Greg Lake: The Lucky Man

By Jeb Wright

When the topic of Prog Rock comes up, few bands can hold a candle to Emerson, Lake & Palmer. One band that does come to mind is King Crimson. Both ELP and King Crimson have one thing in common, their bass player and singer was Greg Lake.

Lake, originally a guitar player who loved 1950’s era Rock ‘n’ Roll was swept up into the world of Progressive Rock before the genre was officially born. With King Crimson he performed to over 600,000 fans opening for the Rolling Stones and while the band was short lived, a serendipitous situation led him to join forces with Keith Emerson in a hotel bar just hours after King Crimson’s final gig with the original lineup.


Jeb: I have heard you are planning a book and a very special tour in the USA.

Greg: I am just finishing off an autobiography. It is nothing high minded; it’s just the story of how I relate to music and the part that followed and the things that happened to me. I’ve tried to write it in a different way. Everybody saw the major things that happened in the bands I have been in, so I have tried to concentrate on the things behind the scenes, of interest – the things from behind the curtain, as it were.

Jeb: The highlights are well known but the true fan wants to know what happened off the stage, as well as on.

Greg: That is the idea of the book. I wanted to do something to promote the book and to make people aware of it. It’s not for everybody, but people who are interested in that period of music history would probably find it entertaining and interesting. In order to promote it, I decided to do a tour. I have always been tickled by the idea of doing a one man review. I suppose it is because I’m an acoustic player. I have always wanted to be able to sustain a show on my own. I thought it would be fun to do a tour called Songs of a Lifetime and play a selection of songs that have been very important to me over the course of my life.

Jeb: Your songs or any songs?

Greg: It will be my songs or other people’s songs that had a bearing on what I did. It will be half storytelling and half music. I will play some songs that I've written and other songs that influenced me. It is going to be the musical story of my life.

Jeb: Will you be playing acoustic guitar?

Greg: It will be mainly me on guitar but I may play some bass. I call it a one man show but in truth, I am going to have a pianist accompany me. I am going to have some musical special effects as well but essentially have the sense of an intimate one man show.

Jeb: Can we expect a DVD release?

Greg: I am sure we will record it. We will have special guests on certain nights. To be honest, I’m trying to make it where every show will be different so that each show will have a certain sense of originality to it. I may tell one story one night and another story another night. I want to make it different, for myself really, I don’t’ want to do the same thing every night. I’ve certainly got more material than I could possibly play. I can pick and choose and make it an exciting experience.

Jeb: Progressive Rock never had much intimacy between the musicians and the audience so that makes this very interesting.

Greg: When we got to playing those big arenas and stadiums, all intimacy, other than the music, doesn’t exist because the place is so large. It is something that I really did miss. I missed that sense of being able to touch, or even speak to, the person in the front row. I think it will be a lovely thing to be able to speak to the people in the audience and even let them ask questions. People have lived this with me. It really is something that we’ve done together and so I think it is very appropriate that they should be able to say something to me and I should be able to say something to them. I think that is the lovely thing about an intimate performance; you’re able to be very close to the people who’ve shared that journey with you.

Jeb: You did not come from a Prog Rock background. Before King Crimson you were a pop oriented musician.

Greg: Yes, my heritage was Rock ‘n’ Roll like Elvis and Little Richard. For many years, that is what I did. It was only when I came to King Crimson that I didn’t play that kind of music. With King Crimson, we decided that we wanted to do something different. The first thing that struck us was for us to not and try to be American. Most of the bands up to that point were taking their influences from American bands. We decided to stick to more European influences, which was our real first departure from the norm.

Jeb: Did you and Robert Fripp now each other before King Crimson?

Greg: Robert and I grew up together and went to the same guitar teacher. It ended up that because of that I knew everything that Robert would do, musically, and he knew everything that I would do.

Jeb: Robert had been failing before King Crimson.

Greg: He had a band called Giles, Giles and Fripp. It was a very strange band. It was sort of a half comedy thing. They really weren’t doing very well and they had to change direction or the record label was going to drop them, so that is when I came into the picture.

We had rather long discussions about what we were going to do and how we were going to do it.

In those days, there was a high value placed on originality. It was better to be different than it was to be normal or to fall into what the market wanted. You really wanted to be outside of that so you would work really hard to be original and to form your own identity. It is different today. You’re almost forced to be the same as the next person these days as the market is set to accommodate you only if you’re a conformist.

