Greg Lake: Prog Rock Pioneer

December 8, 2016

“There’s a funny sense you get when you first make a record,” admits Greg Lake. “There’s the immediate satisfaction if it’s a hit, but when it stands the test of time, you get a different satisfaction. You see where going the extra mile to make it right pays off.” Lake is referring to his work with seminal prog-rock trio Emerson, Lake & Palmer (ELP), whose 46-year legacy was built upon the somewhat unlikely success of songs like “Lucky Man,” “Karn Evil 9,” “Tarkus,” and “Fanfare for the Common Man.” They are one of the few progrock bands to have cracked the Billboard charts, and with songs that utterly defy Top 40 convention, no less.

ELP formed in 1970 after Lake departed King Crimson, a band he helped canonize with his childhood friend, guitarist Robert Fripp. King Crimson’s debut album, In the Court of the Crimson King—Lake’s sole recording with the band—remains one of the most influential albums of the prog-rock genre. It was one of the first rock records to eschew blues influences, drawing instead on classical, jazz, and symphonic music. For Lake, who switched from guitar to bass when he joined, it provided the template for ELP, a band defined not only by the members’ immense musical talent, but also by their deft adaptations of classical music. Lake formed ELP with keyboardist Keith Emerson (formerly of the Nice) and drummer Carl Palmer (from the Crazy World Of Arthur Brown), creating one of rock’s first super-groups.

ELP’s recently released box set, The Anthology, is a three-CD career-spanning collection. The release has provided Lake with a chance to reflect upon the impact of ELP’s success, not only on his own life, but on popular music as a whole. “Pictures at an Exhibition definitely awakened an awareness in people about just how good classical music could be,” he says. Indeed, the album peaked at #10 in the U.S., and ELP’s adaptations of works by Mussorgsky and Tchaikovsky proved to be live favorites. Their take on the latter’s “March of the Wooden Soldiers” from The Nutcracker, aptly titled “Nutrocker,” reached #70 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100.

This past year, Lake endured the tragic suicide of his dear friend and colleague Emerson. Despite the sadness surrounding this loss and what it may mean for him regarding the ELP chapter of his life, Lake still sounds genuinely upbeat about The Anthology and his role in creating something everlasting. “It’s a great honor when music you created 40 years ago is still able to be released in this way.”

Robert Fripp convinced you to switch from guitar to bass. Were you acquainted with the bass in any way?

I’m ashamed to say that I was very cavalier when I picked up the bass. They really wanted me as the lead singer, and so Robert said, “Would you be prepared to play bass?” And I thought, Four strings, six strings … what could be the problem? Little did I realize that bass playing is an entirely different world; it’s an art form within itself. And although the instruments look similar, they perform a totally different function—they require a different set of skills and knowledge.

How did you develop your playing style?

The first thing to wake me up [to the difference between guitar and bass] was the first rehearsal I did with King Crimson. Michael Giles, the drummer, started to bang furiously on his snare, and the whole band stopped. He looked up at me—I’ll never forget the look on his face, a look of pity, sort of annoyed—and he said, “Listen, when I play the snare drum, you don’t play.” And I said, “What? Why?” He said, “Because, that’s how the snare cuts through.” That was my first rude awakening to bass playing.

How would you describe your sound and style?

In the beginning, my bass playing was mixed with guitar technique, but the first thing I missed was sustain. I used tape-wound strings, and immediately I found it unrewarding not to be able to sustain a note. And so I soon discovered wire-wound strings, which gave me the sound that I was looking for, which was the low end of a Steinway piano. That’s the sound I wanted.

Do you ever play fingerstyle, or do you always use a pick?

I’m a pick player. When I started playing fingerstyle, it was literally, “boom, boom, boom.” The more percussive way to play was with a pick. And of course, because I played guitar for all those years, I could pick well, so that was my game.

Would you say it’s more challenging to sing and play bass than to sing and play guitar?

