Greg Lake on BBC Radio "6 Music," July 11, 2004
<"Knife Edge" plays>
Stuart Maconie: That was "Knife Edge," from the first album, I think I'm right in saying, by Emerson, Lake and Palmer and also featured on "Emerson, Lake and Palmer - The Ultimate Collection," in all good record shops now. I'm delighted to say I'm joined by Greg Lake in the studio. Welcome, Greg.
Greg Lake: Thank you, hello.
SM: If I were to...we've just been talking about memories and remembering things, so what I was gonna do was pick a rounder track from this record, and say, if you could remember, let's say "Knife Edge," for instance. Can you remember where, when you recorded that, what trousers you were wearing, what the weather was like?
GL: <laughs> Let me just pull out my dental floss here...I remember, yes, basically, we recorded the first LP in Island Studios. I don't specifically remember the exact recording but I remember that period. It was really when the Portobello Road was sort of bustling.
SM: Oh really?
GL: It was a very happening sort of time and it was a great place to record - studio owned by Chris Blackwell, who were all through Island Records - Bob Marley and all of that kind of thing.
GL: It was a very inspirational atmosphere.
SM: How quickly was the development from getting together and recording that first album, I think it was quite quick, wasn't it? You got famous with your second gig.
GL: Some people say it was quick, and others say it took a long time.
GL: Yeah, it's all relative, you see. I think really it was quite a slow process, because you know, we were literally forming the band as we ramped up to do the record. So for a while it was just Keith and myself, and then later we were joined by Carl and then, pretty much then, we started recording. It was a pretty quick process then.
SM: Yes, because famously, your second gig was Isle of Wight?
GL: It was indeed, yes, and that was quite a shock to the system...
SM: I'll bet it was, yes...
GL: ...to anybody, I mean, I think there was 600 thousand people. Apart from never having played to an audience as large as that - I couldn't even imagine an audience that large, and then, it was all the people on the bill. There was Jimi Hendrix, the Who - who I've just worked with.
SM: Of course, yeah!
GL: Such a roster of people and what was freaky, is that the LP just exploded out of that - it was a sort of media thing. We got tagged with this unfortunate title of "supergroup," which I always regretted, but it was inevitable. We'd all come from well-known bands, and I suppose it was an inevitability badge. It was good fortune, because there we were - we were launched in one show.
SM: You played, I think, a couple of nights before in Portsmouth? Or was it Plymouth?
GL: Plymouth, I believe.
SM: Plymouth, it's all coming back! "Supergroup" was the title you were given, but that was inevitable, given your pedigrees - yourself in Crimson, Atomic Rooster, Keith and The Nice. Were you aware of Keith and Carl before you formed ELP?
GL: I was very aware of Keith because, coincidentally, in fact the way the band formed was, I was in a band called King Crimson, and we had the record "In the Court of the Crimson King" at the time. We were touring America, and so was Keith with The Nice, so we were playing on the same bills a lot. I used to see him frequently and that was actually how the band was formed. One night after the show we both got chatting and it just so happened that both bands were kind of reaching the end of their natural life.
SM: Yeah. What about the musical style of ELP, is that something you talked through in advance or did you just get together in the studio and it came out?
GL: It really just was based on who we were, you know, and the sort of musical backgrounds we had. The only thing I could really say about the music of ELP, in terms of its style was that it was more European than it was American. Most rock and roll is blues, mainly blues influenced. ELP was mainly sort of classical rock, folk, you know, it had those elements in it which was mainly European. I think that's what probably made the band stand out as being different, in a way.
SM: But even within the one band there were always, there was always a really interesting dynamic in terms of the differences of style. You had different songs that were different styles - there'd be a ballad, or a folky type tune next to quite an aggressive sort of lengthy instrumental jam.
GL: The band was severely aggressive, really.
GL: It was, now I look back on it, it was a very intense experience - it was an assault, really. I think that's what made the lighter side of the band a kind of dynamic by comparison. When it stopped, when that intensity stopped, so much more beautiful was the setting for something tranquil. I think it's that dynamic that was another thing that really set the band apart from other people, in a way.
SM: "Supergroup," we talked of that phrase, that instantly people put on you; the other label that people instantly put on you, I don't know whether you like it or not, is "progressive," "prog," call it what you will, you were a "progressive rock" band. Did you ever work out quite what that meant?
