I’ll start off by saying that this Classic Song choice is a bit different because it is personal to me as ELP was the first band I ever followed. I was lucky enough to see them about 10 times in concert, the best one probably being an intimate (for them) show in the round in front of 2000 people at Preston Guildhall.
When I wrote CSFTD#17, Greg Lake’s I Believe in Father Christmas, which was one of two Christmas 2015 specials, I started off like this:
“Amongst the first Classic Songs I wrote about, which were mainly from 1970s Prog bands, I’d intended to include Emerson, Lake and Palmer but never got around to it.”
I still hadn’t got round to it but yet another piece of sad news that the first quarter of 2016 has thrown at us like something from a biblical plague means that I can’t avoid it any longer. I’m talking of course about the sudden death of Keith Emerson on 10 March in what is being reported as suicide.
Emerson was born in Todmorden, West Yorkshire and raised in Worthing, West Sussex. He took piano lessons from the age of eight but was largely self taught, focusing at first on the classics before taking up jazz, which he played on the piano in his lunch breaks from his job as a City bank clerk. He was involved with a succession of bands as a teenager. It was while playing with one of them in France that he chanced on what would become his trademark flamboyance when he invented some explosion and machine sounds from his Hammond organ on the spur of the moment to help quell a fight amongst the audience.
Emerson’s first successful band was The Nice, formed in 1967, perhaps most famous for their rendition of Leonard Bernstein’s ‘America’ from West Side Story. It is regarded as the first instrumental protest song and in which he first perfected his trick of stabbing a knife (given to him by Lemmy Kilmister, who was a roadie) between the organ keys to sustain notes. Several organs didn’t survive this treatment and a burned out one has been donated to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Emerson was also one of the first musicians to use the then recently invented Moog Synthesiser (I thought about making America the classic track so I’ve included a live performance as a bonus at the end).
In 1970 Emerson quit the Nice to form one of the first super groups, Emerson, Lake and Palmer (ELP) with bassist/guitarist Greg Lake from King Crimson and drummer Carl Palmer from Atomic Rooster. ELP quickly became popular and that popularity increased dramatically with their appearance that year at the Isle of Wight festival, featuring a pair of working cannons which fired at the end of the song which forms this week’s classic track. That performance got them a record deal with Atlantic Records, whose boss, Ahmet Ertegun became convinced they could do something that might be unthinkable today; sell out a 20,000 seat arena before they had released a record. In the mid 1970s they played to crowds of 250,000 in the USA.
It was that flamboyance in their live performances of albums such as Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Tarkus, Trilogy and Brain Salad Surgery that marked ELP out from their other, almost equally colourful contemporaries such as Yes, Genesis, Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd and King Crimson in an age which was increasingly one of ‘anything goes, irrespective of the cost’ where live performances were concerned. Emerson even had a circus artist build a device so that he could ‘play’ a piano while it rotated end over end in the air.
But while some critics found those performances to be well over the top the quality of the music, with its tempo, key and time signature changes that were de rigueur, is unquestionable in my opinion.
The burgeoning cost of touring with all this ostentatious paraphernalia would eventually be the undoing of many of these prog rock bands. To cut a long story short ELP, who had just released their worst-performing album in terms of sales, Works 2, lost about three million dollars on a 1978-79 North American tour. Lake and Palmer blamed Emerson because he had insisted on using an orchestra. The following album, Love Beach, was poorly received and ELP broke up in 1979.
Subsequently it re-formed in 1985 as Emerson, Lake and (Cozy) Powell with Palmer declining to participate as he was committed to his new band, Asia. They released a single album. Emerson and Palmer also formed another band, 3.
Emerson, Lake and Palmer then re-formed in 1991, releasing the album Black Moon the following year. A world tour was fairly successful but physical ailments were setting in with Palmer suffering carpal tunnel syndrome in one hand and Emerson reportedly having a stress disorder. Subsequent tours were played to much smaller audiences and conflicts over a further album led to a second break up.
The final reformation came in 2010 but with no new work, only compilation albums and occasional live shows. The very last one that I know of was a headline performance in July 2010 at the High Voltage Festival at Victoria Park in east London, celebrating their 40th anniversary. Fittingly, the cannons returned for one last blast. It is painful to watch in some places though. From a couple of minutes in to the first song (Karn Evil 9, First Impression) it is clear there is something wrong. The band strays badly out of time (there may have been a fault with their internal sound system) and Emerson seems to be struggling to play with one of his hands as if arthritis had set in. It is being suggested that nerve damage to a hand had induced the depression that contributed to his death (if suicide is given as the verdict) because he felt that he could no longer play perfectly, in advance of a series of forthcoming shows in Japan. In some ways that brackets him with another Los Angeles resident, and another great showman, Michael Jackson.
I have to say that until that formal verdict is given I remain a little sceptical because Emerson had taken in recent years to mentoring other musicians, and in particular the blind from birth Californian Rachel Flowers, who plays entire ELP albums – all the parts – from memory (pictured here recently with Emerson).
In a tribute on Facebook, the Flowers family said; “We are devastated at the news of Keith Emerson’s passing. Though our encounters with him were few, he was always warm, gentle, funny, and supportive of all of Rachel’s musical endeavours. There will never be another like him.” While Flowers herself is said to be taking it very badly Emerson’s music will surely live on through her. She is a rare talent.
ELP divided music fans into two camps; those who thought they were the greatest band in the world, virtuoso musicians able to marry rock and classical music like no other, while some critics liked to use what became a standard joke – “how do you spell pretentious? E-L-P.” I was in the first camp.
I pored over in excess of 100 videos well into the early hours of Saturday morning in an attempt to find the most appropriate song under these circumstances, noting that almost every one already had sympathy messages attached from fans from across the world.
In the end I decided on The Great Gates of Kiev from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, which ELP recorded as a live album at Newcastle City Hall in 1971. It isn’t a track as such (though it is listed as one on the album), rather the 13th and last ‘picture’ of Mussorgsky’s piano-cycle, with vocals and lyrics added by Greg Lake. This is an early recording (and might actually be the Newcastle one) and I chose it partly for a (fairly mild by his standards) assault on his Hammond organ by Emerson, producing the same sounds that bamboozled the French fighters. But mainly because of Lake’s seemingly meaningless, but in this case apt lyric, ‘there’s no end to my life, no beginning to my death; death is life.’
R.I.P. Keith Emerson, possibly the greatest keyboard player that rock music has ever known. Without doubt one of its greatest showmen.
© D J Bentley, 2016
Bonus ‘classic track’ as promised – live performance of America from 1968. (Warning – the visuals are terrible).