The Show That Never Ends … Emerson, Lake & Palmer

 By Will Romano
IN 1992, Emerson, Lake & Palmer gather together. In the mid- to late-’90s, ELP reunited for a number of international tours. Courtesy of Shout! Factory
IN 1992, Emerson, Lake & Palmer gather together. In the mid- to late-’90s, ELP reunited for a number of international tours. Courtesy of Shout! Factory
One of progressive-rock’s true supergroups, Emerson, Lake & Palmer dazzled audiences in the 1970s with their technical proficiency, boundless creativity and songwriting savvy.

Made up of Keith Emerson, Greg Lake and Carl Palmer, ELP broke new ground in a genre that always sought to, and still does, push the envelope. And getting this behemoth off the ground was no easy chore, not with all the egos involved.

Shaking off years of dormancy, keyboardist Keith Emerson, vocalist/bassist/guitarist Greg Lake and drummer/percussionist Carl Palmer have reunited once again for a headlining gig at the British High Voltage Festival in July (with Emerson and Lake planning to perform several “unplugged”-styled shows in the U.S.), marking the 40th anniversary of their all-important Isle of Wight Festival appearance (which catapulted the band into the spotlight) and the first time the band has played together since the late 1990s.

It seems only fitting that ELP — the progressive rock mac daddy of ’em all — would return, after battling health and personal issues, at a time when progressive-rock festivals are cropping up all over the country just as Yes continues to tour (even without linchpin singer Jon Anderson), pop-prog band Asia sells out show after show all over the world, and veteran prog-hard rockers Rush still move hundreds of thousands of units.

Lake said he was “extremely pleased” to be reunited with the band and that fans can expect “breathtaking theatrics and extraordinary playing” as they had for the band’s legendary past performances. 

The ELP family tree

The supergroup ELP spawned a few spinoff bands of note. Among them Asia, 3, Emerson, Lake & Powell and Qango. Let’s take a brief look … concentrating mostly on the controversial Asia.
Following the break up of Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer and when King Crimson was nothing but a distant dream, singer/bassist John Wetton (of Crimson), guitarist Steve Howe (Yes), keyboardist Geoff Downes (Yes, The Buggles) and ELP drummer Carl Palmer made a calculated risk to balance their egos and an ounce of art-rock against corporate compromise and their bank accounts.

It wasn’t all rubbish, of course. Asia brought prog sensibilities to pop while scoring at the retail counter, big time. Their self-titled debut record, complete with Roger Dean LP cover art, shocked, awed and sorely disappointed some prog fans hoping for Yes: The Sequel on its way to becoming platinum in the U.S. four times over.  

Not surprisingly, critics despised the band — and they weren’t keen on their pedigree, either. Asia’s sophomore record, Alpha, was a relative “flop” (it sold over a million copies in the U.S. alone behind the strength of the song “Don’t Cry”), separating the hard-core fans from the casual listeners. Critics rang the death knell for Asia as they had done several years earlier for the entire prog-rock movement. (Unfortunately, for them, the beast would not die.)

The original band, which has since reunited, toured and recorded together, managed only two studio records in the 1980s. (As a sidenote, in 2000, Palmer and Wetton formed the band Qango, which saw the release of Live in the Hood.) You’d need to have a scorecard to keep track of the personnel changes and the number of splits Asia has had since its inception. Throughout, Palmer has had a hand, on some level or another, in the band’s activities since its inception.

Palmer has since performed and recorded with his own band.

Ego trip

Dubbed prog rock’s first supergroup, ELP culled the behemoth talents of Lake (from King Crimson), Emerson (The Nice) and Palmer (Atomic Rooster) for an unforgettable and (ultimately sustainable) relationship.

At a time when rock was expanding and exploring the boundaries of acceptability, opening itself up to any and every ungodly (and some godly) influence from Indian music to European and British hymnals to LSD-inspired astral journeys, ELP brought the thunder with their keyboard-fronted classical rock (which surprisingly approached heavy-metal bombast) with enough technical prowess and pyrotechnic flash that even similar (and sometimes exciting) bands such as Procol Harum, the original Renaissance, Ekseption, The Moody Blues and Deep Purple couldn’t keep up.

But with super abilities came super egos (in both the literal and Freudian sense). The spotlight would certainly be on them as a band and as individuals. Given Emerson’s attention-grabbing stage antics of riding, standing on, twirling and stabbing daggers into his Hammond organ, Lake’s choir-boy vocals, and Palmer’s controlled, Buddy Rich-inspired drum patterns, ELP was a foregone conclusion: They wouldn’t disappoint.

Their debut still stands as a masterpiece by which each member of the band had a showcase for his talent while supporting the music as a whole (a theme that would be further explored and exploded for the band’s 1977 double record, Works Vol. 1).

Shooting for the moon was always a metaphor for achieving the impossible and ELP’s skyrocket to stardom made them a major proponent of what was fast becoming known as art rock or progressive rock. ELP was quickly achieving things in rock music that some thought unattainable or had not given much thought to at all. Who could forget the heights Emerson scaled with his looney, space-age Moog synthesizer solo, which trails off at the conclusion of the otherwise folky and gentle “Lucky Man”? Not only was the song a hit (just missing the U.S. Top 40), it introduced a generation of mainstream listeners and aspiring musicians to the wonderful world of keyboard technology.

