Greg Lake interview with Jim Ladd


Greg: Emerson, Lake & Palmer was an arrangement rather than a band. We always had respect for each other, and treated each other, you know, like gentlemen. We never used to mix socially, and to that extent still don’t, I mean, though I am very friendly with them if, you know, if we meet up; and I would also play with them again, but I wouldn’t form the band ELP again. But if there was ever a reason to play with Keith or Carl, I would do it, they’re great people and great musicians. The thing that finished ELP was the fact that we had exchanged as much as we could, we’d taken it as far as we could. Every band has a situation where you’re gonna disagree over some things-but the only thing we disagreed about was the direction to take musically. And that was the thing where we had the freedom to do what we wanted, and what we wanted was to, at that point, it was the right time and the right thing to do to pursue our own careers.

JL: You wrote a song with Bob Dylan. Not a lot of people can say that. How did this…

Greg: (unintelligible)…an unusual thing--I’ve always been an admirer of Bob Dylan’s songs. And I wanted to do one of them, and it was a nicer idea to do one that was unrecorded by him than one that had already been on an album. So anyway, I had this cassette, and I phoned him up, I said, “Bob, look-could you, would you finish this song off, cos I’d love to do it on my record,” you know. And I think at the time he was doing all this religious stuff, his religious album, and, uh, deeply embedded in it. And he said, “Look, I tell you what, if you want to do the song, why don’t you finish it off and we’ll share the copyright on the song.” So that’s what I did, I wrote most of the verses, and he had, he’d written the hook is basically what happened. Sent it back to him-and, ah, he liked it-and on it went.

JL: So he had started on the song, and then you came in and….finished it…

Greg: Yeah, he, and he wrote the hook, and, he never got any further than that. He tried to develop it, and it never really developed, and he just left it as a half-finished song, I mean, we all have them. He is a person who, uh, is that way inclined, he’s a left-field type person. And, um-I don’t agree with everything he does but what I do do is I respect him. You see as an artist, man, you have to do what your conscience tells you. And sometimes it’s not really in line with what might make the best sense for you commercially or-this and that, but, you know, you have to do things that you believe in. And, that’s what he does. And that’s why I admire him. I personally, when I evaluate someone’s career, I weigh it up in terms of how much pleasure they’ve given people. That to me is artist’s worth. Not whether they’re currently hot, or they’re not hot, or what. It’s their total contribution which must be appreciated, and in the case of Bob Dylan, just someone who’s given so much to me personally, I’m sure to us all, that, uh, he’ll always be a hero of mine.

You know, when I formed this band, I asked myself how I’d do it, you know. And, I was approached by a lot of people who were very well-known, from bands that no longer exist who shall remain nameless. And I really didn’t want to form any supergroup-type thing. Because I basically believe that the chemistry is not necessarily going to work. And, anyway, how much nicer to form something which is new and unseen and unheard of than something which is from the past, anyway-I asked myself how I’m gonna do it, now look, you can’t hold auditions-because--you may find a fantastic player, but he’s not a very nice person. You might find a nice person-can’t play, right? So, what you have to do is you have to get to know people, and I suppose first of all you respect them musically, and then, second of all, you have to respect them as a person. And, um-that’s how all the people that play in my band ended up there.

JL: Who plays lead guitar on “Long Goodbye”?

Greg: Gary Moore.

JL: Does a good job I think.

Greg: He’s a wonderful player. I was recording this at Abbey Road, and, uh, I had this idea of having a guitar solo on the record which was extremely agile, you know? I said to everybody, “Do you know a guitarist that’s like extremely fast and feelingful?” So everybody scratched their heads, you know, and we got a few guys down, but in the end, they said, “Look-the guy you’re really talking about is Gary Moore.” I said, “Doesn’t he play for Thin Lizzy?” They said, “Yes.” I said, “Look, it would never work.” They said, “No, no, really, Gary’s a great player and a nice person.” I said, “Okay, if you say so,” you know, and I was convinced it wouldn’t work. So they phone up Gary and say, “Gary, Greg Lake’s recording down at Abbey Road and he’s doing a song, and would like you to come and play guitar, how do you feel about it?” And he said, “Isn’t that Emerson, Lake and Palmer lot?” They say, “Yes,” he says, “No,” you know, “it would never work, man.” They said, “No, the cat’s alright, go down and do it,” you know, so down he came, and I’ll never forget the first time I met Gary cos he looked as though he hadn’t slept for week, you know. He said, “Should I put my amp and guitar in the studio?” I said, “Yeah, go on then.” So, in he went, put his guitar down, he still had his overcoat on, and he recorded the first song before he’d even taken his coat off.

