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Cover Story

20th Century Guitar, October 2004


This is the spot where we usually put the introduction to the artist we are about to interview. But, quite honestly, if you need an introduction to Greg Lake, it would probably be best that you take a moment to do some homework and then come back and read the rest of the article. From his professional debut with King Crimson to his stellar career with Emerson, Lake and Palmer to some of his most recent ventures such as playing bass on the latest Who single, Greg Lake has been at the forefront of popular music for over thirty-five years. Generally regarded as a bassist - a singing bassist at that - much of Greg’s career has seen him with guitar in hand. In fact, most of ELP’s biggest hits featured Greg on guitar as well as bass. We had the opportunity to speak with Greg from his home in England in mid-August to talk about things Crimson, ELP and what future projects loom on the horizon.

TCG: Was there something in the water in Bournemoth [sic]?

GL: You know the only thing I can think of, Bournemoth is a seaside town along the coast of England, and a lot of musicians in the south came up because there was always a lot of work there, a lot of gigs to play. That was one element. The other thing was, there was a man named Don Strike who taught most of us, actually, myself, Fripp, Andy Summers, I believe, he may have even taught John Wetton, I’m not sure, but he was the guitar teacher who inspired a lot of people in that area. He was actually a banjo player which was interesting because he had this special kind of cross-picking technique. That was where I met Bob Fripp. We used to go to our guitar lessons together and sometimes at night I would go around to his house and we would play through the exercises. That’s how we got to know one another, really.

TCG: But, you guys never really did anything band-wise together until you joined Giles, Giles and Fripp, or Giles and Fripp, by the time you joined.

GL: That’s right. The thing was, I used to play in bands before Robert did, and he used to come and watch me. I was the sort of hot guitar player in the area, and then we used to hang around together. Later on down the line, I got a call from him. Giles, Giles and Fripp had a record deal at the time with Decca and they made this very peculiar record, it was a very peculiar band, they all used to dress up as paraplegic people - I don’t know were they got that from. But anyway, Decca was going to drop them because they were so far out there to be a commercial reality. Decca wanted them to be somewhat more commercial in one sense or another and said that the band should get a lead singer. Of course, the first thing Bob thought of was me. At the time they had a record deal, so for me, that was a fantastic thing, aside from the fact that I enjoyed playing with Bob. He said that there was only one thing, they didn’t really need two guitar players and would I mind playing bass. At that time, I didn’t really realize what bass playing was all about. How hard could it be? I mean, four strings instead of six. So, off I went and that’s where it all began. Very quickly, of course, I realized there was a lot more to bass playing than just a four-string guitar. It’s a whole different game. Funny enough, I was thinking about the things we would talk about, and about the bass guitar. Right now, I’m sitting in my room with maybe a half dozen electric guitars and three or four bass guitars and in some sense, they are of course, the same instrument that perform different functions. In some music, the bass guitar has become sort of an electric guitar component, certainly in some music, and, certainly, much of the music that I’ve been involved in. I think the use of round wound strings is a big part of that development.

TCG: That brought the instrument to the fore.

GL: Yes and I think perhaps I had something to do with that because my bass playing was very guitar-like, being a guitar player. The first time I played bass I had these tape-wound strings on and I couldn’t abide them. They wouldn’t sustain, they wouldn’t ring, it was like hell. When I discovered the wire round strings, it opened a whole new sound for me. I think had it not been for them, I would have gotten bored with playing the bass.

TCG: There is definitely music, particularly much of your music, where the bass is much more than a part of the rhythm section. In a song such as “21st Century Schizoid Man,” for instance, in the middle section, the bass lines are very much a part of the overall music. When I hear a group play that song and those bass lines are not there, it doesn’t sound right to me.

GL: It’s interesting because, when the bass would become a deep guitar, when you play in unison, playing an octave lower but essentially the same thing, that’s one of the sounds in rock and roll. But then you can revert back to playing a bass part, a subordinate part beneath the music. Having that possibility was something new in music. Before that, the bass player was the bass player. It opened up a new door and that was one of reasons I stuck with it. And, of course, it’s just the way one’s career develops. By the time I’d woken up, I was too deep in bass playing to do anything else.

TCG: Was there ever a consideration of, besides the whole Hendrix thing, of a guitarist in ELP, you moving to guitar and getting another bass player?

