The ELP Permutations, Part 3

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In 1988, Carl Palmer was free from his duties in Asia and ELP proper were set to reform. However this time Greg Lake came down with a massive case of “just not feelin’ it, you guys”, perhaps feeling burned by the Cozy Powell experience. This of course is a common occurrence in that camp. Something tells me that if ELP’s debut album hadn’t sold so well that Keith Emerson and Greg Lake would have never had anything further to do with each other; such conflicting personalities those dudes had. Hell, it nearly happened anyway when Tarkus was recorded. But money fixes everything, doesn’t it? Not even saying that to knock the guys…you’d be a fool to walk away from that.

With Lake out, the spot was filled by an American named Robert Berry, previously of the little-known “pomp rock” band Hush. I guess what happened is that Carl Palmer got ahold of this guy’s demo through Geffen, and then hooked him up with Emerson, who met him and asked if he’d be able to play ELP stuff. Of course replacing a singer and songwriter is a much different thing than replacing a drummer, especially when you’re tasking the new guy with coming with with most of the material. To their credit they shied away from calling themselves “Emerson, Berry, and Palmer”, but what they came up with was somehow worse: “3”. As in, the numeral 3. I suppose it sounds clever on paper, but even in the pre-internet days this was a bad idea.

While the Powell album very much did pass as an “ELP in the 80’s” sort of way, 3 does not, and to see why all you have to do is look at the songwriting credits. Half of the songs are Robert Berry solo writes and sound like they were originally part of some solo album. One is credited to Sue Shifrin, a songwriter who they parted company with. Another is a cover of “Eight Miles High”. If this is starting to remind you of Union I assure you that you are not that far off. Maybe they didn’t hate each other the way Yes did but you can tell that Keith Emerson wasn’t really into the idea of writing songs anymore. His only credits are on the closer (“On My Way Home”) and on “Desde La Vida”, a 3-parter that goes a full seven minutes, and is the only remotely proggy thing on here. You don’t exactly get to hear Emerson rock out like in the old days, but there are fast parts, and the middle section (“Frontera”, inspired directly from Ginastera’s “Creole Dance”) is pretty neat. If you’re an ELP fan then you at least are gonna want to hear that track.

The rest is by and large standard AOR, and even worse, it’s 1988 AOR, mastered straight to cassette, flattening both the low and high ends. It’s full of the sort of garbage sounds you associate with the worst of it: pitch-bent synths, orchestra hits, drums that sound like the side of a dumpster. Lead single “Talkin Bout” navigates this fairly well, if only due to Berry’s rather expressive voice; hell, at this point he probably sings better than Lake does, though he’s got that dramatic vocal affliction that most full-throated 80s singers had. The song itself blends right in with the slog of late 80’s radio rock n’ roll, sounding right at home next to Foreigner and Eddie Money, coming in at #9 on the Modern Rock chart. Certainly you’d need a keen ear to figure out that Emerson was on the track, though of course when you know that he is you pick up on that strained “WOOONK” noise right away. As for Palmer, I guess what can you say really…the music doesn’t exactly call for his old style of playing so what you get is pretty much exactly what Powell did, but with more cymbals and reverb.

As you can imagine this band was not exactly well-received, for reasons that were a bit unfair but understandable. Robert Berry fills in like a new stepdad, full of energy and eager to be loved, but at the end of the day he ain’t Greg Lake. I don’t know if people were as willing to give this group a chance as they were with the Powell band. John McFerrin gave the album a 1, calling it “beyond horrible”, and to this day it’s still the only album to score that low on his scale. For the record I do not think it’s that bad; “Desde La Vida” gets high marks from me and I think a lot of the tunes here are serviceable, at least in that “memorable but still kinda bad” way. Songs like “Lover to Lover”, “Chains”, and “You Do Or You Don’t” just sound like bland synth rock to me, and if you heard them on the radio you probably wouldn’t think anything of it. You’d probably change the station, but they at least sound like they belong there. I guess the real litmus test is “is it better than Love Beach?” and the answer is it is not.

Now despite that, 3 were actually a fairly great band in their own right. For proof, see the 3liverecently released Live in Boston ’88, an archival release from RockBeat Records, which is one of those labels that specializes in remastering bootlegs of shows from the 70’s and 80’s. Now I am not sure who was clamoring for a 3 live album in 2015, but given the nonstop parade of remasters and live albums from ELP proper, I guess it was only a matter of time before they’d reached the bottom of the well. But I’m glad they did, because this live disc is really something. It’s fast, loose, raucous…everything the 90’s ELP reunion wasn’t. For once they truly seem to be having fun on stage, inadvertently exposing Greg Lake as that person in your inner circle who sucks all the life out of the room, but you’re still friends since you’ve known them since you were a kid.

To drive the point home, they don’t play anything that Lake sang on, meaning the old tracks are just the instrumental classical covers – “Fanfare”, “Hoedown”, “Creole Dance”, and the “America/Rondo” medley that’s closed out ELP sets since the beginning of time (this time it turns into a full on classical showcase). But 3 is a different beast from ELP – it’s not just ELP with a new guy, it’s essentially a different band. For one, there’s a guitar player and female vocalist on stage, who don’t get to do a whole lot, but they still add a couple of new dimensions. For two, the band improvises and jams a bunch, which ELP didn’t really do outside of some preplanned sections. Emerson and Palmer both sound incredible, as energetic and nimble as they were on Welcome Back, but a lot more carefree. You get the sense that they’re not worried about upstaging Berry the way they were with Lake. Not that this bothers Robert much, he sounds like he’s having a great time, and more importantly, he’s able to keep up with the virtuosos in the band. The new songs actually sound pretty good live, free of the stiff tempos and 80’s production artifacts. As expected, “Desde la Vida” is an absolute force (maybe even the best track here?), and both “Talkin Bout” and “Eight Miles High” turn into extended jams.

But what really stands out is the audience. This is a good ol’ fashioned rock n’ roll crowd: loud, obnoxious, and probably more than a little drunk. At the time 3 were sort of a hidden treasure; I don’t know how many ELP fans actually knew of them, so for many people it was an opportunity to see their heroes up close in a smaller venue, which brings out a much different energy than the stadiums do. Case in point, the one guy who keeps yelling “FUCK YEAH!!” every time they play anything from To the Power of 3 (!!!), and then later on when there’s any sort of break in the music at all. You don’t really hear crowds like that at a prog show, and it hearkens back to the days when ELP were known as sort of a carnival act, swinging pianos around on stage and firing cannonballs into the sky. I’m not sure what sort of visual gimmicks they had around this time (I’ve heard that Palmer made himself a digital percussion suit, similar to what Fleetwood Mac did) but that wild circus energy is certainly there.

Despite what you hear on the live record, the group still got a lot of flack, particularly from aging ELP fans who didn’t like the new guy nor the lady on stage. All I can say is man, be careful what you wish for – ELP proper reformed in ’92 and did a massive tour, but they sure didn’t sound anything like this. As for 3, they split after the one tour, mostly due to Emerson’s inability to handle the criticism. So Robert Berry got screwed, but that’s just the sort of career he’s had.  Stay tuned…

1 thought on “The ELP Permutations, Part 3

  1. Pingback: The ELP Permutations, Part 3.2: The Rules Have Changed (2018) | Critter Jams

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