Perfect Sound Forever

Was It Really That Bad?
The Story Of Emerson, Lake And Palmer

by Ore Koren
(August 2007)

Progressive rock can be a very disreputable subject. No other musical style has been so vilified by the critics and became a synonym for 'pompous' and 'bombastic.' Almost every music critic in the early '70's had something unflattering to write about it. None of them seem to have noticed that the genre combined the old with the new and brought things to popular music that simply wasn't there before. Prog rock flourished during the early '70's but was wiped out almost completely by 1976- each of the bands who played it had to undergo changes in order to ensure their survival or else evaporate during the late '70's and the '80's.

It's hard to decide which band best represents the genre. King Crimson's debut In The Court Of The Crimson King (1969) might be considered one of the first pure prog rock album while Genesis's Selling England By The Pound was the best prog album to my mind and Yes and Pink Floyd made a huge splashes on both sides of the Atlantic, but none of these bands was never really identified with the genre as closely as Emerson, Lake and Palmer (Johnny Rotten's hatred of Floyd to the contrary). ELP shared prog rock's great paramount and deep chasms, reflecting all that was good and bad in that time, which is known the age of the rock dinosaurs.

ELP, like many early prog bands, was an English group. Keith Emerson, its founder and keyboard player, began to take formal piano lessons when he was eight years old. He started to learn classical music but was fed up with "playing like Bach." Later, he discovered jazz and started to perform in little clubs while he was in college. It was during that time that Emerson, searching for a new sound, purchased with the benevolent help of his father a new Hammond L100 electric piano. Later, Emerson would delve into the world of keyboards even further.

After playing in several bands, Emerson heard that P. P Arnold (then a successful solo singer and today a back up singer for ex-Floyd Roger Waters) was looking for players. He then formed The Nice, with the group playing behind Arnold. But after six months, they began performing by themselves. During late 1967 and early 1968, the band traveled in Britain with such names as Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix. In January 1968, they traveled in the U. S and came back to Britain just in time to see the release of their first album The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack (a pun on the band members' names). They later recorded "America," a work that combined Leonard Bernstein's famous piece from the West Side Story with Dvorak's New World Symphony and protest lyrics, making for a complex political statement (as well as a controversial once since Bernstein didn't approve of it). During that time, Emerson began to use knives when playing. He nailed them to his keyboard in order to help him hold certain keys while he was playing. This was just one of his yet-to-come stage tricks.

The Nice recorded another two albums during the next couple of years, but in April 1970, Emerson decided that he had enough and the band ceased to exist. Nevertheless, their manager was able to piece together more albums based on live shows and out-takes and eventually try to piggyback ELP's success to get some sales.

During a King Crimson/Nice show in 1969, Emerson met Crimson's young bass player Greg Lake backstage. After a small chat, they have decided to form a new band in several months. Now with The Nice project finished, Emerson was ready to move on.

Greg Lake started his musical career when he was given a guitar by his mother. When he was just a school boy, he wrote the song that will later become one of ELP's greatest hits, "Lucky Man." During the late '60's, Lake played in several bands. One of these bands, The Shy Limbs, nearly got him killed. The band used to sleep in a van and eat from the hand to mouth. Eventually, Lake developed pneumonia and had nearly died before his mother sent him to a doctor.

When he played with another band, The Gods, he caught the attention of Robert Fripp who was searching a bass player 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 made the members of the band bitter and Lake was searching for a way out. Eve after meeting Emerson and making plans with him, Lake still helped Fripp with recording the next King Crimson's album In The Wake Of Poseidon (retained as lead singer but not bassist) and then went of to start his own new group.

But the duo was searching for a drummer. They met Mitch Mitchell, Hendrix's drummer who didn't want to join but tried to get Hendrix into the new band. After the couple decided to join Carl Palmer as their drummer, the British Press fantasized about a new band with two virtuosos such as Hendrix and Emerson and speculated that the band will be called Hendrix, Emerson, Lake and Palmer or HELP (which would have surely made for some hilarious headlines). But Hendrix died in September 1970, before this idea came to fruition.

Emerson and Lake found Carl Palmer after he was recommended to them. They bought an album of his band Atomic Rooster and liked what they heard so they asked him to join them. But Palmer said no at first; he has been working hard, along with Vincent Crane, to get his band running and didn't want to throw it all away. He was playing professionally since he was 15 years old and just recently toured with The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown which had a U.K. number one hit chart single, "Fire."

