Greg Lake on ‘Songs of a Lifetime,’ the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Why ELP Will Not Reunite
Greg Lake scarcely needs a big introduction to classic rock fans. A founding member of not one, but two of the most influential progressive rock bands of all time — King Crimson and ELP — the British singer-songwriter has fused his acoustic folk roots with an adventurous musical approach that has resulted in classics like ‘21st Century Schizoid Man,’ ‘In the Court of the Crimson King,’ ‘Lucky Man,’ ‘From the Beginning‘ and more.
Lake recently released ‘Songs of a Lifetime,’ which documents a tour of that name that saw the musician encapsulate his entire storied career on stage in a one-man show, performing the songs that have made his legacy, but interspersed with stories and personal glimpses.
Ultimate Classic Rock caught up with Lake to talk about that project, as well as his upcoming autobiography ‘Lucky Man,’ the legacy of progressive rock, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and why ELP will not reunite. Far from the pretentious image many critics have projected onto him, Lake was good-natured and funny, speaking eloquently and with great wit about his long career. When he called for the interview, the caller ID brought up a number in Florida, leading into an unusual, but humorous segue.
What are you doing in Florida?
Believe it or not, I’m just getting ready to go on a cruise ship. We’re gonna play five days in the Caribbean with the Moody Blues.
[Laughs]. I don’t know if that’s the right word! [Laughs]. But it should be funny.
Have you done one of those fan cruises before?
I’ve never done one before.
That could be really great, or it could be you trapped with a bunch of insane people.
[Laughs]. Right. You know, in England you had these funny films that were made in the early 1950s, and they were comedy films; typically they’d be made about camping holidays, or cruising holidays. They were comedies based on people doing stupid things and getting into all sorts of trouble, and they were called ‘Carry On.’ There’d be ‘Carry On Camping,’ or ‘Carry On Cruising,’ or whatever it was. And I’ve got visions of it being like that, you know? [Laughs]. I suppose it’ll be nice, if it doesn’t sink. That’s the only thing. [Laughs].
Let’s talk about ‘Songs of a Lifetime.’ The press release says it was inspired by the process of writing your autobiography; how did it go from the germ of an idea to something that seemed worth doing all of the work to put a tour together?
Many years ago, I saw an actor called Peter Ustinov, and he did a one-man show. He was a raconteur, and a very intelligent and worldly man, and I went to see him do this show. And when I walked into the theater, I was a bit suspicious or reluctant. I thought I was going to get bored, quite honestly. And what was incredible was, it seemed that just after I sat down, I was getting up to leave again. The two hours that had passed since he was on stage went by like a flash. Just that one man alone made that time pass so quickly. He was so interesting and entertaining.
I thought I might want to do something like that. I suppose it was a challenge to see if I was a good enough artist to where I could keep people’s attention for that long on my own. And then when I was writing my autobiography, these songs came up from time to time which were important to me, and I realized that what they really represented was, they’d come from this age of shared music. By that I mean, when I was young, we would buy an album, and we’d sit around together and listen to it. And in a way we became bonded together by the music. And in a way the music became an expression of our culture and the way we thought, and our fashion.
I think a lot of those big events like Woodstock, the Isle of Wight, California Jam — a lot of them I performed on — I think it wasn’t only the fact that the audience was coming along to see Led Zeppelin or Jimi Hendrix or ELP, or whomever it was. They were coming along to be . . . it was like a gathering where they felt bonded together in this shared vision, where the expression was the music. So that was the underlying thought about it.
I was determined for it not to become one of those legend-in-his-own-lunchtime shows; you know, sitting on a stool, strumming a guitar with this sort of air of self-importance. I wanted it to be something like a family gathering, where people were sharing in the experience. Where they could tell their stories that were related to the music, as well as me. And we would share this journey — or re-share it — together.
I did spend a lot of time — almost a year, really — preparing the music for it, and setting the production, and working out all of it. It really did take quite a lot of preparation, possibly more than it would for a normal rock tour.
Because of the very different angle of it.
Very different. Actually very technical. It goes from screamingly loud at some points, to very gentle and soft at others, and pretty much everything in between. I purposely set out to make it entertaining and fun, and emotional.
