock music developed. It wasn’t using those same 12 bar formats, we were using the influence of classical music, which was many different things and had elements that were not at all related.  So you had music which had no form, effectively.  And people called it progressive because it really didn’t have a bag you could put it into.  It wasn’t one of the normal forms of rock music. And despite what some may think, it did have a huge influence on rock music in the latter part of the 20th century. People still write to me, people like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, they’re huge fans. “

From the beginning, the expectations for ELP were huge given the talent assembled. And the band lived up to those expectations from the start and kept their “Fanfare For The Common Man” going for a highly successful yet relatively short period of time.

“ELP was a different matter than King Crimson because when ELP first started, the moment we started, we were labeled with this title of supergroup, because Keith and I had come from well-known bands. It felt as though we were the sort of ‘sons of famous fathers’, born with the silver spoon in our mouths, but that was far from the truth. Both Keith and I spent years and years on the road – the term used is ‘paying your dues.’ And we certainly paid ours. But when it came to ELP, it was almost as if the band were a success before it played a note, which really wasn’t the truth. The people decide whether you’re going to be popular or not, and they liked us and that was the end of it.”

The place where ELP really broke into the stratosphere was the legendary Isle of Wight Festival in 1970, where a who’s who of the day gathered a year after Woodstock in one of rock and roll’s first true large festival settings. And ELP blew the massive crowd away and were on their way to superstardom.

ELP in their rock god hey day (L-R: Keith Emerson, Greg Lake, Carl Palmer)

“Anybody who was anybody was playing at that festival  – The Who, Jimi, everybody.  And we got up on the stage and it just went very, very well. There were three hundred thousand people who all  stood up and it was undeniable. We realized that we cracked it when we walked off the stage. The next day, we were the front page of every newspaper you could imagine, we were world famous. It wasn’t that we’d come from nowhere all of a sudden, of course it wasn’t an overnight thing. We’d worked hard for years building up our careers with King Crimson and [Emerson’s band] The Nice, and  eventually we ended up with ELP. And once we had exploded, it was only a couple of years until we were playing 60,000 seat stadiums.”

A short anecdote of those rare formative days that might pop up on Lake’s upcoming tour talks about some of those aforementioned soon-to-be-legendary British bands of the day meeting up at a classic English roadside hangout at all hours…well, let him tell about it. You can just imagine what that must have been like.

“There was a motorway restaurant, a truck stop, called The Blue Boar on the M1, and that’s where all the bands used to stop on their way going north or south on tour at the time. You could stop in there at three o’clock in the morning, and you would always see The Who, The Stones, The Small Faces, us, other famous bands, everyone would be there, it was incredible. They’d all be coming back from Liverpool, Manchester, and that’s where we all used to eat.”

After a string of gold records and worldwide fame for ELP led to more huge crowds, including almost 200,000 at the big California Jam concert in 1974, tensions in the band largely due to a disagreement on the direction they would take caused ELP to take a two year hiatus even though they were enjoying immense popularity and financial success.

“Just prior to us recording Works Volume I, I think Keith felt that he had blown every chord in his head. I think he felt that he done everything he could with synthesizers, within the confines of a three-piece band. We had escalated the show, each time we came back to play a tour it would be bigger, it would be more dramatic, we ended up at one point with eleven tractor trailers on the road. 140 people. The show was massive, it was enormous. Today you see shows like that with bands like U2, but back then, that was a really pioneering thing to do. And we reached a point where we just didn’t know what to do next, I think was the truth of it. And Keith had the feeling that the way to go was symphonic, he was hell-bent on doing a piano concerto. So we decided to go down the orchestral route, and I think in a way it was the beginning of the end of the [original] period of ELP. The early albums had something special about them in a sort of fantasy way that was not there on any subsequent album.”

After recording the classic double LP Works Volume I and then embarking on what turned out to be an ill-fated and financially disastrous heavily orchestral tour, ELP broke up for the first time after their next album Love Beach was released. Lake grows a bit wistful when he talks about his wish back then that the band could have held it together amidst the growing discord.

“Personally, I really would have liked to have continued and tried to face the challenge of finding a way to make another record in the same way as we had made Trilogy, Brain Salad Surgery, Tarkus. These albums were really fantasy records, and I personally never tire of making that sort of music.”

In subsequent years, Lake did a brief stint in the British supergroup Asia, recorded some well-received solo material and collaborated in the studio with some of his peers, and even reunited with Emerson for an album and tour as Emerson-Lake. Palmer joined his two former bandmates and the original lineup briefly regrouped in the early 90’s for two albums and a tour, but soon after, old issues arose and ELP dissolved again, returning one last time in 2010 with another final ELP appearance at a British festival and an unplugged Emerson-Lake tour following that as their swan song, at least for now.

Lake on tour with Ringo Starr and his All-Starr Band

In addition to the brief ELP & EL reunions, Lake’s life in the 21st century has been charmed, with highlights like playing in Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band (“he’s such a great guy and that band was lovely”), recording with The Who (“that was a strange experience”) and jamming onstage with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra and Jethro Tull among others. He has also headlined benefits with Roger Daltrey and Robert Plant for the Teenage Cancer Trust.

And yes, sure, it’s a stock question, but what would be Lake’s favorite ELP song, especially to play live? I think you know his answer, but maybe not everything about it’s history.

“Well, I love playing Lucky Man, just because it was such an unforeseen hit. But it was a throwaway. I’d written this sort of medieval minstrel song when I was just a young kid, I was 12 years old when I wrote it. And I wrote it about this sort of medieval knight or very wealthy person, you know, what a lucky man he was. But then, the irony was that he got in a fight, and he died.  And so, how lucky was he, really? And the strange thing was the song started to take on all kinds of interpretations, people would even put parallels on it to the war in Vietnam. But it was written in a very naïve way. “

Deep down, Greg Lake mostly appreciates just being on the planet, let alone being able to play his classic music for those who love it. And that kind of appreciation of life and music is something that comes through strikingly when talking to him, and is sure to come through on his upcoming “Songs Of A Lifetime” tour.

“I’m grateful to be alive. I value each day, highly. The older you get, the more you do. And now, it’s coming to the end of that career really, hopefully not too soon, but I know I won’t be able to play forever. I’m grateful for a fantastic career.  But in the end, music is a spiritual thing. It comes from the soul of one person, it passes through the air, into the soul of another person. And that’s what’s great about music, I think it’s all about intent. If you’re sincere about what you’re doing and you play it with passion and feeling, it’s received with passion and feeling. That’s really the essence of it. And if I lost that, I’d stop playing.“

Advertisements

6 Responses to “GREG LAKE: STILL ONE LUCKY MAN”

  1. Fantastic interview–what a great show too! It was a pleasure talking with you last evening! Hope you enjoyed meeting Greg!

    • midliferocker Says:

      Just read this comment finally BJ, thank you! It was a thrill to talk to Greg for the interview, what a nice guy. The meet and greet line was a bit long so when I finally got up there they really hurried me through. But he did sign my copy of Brain Salad Surgery!

      Best,
      Steve

  2. Really great writing and interview. I’m speaking with Greg in a few days, and you’ve set the bar wonderfully high, my friend 🙂

    • midliferocker Says:

      Just read this comment Tony, thank you very much, that means alot coming from another journalist. Please send me the link to your piece. Was fun meeting him briefly after the show too, he put on a great one, what amazing songs.

      All the best in rock and roll.
      Steve

  3. Lou Gubrious Says:

    Still, you turn me on….

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: