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Greg Lake discusses the magic of ELP

The guitarist talked candidly to Goldmine about Emerson, Lake and Palmer (ELP) right before his untimely passing.
Greg Lake performing acoustically on his 2012 solo tour. Photo by Carla Huntington

Greg Lake performing acoustically on his2012 solo tour. Photo by Carla Huntington

By Dave Thompson

“Well put. Well put.”

Goldmine has just congratulated Greg Lake on yet another batch of reissues for the old ELP catalog, and one gets the feeling that he is as aware as anybody of precisely how many times the “classic” catalog, at least, has reappeared over the last couple of decades.

But he also points out that another go-round for “Emerson, Lake and Palmer” through “Welcome Back, My Friends, To The Show That Never Ends” (with more to follow) should not disturb too many collectors’ bank accounts. With the same art work, mastering and bonus tracks as the last go-round, in 2012, the “new” releases merely represent the latest shift in licensing for the catalog, from Sony to BMG, with the only significant difference being the removal of the surround-sound discs that accompanied the first two back then. An absence that Lake doesn’t mourn.

“The thing about 5.1 is that you have to have special listening environment for them. It’s a beautiful thing ... sometimes. But generally speaking, no one really — or very few people — have got a proper system where they really can sit central and listen to it in the way it’s intended to be.”

As for the reissues themselves, though, “I’m sure we share the same sort of fatigue at these sort of things, but in this instance, I‘m really quite proud of them because this music has withstood almost half a century, and it’s kind of an honor really, especially when they’re done at this level. They’ve really gone to a great deal of trouble to make them special.”

GOLDMINE: It’s been four years since these particular remasters were done. Does that mean everybody was happy with the way they sound? Or are you just waiting for technology to unleash the next generation of software?

Greg LAke:How I feel about it is this: If you take a photograph of a master oil painting, in a way it could be said that some photographs would actually enhance the picture. But others would say it’s not original, it’s not the way it’s meant to be, and it gives a false impression. Personally, I love to listen on vinyl, because it’s totally a different experience. With digital, you do get this sharpness. But it’s a kind of photographic sharpness, rather than an original. It’s a different palette of colors, so in a sense I like it and in a sense I don’t.

The other day I was in my friend’s house in Italy, and I very rarely listen back to the records I’ve made. But he said to me “Greg, do you want to come and listen to ‘Take a Pebble’ on vinyl?” I said “Oooh, not really,” but he said “No, you really should,” and he’s got this million dollar hi-fi system and vinyl system, so I went in and it actually shocked me — the clarity and the transience you hear, and the reality of it is stunning. Really, just stunning.

GM: How much involvement did you have in the CD remastering?

GL: None at all. Of course I produced the original music, but I didn’t want to do the remastering myself. Why would I? I gave it everything I had at the time, and I think that was my version of those recordings. It was better in this instance to let other people do it, and see what they could draw out of it. I thought that was a valid way to move forward.

I frankly wouldn’t have changed an awful lot, because if I’d wanted to, I would have done it back at the time. But I acknowledge certain things, with Pro Tools you can manipulate, and it’s better perhaps, but part of the magic of those original records was, in a way, their imperfections — as it is with all art. Fidelity is not the last word in artistic quality; if you listen to old Motown records, the sound is often dreadful but the spirit is magnificent.

GM: I assume you’ve listened to them since they were redone, though?

GL:Some of them.

GM: Can I ask which ones you haven’t?

GL:I’m not sure now. Probably “Brain Salad Surgery”...

GM: Which many people consider to be the apex of ELP’s art!

GL:Well, people have different opinions. Horses for courses, and it’s good that it is like that. I never make a record expecting everyone to like it — you hope they do, but it would be horrible if they did, because it would no longer be worth trying. One of the things that I’m glad about ... I often hear this term ‘progressive’ attached to me, my name, ELP and King Crimson, and I don’t really like that word because it sounds elitist, it sounds pretentious, and I don’t like it. But what I do like is the word ‘original,’ and we in ELP always struggled to be original. That has a value, that has a currency to me.

GM: Do you ever feel you maybe pushed too hard?

GL:I don’t think there is such a thing. But it depends. Perhaps self-indulgence is something that could be leveled at some of the things we did, but generally speaking, we tried our best to do our best all the time. That was probably the hallmark of ELP, we really gave it everything we could

GM: Besides, there really is something quite glorious about pretentiousness when it works

GL: At which point you could argue that it’s no longer pretentious, it’s the real thing. But yes, it is absolutely glorious. Pretension, for me, is something that tries to pretend it’s something that it never is, and we never tried to do that. We never made any claims to be classical musicians or classically trained; we were just ELP trying to be different, trying to make music that we thought was good, and hoping that other people felt the same way.

GM: You left the other side of things to the critics.

GL: With all due respect I never paid much attention to them, because it’s not them that buy the records, it’s the public. All throughout the period when we were being shunned by the critics, the people were loving us. So it just fell away ... it didn’t bother us at all. You don’t like to read negative stuff, but the same day we’d play a concert and get three standing ovations. What would you rather have? I’d rather have some critic write a scathing review when he probably wasn’t even at the concert, and know for a fact that the mass of people loved the band. That’s far more important to me.

