This was a statement album, or double-album as the case may be. If ambition was a sin, these guys were on the highway to hell.
Emerson, Lake & Palmer came out with their magnum opus Works in 1977, when progressive rock’s popularity was at it lowest ebb. Disco and glam ruled the charts. Country rock and outlaw country enjoyed a large audience. Punk and heavy metal emerged with a vengeance. Even pop was undergoing a resurgence.
But old fans, youth, and critics considered prog rock a bloated dinosaur whose days had passed. What was once considered serious music was now lambasted for its very pretensions. ELP became victims of its own success. They were once hailed as a supergroup comprised of virtuoso talents. Now that format was deemed a bore.
ELP must have known what he reception of Works Volume 1 would be, but the members clearly didn’t care. This was a statement album, or double-album as the case may be. If ambition was a sin, these guys were on the highway to hell. They were gonna strut their stuff, popular tastes be damned.
The first volume, released in March, featured each member taking charge of an entire LP side apiece, and then joining together as a trio for the final side. While ELP made its bones as the premier prog rock band, the members were going to sabotage its reputation in almost every way possible, not by selling out to the current styles, but by doing the opposite. They each took on even less trendy genres and did so largely as solo acts.
The double-disc begins with a classical piece, an 18-minute Piano Concerto by Emerson that featured the London Philharmonic Orchestra. This was not some sort of rock/classical fusion piece, but straight classical music as one would expect to hear at a conservatory. The piece is marked by swooping dramatic movements and contrasting gentle, soothing tinkling. As far as pop composers go, Emerson proves a worth colleague to future contenders Billy Joel and Paul McCartney. As far as classical musicians go, Johannes Brahms and Ludwig Van Beethoven can rest in peace.
Guitarist Lake takes on singer-songwriters, another genre whose heyday had passed, on the second side with five ultra-poetic pieces. One of them (“C’est La Vie”) actually became a minor FM hit. The lyrics are unintentionally comic in a Spinal Tap way. Lake sincerely expressed himself with lines like “Release my soul release my eyes/ A clock unwinds a flower dies” and “There may be an Om in moment/ But there’s a very few folk in focus.” Axeman Lake let his voice do the talking more than his instrument, which seems a mistake, but his earnestness was painstakingly honest in its approach. It should be noted that Lake’s writing was aided by King Crimson member Pete Sinfield
Drummer Palmer nods to classical music, covering Sergei Prokofiev and J.S. Bach, but unlike Emerson he jazzed them up. He also rocks out a bit, enlisting guitarist Joe Walsh on one cut (“L.A. Nights”) to full effect. The trio gets back together on the fourth side to do a bombastic version of Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” (they had successfully covered Copland’s “Hoedown” previously) and a 13-minute soundtrack with grand orchestrations to a never made movie called “Pirates”. This featured overblown lyrics by Lake and Sinfield.
The initial reception to Works Volume 1 was a resounding thud. The band members had shown their best individual efforts and got together once more to make a big noise to be met only by disdain and indifference.
But over time, audiences began to listen with fresh ears. The albums have been reissued on several labels, and the music had been discovered by those who never heard it the first time. Traits that once were considered flaws, such as its creators’ solemn intent to create a masterwork, now come off as meritorious. Works Volume 1 may not be the magnum opus ELP sought, but its value can no longer be dismissed.
Works Volume 2 came out in November of the 1977 and could not be different in its aspirations. It’s a collection of outtakes and tracks that never made in on to an album before, much like The Who’s Odds and Sods and Pink Floyd’s Relics. The record did receive a modicum of success at the time and contained the hit “I Believe in Father Christmas”. That song reached number two on the English charts, even though it was released previously as a single a few years earlier. The hit version was largely stripped of orchestrations. The album also contains the song “Brain Salad Surgery”, which did not appear on the full length disc of that name, and other worthy tracks including the jazzy instrumental “When the Apple Blossoms Bloom in the Windmills of Your Mind I’ll Be Your Valentine”.
The irony that the grab bag approach to making an album surpassed the more large-scale and elaborate method must have been noted at the time by those involved. No wonder the group broke up a year later. While the three individual sides of Works Volume 1 indicated these musicians were ready to pursue different paths, the tracks when they are most together on Works Volume 2 revealed how good they could be as a trio when not so self-consciously trying to impress.
Works Volume 1 and 2 have been remastered and released by Shout! Factory. The production is dynamic and incredibly clear. Palmer’s drumming and percussion benefit the most. He has never sounded as commanding and infectious.
Thirty years ago listeners may have been wondering what people would have been listening to in 2008. No doubt they would have been surprised at the reappearance of ELP’s oeuvre. But Works Volume 1 and 2 continues to find an audience.