I became a fan of progressive rock in 2008… wait, I’ve said that before haven’t I?
When I was reviewing Keith Emerson’s mammoth 20CD Variations set, I wondered what made Emerson so special when his long-time bandmate Greg Lake died the very same year. It seems that the folks at Spirit of Unicorn Music were thinking the same thing because Magical’s box set format seems to have been largely copied from Variations. The main difference is that, since Lake was nowhere near as prolific as Emerson, this set only consists of seven CDs: his two solo albums Greg Lake (1981) and Manoeuvres (1983), two “Official Bootleg” CDs (unquestionably the highlight of the set) and two largely identical live albums recorded on the same tour. Oh, and in case you missed the Emerson/Lake collaboration Live from Manticore Hall from Variations, it’s included here too.
Once again, we see our former ELP member jettisoned into the prog-hating, pop-obsessed ’80s without a supergroup to support him. In the booklet notes, Lake admits he was ‘confused’ at the time and had a lack of direction, realising he didn’t know how to define himself as a solo artist when everyone knew him as a member of ELP. Anyone who had been paying attention to Lake’s contributions to the band up until then would find his subsequent direction unsurprising. The early ’70s proved that Lake had a talent for ditties such as Lucky Man and Still… You Turn Me On, but 1977’s Works Volume 1, which featured a side devoted to each band member, showed that Lake wasn’t all that interested in making progressive rock at all, happier to write catchy hits such as C’est la vie.
I braced myself for the worst when it came to Lake’s 1981 debut, but was pleasantly surprised to find a host of rather decent tunes inside. As expected, there was hardly an ounce of prog to be found anywhere, but the songwriting and musicianship were hard-hitting and infectious. The most valuable addition to Lake’s band that he would tour and record with for the next couple of years was undoubtedly guitarist Gary Moore, whose name I recognised from the final track of Variations – the proggy yet festive Captain Starship Christmas – but will probably be known better to others as the guitarist of Skid Row and Thin Lizzy. His talent on the guitar is a wonder to behold and he often steals the limelight from Lake himself, not that it bothers me.
It’s actually Moore’s own song Nuclear Attack that begins Greg Lake, purely because Lake “liked the song, and that’s why it’s on there.” It’s a scorching tune that leads into another banger, Love You Too Much, originally written by Bob Dylan but finished by Lake. One can feel the arena-filling energy that pulsates in these songs. Finally, we move onto a Greg Lake original with It Hurts, which begins gently but rises to a powerful conclusion. I’m grateful that Moore and the rest of Lake’s band could find tasteful accompaniments to simple songs such as this.
Unfortunately, there’s only so much of this AOR style I can take before losing interest, and the rest of the songs on Greg Lake begin to sound samey, despite some decent ideas. The final track, For Those Who Dare, is an odd one with marching drums and synthesised bagpipes bringing the album to a strange conclusion.
Manoeuvres, the second and final solo album, doesn’t fare any better. It feels as if Lake is playing it safe, sticking to what he knows rather than taking a chance. The most interesting song is the seven-minute synth-heavy side two opener It’s You, You’ve Gotta Believe, which sounds like it was composed with ELP in mind but is nevertheless plodding in pace and dull. Elsewhere, we hear some of the cringeworthy lyrics that Lake came to be known for in his worst moments as a songwriter – someone get me a ladder! The synth-poppy Slave to Love contains this verse:
and a badge for the FBI.
A Soho stripper,
or a Soviet spy.
You think you’re the devil,
but with those angel eyes,
you’re just a slave to love tonight.”
Oof! Perhaps this kind of writing is genius because at least I remembered it, unlike the rest of this bland album. Throughout both solo albums, I could hear songs that could have used the ‘prog’ treatment in ELP to become something grander, much like how Yes extended the Buggles’ I Am a Camera to become Into the Lens on the Drama album. At the same time, the thought of artificially creating a prog song by taking a regular tune and adding a whizzy instrumental to it is less than appealing, and I’m grateful to hear Lake’s more raw, stripped-back approach, even if it’s not really my cup of tea.
With the management at Chrysalis breathing down Lake’s neck to ask him to produce another hit such as Lucky Man, and facing no promotion or tour for Manoeuvres, Lake came to the realisation that he simply wasn’t sought after as a solo artist, and that he hadn’t achieved what he was looking for musically. While Yes were making fortunes off hit records and singles, Lake decided he “had no appetite or inspiration for creating popular music in […] an increasingly phoney, media-driven world.”
