These days, Greg's performances are far more intimate. His songs are served not with spectacle, but with stories. One such performance is captured on his album Songs of a Lifetime, where Greg tells his tales - his first guitar, seeing Elvis in concert, finding inspiration in France - between selections from his monumental discography, which includes not just ELP material, but also songs from his days in King Crimson. A founder of the band, he sang, played bass and wrote songs for their debut album, the seminal In the Court of the Crimson King. It was at a Fillmore West King Crimson gig in 1969 when Greg met Keith Emerson, whose band, The Nice, was on the bill.
Greg is in the enviable position of cherry-picking from decades of songs he composed that speak to what he calls "universal truth." "Lucky Man," "From The Beginning" and "21St Century Schizoid Man" might not mean to you what Greg had in mind when he wrote them, but they certainly mean something, and likely fit somewhere on your personal timeline.
As Greg is loath to interpret his own songs, the focus of this interview is their creation, and how music can generate a powerful bonding experience under the right circumstances (think Woodstock). We also learned about Greg's strangest stage moment - the one even more memorable than ELP's stage cannons1, flying pianos2 and robot armadillo.3
Greg Lake: Not really, no. The Beatles were obviously a huge influence on everybody in the world. And the whole idea behind Songs of a Lifetime is the age of shared music and the era of shared music. When people would buy an album and sit 'round together and would listen to it together, they would share it and in some way be bonded by the music. And I think that was what made a lot of those huge events, like Woodstock, the Isle of Wight Festival, and California Jam - a number of them I played on. These were gatherings of people who felt bonded in some way by their shared understanding of the music they listened to. So really that's what it's all about.
Songfacts: Where did the number 9 come from in that song?
Lake: I have no fucking clue what number 9's got to do with anything, to be honest with you.
Lake: You mean the "Welcome Back My Friends"?
Songfacts: Yes, that section of the movement.
So it came about, this line, "Welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends." It was a kind of live idea behind it.
Songfacts: You mentioned Trilogy. I always wondered why the specific song was called "Trilogy."
Lake: I don't know. I mean, Trilogy was the title of the album. We used to retrofit our titles. Certainly the album concepts were retrofitted. We made the music first, you see. And really, it fitted together, just because it was in the order that it was written and created. The word "trilogy" never occurs on the whole album, but it is the title. So we would title things sometimes in retrospect.
Songfacts: You've talked about how you wrote the song "Lucky Man" when you were very young. Did the lyrics change over time?
Lake: Strangely enough, no. It always stayed the same. In essence it is a very simplistic little medieval fantasy. So it was, I wrote it when I was 12 years old. And what motivated me really was my mom had just bought me this guitar, and I was really pleased. I'd learned the first four chords. And with these early chords, I just wrote this little song, but I never even wrote it on a piece of paper. I just made it up in my head, and that was it. But for some reason, I never forgot the lyrics. It was many years later when it got recorded on the first ELP record.
The lyrics never changed, but strangely enough, over time the way that people perceived the song changed. Perhaps it was vaguely something to do with the Vietnam War, that period, just at the end of the Vietnam War. Some people associated it with the John F. Kennedy assassination. It had those sort of overtones. So it was connected in a way to an era when there was a lot of war and drama like that. But the lyrics really got interpreted in a way in which I'd never intended them to be, of course, when I wrote it as a young kid.
It happens with a lot of songs. This is one of the reasons why I don't like to discuss lyrics very much, because when you write a song, of course you have your own idea of what is meant by the lyrics, but everyone who listens to it has got their own interpretation, and different people have different feelings about what a song means to them. So for me, once a song is recorded and it goes out into the public domain, it really becomes the possession of the people who listen to it. And, of course, each of them has got their own different version in their own mind of what it does for them. So I don't like to tell people what I think my version is. Because, really, everybody's got their own image of what that is.
Songfacts: Absolutely. And that's totally understandable. What I find fascinating about Songs of a Lifetime, however, is how you explain how these songs fit into your narrative. Would you be able to explain how the song "Still You Turn Me On" fits into your life story?
Lake: Well, it fits into my life story in the sense that it fits into the album Brain Salad Surgery, and that was the period in which it was written. In a way we all have this kind of tapestry that we live our lives against, this tapestry of music. People use music, in a sense. Music passes from soul to soul. People use music sometimes for comfort, sometimes in sorrow, sometimes for joy. So everybody's got this feeling that certain music attaches itself to certain points in their lives.
And Songs of a Lifetime really is about that, it's about a celebration of what these memories are and the connections with these various songs. Different people have got attachment to different songs - not only mine or ELP or King Crimson, but of course every artist in the world. So people's lives are made up of their feelings and emotions, and they're connected sometimes to music. And so Songs of a Lifetime is really reliving those connections, sharing - which is an important word - sharing those connections again with people. And during the show, we exchange stories. I'll tell stories about some of the songs and they'll tell me stories that they've got connected to the music. So that's really it. It's a sharing and a celebration of these moments in time.
