I’ve wanted to write about this band and this album for a while, just never got around to it. When I was a kid my parents had a couple of ELP CD’s – this one and Trilogy. I eventually took Trilogy to my Mom’s house and listened to it twice a week, so I know that album well; it’s a little surreal to hear it today. Brain Salad Surgery was kept at my Dad’s so I didn’t hear it as much. My Dad was playing piano all the time so we didn’t listen to a lot of music. But when I did – whoa. So much bombast, so much grandiosity, so much splendor – not that I knew what any of those words meant. Everything about it seemed so cool, like a movie set to music, with robotic voices and big church organ and crazy little pieces like “Benny the Bouncer”. I didn’t know what progressive rock was; later I’d discover In The Court of the Crimson King, and well, a decade or so after that you get Critter Jams. I read so much on the internet about prog and found myself surprised that ELP had such a bad reputation. I think all prog groups did at one point, but nowadays it’s kinda cool to be into bands like Yes and Rush, because that music really has held up.
ELP on the other hand have always been considered a little over-the-top and self-serving. Though at one point they were very popular. They really did grab the bull by the gonads, making music that sounded electric and tried to thrill above all else. Far from the well-oiled machine that was Genesis or the 10-handed monster of Yes, ELP was very much about Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, especially the first one, whose keyboards dominate practically everything the band did. When he started writing the sprawling sidelong “Tarkus”, Lake infamously appealed, telling him to save it for his solo album, nearly breaking up the band in the process. Thing is, Emerson was right – Tarkus hit #1 in the UK, and it’s certainly not because of anything on the flip side. Even those little Lake spotlight numbers – bona fide hits like “Lucky Man” and “From the Beginning” – were known for those alien synthesizer noises on the fade; nobody knew what a Moog was back then, for crying out loud. Of course, Emerson really wanted to be Jimi Hendrix, but he couldn’t play guitar, so he overcompensated by stabbing, humping, and flying around with his keyboards. He was a major, major talent, and made damn sure you knew it, too. Audiences really ate this up in the early 70’s, and ELP were going to keep pushing it until the bubble burst.
But most prog bands were like that; everyone was starting to release really ambitious works, which eventually turned the tide against the entire movement (see: Tales From Topographic Oceans). I think a lot of these bands wanted to do something timeless, something that would stand the test of time, to match important literary works or at least do to rock n’ roll what Beethoven did to the symphony. ELP wanted this music to sound like the future, and so it does. Brain Salad Surgery is really like every other ELP album – you’ve got the hymn (“Jerusalem”), the classical cover (“Toccata”), the ballad (“Still…You Turn Me On”), the old-timey novelty number (“Benny the Bouncer”), and the epic (“Karn Evil 9”). In this case the epic does contain the organ-heavy growly number, which means this covers all of ELP’s bases. Only…everything is a little more out there. Case in point – “Toccata”, a cover of a piece by Alberto Ginastara, who I do not know a lot about, but after listening to the original I can figure he’s a way off from the likes of Copland and Mussorgsky. “Toccata” is bonkers, just a full-on meltdown with synths on top of taped-down organs, with a freaky middle section in which Palmer sets up triggers on his kit to play electronic noises (this part was not in the original). “Still…You Turn Me On” is the requisite ballad/radio hit, only this time it’s filled with flutes, a koto, and that infamous porno guitar which throws the song into another genre entirely. Actually, this is a very good example of the whole aim of the album – maximize everything. “Jerusalem” sounds like an overwrought National Anthem, as played in a cathedral, with a hyperactive drummer of course. You can practically hear the wind blowing through Lake’s hair as he sings this one. Even “Benny” is overdone, with Lake shouting in a Cockney accent that I don’t think he does on any other tune, and Emerson plays his squonkiest synth tone yet.
“Karn Evil 9” of course is the centerpiece, taking up two-thirds of the record and featuring a ton of sudden instrumental shifts. It’s divided into three “impressions”, and though I trust this was all written together, it’s difficult to figure out the connection between any of the three parts, if in fact one exists at all. “1st Impression” is the most popular part of this of course, with its galloping organ and drums backing Lake’s surprisingly convincing carnival barker vocal, not to mention a rather dazzling guitar solo, especially from a guy that generally doesn’t get to play that much. It’s probably ELP’s catchiest piece, and you can tell they thought so too – “1st Impression, Part 2” became one of their most famous singles, though its placement on the album is frankly bizarre, considering that lyrics aside it is almost exactly a repeat of “Part 1”, down to the guitar part. The “2nd Impression” is almost all Keith, as he pounds out a particularly classical-sounding piano piece that would make you believe that he’s got a future as a composer. It is astounding how memorable this piece is, considering how long the melody line is. Again, tons of sudden shifts, including a creaky, slow middle section that makes almost no sense, plus an unexpected rumba part with Emerson’s synths emulating steel drums. “3rd Impression” is where this really goes off the rails; it tries to invoke the feeling of the dramatic climax to a science fiction film, but winds up sounding like Muppets in Space instead. That said, it is strangely charming, one for how goofy the melodies are, and two for how cheery Lake sounds as the space captain who is about to be murdered.
Thing is, this is a really easy album to rag on, but I still like it quite a bit. It’s ELP’s best, and they have a lot of good ones. It’s maybe not Close to the Edge but it’s a hell of a lot more fun than that album was. There is nothing spiritual, or even all that serious about ELP’s music; the carnival atmosphere in “Karn Evil 9, 1st Impression” fits so well because that’s what this band really is. They dazzle you with their magic, covering up that there ain’t all that much behind the curtain; “See the show!” became their mantra. The resulting tour was huge; they played worldwide, headlined the infamous California Jam festival, and nearly grossed as much as Zeppelin. They even got a successful triple live album out of it.
It just couldn’t last. The band took a few years off, and came back to a world that was a lot more hostile to prog rock. Suddenly their moment in the sun would feel so fleeting. ELP after the split is kind of a sad story; they sort of emulated what was going on with Yes (minus the zillion lineup changes), but never had the Going for the One, nor the “Owner of a Lonely Heart”, or even a Keys to Ascension. They still sounded pretty good, but their reunion was half-assed, as though they didn’t really want to write songs anymore or even work together at all. Surely they didn’t seem willing to put in the time to make another Trilogy. They split again, but only after releasing the infamously “what-the-hell-is-this-shit” album Love Beach (possibly a candidate for this site). They tried to get back together in the 80’s, but found themselves unable to get all three members available at the same time, and when they finally did, not only could they not write songs anymore, they couldn’t even play their old ones. That’s how can go when you compose tunes like this; if it were easy, they wouldn’t have done it. But man…what a run that was. Brain Salad Surgery is still an album like no other.