It was the fall of 1970 when my favorite radio station started playing a beautifully spooky song about some sort of brave knight who had “white horses and ladies by the score, all dressed in satin and waiting by the door.”
Most people went nuts for the mind-blowing ending, which featured the then-new Moog synthesizer swooping all over the place. But me, I was mesmerized by the singer, whose precise British voice reminded me of John Lennon in his “White Album” period.
The song was “Lucky Man,” and the band was a new British progressive rock trio who — in the tradition of American folkies Crosby, Stills and Nash — went by their last names as well: Emerson, Lake & Palmer. And that rich voice that so appealed to me belonged to the group’s bassist/guitarist Greg Lake, who last week became yet another in a long line of rock music heroes to pass away in 2016.
Back in March, we received the sad, then shocking news that keyboard maestro Keith Emerson had died of a self-inflicted gunshot to the head. Now Lake is gone at age 69 after a four-year battle with cancer. Drummer Carl Palmer, the last surviving member, must be looking over his shoulder these days.
Many of the musicians who went on to become key members of the most successful “prog rock” bands of the late ’60s and early ’70s were heavily influenced by both classical music and jazz, but Lake was much more interested in the early rock and roll songs of American artists like Little Richard and Elvis. Still, when he was 10, his mother, a pianist, bought him a used guitar and encouraged him to take lessons, and his instructor insisted he learn musical notation exercises and more challenging classical pieces by Paganini and others. Lake was quick to acknowledge this discipline helped him quickly gain the skills that would become so useful in his musical career.
In researching Lake’s life and career, I was amazed to discover that he was only in middle school when he wrote “Lucky Man.” When asked in a 2013 interview how a 12-year-old could write about having ladies by the score, Lake replied, “Well, it was really just a medieval fantasy fairy tale. As a young man, I thought it was the ultimate privilege to have endless money, endless women, endless everything. I was just saying how lucky this guy was… but of course, in the end, he wasn’t so lucky, was he? The song had no deep meaning, but when ELP released it in 1970 during the Vietnam war, some interpreted it as American soldiers going off to Southeast Asia and dying. That’s not what it was written about, but everyone is free to interpret a song however they wish. It’s best to let people form their own impressions. That’s how you share a song.”
Years before ELP formed, though, Lake struggled along in various local and regional rock bands in County Dorset, working on his guitar chops and honing his singing voice. When he ran into his friend Robert Fripp, who had learned from the same guitar teacher as Lake, Fripp said his band was looking for a bass player who could also sing. Lake picked up the bass that very day and, being a remarkably quick study, became proficient enough to join Fripp, Ian McDonald and Mike Giles to form the hugely influential progressive rock group known as King Crimson.
Lake recalled, “Fripp played lead guitar, Mike was a jazz drummer, Ian had been in a military brass band and could play keyboards, woodwinds, you name it, and I brought the vocals and bass. There was no sense that we were necessarily a rock group, which was to our advantage, in a way. We didn’t go down that normal road, because half the band didn’t know what normal was. We sort of had an automatic originality.”
In the studio, the group (including lyricist Peter Sinfield) came up with five lengthy multi-part pieces that became one of 1969’s most astonishing albums, “In the Court of the Crimson King,” which featured the trailblazing heavy metal warhorse, “20th Century Schizoid Man” and the sprawling title track. They quickly found themselves not only the darling of the British underground but also chartbusters (#5 in the UK, and a respectable #28 in the US) after getting the coveted slot warming up for The Rolling Stones’ legendary Hyde Park concert in front of a crowd of 500,000.
But McDonald and Giles hated the grind of traveling, and following a grueling tour of the US, they left the group. Fripp wanted to continue on with the King Crimson name, but Lake was already growing restless. He agreed to handle vocals on most of the second album, “In the Wake of Poseidon,” but otherwise, he was moving on. He had befriended Emerson, then heading up The Nice, another bold British band who had been on the bill with King Crimson, and they felt the time was right to form a group together. The Jimi Hendrix Experience had just broken up, so they reached out to drummer Mitch Mitchell to see if he was interested, but before anything happened, they got a call from Robert Stigwood, manager of The Bee Gees, who suggested they contact Carl Palmer, who was working with Atomic Rooster.
“When the three of us got together, the chemistry was instantly obvious,” said Lake. “The energy level was so high. I remember we finished a song and everyone just laughed because it was just so obvious. It sounded huge for three people, and we knew that was it. We decided then and there that that was the band.”
The bulk of the “song” writing fell on Emerson, who deftly reworked classical music pieces by the likes of Bach, Janacek, Bartok and Muggorsky, using a broad array of organs, pianos and synthesizers, while Palmer contributed flashy drum fills and solos, and Lake provided guitar and bass, and more important, that compelling voice. A thunderous debut at the famed Isle of Wight Festival in August 1970 caught everyone’s attention, and the trio was off and running.
