Greg Lake says he doesn't have a whole lot of time to listen to music. He's too busy playing it, as he's done since the 1960s, doing time as a member of King Crimson, Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, The Gods, Asia, and Ringo Starr's All-Star Band, effectively establishing himself as progressive rock royalty.
"I like Brad Paisley and Adele," Lake says with a warm English accent. "But I suppose I don't spend enough time listening to new music, because I spend so much time playing it."
His latest tour finds him exploring his long and storied career. In fact, it's called "Songs of a Lifetime," inspired by his time working on an autobiography about his life in music. "I was so determined to not be one of those 'legends-in-his-own-lunchtime' storyteller-type things," he says, laughing. "It's not a quiet show by any means."
Lake took some time to speak with Up on the Sun about his thoughts on prog-rock as a genre (he's not a big fan of the term), punk rock (his favorite punk band is The Who), and what exactly those rumors of ELP jamming with Jimi Hendrix are all about.
Greg Lake is scheduled to perform at Mesa Arts Center, on Wednesday, May 16.
Up on the Sun: What exactly will be be hearing at Mesa Arts Center? Are we going to be hearing music from everything -- ELP, your solo work, Asia?
Greg Lake: Well, how it came about was, I've just finished writing my autobiography. Rather unsurprising it's called Lucky Man. As I was writing it, these songs kept popping up, the work that was crucial or pivotal to my life. What I realized when I finished was what they represented was the journey that I've been on, that the audience and I have shared together over these years. I thought it would be a nice idea to have an intimate show where we shared and relived that journey. Because there are stories attached to these songs -- stories I've got and, indeed, stories that they've got, too. I thought it would be lovely to sit down in a small setting and tell these stories together.
Was it a fun process to dig into your back pages, as it were?
It was a strange thing. I never really wanted to write an autobiography. But it was one of those things where I suppose -- like all musicians -- I end up telling stories all the time. One day, I was sitting at the dinner table and my manager said to me, "You really ought to write this stuff down, because if you don't, it will get lost." So I sat down and I started it. When I started, I didn't really have a clue, I didn't have a thought it my head. But as I began to put the timeframe together, it started to lock in. It's rather like a jigsaw puzzle. When you start, it's nothing, but as you start it begins to take shape -- but not all at once. Not always at the beginning -- but slowly you start filling in the gaps. Then you meet your friends, and they say, "Don't you remember when you did this or did that?" It starts to become fun. You uncover things you didn't even know. Things you weren't even aware of.
Does re-evaluation of your work feel natural?
I have been very lucky in my career that most of the things I've created have been recognized in their time. But, of course, I look back on it fondly; the thing that you get when you look back retrospectively is humility. You get humbled, really. You realize that luck played a huge part in it. In ELP, we weren't that great, but the chemistry was good. That is what the most thing is -- we had incredible good fortune with it all. Of course, there was a lot of work involved, but there is a sense of being very privileged with things turning out the way they did.
I don't really like the term progressive, because it sounds intellectual. I don't like that pseudo-intellectual overture.
ELP and King Crimson were defined by the concept of the album, but people tend to think that we're returning more to the age of the single. You guys really pioneered the album as a form.
When I grew up in music, music was something shared. You'd go and buy an album and sit down with your friends and listen to it. You'd have the album covers. The album covers used to introduce a lot of people to art, visual art. The music was shared up until the time the Sony Walkman was invented. When it was invented, music changed from being a shared experience to being a solitary experience. And that was a change in the way music was listened to, and then a short while after that, the music industry become very greedy, and it become controlled by accountants and lawyers rather than entrepreneur and visionaries, and they shot the industry in the foot. They tried to invent genre after genre -- do you remember them all? Garage, grunge, new wave, punk . . . I mean, it was a genre a week. And none of them had any musical foundation.
The last musical genre, in my opinion, to have any real validity as a musical form was progressive music. I don't really like the term progressive, because it sounds intellectual. I don't like that pseudo-intellectual overture. But at least it did have some validity. It was music that had a European influence -- it tried to be original. It tried to come up with something new. From my point of view, it was valid. After that, I can't think of much. I mean, punk rock wasn't a form of music. It was fashion statement -- it was a joke more than music, really.
That makes sense to view it that way -- though many punk bands made significant musical statements.
Who were they?
I think the Clash said a lot. The Ramones. The Buzzcocks. I've always been a fan of three-minute pop songs, and that's what a lot of them did. But I've also always enjoyed layers, orchestral stuff.
When you're talking about punk, The Who were a punk band.
That was a real punk band. That was the real thing. I don't see what what was "new" about it.
I can see that. A lot of the best punk was stuff that got back to the Chuck Berry roots.
I'm like you! I like a pop song. I dig the three-minute format. It's very good, it's a statement that you listen to. It's a pretty good format, and it's served us well.
You're not a fan of the term progressive rock. What would you have preferred the music been called?
Well, I don't know, to be honest. The vision that it was essentially European rather than American music. You could argue for example, that Sgt. Pepper was a very early progressive album. And I probably would argue that. You know. And that was pre-King Crimson. I don't think King Crimson was the first progressive band or anything like that. But rather than taking the influence from the blues, soul, and gospel, it took it's influence more from European music -- classical, folk, medieval music.
And what separated something like King Crimson from a similarly minded group like Fairport Convention or Steeleye Span was that, at the time, it was much heavier. You guys weren't afraid to get heavy. You mentioned album covers, and obviously ELP's covers were iconic. Were you guys involved in the packaging aspect?
Yes. We looked on the music as art, rather than a product. And we felt it was only appropriate to have art on the cover. So we went through a lot of trouble to make sure we had covers that were art, and not just product packaging.
It's kind of like one of the great rock legends, but did ELP ever actually get together with Jimi Hendrix?
Jimi used to come and watch King Crimson. I tell a story in the show sometimes about the first time I saw Jimi play. Everyone wondered who he was. They thought he was a soul band. But what happened was, when Keith [Emerson] and I got together we went looking for a drummer. The first person I talked to was Mitch Mitchell because the Experience had just broken up and Jimi was off doing this Band of Gypsies thing.
Mitch was available at the time, and he said maybe we should get Jimi together. He'll be finished with this band of Gypsies thing in a few weeks, and we can get together and maybe the four of us should play. I said, "Fair enough," and that's how we left it. A couple of days later, we got a call from Roger Stigwood, who was the manager of the Bee Gees and Cream called up and said "Look, I've got the perfect drummer for you. It's a guy called Carl Palmer."
So we said okay, get him to come down and we'll have a talk with him. We set up an audition . . . When we played together, it was instantaneously obvious that the chemistry was right. That was the band we were looking for. And so that was it really. We made a decision on the spot. A short while after Jimi was found dead in an apartment in London . . . The press got a hold of the story that we might jam with Jimi, and speculated that the group would be called HELP.
But, alas, it was just a rumor.
Yeah, and that's all there was to it. I tell stories like that in my show, different stories connected to different songs. I try and make it entertaining. I just was determined not to be one of those legends-in-his-own-lunchtime storyteller-type things. It's so boring. Just dull and strumming a guitar.
No, no, I wanted it to be dynamic and make an impact. It's not a quiet show, by any means. As I was getting ready do these shows, I realized, oh no, what have you done? Christ. What happens if it all goes wrong? [Laughs] I had thought it out in my mind, but I didn't want to be sitting on stage on my own and it's not working. But when I did the show, it was a great relief to see that people just love it. They share it, they get it, they contribute to it. And when the audience leaves the show, they're happy. That was a huge feeling of, well, to be honest, it was a relief.