Emerson, Lake and Palmer somehow went from selling 40 million records early on to becoming one of the 1970s’ more reviled rock bands by the end of that decade. The reasons were many.
First, there was the emerging dumb-is-cool punk-rock movement — which gave way to the plasticine synth-scene of MTV, then to hair bands. ELP’s interest in classical music probably didn’t help. (Remember the Mussorgsky stuff included on Pictures at an Exhibition? Dude!) Emerson, Lake and Palmer, perhaps inevitably, disappeared for a decade and a half. By the time they returned in the early 1990s, prog-rock was as dated as spaceman afros and poly blends. Blender readers in 2003 ranked ELP behind only Insane Clown Posse as the worst band of all time. Other than some live stuff and compilations, they haven’t been heard from since.
So, yeah, maybe no smash-hit 1970s band is more in need of career rehabilitation. Hard to see a Santana-ish guest star-laden, Grammy-showered reunion happening here, though. So, we’re left with a stack of old records to help us sort through what made Emerson, Lake and Palmer matter back in the day …
“THE ENDLESS ENIGMA” (TRILOGY, 1972): What was your first encounter with progressive rock? I’m not talking about the radio hits like Yes’ “I’ve Seen All Good People” or Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s “Lucky Man” or Genesis‘ “Follow Me Follow You.” No, I mean the deep cuts, where the real proggy stuff lies. For me, it happened as soon as I set a needle down on the beginning of my brother’s Emerson Lake & Palmer’s Trilogy album from ’72. This is the album that had another acoustic-based ballad hit similar to “Lucky Man,” called “From The Beginning,” but to reach that song, there was a 10-minute plus suite to cross, “The Endless Enigma.”
Not terribly long by prog-rock standards of the time, it was nonetheless a odyssey through peculiar terrain for my uninitiated ears: the spooky, spacey Moog twiddling interrupted by disruptive piano quips and bongos, like a soundtrack from an detective thriller of its time. Then comes Emerson’s colossal organ and Palmer’s bruising drums dismissing any notion that this was going to be background music. They groove for a while before lifting the curtain for Lake’s poetry. Though I could make out most of the lyrics, I couldn’t understand exactly what the hell he was singing about, introducing to my young mind the idea that the singing part to true prog rock songs were nearly a superfluous accompaniment to the real show, that being the instrumental prowess on display.
It was a while later before I learned that Lake was in the original King Crimson lineup before ELP and that was his voice on their groundbreaking In The Court Of The Crimson King debut. I was more interested in these mysterious melodies that seemed to go to so many places within the course of a song, and the musicianship required to get there. This soon led me to fusion, which in turn led me to straight jazz and my Dad’s old Getz and Brubeck records. From there, the sonic sky was the limit.
Sometimes I strangely find myself coming full circle back to the radio rock I started out with. It’s like an endless enigma. — S. Victor Aaron
TARKUS MEDLEY (TARKUS, 1971): As much as rock critics hated progressive rock, they really seemed to love to tee off on Emerson, Lake amd Palmer, a band whose pomp was turned up to 11. I had a cousin who was a big fan back in the day, ranting and raving about how Keith Emerson used to shoot fire from his keyboards. He had that crazy Welcome Back My Friends…” live set, which pretty much convinced me. I mean, it was a triple album! … just one small part of the supposed wretched excess of this band.
My first ELP album though, was Tarkus. In fact, I didn’t even buy it … I “borrowed” it from my girlfriend’s brother. You can read that as “my girlfriend hated it when I put it on the stereo and was more than glad to be rid of it.” Sure, she felt tortured by all of that prog complexity, which only seemed fair since she tortured me with the likes of Shawn Cassidy and the soundtrack from Grease. The things guys will put up with!
Oh yes, I was glad to take that album home, with its weird armadillo/tank motif and ominous song titles. You want excess? How about 20-plus minutes of the opening medley: “Eruption/Stones of Years/Iconoclast/Mass/Manticore/Battlefield/Aquatarkus”? Unlike a lot of suites from the prog era, this one actually feels like one long composition instead of a bunch of parts duct-taped together. Right from that opening salvo of incredible unison runs, Tarkus amazed my classic rock-lovin’ self because it actually rocked with no guitars. Excessive? Who cares?!
But … it seems that one of my earliest episodes of “ear expansion” was indirectly related to Shawn Cassidy, John Travolta, and Olivia Newton John. Hmmm … — Mark Saleski
“AFFAIRS OF THE HEART” (BLACK MOON, 1992): When Emerson, Lake and Palmer made its long-awaited early-90s reunion – recording for the first time together with the original lineup since 1978 – Lake brought along something he had composed with Geoff Downes of Asia.
In fact, the duo had worked on six tracks in the summer of 1988 as Ride the Tiger, before Downes went back to a newly reformed Asia. (Downes also previously appeared on Yes‘ 1980 release Drama, and has now rejoined that band for the forthcoming Fly From Here, to be released in July 2011 by Frontiers Records.) “Affairs of the Heart,” a stoic and pretty ballad, ended up on ELP’s Black Moon, while “Love Under Fire” appeared on Asia’s subsequent release Aqua.
