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The Acoustic Storm Interviews

Greg Lake (ELP, King Crimson)

The Acoustic Storm's Jeff Parets spoke with Greg Lake on May 9, 2012. Lake had been on his "Songs of a Lifetime" solo tour.

JEFF PARETS: You're currently on the “Songs of a Lifetime” solo tour. What inspired that?

GREG LAKE: I was writing my biography which is called 'Lucky Man,' rather unsurprisingly. As I was writing it, every now and again a song would come up that in some way was pivotal or important in my career. At the end of it all, I had this collection of songs and it occurred to me what they really represent is the journey that the audience and I have shared over these many years. I thought it would make a nice intimate show to do because all these songs go along with the memories and stories not only that I’ve got to tell, but that the audience has got to tell, too. Whenever I meet anybody they say to me something like, 'Oh, great, that "Brain Salad Surgery" got me through College' or there's some story or other with everyone I meet. So, I thought it might be an idea to do a very intimate show, where I tell my stories, and the audience also has a chance to tell their stories, and we relived this journey. So I came up with this title 'Songs of a Lifetime.' I didn't want it to be one of those sorts of boring “legend in his own lunchtime,” sitting on a stool, strumming at guitar picks. So I designed the show to be entertaining and dynamic and actually contain a lot of elements of surprise, because the last thing I want is for someone to come along to an evening of boredom. So that is what I did and now I'm very glad I did it because the audience reaction has been phenomenal. Just before I left England to come over, I did sit down for a second and think, “oh my goodness, what have I done.” You always have that moment of reflective uncertainty, but it's been absolutely fantastic.

PARETS: How are you incorporating your fans’ memories into this concert?

LAKE: It's pretty interactive, you know, I'll tell some stories and then I'll stop and then the audience will tell some stories. There are different elements to the show, I've made it so that it's not really one thing; it's a lot of things and I don't really want to tell you what it is, because part of the fun in it is to come along and enjoy the surprises.

PARETS: I've heard and read nothing but good reviews about it, so it sounds very promising from this perspective.

LAKE: I think it's different. Not that I set out to make anything kind of ground breaking, but I was determined for it not to be dull, or also self-congratulatory. I wanted it to be entertaining so when people left it after it was over, I wanted them to walk out and say 'that was fantastic, I had a fantastic evening's entertainment,” as well as reliving a lot of nostalgic memories. You know, a one- man show sounds like it's going to be boring and therefore it's quite difficult to get people to come along, but when they do come, they're absolutely enthralled by it.

PARETS: If you ask somebody to stand up in the audience, how do you control it, since some fans might go on and on? So how do you control that time factor?

LAKE: First of all of course we do have control over the radio microphones. It’s rather like a DJ on the radio, we can stop anybody at any time, but strangely enough, I haven't had to stop anyone yet. I'll tell you what it's like, it’s like being in a big family room and people use their good judgment and generally of course, people are there, they're kindred spirits. They’re there because they've got something good to share. They've got fond memories. You've heard the saying 'There’s a lot of love in the room.' But it's true, there is a lot of love in the room, and people are there to sort of relive and share those fond and emotional memories. I haven't had one difficult moment yet. I told them, you can say whatever you want, you can ask whatever you want, you can tell whatever you want. It seems that more than half of the joy that the audience gets is hearing other members of the audience relive their experiences. I think that's part of the entertainment.

PARETS: I can imagine. All of us ELP fans have our memories. For instance, the first time I heard the self-titled album with “Lucky Man” and “Take a Pebble,” I was in Greenwich Village in New York, working at a summer job in the City. I had just bought the album after work one late afternoon, and sat down on the couch in my brother's apartment where I was staying. I turned off the lights and lied back, and really got into listening to the album. It was a unique experience I'll never forget.

LAKE: Well of course you see this is the other thing. Back then, music was a shared experience. You’d go and buy an album and you'd get your friends around and you'd all listen to it together and then you'd all look at the album cover, and of course I found a lot of people got into the graphical arts. Then of course, came along the Sony Walkman and then it changed from being a shared experience to being a solitary experience. That was a big change in the way that music was experienced.

PARETS: Then again, your music was sonically very conducive to headphones, and that's a solitary experience.

LAKE: Well yeah, I mean you could say that, although, I mean, “Lucky Man,” when that came out, the Moog Synthesizer solo was used to test people's Hi-Fi sound. The record company Pioneer, the High Fi manufacturer, used to test their equipment using that solo, so I mean it was pre-headphones, really. What headphones did, was made the stereophonic experience very vivid.

PARETS: Your music was so well produced too.

LAKE: Well that’s very kind of you to say, but anything that had articulation in it, anything that had a lot of care and attention to the use of placement of stereo, really did come alive in headphones and of course, that's one of the benefits of headphones. I'm not knocking them, I'm just saying that's when music changed from being a shared experience to being a more solitary experience. I think something changed in music then.

PARETS: I think you're on to something there. Let's go back to when Greg Lake was growing up, musically. I'm going to take an educated guess that you grew up with some Classical music.

LAKE: Not in the sense that I 'd never had any sort of Classical training really. I did go for guitar lessons. Robert Fripp from King Crimson and I went to the same guitar teacher, a man called Don Strike. He also taught, interestingly enough, Andy Summers with the Police and all three of use learned a lot of sort of European music, Django Reinhardt, you know there a lot of Paganini guitar violin exercises, all these things a lot of sort of European music but no formal Classical training. The whole thing of Classical music really came about because in the late sixties all British Bands took their influence from American Music; the Blues, Gospel Soul, Country & Western, Motown, you know that was where they were taking their influence and in order to be different and original, we decided to use European music as our influence. It changed the musical dynamic it became what is now known as Progressive music, I don't really like that term because it sounds intellectual or pseudo-intellectual and I don't like it for that reason, but Progressive music, really mean, European-influenced music, opposed to American-influenced music.

PARETS: That's the first time I've heard that description and it makes sense to me.

LAKE: I mean, you could say that Sgt. Pepper was the first really Progressive record, because that was pretty much European music-influenced and it had tracks that were truly innovative, I mean, "Strawberry Fields," "Lucy in the Sky," these things were very, very unusual.

PARETS: Were you influenced by the Sgt. Peppers album? I mean, who wasn’t?

LAKE: That's absolutely right, who wasn't? I perform a Beatles song in the show. I mean, it's just their influence was so - it was almost biblical. It took on such incredible proportions, it influenced fashion, thinking, music, almost everything and right across the board. They were monolithic in terms of influence. But there were other people, and I talk in the show about Elvis Presley having a great influence on me, because he too was someone who in a way was better than great. You know, when you went to hear Elvis you didn't know whether to laugh or cry, he'd push you so far over the edge, that you know, it was almost a spiritual experience.

PARETS: Greg Lake fans might be hard pressed to hear any Elvis Presley influence in your music, but I guess that just shows how eclectic you are.

LAKE: I didn't try and base myself or my singing from Elvis, but I sure as hell took some lessons from him.

PARETS: Like what?

LAKE: Oh, well the quality of his vocal performance, and the passion that he sang with, the dedication he had to getting it right. Oh, so many things, so many things. You know, being pitch perfect, always being in tune, always expressing himself absolutely with fine emotion. You know, the interpretation of his songs was unsurpassed really. I mean I don't want to say too much about my show in in itself, but I do say in the show, you've got to be brave or stupid to try and cover an Elvis song, you know, because you're not going to look good.

PARETS: Right, and it's the same with the Beatles in a way.

LAKE: Yes it is and you know, it's very hard to compare to them, they were so great, really so great. I saw the Beatles in the very early days, they were stunning, they were a quantum leap, better than anyone else.

PARETS Where did you see them?

LAKE: I saw them in Bournemouth, where I grew up, in the old Cinema with 1200 seats, maybe less. They were just fabulous and they weren't just a good group - as I said, they were a quantum leap away from anything else that you could compare them to. It was hard to see how they got that good. Where did they come from, no one really knows and no one really knows to this day, and it still fascinates me. I went on tour Ringo, you know, a few years back and I used to talk to him about it and it's strange, because even he doesn't know really and he was in the bloody band. You know, it was almost a chemical phenomenon.

