One-on-one conversation with the “Lucky Man” himself includes stories about King Crimson, ELP and new autobiography
Bassist, vocalist and producer Greg Lake is one of the most prominent and popular musicians in the world, often described as “the voice of a generation.” Best known for his work with supergroups King Crimson and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, both of which he co-founded, Greg also toured with Asia and has collaborated with Sheila E., Ringo Starr, Robert Plant, Roger Daltrey, Ian Anderson, the Trans-Siberian Orchestra and many others.
Greg recently completed his autobiography titled, Lucky Man. He is currently touring with his one-man show, Songs of a Lifetime.
FBPO: I’ve been following your music and your career for so long. Do you mind if we start from the beginning? I’d like to hear about the early years, and then lead up to King Crimson, ELP and the rest.
GL: Anything you want, Jon!
FBPO: Well, thank you very much. How would you describe your musical upbringing?
GL: I started in a very innocent way. I was actually at a friend’s house one day and he had an old broken guitar that had one string on it. Luckily, it was the 6th string, the thickest string, and I picked out a tune of Duane Eddy and it made me start to have an appetite to wonder if I could ever play the guitar. It came to Christmas and I asked my mother, “Do you think there’s any possibility I could have a guitar?” She said no. We were very poor at the time, so that was that.
So Christmas came, and there was the guitar. Of course, I was thrilled! That’s how it really began. I went and got guitar lessons. I was very lucky to stumble on a guy called Don Strike. He also taught Robert Fripp and Andy Summers from the Police. Don was a banjo player, really, and he had this cross-picking technique, which enabled you to play very fast and very clean. That’s really why Robert Fripp has the style he has. If you listen to some of my acoustic guitar playing, you’ll hear that same cross-picking technique used.
Anyway, that’s how it started, mainly learning European music in the guitar lessons, which really, after a couple of years, began to conflict with my other musical life, which was playing music from the charts like rock and blues. Through my youth, I was really playing music from the charts, right up until the age of 17 years old.
FBPO: When you were talking about cross-picking, what came to my mind was the lead-in to your solo in “From the Beginning.”
GL: That’s a good example of cross-picking. It’s just rapid down and up strokes, really.
FBPO: Well, you make it sound easy, anyway.
GL: When you do it enough, anything becomes easy.
FBPO: How did you become a bass player?
GL: I really began to play bass when we formed King Crimson. Robert called me up one day and said, “We’ve got a record deal if we can put a band together and we need a good lead singer.” He knew that I was a lead singer, so he asked if I would join the band. I knew Robert because we used to practice our guitar lessons together. We grew up together and I knew everything that he knew and he knew everything that I knew, so we had this very close musical understanding.
Anyway, Robert said, “We want to try to keep the band down to a four-piece and I’m already playing the guitar. Is there any chance you can play bass?” So I thought, “How hard could it be?,” of course, not realizing that the bass was an entirely different world. I jumped into the deep end and very quickly learned what the realities were. I had to work very hard to begin with, to get a perspective on bass playing.
FBPO: It’s funny how so many other bass players have similar stories on how they first started playing the bass.
GL: Yes, I would imagine it’s not an uncommon story. In my case, what was good about it is that it led to a slightly different approach to playing bass. At that time, most bass players were using tapewound strings, metal tapewound strings, and they were very dull and they had no sustain. When I came from guitar, I really missed the sustain and so one day I stumbled across the strings called Rotosound and that was the solution to my problem. All of a sudden, I had a guitar that was just an octave lower with four strings. Then I was able to play much more melodic sustained lines, a lot more percussive chords perhaps as well. Of course when you get more response from a string, you’re able to play it with more alacrity. You can move around quicker because you’re getting an instant response from it.
FBPO: Who were your influences once you began learning to play the bass?
GL: It’s dreadful to say, but not many people, really. I listened to other bass players, of course, but the thing I learnt more was the simplicity they employed. People like Paul McCartney, or Noel Redding for Jimi Hendrix. They provided the real foundation for the music. I soon realized that the art of bass playing was not about rapid solos and clattering all over the fretboard, but it was laying down a foundation with the drums on which the whole musical structure could rest.
FBPO: If only more bass players understood that concept. It’s so important!
