(Click HERE for images of the "Free ELP Single" mentioned above, images 11 and 12)
The GREG LAKE Interview
by JAMES JOHNSON
Every so often, Greg Lake refers to the music of Emerson, Lake and Palmer as art. He chooses the word quite deliberately. Everything he speaks of is delivered in the same well-measured tones.
But art...? There are few critics at least who would disagree. ELP have always been one of those bands to provoke sharp differences in opinion. They win polls with immaculate ease. Commercially theyre one of the worlds biggest. Yet theyre still often presented in print as a sort of soulless juggernaut, a lumbering musical monster.
Still, one thing is clear. If art, ELPs art is not born out of pain and hardship and the kind of traditional burdens artists supposedly have to bear. Greg Lake especially epitomises the new wave of clear-headed musician-businessmen.
In a sense his attitude is quite refreshing. He doesnt pretend to be something hes not. Not so long ago a rock musician would react with a sort of self-conscious embarrassment to any mention of wealth. Lake, however, seems as much a successful business executive as a rock musician. It doesnt make his music any less valuable. Its just hes no artist in a garret.
He runs quite an awesome spread in one of those areas in London full of lavish town houses and over-populated by old ladies with small dogs and large legacies. One is struck by the sombre mood of the place set off by dark leather, antiques and carpeting, with only more bizarre touch to be found in the bathroom.
There, the circular bath large enough for about four people unaccountably contains a starfish and two lobsters.
Lake himself sits cross-legged in front of the living room fireplace - quite a serious man really, not taken to making rash comments. In many ways hes the driving force behind ELP, supplying a foundation to Keith Emersons creative wizardry and Carl Palmers youth. He was to the fore in setting up ELPs record company Manticore.
On everything from music to his extravagant life-style, he speaks with a careful, studied consideration. He casts a calm eye around the room, lights a Turkish cigarette.
I dont believe in luck but I do feel lucky. Im grateful that the days of thrashing up the motorway are over. I did six years of that so I feel Ive paid my dues. Ysee I believe in input equals output. If the cats whore doing it today put enough into it - and thats an incredible amount - then theyll be heavy themselves one day.
He continues: The reason why somebody like me likes luxury is that as a band were incredibly busy, and if I get maybe one day off this month then I want to know I can live like a king.
Many rock musicians come from a poor background and their main motive for putting any energy into rock music is to be a success in life - to prove themselves to their friends and their parents. Once theyve done that they relax.
As a band weve never felt like that, but have kept on working and creating simply for its own sake.
One has to agree that ELP dont seem to have subsided creatively. They havent bought up and sold out at the same time, and their new album Brain Salad Surgery sounds easily as strong as anything theyve recorded before.
But then it did take nine months to complete, which could be a small indication of ELP losing interest in themselves. Greg explains.
"It's certainly taken longer to write and put together than others, but after you've made four albums people expect a certain thing from you and it's harder to come up with something that'll surprise them.
"A lot of bands go into solo ventures to avoid the monotony of playing the same style of music. Although well get into solo albums ourselves one day, the real answer for us is just to work harder and longer within the band. So when we do make solo albums it wont be through frustration.
Looking back, Lake feels that each ELP album - with the possible exception of Trilogy - has been unique to itself. The first album set their style and direction, Tarkus was linked around a concept and Pictures At An Exhibition was a classical adaptation.
"Trilogy though, he feels, relied more on ideas from previous albums. It was more of an improvement on things theyd done before.
Naturally one asks what he feels is the distinguishing feature of Brain Salad Surgery.
He picks his words slowly and carefully: For the first time weve cared less about exploiting the technical side of the band and looked very deeply into the harmonic and melodic structures. The only way I can put it is that its got more soul, more feel. At least thats what weve gone for. I think it generates more energy than previous albums.
Ysee thats not such an easy thing for us. Of course any good musician can play a funky beat, but we play a very special sort of music, and its difficult to take our music from its very static arranged thing and play that same music with feeling.
