Greg Lake

After four months we reach the end of the Manticore Tapes. The last reel holds the testimony of ELP’s bassist, vocalist, songwriter and record producer, Greg Lake. With the publication of this question and answer session, the ELP Jigsaw is complete and the weary work of our Engineer and Transcriber, Keith Altham, is over.

When you look at all the roles Greg plays in what must be one of the most successful bands around, it seems hard to believe he once nearly died after gigging in Carlisle, the town God forgot on the seventh day because he couldn’t afford anything more than a loaf of broad and a pint of milk a day. Want to know more. Then read on...

Can you tell me what kind of musical background you grew up in, your very early musical interests and influences?

I was born in Bournemouth on November 10, 1947, my early musical influences stem from my mother who was a pianist. She bought me a guitar, a second hand one, and I went to lessons for a year where this cat taught me these awful Bert Weedon things when I wanted to learn things that Hank Marvin was playing. Then I played for some semi-pro bands in Bournemouth which lasted about a year and then I joined a group called 'The Gods.'

I had a secondary modern school education which was a disaster, I left very early. My job was as a draughtsman for a while, then I took in some courses. I couldn't see a future in that either.

That was the point when I joined my first professional band. I joined King Crimson through Bob Fripp whom I had known for eight years, we used to go to the same guitar teacher.

Did you pick up off other musicians and artists?

Yes, it was very much a thing of when you start playing in a group yourself.

The first thing you turn to is other groups' material. For me it was Hank Marvin and the Beatles. I felt the need to express my own music quite early because you derive ideas from things you learnt when you were four and five years old.

I remember once hearing the song 'Charmagne' and I must have been so small it was unbelievable, about three or four, and I can still remember hearing it. But I have never built up my style from any one source that I could trace, I'm not easily influenced by any one musician or any one singer or writer.

When you were playing in The Gods were you playing other people's music or your own?

We were making our own, but which was horribly similar to others. It was the first stage for me between playing other people's material and my own. It was a stage of compromise. When you write your own material but you make sure it sounds like somebody else's, not consciously but it lands up that way.

The songs for instance that were written in The Gods used to come out tremendously like songs by the Cream. Not that they were copies but they had the sound and feel.

Did you ever go through really bad times in those early days?

Yes, the worst time was probably with the group before The Gods. It makes you resilient. Later, when a tremendous panic is on, you tend to keep cool and not get so nervous, because you've been through panics before. When you look back you remember the funny aspects. They seem funny but they certainly weren't at the time.

Probably the worst thing that ever happened to me was when we had been on the road for about a week and we had literally been living off a pint of milk a day and a loaf. We used to scrape out the inside and pack it with chips and that was our food for the week.

Then I got pneumonia and I was playing on stage with it. You keep going as long as you can but eventually you become aware that you're more than just ill, you're seriously ill.

This was in Carlisle, but the guys didn't want to drive back overnight, so we slept in the van and it was well below freezing. I woke up blue! When we got home I was nearly dead, I literally fell over and went into a coma. My mother got a doctor and he pumped me full of oxygen and penicillin. That was probably the worst I went through.

What sort of background did your parents provide for your formative years?

Strange, my father came from a very poor background, and yet my mother was comparatively well-off. We had two different points of view going, my father's was that I should attain security and therefore he wanted me to be a draughtsman. He wasn't prepared for me to take a gamble, but my mother would. My father was liberal enough to say that it was my life and 'do what you want to do, but this is my advice.'

He accepted it when I told him I was going to be a musician and they really grafted for me. There were times when I was hungry and they gave me money and sent food parcels.

Why is it that you didn't become a blues musician or rock man or jazz man. Did these things just pass you by?

I've never got hooked into anything like that. The reason is that I just wasn't into any of it. I think it's not having any one positive direction yet still having strength in your own direction. I think if you can manage to stand up on your own and not lean into any bag then you are free.

When did you make the transference from guitar to bass?

With The Gods but I do not regard myself as either a bass player or a guitarist. I don't study. I like bass playing and I enjoy it, but I've had some years of experience with other good musicians, so obviously that's bound to encourage a degree of dexterity. Also being a guitarist you become fast, as it is a much faster instrument than the bass. So I'm a faster bass player than say, Jack Bruce.

How did you and Keith Emerson get together.

It was like some secret Iron Curtain deal. Tony Stratton Smith made the initial move while he was still handling The Nice but meanwhile I instructed my people to approach Keith. Keith and I spent two months just talking, and we didn't play a note for that period. We talked about different things to do with our past history and different things to do with our futures and the problem of finding a really good percussionist.