GL: I think it’s vital. One of my very early shocks was with Michael Giles. We were playing in the early days of King Crimson and we were playing along and there I was, “happy as Larry,” when all of a sudden, Michael started hitting the snare drum and stopped the music. He looked across at me with this sort of sad dog look on his face, half pity and half hatred, and he said, “Look, when I play the offbeat on this snare drum, you do not play on the bass.” And I said, “Pardon?” I didn’t realize what he was saying. He said, “When I play the offbeat, you don’t play. That’s how the snare drum cuts through and that’s how we get the feel in the music.”
It was something I’d never realized before. I felt really stupid. Once I’d realized it, the lights came on, and then I was looking for snare drum beats all over the place. I could just mute the bass, the snare drum went off, and then you play the next note and all of a sudden you’ve got music that breathes.
FBPO: I’ve got to ask you about ELP. How did you and Keith Emerson get together?
GL: We originally met, incredibly, on the night that King Crimson broke up. We were playing at the Fillmore West in San Francisco, and on the same bill as King Crimson was the Nice. Ian (McDonald) and Mike Giles decided that they didn’t want to continue touring anymore. They were going to do studio albums only and that was it. I didn’t really feel it was honest to carry on King Crimson with half the band missing. I didn’t feel comfortable with the idea of replacing two of those guys. The chemistry in King Crimson was so complete. Ian wrote a lot of the material and Michael was an extraordinary drummer, and when you take those two people away, it was no longer the same band.
Anyway, later that night in the hotel, Keith and I met up in the bar and we started chatting. He asked how King Crimson was doing, and I said, “To be honest, they’ve just broken up,” and he said, “That’s incredible, because I’ve just come to the end of my time with the Nice. I can’t do much more and I think I’ve hit the wall with it. Maybe you and I can think of starting a band.” And that’s where it started.
FBPO: So that must have been, what, 1970, 1971?
GL: Yes, ’70.
FBPO: And what about Carl?
GL: The first person we interviewed was Mitch Mitchell. For a while, there was talk of Jimi Hendrix joining the band and people were starting to call it HELP. But at the time we were talking to Mitch, Jimi was doing the Band of Angels. In the meantime, we got a call from a chap named Robert Stigwood, who managed the Bee Gees, who managed Cream, among other people. He called up and he said, “I’ve got this great young drummer called Carl Palmer. He’s really fantastic and he would be perfect for you,” so we told him to send him over. A couple of days later, we auditioned Carl in a little studio in Soho. It was immediately a pattern when we started playing. The chemistry was electric, that’s all I could describe it as. It was effervescent.
FBPO: The chemistry was just right. I had the privilege seeing you at Cobo Arena in Detroit back in the seventies. That’s when Works, Volume I had just come out, and you had the whole orchestra and you had the choir. I just loved it!
GL: Well, we tried to better the last thing we did. We always tried to keep moving forward. That was the whole idea behind progressive music, that it should, in some way, try and progress. That’s what we did. We kept trying to move it forward. To me, the greatest ELP albums were those early records, like Trilogy, Tarkus, Brain Salad Sugery. I think those were the really innovative records.
FBPO: I loved them all. Tell me about the Songs of a Lifetime tour.
GL: I’ve just finished writing my autobiography, which, rather unsurprisingly, is called Lucky Man. When I was writing it, these songs would pop up from time to time that were sort of crucial to my destiny. They were important songs. Not only songs that I’d written, but songs by other people that had influenced me or inspired me in some way.
When I came to the end of it and looked at all of these songs, I realized that what they represented was the journey that I’d shared together with the audience and I thought how nice it would be to get an intimate theater setting and play these songs and talk about the memories that go with them. Some are my memories, but also, and perhaps more importantly, the audience’s memories of how it was for them and what they remember about it and how the songs affected their lives. It’s a shared experience.
FBPO: Did I read somewhere that it’s going to be available first on audio, and then in book form?
GL: That’s right.
FBPO: So when can we expect one or the other?
GL: I’ve released the first audio in three volumes on USB sticks, and you can buy the first volume now.
FBPO: The text will be available when?
GL: I hope in November. I believe that it’s going to be done in November.
FBPO: Who is your publisher?
GL: I’ve not decided yet on the publisher. I may publish it myself. There are a couple interested in doing it, but you basically get involved with that and all of a sudden they’re controlling everything and I don’t like that so much.
FBPO: It’s great that the tour is going so well and that it’s been extended to the U.K., so congratulations for that.
GL: You know, it was a wonderful revelation because before I left the U.K. to go on tour, I sat down in my living room and I thought, “Oh God, what have I done? What if it doesn’t work and I’m there every night alone standing on that stage?” And it was such a relief when we played the first show. People just loved it.