GL: No. We had established that we wanted to be a three-piece band. The only way I got around that was for Keith to play the bass pedals and I would play guitar. But really, my outlet for the guitar, became acoustic guitar and that was ok because I love playing the acoustic. The combination of that was really quite suitable. I was able to play the bass and make use of all that and when I wanted to, I could pick up a guitar and play it. But live, it never was really the same as having a real bass player and being able to just play guitar. Bass pedals always are a bit of a substitute and was never really satisfactory.

TCG: You don’t have the same attack with the pedals.

GL: You don’t really. That’s what made me think about all guitars being a kind of one world, at least for me, anyway. I can see that for some people they are distinctly different, but for me, I feel as comfortable picking up a guitar as a bass. I do sometimes look back and regret not having a principle guitar playing career because I do love the guitar and when I listen to some of the great players I wish I had followed that path. But, there you go, it was what it was and I’ve got no reason to complain.

TCG: Not to dwell on King Crimson, but one last thing. Ian MacDonald told me he felt that one of your most inspired vocal performances was on “Epitaph.”

GL: Yeah. It’s a lovely song, there’s a lot of pathos in it. It’s one of my favorite songs in my career, really. It’s one of those songs that people remark on, but in a deep way. A lot of people will say, “Oh, I love ‘Brain Salad Surgery,’ or ‘Lucky Man,”’ but sometimes someone will come up and say, “That one really moved me,” and they mean it, there is a sincerity about it. It touched a lot of people in that way.

TCG: It was a very powerful album.

GL: You know something, it was a strange thing to be a part of, and it was the only time in my career that I’ve really been a part of something like that where the band grew and exploded really without promotion. It’s strange really when you go along one week and you are playing to two hundred people, the next week you are playing to one thousand and the week after that, two thousand, and you are not doing anything different. It spread like wildfire and it was purely by word-of-mouth. I remember going onstage with King Crimson and the feeling of expectation, you could almost touch it. Whereas, for instance, with ELP, even though the band got to be much bigger in terms of volume and record sales, it was a different sensation when we went on stage. There was the sort of screaming and yelling, but not that sense of expectation. With King Crimson, people were expecting to be sensationalized, really. It was a hard hitting band and truly different at the time.

TCG: Ian also told me that when the band got together, everything just fell into place perfectly. There were no disagreements, no in­fighting, etc.

GL: It just felt like destiny. There was really no effort in it. It felt like it was meant to happen and it did happen. I’ve never felt anything quite like that before or after. It was a strange thing, and it was a strange mix of people. Ian had come from a military background and had all these wonderful things going on. Robert was the sort of intellectual and I was rock and roll. Mike was like something out of  The Great Gatsby. Mike had this amazing ability to play four different time signatures with his two hands and his two feet simultaneously. He had an incredible playing independence and, as I said, this peculiar 1920s type of attitude. A very sort of proper English gentleman, sort of pre-war, almost.

TCG: He looks like that in the pictures.

GL: Yeah, and that’s how he is. It was this weird combination of people and the music relayed that kind of feeling.

TCG: Guitarist Peter Banks once told me that in the early days of Yes, they felt that they were perhaps the best band in England until he saw King Crimson which ultimately caused the band to work even harder.

GL: It changed a lot of people but it was never intended to be that way. We weren’t trying to be better than anyone else, it just was the way it was. I think, also, the diversity of the instrumentation, with Ian on flute, a saxophone and a Mellotron and Robert and I had this understanding about the guitar which was subliminal and never really got seen because I was playing the bass and he was playing the guitar, but the two of us knew intimately about each other’s playing having been taught by the same teacher. You had this really deep understanding because I knew what he was playing and why he was playing it and where it had come from. That was another element in the band which was powerful and, of course, all of this added up.

TCG: I never got to see King Crimson live but my oldest brother saw you at the Fillmore and to this day, says it was the best show he’d ever seen. Not long after, he saw King Crimson again, but it was not the same band and he did not have the same reaction.

