Welcome back my friends, to the show that never ends.
Two years ago, Keith Emerson and Greg Lake passed away, leaving Carl Palmer to carry on the ELP legacy, which he is doing.
Emerson, Lake & Palmer, another of those super-groups of the 1970’s, burned themselves out by the end of the decade, and spent the next 30-plus years trying to reignite the flame. They reformed as a trio several times to record new music and to tour, and even tried different lineups when one or the other was not available.
The rise of punk music at the end of the 1970’s was in part a reaction to the “dinosaurs of rock”, which was aimed at ELP and other aging super-groups. As one of the original “progressive rock” groups, ELP had a bulls-eye of pretentiousness squarely on their backs.
Emerson toured with 13 keyboard units. They had a 28,000 watt sound system with a three-tiered mixing desk. Lake took a $5,000 Persian rug on tour for him to stand on. Palmer had a stainless steel drum kit with an old church bell and twin gongs. His drum kit could rotate 360 degrees on stage. This was the period of extravagance, or perhaps it was the decline of extravagance.
Going back to the beginning, ELP formed of the remnants of other progressive-rock groups that felt that rock and roll was a genre that could stand the infusion of some broader musical styles. Sure, they could play loud and heavy, like all groups were expected to do, but these three guys were musicians that had their eye on a different horizon.
Keith Emerson came from The Nice, which was similar to the musical path that ELP would take, blending rock, jazz and classical music. The band adapted several classical and folk pieces to the rock format. Emerson’s musical weapon of choice was the Hammond organ. Greg Lake was an original member of King Crimson, as singer and bass player, but departed after the release of In the Court of the Crimson King. Carl Palmer was a member of the The Crazy World of Arthur Brown (“Fire”) and then Atomic Rooster.
What was the appeal of this trio? Whereas Cream had been a power trio that focused on Eric Clapton’s guitar, ELP centered on Emerson’s organ, piano or Moog synthesizer. Palmer’s thundering drums were the equal of Ginger Baker’s role in Cream, and Lake played a fluid bass like Jack Bruce, but he also contributed guitar when needed. Lake was a superior vocalist who was equally adept at smooth ballads or soaring vocals like “Pirates” needing an extra gear.
Emerson, Lake & Palmer (1970) – The album that introduced ELP to the world. The album is a mixture of original compositions along with arrangements of classical pieces given the ELP treatment. “Lucky Man” written by Greg Lake, when he was 12 years old, became a signature song for the group, and the title of Lake’s autobiography, released after his death. The song features the Moog synthesizer which would become one of Emerson’s principal instruments.
Tarkus (1971) – A top ten album for the group but did not yield a popular single like their debut did. Tarkus was all original songs, with the entire first side taken up with the seven-part “Tarkus” suite.
Pictures at an Exhibition (1971) – Perhaps an usual choice, the band performed a variation of Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky, performed live on 26 March 1971. Several original songs are interwoven into the album. Surprisingly, the album cracked the Billboard top ten. It’s not a bad album, just a more challenging one for the casual fan.
Trilogy (1972) – My personal favorite ELP album. Greg Lake’s favorite too. With the exception of “Hoedown”, all original composition. This is their most accessible and commercial studio album, it peaked at number five on the Billboard charts. “From the Beginning” was a Top 40 hit, something rare for ELP, although their songs received a lot of airplay. If you want to sample their strongest album, start here.
Brain Salad Surgery (1973) – Opinions vary on this album. Perhaps their most ambitious group production. “Still…You Turn Me On” is probably the most recognizable song, but Jerusalem is also quite popular. “Karn Evil 9” consists of four parts, occupying most of the album, and contains the famous lyric, “Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends” as part of “Karn Evil 9: 1st Impression—Part 2”.
Welcome Back My Friends, To the Show That Never Ends (1974) – An ambitious three-record set from their Brain Salad Surgery tour. It reached number four on the Billboard chart, their most successful charting album. Recorded in February 1974 at the Anaheim Convention Center in Anaheim, California, it is free of studio overdubs and fixes, but proved enormously popular with fans.
Works Volume 1 (1977), each member took an album side with the fourth side being a group effort. Keith Emerson wrote a piano concerto, Greg Lake composed a series of ballads, and Carl Palmer created some jazz selection with a little help from his friends. The results were mixed, interesting but the strength of the album was in the two selections occupying side four of the double album. “Fanfare for the Common Man”, adapted from Aaron Copland original music, is the key song from the album. ELP turned the three minute composition into nine minutes adding their own variations. Because Copland owned the copyright, ELP needed to gain his permission, which they did. Asked about it later he said, “But the fact that at the beginning and the end it really is the Fanfare for the Common Man gave me the feeling I ought to allow them to do it as they pleased.” The second group song is “Pirates”, another big orchestrated piece that shows both the group’s strength and what their punk critics were saying.
The same year, Works Volume 2, a single album, was released. Mostly group compositions, the style varied greatly, but lacked anything new to say. These were mainly songs left over from previous recording sessions.
In 1978, Love Beach, washed up on the shore, an album hated by critics and divided fans. The group owed the record company a final album so they went through the motions and gave them this one. There are a few bright moments on the album but most of it is lackluster and offers nothing of originality. This essentially ended the group’s classic period.
In 1979, In Concert, was released, a condensation of a show in Montreal from 1977, recorded on the infamous Works tour. The band tried to take an orchestra on tour with them to replicate the big sound of Works and other songs. They quickly found it was not financially sustainable and the orchestra departed. In 1993, a new collection from the tour was released called Works Live.
In the 1990’s, two albums of original music was released, Black Moon (1992) and In the Hot Seat (1994). Neither release re-created the magic of the group, although the group toured off and on through the decade. Several of the shows were recorded and released (Live in Poland, Then and Now, Time and a Place, Once Upon a Time: Live in South America 1997, Live at Montreux 1997, High Voltage), in addition, various shows from the 1970’s have been pulled from the vault and released. The quality of shows vary, but fans have a lot of live music to draw from over a 30 year period.
In addition, Emerson and Lake collaborated on a live album Live at Manticore Hall. This album is like having them in your family room playing and talking about some of the songs from their career. They were on a world tour but this was not Works Live. The material was recorded in 2010 but set in the vault till 2014. Carl Palmer reportedly declined to participate because of complaints that their performance for High Voltage was sub-par.
“It wasn’t to the standard I liked and I didn’t think it sounded that good,” Palmer said. “Unless it is as good as what it can be, then I can’t do it.”
Lake understood the decline but said it was one last time for fans to hear the band. Age and health were taking away from the ability of Emerson and Lake in particular.
Live at Mantiocore Hall feels like a coda to their career, understanding that this was not the ELP of “Karn Evil 9” days, but they were lucky men just the same.
No doubt, fans would like to remember the group from their best days. Here are a couple of their best songs.