As a co-founder of King Crimson, Greg Lake is without a doubt one of the inventors of progressive rock. His voice powers classics like “In the Court of the Crimson King” and “21st Century Schizoid Man” (recently sampled by Kanye West on “Power”), and as the frontman of the Seventies prog supergroup Emerson, Lake and Palmer he wrote, sang and produced hits including “Lucky Man” and “From the Beginning.”
Despite these accomplishments, Lake has never gotten much critical acclaim. His key role in the development of King Crimson is often overlooked, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer are perhaps the least respected of the progressive rock giants – and that’s really saying something. Many of the original punk bands pointed to them as the main reason their revolution had to happen, mocking everything from their stage outfits to their massive light shows to their very name.
Keith Emerson, Greg Lake and Carl Palmer don’t get along very well these days, and they’ve only managed a single concert in the past decade. Lake tours on his own, performing the one-man show Songs of a Lifetime. It features music from his days in King Crimson, ELP and his solo career. In a unique twist, he invites fans onstage to share their memories of the songs. He also has an autobiography coming out called Lucky Man.
We spoke to Greg Lake about the early days of King Crimson, the fall of ELP, his desire to reunite with both acts, getting sampled by Kanye West, and why he feels that punk isn’t real music.
Why did you decide this was a good time to both write an autobiography and do a one-man career retrospective show?
Because I’m old. [Laughs] Really, I was writing my book and I thought to myself, “Most people have some story attached to the songs they hold dear.” They were at a certain place where they met their girlfriend, or somebody even died, perhaps. They link it in some way, or they find comfort in some piece of music. It struck me that I have stories about these songs. I thought, “What a good idea it would be to create some sort of environment where we could play these songs and exchange these stories.” That was the hub of the idea.
I was determined to not make it one of those shows where you just sit on a stool and just strum folk songs all night. I really wanted it to be a dynamic show. There are moments that are very loud and intense, and there are moments that are really beautiful and placid.
Strangely enough, one of the best parts is listening to the audience themselves. It’s like a rollercoaster some nights. Some people have the place in tears, and five minutes later everybody is laughing.
I want to go back a bit here and talk about your past. First off, why do you think the original King Crimson broke up so quickly after the first album? The whole thing was so brief.
Yes, that’s right. We were only together, the original King Crimson, for one album and one tour. The tour went around England and it also went to the United States. When we reached the end of the tour in the U.S.A, Mike Giles, the drummer and Ian McDonald, who would play flute, Mellotron and saxophone, they decided they didn’t much enjoy life on the road. I think they particularly didn’t like flying, and they just didn’t like travel and the whole hectic life on the road.
They decided to work in the studio exclusively. I think perhaps that the Beatles, making that same decision, influenced them, in a way. They saw the Beatles back off from live gigs and go into the studio. I suppose they thought that was maybe a thing to do.
Anyway, that was their decision. Robert Fripp, who I grew up with . . . we even went to the same guitar teacher. We were old friends, and he wanted to continue on with King Crimson. I just didn’t feel good about it because Ian, particularly, wrote a lot of the material. Also, Mike was a great drummer. They were so fundamental in the makeup and the chemistry of the band. I just didn’t feel it was honest to get two new people in and pretend that nothing had happened.
I said to Robert, “If you want to form a new band, I’m happy to do that. But I just don’t feel comfortable carrying on with the name King Crimson.” He said, “Well, do you mind if I do that?” I said, “No, no, no, no, not at all. If you want to do it, that’s fine.” So that’s what Robert did.
Strangely enough – and this was an absolute coincidence – on the night this happened, King Crimson was playing at the Fillmore West in San Francisco. This is one of the few things I can remember clearly from that period. We were on the bill with the Chambers Brothers and a group called the Nice, who had Keith Emerson on keyboards. We were all booked in the same hotel, and after the show I went down to the bar and met Keith Emerson.
I started talking to Keith, and he said, “How’s King Crimson going? I hear you’re doing real well.” I said, “Well, sadly, Keith, it’s come to an end. You know, the two boys . . . ” I explained the story to him. He said, “Strangely enough, I’ve reached the end with the Nice. I just can’t take it any further. I’ve done everything I can. I feel limited now.”
So anyway, that was the beginning of ELP, on that very same night. It’s very weird, but there you go. Strange things happen sometime.s Music and the music business is sort of very fortuitous. It’s very circumstantial.
That first King Crimson album really changed the world. When you were making it, did you realize you were making something really bold and different?
It’s a strange thing to say, but I have to tell you I did feel that way. We did feel it as a group. We knew the chemistry was unusual, and the reason we knew that is because when the band played live we really shocked people. I think that was the case because up until that time, the music they heard was essentially United States-inspired. The influences had been drawn from blues, gospel, country and western, jazz, early rock & roll, Motown. These were the influences of rock at the time.
It was a very strange thing to hear a rock band taking their influences from European music, as King Crimson did. I mean, I didn’t sing with a mid-Atlantic accent. I sang with a British accent. The music of King Crimson was drawn almost exclusively based on more European structures. It wasn’t the three-minute single. It wasn’t basic blues-riff music. This was using very different harmonic components, different structures, so it wouldn’t be verse, chorus, verse, verse, chorus, verse, verse, chorus. The structures were individual and not necessarily any given or prescribed length.
