Gary James' Interview With Greg Lake Of
Emerson, Lake And Palmer
Greg Lake has certainly earned his place in Rock 'n Roll History. As a member of the late 60's rock group, King Crimson and of course the legendary Emerson, Lake and Palmer trio, Greg Lake's reputation was firmly established. Their music is still going strong some 27 years later, after a debut at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970!
To celebrate this fact, Rhino Records has released a two CD career retrospective titled "From The Beginning: The Greg Lake Retrospective." We talked to Greg Lake recently about a career that reads like Rock 'n Roll history.
Q - Greg, I realize your manager is in Rochester, N.Y., but what are you doing there?
A - I'm actually songwriting.
Q - Do you now call Rochester, N.Y home?
A - Well, in a way. I've just got so many friends here - music-related people. My equipment is still here. It's just become a place that's easy to work in. I'm here from time-to-time really. I don't live here. I have a home in London. I just rent a house when I'm here.
Q - As we talk now, (1997) is there still an Emerson Lake and Palmer?
A - There is, yes.
Q - You're planning to tour South America and Europe?
A - Yes.
Q - Why were those two areas of the world selected?
A - Because the last tour we did was in the United States and we hadn't played in Europe for many years, so we decided it was about time to go there.
Q - What is this "Greg Lake Retrospective" on Rhino Records all about?
A - It's actually a retrospective of all the songs throughout my career which has been through King Crimson, various solo albums I've had, and all of the sort if acoustic songs in ELP which were more sort of relevant to me perhaps than the band.
Q - You're also working on a solo project?
A - Yeah. I'm writing songs for a solo album.
Q - How difficult was it to be suddenly on your own after having been part of such a successful group like ELP?
A - Very difficult. After a lifetime of being in high profile bands, all of a sudden there's a feeling of disorientation. Interestingly enough, there are very few people who've come out of successful bands who've really sustained solo careers. It is a very difficult thing to do. I'm not quite sure why that is, whether it's because of the previous identity or simply because the artist in question just feels that degree of disorientation. Being in a band like ELP is such a committed thing, totally committed. As soon as it stops, there's this huge void. If the band goes on long enough, it's hard to re-trace where you were before that, if you see what I'm saying. So it was a very strange experience. But, I was very lucky, I found a really good bunch of players to work with.
Q - I'll tell you when I realized ELP was famous and that was when a segment appeared on the group on the eve of your first concert tour of America on the CBS Evening News. When did you realize you were famous?
A - To be honest with you, both Keith Emerson and myself, and to some extent Carl Palmer all came out of quite well-known bands. ELP was pretty much instant success, which is not wholly a good thing. Keith came from a group called The Nice and back in the late 60's, it was a very popular band as was the original King Crimson. The first time ELP played was actually a concert at the Isle of Wight in England which was a huge festival, one of the first really big festivals. It had Janis Joplin, Hendrix, The Who, The Doors. ELP played and of course the press of the world were there. It was sort of one of those overnight star things. (Laughs). The problem is, we got tagged with this supergroup label. Unlike most bands, you get a chance to develop a bit before you get really thrust in the public arena. ELP was sort of instantly out there. The band was really under the focus of public scrutiny from the moment of it's inception. There's a good side to that because you're instantly recognized. People take notice and listen to your records and that's obviously an advantage. The disadvantage is you don't get time to do your developmental stuff before you're the subject of all kinds of scrutiny, which was o.k. but, it did bring us into a lot of criticism later in our career.
Q - Like the time critics asked "How do you spell pretentious? Emerson, Lake and Palmer". Did that kind of thing bother any of the guys in the group?
A - It used to. (Laughs). There's a few circumstances that led to that kind of thought. Firstly, ELP is quite different from most rock bands in the sense that its musical roots are from European music. We didn't draw from the blues as most rock bands do. They're essentially blues based music. Because we were playing some classical pieces, because the band didn't have the usual sort of sound to it, a sort of 12 bar thematic sound, some people presumed that to be pretentious. All I can say about that is everybody's entitled to their opinion. Generally speaking, what happened is, it became kind of fashionable in the press to knock ELP. However, despite that, the fans of the band would flock to the concerts. So you had this strange situation of where we were being criticized in the music press, but loved by the fans.
Q - Not all the press was negative though.
A - Yeah, it was sort of a love us, hate us thing. Some people just loved ELP and found it intriguing because it was different. Other people just rejected it because it had this sort of slightly classical overtone. We cared about how the fans responded. That was the people we made the music for. We knew then, as we know now, that the press is basically fickle and will jump onto pretty much any bandwagon that they're offered up. In this case, ELP was an easy target. But, you know what? There may be some truth in it. Maybe the band is a little pretentious. I don't really care. We made music that we thought was good and believed in, and felt people would enjoy. I think over the course of our career, that proved to be the case. I also think that the way we made the music is one of the reasons we have a fan base today and why we can still go out all over the world playing concerts. The band was never based on fashion or vogue. It was just the music. That criticism really happened in the late 70's, early 80's, when the record industry was searching for some other way to sell records. They really invented punk and that whole movement, struggling with different tags and definitions ever since that time. I've lost count of what it is today. Is it Alternative? Garage? Grunge? I don't know. But, they struggle desperately to put labels on these things. When ELP started, the question was, how original could you be? When I look around at the bands of the day, they were all absolutely original - The Moody Blues, Zeppelin, Hendrix, ELP. All of these bands as soon as they started playing, within 10 seconds, you would know who that band was. I think what happened is, the music business was taken over by lawyers and accountants, rather than by visionaries and entrepreneurs. They believe that what sells will sell and they base it on passive market research. That I think did a disservice to music. There was a value I think in always looking for the next original thing. It encouraged people to keep breaking through the barriers of discovery and looking for new things to write about. Now it seems like it's more or less a repetition of the same thing.
