Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Emerson, Lake and Palmer - From the Beginning

Keith Emerson began his formal music education at eight years old. Quickly tiring of "playing like Bach," Emerson discovered American free form jazz, particularly that of progressive organist Jack McDuff. After playing in several bands throughout college, where he purchased a Hammond L100 electric piano, Emerson heard that P.P. Arnold, a successful solo R&B singer was looking for a backup band. Emerson formed The Nice, with this intent, though six months later the band began performing on their own. During late 1967, the band opened for Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix, often at The Marquee Club, whose dossier included David Bowie and the Lower Third, The Yardbirds, Manfred Mann, The Move and The Small Faces. In January 1968, The Nice traveled to the U.S. returning to Britain just in time for the release of their debut, The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack (a contraction of the band members' names). They later recorded "America," a work that combined Leonard Bernstein's famous piece from West Side Story, Dvorak's New World Symphony and protest lyrics, making for a complex political statement (as well as a controversial one since Bernstein didn't initially approve). During a King Crimson/Nice show in 1969, Emerson met Crimson's young bass player, Greg Lake, backstage, and after a brief chat, they tentatively decided to form a band.

Greg Lake began his musical tenure when given a guitar by his mother. As a school boy he wrote the song that would later become one of ELP's greatest hits, "Lucky Man." During the late '60s, Lake played in several bands, and one of these, The Shy Limbs, nearly got him killed. The band slept in a van and ate when they could. Lake developed complications from pneumonia and nearly died before his mother intervened and checked him into the hospital.

While bassist for The Gods, Lake  caught the attention of Robert Fripp, who was searching for a bassist for King Crimson. Lake sang and played bass on the band's first album, In The Court Of The Crimson King, but Fripp's "tyranny" alienated Lake, who remained with KC just long enough to record Crimson's 2nd album, In The Wake Of Poseidon (as lead singer but not as bassist).

While Emerson and Lake searched for a percussionist, they met Mitch Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix's drummer, who didn't wish to join but endeavored to get Hendrix into the new band. After inviting Carl Palmer, a young drummer from Atomic Rooster and The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, the British Press fantasized about a new band with two virtuosi like Hendrix and Emerson, and speculated the band would be called Hendrix, Emerson, Lake and Palmer or HELP, but Hendrix died in September 1970 before the idea came to fruition.

By October, Emerson, Lake and Palmer released their eponymous debut LP. The newly formed band sounded like a veteran supergroup. Emerson, Lake and Palmer (AM7) represents what happens when the right musicians find each other at the right time. All three fresh from other notable bands, it was a meeting of the gods. The fact that albums like this are given short shrift by rock critics says far more about the dark state of rock criticism than it does about the quality of the music therein. Every second on Emerson, Lake And Palmer's debut LP (with the exception of Palmer's accomplished but somewhat needless drum solo on "Tank") is a triumph, as the group moves effortlessly between the multiverse of rock, jazz and classical before heading into the newly-charted realms of electronica with the Moog. Their sense of ensemble on tracks like "The Barbarian" and "Take A Pebble" is breathtaking. Hearing "Knife Edge" for the first time on KMET in 1974, over a crackly FM transmitter, sent a chill down my spine that has never quite gone away. 

Tarkus (AM7) saw Emerson, Lake and Palmer trying their darnedest to outplay their contemporaries - a goal which they succeed effortlessly in achieving - although as a result, the album lacks a sense of restraint. Its centerpiece is the title suite that took up all of side one, an intense, varied 20-minute prog epic that hits the listener like a ton of bricks; its first impression will either leave one fascinated by its originality and virtuosity or running from the room screaming overkill. Were Tarkus written by a contemporary western avant-garde composer (think John Cale or today, Nico Muhly), it would have been recognized as the complex atonal a-rhythmic masterpiece that it is. For most rock listeners, however, the album simply asks too much. It is a complex work full of invention and shifting horizons, far more complex and coherent than even the most celebrated rock albums previously called "complex." A schizophrenic hootenanny, "Tarkus," the LP's shining focus, is indeed a glorious slab of prime prog. Emerson's Hammond B3 and Moog are out of this world, Lake's vocals and under-rated bass work are exceptional and Palmer provides what is the strongest long-form track of his career. 

As for the concept, well, there's this armadillo-tank thing and it kills a bunch of creature things until one of them kills it, so, like a lot of fantasy prog, Tarkus is essentially a mess of pretentious hoo-hah over nothing. And I for one happen to love it.

My first experience with classical music was through Looney Tunes, most specifically Elmer Fudd's "Barber of Seville" or the "Kill da wabbit" scene in "What's Opera Doc?" In lieu of that, maybe it was the odd take on classical that was Ray Conniff's Concert in Rhythm on which my mother sang backup vocals. While this kind of exposure seems trivial, it helped to create a lifelong quest for more music. Naturally, as a young teen, the Peter and the Wolf sensibility of progressive rock made an impression, as did rock music in general as it often borrowed from the classical canon. I remember seeing Bowie at the Santa Monica Civic in 1972 with my older brother. Before Bowie hit the stage, the decibels were cranked on towers of amps playing Beethoven's 9th. And in 1968, I was struck by Blood, Sweat and Tears take on Satie's Trois Gymnopedies, still one of my favorite classical arrangements.

My further immersion into classical music would have me bring home ELP's Pictures at an Exhibition. I'd heard ELP prior to this, but this, to my novice ears, was the real deal.
Greg Lake adds some light philosophical/trippy-dippy lyrics to the Modest Mussorgsky masterpiece, and like every piece of excess ELP did early in their career, it works. Keith Emerson traipses through every tone he can get from his early synth arsenal (jarring or otherwise) , giving him the U.K. moniker "the Hendrix of Keyboards" (oh brother, but you get the point). Rumor has it Jimi actually wanted to join the band after hearing this album. Just think! Hendrix, Emerson, Lake, and Palmer (or HELP, for short). Pictures has more raw urgency than anything in their catalog, and while Jimi may have had an ear for its brilliance, most of us, myself included, find this the least accessible ELP LP.