May 27, 1997
by Gary James
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 Wright 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 (did we ever!) to Greg Lake recently about a career that reads like Rock 'n Roll history.
Q: Greg, I know your manager is in Rochester, New York, but what are you
A: I'm actually songwriting.
Q: Is that where you live now?
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, there still is an Emerson, Lake and Palmer?
A: There is, yes.
Q: You're planning to tour South America and Europe?
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: You're also working on a solo project?
A: Yeah. I'm writing songs for a solo album.
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 of acoustic songs in E.L.P., which were more sort of relevant to me perhaps than the band.
Q: I'll tell you when I realized E.L.P. was famous, and that was when a
segment appeared on the group on the eve of your first concert tour of America,
on the C.B.S. Evening News. When did you first realize you were famous?
A: To be honest with you, both Keith Emerson and myself and to some extent Carl Palmer all come out of quite well-known bands. E.L.P. 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 E.L.P. played was actually a concert at the Isle of Wright in England which was a huge festival, one of the first really big festivals. It had Janis Joplin, Hendrix, The Who, The Doors. E.L.P. 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 super-group label. Unlike most bands where you get a chance to develop a bit before you got really thrust in the public arena, E.L.P. was sort of instantly out there. The band was really under the focus of public scrutiny from the moment of its 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 lend to that kind of thought. Firstly, E.L.P. 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, for instance, 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 the 12 bar thematic sound, some people presumed that to be pretentious. All I can say about that is everybody is entitled to their opinion. Generally speaking, what happened is it became kind of fashionable in the press to knock E.L.P. However, despite that, the people, 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 were down on E.L.P.
A: Yeah, it was sort of a love us, hate us thing. Some people just loved E.L.P. 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 fickle basically and that they will jump on to pretty much any bandwagon that they're offered up. In this case, E.L.P. 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's 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. When that criticism really happened was in the late 70's, early 80's, when the record industry was searching for some other way to sell records. They really invented, divisively, punk and brought that whole movement of punk through and of course have been struggling with different tags and definitions ever since that time. I've lost count of what it is today. What is it today? Alternative? Garage? Grunge? What is it called today? I don't know. But, they struggle desperately to put labels on these things. When E.L.P. started, the question was, how original could you be? When I look around at the bands of the day, they were all absolutely original: Hendrix, Zeppelin, E.L.P., The Moody Blues. 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 then by visionaries and entrepreneurs rather than by lawyers and accountants now. They believe that what sells, will sell, and they base it on passive market research. They go out and ask people what they like to eat, they say beans, and they say give them more beans. And so the diet becomes monotone. That I think did a disservice to music. There was a value I think in always looking for the next original thing. It encourages 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: Who came up with the name Emerson, Lake and Palmer? Why weren't you named
after an object?
A: Because we'd come out of these 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: At that Isle of Wright Festival were people like Bob Dylan and Jimi
Hendrix. I'm just curious, did you get the chance to speak to Jimi Hendrix and
what kind of a guy was he?
A: Jimi was a very quiet person. Very quiet and reserved. Very sort of loving guy really. Quite different from the image one has of him as a guitar- throwing, screaming wild man. It wasn't what he was like at all. He was just a very loving, peaceful character.
Q: You started playing with local bands at the age of 12. What kind of place
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 came 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, right? That's a much more sort of family concept than a bar. A bar in the States tends to be sort of young people, generally a male climate, and it's got sort of a harder edge to it. In England, pubs were where families went, not so much kids, but a man and his wife.
Q: How fortunate were you to be in a band at a time when you didn't have to
compete with multiplex theaters, cable tv, video rental stores, and amusement
A: Then, bands were new. Bands were exciting. Now, they're passe. A band in a bar, is just a band in a bar now. Like everything I suppose, it has its days.
Q: How successful was King Crimson when you were in the band?
A: Well, in terms of actual number of people attending concerts, it was relatively small. But, it was explosive in terms of its 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 then. 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: Why do you feel your 1977 world tour didn't generate enough ticket sales
to support an entourage of 115 people? Was the show too big for that time
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 3-piece band. There was something about the band on its 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: Critics would say that one of the reasons ELP really took off is because
of your acoustic ballads. Do you believe that?
A: Only partially. I think "Lucky Man," "From The Beginning, songs like that got onto the radio and that opened up a whole dimension for us of being able to be played on the radio. But, a lot of people came to see the band because it was a great live band. From the point of view, I think E.L.P. would've been successful without those songs. It's hard to say really.
Q: How difficult was it to suddenly be on your own after having been part of
such a successful group?
A: Very difficult. After a lifetime of being in high profile bands, all of a sudden there is 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 discrimination. Being in a band like E.L.P. 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 lucky. I found a really good bunch of players to work with.
Q: You say, "my focus now is to return to writing good, well-structured songs
with thought-provoking lyrics." Do you think the public wants thought-provoking
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 listening of the song that switches on the light. A good lyric is something that is said simply, but has that energy that when listeners hear 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 could 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 thought 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.
Editor's note: Gary James files his interviews from Syracuse, NY.