Love them or loathe them, Emerson, Lake & Palmer wore immoderation like a badge of courage.
Here are three words that strike fear in the hearts of all those allergic to prog rock: Emerson. Lake. Palmer.
Popular enough to have several songs still in the regular FM rotation, obscure enough to be forever relegated as one of “those” bands from a certain time and place (the ‘70s), ambitious enough to attempt things few if any other bands did, for better or worse, pretentious enough to earn the full-throated derision of holier-than-thou tastemakers. And album art awful enough to ensure they will never be forgotten, for better or worse.
Emerson Lake & Palmer had something for everyone. They still do, and they remain ubiquitous enough on classic rock radio that one can’t remain indifferent: whether you tolerate tiny gems like “Still, You Turn Me On” or would rather stick a knife in your ear if you hear “Lucky Man” one more time (the way Keith Emerson used to “stab” his organ during his influential and/or insufferable stage shows back in the day), Emerson Lake & Palmer are guaranteed to elicit some type of response.
Speaking of luck, Emerson Lake & Palmer were lucky men: they made their money, they made their mark, and they endure as one of the exceptional prog bands. They are, in so many ways, an archetype of their era. If King Crimson, during their prime, were not satisfied until they upped the ante past the point of endurance (for the uninitiated or enlightened; that is), Emerson Lake & Palmer made indulgence and excess their calling card.
This is why it was so easy for haters to hate. Well, that plus their cover art, of which more shortly. But to their credit, they owned it, and wore that immoderation like a badge of courage. Truly, they did it their way, and no one else really did, or could, sound anything quite like them.
A supergroup in the mold Cream or Crosby, Stills and Nash, Emerson Lake & Palmer’s three members all had history with other bands (Greg Lake, notably, with the first, and best, King Crimson line-up), and like Jimmy Page before he fronted Led Zeppelin, each of them had paid dues, and were primed to go all-or-nothing in pursuit of making meaningful music.
Of course, as ever, what signifies “meaningful” will be different things to different people, and when it comes to prog rock, as always, the criteria can depend on what the definition of art is, and whether or not something as silly as rock music can ever be said to matter. For those of us more discerning (or nostalgic, or myopic) folks, it does indeed matter, and it is indeed art. And more, it was intended to be. In fact, it’s Emerson Lake & Palmer’s unabashed ambition to make Art-with-a-capital-A that rankled the tight-assed detractors, back in the day. The album art didn’t help, either.
Bands like Rush may have elicited more visceral reactions (Geddy Lee’s vocals, at least in the early days, being a make or break proposition) and bands like Yes may have received the most demerits for pomposity (and banal lyrics as a bonus), but arguably no other prog act has prompted ridicule, loathing and love quite like Emerson Lake & Palmer. They were far and away the most audacious -- and, to the unimpressed, pretentious -- prog rockers. Using, or usurping, sacred texts like Pictures at an Exhibition, which remains sacrilege in some corners. Never mind the fact that they expose this work to young fans who otherwise wouldn’t know Modest Mussorgsky from Modest Mouse.
At the same time, even they would probably admit they took things a bit too far, reimagining Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker as Nutrocker, or inviting (and/or daring) scorn for giving their double LP the simple, grandiose title Works. Here’s the thing: they could, for the most part, pull it off. Like most of their proggy brethren, when they were "on" they were egos-be-damn-the-torpedoes awesome. At their best, they produced works that endure, and still sound miles ahead, in terms of musical proficiency, conception and execution, of what just about any other rock band is capable of achieving.
From their self-titled first album in 1970 (which was not an introduction so much as a kind of coronation: We are geniuses, hear us roar!) through their fifth in 1973, Emerson Lake & Palmer was on a run as fruitful, successful and brief as any prog band of that decade. Even though the signature sounds of Emerson’s keyboards (piano and organ) make most of the songs easy to identify, there's a diversity of style and subject matter—and a genuine growth demonstrated along the way—that ensures Emerson Lake & Palmer a place on prog rock’s A-List.
To be certain, no other band can claim a streak of albums that commences with a (relatively faithful) cover of an all but unknown composition by an all but unknown, to young rock fans anyway, maestro (Béla Bartók), and ends with a suite that stretches over two sides of an album. Between “The Barbarian” and “Karn Evil 9”, there's all manner of material, including generous doses of classical “covers”, radio-friendly ballads and all but impenetrable (musically, lyrically) epics. Plenty, in short, to celebrate and/or castigate.
We’re here to celebrate. Let’s consider one song from each album and make a case that some unironic appreciation for Emerson Lake & Palmer is in order. From their debut, 12-and-a-half minute centerpiece, “Take a Pebble”, epitomizes the all-in ethos prog bands were flying up the flag pole, circa 1970. Plucked piano strings, plaintive acoustic strumming, showers of cymbals, a countrified interlude complete with hand claps and an extended piano-led excursion that stands proudly alongside any progressive music ever made.
