A seminal, towering figure in the history of progressive rock has died of cancer at the age of 69. Greg Lake was a founding member, first of King Crimson, then of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, two of the most important groups (founding members, if you will) in that genre of music. His vocals, arrangements and production established him as one of the most important influences in rock music, right up there with other greats such as Ian Anderson, Robert Plant and Roger Waters.
I’m sure most of my readers need no introduction to Greg’s music. For those who may have missed it (!), here are a few brief musical sketches. First, from King Crimson’s 1969 debut album ‘In The Court Of The Crimson King‘, the title track. This song was rated #1 in the history of the entire progressive rock genre by Sean Murphy a few years ago. He said of it:
Progressive rock’s Rosetta Stone, “In the Court of the Crimson King” is the purest and most perfect expression of everything this music was capable of being.
. . .
Virtually any song from this album could ably represent the whole, but the title track is an unsettling, ceaselessly astonishing track that is at once the introduction and apotheosis of what progressive rock became. It has all the important elements: impeccable musicianship from all players, rhythmic complexity, socially-conscious lyrics and an outsider’s perspective that is neither disaffected nor nihilistic. It speaks from the underground, but it is grounded in history and looking forward, not back. “In the Court of the Crimson King” is, at times, the soundtrack to an Edgar Allan Poe story and a Hieronymus Bosch painting personified: it came out of the era and the minds in which it was imagined, a dark, sensitive and psychedelic space. This song was, possibly, the first time the mellotron was utilized with such extraordinary results. Before this—and after—it was primarily used for sonic color and texture; on this song it is, improbably, the lead sound around which the drums, guitar and bass circle. Greg Lake, who would sing splendidly for most of the next decade, never sounded as urgent or vulnerable, and none of the subsequent Crimson line-ups—magnificent as they all were in their way—could conjure up such an uncanny and indescribable vibe. This work is almost unapproachable but not aloof; it is entertaining and unnerving, but its capacity to delight and astound remains inexhaustible.
This is a live performance, to better capture the visual imagery of the group, and Greg’s vocals.
Next, from Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s 1970 eponymous debut album, here’s ‘Lucky Man‘. Greg Lake wrote this when he was just 12 years old, and offered it when the band needed one last track to fill up their first album. He later said of it:
We had just formed ELP and went right into the studio to do the first album. It was back in the days of vinyl and you needed exactly 21 minutes per side. On one side, we only had less than 18 minutes and this guy from the label said, ” Hey, you need another song…” and we looked at each other and then at him and said, ” Well, we don’t have any more songs. We recorded everything we know…”. And he just said we had one more day in the studio and told us to come up with something. So, we all sat around and looked at each other and we asked each other if we had any other songs. No one had anything, and then I mentioned that I actually had this little folk song I wrote when I was 12 years old. So, I pulled out an acoustic guitar and I played “Lucky Man” for them, which was actually the first song I ever wrote. Anyway, the other guys thought I was mad, because we had never done any acoustic music up to that point. But, I kept playing it and I laid down a guitar and vocal track. And then Carl put some percussion over it, and it sounded better. And then we did some more over dubs and it sounded even better. And then, it Keith went in and did the moog solo, which, by the way, he laid down in one take. Finally, we had the final track and it sounded OK, so we kept it. As it turned out, it was the band’s biggest hit.
Here’s a live version from 1974.
Finally, in more whimsical mode and appropriate to the season, here’s a much older Greg Lake performing his 1975 hit ‘I Believe In Father Christmas‘. This was recorded at St. Bride’s Church in Fleet Street, London, a few years ago, with Ian Anderson (of Jethro Tull fame) playing the flute.
There’s so much more of Greg Lake’s music out there, I couldn’t even begin to summarize it all in a simple blog post. He was one of the greats of his time. I feel older at the thought of his passing . . . intimations of mortality, and all that sort of thing. My teenage years were filled with his music. It’s sad to think there will be no more of it.
Thanks for the music, Greg. You will be missed. May you rest in peace.