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Greg Lake Talks Guitars, King Crimson, ELP and the Late Gary Moore

Russell Hall

Four bands — Yes, Emerson Lake & Palmer, King Crimson and Genesis — dominated progressive rock during the genre’s ‘70s heyday. Greg Lake bears the distinction of having been a member of two of them. First in King Crimson, and then in ELP, Lake was among the first musicians to push rock music into the classical arena, while keeping alive its adventurous spirit.

Since mid-April, Lake has been tracing the arc of his career — including those heady early years — in the form of a solo show called “Songs of a Lifetime.” The multimedia experience includes the sharing of stories between Lake and his legions of fans. “I perform all kinds of music — not just things I wrote, but songs that influenced me,” Lake explains. “It’s a shared event, and it’s a colorful event. The show contains lots of surprises. People have fond memories of experiencing this music. They love revisiting that place.”

Later this year, Lake’s life-story will become available to everyone in the form of his autobiography — titled, appropriately, Lucky Man. During a stop on his “Songs of a Lifetime” tour, he spoke with about his best-known songs, his guitars and the music he made as a member of two of prog-rock’s greatest bands. The talk began with a question about his work with fellow guitarist Robert Fripp in King Crimson.

King Crimson’s debut album, In the Court of the Crimson King, was unlike anything any rock group had released to that point. How did the band manage to forge such a unique style so quickly?

At that time, nearly all the British bands were using the blues or soul music — American music — as their influence. Since that well had been visited so many times, we decided we would try to use European music as our base influence, in order to be different. Robert [Fripp] and I — and Ian McDonald, for that matter — had all been schooled in European music. We understood it. We played Django Reinhardt, and we did Paganini violin exercises and so forth. Even though I loved American music, and had played it throughout my youth, it was very easy for me to adapt to using European music as the basis for new creations. I had studied that form of music.

You and Fripp also took guitar lessons from the same teacher. How big an impact did that have on how the two of you interacted, musically?

It was crucial. Robert and I grew up together, and we used to practice our lessons together. By the time King Crimson was formed, we were like two peas in a pod — like mirrors. He knew exactly what I knew and I knew exactly what he knew. We both learned the same technique of cross-picking, and we sounded very similar in some ways. Of course, by that time I was playing bass, so people on the outside never knew the two of us had that reflective knowledge. Still, that was one very strange component of King Crimson. The other was that Ian McDonald had never been in a rock band before. He came from the military, from a military brass band. That was a bit peculiar. King Crimson was not an everyday sort of band.

You soon left King Crimson and joined Emerson Lake & Palmer. How did ELP differ from King Crimson, in style and in what you wanted to accomplish?

It was a different sort of chemistry. ELP was three distinct individuals, with three musical voices, whereas King Crimson was an ensemble, a collective band with a collective voice. Keith was — and is — a virtuoso musician, and a brilliant Hammond organ player. I’ve always felt that was his main strength. He’s incomparable on Hammond organ, and he’s also very innovative as a music writer, as a composer. When it came to synthesizers, he was extremely adventurous. He would search for sounds that were very unusual. Tarkus, Trilogy and Brain Salad Surgery are albums with an absolutely unique and innovative sound and style.

How did “Lucky Man” come together, in the studio?

“Lucky Man” was done right at the end of making the first album. We had one day left, and we had run out of material. I said, “Well, I’ve got this song I wrote when I was 12 years old. If we’re just looking for filler, maybe it will do.” I played it, and no one liked it, but it was all we had. Keith said he couldn’t think of anything to play on it, and suggested I just record it on my own. So that’s what I did. He went down to the pub for a couple of hours, and when he got back, he was shocked. I had made a complete recording with block harmonies and an electric guitar solo, and it sounded pretty good. He said, “Well, I think I had better play on it.” That’s when the Moog solo went on, at the end.

And “From the Beginning”?

“From the Beginning” was purpose-written, in isolation, for the Trilogy album. But it was in fact recorded in a way similar to “Lucky Man” — putting down the acoustic guitar first, then the bass, then the percussion, and finally the Moog solo at the end.

How much of the writing of the ELP material, in general, was done in the studio?

Quite a lot. We often came in with half-formed ideas, and developed them as the track was being recorded. A lot of Tarkus was made that way. We had perhaps one quarter of that album already written, and the rest was written on the fly, as we recorded. It’s a good way to work, because it gives you a lot of impetus. You have to get things done.

Tell me about your J-200. What makes it so right for you?

If you’re looking for one guitar, a “man for all seasons,” it’s the J-200. I have several of them — including a Montana Gold and a J-200 Custom — and each has its own personality. I’m always looking for a guitar that talks to me. For me, it’s the best acoustic guitar in the world. It can be as delicate as a flower, or it can be a real ax, a real chopper. It’s very powerful if you put it through a P.A. system and start chunking away. It can develop some serious percussion. I also love the romanticism of them. They have that lovely female form, and they’re beautifully decorated in that country-western way.

And you also play a Les Paul Standard Goldtop?

I’ve got a few Les Pauls. The late Gary Moore used to play in my band. He had a Les Paul previously owned by Peter Green, and I used to play that sometimes. The Les Paul created almost an entire genre of playing. It inspired a particular kind of music, and a particular kind of performance. It’s among the greatest instruments ever invented.

What do you remember most about Moore as a player?

He’s best-known for hard rock and the blues, but neither of those things is what I remember him best for. What I’ll remember Gary best for is his Irish music, which he never really recorded. When you sat with him alone, he would play some of the most beautiful, heartbreaking Irish music you could ever hope to hear. He would also play jigs of the sort you might hear in Riverdance. The energy and the Irish power in his playing, when he did that, were remarkable. I really miss him.

You and Emerson wrote new music in the wake of the High Voltage Festival, in 2010. Will any of that music see the light of day?

I don’t know. You never say “Never,” with Emerson Lake & Palmer. I will always be prepared to play with Keith and Carl, especially if they want to play live. At the moment they don’t want to do that — or they’ve said they don’t — and I accept that for what it is. My philosophy is that the recordings are like photographs, in the sense that they’re not the living thing. If someone’s good enough to buy your album, then I feel you owe them the chance to see you in a live performance. I’m always ready to play, if the two of them are.

What’s next?

I’m going to record a new album throughout the summer. I’ve already got some of it done. I don’t like to talk about it too much, but this tour has lit up my creative passion again. Feeling the emotion and genuine enthusiasm from the audiences has done wonders for me, as a creative artist. I’ll leave this tour with sadness, because I’ve loved sharing this time with the audiences, but I’ll also be leaving it very inspired.

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