Damn! Another major rock music figure from the late ’60s/early ’70s passed away last week. 2016 has been a particularly brutal year in that regard… Apparently this is the time in the lifespan of baby boom folks to watch as a whole slew of our generation’s musical idols leave us. And now, sadly, tragically, it’s Keith Emerson’s turn.
I’ll pause for a moment as those from other generations ask, “Who?”
From 1970 until about 1978, one of the biggest bands in the UK and the US was the British trio Emerson, Lake and Palmer, trendsetters in the British progressive rock genre and trailblazers in the sometimes uneasy merger between rock and classical music so prevalent at that time.
Progressive rock (or “prog” rock, as it came to be known in some circles) was a quirky but hugely successful genre that captured the attention of the album-buying public in the early 1970s. British bands (and they were almost all British) took their classical music schooling and melded it with their love of rock to create massive, lengthy opuses that challenged listeners to LISTEN. This was not music to dance to. It was not music to play in the background at a party. It was music to study, under the headphones, in most cases.
The fact that progressive rock topped the album charts (almost never the singles charts, by the way) as often as it did during this period is fairly astounding. During a time when singer-songwriters, Philly soul and Top 40 still ruled the roost, why did Yes, Jethro Tull and Emerson, Lake and Palmer show up so often at the top of the US and UK album charts?
Let’s focus on ELP for the moment, for it is Keith Emerson we are highlighting here. Emerson, a gifted prodigy and aficionado of classical composers since childhood, had turned heads as keyboardist for a critics’ darling called The Nice. Greg Lake, a talented guitarist and bass player with a wondrous voice that recalled John Lennon, had been an important part of the early prog rock outfit King Crimson. Carl Palmer was a bombastic drummer from under-the-radar bands like Crazy World of Arthur Brown and Atomic Rooster.
They merged their talents in 1970 at just the right moment, and released their debut under their surnames, and enjoyed immediate success, thanks to their single, “Lucky Man” — “Ooh, what a lucky man he was…”, written and sung by Lake. Many of those who loved the single were perplexed to find that most of the rest of the album was dominated by an entirely different strain of music, much more challenging than the average rock fan was prepared to deal with.
We’re talking about lengthy pieces based on the works of 18th Century giants like Bela Bartok, Modest Muggorsky, Bach, Prokofiev, and others. For many of the kids raised on the Beatles and the early Stones, this was a bit beyond their reach, for the most part.
But not for everyone. A huge swath of rock music listeners were happy to spend the necessary hours studying this music and appreciating it for the boundaries it surpassed, and the new roads it foraged. It certainly wasn’t Top 40, but it was intriguing, and it sold.
But in fact, sometimes, certain parts of it WERE Top 40. Every Emerson Lake and Palmer album, it seemed, had at least one song that appealed to the masses. There was “From the Beginning” from 1972, “Still…You Turn Me On” from 1973 and “C’est La Vie” from 1977. All received airplay because of their pretty melodies and majestic Lake vocals.
But ELP’s music, by far, was dominated by Keith Emerson’s unusual interpretations, inventive arrangements and extraordinary keyboard virtuosity. Lake was their public face, but Emerson was their seismic core. Lengthy tracks like “The Barbarian,” “Knife-Edge,” “Three Fates,” “Tarkus,” “Pirates,” and the “Pictures of the Exhibition” multi-song presentation were monumentally challenging pieces of music. Highlighted by Emerson’s Hammond organ, grand piano, Moog synthesizer and other state-of-the-art keyboards that allowed for the presentation of amazing sounds previously unavailable, the band’s albums made the Top Five in both the US and the UK.
In 1973, ELP chose to take a heroic stab at the anthem “Jerusalem,” a nationally popular tale in which Jesus controversially made a homeland in the British Isles. Perhaps because of this, it never made a dent in the US, but it had no trouble winning the hearts of countrymen far and wide, reaching #2 on the UK charts. The album it came from, “Brain Salad Surgery,” is widely hailed as their best work, with the marvelous multi-part “Karn Evil 9” as the obvious highlight.
Similarly, Aaron Copland’s well-regarded World War II piece “Fanfare for the Common Man” was adapted by ELP with a radical version that inserted a six-minute indulgence into the middle of an otherwise respected classic. Copland gave his blessing to the ELP version, praising it but wondering curiously what they had in mind with their rather jarring middle section.
In concert, ELP pushed the envelope even more. They spent a lot of time and money exhibiting a lot of pointless theatrics that had nothing to do with the serious music they were attempting. During their 1973-1974 tour, they were hauling around nearly 40 tons of equipment. Emerson played a piano that spun end-over-end while he was strapped to a bench, Palmer would drum away on a rotating platform, and a Hammond organ was thrown around the stage to create feedback. Many progressive rock bands had taken to using the mind-blowing Moog modular synthesizer in the studio to create remarkable new sounds, but ELP was the first to take one on the road, and the result was uneven at best because heat altered its sound and made it unreliable.
For the 1977 tour, the band made the ill-advised decision to take a full symphony orchestra on the road with them. Emerson felt that since an orchestra was used in the studio on the “Works” album that year, they should use an orchestra in their live shows as well. It became clear only a couple of weeks into the tour that they were losing money at an alarming rate and had to ditch the orchestra. This strained the relationship Lake and Palmer had with Emerson, who they felt was growing more and more self-indulgent.
They had to complete one more album to satisfy their contract with the record label, but 1978’s “Love Beach” was an unqualified dud that sounded nothing like the ambitious music that fans had come to expect from ELP, and it stiffed on the charts. The band went their separate ways soon afterwards.
Emerson concentrated on film and television scores for most of the 1980s, but he also teamed up with Lake and former Rainbow drummer Cozy Powell to record an album in 1985 as Emerson, Lake and Powell that managed to reach #23 on the album charts. Palmer declined to participate, as he had been tapped as drummer for the hard rock supergroup Asia. The original trio did reunite in the early 1990s and recorded “Black Moon,” but that album bombed at #78. They tried a follow-up record, “In the Hot Seat,” which didn’t even crack the Top 200.
Ultimately, critics had grown tired of what they called “showy and overblown nonsense.” Indeed, John Kelman of “All About Jazz” summed up the band’s career this way: “An overbearing sense of self-importance turned ELP from one of the Seventies’ most exciting new groups into the very definition of masturbatory excess and self-aggrandizement in only a few short years.” Ouch.
Palmer has struggled with carpal tunnel syndrome, and Emerson suffered with repetitive stress disorder and depression over a host of surgeries he underwent in the last 15-20 years. With and without Lake on board, they still occasionally attempted brief tours or one-off reunion shows, but they found themselves playing in small venues to as few as 500 people — a far cry from the nightly sellouts at arenas in their heyday.
The rock music world got the bad news last week that Emerson, age 71, was found dead in his Santa Monica home. A day or two later, it was revealed it was a suicide, a gunshot wound to the head. Palmer issued a statement that week that said, “Keith was a gentle soul whose love for music, and passion for his performance as a keyboard player, will remain unmatched for many years to come.”