Greg Lake left the planet last week, so now I guess that ELP is just P.
ELP, of course, was Emerson Lake & Palmer, the English progressive rock group that sold umpty-million records worldwide. The E in that group, keyboard wunderkind Keith Emerson, died earlier this year.
Lake was the bassist, vocalist and sometime songwriter for the band, which performed together for nine years — I thought it was longer — disbanding in 1979; he died Dec. 7 in London from cancer.
Lake has an interesting backstory. A lot of the stars of the British Invasion and the U.K. blues-rock scene were from the London area, or from port cities like Liverpool and Sunderland where sailors brought in music from the U.S. and elsewhere; Lake was a native of Dorset, in the southwest.
The future rock bassist came from a poorer family, albeit one that helped support him before his career took off. He discovered rock and roll at age 10, via Little Richard’s “Lucille,” and wrote his first song, “Lucky Man,” two years later. (I see no correlation or causation between the two, although his age when he wrote that song explains some things — see below.)
Lake took fairly traditional acoustic guitar lessons as a teen, but quit because he wanted to do what the rockers were doing. He worked on the docks and as a draftsman before deciding on a career in music at age 17.
He played in several local bands before hooking up with another pupil of his guitar teacher, fellow Dorseter Robert Fripp. The two ended up reciting their guitar lesson numbers at a gig where the audience failed to show.
A few years later, Fripp called on Lake to play with his new group, King Crimson. He needed a bassist, not a lead or rhythm guitarist, so Lake had to take up a new instrument.
Lake performed on two KC albums, and provided some input on the group’s lyrics. (Listening to the title song from the band’s first LP, and keeping “Lucky Man” in mind, I hear his fingerprints all over the title song.)
But the opening act on King Crimson’s U.S. tour was an English band called the Nice, and Lake struck up a friendship with that group’s keyboardist, Emerson. The two decided to form their own group, ELP, with percussionist Carl Palmer.
Palmer had played — who’d a thunk — for the Crazy World of Arthur Brown (“Fire”!) and Atomic Rooster. (My 10-second review on the latter band, when I first heard them, was that they’d laid an egg. I know, I know, roosters can’t lay eggs — but that one could make mediocre music.)
I have a live album by the Nice, purchased mostly for their cover of Bob Dylan’s “She Belongs to Me.” But that group’s lack of vocal punch was obvious on that disc and its other LPs, and Lake made up for that in ELP.
ELP ’s commercial achievements are incontrovertible, but I have to stand with Joel and the Bots, who delivered a smackdown of “Tarkus on an episode of “Mystery Science Theatre 3000.” Like the Nice, the band was dominated by Emerson’s frenetic technique-ality; Lake provided some counterweight to that, with his lyrics and vocals.
But the song that most people remember, and which was hugely successful, “Lucky Man,” is internally inconsistent and at times sophomoric. The storyline sounds medieval, gold-covered mattresses and all, but the Lucky Man meets his end when “a bullet had found him.”
“From the Beginning” was a bit of an upgrade, not surprising because it was written by an adult. But Emerson’s obsession with complicated numbers inspired by classical/serious music helped lead to the band’s dissolution.
After ELP broke up, Lake went on to a solo career. He had already had solo success, although still a member of the group, with “I Believe in Father Christmas,” and later toured and recorded with his Greg Lake Band. ELP reformed in 1992, and did concerts and (and a couple albums) through 1998.
Lake also did a fill-in stint with Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band. More recently, he and Emerson reunited to perform ELP songs on an all-acoustic tour — which also initially recreated some of the interpersonal conflicts between the two. He did a solo tour only six years ago.
It would be hard to rank Lake as being as influential as some of the musicians we have lost this year — Bowie, Kantner and Frey, for instance — but he did make a contribution to The Music. And we mourn the passing of another member of our generation, and hope that he rests in peace.
But what about the only letter left in ELP? Palmer, highly respected as a drummer, joined Asia after ELP dissolved, and took part in the latter band’s 1990s reunion. He has also produced records, taken part in an Asia restart, given drum clinics and did three solo tours over the past three years.