JL: At first you didn’t want to have permanent band, but now you’ve decided to keep a structure of a band around you.

Greg: Yeah.

JL: So who else is going to be in the band with you, or is, in fact, in the band?

Greg: On keyboards is a man named Tommy Eyre, and the first thing you’d probably know about him, he made that record, “With A Little Help From My Friends,” the Joe Cocker record. That original record.

JL: Ah. Sure.

Greg: But he’s, most recently he’s been doing, he did the Gerry Rafferty albums, “Baker Street,” “City to City.” Wonderful musician. Probably the best musician I’ve ever known.

JL: Really, you’d say that, really?

Greg: Yeah. He’s not a virtuoso solo player, but he can play anything, and he’s got an incredible musical mind. On drums is Ted McKenna, and he was with Rory Gallagher. And, um, he’s a Scots boy, drinks a lot of whiskey, eats haggises. And ah, he’s a marvelous man, and has got a wonderful feel. Drummers have got to have a good feel above all. I don’t care how simply they play, but the feel’s got to be there. He’s got a great feel. He’s also technically very good. And the other lad in the band is called Trist Margetts.

JL: Let’s talk about “Retribution Drive,” do you mind talking specifically about the songs? Some people are uncomfortable with…

Greg: You know, it’s hard for me to talk about---some songs are okay, it depends how the conversation starts on them. If you say to me, “Now tell me about ‘Retribution Drive,’” what happens is, it goes-boom-blank, right? So it’s very difficult….sometimes in the conversation I’ll think of an illustration about a song, but, it’s hard for me to tell you about a song.

JL: Let me re-phrase it another way-- tell us about “Retribution Drive.”

Greg: (laughs) Oh, why didn’t you say so? (laughs)

Greg: To be quite honest with you, as much as I value my records being played on the radio, a record is not the finished thing-a record is a promise of a live appearance.

JL: I never heard it described that way before, that’s very good, yeah.

Greg: I don’t know about you, but if I buy a record of someone’s, right, and you go to see them, and they don’t play that hit, you’re disappointed, right? So I feel that an artist has a kind of obligation to play the songs that the people made popular by buying the record. So the records aren’t the end result of it, the live appearance is the end result, and in my experience in touring the live appearance has been the thing that has brought me closer to the people than anything. Certainly closer to the people than being in the charts, or even being on the radio.

JL: And also it’s on you to come through with the goods live too. There ain’t no Take 2 on stage.

Greg: No.

JL: There seems to be a school of thought nowadays at concerts-not everybody, but a lot of people, where you go, and not only do you hear the hit, but you hear it re-created exactly as it was on record, and, I seem to miss groups that stretch out and will give me something different that night, you know.

Greg: I tell you what I do: I’m a great believer in the live concert sounding like the record.

JL: Really.

Greg: I personally think that’s the way it should be. On the other hand, I can understand what you’re saying and what I do is, if I’m playing a song that I’ve played, like I do versions of “Lucky Man”-and if I played the same version of “Lucky Man” I’ve played for the last ten years, you know, I would start to lose genuine enthusiasm for it. And what I do is, I start the piece of music exactly like the record; so for the first half of the song it’s exactly the same as the record was; and then, I’ll develop it, you know? So that I’m, in a way, fulfilling my obligation to the people that have bought that record, and at the same time, you know, I’ve got something of myself involved in it, and, I can still get a tremendous lot of feeling out of it, because I change the arrangements all the time.