But that didn’t stop him from playing music, as is revealed by the next two discs, comprising both volumes of From the Underground: The Official Bootleg. This manic medley takes us on a roller coaster ride through Lake’s career, from his pre-Crimson days in the 1960s Bournemouth psychedelic scene through to the controversial ’90s revival of Emerson, Lake & Palmer. The real meat of the box set lies in these recordings, and they are made even more valuable because of the liner notes for each track, penned by the man himself. This context is crucial to understanding the recordings; I dearly wish that some of the albums on Variations – especially Off the Shelf – had come with this level of detail.
Surprisingly, I’m a big fan of the track ordering, which is not done in chronological order. I reckon Lake was aware that the more valuable recordings were the earlier ones and did his best to space everything out. The three bonus tracks for Greg Lake (which he recorded with Toto at the height of their career) and one bonus track for Manoeuvres can be found on the second disc; I’m glad that they are spaced out because I’m not sure I could sit through them all back-to-back. There’s a reason they were left off those albums after all.
I’ve never listened to the Emerson, Lake & Powell album for much the same reason I’ve never listened to any of Lake or Emerson’s solo stuff before, but I came close to hearing most of that album through these recordings, which feature several live takes from this short-lived line-up. I was impressed by just how ‘progressive’ The Score was; even if it didn’t quite scratch the itch that the classic ELP line-up was able to, I reckon that I shouldn’t have slept on this album for as long as I have. That being said, I have gotten pretty fed up with listening to Touch and Go so many times; it’s not the masterpiece that the band think it is.
Better than these are the King Crimson recordings, whether they be original live recordings from the 1969 line-up or a smoking run-through of 21st Century Schizoid Man by Greg Lake’s 1980s band featuring Gary Moore. An interesting early run-through of Pictures of a City is included, here titled A Man, a City. There are not many significant changes, but the band are less tight than on the official recording. The recording of Epitaph is taken from the notorious Hyde Park show that put King Crimson on the map in July 1969 and has an eerie quality to it as the Mellotron dominates the other instruments.
If you go to Progarchives, you’ll notice that Greg Lake has three studio albums listed; the third is a collaboration with Geoff Downes from 1989-’90 that was released in 2015 as Ride the Tiger. While this album is not present in Magical, three of its tracks can be found on From the Underground Vol.II. I had thought it was an oversight to leave this album out of the collection, but after hearing them, I reckon it was a blessing. Bland, synthesised tunes with a crummy ’80s drum machine are hardly the output you’d expect from two such renowned artists.
On the positive side, the set also features a track to represent Lake’s brief time as Asia frontman when he performed with the group in Tokyo for the Asia in Asia concert in 1983, a recording that was released last year as a live album. I’m grateful that they selected my favourite of Asia’s tracks, the ever-popular Heat of the Moment.
But my favourite jewel of this collection is the psychedelic song Love from one of Lake’s pre-Crimson bands called Shy Limbs. This flamboyant track is an absolute whirlwind, opening with a guitar solo before going through multiple tempo changes. Before the verse, a blast on the harmonica seems to have been lifted straight from the Beatles’ I Should Have Known Better while the thick, grungy bass guitar seems to point forward to the sound Chris Squire would adopt shortly. My jaw hit the floor when I realised that one of my favourite classic progressive drummers – Andrew McCulloch, of King Crimson’s Lizard, Fields and Greenslade – was also on this recording. His crisp, crunchy style and powerful rolls are inimitable and it was fascinating to find him working with Lake before either of them joined King Crimson. It’s such a blessing that all three of Lake, Fripp and McCulloch were from Bournemouth, but a shame that they never collaborated at the same time. I became obsessed with Shy Limbs and found that they only ever released two singles, but all four tracks are bangers. I’d particularly recommend the exuberant Trick or Two if you can get past the misogynistic lyrics.