FBPO: What kind of crowds are coming out to see you? Is it the older crowds, or are they bringing their kids, or a little of each?
GL: There is a little of each. A lot of fathers bring younger sons, especially if they’re into music. I get a lot of young guys who are just starting their first bands. They’ll come along with their parents and stuff like that or they come on their own. Mainly it’s the older people who lived through it.
FBPO: What’s it like playing a one-man show?
GL: It’s challenging, but that is what gave me so much pleasure in doing it, to make a two-hour show that wasn’t “A legend in his own lifetime,” that sort of boring, sitting on a stool, strumming an acoustic guitar. It was actually quite a produced show with a lot of surprises and twists and turns. As I say, it’s not only my music. It’s music by a lot of different people as well.
FBPO: Are you playing any bass on the tour?
GL: I do, yeah. I play all of the instruments, as many as I can get my hands on.
FBPO: So looping and sequencing and that sort of stuff?
GL: I’ve created a lot of music for the show. It took me almost a year to record it. Part of it is completely original, part of it I’ve extracted. Things like the original backing voices from Lucky Man, but just that. The rest of the track is completely original. Of course my live performance is what it is. It’s a blend between nostalgia, a new version that you wouldn’t be so familiar with and a live performance that you see going down in front of your eyes.
FBPO: Sounds like the best of both worlds.
GL: It’s an interesting world, because what it does is it puts people in a nostalgic mood, but still entertains them with the twists and turns that they’re not used to, not expecting.
FBPO: That’s what makes it interesting.
GL: I think so. When I look at the reviews and listen to the people who came out of the show, all of them said they had a great time.
FBPO: What kind of basses are you playing?
GL: I usually play a selection of ’60s Fender Jazz basses. I also use a gold Sadowsky Jazz bass as well, which is particularly nice.
FBPO: What do you like about Sadowsky basses?
GL: The reason I like Sadowsky is that they are simply top quality instruments. From the warmth of the feel to the accuracy and playability, it’s all there in one guitar.
FBPO: How about the future? You’ve already done so much, what else would you like to do that you haven’t already accomplished?
GL: To be honest, I don’t have a lot of ambition left in the sense. I’d like to keep playing. I very much enjoy playing with other people, so I might try and do that. One of the things that I became aware of on this last tour was that all these years I spent in progressive music had kind of kept me away from soul music, music that was more mainstream, mainstream rock and roll, soul music, gospel, those sorts of music, which I dearly love and were part of my makeup in my early formative years, and all of a sudden I’ve become detached from them. I got a bit of a hankering to go back and get into some of that sort of music.
FBPO: How about another ELP tour? Is that in the cards?
GL: I would certainly do one if Keith and Carl wanted to do it. At the moment, they say they don’t want to do it, and I think that’s a shame because I know that people would love to see the band.
FBPO: I know I would!
GL: I’m sure that a lot of people share your sentiment. I get asked that question on almost every show I do and my answer is always the same: If Keith and Carl are ready to play, then here I am.
FBPO: You hear so many tragic stories about the fighting and the things that other bands go through, but I always had the feeling that you three always liked each other and still continue to get along very well. I hope I’m right.
GL: The strangest thing is, Jon, is that both of it is true. It’s like families. At the bottom of it all, there’s this deep love and connection, but like all families, these bands squabble, and the squabbles get to be intense sometimes, and very protracted, very tedious. It’s just the nature of it. I don’t know one band that hasn’t really gone through it. I think it’s part of the makeup of a great band to have passionate people who fight for what they want, in which case you get clashes, and it’s when you get those clashes that sometimes people fall out and you get these long-running disputes. It is a shame because it shouldn’t override the creativity. The most important thing is the creativity, and playing music for the audience. I believe that an audience deserves to hear the music that they’ve bought. They’ve been good enough to buy these records and, as artists, I think we owe them a performance.
FBPO: You’ve certainly got the track record there. We’ve already gotten a lot from you, but if we’re privileged and fortunate enough to get more, I know that we would embrace that and welcome it wholeheartedly.
GL: That was very nice of you to say. I, too, am grateful for all the support and enthusiasm that I’ve received through my career. It’s been an incredible journey.
FBPO: What would you be if you weren’t a bass player?
GL: A pseudo-tennis coach. I have thoughts about it, but I’ve got nothing I’m particularly good at. Where I come from is on the south coast of England, in a place called Dorset, and they say down there, “Dorset born, Dorset bred, strong in the arm, but weak in the head!”