I was on a plane recently, listening to the Emerson Lake & Palmer album ‘Trilogy’ as the miles flew by. If you’re a progressive rock fan–or even just a ‘classic rock’ fan–it can actually be hard to listen to such a chestnut as this. It’s like listening to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony for classical music lovers. Some tunes are so familiar that we can’t even really hear them anymore. Or even worse? They sound almost cloying.
But ironically, there’s a reason we get so jaded, right? They wouldn’t be ‘classics’ if they hadn’t deserved enough listens to wear out the grooves in the first place. However if one does make the effort to hear a piece with fresh ears, the rewards can be phenomenal. (The advantage that classical music has over progressive rock is that we can get a fresh perspective simply by listening to another version of Beethoven.)
Anyhoo, I listened to the outro solo on “From The Beginning”, which starts with a one-pitch bass fill. It’s just one note with a sort of ‘Shotgun’ rhythm. But it’s absolutely perfect for the song. It may not be ‘virtuoso’, but it has just enough flair and precision to be one hundred percent ‘prog’. In short: it is completely musical and it’s provided by a guy who may not have ‘mega-chops’ but who fully understood the genre he was pioneering.
Greg Lake used to get sooooooo much grief in ELP from ‘prog’ snobs. He was too pretty. His songs were too pretty. He wasn’t a virtuoso. But his contributions to ELP were just as important as Keith’s, not just in terms of singing, but in terms of production and taste. That solo is exactly what that song needed, he played it perfectly and the tone is exemplary.
Examples of great guitar playing abound. His acoustic work is rife with memorable ‘riffs’, as in From The Beginning, Take A Pebble, Still You Turn Me on, I Believe In Father Christmas, etc. The guy had, in my humble opinion, as good a sound on a Gibson J-200 as any you’ll ever hear. Again, I know his playing doesn’t scream ‘look at me!’ but so what? He played what the material required with precision and panache; something of which more players should take note. Give me a great melody, played well over a zillion ‘djent’ notes any day of the week!
His singing? Obviously, he was the quintessential ‘English Tenor’ (more like high-baritone but why quibble?) He had an emotional range unmatched by any other progressive rock singer, covering a range from comic, angry (especially in King Crimson), tender and epic. Other singers may have hit higher notes (Jon Anderson) or evoked more pathos (Peter Gabriel) but none covered as much ground. In fact, I laugh when I hear death metal singers today eating the mic with faux rage. Try as they may, they can never match the original, nasty rage of “Twenty First Century Schizoid Man”.
And as a producer, I think he made the ELP sound. Their classic records have a truly majestic quality. (In fact, he made Keith Emerson sound far more epic than Keith was able to do on his solo records). If you compare the sound of a record like Brain Salad Surgery to ones by Yes or Genesis at the same time, the latter sound dry and frankly lifeless in comparison. The man knew how to make the trio sound absolutely huuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuge.
As with so many progressive rock pioneers, I think the worst thing one can say about Greg is that he didn’t know when to quit. Again, he was far from alone in this. Fitzgerald could also have been speaking of Progressive Rock artists in bemoaning the lack of a decent second act. Almost none of the originators found a way to move on to meaningful work after their initial glories had waned. (I often cite Gentle Giant as having found the best solution: retirement!) So I prefer to think of him from 1969 with King Crimson to the first break up of Emerson Lake and Palmer a decade later. That’s enough great work for any three careers.
As a singer, writer, producer and musician he has to be considered one of the ten greatest musician in the Progressive Rock pantheon. I will miss him dearly. But more than that I deeply regret not having appreciated him more over the years–again because those classic records had become so familiar (like so many monuments one always expects to be there) I had stopped really looking at them. Like the song says, “You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.”