After Greg Lake’s death in 2016, fans and music publications jumped to express their love for his life work. One such publication was loudersound, which produced this list of 10 Essential songs. It’s definitely a good starting point, comprised mostly of his chart-toppers but mixing in a few less well-known songs as well.
As a response to this, I’d like to make my own list of 10 Essential Greg Lake songs. I’ve excluded any that were on the original list, which is why “Lucky Man” doesn’t make an appearance despite being the Greg Lake song!
“Dreams Don’t Bother Me” (with The Shame)
Pre-King Crimson songs Greg Lake sang or played in are relatively rare; the fact that many aren’t in circulation doesn’t help things. These are essential, however, for fans interested in how he developed from a talented kid from Dorset into a beloved international star.
Loudersound gives their suggestion for a song highlighting his early development, and here I give mine. This is the first song I’ve heard him sing where I can start to hear “The Voice” emerge. Influence from one of his favorite bands, The Beatles, can also be heard.
“Epitaph” (with King Crimson)
I’m going to make a bold claim and state that this song is the scariest off of In the Court of the Crimson King. It’s not as dissonant as “21st Century Schizoid Man”, but there’s something the dirge-like quality, as well as the relatively stark instrumentation, that is suggestive of a world that’s too far gone for saving. A lot of that frightening nature comes off just how sincerely Lake sings. This is where he first hits the emotional depths in his singing which would become one of his hallmarks as he continued to mature.
Isolated vocal tracks off this one are particularly fun, by the way.
“The Barbarian” (With Emerson, Lake & Palmer)
What am I doing, including a song where Lake doesn’t even sing?! It’s a fair question and a fair criticism. But Greg wasn’t only a singer par excellence, even if his voice was one of the most beautiful in rock ‘n roll.
The thing is, Greg Lake was also a bassist. I’ve hardly ever seen him make a list of best bass players. This is an odd oversight, considering he has such a strong, recognizable sound. While he doesn’t always favor intricate riffs or bizarre syncopations, he’s highly reliable and keeps his songs grounded. This song is a perfect example of his under appreciated bass work. I’ve chosen it to highlight it, but any time you listen to ELP, whether it’s from “Tarkus” or “The Endless Enigma” or even the much later “Changing States”, watch for that great bass work.
Oh, and that riff to begin the piece, incidentally the first thing an ELP fan hears when they play their discography chronologically, is simply awesome.
“Tarkus” (With ELP)
One of Loudersound’s biggest gaps in their list is the lack of nods to Lake’s work on ELP’s epics, the songs that clock in at fifteen minutes or more and tell grand, sweeping stories on a worldly scale. The first of these, “Tarkus”, wasn’t even one Lake apparently liked at the beginning of its writing process. All the same, he provided a memorable song cycle about the nature of life and destruction to go with a memorable melody. It’s vague enough that it could have many interpretations, but clear enough that the themes of what he’s saying shine through. Whether they are about an armadillo tank, serve as an analogy to the Vietnam War, or both, these are a great example of what Lake could do. The lyrics’ beautiful delivery, both in the album and night after night onstage, don’t hurt them either.
“From the Beginning” (with ELP)
Lake’s acoustic ballads are always fantastic. There’s no way around it. This one took everything great about “Lucky Man”, down to the including of a closing Moog solo, and added a bit more sophistication without losing the sincerity. The guitar work, also, is amazing, showing us what Lake could really do with an instrument when given the chance.
This one holds particular emotional meaning for me, since it’s the one which I listened to when I heard he had passed. It seemed only fitting.
“Trilogy” (With ELP)
Later in life, Lake reportedly turned to this as his favorite ELP song; at the very least it was the title track of his favorite ELP album. It’s not hard to see why. This song features the quintessential ELP sound, with all three members working overtime to create a masterpiece.
While the lyrics of this one are fairly sparse, giving Lake little time to show either his vocal or lyrical talent, he makes the best of it, and the result is the icing on the musical cake. For the rest of the time, he’s content to work as a bassist only; particularly notable on that line is the moment at which he accompanies one of the early piano solos.
Also of note here is the fact that Lake later revisited this song on his “Songs of a Lifetime” tour, playing a simple keyboard or guitar line himself to set off the lyrics. This stripped-down version highlights the power found in these simple lyrics.
“Closer to Believing” (With ELP)
Works Volume 1 may have been polarizing for its use of orchestra, but this song shows the full potential for having the musicians each work with such a large ensemble, showing it was an artistic choice rather than just a stunt.
The orchestra and even a chorus here blend beautifully with Lake’s voice to create an otherworldly beauty and a universal scale. It’s a moving song, all about the struggle to find the truth of creation and at the same time about the feeling of love and companionship found in the little daily things which is all we need in the end. You may need a box of tissues nearby for this song. I sure do.
Lake’s two solo albums, produced early in the eighties, definitely have weak points. They also have some darn good music which was clearly created and performed entirely sincerely by Lake and his collaborators. Unfortunately, they’ve also been swept under the historical rug; Loudersound themselves wrote a piece shortly before Greg’s death dismissing them.
Songs like “Someone” suggests why that dismissal is just ridiculous. It’s uncharacteristically dark for Lake, about the isolation felt by people across all walks of life. His voice throughout manages to get pathos across without sleeping into melodrama, and once again his lyrical delivery is perfect. In Lucky Man, Lake himself makes particular note of the incredible saxophone solo provided by Clarence Clemons in the middle, a winning touch to a wonderful song.
“Step Aside” (With Emerson, Lake & Powell)
The short-lived Emerson, Lake & Powell lineup of 1986, when Keith Emerson and Greg Lake teamed up with legendary drummer Cozy Powell, left us with a wealth of amazing live work, more demos and chatter-heavy rehearsal tapes than we have for the rest of ELP’s discography, and a single brilliant studio album. The potential the group could have continued to explore had they remained together can only be imagined at, and imagine we can thanks to this song.
“Step Aside” has a lot softer of a touch than usual from all the players involved, with Lake’s vocal performance and lyrics capping it off. The song has an almost film noir feel as a result; listeners can practically see the dark streets to explore on their own to solve whatever mysteries have come. Yet there’s also moments of unquenchable optimism which sometimes shine through during the song. Lake handles both the mystery and the hope as he always does: brilliantly.
“Footprints in the Snow” (With ELP)
Despite its memorable songs and spectacular quality, Black Moon is treated as a footnote in ELP’s history. If music publications contribute to ignore it in retrospectives on Lake’s career, as well as in retrospectives on Keith Emerson and Carl Palmer, this will continue to happen. I look forward to discussing how awesome this album is in future posts.
This sweet love song, for instance, is definitely worth taking a look at. It’s a gentle closer to an otherwise heavy album, and proves that even twenty years on from the first days of ELP and even longer since his Dorset days, Lake could still pen a ballad like nobody’s business. One of the lines within, “and if one day your stars don’t shine / then I will give you some of mine” is up there with my favorite lyrics Lake ever wrote.
This list of songs is by no means exhaustive. There are a lot of songs I could have and almost did put up here instead. In the comments, I encourage you to make your own list from what’s left of his discography—songs I didn’t include, and preferably weren’t included in loudersound either. Thanks for reading!
- Edit on 2020-09-06: Formatting updated. Optimized for new site.