Greg Lake: 10 Essential Songs

Greg Lake on stage
Greg Lake: an extraordinary musical journey (Image credit: Michael Putland\/Getty Images)

In his solo live shows in recent years Greg Lake, who sadly has died from cancer aged 69, would reminisce over his colourful career. His eye-witness anecdotes of time spent hanging out with The Beatles, Hendrix, The Who et al were illuminating and irreverent. But it was a youthful visit to an Elvis gig however which gave him humility. He found it both elating and depressing, because “I realised I’d never be that good. But you just have to accept who you are and make the best of it.” He paused. “It didn’t turn out so bad.”

Indeed, his was an extraordinary musical journey, from the pioneering sounds of King Crimson through Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s period of world domination and on to a solo career mast-headed by that Christmas song, which this year will sound especially poignant.

Shy Limbs – Love (1969)

Psychedelic keyboard-laden wig-outs inspired by A Whiter Shade Of Pale were common in loved-up late 60s England, and Dorset was not immune. Lake sang and played multiple instruments in this youthful learning-curve outfit, and while their single’s A-side Reputation is the trippier treat, Lake’s the singer on the b-side, Love, which displays his awareness of Chris Squire’s sky-high bass stylings. The band managed two singles before fame came calling for one member…

King Crimson – The Court Of The Crimson King (1969)

A schoolmate of Robert Fripp, Lake was primarily a guitarist when persuaded by Fripp to join King Crimson as bassist after Giles, Giles and Fripp imploded. They soon realised he could carry a tune too, and tasked him with singing on the debut album, In The Court Of The Crimson King, a monolithic landmark released a few months after Crimson’s first gig – supporting the Stones in front of half a million people at Hyde Park. For many, this neurotic nine-minute innovation was the dawning of prog.

King Crimson – 21st Century Schizoid Man (1969)

That debut album’s opener – “an uncanny masterpiece”, said The Who’s Pete Townshend – remains its most recognised calling card, and Lake’s treated, distorted vocals, singing Pete Sinfield’s lyrics about evil politicians, napalm and funeral pyres, evoke levels of fear and loathing which took rock into uncharted territory. “If it sounded popular”, declared Sinfield, “it was out”. Its nervy, counter-intuitive power transcended genre: some have said it foreshadowed grunge, while in 2010 even Kanye West sampled it.

Emerson, Lake & Palmer – Lucky Man (1970)

The big kahuna of supergroups, ELP brought together the trio of ex-The Nice keyboard wizard Keith Emerson, ex-Atomic Rooster drummer Carl Palmer and Lake, who’d agreed to sing on the second Crimson album in exchange for their PA equipment. This ELP instantly put to good use, playing the Isle Of Wight Festival and winning an Atlantic deal. Their debut album saw classics and pomp, but Lake’s gentle folk ballad closed it. When Emerson returned from the pub, he whacked that insane Moog solo over the end.

Emerson, Lake & Palmer – Still… You Turn Me On (1973)

Lake would joke in later years that his softer ballads offered something for the ladies among all the nerd-friendly Toccata and trickery of ELP’s indisputably complex, probably excessive, noodlings. The epic Brain Salad Surgery album kick-started their biggest world tour yet and took its title – Someone Get Me A Ladder – from this number. Those random bursts of wah-wah guitar remind us that you can never confidently predict where an ELP track might go next.

Emerson, Lake & Palmer – Karn Evil 9: 1st Impression, Part 2 (1973)

The sort of thing which got prog a bad name but which now seems increasingly bold and ambitious in our age of beige conservatism. Karn Evil 9 is half an hour long in total but its best section is this, offering up their catchphrase “Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends…” A nebulous concept about computers scheming against unwitting humans – topical much? – it showcases the trio’s musicianship to riotous, ridiculous effect.

Greg Lake – I Believe In Father Christmas (1975)

Not content with being in one of the world’s biggest, loudest bands, Lake almost accidentally released what’s become an Xmas evergreen pop single. Thwarted from the number one spot only by Bohemian Rhapsody, it was co-written with fellow Crimson alumnus Sinfield, and the pair have given differing views on whether it’s pro- or anti- religion. Certainly it has a straight-faced gravitas – and a dash of Prokofiev – which has kept it beloved for four decades plus. Expect to hear it a lot this year.

Emerson, Lake & Palmer – C’est La Vie (1977)

The fifth ELP studio, a double, saw the band taking charge of a side each and luckily landing on Fanfare For The Common Man on Side Four, thus enjoying their biggest hit single right at the peak of punk. So much for logic. Lake wrote Side Two with Pete Sinfield, indulging his acoustic ballad side. Its autumnal, almost Gallic melancholy is a long way from Robert Fripp and even further from the Bucks Fizz lyrics Sinfield was to move on to. As always, Lake sings with sweet sincerity.

Emerson, Lake & Powell – Touch And Go (1986)

With Palmer having moved on to Asia (Lake had a brief spell with them too), Emerson and Lake elected to reform, after seven years apart, with a new drummer. In Cozy Powell they found the ideal choice as they didn’t even have to change their acronym. Their solitary album found, perhaps oddly, a huge cult following among fans of Japanese wrestling, in which world their track The Score is an anthem. Touch And Go, based on an old folk song, is retooled into Eighties AOR with a glossy sheen and a gutsy underbelly.

Greg Lake – Nuclear Attack (1981)

Lake’s debut solo album saw him teaming up with guitarist Gary Moore, who wrote this opening salvo (E Street Band sax hero Clarence Clemons was also among the album’s guest list). It’s closer to Moore’s hard-rocking Thin Lizzy days than almost anything else in Lake’s output, though the album also took detours through Dylan and Smokey Robinson songs. The pair powered through another album, Manoeuvres, two years later. Back-to-roots stuff from the teenage Johnny Kidd fan.

The Emerson, Lake & Palmer Quiz: how well do you know this iconic prog trio?

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has written about music, films, and art for innumerable outlets. His new book The Velvet Underground is out April 4. He has also published books on Lou Reed, Elton John, the Gothic arts, Talk Talk, Kate Moss, Scarlett Johansson, Abba, Tom Jones and others. Among his interviewees over the years have been David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, Bryan Ferry, Al Green, Tom Waits & Lou Reed. Born in North Wales, he lives in London.