The sheer lineup of the band, too, was unusual. Ian on flute, and just having a Mellotron. The other interesting thing about the band is that it was more orchestral. It wasn’t like the Moody Blues, sort of mild and gentle and symphonic. It was intense. Things like “21st Century Schizoid Man” would literally scare people.
Then suddenly there’s Yes and Genesis and all these other prog bands. You guys really kicked off so much music in the Seventies.
I drew influences from people as well. That’s how musicians grow up. They absorb like a sponge. You absorb the influences and process them through yourself, and hopefully come out with something original.
Yeah. It was just a particularly big step forward.
Yeah, I think there was some sense of some sort of a quantum leap happening. But I have to be honest with you, it wasn’t so much like we sat down and planned it that way. I think the times had something to do with it. There was a moment in time where new awarenesses were being experienced. People were doing LSD, and it expanded the type of thinking going on. There was something about the atmosphere of the streets, certainly in London at the time. You could feel the sort of excitement about the youth of the day taking control from the establishment.
I’ve seen Robert Fripp say recently that he’s done with Crimson and done with touring. I know that fans have this fantasy where the group will end by going full circle with the five original guys playing the first album straight though. Is that at all possible?
[Laughs] I’m often asked this question and my answer is always the same: I certainly would be prepared to do it. I’ve always felt that if someone is good enough to buy your album, that you owe them a performance. I also think it would be very emotional, and very cathartic in a lot of ways. Robert and I get on OK, to be honest, but there were a lot of strange feelings that happened through the career of King Crimson. Mike didn’t feel . . . or perhaps they regretted leaving. I would be happy to do it. Whether it will happen, of course, is another matter.
I’m thinking it should be 2019 for the 50th anniversary of the album.
There you go. Phone Robert up and tell him. [Laughs] Tell Robert him Greg says so. [Laughs]
Let’s switch over the Emerson, Lake and Palmer . . .
Oh, do you have to? [Laughs]
By the late Seventies critics really turned on you guys. You became the embodiment of rock excess. Did that perception bother you?
I think there is truth in the fact that the group was pretentious. You don’t make an omelet without cracking eggs. We wanted to try and move things forward and do something new and break boundaries. It was important for us to be original. Certainly the early albums . . . I’m talking now especially about Tarkus, Trilogy and Brain Salad Surgery. Those records were really great and innovative. There were members of the press that didn’t love us, but the public loved us.
I’m very proud of ELP, but it wasn’t the journalists that brought down ELP. I think it was ELP themselves. It started to fragment when they made Works Volume 1. It was a good album, but it wasn’t ELP. It was Keith Emerson, Greg Lake and Carl Palmer with an orchestra. Well, with three separate orchestras. [Laughs]
The album went platinum, and I can say with all the humility that I can muster that there were some great tracks on the record. But it wasn’t a record that reflected the chemistry of ELP. It reflected the individuals apart from each other. There are some tracks, like “Pirates,” for example, which stand up on their own. Leonard Bernstein liked that song a lot. But the truth of it was that Works Volume 1 was the beginning of the end. After that, ELP never made another really innovative record.
I’ve seen countless rock documentaries. Whenever they get to punk they show some late Seventies ELP concert footage, where Keith is playing some gigantic keyboard. Do you get sick of being known as the band that caused punk?
Well, no . . . Look, you’ve got to understand. Punk is not a form of music. It’s a fashion statement. If you wanna talk about real punk music, you’ve gotta look at people like the Who, the Rolling Stones . . . the people who initially had that kind of punk attitude, that right-up-in-your-face thing. But they had a form of music to go along with it. This sort of thrashing away on a chord and just screaming abuse through a microphone doesn’t constitute art to me.
You know, you can call anything art, right? You say it’s art, it’s art. But I don’t think the music will stand up in the test of time. The fashion may. It may be a fashion icon thing with the safety pin through the nose, the kilt, the stupid, spiky hair and all that. But really, what does it stand for other than trying to jump on the publicity bandwagon to make money from rock music? That’s all it was. Then following that, it was a genre a week. New Wave, garage . . . There was a genre a week.
I say all this, but not trying to deny that progressive music – not only ELP, by the way, but a lot of other so-called progressive bands – really did disappear up their own ass. They really did look like turkeys. It all became so overblown.
I must say, in defense of ELP, although we did some extravagant things – though they look tame and restrained by today’s standards – but at the time we had 140 people on the road with 11 tractor trailers. We had our own doctor and all these crazy things. But for us, it was not just trying to be as loud and as big as we could. We were always trying to go one step further, one step bigger. In the end, it became a huge production, but it wasn’t gratuitous. It was linked directly to the music. It wasn’t just production for its own sake.
The demise of ELP was not brought about by different kinds of music, but more by the splintering of the group’s chemistry. We broke up, in a way, although we remained together and have done albums since then, but the chemistry was never the same. Incidentally, I will mention to you that I did produce those early albums, and I did not produce any albums after Works Volume 1.
