By Richard Markwell
For me and my friends growing up in a small market town in East Yorkshire, music was always a big part of our lives. However, as none of us had much money, we regularly exchanged our individual record albums to discover and appreciate a vast range of music evolving in the late 1960’s. Then, when I was 16 years old, a friend handed me an album with the most striking cover and scariest face on it I had ever seen! This was my first encounter with “In the Court of the Crimson King”.
With its air of mystery, its expansive chords and the haunting mellotron, this was clearly something totally different! Then there was this very distinctive voice…….which was to become the backdrop to the rest of my life. It was a voice capable of rich, soothing, almost whispering, melodies in one moment, but of soaring to a remarkably powerful delivery in the next, yet always with crystal clarity and unrestricted passion. With a voice range like no other, this was Mr Greg Lake. And, over 50 years later, I still get tingles down my spine when I listen to his vocals on “Epitaph’ and other tracks on that album.
When I learned that Greg had left King Crimson, I was at first mortified, but luckily, another friend was very soon able to lend me a copy of the first ELP album…..and then I actually bought my own copy of “Pictures at an Exhibition”, mainly because at the time it was sold at a lower price than usual for albums in those days! I quickly became hooked on this new music trio – again, the music was different but VERY exciting.
Without question, each member of Emerson, Lake and Palmer was an incredibly talented musician in his own right, but, to me, it was always clear that it was Greg, with his booming bass and amazing voice range, who was the “glue” which held together the unbridled storm of Keith Emerson’s keyboards with the exploding cannons of Carl Palmer’s percussion and brought the music back to some sort of coordinated direction with a common sense of purpose. What is more, the acoustic and electric guitar interludes always provided a much needed pause for breath and calm in all ELP albums and live performances. This is also what put Greg into such a perfect position to be the producer of their albums.
So this was the music which took me through my student years in both London and, later, France, comforting me through the low moments and motivating me during the good times! In this era, It was rare to drop in on university friends without finding a copy of an ELP or early King Crimson album in their collection. If they came to see me, it was guaranteed! Then, in November 1973, I got to see ELP live at the Hammersmith Odeon. I was a regular attendee at any music concert I could get to in London in those days – but ELP’s performance that night just surpassed any band I had ever seen previously or since! I saw their FIRST performance that night – unbelievably, they did a second performance later that evening too!
Finally leaving university with my degree in 1975, I got my first post-graduate job as a Marketing Trainee with one of the world’s largest and best known farm machinery companies, Massey Ferguson, based initially in Coventry – a global business I would, many years later, come to head-up and this was instrumental in enabling me finally to meet up with the man behind the voice and music which was still very much part of my life, as I will explain later. I continued to follow everything which ELP did and then all Greg’s excellent later solo work. Having moved into my first flat in Warwickshire in September that year, I switched on the radio one morning a few months later whilst having my breakfast…..and heard this new Christmas song…..and I thought, “I recognise that voice…” So, ever since the year I started my real working life, the official start of Christmas in my family is still always punctuated by when we first hear “I Believe in Father Christmas” on the radio- still going strong over 45 years later!! My son, now grown up with children of his own, will usually send me a photo of the screen on his radio when it first comes on! My daughter will do the same – and actually recorded her own version for me as a Christmas present a couple of years ago.
As time progressed, with a very busy professional life full of international travel and several overseas assignments, I did indeed progress to head up the Massey Ferguson business for 12 years from 2006, which gave me the opportunity to meet many interesting people and regularly travel to all four corners of the world. I was also elected President of the European Farm Machinery Association. One day in early 2012, I had been asked to give a lunchtime speech at the House of Lords. As we walked out of that famous institution afterwards, one of our PR team who had organised my presence that day was telling me that we had just been approached by the “Wurzels” music band to see if we could lend them a tractor to feature in their video to promote their new single! (I did recall that we had lent them a combine harvester back in 1975 for their most famous song!!). Well, at that time, I had been thinking of organising a big party with family and friends to celebrate my 60th birthday in April the following year, and I wanted to provide some outstanding music on the night to my invitees to make it a very special event. So, as we walked away from the House of Lords, I asked my PR team whether the manager of the Wurzels knew who Greg Lake’s manager was and how I might contact him – I had no idea at all about how to track down a major international rock star, but, for me, there was only one musician on the planet whom I wanted to get to play at my party!
Well, that led to a connection with Stewart Young and QEDG……and, to my delight, Greg DID accept to come up to Warwickshire to give a private performance of his “Songs of a Lifetime” set to around 150 of my family and friends on 6th April 2013! His performance that night was just awesome, as every person who attended that evening will testify, and it was one of the greatest nights of my life! Greg came along with Regina and a couple of his sound engineers and we just hit it off instantly…and they all joined in with the guests at the party afterwards, chatting and signing autographs! I still proudly have on the wall of my study at home the framed, signed copy of the words to “Lucky Man” in Greg’s own calligraphy, which he gave me as a birthday present that night – number “60” of a limited edition of 750….as well as a signed copy of my “In the Court of the Crimson King” album where, for me, it all began!
After that, Greg and I became good friends, regularly exchanging emails, talking occasionally on the phone – about music and all sorts of things – and, whenever we could, meeting up, along with Regina and my wife, for lunch in London or Paris – as, at that time, I was essentially living for most of the time between UK and France, but also travelling extensively in between. They were always fantastic times. I admired enormously Greg’s outstanding passion for and commitment to his music and to the music industry in general….and his anecdotes were always highly entertaining, accompanied by lots of laughter! Above all, I found him and Regina to be almost surprisingly level-headed and down to earth individuals, which is not always the case for people who have lived through the intense life of international fame they had experienced together. Greg was just an incredible human being with a great generosity of spirit, and Regina was always by his side in loyal support. A truly lovely couple….to which their long marriage was a strong testament.
When Greg wrote to tell me about his life-threatening illness early in 2014, it came as a huge shock, although I was aware that he had not been well for some time….However, what he wrote to me that day was the most moving and courageous message I have ever received in my life, maintaining as always a positive tone….which he kept up right until the end.
Now, after more than 50 years since hearing that remarkable and unique voice for the first time, and as a retired, grizzled farm machinery industrialist, my daughter remarked only recently that every time she gets in my car, I am playing one Greg Lake song or another…and she is right! Rarely does a day go by without his music bringing either comfort or motivation to my life, just as it always has.
Regina will recall our get-together at “Fouquet’s” restaurant on the Champs-Elysées in Paris in August 2013. We enjoyed a long French lunch lasting over 4 hours, with great food and wine. We talked a lot about everything..including Greg’s idea for a Christmas festival of music in London! Most of all, however, I remember that we laughed a great deal! During this wonderful time, I told Greg that I thought that “Farewell to Arms”, was the most beautiful and moving song I had ever heard and that I intended to have this played as the last piece of music at my own eventual funeral ceremony…….and it will be. This way, the voice and talent of Greg Lake really will accompany me right until the end of my days!
Thank you, Greg, for all the great music….and for being my friend. You were…and still are..the best!