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Greg Lake Interview from a 1992 Guitar Mag
The relationship between bands and the period of time in which they exist is a historically important one; the invention of the electric guitar allowed embryonic rocknroll to be born to its country and blues parents. Years later, financial independence and freedom of choice allowed teenagers to demand their own music in the swinging 60s, bearing witness to a veritable explosion of beat bands spearheaded by The Beatles.
Then came the 70s. Some musicians began to adopt a seriously progressive mantle as bands embraced the then accelerating music-related technologies. The spectre of concepts loomed large, and we were treated to the questionable excesses of supergroups, where ex-members of name bands would get together to pool existing mass audiences and automatically generate mass sales. After all, theyd all served their apprenticeships, so who were we to expect them to - gasp! - start all over again at the bottom of the heap? Thus came Humble Pie, Bad Company and, to a lesser extent, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, breath-preservingly abridged to ELP.
Each individual ELP member had considerable previous [sic]. In the 60s a young Keith Emerson whacked the keys in neo-classic fusioneers, The Nice. Among other things, The Nice were banned from playing in the USA after setting fire to a Stars and Stripes flag during a spirited version of Sondheim and Bernsteins anthemette, America.
Carl Palmer had been the drumming force behind the heavily Hammond organ-driven sound of Atomic Rooster, also part of the similarly-personnelled (and sounding) Crazy World of Arthur Brown. No novice himself, Greg Lake helped form the fledgling King Crimson with Robert Fripp...
Thats right. Robert and I come from the same place, Wimborne near Poole in Dorset. We grew up together and went to the same guitar teacher. I originally played guitar, and Robert used to come along before he was in a band, watch me play and help with the equipment. We would play guitar duets together, just mucking about. Then he formed a band called Giles, Giles and Fripp who got a recording contract and released The Cheerful Insanity Of Giles, Giles and Fripp.' It was an absurd, unlistenable record, tasteless to say the least [Not a fan then, Greg? - GK]. Decca threatened to drop the group unless they started to make more tangible music with a singer to make it accessible. Bob called me to ask if Id like to join them, and I agreed. The only problem was that as we both played guitar, he asked if Id play the bass. I thought, okay, for this one album, how hard can it be? Four strings instead of six; 25 years later Im still playing the bloody thing!
To commemorate that silver anniversary a four-CD box set, 'Return Of The Manticore, has been released. The content covers the whole 25 year span, and the trio have actually taken great pains with the material, which has been remastered specifically for CD. Tracks representing each members career prior to ELP have also been re-recorded by the band and included in the set. Thus Hang On To A Dream represents the Nice connection, Carl Palmer re-does Arthur Browns Fire and Greg Lake features the original King Crimson grunger 21st Century Schizoid Man.
Were very proud of the set. Its the first time the whole bands career has been properly mastered, in effect. Usually a Best Of.. is pulled together by the record companies in a make-money way with cheap production. This collection has been done carefully with a lot of research and superb re-mastering. Also we took the trouble to record some new pieces for it, to really show how the band started, where each one of us came from before ELP. For a long time, too, weve wanted to make a studio - version of Pictures At An Exhibition. Wed started a relationship with Dolby [noise reduction] recently; wed done a live broadcast in Dolby Surround Sound and were talking about future album co-operation, so we seized that opportunity to do Pictures in Surround Sound for the box set.
In ELP, Keith Emerson worked closely with Bob Moog to help pioneer the Moog synthesiser in its infancy. Have the band always been interested in expanding the use of new technology?
"As a three-piece, youve got to use every resource available to support the sound, especially when youre trying to do Pictures At An Exhibition where its very symphonic. And with drums, bass and a keyboard its quite a challenge to make it sound complete [Actually Mussorgsky originally wrote it for piano and it was only later orchestrated by Ravel - Historical Misinterpretations Ed]. So when synthesisers came along it was something that made a three-piece band sound bigger than it was, and it fitted well with what we were trying to do musically.