Over the next four years, ELP was one of the most successful bands in the world. Each of their albums — “Emerson, Lake & Palmer” (1970), “Tarkus” (1971), “Pictures at an Exhibition” (1971), “Trilogy” (1972), “Brain Salad Surgery” (1973) and the triple live LP “Welcome Back My Friends to the Show That Never Ends” (1974) — charted in the Top Ten in the US, and even reached #1 in England on two occasions.
Their music was a big, brash and unrepentant blast of rock/classical/jazz fusion marked by a dark, otherworldly feel. Each album, however, also included an acoustic ballad penned and sung by Lake, and it was these that typically got the radio airplay. On “Trilogy,” it was the lovely single “From the Beginning”; on “Brain Salad Surgery,” it would have been “Still…You Turn Me On,” but Emerson and Palmer began objecting to the record company singling out Lake’s ballads when they weren’t indicative of the vast majority of their repertoire. This proved to be a bone of contention — in fact, one of several that ultimately drove a wedge into the band’s chemistry.
ELP then took a few years off, ostensibly to pursue solo projects, and it was Lake who had the most success, reaching #2 in the UK in 1975 with his gorgeously regal “I Believe in Father Christmas,” which has since become a perennial Yuletide favorite despite the somber tone of its lyrics: “They said there’ll be snow at Christmas, they said there’ll be peace on earth, but instead it just kept on raining, a veil of tears for the virgin’s birth…”
The band ultimately reconvened in 1977 to release the double LP “Works,” which put the fruits of each of their solo labors onto three separate sides while saving the fourth side for the 14-minute “Pirates” and the band’s radical take on Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.” Again, it was Lake’s delicate ballad “C’est La Vie” that attracted the attention of radio programmers. And times had certainly changed — England’s music scene was dominated by punk and New Wave, and the US market was saturated with disco music — but surprisingly, the album still managed to reach #9 and #12, respectively.
I say “surprisingly” because many music critics by then had been taking vitriolic aim at the self-indulgent excesses and pomposity of many of the progressive rock bands, most notably ELP. Witness this damning summary of the band by one reviewer: “An overbearing sense of self-importance turned ELP from one of the Seventies’ most exciting new groups into the very definition of masturbatory self-aggrandizement in a few short years.”
Frankly, I didn’t hook into much of ELP’s music at the time of release. My progressive rock bands were Tull, Yes and Pink Floyd, although I was a huge fan of the debut album and “Brain Salad Surgery.” In the wake of Lake’s passing, I immersed myself in their catalog over the past week and found it to be only occasionally noisy nonsense, but mostly exciting, challenging, impressive. In particular, I wholeheartedly recommend the opuses “Tarkus,” “Trilogy,” “Pirates” and the full “Karn Evil 9 (First, Second and Third Impressions)” to anyone with the desire and the patience to fully study them. They’re incredible.
There were several attempts at ELP reunions and other musical groupings in the 1980s and beyond. With Palmer busy playing drums for the flash-in-the-pan supergroup Asia, Emerson and Lake teamed with drummer Cozy Powell of Rainbow for one modestly received album in 1986, and the original trio gave it another go in 1992 with the fairly decent “Black Moon,” but the bloom was well off the rose by this point. A final effort, “In the Hot Seat,” came and went without notice in 1994.
In his final interview, Lake lamented the fact that ELP’s egos got the better of them when they were at their peak. “I think if we hadn’t tried to overdo it, like trying to go on a world tour with a full bloody orchestra, we probably could’ve extended our success on the album charts for at least a few more years, maybe longer. I’m proud of what we were able to accomplish. ‘Pirates,’ for instance, if you listen back to it, I think it’s one of the finest pieces of writing we ever did. It may someday be seen as an underappreciated piece of quality writing. The time wasn’t right, that’s all. It was neither classical music nor a rock song, nor a film score. In a way, it was all three. It was brilliant writing by Keith. Really fantastic.”
And let’s not forget the contributions Lake made early on with King Crimson, still revered by many as a visionary pioneer of prog rock. “That first King Crimson album was pretty special. I’ve always enjoyed playing bass, and both electric and acoustic guitar, but mainly I suppose I’m known as a singer. And not just the ballads — I was really belting it out on ’20th Century Schizoid Man,’ and ‘Karn Evil 9’ as well!”
Yes, you were, Greg. The recordings are forever there for anyone who needs a reminder.
(A note on the Spotify list: King Crimson’s catalog is not available, so my only choice was to substitute live versions of those songs performed by Lake many years later.)