We decided on a system whereby everyone had an equal say, and is able to stomach it when you are out-voted two to one. You have to become close as people first of all, and run everything meticulously fairly. Then obviously you have to have a common musical interst, and lead very similar life-styles, and have similar moral understandings.

Bearing in mind Keith's musical ego and your own do you not feel that there might be a clash of personalities?

There could have been, and it was something that everyone else suggested to me but I was never worried about it because Keith came to this band not wanting to be in that position any longer. It's the sort of band that if I wanted to do a solo on stage and wanted both of them to leave the stage, they would, and I would do the same for them. I think that is very important.

Was there a common denominator in the group?

The common thing is percussion between us all. Keith is a very percussive keyboard player, I'm a very percussive bass player, and Carl is a very percussive percussionist!

We all communicate with rhythmic pattern. In the level of melody, there is more dissimilarity.

Did you have any idea about who you wanted ELP to appeal to?

No, because you don't go for a market, the market goes for you or not! Often you develop your own following. For instance we knew the act and the music would be dynamic, and extreme. We knew the music would have a certain amount of cultural appeal neither of us actually knew what would be involved in the end. It just happens.

Why did you choose Carl Palmer as a drummer?

He wasn't available at the time, he had his own band and didn't want to leave it. We wanted him because he was the best. We did not know him on a personal level, but we met him and persuaded him to join us.

Bearing in mind the musical complexity of your music were you surprised at being so quickly accepted?

Yes, but I think it is because the music is really varied, from very simple things to intricate things, and also there is the act!

It's unusual to find the lead vocalist less of a showman than the others.

I think if I whacked guitars into cabinets and things it would just be too much colour on one picture. I think it is to my advantage that I don't do anything and this gives a contrast to Keith on the other side who is really doing everything. It's me to be quiet anyway. I couldn't get into what they do, even though I do like to watch!

What sort of atmosphere is there at an ELP recording session?

We do albums often in seven days or less, and there is a lot of work that goes into those albums, so there isn't a lot of time spent bickering or talking. We just work solidly right the way through. I think this band works best under a lot of pressure. For example, I sit up all night writing the words, and arrive at the studio having just finished. Then we record the track which takes all day and I go home to write again.

As ELP record producer what qualities do you think are necessary to be in that position?

Originally I did it because I have had more experience in production than Keith or Carl. I co-produced the first album, and then I learnt a lot from our engineer on that session.

You're bound to get others saying to you, 'I think the drums should come up a bit here' or 'We need a bit more moog' etc., do you have the last say in these situations?

I would never call myself a producer-dictator, but that is truly not what a producer should be anyway. A producer is not there to command the artists but to perform the artist's wishes and interpret them.

Do you write your lyrics from a personal standpoint?

Yes, there are lyrical things that I write that are personal. A lot of the stuff that I write tends to be surrealistic, in as much as it deals in surrealism to express a situation. They tend to be often morbid, but there are some songs which I write which are spiritual songs as opposed to objective songs, e.g., 'Take a Pebble' is spiritual.

Why do you think some critics find your visual impact confuses the musical issue?

You know what it is - on the one hand it's culture and the music comes before everything, and on the other hand it's everything comes before the music, and they never know what to believe, whether we are artists or actors, it's a paradox.

It's difficult to see why most people buy the albums. It's also difficult to distinguish ELP fans. At Madison Square one crowd turned out for TYA and Jethro Tull, but it was another crowd that turned out for us.

I think they are fractionally older, and I would say of a more cultural background, but only slightly.

We have got a balance of seriousness and entertainment at our gigs. We like to feel that they go away from a concert as if they have really been entertained.

What incentive is there for someone like yourself who has reached a pretty secure position, both financially and professionally to go on?

You start off and money is very important to you, once you've got it or a certain amount of it, all it does is become less important but the other things still retain their importance. Money just gradually diminishes in importance.

How did you get the reputation of being the group's business man?

I'm not a business man but all musicians get a rough deal when they start. They all get robbed. We decided when we started the band that we had had enough of it. I said, 'let me deal with it and I guarantee we won't get robbed.' Then we came to the point where we were managing ourselves. Like I was doing the booking, tours, and things like that and up till now we still haven't been robbed.

What music do you listen to now?

Still very odd things, sometimes I play an album like Paul Williams but there is only one track I'm hooked on and it's always the same with me, of all my albums there is usually one track on each that I play. I go out and buy albums.