Sunday, 21 October 2012

Greg Lake: playing Madison Square Garden, touring the UK and being a Lucky Man

This November sees one of the most iconic voices of the 70's prog rock scene tour the UK for the first time in many years.

Greg Lake, the voice and bass player of prog super groups, Emerson Lake and Palmer and King Crimson, will be touring the UK with his 'Songs of a Lifetime' tour- an acoustic show that sees the veteran rocker showcase some of his most iconic hits from both groups, as well as covering some of his biggest influences. 

Lake, 64, completed the American leg of the tour recently to rave reviews. Speaking to him over the phone last week, he was cheerful and eager to tread the boards in his native country once again.

This year should also see the release of Greg's autobiography. What prompted him to write it now?

"I never had any great ambition to write an  autobiography. Every time I was at a dinner table, inevitably, like all musicians, you start to tell stories. One day my manager said that I really ought to write this stuff down because if you don't then it will be gone forever."

"Now I'm coming towards the end of my career I look at the journey that I've shared together with the audience. I think it was in the writing of the autobiography that these songs started popping up, and I realised that that was what they represented- this journey we had shared together; that's what prompted 'Songs of a Lifetime.'"

The tour will be a theatre show, and promises to be a very intimate show with fans sharing stories just as much as Lake himself.

"I've chosen to play smaller places because that's the nature of the show- really intimate. We play through these songs, and exchange memories and the audience talk a lot. It's rather like being in the middle of a huge family room. It's something that I wasn't really ready for, but once I started getting into it I realised the beauty of it is that when I write a song it belongs to me, but the moment you record it and put it out there it starts to become the possession of the people who interpret it in their own way. All of us have shared these songs together and everyone's got their own interpretation of it and everyone has something attached to them."

"This show is like a tapestry and I think the audience get a lot of pleasure from hearing other people's visions on that tapestry. At the end of the night everyone has somehow bonded by this shared experience. What was great about that early era of rock and roll, from 1950-1970-something, that it was a shared experience. After that music became a very solitary experience- listening to your walk-man on headphones, whereas before that you used to sit around with your friends and share a record together. I love the music and the whole vibe of the 'shared era'."

Agreeing with this view, I had to ask whether Lake believed he was fortunate being able to have success in the days of Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones and  other rock super groups, when music was very much a shared experience. 

"The title of my autobiography is Lucky Man, rather unsurprisingly, because I do feel blessed to have been born when I was; to have had the privilege of being born on that tidal wave. I was destined to tarmac the streets really, and  had it not been for music I'm sure that's probably what would have happened, not that there's anything wrong with that. But I do feel grateful to have been able to live the life I have."

"When it comes down to it you realise, it's not the money, it's not the fame, it's this beautiful thing of being able to share between one soul and another this music. That's an amazingly gratifying thing, to know that you've touched somebody in that way."

Lake would cite that as being the highlight of his career.

"In a strange way, Songs of a Lifetime is a big thing in my career because it confirms the depth of that communication and emotion that's generated. In some cases it's been a crutch for people, in others it's been a celebration. I've had people tell me stories of people dying to my music. People cry at the show, it's like a roller-coaster... five minutes later they'll all be laughing. It's a roller-coaster of emotion in a lot of ways. That's what music does, it elevates things... it enhances things. It brings sadness to the surface, it brings joy to the surface, and I think that's one of the great things that music does."

With such variation from night to night, it's not surprising that Songs of a Lifetime is not your usual, going through the motions type of tour. 

"Musically it tends to be the same every night. I do vary it because sometimes the way the questions and discussions go I end up playing different songs. I've got it worked out. One thing I didn't want this show to become was one of those storyteller, legend in his own lunchtime, sitting on a stool, strumming guitar things. I wanted it to be entertaining. I wanted it to be dynamic and active, and that's what it is. In a way it's a bit of a shocking show. It certainly won't be one of those reflective, reliving my past things."

"At the end of the day, my big ambition was to have people walk out of a one man show that I did and say 'Hi, that was incredible... we've relived our lives'. And that is in fact what happens. At the end of the night half the audience don't go home; they stay there and I spend half the night talking to them all. A lot of people of course are a bit shy, they won't stand up and say what they've got to say but they still want to say it. So it is really like a very family-orientated thing. I've put a lot into it. It took me over a year to prepare."

Having played on so many different albums, does one stand out in particular? 

"I don't think of it like that really. I think some are more important than others. The early ELP albums: Trilogy, Tarkus, Brain Salad Surgery and the first, Emerson, Lake and Palmer were important records to me. In the Court of King Crimson, of course; the original King Crimson with schizoid man and the screaming face and all that. These were really iconic albums and they are important to me from that point of view."

"I'm just about to release this live album, Songs of a Lifetime, and I love the record. I'm really proud of it. Sometimes it's not about the scale of how popular it was but how much you like it."

"I very much enjoy working with other people. Some years back I did a tour with Ringo Starr. I've recorded with The Who. I was on their last single. It does tend to reconfirm the fact that music is very circumstantial  When you play with these different people you realise that they're not very much different to you. The game is the same."

Does the urge to 'plug in' and do an electric show ever occur?

"I love playing in a band. I grew up playing in a band. I will probably, sooner or later, get back and do that. I think to be perfectly honest I want to bring out some new music, it's been too long since I had some new music out. I just haven't been inspired to be honest. But since doing the Songs of a Lifetime tour I've lit up a bit. So I think I might get back to writing more material and putting out a new album just for that reason, I feel more inspired."

"You look at all these artists around the time ELP was out, they've really gone quiet creatively. That was an incredibly inspiring era. People were very creatively inspired and prolific. And you go through that in your life, times when you're prolific and times you're less so. I'm not one of those people who's got to put out an album just because I think if I don't someone will say 'Oh look, what's wrong with him'? I don't like doing that because that way you end up with shit albums. I think you've got to wait for genuine, honest inspiration when you feel in your gut you're ready to do something. It may or may not be successful but it's worth it."

"One of my late managers used to say to me 'Greg, when you're hot you're hot, and when you're not you're not!" Artists just can't accept the fact that sometimes they would  be better just to shut the fuck up than keep churning out stuff."

It is over 40 years since Emerson, Lake and Palmer released their eponymous album, labelled one of the most important albums of the 1970's. Does he still get the same buzz from playing live?

"You can't lose it really. It's captivating, the moment you begin you're no longer yourself. You find abilities you thought you'd lost. You do become a sort of transformed being when you're performing. I think anybody who does anything in the public eye; when you speak in public or something like that you have to transport yourself to a different place. If you didn't the nerves would kill you. Also, it requires a certain state of mind where you've got an infinite resources to draw upon because sometimes you need them."

"If somebody's bought your record you owe them a live performance. I think the whole idea is to perform that music with as much quality and dedication and sincerity as you possibly can. My main object when I play is to try and make it as good as the record."

Was he worried about the audiences' reaction to the idea of playing acoustic?

"Just before I left to go to America I did sit on my sofa in my living room and go 'Oh, God what have I done?' If it doesn't work... but as soon as I did it was wonderful. It was a wonderful night the first night because it was immediately clear to me how well it worked and how the audience participate in the show."

"There is a level of nervousness that is constantly there, but as Paul McCartney once said, people don't pay to see nervous. I've learned over the years just to put it to one side. You have to, otherwise it just becomes a nuisance. When you relax and you just get on with it nothing goes wrong."

"Somebody said to be before the tour in the US started, 'what are you going to do if someone asks a really nasty question?' do you know what, nobody did. The audience are living it through you. They feel it through you."

"In the early days of ELP we were playing at Madison Square Garden in New York, the first time I'd ever played MSG and I went out from backstage to have a look at the audience just so that it wouldn't shock me too much, and I peeked up at the curtain and looked up at 22,000 people in a very small space so they lined the walls. It's an awesome spectacle. Dee Anthony, my manager, was up there with me and I said 'That's a frightening sight'. He said 'don't forget, that's only one person out there. To each person sitting there, they are just themselves looking up at you and really you are only performing to one person.' That's in my mind how I think of it. Once you adopt that one person state of mind a lot of the nervousness goes away."

"Monty Python said it: always look on the bright side of life. Most people sit there and worry. It probably isn't going to happen. Something good's probably going to happen. At least the odds are probably 50/50, why dwell on the negative? There's no point living that negativity in advance!"

Having picked up on the phrase 'end of my career' at the start of the interview, I had to end with asking whether he saw himself doing this when he's 70.

"If I can I will be. I don't want to retire, I enjoy what I'm doing. I'd love to be doing it, but only if I'm able to do it well and people get pleasure from it. I don't want to be one of those people that goes past their sell-by date. Right now I'm sure that people are enjoying what I'm doing. They're getting a lot of pleasure from it and so am I. As long as it's like that, all is well."

By James Nuttall 

Greg Lake will performing UK dates starting on 12 November. 
Dates can be found at:
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Many thanks to Greg and Billy for setting up the interview.