Classic album anniversaries are usually a cool thing, a way to reflect back on an artist’s accomplishments and muse that “It still sounds great today!” Anniversaries of their less popular, critically savaged follow-ups just make you feel old. I follow a lot of prog guys on social media and it seemed that this St. Patrick’s day, the day on which ELP’s Works, Vol. 1 turned 40 years old, was kind of a big deal. Don’t get me wrong, I know the main reason for the reflection has to do with the fact that Emerson and Lake both passed last year, which always sets off a round of “maybe we shouldn’t have been so mean to them”. The truth is, it’s hard to be nice to ELP sometimes. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll stand up for their classic period as much as anyone. Those four studio albums they did from 1970-1974, all great. Even Pictures at an Exhibition I could be pressured into labeling a classic. But it’s hard to think of too much positive to say about anything they did after that, unless you wanna go the “not as bad as everyone says it is” route.
Truth is that ELP met sort of a tragic end. They decided to split up and do solo stuff for a few years, then reform and take the band’s sound into new directions. Of course, we know now that all roads led to Love Beach, one of those albums that killed any enthusiasm their fans and their label had left for them. ELP tried to reform in the 80’s, but couldn’t get along nor resolve scheduling conflicts, resulting in the infamous album called “Emerson, Lake, and Powell“, as well as a band that stupidly went by the number 3. When they finally decided to get back together and return to their vintage style, they found that they just couldn’t do it anymore. The end. And it sucks because I like classic ELP like I do classic Yes. I wish they’d had their Going For the One, their 90125, hell, even their Keys to Ascension. Instead what we got was Works. Right from the onset there’s a sense of bad faith about it. See, the original plan after Brain Salad Surgery was to take a few years off and do solo albums, then reform once they’d felt sufficiently rested. In other words, exactly what Yes did. Except ELP never quite managed the solo albums; instead, they looked at the sales figures of guys like Anderson, Howe, and Squire (Rick Wakeman, for whatever reason, was killing it as as solo artist back then), and realized that something without the ELP name wasn’t going to sell squat. So Works, Vol. 1 wound up becoming three-half solo albums by the members of ELP, plus a group side at the end. That’s right: Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer.
Needless to say, all three wind up taking a dramatically different approach. Emerson, who usually dominates the band’s sound, winds up writing a symphony, enticingly titled “Piano Concerto No. 1” (as it turns out, there would be no Number 2). Of course there’s something interesting about Emerson attempting to join the ranks of the classical composers he so liberally was borrowing from, though any such excitement is killed in the first minute, as you inevitably realize “wait, this is really a concerto”. Yep, full orchestra and everything. And to be fair, it is pretty, even majestic at times. But Emerson has to reign in his style in order to accommodate the orchestra, and quite frankly the piece doesn’t really go anywhere. There are bits where he dances around the piano but he can’t figure out what to do with his hired guns, so he often leads them into quiet horn bits. There’s some excitement to kick off the 3rd Movement; Emerson plays one of those sharp “Eruption”-style lines, and the orchestra starts to follow along, but soon it becomes apparent that it’s just an exercise to show off everyone in the ensemble (here’s the mallets, there’s the violin, etc. etc.), and the thing just ends after that. One can easily imagine Emerson listening to his classical records, jotting down notes on how these classical pieces are usually structured, and then trying to figure out how to insert his own style into the mix. That said, for a first attempt, it ain’t bad, and it’s not hard to imagine it leading to some soundtrack work down the road.
Next up is Lake’s side, which I think came with the highest expectations of the three, given that he’s arguably the most consistent member of the band, albeit in his one-song-per-album capacity. In ELP Lake’s songs tend to function as the cherry on top, with a gentle acoustic style that’s often at direct odds with the bombast of the rest of the album. He’s pretty much abandoned that approach here, instead opting for a full-band approach that makes full use of Emerson’s orchestra, who punch up all these tunes in an often distracting way. This isn’t like his ELP ballads where Emerson would dress up a simple and effective tune; here everything’s smashed with overproduction, to the point where you can barely hear his guitar. He often crosses the line into downright shlock, though to be fair these songs just aren’t very good, with one exception: “C’est La Vie”, the only tune that resembles his classic style. Otherwise you’ve got showtunes (“Hallowed Be Thy Name”, “Lend Your Love to Me Tonight”), beer-drinking blues (“Nobody Loves You Like I Do”), and a really overblown holiday ballad (“Closer to Believing”). Trouble is none of it is really convincing; Lake’s voice still sounds good, but like Emerson’s side, it feels like he’s trying a new direction just for the hell of it. Granted there is a guilty pleasure factor at play here that makes me like something like “Closer to Believing” more than I should, but it’s not exactly something I’d seek out. Clearly Lake had some aspirations of being a solo star on his own and being known as more than just the guy who wrote “Lucky Man”, but there’s no real direction here, unless that direction is Broadway.
