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Emerson, Lake and Palmer

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For years now, music critics and the self appointed guardians of cool have reviled progressive rock as self-indulgent, flatulent nonsense performed by over-educated musos with no rock 'n' roll soul. And to those people, this was best embodied by Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Their name even sounded like a law practice.

However, there was a time when it was all very different. Back in the early 70’s prog rock was a vital new force in music. A new experiment. And the one of the most important outriders of this experiment were certainly ELP.

A fearsome trio of almost superhuman technical ability, they pushed the boundaries of what was musically and technically possible at that time, Emerson doing for the Moog synthesiser what Hendrix had done to the guitar. Except of course, it’s a lot harder throwing a 3-ton Moog around the stage. But this didn’t stop Emerson.

He threw knives into the thing. He rolled it around, fought with it all the while making unearthly noise. It was magnificent, and as rock 'n' roll as anyone else at the time.

Emerson had cut his prog rock teeth in the Nice, Palmer in Atomic Rooster. Lake joined from King Crimson. He had an epic voice and a prodigious bass playing talent.

Initially there were attempts to put Emerson and Lake together with Hendrix and Mitch Mitchell! Can you imagine? Sadly, it never happened.

Their second ever show was the Isle of Wight festival, and it pretty much set the tone for their career, ending as it did by firing of cannons. ELP never did anything by halves. They were full on and unremitting. They toured with more equipment than anyone. They had priceless Persian carpets on stage. They sold millions of records. Listen to them now and they still sound extraordinary.

Their eponymous first album was released in November 1970. It was an immediate success, reaching number 4 in UK and top 20 in the States. It featured classical reworkings, original compositions and an acoustic song “Lucky Man” which was a minor stateside hit.

Five months later they had another album out. Tarkus was a chart topper in UK and made No. 9 in USA. Incredibly it was a concept album about a robotic Armadillo!

Six months later they made it 3 albums on a year when they released Pictures of an Exhibition. A live reworking of Mussorgsky’s composition, recorded at Newcastle City Hall in the north of England in front of 1500 slavering fans, it was an absolute tour de force and captured the band at the height of their not inconsiderable powers. By turns subtle, bombastic, roaring and delicate, naturally it was another big hit album.

Trilogy in summer of '72 is acclaimed by some fans as their finest album, but others were disappointed, thinking it lacked some of the light and shade of previous releases. However, this was put right with the magnificent Brain Salad Surgery album. Only ELP would have an album sleeve designed by H.R. Geiger (who later helped design the Alien movies sets). Pete Sinfield was brought in to write suitably far our lyrics. There were romantic ballads like ‘Still You Turn Me On,’ sweeping epics like ‘Karn Evil 9’ and a breathtaking version of the William Blake hymn ‘Jerusalem.’ This was all ground-breaking stuff. Their first release on their own Manticore label, it was yet another big hit.

Summer 1974 saw them release a live album. Naturally it was a triple. Welcome Back My Friends To The Show That Never Ends was exactly right. It went top 5 and simply underlined just how well the band could deliver their complex music live.

After 6 albums in less than 4 years, the band took a three year break. Greg Lake had an unlikely big Xmas hit single, ‘I Believe In Father Christmas.’ It can still be heard in shopping malls to this day.

When the band reconvened for the double album Works, in the UK especially they were critically reviled by newly punk-obsessed critics as a dinosaur band of boring old farts. The fact that Works was subtitled Volume 1 was taken as an ominous threat of their intent. In truth, Works was much more classically oriented than previous releases. However it delivered the rocking number 2 UK single ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’ - an Emerson revision of Aaron Copeland’s composition. The album still sold well, but even fans could see the writing was on the wall for the band. Works 2 didn’t change things.

1978’s Love Beach was actually not very good. It barely broke the top 50. An In Concert follow up was another failure commercially. And that was that.

The three of them went off to solo projects, but reconvened in 1986. Palmer couldn’t be persuaded to return for an album, so Lake and Emerson had to find a drummer whose name began with P. Cozy Powell was probably the only option. The album did well and went top 30 but it wasn’t the ‘real’ thing.

In 1992 just as grunge was sweeping all before it, ELP reformed with Palmer on drums and set about releasing several albums of new material along with live albums. Recently they brought out three volumes of bootlegs – up to 8 CD’s per volume! They still don’t do anything by halves.

None of them troubled the charts, but we all still turned up to see them live where they were as good as ever – although some say that new technology has made it all a bit too easy for Emerson.

ELP were true originals. They had few imitators and no equals and for the first half of the 70’s they made some glorious noise.

© 2004