A look at how Greg Lake's career evolved from his early bands to King Crimson and Emerson, Lake & Palmer

By Alex Heigl
December 08, 2016 03:45 PM
Greg Lake Performs At The Auditorium Manzoni
Credit: Roberto Serra - Iguana Press/Redferns via Getty

Greg Lake, the pioneering prog rocker known for his work with King Crimson and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, passed away Tuesday at the age of 69. Lake’s career spanned a wide chunk of 20th century, and he was active through many major — and important — phases of rock and roll and pop music. Let’s take a look at how his artistry evolved.

1. The Shame, “Don’t Go Away Little Girl” (1967)

Lake picked up the guitar at 12 and played through school, after which he joined The Shame and was featured prominently on their single “Don’t Go Away Little Girl,” which was actually written by “At Seventeen” scribe (and Mean Girls namesake) Janis Ian.

2. The Shy Limbs, “Love”(1969)

It’s interesting to hear Lake’s progression from a more blues band-based sound to psychedelia — in keeping with the trends of the time. In 1969, he played on “Love” by the Shy Limbs, one of two 45s issued by the group.

3. King Crimson, “20th Century Schizoid Man” (1969)

Also in 1969, Lake joined forces with childhood friend, eventual guitar godhead Robert Fripp — the pair had shared a guitar teacher growing up — in King Crimson, considered one of the first progressive rock bands. Lake switched to bass from guitar for the band, and his agile lines and powerful vocals anchored the group’s sprawling songs, like the towering “20th Century Schizoid Man.”

4. Emerson, Lake & Palmer, “Lucky Man” (1970)

By 1970, Lake had departed King Crimson for the prog-rock supergroup Emerson, Lake & Palmer, formed with recently-deceased keyboard wizard Keith Emerson and British journeyman drummer Carl Palmer. The trio’s triumphant performance at the historic Isle of Wight Festival in 1970 broke them almost immediately, and their self-titled debut featured one of their best-known songs, “Lucky Man,” a song Lake reportedly wrote at the age of 12.

5. Emerson, Lake & Palmer, “Tarkus” (1971)

Within a year, ELP were locked in a genre-defining arms race with Yes and King Crimson in terms of progressive-rock theatrics and excess. Their second album, Tarkus — and its inimitable tank-armadillo cover art — amply demonstrated the skill of the three musicians, along with the sprawl that would come to define the genre.

6. Emerson, Lake & Palmer, “Pictures at an Exhibition” (1971)

ELP barely paused for a breath between Tarkus and 1971’s live album Pictures at an Exhibition, a rearrangement of Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky’s piano suite of the same name.

7. Emerson, Lake & Palmer, “Brain Salad Surgery” (1973)

By 1974, ELP had become a singularly monolithic production — both in the studio and live, where they reportedly took 40 tons of equipment on tour — and Brain Salad Surgery (released in November 1973) was a perfect example of that. Not only does it display sci-fi icon H.R. Giger’s eerie bio-mechanical artwork on the cover, but it contains “Karn Evil 9,” the group’s longest song, which clocks in close to a half-hour in length.

8. Greg Lake, “I Believe in Father Christmas” (1975)

Lake achieved solo success while still a part of ELP with this song, an interpretation of Sergei Prokofiev’s 1934 “Lieutenant Kijé Suite.” The song was a hit in the U.K., its ascent to No. 1 on the charts barred only by Queen’s titanic (and similarly excessive) “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

By the late ’70s, the prog rock ship was sinking, pulled down by its own excesses and the rising tide of punk rock, which championed a return to rock and roll’s more primal aspects and fewer half-hour classically-inspired suites. ELP disbanded in 1979, and Lake would briefly join another group of prog rockers, Asia, though his time in the band was limited to a year.

Lake spent the rest of his life periodically reuniting with ELP and King Crimson and touring behind his own music. In January of this year, Lake was given the first-ever honorary degree awarded by the Italian Conservatorior Nicolini for his work as a composer and lyricist, a fitting send-off for someone who spent his life working to erase the divide between classical and pop music.