In remembrance of E & L

Greg Lake, former lead singer of two of the raddest acquired-taste rock groups from the ’70s (King Crimson and Emerson Lake & Palmer), has passed away. This comes less than a year after the death of his former bandmate, Keith Emerson. This year has taken out the E and the L from ELP, and one of the band’s two Ps (Cozy Powell) passed on years ago. I figure Carl Palmer’s going to be OK, though; he always seemed to be the youngest, fittest, and most vital member of ELP.

ELP is one of those bands that people love to hate, and yeah, I get it. Lake was a big part of it; he had a reputation for being an egomaniacal rock star, rude to fans, and preposterously touring with an extravagantly expensive Persian rug to stand on while playing. That being said, he was a hell of a musician in his prime; anyone who performed on the landmark album In the Court of the Crimson King demands respect, and when he was younger his voice had rich, compelling quality. He also belonged to the post-McCartney school of electric bass, using the instrument less for rhythm than for harmonics. People usually hold up “21st Century Schizoid Man” as the hallmark of that album, but the title track has always struck me as a great example of everything both great and ridiculous about Lake:

What a great voice! What ridiculous lyrics!

He played an unusual role in his power trio — ELP — by standing in ostensibly as the leading man. After all, he played guitar and sang, which is the top dog in a rock band, right? But no, Emerson was the star of the show, the flashy keyboard virtuoso and showman. Lake stood there on his expensive rug — singing, yes, but more often playing the role of support (along with Palmer) for Emerson’s insane (and often literal) keyboard pyrotechnics. Lake would occasionally jump in with electric guitar, but those fleeting riffs never had the confidence of his throaty bass lines or the acoustic guitar pieces he played with surprising deftness.

For some bizarre reason, Lake switched up his bass sound in the late ’70s, greatly reducing the impact of his performances. The band did some great live recordings in support of the Works albums, but the once-thick, thundering sound of Lake’s bass become a thin, sharp snap instead. He practically disappears from the mix:

He did have his one big solo hit around this time, the completely syrupy seasonal ballad “I Believe in Father Christmas.” I’m not a fan, but honestly it’s much less corny than it appears at first — despite the soaring choir and uplifting, wall-of-sound strings, the lyrics are deeply cynical and stand at odds to the sound and name of the piece. It has top-flight lyrical dissonance along the lines of something like The Beatles’ “Run for Your Life.”

Unfortunately, Lake had a reputation for not taking particularly good care of himself. He reputedly took pride in never performing vocal exercises to keep his voice in shape, so by the time the ’90s rolled around, his singing had become thin and forced, a matter not helped by his smoking habit, I’m sure. Although he didn’t lose his voice to the degree of Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson, his vocal degradation (unlike Anderson’s) likely could have been avoided with a bit of precaution… and unlike Anderson, he largely stepped back from performing and recording afterwards.

Still, I love classic ELP without a hint of shame or irony. It was a three-piece band that got together specifically for the sake of creating enormous, bombastic compositions steeped in virtuosic skill, unapologetic about its bloat and pretense. And they were hugely successful for a while — Lake could afford to be a cocky rock star, because his improbably popular art rock made him and his band mates quite wealthy. The ’70s were weird, but they gave us King Crimson and ELP, so bless ’em.

Anyway, you should remember them both by their best work together.

“The Three Fates” — This three-part composition is the music you hear while you fight Kefka.

“From the Beginning” — One of ELP’s big radio hits, with both Lake and Emerson contributing a sort of mournful, ethereal sound to the mix. This one always stood out because I dated a girl in high school who hated everything that wasn’t of-the-moment indie rock; she had heard this on the radio once and found it incredible but had no idea who recorded it, or when. It came as a real surprise when it turned out to be by one of the bands I liked (which she basically universally hated).

“Take a Pebble” — This was Lake’s live showcase for the longest time, but the transition from acoustic guitar to piano lead shows that when Lake and Emerson weren’t trying to out-showboat one another, they could really create remarkable music together.

“The Score” — I’ve come to love Emerson Lake & Powell despite the obvious cynicism of its creation: Emerson and Lake wanted to re-form the band, but Palmer was busy getting rich as drummer for Asia… so they recruited Cozy Powell, a drummer whose last name started with P. The resulting album was largely sterile and soulless, but in hindsight it’s a perfect demonstration of epic ’70s prog rock married to ’80s synthesizers — something that turned out to be incredibly rare. I probably should have touted this one on this week’s FM synth Retronauts, honestly. Definitely an acquired taste, but I like it.