PARETS: The likes of which we are unlikely to ever see again…certainly, in our lifetimes.

LAKE: I think that is correct. They were absolutely extraordinary and it must have been the chemistry between them that made it so. You know, when you look at Paul McCartney now he's tremendous on his own. You put that together with John Lennon and then just the spice, add in Ringo and George Harrison, because they’re not slouches either, when you listen to some of George's beautiful songs. And he's just taken for granted.

PARETS: It seems that people overlook how instrumental, and I use that as a double meaning, he was in the Beatles sound, incredible.

LAKE: Oh yeah, you go back and have a listen to Ringo's drum parts for example. They're brilliant. They're really well thought out, they're not just some, you know, some happy-go-lucky floppy drummer at the back, banging away on his kit, these things are really well planned. Perfectly executed. We could talk about the Beatles all day.

PARETS: Absolutely. Well, let's trace back to your early days because you mentioned King Crimson, although you weren't with that band for a long time, correct?

LAKE: I only made the first album "In the Court of the Crimson King" and did the first tour, but to my way of thinking, that was the only real King Crimson. After that, it became Robert's King Crimson and that was a different band altogether.

PARETS: That was a classic album, it had so much in it. Every so often, I still play “I Talk to the Wind” on the Acoustic Storm. Can you talk about that song?

LAKE:: It's very hard to talk about songs like that, but if you like it and you’re coming to the show, I've got some good news for you, because it's one of the songs that I do play in the show. I like it too and it is a beautiful song. One of the appealing things about King Crimson was on the one hand they were really aggressive with things like 'Schizoid Man,” attacking and aggressive, yet seconds later we could flip into something like “I Talk to the Wind” which is very beautiful and plaintive and peaceful, and I think it was that dynamic which was the hallmark of King Crimson.

PARETS: How did you first connect with Keith Emerson?

LAKE: What happened was King Crimson was performing at the Fillmore West in San Francisco and on the day we performed the show, Ian McDonald, and Mike Giles, decided that they were going to leave the band and go off on their own and make studio albums only. They didn't really enjoy touring and they decided to go off on a sort of solo studio career. Robert wanted to keep King Crimson together, because you know, we'd put a lot into it, and the band had been very successful, but I think if just one person would have left the band, I might have considered continuing, but because it was both Ian and Mike, I just didn't feel that it was honest to just replace them as though they were two side men. I mean Ian for instance wrote a lot of the material. So I just felt that it was too big to just replace them and pretend that nothing had happened. So, I said to Robert, look if you want to form a new band, I'd be happy to do that, but I'm not going to just put two guys back in to keep Crimson and pretend that we just didn't notice. And it happened to be that that night when we were performing at the Fillmore West on the same bill, coincidently was this band called the Nice, and this was Keith Emerson's band. After the show Keith and I met at the hotel, in the bar, as artists do, and we started chatting. And he said – “How's King Crimson doing” - and I said "to be honest they just broke up this very day," and he said well that's interesting because he said "I've gone as far as I can go I think with the Nice, maybe you and I should consider forming a band together." So that's what happened. Later on we talked to a few different drummers but we ended up forming a band with Carl.

PARETS: You must have felt that there was a chemistry just talking to Keith in the first place.

LAKE: Both Keith and I had similar backgrounds, since the Nice and King Crimson used European music as their principle influence. So Keith and I were very compatible when we met up, you know we had a lot in common. So I think that was the basis of getting together.

PARETS: You brought a different element to Emerson, Lake, and Palmer that made it more eclectic than just a classically influenced rock band.

LAKE: Yeah, I think this goes back to, really the fact that even though I'd taken on this conscious decision to use European rather than American music, the truth of it was there was so much American music in my blood stream by that point. As a singer you really can't escape it, so it was broader than just European music, it was. And to be honest with you, it wasn't that we didn't like American music, we loved it. It was just in order to be different and original, we had to try to use a different influence. Everybody had tapped into the Blues. Everybody had tapped into Soul, Motown, you know, it was just a question of trying to be original really.

PARETS: When you mentioned American influences earlier, for Classical music, it made me think of Aaron Copeland, whom you, Keith and Carl covered with "Fanfare for the Common Man."