With the bootleg albums acting as an exciting résumé of Lake’s career, we move onto a more stately affair with Lake’s 2013 live album Songs of a Lifetime which chronicles his final tour. As Lake explains at the top of the set, the idea for the tour came while he was writing his autobiography; certain songs seemed to keep cropping up and felt important to him, and he wanted to share stories with his audience whilst playing those songs. Consequently, we hear a mix of Greg Lake originals from ELP and King Crimson as well as covers from artists that inspired him such as Elvis and the Beatles. The kicker: Greg Lake plays all the songs by himself with a backing track. As a result, it’s largely a night of karaoke with none of the thrill of hearing live music.
Worse still, this format forces Lake to gut some of the best tracks of the set of their instrumental goodness: 21st Century Schizoid Man, Trilogy, Epitaph and The Court of the Crimson King are all decimated as a result. I get it though; it would be rather awkward to watch Lake sit around for several minutes and wait for his time to start singing again. Even the bombast of the Karn Evil 9 encore feels a bit weird, as it’s mainly the audience listening to a tape.
The album does have value but it has very little to do with his crooning. Between songs, Lake gives monologues about his life and music, a practice that we’ve already heard on Live at Manticore Hall. These help us to understand the artist more and feel closer to him and his way of thinking. Lake proves to be a decent orator and doesn’t stumble over his words whilst telling tales such as the time he saw Elvis play live, a story that takes seven minutes to unfold.
What did trouble me, however, were the inaccuracies in the stories he was telling. In the Elvis story, for example, Lake estimates the year to be 1970, but some research shows that Emerson, Lake & Palmer didn’t make it to the USA until 1971 and only played in San Francisco (where Lake begins his story) for the first time in 1972. Fine, maybe he forgot the year. Later, however, Lake’s factual errors cannot be ignored. After singing a King Crimson medley, Lake reveals the story of the iconic artwork for the band’s first cover, saying that young Barry Godber came to the studio the same afternoon the band recorded 21st Century Schizoid Man and coincidentally showed them a cover that perfectly aligned with that song. He then states that Godber was only 21 at the time and dropped dead three days later from a heart attack, but this is false; every source I can find says that Godber lived from 1946 to February 1970, meaning that he would have been 22 or 23 when 21st Century Schizoid Man was recorded in the Summer of 1969 and died several months later. If I’m giving Lake the benefit of the doubt, he’s just not a detail-oriented person and didn’t bother to check his facts. On the other hand, I’m distinctly reminded of a former manager who used to take the data I produced and always give it the greatest positive spin rather than interpret it accurately; is Lake embellishing to make his stories more interesting? Either way, it makes him less trustworthy as a source of information.
Next, we have a live album that is… almost exactly the same as we just had. I groaned as I realised that Live in Piacenza was also culled from the same tour. The karaoke tapes haven’t changed, so the music is exactly the same. Only some of Lake’s intonations are different, but this is barely noticeable; I did clock Lake changing from “two-foot small” to “two-foot tall” on You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away, however. While we’re on the topic, what an interesting track by the Beatles to choose. It’s not exactly a hit and I’ve always been fond of the notion that Lennon wrote it for their manager Brian Epstein, who had to hide his homosexuality publicly. Was Greg Lake an ally?
But while there’s a horrendous amount of overlap, we’re at least spared from listening to Lake tell his stories for a second time. Perhaps this is because he was speaking to an Italian audience, or because they were simply edited out to make space for more music. Either way, it’s a blessing. There are also some unique treats to be found on this album. First of all, this is the only place you can find Greg Lake’s biggest hit – the festive I Believe in Father Christmas – in the box set. The show caps off with special appearances by some of prog’s biggest Italian stars, including Aldo Tagliapietra of Le Orme and Bernardo Lanzetti of Acqua Fragile and PFM. It’s worth noting that Lanzetti produced music for ELP’s Manticore Records in the ’70s. Lake promises ‘something special’ and I really hoped they were going to play a PFM or Le Orme song live… Instead, they are merely brought in to sing verses of Lucky Man. It’s great to hear all those people in the same place at the same time, but it does feel like a waste of talent.
There’s just one album left in the set, which I didn’t even listen to for this review as I’ve already discussed it for Variations. Live at Manticore Hall is just as much Lake’s album as it is Emerson’s, so it makes sense for it to also be included here, but I suspect folks who collect both box sets might be a little upset at the overlap. As it stands, the album acts as an interesting precursor to Songs of a Lifetime where stories about each song are told. It’s also the only place in the box where you get to hear Tarkus, so that in itself is a boon.