But after continuing persuasion by Greg Lake, he decided to join them for a jam session. He enjoyed it very much and the trio began to practice until May 1970, when Palmer finished his work with Atomic Rooster and thus, ELP was born. Like another then-recent supergroup, Crosby, Stills and Nash, the English trio took the audacious move of using the group members' names as the name of the group itself.

During 1970, ELP recorded its debut album, which was called, appropriately enough, Emerson, Lake and Palmer. They drew attention from the beginning because every one of its members played in a famous group before ELP. They were a super group, a term that was given to Cream in 1967 and was quite common during the late '60's and early '70's when music world was managed like the NBA. The first album included a modern version of a Bela Bartok piece called "The Barbarian." It also included one of their greatest radio hits, "Lucky Man". Lake was also responsible for the recording and it gave the album a very unique final sound. Another instrument which was innovatively used was the Moog Synthesizer. Although the Monkeys played it in 1967, no other musician has gained control over it as did Emerson. He was the first musician to use it on stage and managed to get amazing sounds out of this analog multi-switched instrument., becoming one of the earliest pioneers of the synthesizer (inventor Bob Moog himself though of Emerson as one of the great exponents of his Moog synthesizer).

The band gained wide public interest at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival, during which Keith Emerson, dressed in shiny robe, fired two cannons (thus slightly injuring an Italian camera man) and played his keyboard like a madman.

In early 1971, they released their second album, Tarkus- their first concept album which was recorded in only two weeks. The main theme of the album (the first side of the vinyl album) is, unsurprisingly, "Tarkus." Tarkus is a bionic armadillo who fights other bionic creatures until it is convinced by the Manticore (a mythical hybrid creature that's part human, part lion) to cease from its deviant ways. You may say that the story is a parable about wars and the ill-necessity of machines, but ELP claimed that it didn't have any such exalted intentions. Significantly though, ELP later named its record label Manticore Records.

Tarkus was very popular in Britain and reached 9 on the U.S. Billboard charts. Six months after Tarkus, the band released Pictures At An Exhibition (1972), a newly rearranged version of the famous piece by Mussorgsky which was recorded during a live show in Newcastle City Hall. The band had already played it before at the Isle of Wight Festival (with the shooting cannons). Pictures was a very controversial album. Some people thought that it was a great achievement in rock while some classical fans thought that it was a disgrace to the original composer and some classic rock fans thought that it was self indulgent, masterbative crap that had nothing to do with rock itself. While I might understand some of the detractors' opinions, I still think that they have ignored the most important thing in this album- the fact that these players combined two completely different types of music into a wholly amazing piece. Instead of classical masters like Liszt or Rachmaninoff who run in a raging fury on a classical keyboard, we had a new one who combines an amazing technique with amazing technicality and creating amazing, weird and feel accentuating sounds. We can get a great sense of pace from the rhythm section as well, which combines a deep electric bass with excellent drum work. And isn't it true that many times, great art initially faces controversy when it first appears? If one is listening to this piece without comparing it to its antecedents, one can hear that Picture At An Exhibition is a very innovative work like no other.

Another anecdote about this album is that during a 1993 show in Budapest, Lake saw a man crying on the front row. After the show he asked the man why he was crying, and he told him that 15 years earlier he spend three months in jail because the Communist regime found out that he had had a copy of the album. That was the power of such music and how it was both loved and despised so strongly.

In 1972, the band released their third studio album, Trilogy. This was another eclectic album which drew on classical sources, combining the works of Ravel with the works of Aaron Copland and, of course, highly skilled playing by the members of the band. The album also contained ELP's best selling single, "From The Beginning."

From 1972 to 1974, ELP were one of the most popular bands in the world. With the exception maybe of other great showmen like Alice Cooper and Kiss, their shows were the most extravagant seen. Emerson was breaking keyboards like Pete Townsend use to break guitars while he also used a special remote which allowed him to play without even touching the instrument. Carl Palmer modified his drum battery by adding all kinds of bells, tubes and percussions. Capitalizing on their success, the band started its own label in 1973 to manage their music and to help new prog bands to achieve exposure, including Crimson lyricist Pete Sinfield and Italian band PFM.