Is it unusual for you performing as a solo act, in re-creating those same songs without the other people that helped create the arrangements?
Yes, it is. It’s a totally different experience. I had to think about it. I thought, ‘I’m gonna do this on my own. It’s a one-man show. What do I do — do I just strum the guitar and sing these songs in their bare form, or would it be better for people to hear a proper production of them?’
And in most cases what people really want to hear is a version of the record, but they want to hear it live. And I have to say, with all of the humility that I can muster, that I think it was quite a clever balance that I struck. What I did was, I went back to the original recordings and I extracted odd things that would invoke a feeling of nostalgia.
For example, I went back to the original recording of ‘Lucky Man’ and I extracted the original harmony vocals, but only that. I made a new version of the recording, I put the original backing vocals with it, and of course I performed myself live, and I played a live guitar with it. So what you’re getting is a brand-new version of the song — or a brand-new interpretation — and an extract of the original recording, and a live performance, all bound up into one.
I felt that was a better solution than just playing two hours of an acoustic guitar. ‘Cause that’s okay for one or two songs, but really, you don’t want that for two hours.
Of course, when I started the tour, I was very nervous. I sat down in my living room and I thought, ‘Oh God, what have I done?’ You know, I had terrible visions of it not working, and me being alone up there. There’s no one else to blame, is there? But luckily — or whatever you want to call it — I got to the first show, and it was successful, and much to my relief, people loved it.
I noticed with interest that you were interviewed by Rolling Stone recently. That magazine has always either ignored, or deliberately marginalized you and your type of music in the past. Why now, all of a sudden, the interest?
It must be because that sort of music has endured so long, I think. And also — not that I’ve said anything about it — but people have said a lot, why wasn’t progressive music embraced by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? That subject has come up a lot, and I think probably there is some merit in that observation. Because there’s no question about the fact that it did have an influence on a lot of music that followed on in later years. It opened up doors for a lot of other music. It shouldn’t have been marginalized in the way it was.
I do understand, in some ways, the criticism. I didn’t like the term “progressive music,” particularly. It sounded sort of pseudo-intellectual, which is not my vision of what it should be. What is called “progressive music” is really simply music that’s got European, rather than American roots. Most rock and roll comes from the blues, gospel, soul music, some country and western, perhaps. But essentially it’s American music, whereas progressive music tended to come from European classical, folk music, medieval music — that kind of thing. That was really all the difference was; it sounded different because it had different roots. I believe it was a valid form of music. I know it was. You don’t get whatever it was, 300,000 people to turn up at the California Jam for something that’s not got any validity. It had validity, and it bore an influence on a lot of other music which followed it.
Perhaps that’s why Rolling Stone finally say, “Well, it’s fair enough — the music did have some sort of basis for credibility.”
I spoke to Rick Wakeman about this same topic, and he brought up the interesting notion that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame presents an alternate version of reality that is historically inaccurate.
Well, to that extent it is incorrect. If you leave out a whole chunk of the history of rock and roll music, then you’ve got to say, “Well, how good is this museum?”
I kind of understand a bit about this. Progressive music did become awfully pretentious, and it disappeared up its own ass in a lot of ways. I don’t count myself amongst those people who wore the king’s clothes, in a way; you know, they just were pretentious, and I think that turned a lot of people off. And from that point of view I can understand the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame saying, “No, it’s not really rock and roll.” It’s not the rock and roll that they wanted to have in their museum, perhaps, but the beginnings of it, certainly I believe, did have . . . go back to things like ‘Sgt. Pepper’ — that was, in a way, a progressive music record. It was using European music roots for its inspiration. Bands like Pink Floyd, even Genesis, were taking a lot of European music influences.
It could easily be argued that you should be in the Hall of Fame twice; once for ELP, and again as a member of King Crimson.
[Laughs]. Well, some people view it in that way, yes. I mean, look, I never even think about it. It doesn’t really bother me in that sense. But I think it is strange, because it wasn’t like a tiny little niche thing that went by without notice. It had a big impact. Groups like ELP were playing stadiums. Not clubs, stadiums! [Laughs]. You know? Come on, it’s not something you can overlook: “Oh, I didn’t notice that.” [Laughs]. But I don’t want to sound as though I’m lying awake at night thinking about it, because I’m not.