Songfacts: Did you write lyrics with King Crimson?
Lake: Not so much, actually. Sometimes bits and pieces. But mainly it was done by Pete Sinfield.
Songfacts: What was it like writing with Pete Sinfield?
But, of course, you've got the benefit of two life experiences, of two perspectives, of two skill sets. Some of the best stuff I've ever written was done with Pete.
Songfacts: What do you consider some of the best stuff you've ever written?
Lake: It's very difficult to say, because I suppose one tends to look upon it as though the most successful things are the best. But in truth, commercial success is one element. But what I consider to be successful now, certainly, is when I realize that a song that I've written has reached in and touched someone's soul. That's really what I consider success. It's not the money, it's not the fame, it's not the platinum sales. It is the fact that it has actually reached someone's soul. That, to me, is the most gratifying thing.
And to be honest with you, I could name you 20 songs or 30 songs that I've written that do that to varying degrees with different people. So in a way I find them all gratifying. It's like asking someone who's got a family of four or five children which is their favorite child? Well, you couldn't really answer that. I love them all in a way, and I love them more when they reach people's souls.
Songfacts: What was your method for writing songs with Pete Sinfield?
Lake: There really wasn't one method. There were a lot of methods. There was never a rule: Let's do it this way, or that way works better than this way. We would just search for inspiration. And strangely enough, the inspiration was quite easy to find. What did take the time and what was hard was developing these things up to a standard which satisfied us, which we felt comfortable with. We set ourselves very high standards in a way. We wouldn't accept rhymes that were just close. If they weren't perfect rhymes, we didn't like it, we felt it was cheating. We also tried to make sure that every line we wrote contained some element of what we called "the prime," and was some element of universal truth. It would mean the same thing in a way to all people. Almost if they couldn't speak the language, it would still have the same feeling. The very sound of the line would convey the feeling. The meaning of the words would convey the feeling, and the words reflected one against another, like a hall of mirrors, so that the feeling that the line generated was universally understood.
Songfacts: It's interesting that you say that about the lyrics, because just listening to the music that you compose, you also feel that universal truth, and it transcends language. Are there things that you do musically to achieve that?
Lake: Only in the sense that I try to always play music that I would call honest. I believe in it. It moves me. If I can feel it, then I've got to believe someone else out there will feel it, too. I never allow myself to accept music which is okay; it's okay, I could get by with it, but I'll never accept that. Because I work on the basis, if I like it, someone else will like it. If I love it, someone else may love it. I use myself as a sounding board, I suppose, and the trouble is, you can be the worst task master on yourself. Because when you're creative, you're very unforgiving. I'm very, very self critical, and that's not helpful at times. It's a limitation. You're constantly criticizing yourself, and sometimes you've got to let it go and just try and write on. And then do the criticizing later.
It's a funny game, writing. There is no real rule to it, you know. Other than the more dedicated you are, the harder you work, the more honest you are, the more giving you are artistically, the more successful you're likely to be. Not in financial terms, but in terms of reaching someone's soul, reaching someone with the song, communicating with someone with the song. You're more likely to do that. And it's the same in life: no matter what you do in life, the harder you work, the more dedicated you are, the more generous of spirit you are, the more likely you are to be successful.
Songfacts: Were any of your popular works songs that you very much criticized yourself over when you wrote them?
It has to clear a certain bar that you can feel proud, you can turn your back. And I've always felt when I created a record that it would have to stand the test of time. It wasn't any good just making a record that would be accepted then. I always make recordings that I felt would last, that were quality. I felt that. Some people didn't. A lot of people didn't like it. But that's the same with any music, isn't it? Some people will like it and some people won't.
Songfacts: For you, what's the hardest part about writing a song?
Lake: The hardest part, I suppose, is fluffing out the inspiration. What tends to happen is you'll get a burst of inspiration, and you'll run with that, and you'll maybe get two or three verses of the song with it, and all of a sudden, it'll stop. And then you'll have to go back the next day and kind of reconnect with that source of inspiration. And sometimes that's very hard to do. Sometimes you have to work hard.
There's a song that Pete and I wrote once called "Closer to Believing." And believe it or not, it actually took us three months solid, without a break. Three months we worked on the song. Day in, day out, day in, day out, three months. And that was hard. But in the end, we felt that was worth it. We were very proud of the result.
Songfacts: Where do these bursts of inspiration come from?
