On the day that Greg Lake’s death was announced, Carl Palmer, who played with Lake for over 10 years, took a few moments to talk to Prog and offer his perspective on Greg’s impact with ELP and the legacy he leaves behind.
News of Greg’s death must have come as a shock to you?
I’d had no contact with Greg for about six years. I knew he was ill but he wasn’t too keen on meeting up.
What qualities do you think Greg brought to the band?
Obviously what he did for the group was sensational. His songs were the ones that put the band on the radio in America, and then the music managed to propel it forward to the great heights it reached. So we have an awful lot to thank Greg for as a band.
Greg had previously talked about the immediate chemistry that existed when ELP formed.
Yes, there was a chemistry between the three of us. It wasn’t really down to one person – it was the whole unit. Together, there was a synergy between all three of us. Greg was a very important element because of these kinds of folky songs he had, which were kind of love songs, but he never ever used the word ‘love’ in any of them on our early albums. He really fitted in incredibly well within that whole environment we created.
Greg really wasn’t a bass player but rather an acoustic guitarist. He probably hated playing bass! In fact, on the last album, In The Hot Seat, he didn’t play very much bass. Most of it was programmed by Keith. Every moment was a good moment when we were working together when it was going well.
Greg had admitted he could be a difficult character to work with sometimes. What was your experience of that?
Everyone could be difficult. I don’t think Greg was any more difficult than I was, or Keith. I was the one that ended the group and you can’t get any more difficult than that! We were all peas in a pod and that’s what made it as big as it was – none of us sat on the fence. All of us spoke the truth and all any of us wanted was the very best for the group and that was the most important thing.
Obviously he’ll be deeply missed. He had a lot of fans and he was a great guy to be around. We had some great times and, most importantly, we made some great music collectively.
If you could choose one track or album that best sums Greg, what would it be?
It’s hard to pick out any one particular track or album that we did that sums up Greg because there are so many great ones. But let’s just say you’ll hear one track in particular all of this Christmas and that should remind you of Greg Lake and what he was all about, which is I Believe In Father Christmas.
You and Greg must have both been part of the late-60s scene in Bournemouth.
I’ve known him a long time, since we were teenagers. We met at a gig, at Lagland Street Boys’ Club, near Poole Quay in about 1966. I must have been 16 or 17, he must have been around the 18-19 mark, and it was a Portsmouth band called The Classics, and it changed my life forever. There were several people in the room that night whose lives were touched by that and I know that he was one of them. They were just R&B, they were dirty, they were filthy, they played Bo Diddley songs and they smashed any aspiration to be Cliff Richard that either of us had. Before The Classics, everything had been sweeter than sweet and nicer than nice, and this came along and just hit me in the face. It was the real deal. It was so shocking that it changed my perspective of looking at rock music.
Bournemouth was a great place to grow up if you were a musician because the population doubled in the summer because of the foreign students, and they needed to be entertained, so there were gigs everywhere. There were several local bands in competition with each other and a lot of them contained the same people. So every night of the week we were playing, but because Greg and I did almost the same thing – we were singer-songwriter bass players – we never played in the same band or set foot in the studio or onstage together.
He was in The Gods [from late 1967] and I was in a local band called The Palmer-James Group [with future King Crimson lyricist Richard Palmer-James]. The Gods also had people in it that I would play with in the future, in Uriah Heep: Lee Kerslake and Ken Hensley. That must have been one hell of a dressing room!
Greg and I would cross paths every couple of years. At first we weren’t bosom buddies, but we would always enquire after each other. I knew Keith Emerson quite well, and Carl Palmer very well, and the first incarnation of King Crimson well. There has been a lot of cross-fertilization between King Crimson members. It’s almost like going to university: you come out with some ‘kudos degree’ at the end of it and it binds you to all the generations of King Crimson.
We did play in the same band twice, but not at the same time. I replaced him in King Crimson and he replaced me in Asia. Greg was always larger than life, always effusive, always very enthusiastic and over the top, but when you could get him in a mood when he wasn’t on show, he was thoughtful and caring. We were good friends and I loved him.
What did you think of Greg’s songwriting contribution to ELP?
I know he had a bit of an Elvis fetish, which I tried to overlook: the big acoustic guitar and a liking for expense and excess – not that I was innocent of excess myself during certain periods of my career.
It always seemed to me that all the great prog singer-songwriters, like Greg, would have been folk musicians if it hadn’t have been for progressive music – the storyteller, the raconteur, the romantic is there in most. If you distil what progressive rock singer-songwriters are about, you can find a folkie in there. It’s true. You can distil every prog song down to acoustic guitar and vocals and then you have a folk song. There are lots of influences in progressive music, like classical, jazz and R&B, but when you distil it, it’s folk.
You mean that his songs had a more direct and personal troubadour kind of style?