GL: It didn’t last very long, and no, it couldn’t be the same band. When Ian and Mike left the band Bob said to me let’s get two other players, keep the name and go on. I didn’t want to do that because I realized you just couldn’t replace them. It would never be the same. Bob’s had a very successful career with all the incarnations of the band, when you think about it. But I don’t think it was really ever quite the same. I can honestly tell you that every show the original King Crimson played, literally shocked the audience. That’s my abiding memory of it, shocking people! There was another aspect of it as well. Sometimes we would start something with no time signature or key and off it would go. It would go right to the edge and Michael would get off his drums and start playing rhythms on his drum cases and it would get very un-nerving. Or Fripp would take a guitar break and not play anything. No one would move and there would be this horrible silence and he would want it to stop but he wouldn’t. Or, to put it a better way, he wouldn’t start. Then all of sudden, Mike would do something and it would all start again. You never quite knew what was happening.

TCG: When you listen to that album, it comes across as very disciplined and structured, yet everything I’ve heard about the band live, it’s completely the opposite.

GL: I think that it was so disciplined that it allowed for that freedom. And the basis of it was that rather than playing, you listened. Most players, play and they really want to play and have people hear what they are playing. What King Crimson had was the ability for each of us to listen to what the other person was doing and play, unconsciously, as if you were just breathing. You never thought about what you were playing, you concentrated on listening. That was the important thing, I think.

TCG: While I didn’t get to see Crimson, one of the most memorable concerts I did see was also at the Fillmore with Curved Air, White Trash and, of course, Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Do [you] remember the shows at the Fillmore?

GL: I certainly remember playing with Edger Winter. We played there a couple of times, once, I believe, with Joe Cocker.

TCG: I think the Cocker show was with Crimson.

GL: Was it? It could have been. Yes, I think it was, now that you’ve come to mention it. You’re a better historian than I. But during that era, you had some fantastic shows. I can remember in England some shows where on the same bill you would have Jimi Hendrix, ELP, Yes and all that on one night, back to back. It seems incredible now when you see some of the posters for those shows. When people now talk about has the music industry changed or is it us, you only have to think about what those bills were and who was on them and the enormous resource of original talent around at that time, it answers the question. It is an era that has past [sic] and not coming back. It was a moment in time. And that was what King Crimson was, it was a moment in time at the right time.

TCG: It was a much anticipated concert. Having read Melody Maker as a kid, I was very much awaiting the arrival of the band. The Nice really had little impact here in the States, so it was really, for me, a band with an ex-Crimson member. I remember hearing the first ELP album for the first time. The first song was really good, but it was “Take A Pebble” where one could really hear what the band was about.

GL: Yes, and ELP was another moment in time. I think again, part of it was the diversity of it all. You had Keith with his classical music and the intensity of ELP and the next minute, you would have something like “Take A Pebble” or an acoustic song. It was extremely dynamic.

TCG: Looking back at the music and some of the challenges you guys presented yourselves, for instance, on “The Only Way,” where you came up with an intense bass line against an already rather intense Bach piece or having to add an additional melody and lyrics to a grand piece such as “Pictures At An Exhibition.” The bass line in “The Only Way” is one of my favorites.

CL: Please, don’t remind me! The thing is, all music is really one note at a time. If you take any piece of music and break it down into small sections  it ceases to become the enormous mountain to climb. When you take something like “Pictures At An Exhibition” played back to back, it’s pretty impressive. But, if you take four bars, it’s pretty simple stuff, really. Most things are simple when you take them apart and look at it piecemeal. When you put it all together, it’s rather impressive, rather like a manic trick. Certainly, Keith and I used to work these things out note by note.

TCG: Still, some pretty daunting tasks. Speaking of “Pictures,” around these parts the lore is that Scott Muny of WNEW in New York was somehow responsible for getting the album released. Any truth to that?

CL: The truth of the story was that we had been playing this piece of music for some time and it would go down great. At the time we were touring non-stop and couldn’t go into the studio to record it. We decided to record it live one night. When the record was finished, Chris Blackwell of Island Records liked it and released it in England and it did quite well. When we came over to tour in America, we went to Atlantic and told them we wanted to release it. They listened to it and said that we would never get it on the radio, it’s got no hit singles, how do you expect us to sell it? Anyway, they refused to release it. One day, Scott Muny, God bless him, dared to play the whole thing on the radio. It was the first time anybody dared to do anything like that. The phones went red hot. Chris Blackwell heard about this and, knowing Atlantic wouldn’t release it in America, exported 50,000 copies to the States and they sold out almost over night. Atlantic realized what was happening and finally put it out.

TCG:  So, Scott had a little bit to do with it?