Lake: Inspiration really comes from a desire to share or to give. When you perform music, really what you're doing is you're giving something of yourself in the hope that it gives someone else pleasure. That's really what it amounts to, and you become proud of that. You become proud of the ability to do that. That is what an entertainer is, that's what a musical artist is: someone who enjoys giving pleasure to other people through the skill they've developed in their art. That's probably the best way I could describe it to you.
There is no magic formula, but in a way it flows through you. Sometimes it's not there no matter how much you work and sit there and try. And the harder you try, the less it comes, and sometimes it's just not there. Then you have to work on, be diligent. Because if you give up, you'll keep giving up, so that's not the solution. You just have to work on until a new light shines, another door opens, and all of a sudden you go to some unexpected place that you hadn't preconceived. And all of a sudden you've tapped into a whole new vein of inspiration.
Songfacts: You talk about the satisfaction you get out of being an artist. You're also a songwriter and a producer. What aspect of the music do you enjoy the most?
Lake: I enjoy it all in a different kind of way. Performing live is a great joy. That is the ultimate, because you're giving everything. It's physical, it's of the moment, you're communicating directly, you're getting the response back from the audience. It's everything all wrapped up into one right there, so that really is the pinnacle of it all.
But I get a great pleasure, for instance, from playing the guitar to nobody. Sitting in my room on my own, playing the guitar. Love it. I enjoy going into a guitar shop. I enjoy all aspects of music. I even enjoy the technical side of it. I run Pro Tools and all of that stuff that lives in the digital domain. I quite enjoy that. I enjoy being able to manipulate music in that way. So I get a lot of pleasure from music, generally.
Eschewing sleigh bells and snowflakes, the video was shot in the desert, with Greg performing the song in the sun and sand to an audience of Bedouins and camels.
Lake: Well, the Christmas song, the essence of it, the beginning of the story is religious, and it goes back to Israel. And that is where we shot the film. Some bright spark came up with the idea of shooting it in the Dead Sea Scroll caves. It sounded good, you know. The idea of that sounded appealing... until I actually had to do it. And it was a most treacherous thing. Now I look back on it, I was mad to do it.
It involved climbing across this ledge and there was hundreds of feet sheer drop, both sides. And the path across was probably two feet wide. It sounds like a lot, two feet. But when there's a sheer drop of three or four hundred feet each side, two foot becomes very small, and it's very scary. That's what we had to do, we had to cross this ledge to get across to where the caves actually were.
So I got inside of the Dead Sea Scroll caves. They're tiny little caves the size of a bathroom, really, where the actual scrolls were found in clay jars. And it's hundreds of feet up a cliff. So other than by this ledge, the only way you get to it is to be dangled down on a helicopter or something. The cliffs are very bright white, they must be chalk or some substance, salt, I believe, is what they are, from the Dead Sea. And the sun is so bright. They call it the Sun's Anvil. The guy actually fried an egg - I saw him do it on a rock. Cracked an egg on a rock and it fried. That's how hot it is. Just incredible heat - I could only film maybe 20, 30 seconds of the thing and then I had to duck out. The sun was so, so ferocious.
And then we went to the desert to film with the Bedouins. That was fascinating, because somebody who had a connection with them arranged to meet them in the middle of the desert. We went out there and were due to meet them at 11:00 in the morning. We drove out to the middle of this desert, to this oasis with palm trees and a small pool of water, a spring of water. You could see in any direction all the way to the horizon. There was nothing but sand dunes as far as the eye could see.
And so it came to 10:45 and we were waiting, and I was looking all the way across the desert. There were no Bedouins. And I said to the security guy, "Where are the Bedouins?" He said, "Don't worry, they'll be here." I said, "Yeah, but look, I can see right to the horizon, and there are no Bedouins. How do you think they're going to get from the horizon to here in 15 minutes?" He said, "What you don't know is that the Bedouins don't walk over sand dunes. They walk in between the hills, so you never see them. They're always in the dips of the sand dunes until they get within maybe 100 yards of you, and then you see them. Because they walk in between, they never go over a sand dune. It's too much effort, you see."
Eventually they turned up. Most beautiful looking people: pearl white teeth, these dark oak suntans, incredible looking people. We sat round and they filmed them, I played the guitar and they listened happily. It was an amazing thing.
Songfacts: That's quite a production in an era long before MTV when videos weren't all that popular.
Lake: It was a stretch. To be honest, it was more like making a movie. There were a lot of setups involved and a lot of people involved. Videos became much more slick and easy to make. You can do a lot with computers now. But in those days, everything had to be done for real. So if you wanted a beautiful shot in the desert at sunset, you had to be in the desert at sunset, and it may be good and it may not. The light may be right, and you might have to come back tomorrow. It was certainly making film on that level. But it was an extremely beautiful film when it was finished. It looked very, very good. It took a lot of people and a lot of skill and a lot of effort to make. It was a lovely thing.