AFTER MAKING this point, Lake rises and turns towards a tape deck hidden in a corner of the room and switches on some tracks the band recorded while loosening up in the studio.
He explains that when recording an album the band run through several of these semi-improvised pieces which are then stored away as sort of audio home movies.
Surprisingly the first one that spins out of the speakers is almost a straight 12-bar, apart from some expectedly unusual embellishments from Keith Emerson.
Lake: "These are just jams y'know, but I think they'd surprise a few people. When it came to making the flexidisc for NME we dug up these old reels to see what we'd got and see what we could develop. The actual track developed from four different ideas we found."
The album itself is something of a mixture, ranging from the more or less straight rock on "Benny the Bouncer" to the hymn adopted by the Women's Institute of all things - "Jerusalem." Then there's "Toccata," an adaptation of Alberto Ginastera's 1st piano concerto 4th movement, and "Karn Evil 9, " a theme divided into three impressions.
Apart from the 'Karn Evil piece the only continuity about the album is that we made it at one period of time, and thats what we wanted to do. Its like a collection of emotions you might feel on one day - several different emotions.
He moves on to talk about the album in depth and one wonders how many adaptations of classical pieces or things like "Jerusalem" never see the light of day; how many don't work out.
"We've never taken on anybody else's work and not completed it, " says Lake. "If we start on something it's because one of us is really enthusiastic about it. We don't just go out and buy a load of classical albums for instance, run through them and pick out things we could work on.
"I mean, Keiths been playing the Ginastera thing at home for about a year now, and its something hes wanted to do very much.
"'Jerusalem was perhaps more of a leftfoot thing in that we didnt feel Christ weve gotta do that. It just seemed an interesting tune, a fantastic melody and something that fitted in with our general vibe. Also it was quite a chalIenge to play it without making it sound hack and terrible."
The "Karn Evil" theme that takes up side two is a projection into the future starting off in a futuristic fairground and moving on to the age of computer control. Lake explains that theme so intensely that one feels that there's a certain danger of seeming pretentious. He recognises this as a problem.
"I know people think we're pretentious, but it's really a product of sophistication. All I can say is that we love what we play and what we write. We don't do it to impress people.
"But on the other hand our music and lyrics aren't instant things. You can't pick them up without putting some work into it, and anything that makes demands on the listener could be called pretentious. Some people don't want to put any work into it - which is alright [sic]. Maybe they don't like music that much, and there's nothing wrong with that - but those who are really into it want something more satisfying.
"To judge pretentiousness I think you must look at the people behind it and their motives. As a band we're trying to advance our instruments - sometimes to a bizarre degree - which obviously puts some people off.
"But we're only trying to give pleasure. We just want to do something that'll surprise people, entertain them or maybe even shock them. That's all it is. I agree we're not going to get respect by letting off a couple of cannons but it might startle a few people.
"Y'see, we've always wanted to extend the band. From the start we wanted to avoid being a sort of band in jeans with no show and pretending to be the same as the kids down there. I dont think any audience wants to see that.
Does that mean he feels theres an intrinsic difference between musicians and their audiences?
I think you have to own up and say there is. The life-styles are different. Its not a question of money - although I suppose that comes into it - but it's a very extreme thing to be a musician or an artist.
"I mean, if you look at a painter, he's usually a different kind of guy from the cat who buys his pictures. That's what artists have always been through the ages - a bit freaky, a bit bizarre, but also entertaining. The same thing applies to rock musicians, and thats what the public wants them to be.
Well all right. But at the same time in a professional sense Lake doesnt spend too much time with his own kind, expressing, for example, a strong distaste against the kind of all star concerts that glitter deceivingly in the rock calendar like fake diamonds. Technically he could take part with no trouble, but personally he doesnt want to know.