GL: More than a little bit! He was totally responsible for Atlantic picking it up. And when you think about the repercussions of that in terms of what that did for young people to feel that they had access to classical music. Before that time, it was very much a “them and us” situation. Young people did not feel a part of classical music. When ELP did  “Pictures,” it was presented to them in a palatable, understandable and accessible way. From that, of course, the door opened to a lot more classical music. Interestingly, sales the classical versions of  “Pictures” actually doubled in the few years after we released it. It popularized the original.

TCG: I’m sure it did. In fact, I remember in high school, many of us walking around with the music, learning “Promenade” and “Great Gates of Kiev,” not from your version, but from the original piano score.

GL: When we decided to do “Pictures,” one of the things about it we realized was that it was memorable and sing-able. It wasn’t that we were just looking for a classical piece to do, we wanted something that would translate. As a three piece band, something like that was a challenge. There were parts of it that were hard to carry.

TCG: Early in your career, you were seen with a sixties Jazz Bass and Zemitis [sic] guitars, but you have a rather nice collection of instruments.

GL: Well, I’m a guitar whore, at least that’s what they call me at The House of Guitars up in Rochester.

TCG: I like your Gretsch Syncromatic and that beautiful 6120.

GL: The 6120 is my favorite sort of period guitar. It isjust a lively thing and itjust shrieks rock and roll music. It’s color and it’s country origins, I love. In fact, I’m looking at it right now. Along with the Strat and the Tele, its got to be one of the definitive guitars for me.

TCG: There’s also that ‘62 red Precision bass you used on the Ringo tour.

GL: I’ve actually also now got a ‘59. It’s wonderful to play, it’s so deep and resonate [sic].

TCG: You move away from your Fender Bass to a whole bunch of odd looking basses, but when you went out with Ringo, you used the ‘62. Was that coming full circle or was that just playing the appropriate guitar for the music.

GL: One of the basses I use now is a Baecus [sic], a Japanese guitar. The thing is, with the active pickups and the high-tech wiring and the accuracy of engineering, a lot of those guitars are, I suppose from a technical standpoint, better. But, as a guitar player, you know you will never substitute the character of the original instruments. I love the authentic sound of those instruments, and most guitarists do. And yet, sometimes, for some things, there is an advantage to have the benefit of the modem technology. Depending on what I’m doing, I’ll oscillate from one to the other. Mainly, though, I love the old guitars.

TCG: Do you still have the old Jazz Bass?

GL: I believe I do. I’ve got a storeroom with stuff in it. I keep a lot of stuff around but I do get rid of a lot of stuff. I don’t hoard for the sake of it, but if there is an instrument I really like, I find it hard to part with it. Like all guitarists, I can’t walk past a music shop window with guitars in it and not look. Funny enough, I did this tour with Ringo, and he’s had just about anything you could want in life and can afford just about anything, but the only thing he’s really interesting in is gear. He can bore you for hours talking about drums. He can tell you how certain hi-hats from 1952 had the clip changed on it, and the original pedal works this way... It’s amazing.

TCG: Having had some tremendous success in your career, there still had to be something amazingly cool playing that Hofner bass with Ringo.

GL: There was, I just had to do it! It was fun to do, but it just didn’t sound as good so I dropped it after a couple of shows.

TCG: Just playing with Ringo had to be a thrill.

GL: Playing with Ringo was great and he is a great drummer, very underestimated. And people totally misunderstand him as a person. He is extremely disciplined and totally into the music. He works like hell. You can see, when you work with him, what and impact he had with The Beatles and how important he was. His timing is wonderful. His son is also great. I did a record with The Who and Zake [sic] was playing also. He’s great. It’s a funny thing, playing with a father and son. There is a thread of continuity as players.

TCG: Over your career, you’ve played with some great drummers. Mike Giles, Carl Palmer, the late Cozy Powell, Ringo. What was the major difference playing between Powell and Palmer?

GL: They’re very different. Cozy was a hard hitter and a total rock and roll background. Carl’s background was essentially big band. He grew up studying Buddy Rich. That’s the best way of describing the difference. They’re both very, very good, but totally different.

TCG: I got a call several months ago and was told that you were playing with The Who and thought, well that is a curious pairing.

GL: It came about because I did a charity show with Roger Daltry for the Teenage Cancer Trust in London...

TCG: Wasn’t Gary Broker involved in that as well?

GL: Yes he was.

