Books: Rock ‘n’ roll reminiscences

Written By: Cary Gee
Published: November 14, 2017 Last modified: November 17, 2017

A Fast Ride Out Of Here

by Pete Way

Constable £20


Lucky Man

by Greg Lake

Constable £20


There are rock musicians who live to play, and those who play to live. While some dream of distilling life into the perfect rock opus, others dedicate their lives to being the perfect rock star. They inhabit their own masterwork, create their own myths, and if they are very lucky, or supremely talented, or both, artifice and art combine to produce a classic. In A Fast Ride Out of Here, Pete Way, bass player with British hard rockers UFO, delivers a series of blows, aimed mostly at himself, that leave you wondering how he ever managed to get back up off the canvas. Professionally, personally, and above all physically, Way’s survival ranks among the great mysteries of rock n roll. Surely it’s not possible to consume that much “waffle powder” and get up each morning, let alone squeeze yourself into a polka dot playsuit to perform nightly on a Thunderbird bass in front of thousands of screaming fans, at least half of whom he bedded afterwards.

Of course it wasn’t always like that. It was only after playing with train sets and winning medals at cross-country running that Way discovered music. “That was the turning point at which I veered off from being the nice boy who cut the grass and helped the milkman and started to realise there was a whole other world out there.” And boy, did Way veer off!

On arriving in a new town Way’s immediate concern was always to meet the local dealer. He blames this on an “addictive personality”. At first it was running, and the adulation – “the heady acclaim” he would receive “on coming second in a cross-country race”. The fact that Way was happy with a runner-up finish even as a child seems important. At no point reading this book do you receive the impresion that Way is any kind of megalomaniac. He is that rare kind of rock star. One who simply wants to be left alone to live the fantasy he has dreamed of. Sadly, however, no one can live in complete isolation, and Way’s book is littered with casualties, not least his four surviving ex-wives. Two others died from drink and drug overdoses, including a doctor who rather shockingly facilitated the couple’s drug addiction by writing out her own prescriptions. In fact you seldom get through more than a couple of chapters, without losing a supporting cast member.

Although Way clearly takes a certain pride in his apparent indestructability, his book is less of a boast, more a matter-of-fact account of life on the road at a time when social media did not exist and rock stars were paid good money to behave badly, to be different from the rest of us. That was the deal which allowed us to live out our own rock ‘n’ roll fantasies vicariously. For the actual rock music fan A Fast Ride Out Of Here contains more than enough fallings-out, (drug induced) nervous breakdowns, on-stage tantrums, back-stage shenanigans, and cross-pollination of artists, which, coupled to the pressure of producing the next hit, combine to satisfy the most hardened thrill-seeker. He has clambered from the wreckage of more than one car crash, literally and figuratively and then, inadvisably, though somewhat heroically, got back behind the wheel and floored the engine once again. Between calamities he even managed to master his instrument and go on to produce hit records by equally outrageous rockers Motley Crue and Twisted Sister. You’d have to ask Way himself if it was all worth it: the dead wives, the infidelities, two estranged daughters, the hepatitis, the meaningless sexual encounters, a decade of heroin addiction and ultimately prostate cancer, which Way has so far survived to begin work on a new album. But I get the impression that Way is not one to lose himself in introspection. Perhaps we should just be grateful he has retained enough memories to write what is surely destined to become another ‘classic’ hit. In spite of it all Way is still with us and his story, as unappealing as it is in so many places, is never less than entertaining, screamingly funny and at times, due to his enduring “innocence” and complete lack of guile, deeply moving.

If Pete Way was a one-man maelstrom of madness and mayhem, then Greg Lake might be considered the calm eye of the storm that was Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Both books feature a cover photograph of the author playing his instrument, but whereas Way is pictured in full throttle and full make-up, Lake strums quietly, in faded denims, sitting on a beach, alone.

ELP was the world’s first prog-rock ‘supergroup’, which Lake joined after first achieveing success with King Crimson. As producer of ELPs classic albums, Tarkus, Pictures at an Exhibition and Brain Salad Surgery (which I never knew was a euphemism for fellatio), Lake was quick to take advantage of new 24 track tape machines and an upgraded Moog synthesiser which together allowed ELP to “orchestrate recordings in a way that had never been possible before”. The critics hated it. “ELP seemed to have a special knack when it came to infuriating music critics to a point where they lost self-control,” he admits ruefully. Nonetheless, ELP went on to sell 50 million records and become one of the most successful touring bands of the ’70s, despite a series of run-ins with organized crime bosses, enraged pimps , Colonel Tom Parker and Rod Stewart, all of which could have ended very badly indeed.

Bereft of personal impropriety, and calumny, Lake’s bio, Lucky Man (the title refers to ELP’s biggest chart hit, which ironically is a largely acoustic folk-rock tune devoid of the sonic bombast for which ELP were known) offers a fascinating insight into the creative processes that enabled three very different personalities to re-create not just the music, but the very notion of a touring rock colossus, complete with a 2.5 ton steel drum kit which required its own roadie.

Throughout ELP’s career Lake strived to bring classical music to the masses, but it wasn’t until he entered Abbey Road studios to record ‘I Believe In Father Christmas’ on a hot summer’s day in 1975 that he got to play with a classical orchestra. Thinking it might break the ice at a time when “classical players were snobbish towards rock musicians”, Lake’s manager arranged for a stripper at the start of the session, who “… went straight to the lead violinist and started to bury his face in her huge breasts … in the frenzied stampede one of the trombone players put his foot through a double bass … while the women in the choir were obviously thinking. ‘that’s disgusting’. Thus ‘I Believe In Father Christmas’ began with a stripper, lust, anger, tears and destruction”. Lake nonetheless remained proud of his biggest earner. “People want to know: What’s it like getting those royalty cheques every Christmas? I wouldn’t know. They don’t turn up until August!”

And that’s as about as scandalous as Lucky Man gets. Lake reflects, quietly, on the death (from self-inflicted shotgun wounds) of Keith Emerson, and without bitterness considers his own impending mortality after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. “On the day I was told, the sense of fear and dread I had always expected never came.” Lake attributes his acceptance to his “belief in the power of nature” and to the fact that he has indeed “been a lucky man”. Lake died in December 2016, shortly after completing this book.

On their own, both of these riveting memoirs satisfy on many levels, read together they provide an extraordinary insight into a bygone era when prodigious talent coupled with breathaking prodigality to produce some of the most unforgettable performances in the history of rock n roll.

About Cary Gee

Cary Gee is a freelance journalist and Tribune columnist