The second album recorded (and third released, due to record company concerns regarding a project dedicated entirely to classical music’s crossover appeal, which, in hindsight, should silence any hysterical claims of commercial opportunism on the band’s part) and third released, Pictures at an Exhibition, remains a high water mark of the era. Not content to merely cover Mussorgsky’s beloved piece, they use it as a point of departure, adding lyrics and additional passages. Heresy to the aforementioned haters, for this writer their cheekiness does not betray insolence so much as exultation.
Let’s face it: you don’t even contemplate this type of material unless you love it and, more importantly, can actually play it. If the lyrics are inevitably tied to their time (not that there’s anything wrong with that!) so be it; Lake was seldom in finer voice and the band, as musicians, is clicking on every conceivable cylinder.
Special mention, of course, must be made for the title track of their second album, Tarkus. First, a few words about the cover art. The Clash’s Paul Simonon, spewing venom shared by virtually all punks in the late ‘70s, once stated that all he had to do was look at a Led Zeppelin album cover and he felt like vomiting. Presumably, he never saw the cover of Tarkus, or he may have been obliged to poke his eyes out with a rusted clothespin.
A 20-minute side-long suite (naturally), “Tarkus” is where grandiosity meets pomposity, with a storyline as bewildering as it is half-baked. But the music? With Emerson Lake & Palmer, it’s all about the music, and the mood, only more so. The martial Sturm und Drang of the opening notes billowing into the scorched earth lamentation of what is supposedly a tale of evolution in reverse (an inside joke on prog rock? -- ha ha) expertly balances bedlam with resolution. Art-with-a-capital A; Epic-with-a-capital E; Pomposity-with-a-capital P…you get the Picture from this Exhibition.
Whatever it is, it contains multitudes, and they will mean different things to different people. In the final analysis, it’s hard to deny the good, bad and ugly that all runneth over like blood turned into wine or lava turning into Tarkus.
On their fourth album, Trilogy, they traded in the cartoon character imagery (or Armadillo of the Apocalypse) that gave Tarkus its raison d'être, and take their shot at the Brass Ring of Profundity. “The Endless Enigma” is a worthy attempt, and while the lyrics are several tiers above those of their close-cousins Yes (meaning they occasionally achieve mediocrity), the music is typically superlative. If Emerson was a tad too busy (like Mozart was accused of being! -- ha ha) on the earlier records, he reins in the excess, producing keyboard work that could almost be accused, at times, of being understated.
Lake, who in his heyday could go throat-to-throat with any vocalist, tends to be overlooked for his versatility: more than capable yielding both bass and acoustic guitar, it’s his work with the electric axe that gives Emerson Lake & Palmer its extra layer, and tension. Carl Palmer is reliably superb, and remains one of the better, if most unfairly overlooked drummers in rock history.
Finally, since everyone knows (and probably loves or hates, extremes that the song frankly does not warrant, either way) “Karn Evil 9”, the track from Brain Salad Surgery, the lesser known “Toccata” is perhaps the perfect example of Emerson Lake & Palmer’s incomparable formula. Modeled after Alberto Ginastera’s 1st Piano Concerto (heard of it, or him? Didn’t think so), it is at once reverential and irreverent.
This is precisely what makes this band, and this string of albums, so extraordinary. Using source material that is, at times, beyond “out there”, and putting their distinctive imprint on it, enabled Emerson Lake & Palmer to pay homage in the service of something spectacular. (Bonus points to Emerson for personally playing the adaptation for Ginastera, in person, to secure his approval.) Moving from “Tarkus”-like aggression to spooky soundscapes worthy of King Crimson at their most eldritch, “Toccata” distills all of the band’s strengths into one easily digestible mini-epic.
All in all, not a shabby showing for three short but astonishing years of toil: herein lies what Colonel Kurtz called “the horror”, and what recalcitrant enthusiasts (and/or idiots) like this writer call the horror. (But in a good way.) Worst album cover (Tarkus) of the prog era? Check. Worst choice of album title (Works)? Check. Worst song? (There are too many to choose from, but Emerson Lake & Palmer probably had more clunkers than any of their prog brethren.) Check, please.
Largest number of self-aggrandizing critics affronted? Big check, extra credit, and kudos. No matter how enormous their egos or ambition, Emerson Lake & Palmerwas too talented and determined to make uninspired music. Emerson, it could be argued, and probably has been by the aforementioned pinheads, had the chops to play Chopin in sparsely attended concert halls. Instead he played (mostly) his own music to sold out arenas. He and his mates never sold out, and in the end that made all the difference. Keith Emerson, Greg Lake and Carl Palmer made a different kind of music and, in the process, they made history.
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Above image from Emerson, Lake & Palmer.com