If we accept that the progressive rock genre started in 1969 and proto prog has been around since 1967 it’s hardly surprising that, given there have been 46 intervening years, a number of the main protagonists should no longer be with us. The prog world has once more been rocked by the death of one of the most important members of the prog family, Greg Lake, who succumbed to cancer earlier this week.
Greg Lake at the High Voltage Festival, Victoria Park 25th July 2010
Lake’s influence can’t be underestimated. As a member of the first incarnation of King Crimson, it could be argued that he was one of the five young men at the vanguard of the movement, the coalescence of a musical idiom which was served fully formed as the LP In the Court of the Crimson King but also, according to music journalists and critics, a perpetrator of excess and pretentiousness, one of a handful of individuals responsible for the downfall of the genre at the end of the 70s. My first exposure to Lake’s music was on the self-titled ELP debut which I originally picked up because I was interested in Keith Emerson’s career development following the demise of The Nice.
Emerson, Lake & Palmer remains one of my favourite albums, where despite my adoration of Emerson’s previous musical vehicle there’s a noticeable qualitative improvement and cohesiveness on the first ELP album. This can be partly ascribed to the nature of the Nice albums, where The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack (1967) was really psychedelia and Ars Longa Vita Brevis (1968) a mixture of psychedelia and proto prog; these two albums are entirely studio efforts but suffer from poor production. The subsequent three albums Nice (1969), Five Bridges (1970) and Elegy (1971) all contain a mix of studio and live tracks. Although, in my opinion, Emerson Lake & Palmer is dominated by Emerson, in recognition of the status of the bassist and the drummer, both having come from well-regarded bands, the contribution of Lake and Palmer is essential to the sound and feel of the album. Lake’s crystal-clear voice was a key to the successful sound of the first Crimson LP and made ELP far more accessible than The Nice, where Lee Jackson took on main vocal duties. Though all members of the band seemed happy with adaptations of classical pieces, expressing in interviews the importance of Western art music as a defining component in the band’s oeuvre, I’d always credited Emerson as the main proponent of appropriating the classics based on his work with the Nice, and this was balanced with the acoustic sensibility of Lake. Take a Pebble ticks all the right boxes for me by virtue of the amazing piano and the ensemble playing and if I’m honest I could live without the solo acoustic sections. Lucky Man is a different kettle of fish, where Emerson’s Moog is simply the icing on a near-perfect song. His experience with King Crimson coupled with reluctance from Emerson and Palmer to get involved meant that record production duties became the responsibility of Lake; the result is a well-balanced sound on the majority of the tracks tough I find The Three Fates a bit muddy. It’s clear that there were personality clashes between Lake and Emerson and initial splits over the direction of Tarkus (1971) seemed quite serious. Fortunately, Lake got on board and the Tarkus suite has become one of my most admired ELP long-form pieces, but in my opinion there’s a lack of consistency on side two. Trilogy (1972) suffers from a similar fate, where the longer tracks are brilliant but there’s an abundance of shorter, throw-away music.
I suspect the mix of the serious, multi-part compositions and the short, not necessarily progressive rock songs was part of the reason for ELP’s success, where they could attract both the prog crowd and more adventurous rock ‘n’ rollers. I also think that the approach of ELP helped to bridge the gap between popular and classical music, introducing a new generation to the delights of Sibelius, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky and Bach but also opening our eyes to Copland and Ginastera. Brain Salad Surgery (1973) was a more consistent album, and though the production was thin and biased towards the treble, I believe that reuniting with Peter Sinfield for lyrical input was a positive step. The triple live set Welcome Back My Friends To The Show That Never Ends (1974) may have been a triumph, but the years spent touring, putting on huge shows with equipment unloaded from three articulated lorries, became another stick with which to beat the band as the music industry was changing in their absence from the recording studio; ELP’s excess was in stark contrast to the pared back ideology and sounds of punk. Even I wondered about Lake’s ‘plutonium’ bike mentioned in one of the music papers! All of this meant that the pretentiously titled Works Vol.1 (1977) was hardly likely to be greeted with open arms by the critics. The band material was good, but I thought it was spoiled by Emerson’s predilection for the Yamaha GX-1. I loved his Piano Concerto but much of the writing on the Lake and Palmer sides wasn’t really up to the standards set by the trio, so that taken as a whole the double LP was a bit like an extreme version of Yes’ Fragile without the coherence.
After Works Vol.1 I gave up on ELP, foregoing Works Vol.2 and Love Beach and not realising the three protagonists had toured in 1992 having reformed for Black Moon. The live album recorded at the Royal Albert Hall captures the band back on form and I wish I’d paid more attention to listing magazines at the time. I went to see Greg Lake at the Fairfield Halls, Croydon in 2005, having seen the potential set list, and was very pleasantly surprised. His voice wasn’t as clear as it had been 30 years previously, but his band performed admirable versions of ELP and King Crimson numbers. I finally got to see ELP at the High Voltage festival in 2010 on the 40th anniversary of their debut album which featured prominently. Despite a couple of minor problems, they were totally amazing, and I’m really pleased to have been there because it turned out to be their last ever gig.
I’m not a fan of the 45rpm single but, like many prog fans, I have a soft spot for Lake’s I Believe in Father Christmas – Lake and Sinfield at their concise best with a bit of Prokofiev thrown in. Lake is likely to be remembered for this single more than his contribution to progressive rock, but he was there at the beginning of prog and shaped those early years with his choirboy voice, deft bass and acoustic songs. His death marks another major loss to the prog world.
Greg Lake b. 10th November 1947 d. 7th December 2016