Jeb: Look at the music that would have been lost if it was that way when you were coming up.

Greg: And all of the characters – every five minutes there was a new character that was a complete individual. Think of Jimi Hendrix and Jethro Tull and others at the time. They were totally unique.

Jeb: When you joined Fripp had the name ‘King Crimson’ been chosen?

Greg: No, when I showed up we didn’t have a name for the band. We were just a group of really good musicians. We were also very strange concerning our background. For instance, Robert Fripp had never played in a band before. Ian McDonald had never played in a rock band, as he came from the military and had been in a military brass band. I was really the only one that came from a Rock ‘n’ Roll background. Mike Giles, the drummer, had been more of a jazz player. You had a jazz drummer, a Rock ‘n’ Roll lead singer and bass player, Robert on guitar and Ian playing a multitude of instruments. There was no semblance or sensibility of being in a rock group, which, in a way, was in our advantage in the end. We didn’t go down that normal road. Half the band didn’t even know what the normal stuff was. We sort of had an automatic originality.

Jeb: Some claim that the Crimson King is the Devil.

Greg: No, the name ‘King Crimson’ came from the track “In the Court of the Crimson King.” It was really as simple as that. The screaming man on the front cover is the schizoid man. It was just a fantasy.

The fantasy does have some prophetic truth to it, in some ways. When you listen to “21st Century Schizoid Man” today, there is a funny ring of truth about it. An artist called Kanye West used it in a track called “Power.” The hook of that is me singing the chorus.

There was a certain type of vision in the music of King Crimson, I suppose because it was original, it was uncharted territory. So to that extent it was futuristic, and to that extent it was progressive. I think that is the link to what happened and to why it was different.

Jeb: Why then did the original band last such a short time?

Greg: The real reason it didn’t last is because Ian and Mike didn’t like traveling; they didn’t like flying. They decided that they would rather just make records. Robert wanted to carry on with the band but I felt that when Ian and Mike left it was only half a band and it felt like too much to me. I didn’t want to just replace them with two other guys and call the band the same name. It wasn’t the same band and it wouldn’t be, for me, the same band. It was really over at that point.

Jeb: King Crimson skyrocketed to popularity out of nowhere.

Greg: I will tell you what happened. When we first formed the band, we were playing to two hundred people, if that. Two weeks later, we were playing to five hundred people, two weeks after that we were playing to two thousand people and two weeks after that we were playing to three quarters of a million people with the Rolling Stones. The rise of King Crimson was that rapid.

It was a very strange thing; it just happened. There was no paid publicity for the band. There was never one advert taking out or any promotion done, it was purely word of mouth.

Jeb: Yet it was only a year or less later that you played your last show at The Fillmore in California.

Greg: It wasn’t very long. We did a tour of the States right after the Hyde Park show that we did with the Stones. We only did one tour of America and it finished in San Francisco.

Jeb: Did you know that was your last show with King Crimson?

Greg: We did the tour and at the end of the tour Ian and Mike told us that they really didn’t like the traveling. Everybody was friendly about it; we still are to this day. It was one of the friendliest bands that you will ever meet, to this day. They just didn’t want to travel. It was the flying that they didn’t like. It wasn’t like it is today, back then. We flew in a lot of propeller planes booked on Sudden Death Airways.

Jeb: Keith Emerson was on the bill on the last King Crimson show at The Fillmore.

Greg: On the bill was King Crimson, The Nice and, believe it or not, The Chamber Brothers. After the show, Keith and I met up in the bar at the hotel, as musicians do. We just started chatting. I said, “What are you up to? “ He said, “I think I’ve taken The Nice as far as I can take it. I really want to do something else.” I said, “That’s interesting because my band has just broken up.” Keith said, “Maybe we could form a band.” We decided there and then that we would form a new band. Looking back on it, it was unbelievable. It was very natural at the time because he had come to the end of his band right as my band had broken up. He didn’t know what else to do with his current lineup to move forward. He’d come to a dead end and I’d come to a dead end. There we were, two dead end, washed up musicians in San Francisco. What do you do? You form a band!

Jeb: Legend holds that ELP was originally going to be called HELP and include Jimi Hendrix.

