I’m a 70’s Prog-head and ELP is one of my favourites among many. I first got my hands on a random collection of their songs like C’est La Vie, Nutrocker, and the whole live audio of Pictures At An Exhibition, and I haven’t stopped listening to them (and never will). For me 70’s Prog is just an infinite well of brilliant music, and ELP is one of the biggest gems from that well.
Okay, do you know what a ‘Supergroup’ is..? Let me explain… Once Upon A Time, there was a relatively popular shock rock singer called Arthur Brown, with a famous single called ‘Fire’ in the charts. His drummer’s name was Carl Palmer. Remember that name. After Sgt. Pepper, a few bands were boiling underground with concept albums, virtuosic instrument playing and great artworks. One of the mildly popular one was The Nice with its organ/synth wizard Keith Emerson. Remember that name too. Then in 1969, Prog Rock was finally given a solid birth by King Crimson on their debut album In The Court Of The Crimson King. Crimson was filled with virtuosos, one of whom was bass player/singer/songwriter Greg Lake. Remember this name too. So these three musicians (whose names I told you to remember), were sort of mildly popular and known for their skills and virtuosic playing and showmanship. But Arthur Brown was not a Prog band, and in The Nice, the other musicians could not accompany Keith well, and Crimson’s Robert Fripp was a little-too dominating and sort-of curbed the talents of Greg Lake (No offense to Fripp, he was great too). So, in 1970, these three super musicians from England, quitted their respective bands and formed the supergroup Emerson, Lake & Palmer.
There is also small side-story (maybe a rumour) that I cannot resist from telling about the formation of this group. As you might have already noticed, ELP do not have a guitarist. Actually they wanted to have a guitarist. The band was actually supposed to be called HELP (not just ELP), and the H stood for a virtuosic guitarist of the time. You guessed it, JIMI HENDRIX. But…. Jimi died. So we are left with a Prog power trio, the first and only of its kind, comprising organ/synth, bass and drums. Don’t be too sad that Jimi couldn’t join in, because Keith Emerson, more than made up for it. Yes, he was often hailed as the Hendrix of the keyboards. Have you ever seen an organist hustling his organ around the stage..? Yes you read it right, I said ‘HUSTLING HIS ORGAN’ (organs aren’t that small okay…). Well if you haven’t, then right at this moment, drop everything (including this article), go to YouTube and check out the full live concert of ELP’s Pictures At An Exhibition. Come back for the rest of the article later, but watch it NOW….
Okay, you’re back…? Come back to your senses, I just got started with the article. Yes it was shocking. But Greg Lake, smoothened the journey up right. Yes Greg was a master songwriter. He’d pick up his acoustic and sing the sweetest songs after Keith’s organ/synth assaults. And Carl Palmer was not one to just keep the beat going. He soloed on them drums like no other.
Every prog band has had its niche, or to better phrase it, their own ‘Secret Ingredient’. For ELP it was classical music. Keith Emerson was a classically trained musician. But he was not one to be satisfied with the polite and soft spoken audience of classical music who followed the scores of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake note by note. He wanted to Hendrixify his audience. He wanted to rock out and make a mess on the stage. He wanted his audience to go berserk while he created unworldly sounds on his synthesizers. Hence, it was obvious that when he was the leader of a loud rock ‘n roll band, he would do so with all his classical knowledge and technique oozing out of his fingers. So ELP often had hardened and rockified versions of obscure classical pieces on their albums. In fact, their first album (eponymous titled) started with a hard rock version of Bela Bartok’s The Barbarian. The album also had segments of Johann Sebastian Bach’s music. For their second album, they had even greater ambitions. They recorded a live concert where they mixed their own music with Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition (yeah that one.., it really is classical music). However, as most record labels often did in the 70s, their label refused to release it for fear of being able to sell it. In fact the label suggested an alternative, to release it on their classical sub-label, and hence-wise be able to market it to classical audience. ELP would have none of that. The album was made for a rock ‘n roll crowd, and that was where it had to go. So ELP shelved it to prove a point, and recorded their second album ‘Tarkus’. The title track of Tarkus was an epic track of around 20 minutes. The labels thought the rock audience would not buy it. How wrong they were. Tarkus was embraced by rock ‘n roll with open arms, and more so for its epic title track. Now the label were convinced that rockified-classical music would sell. So, today, we are fortunate to get our ears tuned to Pictures At An Exhibition, their masterpiece.
After that they produced two more prog masterpieces ‘Trilogy’ & ‘Brain Salad Surgery’. By this time they were like super-heroes of prog, not less so because of Emerson’s shiny & superhero like costumes, often complete with a cape. Their instrumentation was huge. They used electric trigger drums, double-neck guitars (one neck for bass, one for regular guitar), giant synthesizers, and even whole orchestras. So much so, that when they toured, each member had a whole tour bus for his equipment. By 1977, ELP was often given adjectives like overblown, self-indulgent, and many other not-so-nice words. And then, punk hit the shores. Almost all the prog bands got watered down, with ELP at the frontline. So they cut their hair, sobered up, and made a few not-so-proggy albums before breaking up. Emerson and Lake reunited in the 80s with Cozy Powell to make a few more albums, but all in all to us kids born in the 90s, ELP became like a fairy tale or myth only to be referred to in “Once Upon A Time” tales.
ELP’s music has a touch of exploration, coupled with super awesome playing of their instruments. Each member would probably be one of the greatest of all time, on their respective instruments. And Keith has to be the greatest keyboard player of all time. His playing has a seductive/hypnotic quality to it that just pulls the listener in and amazes you with the possibilities. And just so that you don’t get me wrong, their music is not exclusive of the listener. It doesn’t say ‘Look what I can do with my instrument.’ Or ‘Look how fast I can play.’ It is much more inclusive. It takes you on a journey where the virtuosic playing is just one of the many tricks to amaze you. The music does not leave you behind. You enjoy each new trick pulled by either of the member, and feel very much a part of it. It is like an adventurous journey with its sole focus on exploration of new territory and new sounds and of course, to have fun in that new found sound.
Just last year (in 2016) Emerson commited suicide due to severe depression as he was unable to play his keyboards due to some illness that rendered him unable to play. He was closely followed by Greg Lake (not suicide).
Rest In Peace Kieth & Greg, and wish Carl happy times for the remaining days of his life.
- Emerson, Lake & Palmer (1970)
- Pictures At An Exhibition (Live Album – 1972)
- The Barbarian, Take A Pebble, Lucky Man (1970 – Emerson, Lake & Palmer)
- Tarkus, Jeremy Bender (1971 – Tarkus)
- Promenade, The Gnome, The Sage, Nutrocker (1972 – Pictures At An Exhibition)
- Still… You Turn Me On (1973 – Brain Salad Surgery)
- C’est La Vie (1977 – Works, Vol. I)
Other Bands To Check Out:
King Crimson, The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown, The Nice,
Genesis, Yes, Pink Floyd, Camel, Jethro Tull, Asia, Hiromi Uehara
I do not own the copyrights to the image used. Got it straight from google. Since I am not commercializing this article (at least not yet), I’m guessing no one will want to sue me.