Ive never heard our songs sound as good as this; even when we originally recorded those tracks they didnt sound as good because of modern re-mastering with the advantages of new technologies, and its a pleasure to hear them back.
Using Dolbys Surround Sound recording technology works superbly well, too, so its good to be involved with that. Previously, on The Best Of ELP and the Atlantic years [sic], the remixing consisted of a little bit of extra top on it and thats the end of it as far as the record companies are concerned.
"The live sound is equally satisfying for us. Im using a Tune bass now, a Japanese bass of extraordinarily high quality. I believe the body is made by Alembic, the Japanese make the electronics, and it is a wonderful instrument. Unique. For a while I got into playing a Wal Midi bass but because of a total lack of support from the company, Ive had to stop. They couldnt supply the leads that connect the thing to the equipment, and its just hassle. Also Keith now has so much control over all the midi and synthesiser side of things that theres really not much point in me dabbling with it.
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As far as guitars go, I still am a believer in the Gibson J-200. Ive got a few of those and I just love them. And I use a Toni Anderson electric guitar; thats fabulous. As far as the backline shit goes, I plug into anything, basically. I use Trace Elliot - actually, I should really say that I use Trace Elliot for personal monitoring because what people hear is not the actual amp, they hear it going through the PA, and thats a different matter entirely. My guitar amplifier is a Matchless - lovely - based on the old Vox AC3O. The Matchless people loved the Vox and have made a sort of Rolls-Royce version of it.
In The Court Of The Crimson King was the first album by King Crimson, so re-recording Schizoid Man must have been a reminder of those early days.
It was a very creative band situation, an open forum where anyone involved could contribute. Pete Sinfield, who did the lyrics for Crimson and ELP, originally did the lights! We always had one music section in live shows which would have no key and no time signature; Mike Giles would count it in and no one knew what they were doing. The idea was that you would pay more attention to listening than to playing, and so it would start off with very little then you would hear something develop and subscribe to that. And because you had become a part of some ongoing thing, someone else would join in, and that way it had a sort of life of its own. It was very interesting, actually, a nice thing to do, though in truth sometimes it was bloody awful and other times it was absolute magic, phenomenal. Now, almost no contemporary music in the form that we generally speak of is made like that. Most of it is pre-calculated, passive market-researched, think-about-the-video-before-you-put-the-track-on-the-album. Music is not made in a free way and I think that art, and music which is art, should contain an element of freedom. Music has become totally homogenised. Its made for a purpose, for a market, whereas in the 60s and 70s music was art-led. Now its market-led, and its the worse for it.
For the last three years, ELP have toured worldwide to regain ground lost during their 17 year lay-off. Was Greg surprised by fan loyalty at this level?
It is strange, but on the other hand when we play a live concert, what Im looking at is usually an audience of people to whom ELP has contributed a soundtrack to their lives. Weve been together for so many years that when we play the songs, you can see people re-living their memories. Lucky Man from the first album is a good one for romantic associations, for instance.
A brief dalliance with Cozy Powell in the ELP drum seat, whilst permitting continued accurate use of the 'ELP acronym, was not overly successful...
The chemistry was not right with Cozy. I enjoyed playing with him; hes a very good drummer and though he was comfortable in the band and we were comfortable with him, it didnt produce the results that we were used to in the context of ELP. The relevant fact is the personality difference, with the drumming a secondary consideration. Carl Palmer is a very effervescent person, and for some reason its that effervescence which makes what Keith and I do work in context.
You see, were not particularly talented people - I can tell you, because its the truth. But ELP has a special chemistry and its a personality reaction which causes that energy, so if youre halfway decent on an instrument and fortunate enough to stumble upon that chemical reaction, then youve got something very special; thats what ELP is.
And so to that modern soundtrack to the festive season. I Believe In Father Christmas has also been re-recorded for the box set.