GL: Well, I...yeah. I mean everybody's got a sense for it, but in a way, I think it was just a desire or a sensibility to want to do something that hadn't already been done. Sometimes it was misinterpreted, or interpreted, as being pretentious. But other times, you know, it actually bore fruit, and good things came of it. Before bands like ELP or King Crimson, no one would have thought of playing a piece fifteen minutes long! Instead of always it was three minutes.
GL: And the styles, you know, some of the early ELP albums had music that, on reflection, with all the modesty I can muster, was quite innovative.
GL: I think that was the part of progressive music that I personally liked.
SM: Yes. I guess because of your backgrounds - before ELP you'd all been in successful bands and you were, for want of a better or nice name "supergroup" - I'm assuming that meant you had a great deal of artistic freedom with the record company. Did you ever get people saying, "Hey, come on, pop songs are supposed to last three and a half minutes, guys - you can't do a semi-classical Bartok-inspired fifteen minute piece!"
GL: That was the beauty of that period in music - there was a lot of freedom, even more so, of course, if you were having hit records. You basically played the music you wanted to play and by good fortune, it was successful. I suppose the record companies at the time had the policy that if it works, then don't fix it. It was OK, and people wanted to hear new things. At that time, it was good to be original, whereas it seems now in recent years, it's more important to be "in tune" with what's going on and similar to what's being successful.
GL: There was a different accent upon it...to be honest, one of the things about progress music was that most of the bands that were in that kind of thing, just weren't interested in singles. That's one of things they were almost trying to escape from.
SM: Interesting you should say that, talking about the quieter side, because I think I picked up on something you said about when we've heard, shall we hear a bit of a quieter one, shall we hear a classic, "Lucky Man."
<"Lucky Man" plays>
SM: "Lucky Man," which can also be found on Disc 2 of "Emerson, Lake and Palmer - The Ultimate Collection." Greg, I should also say that I believe if you're quick enough off the mark and get down to the stores sharply...there's a special limited edition issue, which is a third disc - "Live in Anaheim." Your concerts were extravaganzas in the sense that they were very loud and they were a big production. Did you really enjoy the touring side of ELP? I know after a while it can become a chore; did you really enjoy the live side?
GL: I did. I did, and at that time it was, the whole idea of putting on a spectacular show, and the scale of it, was by comparison to things happening at that time, was vast. So, it was a thrill to do. Every time we'd go out, there'd be a whole new dimension to the live show. Of course people now have become desensitized in a way to those production things, and in a way, when they're gratuitous, when it's all a mish-mash of lights, it's meaningless. But if it's used properly, in sympathy with the music and to reinforce the emotion of it, then I think production is a great thing, and I still believe it.
SM: Did you...I was going to say, they were big extravaganzas, your concerts, but you never did anything like try and stage, "King Arthur on Ice" did you? It was always in context, but they were big! I mean, there must have been an enormous amount of gear involved? They were very loud shows!
GL: Yeah, we did, we had our moments, we did at one time form a symphony orchestra, and we took that out on the road. And at that time, I think there was eleven tractor-trailers...I remember one of them never used to get opened - it was just spares, you know - an entire tractor-trailer just full of spare parts. And there was 120 people on the road - bear in mind this was a three-piece band, you know. We used to have our own doctor...yeah...everything.
SM: That's a good job. "What do you do for a living?" "I'm ELP's doctor!"
GL: It was good, yeah! It was quite handy, you know you could wake up in the morning and say, I don't feel too well, and he'd be straight 'round there...
SM: Whose idea was it, famously, to put Emerson, Lake and Palmer on the top of those container cars?
GL: Do you know, I don't know?
SM: <laughs> It's a great idea!
GL: <laughs> It was a good idea!
SM: It's like the Great Wall of China, only visible from the moon, I mean only people in helicopters could see it written on the top of those fantastic cars!
GL: Yeah, it did in a way, and that was kind of, it captivated, that part of ELP, that sort of big production on the road, rolling show type of idea. That's really what the band was - a great deal of our life together was spent touring. That's one of the things really that caused the band to stop. We just used to play too much, in retrospect. It was, we'd just come out of the studio, we'd maybe have a week off, and we'd be straight on the road...we'd stop for a bit at Christmas, and back in again.
