Greg Lake

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By Jeremy Miles 

It’s two long weeks until pay day and there are some hefty bills to be settled. 

Never mind, here I am getting a one to one masterclass in lifestyle economics... from multimillionaire rock star Greg Lake and he  assures me that the acquisition of material wealth is a severely overrated activity. 

 Now Greg has a unique insider knowledge about such things. Forty years ago this one-time Poole schoolboy who cut his musical teeth playing guitar in village halls and youth clubs around Dorset and Hampshire suddenly found himself  fast-tracked into megastardom.

Initially he enjoyed fame alongside another local boy made good, Robert Fripp, in King Crimson.  For a while their band was unutterably cool. They played Hyde Park with the Rolling Stones and performed in front of a staggering 600,000 people at the Isle of Wight. 

But that was just the start. During the seventies,  as bassman with the mighty Emerson, Lake and Palmer, he became a fully-fledged Prog-rock God.

Half a lifetime on it seems extraordinary to recall just how big a star he was. Today there’s a generation who haven’t a clue who Greg Lake is while for others he’s best known for the annually resurrected festive single I Believe In Father Christmas. Hardly cutting edge stuff.

Yet at the height of their fame Emerson, Lake and Palmer were quite literally monsters of rock, a three piece band who lumbered across the globe with 140 staff on their payroll. They even carried their own doctor.

There are stories that make Spinal Tap sound like amateur hour.

The oft-told tale of Lake’s carpet roadie for instance - a man employed specifically to clean the expensive Persian rug  on which the bass player insisted on standing while on stage. 

Thought it was apocryphal? Think again!  “It is true,” concedes Lake with a slight groan. “But it wasn’t quite like people think. I got the carpet because one night I got an electric shock from the microphone and thought it would be sensible to  ask for a rubber mat to stand on. The trouble was it looked absolutely dreadful so I asked this roadie if he could go out and get me a piece of carpet.

“ Of course that was back in the days when the roadie had the cheque book, He came back with this absolutely amazing carpet. I was horrified when I found out how much it cost but I figured that as he’d bought it I might as well use it. What I didn’t realise  was that every night he was going out on stage while the audience was waiting for us to come on and vacuuming it.” 

The Press had a field day, but Lake insists  “It was no more bizarre than all the rest of the stuff going on at the time. I suppose it was a kind of rolling madhouse but I’d still say that with ELP everything was done with the best of intentions. We wanted to put on a  show that was great. We always tried to make the productions relate to the music and we invested a lot of the money we made back into our art form which I think was quite a noble thing to do.”

There were certainly lavish rewards but Lake insists that the novelty of being able to buy flash cars and big houses soon wears off.

“Of course you want to experience it, and we did. But the acquisition of material wealth is really a very fleeting pleasure. It’s one of those strange things but when you can pretty much buy any car you want, buy any house you want , do anything you want you pretty soon discover that you actually don’t want any of it. All these possessions become a liability

“By and large the things that mean something in life are the love of your family, the sun shining and peace of mind -  the fact you can sleep at night because you haven’ t done someone down. These are the important things.”

Lake, now 59, recently formed a new band in which he could get back to his original love of playing guitar.  A double DVD, Greg Lake Live. was released earlier this year and September 3  should have seen the opening of a long-awaited UK tour. It wasn’t to be. Last week it was announced that all scheduled concerts  had been shelved for “logistical” reasons.

No one will elaborate but it has been suggested that poor ticket sales may be the real reason behind the eleventh hour decision to pull the plug on the tour.

 One major disappointment for Lake will be the loss of a chance to play the rare hometown gig planned for the  Bournemouth Pavilion on Tuesday September 19. 

He has happy memories of growing up in the area and particularly his  guitar lessons with the near legendary Don Strike in Westbourne.

 He remembers Strike with great affection even though he was a hard task master and not averse to rapping the young Lake’s knuckles to make sure he mastered  the right techniques. Also attending these classes was the equally inexperienced Robert Fripp, The two would compete to see who could play the fastest. 

They didn’t realise it at the time but this would pay huge dividends later when they formed King Crimson. 

“Because we’d practised together we each had an intimate  knowledge of what the other one knew. It gave King Crimson an underlying and very subtle power.”

Lake still has many friends in the Bournemouth and Poole area  and earlier this year gave his support to the Sound Festival for local bands at Verwood. 

“I love Dorset. I remember so many happy times there and of course it was the place that gave me my start. 

“One of the great things about the Poole and Bournemouth area in those days was that there was a great deal of employment for musicians especially during the summer when all the tourists came.

I remember playing  village halls, dance halls all kinds of funny little venues that gave me the chance to build up and practise. 

“ I spent years learning my craft before I dreamt about going to London or joining a pro band.  That was the way it was you had to pay your dues before you  got the chance to make a record. Nowadays you make a record, have a hit and then you learn how to play.

“When I was playing in youth clubs in Poole I had a repertoire of 200 songs I could play from memory right off the top of my head. That’s a marvellous education because everyone of them was a hit.” 

Lake is unimpressed with  the present day music industry saying: “When I grew up the whole idea was to be original and come up with something new. Nowadays the idea is to fit in with something that complies with existing market perameters. 

“I really don’t pay much attention to the current music scene because essentially there isn’t one. It’s been sapped of its natural momentum by the record companies. They’ve shot themselves in the foot, as industries often do, by being too greedy.”

He illustrates his point by arguing that back in the late sixties individuality was prized in a way that simply doesn’t exist today.  “There must have been 20 fabulous bands around and each of them: Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd – I could go one for ages – had such a distinctive sound that if  you played one of their albums you would know within five seconds who it was. Nowadays you go down to HMV and pick up 10 CDs you be hard pushed to know who it was you were listening to because it’s all designed to fit  a market format.” 

 Lake says he feels hugely fortunate to have been part of a golden era of rock. Any regrets? “Not really,” he says.  “Maybe there have been one or two albums I’d rather not have made but it’s hard to regret 40 million record sales and thousands of concerts that were a sheer joy to play.

“Yes, I’d say that it’s been a strange life but a good one.” 

© Jeremy Miles 2017