It was really one of the prerunners, precursors to a load of videos which then followed it. The Beatles really were first with Magical Mystery Tour and all that stuff. That was the original. But yeah, it was a very early rock video.
Songfacts: And the last thing I have for you, Greg, what is the strangest thing that you've seen on stage with ELP?
Lake: [Laughs] It's so hard to answer. I've seen all kinds of things. I've seen people dying of a heart attack. But there was one day we went to play in Bologna in Italy. We had been booked to play in this football stadium, and the promoter had said to us, "You don't have to bring your own stage or your own lighting, because we'll provide it here." And we said, "No, no, we'd rather bring our own, because to be honest with you, we're not sure whether you'll actually turn up with it or not." He said, "No, no. I swear to you on my mother's life. It'll be there, don't worry, everything will be all right."
So, fine. We go down to Bologna and we drive into the stadium on the day of the show. We get there at 2:00 in the afternoon, and there's no stage. And there's no lights. And there's no PA. There's nothing. It's just an empty football stadium. There's no promoter, either.
So we say, "What's happening? Have we got the day wrong or something?" "No, no. This is the day." Already some of the public had started to arrive at the stadium. They were starting to queue up outside and ready to come in, even at 2 in the afternoon. Show wasn't till 7:00 that night.
So we said, "Let's get the promoter on the phone." We try and get him on the phone, he's not in his office. So we think where can he be? Ah, he's in a restaurant, that's where he is. Because in Italy, where is somebody going to be at lunch? They're going to be in a restaurant.
So we send the road managers out all across Bologna looking in every restaurant, and eventually they find him. They bring him back to the stadium, and he's as white as a ghost. We said, "Where is the stage? Where are the lights?" He says, "Oh, my God." He'd sold the tickets for the right day, but he booked the stage and the lights for a different day. So he'd got the days wrong is what he'd done.
Anyway, he panics. He calls up a firm of builders. The builders rush in, they erect the scaffolding stage with planks and all of this. Too late to do the lights, we played under the football lights. But anyway, the audience loved it, the thing was sold out. The band played well.
At the end of the show, Carl Palmer used to do this drum solo, and Keith and I would stand on each side of the stage and wait for a cue to come back on stage. And while I'm standing there, the promoter comes over to me and he puts his hand on my shoulder. And I said, "Don't touch me." I was angry. He said, "No, no, no. When you see what I've done for you, you'll forgive me."
And so now I'm thinking, I wonder what he's done. What's he got? Dancing girls? I don't know what he's got lined up. So Carl Palmer then does his cue for us to come back on stage, and we run back on stage to finish the show. We start playing the music - it was "Rondo" actually - and all of a sudden, just past my legs, there flew a skyrocket. Not one of these ones you have at home, but a big Chinese mortar skyrocket. It went blasting past my legs and shot straight into the audience and exploded. And a split second after that, the entire stage erupted in fireworks. The whole stage was alive with huge fireworks, spinning, exploding... fountains of flame coming out.
The surprise that he had arranged was a firework display that he'd erected during the performance. We're on for two hours; he'd built a firework display, these builders had built it on a scaffold. When they lit it, it fell over. It fell forward and blew right through the stage. It was an incredible thing.
These huge rockets were blowing out to the audience and exploding. And so there were people running everywhere. Incredibly, though, no one got hurt. I think they were so far away that they could see it coming. They could see these rockets coming and they'd dive for cover. The bloody things would hit the back and explode, so nobody actually ended up getting hurt. But it was a fiasco in the true sense of the word.
That was one of the most incredible things I've seen, but there were lots of others. I could keep you on the phone all night and tell you. There were different stories at different times, but that was, in retrospect, quite a funny one. At the time it didn't seem so funny.
Songfacts: I can imagine.
Lake: Because when you're up on the stage and it's going on, you're imagining people getting burned. You're seeing the fireworks go out and explode in the audience and you've got terrible visions of the aftermath. Concerts like that that get out of hand can result in fatality, so it truly isn't funny until afterwards when nobody got hurt. It was all all right, and he was sorry.
But that's rock and roll, so they say.
May 2, 2013. Greg Lake passed away on December 7, 2016 after a bout with cancer.
Here's our interview with Carl Palmer.
- 1 ] AC/DC weren't the first to use artillery as a musical instrument. When Emerson, Lake & Palmer played the Isle of Wight festival in 1970, Greg and Keith fired off cannons during their performance of "Pictures At An Exhibition." (back)
- 2 ] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uSm5IQFaTZA (back)
- 3 ] That would be Tarkus, an armored armadillo that formed the concept of ELP's 1971 album of the same name. An animatronic, foam-spewing version was built for stage performances, which during one show misfired into Emerson's grand piano, delaying the show while the roadies cleaned it out. (back)
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