Palmer’s side is the most surprising of the bunch; mostly because Palmer never really had a songwriting voice in the band, but also because it’s more consistent and enjoyable than either of his bandmates. He takes a fusiony approach, sometimes dipping into the blues (“New Orleans”). The orchestra shows up here as well (“The Enemy God Dances With the Black Spirits”), which allows him to do things like a percussive arrangement of Bach’s “Two Part Invention”. Like the other sides it often feels like something off a soundtrack (“Food for Your Soul” is 70’s car chase music), but there’s a bit more direction here, even if that direction is just getting to hear some talented musicians play. It’s not exactly Brand X but at least you don’t feel like he’s wasting his talents. Amusingly enough the side ends with a new jazzy rendition of “Tank”, minus Emerson plus orchestra. One would think he chose this piece to cover because of the drum solo at the center, but for some reason he just cuts that part out. That’s right – the drummer axed his own drum solo. So uh…what’s the point?
So that leaves the group side, which is simultaneously the best and most disappointing of the bunch. Confused? Well, consider that it had been four years since Brain Salad Surgery, and all the band can muster up is two pieces, one of which is another Aaron Copland cover. That cover, “Fanfare for the Common Man”, is probably the LP’s most well-known track, but it’s a total crowd-pleaser, the sort of bombastic chugga-chugga tune that you would associate with Mannheim Steamroller. The other is “Pirates”, and it’s pretty wild. In some sense it’s a culmination of everything we’ve heard previously – massive orchestration and Lake singing like he’s in a musical, but for once it actually feels like an ELP piece. At 13 minutes it feels like a bonafide epic, with a bunch of strung-together melodic sections, and some actual direction – for once the orchestra doesn’t feel vestigial, but rather necessary to achieve the level of bombast it aims for. Certainly the piece is ridiculous, but at this point in the album I’ll take it – nice to have an actually memorable piece of music for once, as cornball as it can be. In fact I’ll say this might be their catchiest tune, whatever that means in ELP terms. Sure, they totally botch the ending, but that’s sort of an ELP tradition isn’t it?
That said, there’s a reason why 1977 is a central year to the “punk slayed prog” narrative, and I’m pretty sure “Pirates” is it. At one point bands like ELP were really cutting edge, not only compositionally but also technologically. The fact that they were now doing sock-hop with an orchestra feels like a pretty frank summation where prog had wound up. Certainly the genre had produced its share of ridiculous stuff; Tales From Topographic Oceans, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, and every other ELP album really. But there was at least something to all that, in the same way one might not be a fan of Lord of the Rings but acknowledge why certain people get really into it. Works on the other hand is like Star Wars: On Ice. Sure, the album moved some decent numbers, “Fanfare” charted at #2, and I’m sure a lot of the ELP faithful enjoyed it, to some degree at least. But on the other hand it was pretty clear why these unfinished solo albums wouldn’t have sold, and that Trilogy Part 2 was not on the horizon.
However, we did get Works, Vol. 2 about eight months later, which suffice to say meant they waited too long. This time it’s just a single LP, which is good because otherwise you might not know which volume you were buying. It seems to be made up primarily of stuff that didn’t make the first volume, plus a few assorted tracks that make the thing feels like one of those oddities compilations. Rather than split out each members’ contributions, it’s all jumbled up, though it’s not exactly difficult to figure out who’s doing what. Strangely, this strikes me as a better collection than the first volume, perhaps because it reaches lower. I mean, a tune like “So Far To Fall” (another Lake off-Broadway production) is the sort of thing that might’ve been an eye-roller on Vol. 1, but it actually comes off well here when it’s mixed in with everything else. Works, Vol. 2 is basically the ELP goof-off album: you’ve got a few boogie-woogie tunes, a really fun take on “Bullfrog”, some neat jamming (“When the Apple Blossoms Bloom…”), bits of ragtime and blues, and nearly everything is under four minutes. The best tracks are Lake’s: a ballad that’s nearly as great as his classic ones (“Watching Over You”, aided greatly by actually focusing on the guitar for once), and “I Believe in Father Christmas”, which was actually a solo hit for him, a couple years prior and one you actually still hear today, around that time of the year (the version here is different, aided by the rest of the band).
Also included is a track called “Brain Salad Surgery” – yep, it’s the title track to their 1973 album, most likely cut to make room for “Benny the Bouncer”. Which should give you some indication as to the quality of the song. But it’s striking here, because of how much different they sound – even if the tune’s kind of a duffer (to be fair it sounds like it’s only half-complete), they still sound young and adventurous, and more than that, there’s some actual creativity to it. Above all, that’s the issue with Works – while Yes were able to reform and pick up where they left off, there’s a sense that ELP did it just to do it. Nearly everything they did from that point on can be described in a short sentence. It’s not that the music is bad, or even unpleasant. ELP could, and in fact did, do worse. But this is a band who fired off cannons at their first show, whose keyboard player rigged up his piano so he could fly around with it on the stage. Sooner or later you get to the top of the mountain and you have to look down. It was a great run, boys.