SM: It's unthinkable now when you think about the way bands work now, isn't it, because here you were...the biggest rock band in the world, but you were doing, certaintly in the beginning, an album a year, massive tours...bands take five years between albums now. I'm not entirely sure that's for the good, do you know what I mean?
GL: I'm sure that the continuity of it added to the momentum, and to the intensity. But, it burns people out and especially so when you've only got three people in the band. You start wondering, what the hell are you gonna do next? You're pulling rabbits out of hats!
GL: The sheer fatigue of it was another thing. I used to remember going on stage and my legs would tremble, I'd be that weak, from just every night doing it and I'd just become weaker and weaker. Until in the end it seemed like a blur. Every night it was walking on, twenty thousand people, "Aahh!", play, stop, go into your hotel room all alone...and it was a strange life.
SM: Strange contrast, isn't it? I guess because of the band you were, you couldn't say, "Oh, tonight we're gonna do a little intimate little set, because people would have been disappointed if you didn't pull out all the stops every night.
GL: You are obliged to perform the things that people want to hear, and you want to play them, because that's what it's all about. At the same time as it's an absolute pleasure, it's physically and mentally wrecking.
SM: Because of the nature of your music as well, it was international music, wasn't it. It was genuinely international in its appeal. Did you have favourite places to go to, did you have favourite "territories," to use a horrible word?
GL: I know, yeah...not really, no...strangely enough, it was...the audiences felt...unless, I mean obviously one knows where one is, most of the time!
SM: I was going to say, not always!
GL: But other than that, the knowledge of it, from an audience standpoint, you could have been in Japan, Germany, anywhere, really - the ELP audience was just - it was music lovers. They just were into the music, and they knew the music, so we didn't find much difference wherever we played. It was kind of a similar reception.
SM: I remember Brian Eno saying he knew it was time to pack it in when he was onstage and he was wondering how he was going to get his catsuit dry-cleaned for Leicester, for the following night - something like that. I suppose sometimes there must be a bit of, "It's Tuesday - it must be Belgium." It must be a blur touring at that level.
GL: You become desensitized and literally, because it was just not properly considered, you push it too far. You kind of lose a bit of touch. The only time you recapture your strength and energy is for that two hours when you perform; the rest of the time you're basically parked.
SM: Tell us, when you look back on a compilation like this, you must be, the old chest must swell a bit with pride, and think, "We made some good stuff, we did do some good stuff."
GL: The thing I'm most pleased about is that I think it endured and although the recordings, technically, obviously are not as good as you could do today, with all the technology available...but, I think the spirit of the music stood the test of time, and that, I'm proud of.
SM: I have to ask you this question; before I mention, ask about The Who, which is something I want to know about. I have to ask you this because ELP fans will never forgive me if I didn't! Is it, I know people say "never say never," but is there any likelihood of any more Emerson, Lake & Palmer material, do you think?
GL: Um...all I could say about that, you can never say, "never," with these things. We'll just have to wait and see, really.
SM: Tell me about The Who.
GL: I did a Teenage Cancer Trust charity show with Roger. Just after that he called me up and said, "Look, the Who are recording, would you like to come and play on the record?" So I went over and I played on their new single, which is called "Good Looking Boy."
SM: Yeah, fantastic!
GL: It was a great experience and you can see when you play with them, why they were so successful. They are tremendous! There's a real spirit, an inner spirit in the band, very powerful. It was a real joy.
SM: We're gonna finish now with a final track from this great compilation. We've got three copies to give away - I'm sure I can get Greg to sign two, maybe? Could I?
GL: Sure you can.
SM: That would be terrific! And Greg, you have, if I say so, Greg, an excellent question:
GL: Now does anyone out there know what the connection is between Sigourney Weaver and Emerson, Lake and Palmer?
SM: It's a good question. I know it, but I've already got a copy of the record. What's the connection between Sigourney Weaver and Emerson, Lake and Palmer? A signed copy of "ELP - The Ultimate Collection" could be yours. Greg Lake, thank you very much indeed, and I should say, firstname.lastname@example.org for your entry.
GL: It's been a real pleasure, thank you.