The other thing is, the United States has fostered progressive music. Progressive music probably wouldn’t even really exist if not for the people of the United States having picked up on it and nurtured it in the way they did. It really is an American form of music in the sense that it was nurtured here. So it belongs here. It has become part of the fabric of American musical culture.
What angle are you going to take with your upcoming book, ‘Lucky Man’? More a book about your life, or more about your career?
I tried to make it a book about what happened behind the scenes. Everyone knows what happened in front of them; they bought the records, they went to the shows, they read the front cover story, as it were. I tried to write from a perspective of what happened behind the scenes. It’s not a gossip book or a kiss-and-tell. I’m not into all that blood-and-guts stuff. It is just a book that I think will interest people about what really happened. It’s an honest book, but it’s not a book where I hang a lot of dirty laundry out or anything like that.
I just tried to make it an interesting account of my life from the backstage perspective, throughout the period particularly of King Crimson and ELP. But also since then; you know, I’ve done a lot of interesting things since those bands were really active, and I write about those things, too, obviously.
They are, actually . . . and for me, too. It was fascinating playing with Ringo, because he’s not what people think of him, he’s not like the commonly held perception of him that people have, where they think of him as this floppy-haired individual, floppy-doppy, happy-go-lucky type. Really, Ringo is a very disciplined person.
When you work with him, you can see how much influence he must have had in the Beatles for getting things right. If you listen to his drum parts on any of the Beatles records, they’re absolutely flawless. He’s just got a fantastic feel. It’s no accident those records sounded so good from a rhythmic standpoint, because he’s a really terrific player. He’s not demonstrative; I mean, he doesn’t do drum fills. He’ll tell you himself, “I’m not into drum fills and all that smart ass, flashy playing.” Ringo’s into the rhythm, into making songs sound good. And at that, he’s a real master.
Again, working with Pete [Townshend] and Roger [Daltrey] — of course, the Who will never be the Who without John Entwistle and Keith Moon, because they were such explosive characters that made that band explode and be what it is. But even when you’ve just got Pete and Roger together, you can still sense that that’s the Who. When you work with them, they are the Who, and everything about them, you can understand how the music was what it is.
They’ve just got this way of working, and Pete in particular is extremely talented, musically. He’s a fabulous player, he’s a really good singer, and he writes well. He’s a great writer. He sat down and played me some of his solo stuff that he’s been working on, and it’s really marvelous, almost Gershwin-esque music. His father used to be a big band leader, so that’s why when you listen to him play guitar, it’s very punctuated. It’s like brass, playing brass section in a big band. That comes from his father, you see.
I know you get asked all the time about ELP and whether the band is going to continue. I’m kind of assuming it won’t, so what I want to ask you is, why do you think that attitude is there in the other two guys?
It’s one of the mysteries of life to me. I really couldn’t tell you. My own personal philosophy is, if someone’s good enough to buy your album, you owe them a live performance. It’s that simple. When someone buys your album, it’s a record. It’s only a record. Implicit in that, there’s a tacit agreement that one day you’ll turn up and you’ll play that music for them. It’s an implied agreement, and I always think that any artist has a duty to play the music for the people who bought the record. I grew up believing that, and I believe it today.
So to me, there’s no question about whether ELP should play live or not. It should if it can, and there’s nothing I know of that is so grievous between the three of us that it should prevent that.
But as my father always used to say, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” [Laughs]. And that’s the case. I really do not know, because from all of our points of view, you would think it would be a sort of obvious thing, at this stage in our lives, to celebrate and give the gift back that we were given. Because we owe our careers to the fans that bought those records. So that’s my answer to you.
I would do it today, tomorrow — any time they’re ready, I’d be more than happy and honored to go back on stage and perform for the people who have supported us throughout these years. And I can do nothing other than be willing to tour and be open and say that. I have no real idea why Keith and Carl are not of a similar mind. You’d have to ask them individually what it is.