In 1973, ELP recorded another studio album, Brain Salad Surgery. The cover was designed by H. R Giger, which became one of the first high-profile gigs for the artists who later designed the set and creatures for the movie series Alien as well as David Lynch's Dune and album covers for the Dead Kennedys and Debbie Harry of Blondie. The first side of BSS contains, like every ELP album before, a new version of previous works, this time William Blake's "Jerusalem" and Alberto Ginstera's "Toccata" (along with the stamp of approval from the composer himself). The rest of the first side contains two other short songs, including Lake's lovely "Still... You Turn Me On" and a collaboration with Pete Sinfield. The end of the first side and entire second side of the album contained a 30 minute piece called "Karn Evil 9" (a pun with carnival). The piece is divided into three parts and talks about the battle between men and technology (recalling Tarkus).

1974 was the best year in ELP's history. The road shows were unprecedentedly grandiose, featuring twenty tons of musical gear. Lake played while standing on a 5000 pound rug because he was afraid two get electrified (he nearly did during an earlier show). Emerson's piano flew and spun in the air while he was playing. In April 6, 1974 the band played at the California Jam rock festival after Deep Purple. 350,000 viewers watch their best performance and the show was broadcasted nationwide. Later on, they released a triple album to commemorate the tour with a title taken from "Karn Evil 9" (Welcome Back My Friends To The Show That Never Ends-- Ladies and Gentlemen. Emerson, Lake and Palmer). ELP's albums hit top of Billboard again and Melody Maker Magazine voted them as "Best Band" along with "Best Keyboard Player" and "Best Drummer" (leaving poor Lake in the lurch). But it was to be ELP's, as well as the progressive rock's, apex- from here the only way to go was down. Times began to change.

After the tour, the three had decided to take some much-deserved rest. During the next three years, they bought new homes, had some rest and worked on solo albums. When they came back, punk was the popular style of the day and one of the punk's main targets were the progressive dinosaurs, who they painted as villains that were ruining rock and growing rich and fat from it.

During the next couple of years, the band recorded two "group solo albums" (1977's Works) with a part for every member solo composition (and years before Outkast or Hella had the idea). A tour in 1977 was economically destructive for the band members, with a loss of nearly two million dollars. And then in 1978 came Love Beach, an album that was made because the trio was under contract and was forced to do the album. Even worse, from its Beach Boys title and sunny cover image, it's the least convincing of all of their records. This was the end. In July 1979, ELP disbanded.

During the next 20 years the band reunited as Emerson, Lake and Powell (with Cozy Powell formerly of Whitesnake, Jeff Beck Group). Palmer was available as he was involved in the most commercial of all post-ELP projects- another supergroup called Asia (included former members of Yes and Crimson).Emerson, Lake and Powell disband in the late '80's but Emerson, Lake and Palmer reunited again. In the early 90's, rthey ecording a new album (Black Moon) and embarked on a few tours during the 90's, occasionally disrupted by Emerson's problem with nerves in his right arm (no doubt brought on by years of his theatrical playing). ELP then ceased to exist once again in 1998.

The ELP phenomenon was not unique. Every prog rock band had to reinvent itself in order to survive the punk revolution and the shallow '80's. Of course, they had to do it because the bands members were accustomed to a certain living style they wanted to preserve, but the prog rock style itself became somewhat inadequate. In a world where punk could transfer the essence of a song in two minutes of guitar work, nobody needed a 15 minutes piece for the same task. The bright side is that today with the Internet revolution more and more bands can get exposure and the prog rock is more alive than ever, as witnessed by the subsequent math rock movement and groups like TV on the Radio and Radiohead who have picked up on prog's threads.

But a parallel ELP can never exist. ELP symbolized progressive rock in all its glory, with thousands of fans, tons of technical music and a highly desired glamour. But here laid its weakness. ELP became literally too expensive to maintain. All the stage tricks, all the extra players and accessories led to a situation were the cancellation of one show could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. The band's pomposity was derided by almost many writers who instead of listening to the music as it was, tried to find the band's faults. The fact is that few other bands has ever taught so many young men and women that classical music can correspond very well with modern rock and roll. No other band could have done it as good as ELP had.

Sure, you can say they were a bunch of self indulged hedonists and you might accuse them of plagiarism, but to me, ELP is one of the symbols of London during the '70's. Every time I am listening to one of ELP's early records, all I have to do is close my eyes and I am there, walking from Oxford St. to Regent St. There you are, going through Soho, watching King Crimson perform in Hyde Park or David Bowie at the Hammersmith Apollo, or just wandering around in the streets of London at its peak; traveling in a time when dinosaurs ruled the earth.

Also see our Keith Emerson tribute

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER