Over the weekend and for half the day yesterday, I tried—TRIED—to figure out if there was anything worthwhile in the Emerson Lake & Palmer catalog.
The answer is yes, but not that much! For the most part, they’re bloody horrible, exhibiting the very worst muso excesses of any of the progrock bands. Musical hubris on a very grand scale, pop pomposity writ large. Genesis seem humble compared to these guys. Even Yes never got even close to the edge of what ELP were all about. One album after another struck me as tedious, boring and just “virtuoso” shite, but there was occasionally a number—or a snatch of something, a moment in one of their longer pieces—that was not just good, but excellent. Those highlights were, quite honestly, to my ears, few and far between.
At their best, ELP could be sublime. No really. Carl Palmer is a truly great drummer. Keith Emerson is a keyboard god. Greg Lake, that man could sing! At their worst, they sound like three goofballs whose best idea was to rip off B. Bumble & The Stinger’s “Nut Rocker”, play it on the Moog and add an orchestra!
My wife politely inquired at one point “What the fuck is this shit?” When I told her, she rolled her eyes, shook her head and walked away from me, disappointed.
This isn’t the first time I’ve tried to figure out if there is anything decent in ELP’s recorded output. A double A-side of “Lucky Man” and the even better “From the Beginning” was one of the very first 45s I ever bought and I had most of their albums, purchased at a garage sale for 25 cents each. For a nine-year-old kid, the die-cut, fold-out H.R. Giger cover of Brain Salad Surgery seemed extra mysterious and cool, but the music left me totally cold. It’s not like I didn’t try to listen to it. A) I only had so many records at that age and B) because they were such a monster group, I wondered if maybe it was something that I wasn’t getting. (I listened to Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music around that same time, over and over again on headphones, because it irked me that I didn’t quite understand it.)
By the time Never Mind the Bollocks was in my hot little hands, I never gave Emerson Lake and Palmer another thought. Probably like the vast majority of you reading this, I would imagine.
Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to name a band so more or less forgotten, but who were once so MASSIVELY POPULAR. During their heyday, ELP sold over 25 million albums. There were basically tied with Led Zeppelin for the top-grossing touring act of 1974 and they co-headlined (with Deep Purple) the massive “California Jam” concert that year, a gig that drew over 250,000 people.
Awards? We got ‘em!
The next time I was reminded of them, they were hawking their box set on Live with Regis and Kathy Lee in the early 90s looking rather well-fed.
This is not a troll post, I promise. Maybe I’m the one still missing something… I’m happy to listen to anything by ELP that anyone cares to post in the comments. Here’s the best of what I found, my (admittedly short) list of Emerson, Lake and Palmer favorites.
“From the Beginning”—this song, a typical acoustic “Greg Lake number”—is killer. I’d rate this song a perfect 10/10. It’s awesome. Check out that fantastic Moog work from Keith Emerson and Carl Palmer’s delicate percussion. Why couldn’t they always be this restrained?
“Lucky Man”—another “Greg Lake number” (and written when he was just twelve years old!). This one’s a stone classic, nothing controversial in that statement, right? A great pop song. One for the ages.
Here you can see Emerson Lake & Palmer play Mussorgsky’s 1874 piece, “Pictures at an Exhibition” at London’s Lyceum Theater in 1970. Because this composition is often used to demonstrate “prowess” by concert pianists, I’m including this out of respect for Keith Emerson’s prodigious talents, but… yeah. This is all kinds of Spinal Tap…
More ELP after the jump…