For what it’s worth, the giant booklet that comes with Lake’s set is far better than Emerson’s. Lake’s book has 64 ten-inch pages while Emerson’s sports 68, but a whopping 40 of those are devoted to album covers and track listings, meaning that Lake’s book has a lot of extra space for content such as photos and personal notes by Lake’s wife Regina. I even think that Jerry Ewing’s essay about Lake is better and more thorough than his Emerson essay, although that might be down to the fact that Lake simply didn’t do quite as much as Emerson did. However, I’ve never felt less like the targeted demographic than when I read this sentence: “Being high earners they were restricted to two months stay at home in England a year if they were to avoid the then Labour Government’s crippling tax bracket and were thus forced to relocate.”
Later in the booklet, Regina shares some photos of Greg straight from the family album, and I have to admit I shed a tear when I saw their beautiful family photos from the Bahamas. It showed a more ordinary side to the rock star and made him relatable, even if it did seem like he was living in paradise. Greg looked like a really wonderful family man in these pictures. It also made me feel sad that the Emerson booklet didn’t have similar ‘relatable’ pictures, just all ‘business’. It made me wonder if Emerson had never really had what Lake had and if that contributed to his sadness at the end. I never expected a few grainy pictures to make me feel like that.
Let’s talk costs. I moaned about Variations being far too costly at £150 (or £7.50 per CD) so it would make sense if I also complained about Magical’s price too – £72 (or £10.29 per CD). But for a while, I thought that this box set might be worth it. After all, there’s a lot of quality to be found on Greg Lake and the two bootleg CDs, and the booklet is really well put together.
But as I kept listening and researching, I realised that there were still some unavoidable issues with this box set. First of all, having Songs of a Lifetime and Live in Piacenza bundled together adds very little value as the setlists are almost identical. Moreover, there are some crucial Greg Lake recordings missing from a set that is supposed to be ‘complete’ – most notably the 1995 release King Biscuit Flower Hour Presents Greg Lake in Concert, containing a recording of Lake’s 1981 band featuring Gary Moore. Given how prominently his 1980s band are featured on this set, it would have felt complete to hear a full live album from them. Also missing is the 2007 live album that’s also confusingly titled Greg Lake and 2015’s Ride the Tiger, although, as previously discussed, this is probably a blessing. Lastly, if Emerson was afforded a full disc of The Early Years then why doesn’t Greg get one? It seems daft to buy an expensive box set of Lake’s material and not come away with some of his biggest hits, like the studio versions of Lucky Man and I Believe in Father Christmas.
Magical suffers from its very conception; a collection of solo material by a man who didn’t know how to define himself as a solo artist after the disintegration of ELP. While Emerson went on a long personal journey that resulted in many adventurous recordings, Lake packed it in after two albums and went back to doing band stuff where he knew he could be better utilised. The Magical box set is then a rather bizarre prospect since it celebrates Greg Lake’s legacy by presenting his very worst material and some spotty recordings he did here and there; it’s like admiring someone’s smile by examining the gaps in their teeth. And even as a collection of Greg Lake solo material, it fails by missing some key live albums that could have saved the set. While there are some gems to be found, and the booklet is lovingly made, this sparse box set doesn’t match Lake’s glowing legacy and is sadly not worth the money.
