Keith the Magnificent (RIP)

ELP In Montreal

Believe it or not I had a post on an ELP album already scheduled for this week before the news broke, which I’m going to pull back for now. The loss of Keith Emerson last Friday is not only devastating to the prog world, but also tragic in how it happened. ELP were one of the first bands I ever really got into, before I knew anything about King Crimson or The Nice, or even that there was a genre such as progressive rock. I loved them as a kid (my Dad played their albums frequently) but eventually forgot about them, until one morning when I was 14, when my clock radio turned on right as the “From the Beginning” synth solo started, hitting me with some incredible nostalgia. Later that week I rented The Atlantic Years from the library and wandered around the city on my bike listening to it front to back, thrilled to finally hear “Karn Evil 9” in its entirely again, even though both discs were scratched as hell. In fact I would wager it was my Dad who scratched them up in the first place, I know that he’d rented it years ago and just tossed the bare CDs into the glove box. So some of that paper route money I’d earned eventually went towards ELP CDs, which thankfully get reissued so often that used copies were never far away.

At the peak of their success, ELP were a phenomenon. Their first six albums (including the live ones) all placed within the top 5 on the UK charts, and they sold out pretty much everywhere they played. As those who lived through the 70’s say…it was just a different time. Keith Emerson was not just a virtuoso but also a showman, flying his keyboard around the stage, climbing on top of it and playing it backwards, stabbing it with knives, firing cannons on stage, and so on. The music itself was always extravagant – sometimes real proggy, full of long, convoluted melodies, sometimes achingly sweet and tender. Whatever it was, whenever you listen to those early ELP albums, you always get the sense that they’re always making some sort of grand gesture.

Of course, this got them criticized fairly often, and even today ELP remain one of the few original prog bands that never really got that re-evaluation. There’s too much wankery, too much showmanship, too many solos. They turned well-respected classical compositions that have been played the same way for centuries and turned them into something electric, for example slicing up Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition and transforming it into a three-man rock opera. Let’s face it, this band was utterly ridiculous. They were so often derided as “pretentious” which, I mean…yeah. That was sort of the point. If Yes were the Golden State Warriors, dismantling the opposition by developing telepathic relationships with each other and rotating from strength to strength, ELP were the Harlem Globetrotters, all dunks and no-look passes and parlor tricks. For Emerson, it was always about playing faster or figuring out what new sounds he could coax out of the Hammond, and later, his one-of-a-kind Moog synthesizer. To him, Greg Lake and Carl Palmer weren’t so much bandmates as they were guys who could keep up, and in the case of Greg, pen the occasional single to keep the band’s finances afloat. Both those guys were integral, of course, but let’s face it, ELP only came about because Emerson needed better sidemen than what he had with The Nice, and boy did he find them – so much of the fun in those ELP records is hearing Palmer match him note-for-note.

In 1974, ELP were on top of the world. By 1978, they were nobodies. None of the major prog acts reacted very well to the end of the 70’s, outside of Genesis of course who were the one that kinda figured it out. But ELP fell particularly hard. They released two albums in ’77, both titled Works, one made up of mostly of abandoned solo projects, the other of outtakes. There was some success there, with Works, Vol. 1 selling a decent amount and “Fanfare For the Common Man” reaching #2 in the UK. But that was the last time they’d ever sniff commercial success – they infamously nearly bankrupted themselves by going on tour with a gigantic orchestra and released Love Beach (err…more on that one later), then broke up to spare themselves from further embarrassment. From there, it was just one failed project after another – there were Lake’s (frankly terrible) solo albums, Emerson’s soundtrack work that nobody bought, a comeback attempt in ’86 with a new drummer, another, even worse comeback in ’88 with a new singer (!), and then the inevitable ELP reunion in the 90’s that was more sad than anything. Quite frankly, they weren’t the same, mostly because Keith was not the same. He had been dealing with arthritis in his right hand and the effects of a motorcycle accident which damaged his ulnar nerve, leaving him unable to play the way he used to. Their studio material had become so benign and unchallenging that you wouldn’t notice, but if you heard them live…well, he had good days and bad days – some days he’d be nearly as fast and nimble as ever, others he sounded as though he was wearing mittens.

All this affected Keith quite drastically – he’d been known to take a lot of his critics to heart, but more than that he hated to let himself down. Though all the interviews and personal accounts I’ve read paint him as a funny, down-to-earth kind of dude, he was notoriously difficult to work with, on account of being such a perfectionist. He constantly tried to find ways to play on regardless of his health, altering his stance, composing pieces that used his left hand more, but in the end there was only so much he could do. Music was the only thing he lived for, and rather than accept that he would never be at 100% again, he decided to take his own life.