Greg: It’s almost true. When Keith and I got back to England, one of the first things we started to do was to look for a drummer. At that time, the Jimi Hendrix Experience had broken up and we got in touch with Mitch Mitchell. Mitch came over to my house and we started talking. He said, “Why don’t we get together with Jimi?” We said that we would do it.

I think that Jimi was in America playing with Band of Gypsies. We were scheduled to get together for a jam. What happened, I think, was that I must have got a call from Robert Stigwood, who was the manager of the BeeGees, Queen and others. He said, “I heard you’re looking for a drummer. I’ve got a guy who would be perfect named Carl Palmer. He’s a great drummer. He’s been working with The Crazy World of Arthur Brown and Atomic Rooster.” We called Carl and said, “Stigwood said you are really good and that you might want to try out for our band.” Carl said, “Yeah, I’d love to.” We got together with Carl and we had a play together and the band was instantly formed. The chemistry was obvious. All of a sudden we were in the same room – a tiny little room, actually, about the size of a McDonalds, and the room was just shaking. The energy level was so high. I remember we finished a song and everybody just laughed because it was just so obvious. It was locked up, powerful and fun. It sounded huge for three people and we knew that was it; that was the band. We decided, there and then, to form the band with Carl. Very sadly, a couple of weeks later, Jimi Hendrix was found dead of an overdose, so that never went any further. I don’t think it would have gone any further anyway. We were very happy with Carl.

Jeb: Plus when Mitch showed up to your house with armed body guards that didn’t go over well.

Greg: Mitch had a roadie with a gun, which did rather diminish his chances. It really wasn’t that so much as it was that Carl came into the picture and that he just fit in perfectly.

Jeb: Little did you know that you signed a deal with the lyrical devil to have to write words to crazy time signature for the next several years. I don’t know how you fit words into those songs. It is a testament to your talent.

Greg: It is very kind of you to say that and it did take some work. The thing that was difficult about it was to make it sound natural. It really isn’t natural to put words to those odd time signature. In a lot of instances, with ELP, I was singing over instruments, as a lot of that music was not song material. I made it song material because that is really what was needed. The reason I did that was because it was different and original.

“Karn Evil” is a very original song; you just won’t hear a song like that many times. It is really not a song at all, as it is really an instrumental piece, but I was able to put “Welcome back my friends…” over it. That song is really all about the music but when you are able to sing across that song then it becomes something very unusual.

Jeb: “Lucky Man” was a huge hit but you wrote that song years before ELP.

Greg: I wrote “Lucky Man” when I was twelve years old. My mother bought me a guitar and I learned four chords, which were D/G/Am and Em. I wrote the song with those four chords. I don’t really know what promoted me to do it as there was no reason for me to do it. I just did it and it stuck in my memory.

At the end of recording the first album with ELP, we were short one track and nobody had any more music written. I had “Lucky Man” from when I was twelve. Keith didn’t even want to record it. He heard it and he said that he didn’t know what he could even play on that. He went down to the pub and I made the record with Carl.

When we stared recording the song, it was just acoustic guitar and drums and it sounded pretty dreadful. Voice, acoustic guitar and drums is not a nice sound. When I put the bass on it then it started sounding like a song. I then put two more tracks of acoustic guitars on it and six tracks of vocal harmony and it really started to sound like a complete record. By the time Keith came back from the pub it was a finished song and he heard it. He said, “I’ve got to play on that.”

There really wasn’t any room for him to play on the song but there was room on the end for a solo. We had just taken delivery of the Moog Synthesizer. Bob Moog had just delivered to us what looked like to us then as a huge telephone switchboard. Keith had never played the thing before.

There is an effect on the Moog where the notes sweep between one and another. Keith was trying to figure out how long it took for him to sweep one note all the way up to another note. This swooping sound had never been heard on record before. As Keith was experimenting, I pressed the record button. What you’ve got is a recording of him experimenting. We stopped at the end of the song, where it fades out and collapse at the end. When it was done, Keith said, “Is it me or did that really sound great?” I said, “I think it sounded great, let’s play it back.” It was really happening, so I said to Keith, “You don’t need to experiment anymore because this is perfect.” Keith wasn’t having it at first as he was saying, “No, no I can do a much better one.” I said, “Keith, believe me, it’s perfect.” In the end, I went out into the studio and said, “Keith, I need you to come into the booth and listen to this. If you don’t like it then you can do another one.”

