After Emerson, Lake and Palmer split in 1978, Greg Lake embarked on a solo career that only lasted for two albums. In 2011 (five years before his death) he looked back on a frustrating part of an otherwise illustrious career.
When you’ve spent the best part of a decade with one of the biggest bands in the world, stepping out on your own can be daunting, even if you are established as a major artist. But this was the situation facing Greg Lake, when ELP split in 1978.
At the time, the trio’s stock had plummeted, and Lake did seriously consider what to do next. “There were two things I could do. Either make my own album, or just sit back and do nothing. And the latter was a serious option. To be honest, my biggest worry was how to move on musically. I didn’t actually have a direction in mind. I was all over the place. Now, I look back and think that my best career move would have been to stick with what I was doing in ELP, and before that with King Crimson. In other words, to stay in the progressive rock area. A few people did try to tell me this, but I shrugged off their advice, and instead went headlong into experimenting with different musical ideas. Not my best ever move.”
Initially, Lake went over to Los Angeles and recorded with Toto, but these sessions were mostly scrapped. Eventually he found the right person to galvanise him, in former Thin Lizzy guitarist Gary Moore.
“Gary and I got on really well together. He was an incredible guitarist, someone I don’t think ever got the credit he deserved for what he could do. The problem is that people saw Gary as either a blues man or a heavy metal player. He was at his best, though, when he dug into his Celtic roots. Like me, Gary never really settled on one musical direction... but he was a great player to be involved with.”
The resulting self-titled album, released in 1981, was something of a patchwork of styles and musicianship. A whole battery of top musicians worked with Lake – including Toto’s Steve Lukather, Jeff Porcaro and David Hungate – and what came out lacked cohesion.
“It was a bit all over the place,” Lake admits now. “That’s because I wasn’t focused at all. With hindsight, perhaps I should have taken a lot more time, gathered my thoughts and only then gone into the studio. But I rushed it, and here it’s partly because the record label [Chrysalis] and my management kept at me to do something. They wanted the album out as fast as possible.
“I was literally going anywhere and everywhere to record. I went to LA, then came back to England and renovated a mill house I’d bought, turning it into a studio, and did some stuff there. So, what you get on the album is a sense of frustration. I listen to it now, and know how I could have avoided making it sound so patchy.”
One thing that Lake is proud of on this album is that he co-wrote a song with Bob Dylan. Well, he gets a credit on Love You Too Much, even if he didn’t write it directly with Dylan. “I just got a friend of mine, who was Dylan’s tour manager, to ask him if he had any unreleased songs that I could use on the album. Dylan sent me Love You Too Much. Now, he’d only partially completed it, but suggested that I do the rest – whatever I liked. To me, that was a huge honour. I’m a massive fan, and one of the rare times he’s allowed a man to have a co-writing credit alongside him. I used to love telling people how we sat down and wrote it together. But that’s actually bullshit. We never met.”
The album did poorly, only making it to Number 62 in the UK and US charts, and sold around 150,000 copies in all. A dramatic slump from the multi-million selling days of ELP. Lake, though, firmly blames the record label. “They signed me, and thought I was a guaranteed moneyspinner for them. Here was an artist that would shift over a million copies, no problem. Anyone who understands the way rock music works will know that just because you’ve been in a big band doesn’t mean you’re gonna be as big as a solo artist. Quite the reverse.
“The expectations were so high that they did very little marketing, and when the album sold so few copies, they lost interest. I wasn’t unhappy with what it did at all. For me, this should have been start of a gradual building process, but that never happened.
“Now I listen to it not as a complete album, but a chronicle of the musical journey I was on at the time. There is a lot of confusion on it, and I did make a big mistake in not sticking to the music that had influenced me through the years. I thought I could try other things, and I was wrong. So the Greg Lake album is actually about who I’m not, rather than who I am.”
After it was released, Lake did put together a strong touring band, with Moore, keyboard player Tommy Eyre, bassist Tristian Margetts and drummer Ted McKenna (Lake was the singer/guitarist on the project).
“Once I had this band, everything began to make sense. I had some focus, and the songs began to find themselves. I often think that I should have put this band together first, gone on tour and worked the songs out properly, then recorded. But I was being rushed by others who saw the dollar signs lit up.”
With a band now in place, Lake felt more at ease for the next solo album, 1983’s Manoeuvres. There were no songs left over from the sessions for his first solo album, so he had to put everything together from scratch. But what Lake did do was to involve the band in the writing process, especially Moore. “These were people I’d grown to trust from being on the road with them. Now, I felt like I was back in a band, not out there in my own, and I was comfortable with the situation. Gary and I had grown very close, musically. He knew what I was after, and I leant on him quite a bit, to help get the songs right. Overall, I think we got more right than wrong on this record.”
However, there is one song on there that Lake regrets including, namely Famous Last Words. “I was pressurised into putting this on, because Chrysalis were looking for that elusive hit single. They kept asking me to give them something like Lucky Man, which had been a big hit for ELP. They just thought I could sit down and write another song like that without even blinking. Idiots! You can tell Famous Last Words isn’t something we were happy with, and it wasn’t even close to being a hit.”
Oddly, while Manouevres sold poorly and didn’t even match what had been achieved on the debut, it has probably stood up better over time. The fact that Lake had a proper band gave him a lot more focus. When you listen back you can actually hear the beginnings of something that could have had a real longevity, if only everyone else had believed in what was going on.
“I still had issues with getting the musical direction sorted, but it was inching there, slowly,” believes Lake now. “The real problem came from the label and management losing interest, after two comparative flops. If only I’d resisted the pressure and taken a lot more time over the debut, then things might have been different. As it turned out, though, by the time I’d sorted myself out I really had no solo career to speak of.”
Like so many high profile artists, Lake suddenly felt the downside of being a solo artist far outweighed any positives. While being in charge of your own destiny had its obvious advantages, he’d nowhere to hide. He bore the financial pressure on his own, and was the one getting the flak for failure, He found it uncomfortable.
“I was used to being in bands, King Crimson and ELP, where you shared things. But now I was my own boss. At first it was great. Not having to ask permission of anyone else before deciding things. And then you realise it’s not that simple. You’re paying for everything, and you face the consequences of wrong decisions without anybody else to lean on. It might have been great for the ego to have the Greg Lake Band. But then you’ve a bunch of hired hands who aren’t there to help out in the bad times.”
In 1983, Lake abandoned his solo ambitions, so far never to return. He admits he’s occasionally had thoughts again about doing another album on his own. But always found an excuse not to reactivate to such plans. “I’ve spent the past 25 years or so working in different collaborations, with Keith, Geoff Downes [the aborted Ride The Tiger project] and also ELP. I did resurrect the Greg Lake Band for a tour [in 2005], and there were talks about taking this further, but I got little encouragement to do it.”
For a man who’s had so much success, Greg Lake is peculiarly unfulfilled as a solo artist. Odd when you consider he had a huge hit in 1975 with I Believe In Father Christmas, but he’s one man who thrives on situations when he’s a leader, not the man in total charge. “I’ve learnt one thing: I’m better dealing with equals than being a dictator.”