TCG: I would love to hear the two of YOU singing together.

GL: It was one of the greatest buzzes for me to play “Whiter Shade of Pale.” I grew up with that song and to play it with him was a real thrill for me. Pino usually plays bass for The Who but at the time I think he was out with Simon and Garfunkel and they wanted to make a new single and Roger suggested to Peter that I play. Peter called me up and asked if I wanted to do it and I said sure. It really opened me up to see just how great a talent Pete is. He is mind-blowingly talented. A fantastic guitar player and a great singer. One identifies with all of the hits of The Who, but I sat in his studio one day, and he is doing a re­mix of a lot of his solo stuff in 5.1 and it is fantastic. It was a lot of fun.

TCG: So, we are not actually looking to a future of Townshend, Lake and Daltry?

GL: Oh, no, they don’t need me. There show is now about Pete and Roger and their band is great. I think if 1 was to be involved in that band it would jar the essence of what The Who is. Although I would love to do it on a musical level, and they are wonderful people, but I think as a perception, it would be jarring.

TCG: For over a decade now, you’ve been a spokesperson for The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. It’s special of you to take your time with this cause.

GL: It came about in a very organic way. I was watching a program called America 's Most Wanted and there was a story about a young girl who was abducted and murdered and the film was of her father, Robert Woods, digging in the snow, looking for his daughter’s body. As a father myself it was hard to imagine what he must have felt like. It was such a pathetic picture, him in this freezing snow. I asked him later how he managed to do that. He said that he could hear her calling out to him, “Daddy, bring me home.” To this day, it’s hard for me to even tell that story. Robert started this foundation which is designed to alert everyone immediately when a child goes missing. Before this happened, it would take days to get the word out. He started this organization so that when a child went missing, they would fax all of these gas stations and post offices with a picture of the child. They were running this operation out of a church hall, literally. The night I watched this program, I was so disturbed by it, I wrote a song to try to put it out of my brain, it wouldn’t leave me alone. I decided to put it on a record and give the royalties to Robert to try to help them. That’s how I got involved. The other thing about it is entertainers generally don’t want to be associated with something like the subject of missing children. I suppose they look upon it as not something cool to be involved with. So, no one will join in and help them. I thought, well, if I can do a little bit to help, then so much the better. There is not an awful lot you can do to stop children from being abducted. By and large, the chance of retrieving the child is best within the first couple of hours, after that, it tails off dramatically.

TCG: Your [sic] thirty five years out now with ELP, what’s going to happen?

GL: I really don’t know, actually. I think I’m going to go out on the road next year. What form it will take, I’m not quite sure. I’d like to go out and perform again. I haven’t been out on a proper tour for some time.

TCG: It’s been a while since you’ve played in America.

CL: The United States has been such a fantastic place for me. I often tell people, and it’s absolutely true, that for the thirty years I toured there, I could count on one had the amount of unpleasant or bad situations I’ve encountered. Literally none. I know I’ve had a privileged position, but even so, it’s a fantastic country and it’s giving [sic] me everything. I owe a lot to the United States. I love the cities, not just New York and L.A., but the smaller towns.

TCG: So, there’s no talk of an Anniversary tour for ELP.

CL: There’s talk of it. I’d love to do it personally and I think Carl would as well, but I don’t think Keith is as keen, Why, I don’t know, really. From the point of view of our fans, I think it would be nice and I can’t think of a reason not to do it, but everyone’s got their own reasons for these things so I don’t hold out any high hopes of it happening. Another thing that I would love to do, but I don’t think it will ever happen, is to play with the original King Crimson.

TCG: That, too, would be nice. But what if the results didn’t live up to the legend?

CL: You never know, you could be right. You never know until it happens. My suspicion, though. is it would be great. Just because of the chemistry of the people that made it what it was in the first place.

TCG: Is it that chemistry now that is preventing it from happening?

CL: Well, I think what is preventing it from happening is that Robert has gone on for so long with so many different incarnations that in retrospect, I suppose if I’m to be honest, he doesn’t want the comparison. He doesn’t what the whole of his career with King Crimson to be held up against the original band. I think there might be an element of that. To me it wouldn’t be so, it’s a different chemistry, it’s a different band, he’s certainly achieved some great things and people have gotten a lot of enjoyment from his music. From my prospective [sic], the original band doesn’t change what he has done.

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