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Emerson, Lake & Palmer

The excesses and flamboyance of symphonic-rock had no better protagonists than London-based EMERSON, LAKE & PALMER, the first prog-rock supergroup, and a trio than encompassed a triumvirate of 70s stars in keyboard kingpin Keith Emerson (formerly of The NICE), singer/bassist/guitarist Greg Lake (ex-KING CRIMSON) and teenage drummer Carl Palmer (ex-ATOMIC ROOSTER and The Crazy World of Arthur BROWN).
With former outfits now cast adrift, Keith and Greg – who bandied the idea of instigating a band while their respective outfits shared a bill at Fillmore East the previous October – started rehearsals with Carl after mooted stint with JIMI HENDRIX (just prior to his death) and an appearance at the Isle Of Wight festival on the 29th August 1970.
A masterstroke signing to label-of-choice Island Records, ELP duly unleashed their eponymous debut, EMERSON, LAKE & PALMER (1970) {*7}, which immediately established the band as one of the leading purveyors in their overgrowing field. The fact that they focused more on the classical side of things, proving that rock could be adapted for more high-brow tastes, was the trio’s tour de force. ELP became an instant success on both sides of the pond, Lake’s rom-ballad/US hit single `Lucky Man’ (ground-breaking synth solo and all) performing particularly well alongside such iconoclastic dirges such as `Tank’, the 12-minute `Take A Pebble’ and Bela Bartok piece `The Barbarian’.
Next up was TARKUS (1971) {*6}, a slightly misguided concept piece which was based around a battle between a Manticore (a mythical beast) and a mechanised armadillo; but just what happened on the playful honky-tonk flipside featuring `Jeremy Bender’ and `Are You Ready Eddy?’. Riding high on the coat-tails of their debut success, it nevertheless reached No.1 (Top 10 in the States), no doubt due to the seriousness of the whirlwind keyboard-laden side-long title track – worth every penny of the admission price.
Unofficially rush-released to coincide with a fresh live (and concert docu-film) adaptation of Modest Mussorgsky’s PICTURES AT AN EXHIBITION (1971) {*6} – recorded at Newcastle City Hall – ELP supplemented their hardcore rock fans with this inspirational appreciation. To think that this budget release was both commercially and critically in comparison with their previous works was indeed astonishing to say the least. Lake, himself, contributed his own composition `The Sage’, although the trio’s revisits to the `Promenade’ and `The Hut Of Baba Yaga’ were spoiled by closing minor hit track, a pointless cover of B Bumble & The Stingers’ early 60s novelty smash `Nutrocker’.
In 1972, they finally fulfilled their early potential with TRILOGY {*8}, another Eddie Offord-produced album that also made both UK and US Top 5’s, while showcasing their most accomplished work to date on tracks such as `The Endless Enigma (part one)’, the moving title track, the menacing `Living Sin’ and finale crescendo `Abaddon’s Bolero’. Even the obligatory novelty piece `The Sheriff’ stood out; not quite Benny Hill’s `Fastest Milkman In The West’, but surely a contender for ELP’s most commercial recording to date. Like another title, the US Top 40 Hit `From The Beginning’, it just might’ve been a hit if released as a double-header alongside their classy interpretation of Aaron Copland’s `Hoedown’.
Founding their own Atlantic-backed imprint Manticore (for themselves, the like-minded Italians P.F.M., lyricist Pete Sinfield and even LITTLE RICHARD!), ELP’s fifth album BRAIN SALAD SURGERY (1973) {*8}, consolidated the trio’s position as Britain’s leading band, at least in commercial terms. Once again, former part-time KING CRIMSON moonlighter Sinfield was drafted in to collaborate on the lyrics. Almost celestial and heavenly, the glossy OTT set opened with an arresting re-working of William Blake’s `Jerusalem’ hymn, while the romanticism of `Still… You Turn Me On’ kept their sparse female audience content if not overwhelmed. Master percussionist Palmer was given carte blanche on the likes of synth-friendly attack `Toccata’, an ear-piercing assault on the senses, but a grateful one nevertheless. Ditto for the side-spilling of grandiose epic `Karn Evil 9’, its “1st Impression” (parts I & II) to “3rd Impression”, a splendour to behold. But it was certainly a time to rest on their laurels – five albums in three years, they’d earned a couple of years away from the studio.
Taking a line (or two) from the aforementioned monster track, WELCOME BACK MY FRIENDS TO THE SHOW THAT NEVER ENDS – LADIES AND GENTLEMEN… EMERSON, LAKE & PALMER (1974) {*6}, was a stop-gap concert triple set recorded that year in Anaheim, California (in the mould of YES’ `Yessongs’), but for many it was a little too pompous, pricey and pretentious. ELP had long since left behind any notions of self-restraint, reflected in the overindulgence that by this point was perhaps their defining attribute. Keith had taken to performing some songs strapped to a piano that was spun suspended from the ceiling of the venue, while others necessitated the unwieldy Moog synth being dragged round stadiums; one of thirteen Emerson required. Rival RICK WAKEMAN (of/on of YES) was also doing the same, hopefully with the assistance of several roadies.
While the hiatus was in full swing, the fans cringed when a solo GREG LAKE returned towards the end of ’75 with the festive `I Believe In Father Christmas’, which hit UK No.2. The multi-talented maestro, KEITH EMERSON, also had a solo outing, a surprisingly basic barroom rock’n’roll cover of Meade Lux Lewis’ `Honky Tonk Train Blues’.