“Affairs” starts with this quixotic moment of romantic reverie, and bravely stays there. Emerson slowly insinuates himself, arriving with a few well-placed flourishes rather than an out-sized statement of purpose, then begins quietly building a delicate bed of sound. Lake, singing with a minstrel’s poise, further grounds a tune that might have moved into crunchy overkill in any other era. (For a taste of that, head over to Black Moon’s smart adaptation of “The Dance of the Knights,” from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet.) You might have expected ELP, after so long away, to come back with a bigger, more showy effort. Instead, this was one of the album’s simpler, very welcome joys. — Nick DeRiso
FANFARE FOR THE COMMON MAN (WORKS, VOL. 1, 1977): Here’s an example of just how much commercial radio has changed since the mid-1970’s. One night, me and my friend Andrew were cruising around in his parents’ car. (Can a person actually cruise in a yellow Dodge K-Car? I mean, it didn’t have imitation woodgrain side panels, but still.). Per usual, we had the radio on, tuned to one of the local classic rock stations. This would be either WTOS (Top of Sugarloaf) or WBLM (not sure about the etymology of BLM … it might be a chicken & egg thing with “The Blimp”).
Anyway, a song comes on the radio that can only be described as an anthem. Huge, reverb-soaked linear synth lines soared out from those Kraco speakers.
We were so blown away by this that Andrew actually pulled over to the curb. So, in the shadow of the paper mill and the old decrepit building that housed the candlepin bowling alley, we sat there wondering just what in the hell this maelstrom was. It turned out to be ELP’s version of Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare For The Common Man.” On the next trip to the record store, we both left with copies of Works, Vol. 1.
Does a song like this get airplay anywhere these days? — Mark Saleski
“LOVE YOU TOO MUCH” (GREG LAKE, 1981): Featuring the nasty, raw-boned guitar work of Gary Moore and a co-writing credited from – wait, what? – Bob Dylan, this standout track from Greg Lake’s underappreciated solo debut shouldn’t have sounded anything like Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Yet, there it is, though, at about the midway point … this loose, rangy bridge, where a bursting keyboard tangles with Moore’s scorching asides. That definitively connects the song with Lake’s more familiar work with ELP, even as he moves beyond it.
Elsewhere, you’ll find members of Toto (including guitarist Steve Lukather, who does a simmering solo on “It Hurts”) and saxophonist Clarence Clemons from Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, too. That lends a surprising variety to the effort, allowing Lake to indulge a range of emotions, everything from loverman to flinty bastard. That’s certainly the case here, on a track Dylan had reportedly slipped to Lake as a unfinished cassette demo when the two met while Emerson, Lake and Palmer was on tour in the late 1970s.
Co-written with Helena Springs, “Love You Too Much” is not going to make you forget Lake’s stuff from ELP’s Works – no one, after all, would call the Slow Train Coming period a creative high point of Dylan – but there is enough here to make you wonder why Lake never made more a career of it on his own. – Nick DeRiso
“TANK” (EMERSON, LAKE AND PALMER, 1970): What a mess I’d gotten myself into. You feel invincible at that age, you know. Just shy of twenty years old and you just know you can do no wrong. I lay on the bed staring up at the ceiling and there I felt fine. It was moving that hurt, any kind of moving, and even sometimes just breathing would cause that stab of pain in my back. I don’t know that I really realized it at the time how indicative this was of how un-invincible we truly are. I just knew it hurt, bad.
I’m young, I had a decent job doing various errands for a friend’s company, and this time I took off to Costco to haul back office supplies – the usual stuff but also some snacks and crates of soda. It was those sodas that got me. We went through a lot of soda, so we stocked up — Coke, Diet Coke, Sprite, etc., all in mass quantities. In an apparent effort to save time, I stacked a couple of the large flats of soda at a time and hoisted them into the back of my truck. It was a second or third hoist that did me in. I did something wrong — the wrong angle, bent a funny way, I don’t know, but suddenly I was sure I’d been stabbed in the back. I managed to painfully wrangle the rest into the truck and get back to the office, but after that, I was done.
A quick trip to the doctor’s office sent me home with orders to do as little as possible and a prescription for some kind of heavy painkiller. I popped the proper dosage and lay in bed, wondering just what to do. “Hey,” I called out to my girlfriend, who was at the desk doing some homework, “put in that ELP.” She didn’t say a word but I could just tell she was humoring me in my pain. There are only so many people who can handle the deep, distorted organ oriented sound of ELP, and she just wasn’t one of them. (She wasn’t alone. My wife isn’t either.)
It is from this time that I still have a particularly soft spot for this album, and “Tank” in particular. “This is the ‘YYZ’ of ELP,” the Rush fan in me wants to shout out, ignoring the illogical timing of that statement. It just is. “Tank” is that perfect showcase of everything the band can do — great bass noodling from Greg Lake that keeps the song driving forward, that fantastically gritty organ from Keith Emerson grinding away, and, most importantly, Carl Palmer’s drumming, which is showcased in an in-song solo. So deft, so lithe, it makes you wonder how drum solos became known as such plodding, boring things.
There, in that room, admittedly under the influence, perhaps, it was as if everything was tuned just for this. Maybe the painkiller was kicking in the moment “Tank” came on, I don’t know. But even in the pain, it was all kind of perfect. For all the ribbing ELP takes, they crafted music virtually unlike anyone else, and unlike so many others of their ilk, so much of it has stood the test of time. I can still hear these songs, like “Tank” or the later “Tarkus,” among others, and find something fresh. That can’t just be the drugs talking. That’s just good music. — Tom Johnson