Greg: There’s three basic ways that I write songs-one is as a result of personal experience. Two, is a result of an observation, and three is abstract. I’ll start off with the third one first-the abstract influence in my songs is brought about by-it’s to do with shapes. It’s to do with economy, if I sit here talking to you now I can stop for a little while if I want, right, and think a bit and carry on, in a song you haven’t got that luxury. You’ve got to fit a certain amount of information into a limited space of time. And so, what you’re looking for is depth of feeling, really. Depth of emotion. And, in the abstract song, I have words that don’t necessarily have a tangible meaning, right? But that sound good, that sound interesting, and that have a shape, lyrically. And that’s the abstract song, and it appeals to me and, perhaps an illustration of that would be the song “Someone,” on which Clarence Clemons played. It is a shape, rather than a message.

JL: I’m really glad this song is on there because that is real different.

Greg: It’s got an atmosphere.

JL: That’s a good word for it.

Greg: There’s an atmosphere about it. It’s funny you should say, and I’ll tell you, see, this is what brings stories to mind: Clarence went, was, actually, he was playing a show in Hamburg, Bruce was playing a show there. And Clarence got in a couple of days early. Do you know anything about Hamburg, have you ever been to Hamburg?

JL: No, uh uh. I understand it can be pretty loose though is what I understand.

Greg: Huh, loose isn’t the word.

JL: Is that right?

Greg: They’ve got a place there called the Reeperbahn-and it is Sodom and Gomorrah.

JL: Really.

Greg: It’s incredible, they have girls in shop windows, you know. In the shops you can buy whatever type of human being you want, you can buy, that’s the Reeperbahn. Anyway, that’s Hamburg, you know, and Clarence came from Hamburg-I don’t know what he’d been up to, but he came over to London to see me, and I was recording still at Abbey Road. And, uh, he’d been up all night, you know-raving-he’s a card (?) too, can he party, that boy-and, um-he heard the song, you know, and he said, “Hey-would you like me to put a horn solo on there?” I said, “Yeah, go on, do it.” And so he played-and when you listen to the solo, you can see where he’s been. You know? And that’s part of the atmosphere of that song.

Song number two style is observations, there are observations that you have in your life that, um, can be someone going through a tragedy, a personal tragedy, which always touches me, to see people in sad or unhappy situations, it’s something that reaches me personally. The song that comes to mind in that context, there’s a song on the album called “For Those Who Dare,” which was inspired by, I don’t know if you remember, in London, the, um, terrorists, some terrorists took over the Iranian embassy. Their plot was to blackmail the US government into something or other.

JL: This was in London?

Greg: They must have been crazy-anyway, they get in there and they capture these people, and now they shoot two of them. Now, in the British army there’s a division called the SAS, which is a secret, specially trained crack division, and these guys jump through this window like heroes, right, and they rescue these people from these terrible terrorists. I couldn’t help but be impressed and touched by the fact that some people were prepared to risk their life to protect other people’s freedom. Now, the motto that they have, these people, is “Who Dares Wins.” And I thought-ah-there’s a song. And I came up with the concept “for those who dare,” and that’s how that song was inspired.

Now that’s a case of an observation. Of something being inspired directly from something I saw.

The first case of songwriting is things that I’ve personally experienced. And, I would say that, ah, I’ve experienced quite a lot. I feel like I’ve lived three times. I’ve had a very dynamic life, and by that I mean, there are times in my life when I’ve been extraordinarily happy, and other times when I’ve been in the absolute trough of depression. And I tread the line between them with the skill of a mountain goat, try not to fall over one side or the other.

Do you want to know what motivated specific songs?

JL: Specifically “It Hurts,” yeah. Was that an abstract song, an observation or a personal experience?

Greg: I think it was a personal experience.

JL: I think so too, yeah.

JL: What are the other two members of ELP doing these days? Do you know?

Greg: Carl is putting a band together called Asia. With Steve Howe from Yes, John Wetton, um, and I don’t know who else, and, um, Keith is, um, I think he’s doing like, trying to do film music, writing some film music.

JL: Do you get along with these guys any more? Cos you guys always seemed to have a reputation of a little bit of friction in the band.

Greg: I don’t know why (laughs). No, I look back on ELP with very happy and proud memories. And it’s something that I’m very glad I did. And, um, not something that I want to give you the impression at all that ended up in any bad feeling, it didn’t.

JL: Oh, that’s good, I’m glad, I did have that impression and I’m glad that….