ELP as a group eventually returned in 1977 with the double album, WORKS 1 {*5}, a patchy affair which nonetheless spawned an inspired cover of Aaron Copeland’s `Fanfare For The Common Man’; in an edited form, the track gave the band a near No.1 in the UK. It was pursued by a grand rock folly to rank amongst the best of them, a tour accompanied by a full symphony orchestra who would eventually be abandoned at the roadside in the face of financial catastrophe. Following the close of the tour and the release of the misleading but decent enough compilation of demos, etc., under the title of WORKS Volume 2 (1977) {*6}, ELP finally awoke to a world revolutionised by punk, which by its very nature demanded Emerson’s head on a pole. He’d also became a byword for the kind of musical excess that incited punk musicians to kick out the Moogs along with the jams, while he himself held a particular fascination for The SEX PISTOLS, who allegedly burned a life-size effigy of him at one of their shows (although he has since met and befriended mainman John Lydon). ELP’s riposte was 1978’s LOVE BEACH {*3}, a contractual obligation that satisfied few and enraged many. From flop 45 `All I Want Is You’ to the 20-minute washed-up castaway that was `Memoirs Of An Officer And A Gentleman’, the new-look “E Love P” was all at sea. The posthumous IN CONCERT (1979) {*3} was another stab in the dark with a blunt instrument. But Emerson was crying all the way to the bank at this point, but he could also console himself with the knowledge that his 13-year reign as “Overall Best Keyboardist” in the annual reader’s poll of er… Keyboard Magazine (on whose advisory board he held a seat of honour) was by now well underway.
Always at his best as an interpreter and arranger, it was perhaps no surprise that Keith began to find work as a composer of film scores. He had been approached to score Norman Jewison’s `The Dogs Of War’ in 1976, but this project was eventually realised without him and his first actual foray into scoring came with Dario Argento’s Inferno (1980).
Carl Palmer’s post ELP tenure saw him form PM, a second-division arena-rock act that featured vocalist Todd Cochran (of Automatic Man), blues axeman and fellow scriber John Nitzinger, Erik Scott and Barry Finnerty. The rather pedestrian `1 P.M.’ (1980) didn’t quite make its intended mark, although Carl’s drumming was always going to take the prize.
Meanwhile, GREG LAKE launched his solo album career by way of the AOR-driven `Greg Lake’ (1981). Augmented by a stellar cast of musicians such as TOTO stalwarts Steve Lukather, Jeff Porcaro and David Paich (alongside SPRINGSTEEN sax-giant Clarence Clemmons and GARY MOORE), the set was aimed at the American market; check out `Love You Too Much’ and the beefy `Nuclear Attack’. 1983’s follow-up `Manoeuvres’ was much of the same.
ELP conveniently found a replacement (P) in the guise of soloist and multi-session drummer COZY POWELL. The emergent EMERSON, LAKE & POWELL (1986) {*4} had its moments and even reached a healthy position in both UK and US Top 40’s; the choice of covers such as Little Eva’s `The Loco-Motion’ and Holst’s `Mars, Bringer Of War’ was indeed courageous, but there was little room for sentiment among the critics and fickle fans of old.
This set-up was short-lived although the original EMERSON, LAKE & PALMER re-formed once more in 1991. Sadly, Cozy died after an auto accident in 1998.
Confusingly, both Emerson and Palmer subsequently stayed the pace for yet another offshoot attempt at glory – this time as 3, with American (ex-Hush) singer-songwriter Robert Berry in tow for a one off set for the mighty Geffen stable, `To The Power Of Three’ (1988). If one must check it out, try to forgive them for their weak rendition of The BYRDS’ `Eight Miles High’.
The reunited EMERSON, LAKE & PALMER were found floundering on past glories with the mediocre BLACK MOON (1992) {*4}, a record that took them back into the US Top 100 (if not the Brit charts). Singer Lake (sounding rather PETE TOWNSHEND) was hardly recognisable as he tread the boards on the likes of `Paper Moon’ and `Affairs Of The Heart’; but for a take of Prokofiev’s `Romeo And Juliet’, many would deride the set as post-80s ASIA-meets-YES-styled AOR. Without a bye or leave, the trio thought it best to re-unite its recurring fanbase with some golden-era staples by way of concert piece LIVE AT THE ROYAL ALBERT HALL (1993) {*5}; `Still… You Turn Me On’, `Lucky Man’ and a finale medley of `Fanfare – America – Rondo’ were obvious highlights. 1994’s IN THE HOT SEAT {*3} was back to their old ways, the old ways that produced turkeys like “Love Beach”; a version of DYLAN’s `Man In The Long Black Coat’ was ineffective karaoke for a once-proud band.
The announcement of Keith’s retirement in 1994 following potentially calamitous nerve-grafting surgery was premature, as ELP maintained a high profile of sorts as a concert act. As a side-line to his ELP work (THEN & NOW (1998) {*5} combined some updates of their recent live sets), Keith then re-formed The NICE for a post-millennium British tour, before forming the KEITH EMERSON BAND and publishing his autobiography, Pictures Of An Exhibitionist. A 2006 ELP tour was thwarted by management issues, while his most recent soundtrack work was for `Gojira: Fainaru Uozo’, intended as a 50th anniversary celebration of the Godzilla franchise. Fan reaction to EMERSON’s score was typically less than charitable. To mark their own 40th anniversary in 2010, ELP were back in full swing courtesy of their HIGH VOLTAGE – RECORDED LIVE {*5}. For all their ups and downs (over the last three decades at least!), one has to admire the dexterity and tenacity of the once great icons of the early 70s, EMERSON, LAKE & PALMER.
Tragically, the once flamboyant gent and, arguably, the greatest showman keyboardist KEITH EMERSON committed suicide by a gunshot to the head on 10 March 2016. And with the great GREG LAKE dying of cancer on 7 December 2016, only Palmer remained from the trio.
© MC Strong 1994-2008/SW/MCS-LCS // rev-up MCS 2012-Dec2016

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