I don’t know about challenging, but it is different. When you play guitar, you have the choice of whether to play or not to play. With bass, you’re going to play whether you like it or not, because you’re part of the rhythm section. If you stop, the whole thing falls apart.

In ELP, you played both bass and guitar. How did you decide which instrument to play on any given song?

I always craved playing the guitar. It’s in my soul, but the problem, when I played guitar, was that the bass went missing. Keith would sometimes try to put bass in, using organ pedals or Moog pedals, but it was never the same.

There’s so much going on between Palmer’s drumming and Emerson’s keyboards. Was it challenging to fit bass lines into that milieu?

To be perfectly honest, I did find it challenging with Carl. He doesn’t have what I would call a very solid feel. Technically, he’s incredibly competent—he’s a great, fast, technical drummer—but from a bass player’s standpoint, if I play with someone like Sheila E., for example, or Jeff Porcaro, the floor is really solid. Carl’s style is based very much on Buddy Rich and jazz, and the tuning of his drums is incredibly high. His kick was more “boop, boop” than “thud, thud.” As a producer I had to work very hard to make the bass and the bass drum marry up. There was this sort of clash that, in a strange sort of way, became the identity of ELP.

You produced the first six ELP records, as well as In the Court of the Crimson King. Would you agree that bass players seem to make good producers?

Maybe there’s some truth to that. You do have a certain perspective as a bass player of what’s going on around you, or maybe it has to do with personality. I didn’t have any ambitions of becoming a famous producer; I just enjoyed doing it. All of the records I produced went platinum, and the ones I didn’t, didn’t.

What separated ELP from the rest of the herd back in the ’70s?

We looked to different roots. Most rock & roll at that time was based on American blues, gospel, and Motown. We didn’t want to be just another band basing ourselves on the same stuff every other band had based their music on. So we looked to European roots rather than American. Not that we didn’t love American music; we did, and we played it for years. But we looked to European folk music, minstrel music, classical music—everything from “Greensleeves” to “Mars, the Bringer of War,” because it made our music different. It was a different type of music. I don’t like to say it was better music, because I don’t believe that. Good-quality blues is as good as Beethoven. But Beethoven is undoubtedly more colorful harmonically, instrumentally, and structurally.

What do you think of music nowadays vs. in the ’60s or ’70s?

Nowadays everyone sounds the same. In those days, there was a premium on originality. You’ll often hear the word “progressive” used in terms of me. I don’t like that word; it sounds elitist and pretentious. The word “original”—striving for originality—would be far better. When ELP and King Crimson started, the essence was to be original, to be different. We never thought about being progressive, we thought about being different, and there was a value in that. If you play the first five seconds of Jimi Hendrix or Pink Floyd, you know who it is. Today you put on a record and you wouldn’t know who it is even when it’s finished.

On your solo tours, you mainly play guitar and hire a bass player. What do you look for in a bassist?

Myself, to be perfectly honest [laughs]. Not because I think I’m great, because I’m not. But the reason I look for someone like me is simply because it’s me on all those records. So I try to find a bass player who uses a pick, and who has a low-frequency resonant tone, a sharp attack, and a sense of musicality. I like the bass to be heard in the sense that it’s melodic. An example would be Paul McCartney: He’s the governor of it, really. On Beatles records, the bass is part of the tune; it’s not just the backing track. Listen to “With a Little Help From My Friends,” for example. It’s wonderful. The bass is a component of the structure of the music. It’s not merely padding.

INFO

LISTEN

With Emerson, Lake & Palmer, The Anthology [2016, BMG], Brain Salad Surgery [1973, Island/Atlantic], Trilogy [1972, Island/Atlantic], Pictures at an Exhibition [1971, Island/Atlantic], Tarkus [1971, Island/Atlantic], Emerson Lake & Palmer [1970, Island/Atlantic]. With King Crimson. In the Court of the Crimson King [1969, Island].

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