If we would have re-recorded it then we would have lost the one that we had, as there were not any more tracks available. It was either keep it or say goodbye to it. He ended up keeping it and it worked.

Jeb: There is a progression of a band feeling each album leading up to Brain Salad Surgery.

Greg: The first ELP album did not have an identity. It was the three of us coming together like a sort of collision. It wasn’t ELP. Just like on “Lucky Man” that was Greg Lake crashing into Keith Emerson. Some songs were more Keith crashing into me but somehow, it all came together.

In a way, it was like the first rehearsals with Carl. It was that initial coming together in a sort of effervescent way. It was like mixing chemicals together and seeing what boils over. The first album didn’t have any form, really. But after that, the albums began to take shape from an inventive point of view. They become conceptual and they had a definition and a character. You knew it was ELP; no one in the world sounded like ELP.

We had an identity and all of the great bands had that. When you hear Jimi Hendrix, you know it is him. ELP took that identity though those albums Tarkus, Trilogy and Brain Salad Surgery. Those albums were the, and I say this word with all of the humility that I can muster, masterpieces. After that, the band began to disintegrate when we started recordingWorks Volume I. When I say “disintegrate” I mean that it became fractured and people started going in their own directions. We each had a side on the album and it was no longer the band that made Tarkus, Trilogy and Brain Salad Surgery; it was a different band. In a way, it was the band that made the first album.

Jeb: The masterpieces were a vision of the sum being more important than the individual parts and by Works I, you literally broke it down to the individual parts.

Greg: I think that is a good way to describe it. Everyone was subordinate to the concept of the band on those three albums.

Jeb: Did the song “Still You Turn Me On” cause a problem in the band?

Greg: I wrote that song very consciously on a 12-string with the chords in mind. I had the idea for the line that is the name of the song. I recorded the song very quickly and Keith put a few small things on it but he didn’t put much on it. Atlantic Records wanted to release it as a single but Keith and Carl didn’t want to do that because they didn’t want another single that was acoustic and they didn’t want to establish that as being what the band was about. They didn’t want us to be a singles band. I think if it had been released as a single then it would have been a huge hit.

Jeb: Looking back, why did ELP have to break up? Why couldn’t you guys stick it out?

Greg: I don’t know. At the end, you could say it was egos, maybe. I always felt there was jealously in the band and that sort of tension. All of the bands that became really huge seemed to have that same sort of interaction within them. They all fell out with each other. There was always a boiling pot of something that was waiting to boil over. I suppose it’s because all of the people involved are strong characters.

For me, I can only speak for myself, I can’t speak for Keith or Carl, I always thought the collective energy of ELP was something really great and worth preserving. I couldn’t see any reason why we couldn’t do things on our own on the side. There was the freedom to do that but I think it became something that was hard to live with for Keith.

Jeb: After Love Beach, a lot of fans said,” What is this?”

Greg: I was one of them. I did not produce that album. We really wanted to stop before making that. We were kind of forced to make that album, really.

Jeb: I want to jump forward to the reunion show that you did. You guys, on that DVD, look happy.

Greg: There was a certain amount of nostalgia about it. What it was, was the band reliving the good part of ELP. We just literally played the greatness of ELP. We tried to replicate that and there was none of the bullshit involved. It was done for the right reasons.

Jeb: In your mind, can you see any new music coming from ELP?

Greg: I very much doubt it. It is sad, really, as all three of us are still alive. There isn’t the kind of spiritual well-being that is needed to bring us back together to share in a musical vision.

A couple of years ago, Keith and I got together and did a bit of writing in my studio and there is some lovely stuff, but I just don’t think it will happen. However, I’ve been wrong too many times in the past to say, “never say never.” You never know because people do have revelations and then see things in a different way. My answer would be, I doubt it but you never know.

Jeb: Do ELP have anything left, musically, to say?

Greg: The basis for the motivation, the honest feeling that there is music to be shared together is what is necessary and that is what is missing. If you put three guys in a room who don’t really want to be there and don’t really want to make music – they can be the most talented people there are – but if they don’t want to be there then there is not much you can do to light that fire. If three complete novices go into a room and they really want to make music then give them a guitar, a set of drums and a bass and great things may come because the will is there and they want to do it. That is what is missing with ELP.