Greg: It was that sort of band, you know (laughs). The music press tended to think we were pretentious and aggressive people. And AS YOU CAN SEE WE’RE NOT!! (laughs)

JL: You might holster the sidearm that you brought.

Greg: (laughs) But it was, it was good fun, and, ah, we made a lot of very happy albums together.

JL: I’ll tell you, the first thing that attracted me to this record, being an old politico as I am, is the song “Nuclear Attack,” the first song on the album.

Greg: Uh, I like the song, that was my principal reason. The second reason was really that, um, Gary Moore and I have become involved in putting this band together as a permanent band, and I wanted to include something of his on the record. Um, because I think it’s important everyone has a creative outlet in the band and, ah, those were the real reasons, and I personally like the song, I’m not on a big campaign against, you know, anti-nuclear stuff, I mean, ah, I don’t think we’re gonna ever end a world war…tomorrow…or anything like that. At least I hope we’re not. But I did like the song, you know-there’s a lot of truth in the song. You will never come back from a nuclear attack, you know. So it’s something that appealed to me at the time.

JL: When you say you’re not on an active campaign, I would assume, knowing your history, that you, you do feel empathy with the lyrics though, I mean, you’re not….

Greg: Oh yeah. I have to believe in what I’m performing.

I’ll tell you what it’s all about, look: now you’ve got the damn bomb, right? You might as well have plenty of them because, you know, it’s a deterrent. It’s got to a point where I’d rather we had them than not have them cos I don’t want anybody to think that we couldn’t, you know, deliver them.

JL: You’re serious.

Greg: Yeah, they’ve become a good thing rather than a bad thing. In view of the fact that they exist-see reality, man, is not what you wished it was, it’s what it is. None of us want to live under the threat of a holocaust, but, you know. On the other hand, you know, we value our freedom, I mean, America’s been one of-is THE country, really, to stand out and be prepared to fight for it’s freedom, and I think it’s worth fighting for. And I certainly think it’s worth having the means to protect yourself against people who may wish to take away your freedom. That’s my personal opinion about it. I’m not pro- the bomb, you know (laughs).

JL: No, I understand.

Greg: Don’t want to give you the impression that I’m into them.

JL: Greg is for pushing the button now.

Greg: Just, if you have a couple of spare ones, if you could just slide ‘em over to my house…..no, I’m not, I’m totally against it. But, all I’m saying is in view of the fact that we live in that reality, then, we had better make sure that we maintain the balance. That seems to me a logical way of maintaining peace, which is what I am interested in.

It seems to me that what you’ve got nowadays is rock product. What you used to have was rock heroes, you know? It’s rather like the Hollywood era that used to be larger than life. And now, I watch those films, and I see all those……I know the actors faces but I don’t know their names, you know, there’s so many of them and they’re….you know….and I think in a way rock music has become a bit like that. You know, where it’s become a question of….of media acceptance, you know. The music I listen to on the radio is, um, probably better produced, but less meaningful. And that is why you hear….as I go around and I listen to the radio, I’m hearing a tremendous amount of 1970’s music in there, because it was so vivid artistically, it was so vivid. You had Emerson, Lake and Palmer which was different to the Pink Floyd which was different to the Who, which was different to Jethro Tull…they all had very different colors. And now, I find, and again this relates back to this media thing of it all being pushed in one direction. However, on my album, one of the things that I was really concerned with was to not become involved in a style trap. And, it gives me a great deal of pleasure to sit and listen to an FM radio station and hear “Nuclear Attack,” and then to listen on an AM station to “Let Me Love You Once Before I Go.” I feel a little like Jekyll and Hyde. And it’s good, you know, because, I’ve been playing rock and roll for twenty years. And you need a tickle. Because if you lose the enthusiasm for it, you know, you can’t even want to be enthusiastic. You are or you aren’t, you know. And you’ve gotta have something that keeps you fresh and alive, and for me, to get into a style trap would be the end.

JL: Say goodbye. And thank you very much for coming up here, I enjoyed it.

Greg: It was a real pleasure.

JL: Good. You’re a very articulate guy for a musician, I want you to know……

Greg: (laughs) Well….it’s very kind of you to say so.

JL: Thank you, Greg.