Tag Archives: ELP

Emerson, Lake, and Palmer – Works Vol. 1 and 2 (1977)

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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.
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Emerson, Lake, and Palmer – Love Beach (1978)

Note: I originally wrote this a couple days before Keith Emerson’s passing.  It’s worth mentioning that he was the only member of the band willing to defend this LP -a brave and hopeless task.  Now that he’s gone, I guess I’ll pick up the torch…

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RYM Rating: 2.01
ProgArchives Rating: 2.06

Ahh, the most burning question in progressive rock: who looks the most ridiculous on the Love Beach cover? Is it Greg Lake, smiling as he does his best power stance, with his bright red shirt jacket loosely tied together at the very bottom? Could it be Keith Emerson, caught here sheepishly grinning in mid-crotch thrust, showing off his chest hair and his bulge? Or what about Carl Palmer, whose forced smile shows all the enthusiasm and determination of a 14-year old boy on class picture day? Can’t decide? Well how about this promotional photo, where now it’s Palmer doing the power stance, gamely deciding that he, too, ought to be showing some skin…meanwhile Emerson and Lake are nearly in full jackets off mode, while the sun sets behind them…these boys are not playing around.

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(The answer, as always, is Emerson)

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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.

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Emerson, Lake, and Palmer – Brain Salad Surgery (1973)

4661230_f520I’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.

The Nice – The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack (1967) / Ars Longa Vita Brevis (1968)

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The Nice are one of those bands that I really like, even if I don’t listen to them much anymore.  The band was formed at the beginning of the psychedelic movement in 1967, and were quite famous even if nobody knows who they are today.  There are two good reasons for this – one, they didn’t really produce a classic LP, or even really a classic song (at least nothing you’d ever hear on the radio), and two, the band’s most important member was in Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, which means that their contributions tend to get overshadowed.  That member of course was Keith Emerson, who was all of 23 years old when The Nice formed.

Their debut album was The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack, released only seven months after the band had first formed (remember when bands could crank out material with that sort of turnaround time?  Me neither).  For the most part it is not much more than a curiosity, but it does garner some interest because it may in fact be the first ever prog rock LP.  I know a lot of people point to Days of Future Passed or Sgt. Pepper for that, but to me The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack is the first album that has clear elements of progressive rock in it.  This is mostly thanks to the rather large amounts of classical quoting that goes on, which benefits the band in a couple of ways; for one, they couldn’t really write many actual songs (a problem that also plagued ELP), but more importantly it allowed them to do long instrumental sections, which is nice since their singer Lee Jackson has one seriously horrible voice.  He’s not distracting, just plain bad, like King Crimson’s Gordon Haskell but even more frog-throated.

Still, the band’s shortcomings aside, it’s hard not to be fascinated by Keith Emerson.  It’s good to know that the guy was humping and stabbing his keyboards as early as ’67, and it turns out that the young Emerson was dumb enough to burn a U.S. flag on stage, which earned him a supposed lifetime ban from the Royal Albert Hall (he was back “only” 25 years later).  Still, the man clearly knew what he was doing; at the very least you have to wonder how he learned to play like that at the age of 23.  The rest of the band tries to follow suit, but they don’t quite have the chops, of course.  Still, it’s fun to hear guitarist Davy O’List flail around and abuse his guitar, while drummer Brian Davison is one of those dudes who loves to hit the crash cymbals over and over again.  So the band’s overall sound is rather chaotic, especially when you add Lee Jackson’s voice (which clashes with everything else) over the top.  Even though they had a reputation for being somewhat pompous (quoting Janacek on your first LP will do that), they were even more whacked out than your typical mid-60’s band of freaks, and probably had more fun too.