LAKE: Precisely, that's where we always came complete circle to, even (Leonard) Bernstein, because, you know, in the end, music is music, and I love all forms of music. I mean I'm a big fan of Brad Paisley, you know the Country & Western guy. I like all forms of music, good music's good music.

PARETS: What other music do you listen to these days?

LAKE: Well you know, I'm not a big listener to be honest with you. I play music so much that when I finish I don't go listen to a lot, I try to get away from it to be honest with you. But there are things that I like and respect, I just mentioned Brad Paisley I'm very keen on him, the country artist, and I also like Adele, fantastic talent. But I don't listen to an awful lot of music these days, I really don't.

PARETS: ELP was one of the few successful rock trios. There are other ones that come to mind like Cream and the Police, but there are not a lot of those groups. What were the advantages, and if any, disadvantages of being in a three man band?

LAKE: It’s an easy question to answer. The advantage is that the listener could identify each separate part in a three-piece band. You could hear each musician playing their individual parts. Beyond three-piece it becomes an ensemble, you hear the collective, it becomes much more difficult to identify four parts and increasingly so with five and six. So three people, is a very dynamic number because you can hear each part being played out and you can experience all three parts simultaneously. The disadvantage is, it is very hard to make a full sound with only three people. You've got to really think about what you're doing, you've got to make the voicings very clever, very thoughtful. For instance, ELP did a version of “Pictures at an Exhibition,” Mussorgsky’s Classical piece. Now that was a real challenge to make that sound full with only three people, but on the other hand, the focus is very tight, so with three people you get this very sharp focus. But as you pointed out with Cream, Jimi Hendrix, the Police, Rush, these are the three piece bands that have had this tight focus and yet have managed to create a really big sound with three people.

PARETS: As a guitarist and, and more specifically your acoustic guitar, since we're on the same page there…what is it about acoustic guitar that is so special to you? After all, that is an instrument that is often the foundation of some of your biggest hits with ELP.

LAKE; Well, yes, unquestionably that is the truth. The thing I think that attracts me about acoustic guitar is that on the one hand it can be very delicate, very gentle but on the other hand it can be extremely powerful. If it's used in a percussive way, it can be an extremely powerful instrument rhythmically and so it is this ability to change from a delicate touch to this thundering percussive vamping type of power, that I think is the attractive thing. Of course. it is the ideal backing for a voice really. It's a tremendously powerful instrument, I mean, I hope you come and see the show when I play in Phoenix and you'll hear some of the things that I do there, the rhythm guitar will shake the room, literally.

PARETS: Let me ask you about some songs in particular that I play regularly on the Acoustic Storm, if you don't mind. Of course, “From the Beginning” would be the first one to begin with.

LAKE: “From the Beginning” was a song that I stumbled on because of the chords. The peculiar sound of the chords attracted me to it originally and it just lead me on and on. Then I came up with the title and the combination of these two things, really set me alight on it. It's a song that I've always loved and always played in the concerts.

PARETS: Was there a personal experience that inspired you?

LAKE: No, not really. I've got to tell you there's not always a story behind every song and also, the other thing, where lyrics are concerned. A lot of times I like lyrics to be the possession of the listener, and not dictated to by me and my understanding of what I thought they meant, because it's important that each person has a subjective appreciation of what they would like to feel these lyrics to mean. Words mean different things you know, to everybody. The same words can mean totally different things to two different people, and so I never like to, you know, be too matter of fact and sort of lay out, well this is, what that meant. Well it meant it to me at the time. But of course, once these songs enter the consciousness of other people, they have their own interpretation of how they feel about those words. And that's how I like to leave it because they become the possession of the listener.

PARETS: I agree with you on that. I'll hear songs sometimes, and I’m not sure what’s being sung. For instance, Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” and the line “won’t you show for me, and I’ll show for you.” That could be "show for" or "chauffeur."

LAKE::(Laughs) It goes back to that funny line – “Excuse me while I kiss this Guy” (laughs again).

PARETS: (Laughs) There you go.