Absolutely. Let’s clear the stage and it’s Greg’s turn now – and he did it very well. He’s the only guy in the band who could just pick up an acoustic guitar and start entertaining the room. The drummer can’t do that really [laughs]. Troubadour is a good word. Prog singers would have been troubadours in days gone by.
Greg was a great singer, but sometimes it seems like his bass playing has been relatively overlooked. What did you think of it?
So much of bass playing is subjective. If the guitar or sax players are playing with a rhythm section where the bass player is flying all over the place, you have to feel sorry for them. The bass player needs to do something that links the chordal side of the band to the rhythmic side of the band. Greg was an ideal amalgam of that, being able to play with chops but keeping the fundamentals going at the same time.
I last saw him about three years ago at Asia’s studio in Hertfordshire, just briefly. But there have been times when people have approached me and Greg to do a project together, and because we pretty much perform the same function, it would have been difficult to find something that we could do together. Too much of a good thing! I’m sure I would have enjoyed working with him, but we never really got the chance to find out. And if someone‘s in the spotlight and someone else steps in, you get record company or management people saying, “Oh no you don’t!” It has happened a lot in the past.
I heard someone say, in the early days, that based on our performances in King Crimson, he was the choirboy and I was somewhat more ‘street’ than that, but I think my ‘street’ was just naivety and ignorance, really – just a bit more rough and ready. Someone once said “studied nonchalance” about me, whereas Greg always came across as very highly polished.
In a nutshell he was a lovely bloke and had great vision about his music. A really good guy.
How did you react to the news of Greg’s passing?
It was a shock. I didn’t realise he was ill. Obviously, within Crimson… over the years there’s been some animosity between Robert [Fripp] and Greg, but for me, as a fanboy, the first thing I ever heard was [21st Century] Schizoid Man, and part of what blew me away was the vocal. He was a guy, unusually in rock music at the time, who sang with an English accent. As a kid I thought that was amazing and very appealing. Then I sought out other guys that sang like that, so he’s figuratively and literally part of how I sing.
Of course, the irony is that he was the first singer in King Crimson and I’m the current singer in King Crimson. I’ve just come back off tour when, every night, I sang at least four of the songs he brought to life originally, so it’s constantly in the back of your head, you know? Someone did an interview with Greg recently and they asked him how he felt about the 5.1 remixes of the ELP stuff, and they said, “Isn’t it funny how albums by the original singer of King Crimson are now being mixed by the current King Crimson singer?”
I saw that with sheer dread, thinking that he was going to give me a kicking, but he was actually incredibly nice and even-handed about the whole thing, and said, “Yeah, it’s amazing, isn’t it?” and commented on what a good job I’d done.
Greg must be a hugely significant figure for you, for all manner of reasons…
Oh yes, of course. I’d basically lived with him, for the whole Emerson Lake & Palmer 5.1 thing. Even when you’re listening to it and not involved in it, one of the things that’s nice about it is that you’re in the middle of the music. And, of course, mixing him in particular… The tune that springs to mind, From The Beginning, it’s only because it’s one of those songs that takes me straight back to a place and time, and it really felt like he was in the room, real ‘hairs on the back of your neck’ stuff. It had that vibe. So it’s very poignant, particularly because of the job I’m doing currently. It has an extra resonance than I would have had, had I just been a fan of the music and influenced by it. It’s a daily reminder, you know?
Have you encountered him directly since becoming a member of Crimson?
I didn’t know him, although he bought one of my guitars once! I know that Ian Anderson did some shows with him in the not too distant past. Ian does these church shows around Christmas, and he said Greg was great. There’s a little clip of them online, with Greg doing …Father Christmas with Ian playing flute. It’s really sweet. But yes, he’s a fundamental part of my childhood and a fundamental part of my life now, too.
I’m still singing that stuff and there’s also a legacy that I’m conscious of upholding and wanting to perpetuate and build upon, because it does feel like the current version of Crimson harks back to the more English-centric era, as opposed to the more America, Talking Heads-type place they went to in the 80s. It’s been a privilege to sing his stuff and it’s been a privilege to mix that stuff, from when those guys were in their prime.
“Music bows its head to acknowledge the passing of a great musician and singer, Greg Lake.”
“Another sad loss with the passing of Greg Lake. You left some great music with us my friend, and so, like Keith, you will live on.”
“Very sad to hear of the passing of our friend, legendary Greg Lake. Our thoughts and condolences are with Regina and Natasha and all the family.”
“Very sad to hear the news of the passing of my friend Greg Lake. Many wonderful memories of time spent together through the years. #RIP.”
OFFICIAL ISLE OF WIGHT FESTIVAL
“Here’s how to start a festival set… with cannons! RIP Greg Lake – singer and bassist of Emerson Lake & Palmer. At least he survived the 1970 stage fire… No more please, 2016!”
ELP MANAGER STEWART YOUNG
“Yesterday, December 7th, I lost my best friend to a long and stubborn battle with cancer.
“Greg Lake will stay in my heart forever, as he has always been. His family would be grateful for privacy during this time of their grief.”