Thirty-two songs speak volumes for the works of Greg Lake.
Each track on the new two-CD “From the Beginning: The Greg Lake Retrospective” (Rhino) evokes memories of a time and place for the progressive rock legend.
The collection is culled from Lake’s early years with King Crimson, his long, fruitful association with Keith Emerson and Carl Palmer and his own solo efforts.
Lake is in a reflective mood while drinking a cup of coffee at his home outside Rochester, N.Y. He starts, of course, from the beginning:
In the court of the Crimson King: Led by Robert Fripp, the British quintet King Crimson helped usher in the art-rock movement of the late ’60s and early ’70s with a bold, eerie mixture of Mellotron-heavy sounds and psychedelic lyrics. Lake, the group’s lead singer and bassist, said it all began so innocently.
“It started in London, in the basement of a cafe where the band first rehearsed,” he said. “I remember that we were one of the first groups to use the Mellotron (a keyboard that reproduces orchestral sounds). The Moody Blues heard about this, because they also used the Mellotron.
“They came down to this rehearsal and were absolutely shocked by King Crimson, because I think they were expecting this sweet music of the Mellotron, instead they got ’21st Century Schizoid Man.’ ”
With little, if any, promotion for its debut album, “In the Court of the Crimson King,” and its haunting title cut, the group’s popularity spread quickly by word of mouth. Their first gig was at the London Speakeasy Club on April 9, 1969; by July that year, they were playing to 65,000 at the Rolling Stones’ free Hyde Park concert.
“One week, we’d be playing to an audience of 150 people and the next week it would be a thousand, then next week 2,000,” Lake said. “It was almost like a virus, spreading. You could almost physically watch it happen. … The whole experience was so new to us. It’s the way it should be: You come up with something original and different and it starts to snowball.
“It grew organically. There’s something tremendously gratifying about that.”
A picture speaks a thousand words: There’s a story behind the disturbing image on the front cover of King Crimson’s debut album. Lake called the screaming face, designed by 21-year-old Barry Godber, “impactive and horrifying.”
“Barry listened to the music; he went away and the next day he came back with the album cover and he just left it on the floor,” Lake said. “The following day, Barry went out and dropped dead of a heart attack on the street. When you see this cover, it’s like a primal scream. It’s like Barry’s last scream.”
Friends to the end: Lake recently attended the 30-year reunion of original King Crimson members in London. “What was lovely is that none of us have ever fallen out,” he said. “There was never a cross word. There’s always phone calls going around, ‘How are doing?’ ‘You all right?’ It not only brought us great music, it brought us an enduring friendship.”
ELP forever: Lake first met Emerson when King Crimson and Emerson’s power trio The Nice shared a bill with the Chambers Brothers at the Fillmore West in San Francisco in 1969. Sensing that their groups were about to disband, they later formed their own. They then added Palmer, who had worked with the Crazy World of Arthur Brown. Because they all came from different bands, they were immediately tagged a “supergroup,” a word Lake called “horrible.”
“Added to the kind of European classical influences the band had,” he said, “it gave journalists a field day. ‘They’re pretentious, they’re this, they’re that.’ I think the band suffered a lot of stuff that it didn’t deserve.
“We really tried to make the best music and were certainly not interested in being pretentious. It was hurtful at times. It’s the funniest thing, though, watching when fans love you and the music critics hate you. You wonder what the point of the music press is.
“It became like a war. It was like there was an organized campaign to bring the band down and, luckily enough, the fans didn’t buy into that.”
Lucky man: The trio’s first hit remains a staple of classic rock radio today. Lake said the song was an accident, written when he was 12 and discarded until many years later when ELP needed one more cut to fill out their self-titled Cotillion debut album.
“We were at the end of the recording sessions and the budget,” he said with a laugh, “and we were one track short. Everybody looks around the studio and says, ‘Anybody got any ideas?’ There was silence. I said, ‘Look, I have this sort of folk song,’ and I get these vacant stares from Emerson and Palmer.
“The way we first put it down, Carl played drums and I played the acoustic guitar. It sounded awful. Then I put bass on it, and it sounded a little bit better, then some vocal harmonies. In the end, Keith succumbed to doing it. He just got delivery of this Moog synthesizer. He was going to put a solo at the end of the piece and was basically rehearsing the key range, where you play the low note and swoop on up to the high note.
“It just so happens, I recorded the rehearsal. I looked at the engineer and said, ‘Is it just me or did that sound good?’ I told Keith to come in and listen. Of course, none of us thought the song had any potential for anything other than it was filler for the album. It was such a happy surprise.”
An ambitious undertaking: On May 31, 1977, ELP embarked on what was then the most expensive rock tour ever, promoting the “Works, Volume 1” album. On paper, it was a disaster; Lake said he has no regrets.
“We had 11 tractor-trailers on the road, 140 people, a 70-piece orchestra and six people mixing the sound alone,” he said. “At that time, the rock ‘n’ roll business was not as professional as it is today and despite the fact that we had all that stuff relatively under control, I seem to remember the expenses at that time were about $300,000 a week. There were so many unforeseen things and expenses.
“I realized that people actually preferred to seeing the band as a three-piece. It wasn’t exactly what people wanted from ELP, so we shut it down. We had to shut it down. All the orchestra was young people, talented players who did it with a passion and played their hearts out. When the tour finished, there were people crying. It was a very sad situation.”
The end: In a way, the ill-fated “Works” tour was an omen. The group’s next albums, “Works, Volume 2,” and “Love Beach,” even though they maintained the band’s streak of nine straight gold albums, spelled the beginning of the end. They broke up in December 1979. They have resurfaced several times, last charting with “Black Moon” in 1992.
Emerson and Palmer are more than his best friends, Lake said, it’s like having two more brothers. “They would essentially die for you,” he said.
It’s not completely over. Unhappy with their last studio album, ELP plans to record a conceptual album by the end of the year. “One never knows how long a piece of string really is,” Lake said. “I would like the band to finish off with a really great record.”
BWF (before we forget): Check out Greg Lake on the Web @ www.dynrec.com/lake. … King Biscuit Records recently released a special, limited edition “enhanced version” of Lake’s “In Concert on the King Biscuit Flower Hour.” The disc, autographed by Lake, features his entire Nov. 5, 1981, solo performance at Hammersmith Odeon in London, plus two bonus tracks, including a live bootleg recording of “C’est La Vie.” The CD is available through the Web site or by calling the Greg Lake Merchandise Center at (800) 820-4068. It sells for $29.95 and is not available in stores.