Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Tarka the Otter - No, Tarkus

Hindsight often shines a light on delightful accidents. From Malcolm McDowell’s “Singin’ in the Rain” improv in A Clockwork Orange to Kurt Cobain’s quandary over “Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit” written on a friend’s wall in Sharpie*, sometimes things just happen.

It may seem hard to fathom now, but back in 1971, Emerson, Lake and Palmer were forced by their label to shelve the prog-rock adaptation of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition in favor of “Tarkus” because the latter was more commercial; that’s right, a sci-fi piece in which an audacious tank-like armadillo pops out of a volcano and heads off to war is more “commercial.” (Yeah, it’s a regular “Sugar, Sugar.”) It’s as goofy a concept as one can imagine, nonetheless one of the greatest of all prog epics thanks to Lake’s brilliant lyrics somehow adding the verisimilitude the concept required. 

The band’s self-titled debut from the year prior included some pretty spectacular performances, if a bit uneven, but keep in mind that this (1970) was progressive rock’s infancy, and much of what was recorded by Gentle Giant and Yes, Floyd and Genesis was experimental. Tarkus was Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s opportunity to address the criticisms of the eponymous LP (I have few, btw; love that debut!). 

The title track, with its seven movements, was a bold step that succeeds due to Emerson’s compositional deftness. Of it, he said, “It was coincidental that Carl Palmer and I were working individually on the same sort of complex rhythm ideas. He was doing this on his practice drum pads, while I was at home on an upright piano in London and a Steinway in Sussex. As my ideas seemed to compliment what Carl was up to, I pursued this direction. 

“We focused on a centerpiece first to establish a concept. Sometimes we didn’t know if it would become a conceptual piece of work at all. All of the compositions had to bond and work together, and if they didn’t, they were used somewhere else.” 

Emerson drew heavily on the work of Frank Zappa and the Argentinian classical composer Albero Ginastera, well known to ELP fans as the composer of “Toccata” on Brain Salad Surgery. “I was a huge admirer of Frank Zappa, and had met him on a few earlier occasions when he wanted my advice on how to cope with English orchestras. Frank was of the opinion that there really should not be time signatures. That’s how I felt. Why be governed and dictated to by a 44 or 34 rhythm by adding or subtracting notes just to make it fit?”

After several months, Emerson presented the bones of the composition to Palmer and Greg Lake. All that was missing were the lyrics. Lake wasn’t initially a fan of what he heard while Palmer, in simpatico with Emerson, was already on board. “I don’t think Greg was too enthused,” Emerson said. Indeed, Lake was heard to say, "If you want to play that sort of stuff, I suggest you play it on your solo album." 

Nonetheless, gritting his teeth, Lake took inspiration from the album’s artwork as the starting point for his lyrics serving up some of the most potent lyrics of his career. Emerson, for his part, vividly remembers the first time he saw the cover that became so entwined with the album and the concept story. “One day I walked into the studio after my long drive from Sussex. Greg and Carl were looking over the artwork of an artist that had just dropped by [William Neal]. We were all fascinated by his artwork, particularly the armadillo with cannons and the dodo bird with guns on its wings like a Spitfire. To everyone, it represented what we were doing in that studio. The next day on my drive up from Sussex the imagery of the armadillo kept hitting me. It had to have a name. Something guttural. It had to begin with the letter ‘T’ and end with a flourish. Tarka the Otter [a children’s novel published in 1927] may have come into it, but this armadillo needed a science fiction kind of name that represented Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution in reverse. Some mutilation of the species caused by radiation… Tarkus!” 

The 20+ minute title track is monumental. As the first significant side-long prog-rock epic, the track has it all - amazing keywork by Keith Emerson that fits seamlessly from movement to movement, a gorgeous electric guitar solo from Greg Lake, lyrics that refocus an otherwise silly storyline, intricate bass, and incomparable drumming by Palmer. Bottom line, like Floyd’s miraculous “Echoes,” “Tarkus” is a brain-fry bong-load of resinous prog, dripping with cosmic ether. 

Anyway, “more commercial?” Guess the folks at Island Records were right.  

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