Disc One – Greg Lake
01. Nuclear Attack (4:32)
02. Love You Too Much (5:29)
03. It Hurts (4:30)
04. Black and Blue (3:58)
05. Retribution Drive (5:04)
06. Long Goodbye (3:59)
07. The Lie (4:45)
08. Someone (4:11)
09. Let Me Love You Once (4:19)
10. For Those Who Dare (3:52)
Time – 44:34
Disc Two – Manoeuvres
01. Manoeuvres (4:06)
02. Too Young to Love (4:06)
03. Paralysed (3:59)
04. A Woman Like You (4:34)
05. I Don’t Wanna Lose Your Love Tonight (3:55)
06. It’s You, You’ve Gotta Believe (7:10)
07. Famous Last Words (3:06)
08. Slave to Love (3:23)
09. Haunted (4:52)
10. I Don’t Know Why I Still Love You (5:16)
Time – 44:22
Disc Three – From the Underground, Vol.1: An Official Greg Lake Bootleg
01. Emerson, Lake & Palmer – Touch and Go (3:21)
02. King Crimson – A Man, a City (11:13)
03. The Shame – Don’t Go Away Little Girl (3:06)
04. Greg Lake – Medley: Still… You Turn Me On / Watching Over You (4:15)
05. Greg Lake & Band – Daddy (4:52)
06. Greg Lake & Band – Retribution Drive (4:53)
07. Asia with Greg Lake – Heat of the Moment (6:29)
08. Emerson, Lake & Powell – The Score (9:05)
09. Shy Limbs – Love (2:58)
10. Emerson, Lake & Palmer – Affairs of the Heart (4:12)
11. Emerson, Lake & Powell – Learning to Fly (3:43)
12. Emerson, Lake & Palmer – Lucky Man (3:02)
13. Greg Lake & Band – 21st Century Schizoid Man (8:58)
Time – 70:02
Disc Four – From the Underground, Vol.II – Deeper into the Mine: An Official Greg Lake Bootleg
01. Emerson, Lake & Palmer – Black Moon (6:25)
02. Greg Lake’s Ride the Tiger – Check it Out (4:43)
03. Greg Lake’s Ride the Tiger – Love Under Fire (4:58)
04. Greg Lake with Toto – Cold Side of a Woman (4:42)
05. Emerson, Lake & Powell – Step Aside (3:33)
06. Emerson, Lake & Palmer – Preacher Blues (3:21)
07. Greg Lake – Hold Me (4:09)
08. Greg Lake & Band – Heart on Ice (3:46)
09. Greg Lake’s Ride the Tiger – Blue Light (4:05)
10. Greg Lake with Toto – You’re Good with Your Love (2:59)
11. Greg Lake with Toto – You Really Got a Hold on Me (4:49)
12. King Crimson – Epitaph (4:21)
13. Greg Lake Band featuring Gary Moore – Fanfare for the Common Man (6:16)
Time – 58:02
Disc Five – Songs of a Lifetime
01. 21st Century Schizoid Man (1:01)
02. Lend Your Love to Me Tonight (3:40)
03. Songs of a Lifetime Tour Introduction (1:11)
04. From the Beginning (4:57)
05. Tribute to the King (7:04)
06. Heartbreak Hotel (2:27)
07. Epitaph / The Court of the Crimson King (5:05)
08. King Crimson Cover Story (4:47)
09. I Talk to the Wind (4:30)
10. Ringo and the Beatles (4:16)
11. You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away (2:53)
12. Touch and Go (3:11)
13. Trilogy (2:53)
14. Still… You Turn Me On (3:35)
15. Reflections of Paris (1:22)
16. C’est la vie (3:59)
17. My Very First Guitar (4:07)
18. Lucky Man (4:47)
19. People Get Ready (3:27)
20. Karn Evil 9: 1st Impression – Part 2 (5:41)
Time – 74:45
Disc Six – Live in Piacenza
01. 21st Century Schizoid Man (1:25)
02. Lend Your Love to Me Tonight (4:44)
03. From the Beginning (5:20)
04. Heartbreak Hotel (2:17)
05. Epitaph / The Court of the Crimson King (5:11)
06. I Talk to the Wind (4:42)
07. You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away (3:03)
08. Touch and Go (3:11)
09. Trilogy / Still…You Turn Me On (6:41)
10. I Believe in Father Christmas (3:53)
11. Shakin’ All Over (2:40)
12. C’est la vie (3:55)
13. People Get Ready (4:37)
14. Lucky Man (5:50)
15. Karn Evil 9: 1st Impression – Part 2 (5:53)
Time – 63:16
Disc Seven – Emerson/Lake: Live from Manticore Hall
01. From the Beginning (6:09)
02. Introduction (1:04)
03. I Talk to the Wind (5:32)
04. Bitches Crystal (6:18)
05. The Barbarian (6:21)
06. Take a Pebble (5:19)
07. Tarkus (17:07)
08. C’est la vie (6:00)
09. Pirates (13:29)
10. Moog Solo / Lucky Man (10:37)
Time – 78:02
Total Time – 7:13:02
Greg Lake – Vocals, Guitars, Bass
The Greg Lake Band (Discs 1 & 2):
– Gary Moore – Guitars
– Tommy Eyre – Keyboards
– Tristram Margetts – Bass
– Ted McKenna – Drums
Keith Emerson – Keyboards (Disc 7)