Obviously this has been a rough couple years for our musical heroes – we’ve lost David Bowie and Chris Squire lately, amongst many others that I didn’t know as well, but thus far this is the one that hits the hardest.  Maybe because I got into ELP at such a young age, maybe because they were my gateway into the entire prog world, or maybe just because he died for such a tragic, hard-to-stomach reason.  Emerson was such a unique and brilliant performer – you always knew when you were listening to him – and even though his music remains controversial, you really cannot overstate his impact on the world of progressive rock.  Listen to Ars Longa Vita Brevis and tell me that this isn’t prog as we know it today.

This week’s playlist:

The Nice – Elegy (1971)

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Released as a cash-in after The Nice had already broken up, Elegy is a collection featuring four lengthy cuts recorded in 1969 – “Hang on to a Dream” (Tim Hardin), “My Back Pages” (Bob Dylan), “Third Movement, Pathetique” (Tchaikovksy), and “America” (Bernstein and Sondheim).  The fact that these are all covers points to the state of the Nice in 1969 – barely any original material, instead leaning heavily on Emerson’s ability to jam.  No wonder they split up so quickly.  Elegy is probably their worst album, but it’s still nice if you just want to hear Emerson play – in fact, Jackson hardly sings at all.  If nothing else it’s interesting to hear Keith before he discovers synthesizers, absolutely abusing his Hammond at times, and playing some tasteful, jazzy piano on “Hang on to a Dream”.  As usual, the take on “America” absolutely slays.  (By the way, if you get this on CD, one of the bonus tracks is “Diamond Blue Hard Apples of the Moon” – one of the all-time great song titles).

Emerson, Lake, and Palmer – Trilogy (1972)

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The first ELP album I ever had (er…”borrowed” from my Dad’s CD collection), I spent countless days listening to this in my room while I did homework.  Hard to objectively judge something that you’ve been listening to regularly since you were eight years old so I won’t even try to figure where it ranks in the pantheon of ELP albums – but I will say this contains their best hymn number (“The Endless Enigma”), their prettiest piano piece (“Fugue”), their take on honky-tonk (“The Sheriff”), their most fun cover (“Hoedown”), plus their greatest ballad (“From the Beginning”).  All that and you the title track, which has one of the most awesomely abrupt transitions I’ve ever heard.  The downside is most of the tracks are short…though is that really a downside?

Emerson, Lake, and Powell – Live in Concert & More! (1986)

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Adult-oriented prog was very much a thing in the mid-80’s, with old warhorses like Yes and Genesis suddenly scoring big-time hits, not to mention the sudden success of Asia, a group made up entirely of the veteran proggers.  ELP wanted in on the action, but with Carl Palmer being one of the aforementioned vets in Asia, they had to settle for the then-current drummer of Whitesnake, Cozy Powell.  Look, I never quite bought the story that the man’s last initial was just a fortunate coincidence, especially since the drums on the studio album were so mechanical and stiff that it may as well be a robot.  But the album is decent, in the same league as Big Generator and Invisible Touch at least, and neither Emerson nor Lake sounded washed up the way they would six years later on Black Moon.  So I guess that’s reason enough to splurge for this two-disc archival release, especially since (as I suspected) the Emerson, Lake, and Powell material sounds a lot better live.  Powell is way more of a basher than Palmer was, bringing some real energy to songs like “Knife Edge”, “Pirates” and “Mars, the Bringer of War” (which gets a lengthy solo in which Powell flips through every syndrum in the book).  Digital synths do get in the way here and there, but hey, this was ’86…

Keith Emerson Band featuring Marc Bonilla (2008)

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The Powell band was really the last time ELP sounded decent – Black Moon has pieces of the classic ELP sound, but it’s more or less a disaster, with all three members hobbled in some way, plus the songs aren’t very good.  In the Hot Seat is maybe a little better, but with most of the songs co-written by the producer you have to question how much an “ELP album” it really is, especially considering that the band (to my knowledge) never played any of those songs live.  They stuck it out as a dinosaur act until ’98, after which the book on ELP closed, outside of a one-off show in 2010.  Good thing too, since it allowed Emerson to move on to better things, in other words, anything else.  The Keith Emerson Band was Emo’s attempt to form another ELP-like band, this time with an American rock guitarist named Marc Bonilla.  Their sole studio album (confusingly titled…Featuring Marc Bonilla??) was, finally, the hey-good-enough comeback album we’ve been waiting for since, I dunno, Love Beach?  It’s got the classical cover (Ginastara’s “Malambo”), the honky-tonk goofaround (“Gametime”), and a 35-minute suite, spanning the first 15 tracks, sometimes reminiscent of “Tarkus”, with a lyric that (I swear!) sounds like “come on board and shit on the train” – which is, to be fair, better than most of Greg’s lyrics.  Most importantly, Emerson sounds like Emerson again, maybe not as quick, but he’s still plenty exciting.  There’s a moment early on where you hear the sound of the Hammond, and it is unmistakable who the man playing it is.  To drive the point home, the disc ends with a fiery take on “The Barbarian”, the first track from the first ELP album, sounding about as good as it ever did.  Who knows how much therapy and training it took to get Emerson to sound like that again, but he somehow recaptured it, even if only for a few years.

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