Emerson, Lake & Palmer/Powell (Contemporary Musicians)
One of the most innovative rock groups in pop music history, ELPnitially Emerson, Lake and Palmer, later Emerson, Lake and Powellas organized in the late 1960s and quickly rose to become the "leading force in classically oriented electronic rock," or what Keith Emerson preferred to call "progressive rock with a lot of regard for the past." Their rich, orchestral sound, popular remakes of age-old classics, and romping stage act made them one of the most notable contemporary musical acts of their generation.
Keith Emerson is perhaps the best-known member of ELP, a brilliant composer and show stealer. Even before the days of ELP, the flamboyant keyboardist was known, as a member of the English band the Nice, to have wild stage behavior, including "stabbing and assaulting his electric organ." While ELP was on its debut tour of the United States, Billboard's Nancy Ehrlich commented on Emerson, "Here is a man who has to keep running constantly to work off too much energy for one person to handle." Emerson's early musical influences included classical pianists, an influence that would follow him into his own music and give ELP one of the most unusually sophisticated sounds in the rock-pop world. While still a member of the Nice, Emerson met bassist/vocalist Greg Lake, one of the founding members of King Crimson, at San Francisco's Filmore West in 1969. At home in England, the duo recruited drummer Carl Palmer, formerly of Atomic Rooster and The Crazy World of Arthur Brown. After several months of rehearsing, the group made a memorable debut concert at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970, impressing the audience with their virtuosity, onstage antics, and the firing of two cannons at the start of the gig. Shortly after, the trio was signed by Island Records in England, producing their first, self-titled album in 1971. It was an immediate success not only in England, but also in the United States, where it was released a short time later. A minor hit single at the time, Greg Lake's haunting ballad "Lucky Man" continued as a radio standard for years to come. Their second album, Tarkus arrived the same year as their first. Both were certified gold before 1972.
The band's classical sound was explored deeply in ELP's live third album, featuring an impressive piece based on the classical composition Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky. While critics were surprised the 45-minute set could hold the attention of the average rock fan, Palmer pointed out that the piece was greatly varied, covering styles from 12-bar blues to light singing. "Everything imaginable can be gotten from it," he said. "It's just a glorious work." Trilogy, released later the same year, Included the moderate hit "In the Beginning," as well as rocked-up, romping variations of Maurice Ravel's "Bolero" and Aaron Copland's "Hoedown." Both proved to be crowd pleasers.
In 1973 the band formed their own label, Manticore, and after nearly a year and a half of vacation, they recorded the infamously-titled Brain Salad Surgery. Soon after, they headed out for a monster tour across America, dragging 36 tons of equipment with them. Not only did the tour boast the first true quadraphonic sound system, but it involved timpani, gongs, chimes, a church bell, six moog synthesizers, an electric piano, two organs, and a Steinway. It resulted in a live triple gold album, Welcome Back My Friends. After several years of pursuing solo projects, the group returned in 1977 with a double-record set and two unique concepts. First, the album dedicated a side each to individual efforts, with the fourth side featuring their combined talents. Again Greg Lake would produce a hit in the form of another eerie ballad, "C'est la Vie." Second, the band launched a major American tour, the likes of which had never been seen before. This time they brought along not only a large crew but a choir and a 50-piece-plus symphony orchestra (over one hundred people altogether), costing them an estimated $250,000 per week. After fifteen concerts, the orchestra was dismissed.
Somewhere along the line, attitudes shifted, and by the end of the decade ELP disbanded. Their last album, Love Beach, released in 1977, was "greeted by scathingly hostile reviews." Almost ten years later, when Emerson and Lake returned with drummer Cozy Powell, much of the hostility remained. Whether audiences had become more sophisticated and ELP failed to challenge them, or whether "classical and progressive" had simply come to mean "pomp" is difficult to judge. In either case, the self-titled 1986 album, Emerson, Lake & Powell, was met with disdain by some reviewers who complained about the songs being too lengthy, sappy, and pretentious. Said one reviewer for Stereo Review, "the term 'heavyhanded' was coined for their stuff. 'Overwrought,"bombastic,' and 'hopelessly silly,' might have been too." The same reviewer called Greg Lake's fantasy ballad "The Miracle" another "ersatz epic," claiming that the artist "blubbers on for seven eternal minutes and two merciful seconds about swords and dragons and jesters." With a crushing indirect compliment, Rolling Stone's Jim Farber wrote, "These guys are literally the only ones left in 1986 who still have the balls to serve up vintage crap like this .. . tracks . . . with titles and lyrics that would make the Moody Blues blush." On the brighter side, another critic applauded the group's effort and the creativity evident in such pieces as "The Score" and "The Miracle," saying, "Emerson's bravura keyboard playing is especially penetrating . . .he still produces that unique tone, a cross between an organ and a trumpet."
Mixed reviews did not keep the group from touring, though they found the audiences far different from those they played to in the seventiesore sophisticated, perhaps, and often much younger. Said Lake, "It is a strange feeling to see your old fans bringing their children ... but it's not an unsavory one." Why should the newer generation be so fascinated with yesterday's supergroups? Lake commented again, offering a personal insight: "What you have now is rock & roll product. The music ceased to be a culturally meaningful art form. The groups of the late Sixties and Seventies had very individual identities . .. you'd know immediately who you were listening to, today it's hard to say who's who."
In 1988 the group reformed again. This time, Emerson joined forces with the first P of ELP, drummer Carl Palmer. The third spot was filled by American songwriter-guitarist Robert Berry, chosen because, according to the band's promotional materials, he had a "West coast sort of voice." Also, sources indicated Palmer appreciated Berry's ability to write shorter songs. Unfortunately, the resulting album, To the Power of Three, was received poorly. Berry was criticized for lack of vocal range; Emerson's keyboard playing and Palmer's drumming seemed restricted in the short pop songs featured. Even on their remake of the Byrds' "Eight Miles High" the band failed to produce anything more than another "pedestrian cover song." It makes critics and fans alike long for the days of grand ELP farehen they were still on the forefront of a new sound, the classically-based rock music that charged a generation. Progressive and innovative, they flourished in a time before synthesizers became commonplace and computers took over the basics.
Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Island Records, 1970.
Tarkus, Island Records, 1971.
Pictures at an Exhibition, Island Records, 1971.
Trilogy, Island Records, 1972.
Brain Salad Surgery, Island Records, 1973.
Welcome Back My Friends, Manticore, 1974.
Works, Manticore, 1977.
Works Vol. 2, Atlantic, 1977.
Love Beach, Atlantic, 1978.
In Concert, Atlantic, 1979.
Best Of Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Atlantic, 1980.
Emerson, Lake and Powell, Polydor, 1986.
To the Power of Three, Geffen, 1988.
Anderson, Christopher P., The Book of People, Putnam, 1981.
Stambler, Irwin, Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock and Soul, St. Martin's Press, 1989.
People, June 23, 1986; May 2, 1988.
Rolling Stone, August 14, 1986; December 18, 1986.
Stereo Review, October 1986.
Meg Mac Donald