I only speak for myself on this but it seems too much of an in-with-the-in-crowd scene. You know, if you play on so and sos album then youre cool . . . a stay-with-the-faces kind of hype. I mean Id love to play with Eric Clapton just to see what hes like and see if he can keep time. But, I dunno, it all seems such a posey scene.
I mean, you must have heard the stories about that Clapton, Townshend, Ronnie Wood thing. You know, when one of those concerts is staged every name or semi-name is hustling. Its all I wanna be there and if I'm there then I want to stand next to Eric...' I mean forget it.
Also, I dont think those events normally turn out much good. Ive seen very few random pull-togethers of musicians that Ive enjoyed. It seems to me theyre usually put together by record companies. Like, one record company president meets another and they both find theyve got a couple of heavy musicians not doing much so they decided lets put on a concert, record it, shove out an album, split the bread and were cool.
I remember a guy - I wont mention any names - who said after the Cream split: Why should I worry? Once I had one band now Ive got three.
"What communicates for me is a band who've been together for a long time. I think when people see bands like ELP or the Who they see a family all agreeing and communicating. It's very important that the family should stay together.
"Y'see I'm always unnerved when I see Townshend doing this and that without the Who. Everybody might like to see Pete Townshend do his own thing, but given the chance Im sure theyd prefer to see the Who.
Still, as Lake had mentioned the possibility of future solo albums from ELP, it seems appropriate to renew the topic. Basically he doesnt attach much importance to them. Theyre just something he or the others might make when theres time; as a kind of relaxation - possibly next year.
Theyd just be made up of things we felt we couldnt do within the band. Maybe Keith would get into some specialist piano things - twenties boogies or something. Things like that would be better on more personal albums. I dont know whether well do it. Itd just be as a kind of hobby if we did.
From the way Lake talks it would seem everything is well within the band, contradicting recent rumours that this is the last album theyll be making together, that theyre about to break assunder [sic].
Id love to know where those stories come from, he says. For some reason were one of those bands everybody feels are always about to break up. The fact is, weve reached a point where we can work things - out between ourselves, balance our lives and write our music.
All I can say is that if ELP did break up, itd break suddenly over something very drastic. It wouldnt be like, Oh well break up after the next album and the next two tours.
Weve been together for so long now that its hard to tell how were different as characters. Somehow we mananage to live together side by side without any friction." He smiles a bit: "I mean, if there were two of me it'd be a heavy band..."
Lake leans back, relaxes and lights another Sullivan Powell. Conversation wanders for a while before moving on to his producers role - something hes recognised for almost as much as his music.
Surprisingly, he admits to a desire to produce Barbra Streisand, but is most interested in finding new artists, taking their ideas in a raw form and developing them.
What actually makes a good producer is a difficult quality to define.
OK, so you need technical skill, says Lake, but then most engineers can make an album technically. Probably the skill lies in being able to draw an artist out, put him in the right frame of mind, so that when he plays he feels like God. Phil Spector wouldnt agree but thats what it is for me.
Its a very sensitive area. One wrong word in the studio and you can deflate a guys ego and the sessions wasted.
STRANGELY the success of Lake and ELP is quite a long step away from usual style of rock success. Its happened despite almost any kind of image or tradition. Even Lake admits theyre almost a faceless band.
But it does show you can make it without an image. Its been true with us and I suppose its unusual. I mean, some rock success is sustained by image alone.
All the David Bowies and T. Rexes involve a tremendous amount of image control, based a lot on how they appear to people. As for how we appear to the people, Ive no idea at all - not a clue.
But although we dont have an image as far as the press are concerned, were very much a peoples band. In the beginning we got hit hard by the press and weve tended to shy away ever since - maybe thats why we're faceless in a way."
And the music itself? Lake's stimulus?
"It comes out of a love for writing things, a love of imagining things, imagining a form and making it concrete. A lot of art comes out of difficulty, a lot out of rebellion. For me it's imagination."