GM: So do you have a favorite ELP album?

GL:I’m often asked that question, and it’s certainly among the earliest records we made. But for me, “Trilogy” (1972) was the moment where the band got its artistic identity. It also coincided with the moment when technology was a following wind for us, polyphonic synthesizers, multi-track recording, all of that came about during the “Trilogy” period.

GM: The reissue series has been generous with bonus tracks — the alternate takes on the first album, two previously unheard songs on “Tarkus” ... when you went in to record an album, did you already have it sketched out in your head, or were there many songs that you recorded and then had to leave off for whatever reason?

GL:Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Things like “Tarkus,” for example, we made very much on a day-to-day basis in the studio. We would literally record a piece one day, go home at night, write some more the following morning, and that afternoon we’d be recording that.

GM: So it was almost made up as you went along?

GL: A lot of it was. The songs of course tended to be more written in their entirety in advance, you can’t busk a song really. But a lot of the music was done on the fly. And that’s why there’s such an immediacy to it. Keith would write something, I usually would get in there and start editing it, and then there’d be a whole lot of trouble, he wouldn’t want to lose this eight bars, and I hated it, things like that. But at the end of the day, the album was what we both agreed was the best of what we created. And the rest was scrapped.

GM: Until you needed CD bonus tracks! For example, “Oh, My Father,” among the “Tarkus” extras ... what a beautiful song!

GL:That’s very kind of you, although I have to say, it was never actually meant to be released. It was never even a proper record. I made it right after my Dad died ... and I made it out of grief, really, this sense of not having said what I could have and should have said before he passed away, and then being faced with the reality that it had happened and there was no going back.

I never intended for it to be a record for release at all, and in fact the song as you hear it is completely unfinished. It’s just an idea I wanted to get out of my system, and I never went back to it because I never wanted to. I purged my system of that moment of grief. I documented it and it was a done thing. I’d said what I needed to. I didn’t want to sell it, I didn’t want people to hear it, it’s a very personal thing.

GM: Why did you agree to it coming out now?

GL:They wanted new material, they wanted something that was ... that people hadn’t heard, I suppose. It’s been such a long time, and they pleaded ... and to be honest with you, over the years, certain people have heard it and they loved it. “Oh, you should release that, Greg,” and in the end I thought, “Oh, why not?”

GM: Going back to what you said about the earliest albums being your favorites ... hindsight suggests that “Works” was very much the beginning of the end of ELP — three sides of solo material, just two new songs, and then the next album (“Works, Vol. 2”) was effectively sweeping up all the odds and ends from the last few years. Was that actually the case?

GL:I think, for me anyway, “Works” — both the “Works” albums — they contain some things that I’m very proud of now, in retrospect, but in truth, yes, it was the beginning of the end. The band was beginning to fragment.

In a way, I think we’d just done too much for too long. In the days when we were flying high, nobody ever thought of pacing your career, it was just when you finished the tour, a few days off, start recording, and it was like that for 10 years. It just went on and on and on until you literally didn’t know your own name.

GM: Do you miss those days at all?

GL:In a way I do, yes. You’ll sometimes hear people say “The best time of my life was during the war” and the reason for that is, there’s this feeling of sharing, this camaraderie, the suffering together, the celebrating together, the achievements you make together, the challenges. And almost every day in the career of ELP was truly extraordinary.

GM: Even “Love Beach”?

GL:After the “Works” tour, we went to see Ahmet Ertegun, the president of Atlantic Records, and we said “Look, we’d like to stop for a while.” We didn’t want to break up or anything, we just felt that we needed a break. We said we want to take some time out, make some records on our own, take some time away from being ELP. And he said “Well, you can’t do that because you owe us another record, and if you don’t deliver this record, none of your solo records will see the light of day.”

It was a fait accompli. So we accepted that, got into that, and we made the best record we could at that time, under those conditions.But its not the greatest ELP record. I didn’t even feel it was appropriate for me to produce it ... it’s just the record that got made. It was a record company record, and Love Beach, by the way, was where we recorded it, at Love Beach Studios in the Bahamas.

GM: You’d think the name would have put you off!

GL:It should have done! “What’s the worst name you can think of?”

GM: That was then, this is now. What are you working on these days?

GL:I’m filming my autobiography — it’s called “Lucky Man,” and it’s the story of my life from childhood, through my career. Because I have been lucky. I don’t have much talent, but I had a lot of luck and that’s the way it unfolded. I never wanted to be writing an autobiography, but we always used to sit round the dinner table and I’d end up telling stories, and people kept saying “You should write a book, you should write it down,” and finally my manager said “If you don’t do it, all that stuff will get lost. You really should try and do it.”

So I started ... this was years ago, and there it began, but instead of writing, we’re filming it, collecting together all the film footage we can. And that’s all I want to say about it. It should be a fantastic thing.