But it wasn’t just a matter of me producing. I think it’s a matter of chemistry. When a band works together amongst just themselves, you get a kind of pure, undiluted chemistry. The cocktail is undiluted, and therefore very strong.
I love your early ELP song “From the Beginning.”
I’ve always seen that as a special song. I don’t know where it came from. I just felt an inspiration to do it, and it flowed through me in a natural way. My hands fell upon these very unusual chords. It’s a very simple song, but the chords are very unusual. It was kind of a gift.
ELP played a single concert a couple of summers ago. Why just the one? Why not tour?
I don’t know. It frustrates me. Frankly, it takes a lot of energy and determination to reach a playing standard that people expect from a band like ELP. The expectation is very high. People are coming to see the legendary ELP. What do they expect? I’ll tell you. They expect to see the band they heard on record or saw on tour in 1974. And now we’re 40 years older, and you’ve got to do it the same. That takes some doing.
I really wanted to go out and play a world tour. We only got the one show, and after five or six more the band would have been formidable.
Who pulled the plug on doing more?
Keith and Carl didn’t want to do it. I don’t know why. It’s very strange, but there’s something about ELP that doesn’t work. It used to work, but it doesn’t work now. That might change. People do change, of course. I go back to my philosophy of the duty you have to perform for people who have invested not only their money, but a lot of their feelings into your music. I just feel that you should try and give them satisfaction.
It’s confusing, because Carl Palmer is on tour now doing ELP songs with other musicians. You’d think it would make more sense to play those songs with you and Keith.
That’s my view, yes. I’m sure his band is good, but if you ask 1,000 people if they’d rather see ELP do “Knife Edge” or would they rather see Carl Palmer’s band do “Knife Edge” . . . I don’t even need to tell you what they’d say.
I know you toured with Keith as a duo a few years ago, but I recall the tour getting off to a real rough start after a backstage fight.
I got off to a bad start. It got off to a very bad start. I don’t really want to get into the whys. My father always told me, “If you can’t say something good, then don’t say anything bad.” And I don’t know . . . but you know what? Life is like that. Shit happens, and it isn’t always good. Something you just have to live through it and go on.
In fact, the tour did recover. Keith actually walked out of one of the early shows, but he recovered and came back and we completed the tour and it was very happy. We actually ended up enjoying ourselves. So all’s well that ends well. But right after that, Keith became very ill, and that was that.
Moving on here, you played bass with the Who on their new song “Real Good Looking Boy” in 2004. Not a lot of bassists have worked with them.
Yeah, it’s a funny business playing with Pete and Roger. At the time, their regular bassist, Pino Palladino, was on tour with Simon and Garfunkel. That’s how I wound up doing it.
That was the first new Who song in quite some time.
Yeah. Pete and Roger are a very interesting couple. [Laughs] I use that word because they are like a married couple. Zak [Starkey] is a great drummer, but there was something about Keith Moon and John Entwistle that was just unique. Explosive. Of course, John was a very good bass player. As good as you might be, it’s hard to emulate him. He had this special soul and this special way of playing. It was very peculiar.
It was fun to work with them. As you say, not many people have worked with them. I like playing with other people. I did a tour with Ringo Starr that was tremendous fun.
I imagine you never envisioned yourself playing “Yellow Submarine” with Ringo Starr night after night.
I know! When you work with Ringo, it is like that. It’s fun. He’s a light character, but I was shocked by how disciplined he was. I could see that one of the reasons the Beatles were as good as they were because not only was he a great drummer, a guy who could play with a great feel, but he was a disciplinarian. He would stay up in the middle of the night to get it right. He’s not that floppy-doppy guy people thought he was.
What did you think about Kanye West sampling “21st Century Schizoid Man” on his song “Power”? It must have been weird to hear your voice on a song like that.
In a way, that song still sounds modern to me. I think when you hear Kanye West do it, or include it in his own song, it’s relevant. He’s speaking about that crazy world that we live in. It’s as true now as it was then. It’s an honor when something like that happens.
Did you have to approve that?
No, I didn’t personally approve it.
It is your voice, though.
I would have approved it happily. I don’t know if you even need permission, funnily enough, to sample a very short thing like that – it doesn’t have to do with money or permission.
I actually use his song to open my show. It starts with the lights going out and everything is black. The first thing you hear is the Kanye West piece. When the hook comes on, “21st Century Schizoid Man,” the spotlight comes on and there’s no one on the stage. Then the track carries, but the second time the hook comes, it’s me, and me singing it. And I open up with “Schizoid Man.” It’s a great shocker, but it’s a statement too. It’s enabled me to link the past with the present.
Finally, what are you working on now? What’s your plan for the future?
I’m touring a lot this year. I’m playing Japan, United States, probably Italy and South America as well. I’m bringing out my autobiography, Lucky Man. Then I’m going to make another record. I’ve written a lot of stuff, and it’s a matter of sitting down, getting disciplined and pulling it together. I imagine that in between tours I’ll focus on the new recordings.