Back in the early ’70s, when prog rock was rearing its (some say ugly) head, the word “prog” itself was a synonym for “excessive”. You couldn’t wear the “prog” tag without either a Moog synthesizer (or other some such), or perhaps a violin (remember UK’s “In the Dead of Night”?), or in some cases, certain woodwinds qualified (Ian Anderson’s flute). But the prog thing was mostly noted for the eerie, swirly sounds of the synth. Yes, King Crimson, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer were the targets … err, pioneers of this misunderstood genre. (Perhaps because its complexities were far too geeky for the average soul to comprehend.)
One of the other qualifications for prog was songs less than six minutes long were considered sacrilegious. Yes was allowed to get away with a four-and-a-half minute “Roundabout” simply because the album version was double that in time span. Of course, you know that that particular song made shortened prog a radio–friendly staple, and even though “Roundabout” was the exception that made the Top 40 charts, other proggers who decided to creatively edit their lengthy noodling down to a bite-size chunk were rewarded with lots of radio airplay. For Keith Emerson, Greg Lake, and Carl Palmer, lightning struck when standalone “Lucky Man” became an FM staple. But their only other short song to garner much air time was “Karn Evil #9, First Impression (Part II)”, part of a 35-minute suite featuring three separate (ahem) impressions. Few would argue it’s their pinnacle song from their pinnacle album, Brain Salad Surgery.
The prog trio rode high on the wave of Brain Salad Surgery. And to commemorate their success, they decided to release a three-album set (come on now, did you really think all that noodling would fit on one disc – or even two?) smugly titled Welcome Back My Friends to the Show That Never Ends: Ladies and Gentlemen, Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Prog haters had fun with that, feeling that after listening to five minutes of said noodling, the title was apt – the show sounded like it would NEVER end.
“Karn Evil” is here in all its glory, and strangely enough, it sounds better than the studio version. But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself here. First things first: this is ELP’s first live album, and was recorded on the tour saluting Brain Salad Surgery (called the “Someone Get Me a Ladder” tour). In fact, every song from the album, sans “Benny the Bouncer”, is here. The sound quality is crisper than in early pressings/releases, but it’s still not ready for a Gold Standard Audio Disc (do they even make those any more?). And the songs are a bit more stripped down, since this was before the time that overdubs were standard concert fare. And something you may not know: this was ELP’s highest placing album on the U.S. Billboard charts, reaching #4.
As for the contents within, much of the band’s material is cribbed and reworked from classical composers as well known as Aaron Copeland (the opener, “Hoedown”, is a part of Copeland’s “Rodeo” suite), and as little-known as Alberto Ginastera (Emerson’s arrangement of “Toccata”, one of the oddest masterpieces you’ll ever hear). For those new to Keith, Greg, and Carl, don’t be afraid: the two aforementioned pieces rock out. Yes, there are some classical piano movements on WBMFTTSTNE, but this is primarily a rock-based grouping. However, it’s not short and sweet.
“Take a Pebble”, from ELP’s eponymous debut, is made longer by the inclusion of acoustic versions of “Lucky Man” and “Still, You Turn Me On”. (A line in the latter is where the tour name came from.) However, you have to change discs to continue the song, and smack in the middle of all that is nearly 12 minutes of Emerson’s keyboard work. His improvisations are never dull (though it’s more interesting when you are actually there, kinda like watching a baseball game). Emerson likes throwing snippets of other songs in his solos, and here is no exception, including “Fugue” and “Little Rock Getaway” in the mix. And just when you thought the band was getting away from the less pretentious stuff, along comes “Jeremy Bender”/”The Sheriff” to restore faith. The closing barrelhouse keyboard work by Emerson is faster and more furious than the studio version, and it makes you wonder how someone with just ten fingers is able to play that so fast and so nimbly. And let’s make mention that Palmer (still active) is one of two drummers in rock right now who can keep grown men from using the lavatory to watch his solo (Neil Peart being the other). Palmer, whose concise, strong stick work swings like Gene Krupa or Buddy Rich, will have his shot at a solo in the closing “Karn Evil”.
“Karn Evil” has a little bit of everything scattered through its three-impression run. You want anthemic rock? Well, that’s what “Roll up/see the show!” is there for. Some jazziness? The beginning of the second impression takes care of that. Prog heaven? The opening fills the bill. Of course, there’s the drum solo. And also of course, there’s the noodling that covers most of the final impression. Yes, this does tend to sound a bit sarcastic, but even though it’s a great body of work, it’s not something you can listen to every day without driving yourself mad – possibly except “First Impression, Part II”.
In fact, that’s the whole point (or as cynics would say, pointlessness) about prog. It’s easily digestible in small bites. Raise your hand if you can listen to the entire “Starship Trooper” more than once a month without having the urge to kill someone … didn’t think so. In this day and age, where a sound bite of more than 15 seconds is way too long, this genre has little chance to succeed. So as far as the current generation goes, Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s Welcome Back My Friends to the Show That Never Ends would be akin to a root canal without anesthesia. But for the older sect who appreciated the trippy, indulgent sounds that prog brought forth, this is a “waxing nostalgia” moment worth listening to …. once in a while.