Welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends. I’m so glad you could attend—come inside, come inside! In this case, the show that never ends is the most indulgent and improbable progressive rock of the 1970s, music that we all thought had been knocked stone-cold out by punk rock. But everything, of course, comes back again as nostalgia in today’s culture, and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer’s time seems now to have come. Welcome back, my friends, indeed.
Brain Salad Surgery was the ELP album, the one that sooooo many pimple-faced suburban boys bought just because, I mean, “How cool is that cover, man?! It’s, like, a wall or a metal gate with a skull on it, but actually a hot chick’s lips are part of the skull! And there’s some kind of shadowy wiener there too! Yeah! “
Prior to Brain Salad Surgery, ELP was a very successful British prog-rock band that had advanced a weirdly denuded form of rock—a combination of classical bombast and English music hall folk. This 1973 album did not change the ELP formula as much as perfect it and then—and this is crucial—hit at just the right time. If you were a teen-aged boy in 1973, there was a pretty good chance that you found full-strength rock-and-roll pretty scary—all those loud guitars and those sexy men in make-up and the politics and the genuine personal revelations. So rock was this scary/wonderful thing: something you wanted to dig that you could only get so close to.
This ELP music, though, that was easy to like. It could be loud, sure, but Mom couldn’t object too much, what with all that classical music included, right? This was music that sounded like it had a relationship to the piano lessons you had been taking (or ignoring) since you were eight and music that valued being a fast and precise player rather than someone who had an actual story to tell. Loud and fast but safe! It was a rock ‘n’ roll bedtime story. A warm glass of milk.
I’ll confess it—I listened to this stuff back in the day. My friend Jeff owned the LP, with its awesome gatefold cover. We listened to Keith Emerson’s organ and synthesizer while playing with Jeff’s gerbil. Ah, to be 13 again. So, how would Brain Salad Surgery sound again 34 years later? And, just as interestingly, would that goofy title finally make some kind of sense?
In the old days, of course, the album had two sides, and I can tell you that we almost never listened to side one. Hearing it again after all these years makes perfectly evident why. Side one is a confusing and mismatched batch of oddball songs, each one more absurd and improbable than the last. “Jerusalem” is a traditional English hymn played with overblown grandiosity. Greg Lake sings it with sweet voiced sincerity, while Emerson floofs it up with organ and Carl Palmer gamely tries to lay in the bombast. Who thought this would be a great opener for a rock album?
It is followed by a synth-a-rific adaptation of the last movement of a piano concerto of Argentinian classical composer Alberto Ginastera. No doubt, there is a fussy power to “Toccata”, with the driving movement of the melody rendered by “the Jimi Hendrix of the Hammond organ,” as Emerson was sometimes known. There is much throbbing and much screechy glissandi on synthesizers, not to mention a laborious drum solo that surely killed when the group played arenas. This leads to an invincibly horrible section of synth burbles and flutters that was pretty tedious even in the ‘70s. It kind of rocks, in the way that your mom is kind of sexy when she has one too many glasses of wine and wears a sweater one size too small. Ick.
The next two tracks on the old “side one” are the popular ballad “Still You Turn Me On” and the outright novelty number “Bennie the Bouncer”. “Still” is sensitive folk-rock until the incongruous wah-wah guitar at the end of each chorus, and “Bennie” is a piece pseudo-stride piano with Lake singing in a bogus Cockney accent. Creative indulgence, you rock-killer, you!
But indulgence was the very provenance of progressive rock in 1973, wasn’t it? The ELP website notes that, at the time, the band “traveled with 25 roadies and 35 tons of equipment, including a revolving drum kit, Quadrophonic sound, 32 sound cabinets, a grand piano that rose 30 feet into the air and flipped end over end, and a special lighting system.” This was Spinal Tap.
But Brain Salad Surgery would not be remembered at all were it not for the last track on side one and the remainder of side two, a suite of songs titled “KarnEvil 9”. (Get it? It’s, like, an evil carnival, but spelled with a K and with a 9 on the end because, uh, . . . well, who knows why.) Anyway, “KarnEvil 9” is the killer stuff. It’s the best thing ELP ever did—their signature bit. (For those too young to have heard this song four million times in the ‘70s, it’s the song playing when the football player celebrates by dancing on the goalpost during a recent Dr. Pepper commercial. Yeah, that one.)
This is the apotheosis of the ELP phenomenon: incredible complexity, nutty lyrics (It’s about a kooky, evil carnival, and then—and I am not making this up—computers or maybe robots taking over the Earth), and the coolness of synthesizers and roto-toms. It comes in four “impressions”, the first of which comes in two parts, so you know it’s got to be good. “First Impression” is the one everyone knows: “Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends! I’m so glad you could attend—come inside, come inside!” There are gypsy queens “in a glaze of Vaseline” not to mention “seven virgins and a mule”, but the real exhibitions are the endless organ riffs and tempo changes that dazzle you with their detail. “Second Impression” is instrumental, with Emerson playing some very Chick Corea-esque acoustic piano, followed by more synthesizing. Finally, “Third Impression” brings in those robot/computers, and you feel the blues drain so finally out of rock ‘n’ roll that you can practically hear the wheels of music history bring Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious onto the stage.
Prog-rock fans will love this reissue. (Note: also recently reissued is the live album recorded in 1974, inevitably titled Welcome Back my Friends to the Show That Never Ends and it sounds pretty much exactly like the studio records.) If this is your thing—that is to say, if Rush was just not sufficiently baroque and pretentious for you—then Brain Salad Surgery in 2007 is just more chocolate sauce for your sundae. It even comes with an alternate mix of “Jerusalem” and an all-instrumental version of “KarnEvil 9, First Impression”. With this last baby on your iPod, you are in prog-rock karaoke heaven. Sing along to ELP if you dare.
For me, 34 years later, Brain Salad Surgery induces pangs of embarrassment and guilt, but also a slice of pleasure. The young guy I used to be really knew all these lyrics and he could do a mean “air organ” for every last keyboard riff. But does that make it right?