Greg Lake and The True Meaning of Prog Rock

With three weeks left in 2016, all music fans must ask themselves THE question: can this year end soon enough?

The term “slaughterhouse” is often used in connection with sanguine events like the American Civil War, but 2016 qualifies as well when you consider the decimation of musicians that has occurred over this year. There’s been so much death among musicians this year that it’s tempting to call for a world conference to be held and a decision reached to put Paul McCartney, Jimmy Page, Stevie Wonder, Angus Young, Sonny Rollins and the remaining essentials into a giant calamity-proof underground vault where they can be carefully watched and medically attended to until the new year dawns.

Tarkus. Even today, one whiff of chlorine and I’m right back there—swimming endless laps in an Olympic pool, my legs growing flabby, my arms waterlogged, my head filled with squealing synths.

Lake’s death, followed by the fact that I had three new 140 gram LP reissues from BMG, all newly cut from 96kHz/24-bit files, of the first three ELP records including Tarkus, set off a round of ELP discussions in the Stereophile office between those who felt that perhaps John Peel was right when he called them “a waste of time, talent and electricity,” and the oft embattled fans of pretentious prog rock who also fight the good fight in the name of the mighty Rush.

Somehow (my mouth?) this discussion carried over into the weekend when the subject of Lake came up at a local watering hole amongst the musically literate, and the split between those who thought the sprawling, seven-part, side-length “Tarkus” was genius (much like Rush’s side long “2112”) versus those who were disgustedly sure it was utter rubbish became even more heated and yawning. About all anyone could agree on was that the armadillo crossed with a British Mark V tank cover art was inspired and fairly timeless.

After several listens to the new Tarkus which was remastered by Andy Pearce and was pressed into 140 gram vinyl “at the special request of Greg Lake,” (notes from Lake and Helmut Brinkmann attempt to explain why 140 gram vinyl is better than 180 gram vinyl, and this from the company that once tried to sell Dynaflex as as a good thing!) my reaction is a mix of ancient poolside nostalgia and a little eye rolling over the fact that perhaps a producer, someone to edit this stuff a bit and take out the gongs, might have been a help. But then that’s the essence of prog rock. Embrace the excess or don’t bother. R.I.P Greg Lake. McCartney and Page, please, gentlemen: the vault awaits!

volvic's picture

Listened to some ELP this past week, some of their albums strike me as over the top and pointless but growing up they opened the door for me to modern classical music, which then took me even further to earlier classical music. Much like the Mannerist period in art, prog rock was a movement - the natural progression of music from standard pop to a hyper sophistication that was supplanted by punk rock. Greg Lake with ELP and King Crimson put out some great material some of it was really good, some of it was long and obnoxious. But, just like most artists, some of it worked some of it didn't. There is no denying he was a gifted artist who with an acoustic guitar, wrote some fantastic tunes and was an integral part of my youth. Gone too soon.

ednazarko's picture

Saw ELP many times, and King Crimson a few times when Greg Lake was there. i still remember many concerts where the vocals coming from Greg Lake were epic, soaring, near-religious peak experience damn near Hildegard von Bingen transcendent. And then I saw Greg Lake with a wad of chewing gum in his cheek that makes most major league pitchers look like amateurs. A vocal sound like he made requires a huge number of resonant cavities. Was that fist-size gum wad part of the sound? Who knows. But I found myself transfixed by it, wondering whether he would choke.

I used to play chess to Tarkus. Used to use part of Brain Salad Surgery to get pumped up for a huge conference speech ("welcome back my friends"). Yes, a lot of what they did, in retrospect, sounds pretentious and over the top. But... a lot of what Tschaikovsky wrote sounds pretentious and over the top. Greg Lake had a transcendent voice. "Jerusalem" will forever be in my head, in his voice.

Allen Fant's picture

A great one! We will always have the Music- R.I.P.

rondog2's picture

The second member of the greatest prog rock band ever is gone. I was hooked on them from the first album. Caught them at Soldier Field in Chicago in '78 when Emerson was playing piano and spinning above the crowd. Great song writing. Way ahead of their time! A sad day indeed.

KingGhidora's picture

Like it or not it was a major step up from "I Want To Hold Your Hand". All the Beatles fanatics that think every song should be 3 minutes with 3 choruses and lyrics that may or may not be decipherable would have done well to expand their music appreciation a good bit by listening to some solid prog rock. ELP may not have been my favorite and parts of Brain Salad Surgery may have been pretentious and boring but they did some inspired work. Tarkus was a great album. It was vastly more interesting than the Top 40 pop rock we heard on the radio. AOR was all word of mouth where I lived and ELP was on the tongue of all those who spoke of a better kind of music. Yes there are endless varieties of music that surpass pablum pop but Tarkus was a cut above almost everything. It was classical music for the great unwashed. Or it was the best excuse for classical we had anyway.

jluselips's picture

I saw Greg Lake and ELP at the World Series of Rock at the old Municipal Stadium in Cleveland, back in the 70's. Eighty-thousand people strong, it was a wild and crazy event (people parked illegally on the nearby shoreway). Still ELP played a great show under trying circumstances. Greg had a great voice which still pops into my head now and then. Loved King Crimson too. Whether you like prog rock or not, it's a shame that it doesn't get the respect it deserves. ELP nor The Moody Blues are in the Hall of Fame; not that should matter that much. However, their pioneering influence has had a far reaching and lasting effect. Would Cold Play, electronic or dance music be what it is today? I don't think so. Didn't they expose classical music to tens of thousands of listeners? RIP Greg AND Keith.

Mikeymort's picture

Tarkus was used for "bumper music" on Armed Forces Radio back in the early seventies. I was working at AFN Kaiserslautern, Germany and I was captivated by it. Tarkus was my introduction to music outside the Top 40. Later, when I bought my first good stereo system, Brain Salad Surgery was the first recording I played.

IgAK's picture

Sure, caught your tone about the Dynaflex abominations but had to wonder what they could possible offer as reason for superiority over 180 grammers? VTA off by less from thinner common records for those who can't adjust theirs practically? Easier to melt in an oven to make artsy stuff?

heyjay's picture

ELP just did their own thing and covered all types of music from Ragtime to Classical and even Show tunes. They were all super talented, so there was plenty of show-off at times, but they were just so different they had a real appeal in a 'wow' factor way where you couldn't believe what they were tackling next. Who else puts lyrics to Pictures at an Exhibition? Or makes a pirate show tune? I actually like their version of Fanfare for the Common Man better than Copeland's, feels more like the common man's struggle. They tackled the Nazi's with Knife Edge, the variety was amazing.
I just thought they fell off the cliff with the hideous Love Beach recording and that was the end for me.