Q - How fortunate you were to have been in a band, at a time when you didn't have to compete with multiplex theatres, cable, TV and video rental stores.
A - Then bands were new. Bands were exciting. Now, there just passé. A band in a bar is just a band in a bar. Like everything I suppose, it has its day.
Q - Critics have said one of the reasons ELP really took off is because of your acoustic ballads. Do you share that view?
A - Only partially. I think "Lucky Man", "From The Beginning", and songs like that got onto the radio and that opened up a whole dimension for us, to be played on the radio. But, a lot of people came to see the band because it was a great "live" band. From that point of view, I think ELP would've been successful without those songs.
Q - Who came up with the name Emerson, Lake and Palmer? Why weren't you named after something, like The Doors, or The Zombies?
A - Because we'd come out of those well-known bands. I think we did at one stage try to think of a name for the band and everything we thought of just seemed wrong. In the end nobody could think of a name that everyone thought was appropriate or right. We ended up saying why don't we call it after ourselves? Because, that's really what it was. There was some uncomfortable feeling about calling it a name.
Q - Maybe Carl Palmer wanted it Palmer, Lake and Emerson?
A - Maybe. (Laughs). Well, it was just alphabetical. I'll tell him that. At one time before we had Carl Palmer, we talked with a drummer called Mitch Mitchell. He was the drummer for Jimi Hendrix. Mitch suggested we get together with Jimi and play and see if there would be any chance of forming a band, with the four of us. And of course that would've been called HELP. (Laughs).
Q - You must've met Hendrix at the Isle of Wight Festival. What kind of a guy did you find him to be?
A - Jimi was a very quiet person. Very sort of loving guy really. Quite different from the image one has of him as a guitar-throwing, screaming wild man. He was just a very loving, peaceful character.
Q - Why do you feel your 1977 World Tour didn't generate enough ticket sales to support an entourage of 115 people? Was the show just too big for that time period?
A - It did in fact generate ticket sales. It was just that the expenses doubled them. The expenses at the time as I seem to recall were $300,000 a week. And, although we were selling out the concerts, we just lost an awful lot of money from doing it. Because we played so many shows as an electronic three-piece band and we were constantly trying to improve what we were doing and trying to take it up a level, we thought this orchestral tour would be something different and really stunning to do, and it was in a way. From the public standpoint, I think they actually preferred the three-piece band. There was something about the band on it's own, which was lost in the context of having an orchestra with it. But, it got financially out of hand, and we just had to stop it.
Q - How successful was King Crimson when you were in the band?
A - Well, in terms of actual numbers of people attending concerts, it was relatively small. But, it was explosive in terms of it's impact. The band became very popular very fast without any promotion. It was just word of mouth. Smart record company promotion wasn't even thought of by them. I just remember the band playing its first concerts to 200 people, within 3 weeks we were playing to 1,500 people. It went like wildfire really. The band only lasted a year. I'm very happy to say that that first album is still on the racks today.
Q - You started playing with local bands at the age of 12. What kind of places did you perform in? You couldn't have been playing in bars, could you?
A - Yes. Bars. Boys Clubs. Village Halls. Anywhere we could play, we played. In England, you're not allowed to drink at 12 obviously. But, where I come from, the nearest policeman would've been 10 miles away, so it didn't really matter. (Laughs). It just was such a new thing to have groups playing in bars. In England you have pubs. That's much more of a family concept than a bar. A bar in the States tends to be sort of younger people, generally a male clientele, and it's got sort of a harder edge feel to it. In England, pubs were where families went. Not so much kids, but a man and his wife.
Q - You say, "My focus now is to return to writing good, well-structured songs with thought-provoking lyrics." Do you really think the public wants thought-provoking lyrics?
A - I don't think people know what they want until they hear it. I don't think they want a lot of soap box oratory. I think what they want is lyrics that are honest. Lyrics to me are like electricity in that you can't see electricity. It's only when you switch on the light that you see what it is. In that sense, I think lyrics are similar. It's the listener of the song that switches on the light. A good lyric is something that is said simply but has that energy that when a listener hears it, it has a meaning for them. I think a good lyric has a universal meaning for anybody. I don't think it should be something that only smart people can understand. I think it is simply a lyric that communicates. But, I am sick of "You and me Babe." When I think about songs like "Imagine", now that's a meaningful song. That's the sort of song if I could, I'd love to write. You can only write relationship songs so long. There's enough relationship songs in the world already. I always struggle to find some unusual twist in something.
Q - Could you write a song that would start a new dance craze?
A - I've never though of doing that. (Laughs). It's an interesting concept. I once wrote a Christmas song and it still gets played today. But you know, I didn't sit down and say, I'll write a Christmas song. I wrote this thing and said, what is it? And then it occurred to me it was a Christmas song. And so, I think it's a question of fate. Songs flow through you rather than you invent them. At least, that's the way I think the best songs happen.
© Gary James. All rights reserved.