People often ask about the Christmas song, but I believe if you tried to write a Christmas song youd fail miserably. It has to happen by accident. Id written a guitar lick and couldnt think what to do with it. This was in the summertime, and it was quite a pretty little lick and I wondered what the hell it could be about? Sometimes you find tunes that stick in your mind and irritate you, and with this particular little guitar motif I kept hearing Jingle Bells over it - next time you hear it, youll realise that you can whistle Jingle Bells all the way through it! Then I thought that Id write a song about Christmas. At the time I was working with Pete Sinfield, and we talked about the values of Christmas, what it meant. We both agreed it was a piece of shit, it had become commercialised and cheap and nasty, and Christmas should really be about children. When youre a child its magical, and thats because you believe in Father Christmas. So the idea was, I Believe In Father Christmas. It was a folky song for a while, then Keith came up with the idea of putting the Prokofiev theme into the middle section; after that it was obvious to add the orchestra. At the time I was working with an orchestra in Abbey Road and we just scored it up; the orchestra over-dubbed on to an acoustic guitar track, is all it was. And all of a sudden it became this huge symphonic, almost Phil Spectorish production, and it was very successful. It really was just one of those things that came from nothing to something without any preconception as to its purpose."
There were two basic reasons for doing it again on the box set, he continues. One was that it was timely as the box set was coming out at Christmas! The other was that when we recorded Pictures At An Exhibition, we used a gospel choir. The thing about ELP which is different from most rock acts is that our music is generally not derived from the blues, its derived from more European routes. Most rocknroll comes from blues and black music in one way or another, and ours never did. And so weve got this black gospel choir in the studio doing Pictures..., and theyre really fantastic, wonderful to listen to. And then the idea struck us that we could put them on the Christmas song with the religious overtones to it, too. Its a simpler version than the original, but its got a warmth and friendliness and its more accessible in a way.
And so onto that perennial ELP bugbear, the critical non-acceptance. For the defence, Greg Lake.
We get a tremendous amount of criticism from all corners, and have done over the years. Were extremely tenacious people but whenever you get beaten in the press it always hurts and you always think, Christ, thats a bit harsh, because its only music, you know? Nobody has to buy the records or has to go to the shows, but we always think about all the fans out there. We played in 140 cities last year, and in every single one of them - places like Budapest, Brazil and Chile - there are thousands and thousands of people who like the music of ELP. Therefore, for us, as long as there are people out there who want to hear us play, were happy to play and make records. Because, we dont have to be stars and we dont have to be Number One in the charts, we dont have to be on MTV to be happy. Were happy as long as people want to hear us, and thats how we feel about it.
I must say that on the last tour I was really quite shocked at the depth of feeling and the warmth that we, as a band, felt towards ourselves. It was quite stunning, the power of feelings was enormous and it that made it all really worthwhile.
So the feeling in the ELP camp is one of continued optimism, given that 17 years is a long time to be disbanded?
All I can say is that you dont control everything in life, you know. Its like a journey on which youre an observer as well as a participant, and you just have to accept the way life is. And, had we not had our break perhaps we wouldnt be doing anything now. As it is, were in the middle of making a new album which I predict will be very exciting because the band has picked up a momentum that I believe will be very telling in the next year or so. I feel were sitting on the edge of something which might be new and revolutionary, and if it is, one has to ask the question: would that potential have been possible had we just kept going throughout the years? I think the answer to that is probably no, it wouldnt, so our lay-off has been beneficial in that respect.
What is strange is that it doesnt stop there. Once, a girl came back to the dressing room on the last tour and asked me to sign a piece of paper. I took it and when I looked down it said Death Certificate. I looked at her and didnt know what to think. Then she said, I hope you dont think this is macabre, but my mother died last year and she was a very big fan of ELP. In her will she asked for the lyrics of Closer To Believing to be put on her gravestone, and I know that she would appreciate it if you would all sign this death certificate for her. And thats the sort of thing that happens, these strange stories that wouldnt happen to you if youd only been going for a couple of years.