LAKE: I think what you're saying is, and you're quite right, is that the sound of words, the poetry of the sound, is a music in and of itself. Words are like a hall of mirrors…when you get in amongst them, the light bounces around, and the words bounce around in your mind. The masters of this were people like Shakespeare, and the words become energy in and of themselves and I think that's part of the beauty of songs, is that people have their own creative role in that song when they interpret it, it's their version of that song.

PARETS: Right, it's a very personal thing.

LAKE: Yes.

PARETS: Okay, let's go to “Lucky Man.”

LAKE: I wrote "Lucky Man" really when I twelve years old. My mother bought me a guitar and I'd managed to find four chords, that I'd worked out for myself and with these four chords, I wrote this little medieval, folk fantasy which was “Lucky Man.” I never wrote it on a piece of paper, I just invented it in my mind and used to sing it and I remembered it. So it was many, many years later, that it got recorded on the first ELP album, and only then because we'd run out of material and we only had one day left to record and that was it. It was back against the wall time, and all I had was this little child folk song and it ended up being put on the album really as a filler.

PARETS: I’m amazed that it was an afterthought.

LAKE: When you come to see the show, I tell the whole story there in the concert. And it was just one of those accidents that happens. And even when we made it, we never thought it was, you know, going to be anything other than a filler on an album, a track that would just be there, because we needed ten tracks and we only had nine, or whatever it was.

PARETS: How about “Still You Turn Me On”?

LAKE: Again, I think it was just a sense of poetry really, that I must have had. I think I came up with the line - 'Still you turn me on' - and then I also at the same time, I had these chords buzzing around my head using D-tuning and it was just this poetry of the words, really I think. Once I'd started, it just flowed out and the song just naturally evolved from these chords. I got a lot of songs, using D-tuning. There's something about D-tuning, the tuning of E String out to D, that provides a lot of interesting minor chords and I think that was the case with “Still You Turn Me On.” It actually is in a major and it modulates and just this romantic feeling, I think it was a song which had captured a sort of romanticism.

PARETS: Now, speaking of minor chords and minor key songs, there’s “C'est La Vie."

LAKE: I used to live in Paris and I used to go walking around the streets there and they've got these little barrel organ things. I don't know what they call it, but they wind it with a handle and it makes a very French sound. And I was walking through the streets one day and I heard this barrel organ playing and as I walked home I walked past the cafe and they had Edith Piaf singing. When I got back home, I think the combination of this barrel organ and the voice of Edith Piaf, inspired me. I thought, I'd love to write a French song, because French music's very passionate, they've got a particular way of writing passionate songs, passionate love songs. I don't really speak French but I know this phrase ‘c'est la vie’ - that's life. So I thought I'd write a song around that and I did and we recorded it on “Works Volume One," but it was later covered by a French singer called Johnny Hallyday and Johnny Hallyday was married to Bridget Bardot and he had a number one hit with it in France, and I was very proud of that because it was a very strange thing for an English man to write a French Number One.

PARETS: I take it that many people who bought that song had no idea that an Englishman had written it.

LAKE: I'm sure that's true. (laughs)

PARETS: Every year I like to play “I Believe in Father Christmas on the Acoustic Storm holiday show.

LAKE: Well, the way I'd stumbled across that song, was I’d written the guitar riff first, this descending line, and for a long while I couldn't quite determine what type of song it would be. Then one day I realized that in my head I could hear the sound of the song, “Jingle Bells” as I played this line, of all things, it was a terrible thing to do really. Then I thought I wonder if it could be a song about Christmas. So I said to Pete Sinfield, who I was writing lyrics with at the time, that I had written this thing and was wondering if we could write a song about Christmas. I said but I don't want to write one of those party songs, I don't like Christmas party songs, but, the one thing about Christmas is, when I was young it used to be about Peace on Earth, Goodwill to all men and you know, burying the hatchet and being nice to people, and if you had a row with someone, you'd forget it and patch it up over Christmas. As I got older and older, Christmas became less about goodwill and more about marketing and money and stress and I thought, I'll write a song about that, the demise of Christmas, where did all that goodwill go. And in the end we came up with the title “I Believe in Father Christmas" - and the song ends with 'the Christmas we get we deserve.' And so that was really what it was, a serious song about the demise of the goodwill of Christmas.