Emerson Lake and Palmer has been one of my guilty pleasures for many a long year. Even when I was defying my parents and revolting into style with the Sex Pistols I still thrilled secretly to the complex muso berserker thrashes that only ELP, at their ridiculous best, could deliver. Long before Spinal Tap, ELP always went one louder. If the progressive rock supergroup’s 1974 triple live album wasn’t the longest or best live album ever released, it certainly had the longest title: Welcome Back My Friends to the Show That Never Ends… Ladies and Gentlemen, Emerson, Lake & Palmer. And the final vinyl third of that live set, the three-part “Karn Evil 9”, still stands entirely alone as the most breath-takingly insane piece of musical immoderation ever performed.
Still, I’m not entirely sure why Shout! Factory has decided to re-release the entire ELP canon (two CDs every two months), and even less sure that this is anything like a good thing. But hey, let’s take a look at this month’s offerings and see what we can see.
Recorded live at the City Hall in Newcastle, England in 1971, Pictures at an Exhibition was ELP’s first live release and, taken as a whole, it pretty much rocks. For the most part an “interpretation” of parts of Mussorgsky’s piano suite of the same name, it begins with “Promenade”, played not on wacky Keith Emerson’s Moog, nor on his Hammond organ, but on the City Hall’s own, 40-year old pipe organ. As in the Mussorgsky original, the “Promenade” theme repeats throughout ELP’s performance, intended to give an impression of a man wandering through an imagined exhibition of the works of the composer’s friend, Viktor Hartmann. Following on from this stately introduction, “The Gnome” is one of the bizarre time-signature-changing synth-orgies that represent ELP at their best. Jazz and something a little like rock in a curious con-fusion.
Sadly, the next movement of “Promenade” presents precisely the other side of ELP. Mussorgky’s anthem is treated to a coating of Greg Lake’s endless portentous lyrics. Truthfully, Lake had a great voice, but largely wasted it on nursery rhymes he seemed to believe held the secret of life, the universe, and that other thing: “My life’s course is guided, decided by limits drawn on charts of my past ways and pathways since I was born.”
“The Sage” delays us further in Lake’s fantasy world. Accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, he sings to us tenderly about the very special universal truths that only a former member of King Crimson could possibly understand. Like how time is a river and we’re all stardust. Or golden. Or something. I forget which. Frankly, I fell asleep halfway through.
However, the distorted synth whine and wail of the introduction to “The Old Castle” would be enough to wake the dead. On Venus. A full-on rocker, “The Old Castle” eventually segues into a “Blues Variation” on the same theme. These near-seven minutes of frantic polyrhythms and heads-down no-nonsense muso boogie are followed by a third “Promenade”. This one is all about the rawk, and for the first time Carl Palmer’s drums are pushed to the fore, setting the scene for the frenzy that’s to come. And as a final emphatic chord disappears on a drum roll, Emerson and Palmer urge in the marvellous “The Hut of Baba Yaga”. Again, this is the stuff that counts. It might be jazz, it might be rock, it could be a haddock, but now as then, it’s powerful, unique, and quite stunningly passionate. “The Curse of Baba Yaga” continues the theme, slowing the tempo to allow Keith Emerson to coax otherworldy howls out of his keyboards before the bass swells, the drums rap his knuckles, and we’re off again into the overdriven weird, finally to lose control and break into a thunderous, punk rock raw, reprise of “The Hut of Baba Yaga” taken roughly half as fast again as the original. Sadly, the finale, the musically dark and haunting “Great Gates of Kiev/The End” is spoiled by yet more of Lake’s tiresome poetry: “There’s no end to my life, no beginning to my death / Death is life”. Ho hum.
In many ways, Pictures at an Exhibition is the poster child for both the best and worst of Emerson Lake and Palmer. For every “Karn Evil 9” or “Baba Yaga”, you have to listen to an awful lot of hollow nonsense and witless balladry; but when the trio get their bombast and excess right, they get it absolutely right.
ELP’s fourth release, and third studio album, was Trilogy (1972), their worst by some way. Although ELP certainly picked up their game again for the following year’s Brain Salad Surgery, Trilogy was little more than the sum of the three previous works, stripped of their imagination, novelty, and sense of adventure. While Pictures at an Exhibition took on classical music, and attempted to do new things with it, the band’s Newcastle encore was a cover of “Nutrocker”. As conceived by one Kim Fowley, “Nutrocker” is a funny-the-first-time joke at Tchaikovsky’s expense that rapidly loses its charm. Much of Trilogy reads exactly the same way. “The Endless Enigma” dawdles, revisits “The Great Gates of Kiev”, dallies with a “Fugue”, and then reprises itself. “Abaddon’s Bolero” must have seemed like a good idea for at least two minutes, but it lasts eight. And only the cover of Aaron Copland’s “Hoedown” has the vitality to make me listen more than once.
Pictures at an Exhibition