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The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack is not a great record, but it’s certainly a very interesting one.  The band has three modes – goofball pop (“Flower King of Flies”, the title track), nonsensical psychedelia (“The Cry of Eugene”, the entirely whispered “Dawn”), and wild jam sessions that Jackson basically stays out of (“Rondo”, “War and Peace”).  It’s “Rondo” that is the most exciting track – an adaptation of Brubeck’s “Blue Rondo a la Turk” done in 4/4 that’s essentially the blueprint for ELP.  It’s not much more than a loosely structured eight-minute jam session – Jackson plays the same two note bass line throughout – but it’s a chance for Emerson to do his best approximation of Hendrix on the organ.  Otherwise it’s your somewhat typical mid-60’s acid freakout record – the title track even sounds like something you’d find in the Nuggets boxset.  If you do happen to get this album, you definitely want the one with bonus tracks, which include the non-album singles “Azrael” and “America”, a raucous take on the Bernstein/Sondheim composition for West Side Story.  Again, it’s mostly Emerson tooling around with his organ, but nobody was doing such wild interpretations of classical works back then.

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But it’s the band’s second record, titled Ars Longa Vita Brevis, that is really the most fascinating.  The band sacked O’List, who was starting to lose touch with reality and was missing gigs in a similar manner as Syd Barrett (who O’List ironically had to fill in for Barrett when he started missing shows with Floyd).  The band was starting to tighten up a bit, doubling down on a lot of the goofiness and writing more intricate compositions.  Without another lead instrument to compete with, Emerson opened things up for himself, and wound up with an nine-minute tribute to Sibelius (“Intermezzo from the Karelia Suite”) and the sidelong title track, broken up into four movements.  It is interesting that despite the title (Latin for “art is long, life is short”), nobody really remembers this album, even if it was at least a couple years ahead of its time.  The first side of this continues where the debut left off, with a handful of freakier, catchier numbers like the breezy “Little Arabella” and the hilarious “Daddy, Where Did I Come From?”.  But the big one is the “Intermezzo”, which is a lot more straight-faced and workmanlike than “Rondo” was, and shows where Emerson developed most of his ideas for the ELP live album Pictures at an Exhibition (including a middle section full of bizarre organ noise that grinds it to a halt).

The suite is really something else, and might be one of the most ambitious works a rock band ever produced at that point.  This doesn’t necessarily mean it’s great, but anyone who thinks that ’69 was the Year Zero of prog will probably want to hear this.  It’s mostly a mismash of disparate parts (same as almost any progressive rock sidelong, really), somewhat centering around a seven-note riff (written by O’List, but actually played by a session guitarist).  The highlight is an excellent take on Bach’s “Brandenburger” with an orchestra (who notably complained behind Emerson’s back about the brisk tempo of the piece).  On the other hand the thing does stumble out of the gate with a nearly 4-minute drum solo (“Acceptance”).  Since nobody else had tried anything like this I guess you have to expect missteps here and there.  They do wisely keep Jackson mostly out of the picture, outside of a vocal chant that shows up here and there.  Also, you have to give them credit for keeping it mostly riff-based; most of the filler bits sound like Emerson trying out things he would later do in ELP.

Despite some rather formidable success in the UK, The Nice suffered from the same thing a lot of innovators (musical or otherwise) do – you really want to be second, not first.  In the Court of the Crimson King would come a year later, with Yes and Genesis to follow.  The Nice continued until about 1970, though there were diminishing returns.  Their next album, simply titled Nice, showed all the hallmarks of a band running out of ideas – they covered Hardin, Dylan, and two songs from the Emerlist Davjack sessions.  One of the album’s two originals, “Diary of an Empty Day”, is about not being able to come up with any ideas.  Also, from then on the line between their studio work and live work was blurred, and all three post-Ars Longa albums intersperse live material with the studio stuff.  By 1970, Emerson had enough, and formed a new band with King Crimson’s Greg Lake and Atomic Rooster’s Carl Palmer.  The general public sure enough forgot about The Nice soon after, but not before at least one attempt at a cash-in (1971’s Elegy).  The other two members of the band mostly disappeared – Lee Jackson floated around for a while, and Davison formed his own short-lived band.  But by that time The Nice were just a footnote.  Maybe that’s deserved – as I mentioned earlier, they didn’t really make the sort of albums like Close to the Edge or even Brain Salad Surgery that would hold up 40 years later.  But if nothing else, they certainly opened the floodgates, and for that they deserve another look.

Happy new year, everybody!