“That was done in the first take by Keith,” producer Eddy Offord told this reporter once. “I mean, he just blew it up and that was the end of that. It was over in a few minutes.”
Appetite for innovation

The band’s appetite for innovation grew by leaps and bounds by the time they came to record their second LP, Tarkus, which featured the 20-plus-minute title suite, Emerson’s most ambitious composition to date inspired by his love of European art music and given shape by Palmer’s 10/8 practice rhythm.

As Emerson told the rest of the band, “I’ve got this image of [ELP] creating this vast ‘sheet of sound’ that defies conventional structures,” Emerson wrote in his autobiography, “Pictures of an Exhibitionist.”

Lake was put off by the atonal qualities of the composition and a disagreement over the song nearly dissolved the band. Eventually Lake came around to feeling the power of the music (and with a few straight-ahead rock moments, such as “Mass” and “Battlefield,” the monster track balanced art excess with accessibility). Fans are glad the band resolved their differences as “Tarkus” has influenced an inordinate amount of progressive musicians.

“When I was a teenager, I loved Yes but ELP … I used to listen to them every day. I was way into Tarkus,” says Neal Morse, formerly of Spock’s Beard but currently with Transatlantic.

With the release of their third record, Pictures At An Exhibition, the band’s interpretation of Modest Mussorgsky’s piano composition (which the band played at the Isle of Wight), recorded in 1971 at Newcastle City Hall on an eight-track recording device, ELP further opened the world of classical music to their fanbase.

“[Pictures At An Exhibition] opened the door to an entire generation of people who previously had been denied access to a genre of music, classical music, on the basis that it was ‘too good for them,’” said Lake. “Well, said the classical music elitists, what ELP did was break down the wall of that pretension and strangely enough a lot of people saw ELP’s version as being pretentious. But exactly the opposite was true.”

ELP(owell) and 3

Emerson, Lake & Powell was a reunion of sorts (sans Palmer) and an attempt to capitalize on the craze of dinosaur prog acts hitting pay dirt in the 1980s by replacing Palmer with Cozy Powell, another powerhouse drummer with a surname that began with the letter “P.”
Emerson and Lake ploughed ahead, recording a Top 30 self-titled studio album — the band’s only official recording — and touring behind the Top 100 hit “Touch and Go.” Glimmers of ELP(almer)’s past are evident in songs such as Holst’s “Mars, The Bringer of War,” “The Miracle” and “The Score.”

Two years later, this time without Lake, Emerson formed the band 3 with Palmer and singer/guitarist/bassist Robert Berry, late of the doomed GTR (itself a kind of supergroup featuring Yes’ Steve Howe and former Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett).

Much of 3’s debut record, … To the Power of Three, was catchy, commercial music with progressive rock flair (“Desde La Vida”) that calls “alternative pop” (i.e. “Chains,” “Lover to Lover,” “Runaway,” “Talkin’ Bout,” “On My Way Home,” written in dedication to Famous Charisma label founder and The Nice manager Tony Stratton-Smith).

“The real die-hard progressive fans were down on 3 — the types that would rather sit down next to a coffee table with headphones and listen to the music,” says Robert Berry. “3 was trying to be accessible the way Rush was — write accessible music, get people educated, get some radio play, keep people liking it … That’s an art in and of itself.”

Perhaps the band’s most uncluttered album, 1972’s Trilogy followed, which featured tracks such as “The Sheriff”, the title song and a two-part epic “The Endless Enigma” (divided by Emerson’s fugue), which foreshadowed greater works to come encompassed by 1973’s Brain Salad Surgery.

With Emerson’s wall of Leslie speaker cabinets, Palmer’s Nick Rose-designed electronic drums, and Lake’s production supervision, Brain Salad Surgery became ELP’s crown jewel, broadening the band’s musical scope in nearly every direction — technologically, musically, lyrically (with the help of Lake friend and King Crimson wordsmith Peter Sinfield) and compositionally.

Emerson’s vision of three Impressions (eventually falling under the banner of “Karn Evil 9”) would finally catapult the band to world fame by combining musical strains as disparate as South American jazz and electronica. The record stands as the band’s best single studio album and has simply endured, despite critical attacks and the ravages of time.

“Saying I was working on the new ELP record had no cachet with my friends,” remembered sound engineer Paul Northfield (Rush, Dream Theater), just a neophyte during the Brain Salad Surgery sessions. “So, I didn’t talk about it. But 25 years later I’m in Los Angeles and in talking and meeting with people, I suddenly realized that it was the biggest record they ever had.”

After a massive world tour, a triple live album (Welcome Back, My Friends, To the Show That Never Ends — Ladies and Gentleman, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, which crystallized and capitalized on the band’s musical indulgences), and a three-year break, ELP returned with two volumes of studio material titled Works. These were divisive and fairly unfocused records (Vol. 2 was little more than a compilation of already recorded material), and an unsatisfactory last gasp for greatness.

With the weight of their past glories, the rise of punk and lack of band unity, ELP seemed as tired as they were egotistical, limping to the finish line with the horridly compromised Love Beach album

Press return

ELP would return, of course, several times in different forms (see sidebars) but they have yet to surpass the heady days of the early 1970s when they skillfully combined innovation and mass appeal.

But at least they scaled impossible highs — at a time when the industry permitted a band like ELP to exist and thrive. Maybe ELP’s story is a bit like New York Yankees great, first baseman Don Mattingly: He’ll  never get into the Hall of Fame, but for several seasons in the sun, he was the best there was in the game.

Leave a Reply