Pebble Beach: Return of the Armadillo

A couple of readers asked if I was ever going to tackle Emerson Lake and Palmer. This is as close as I’ll get.

I first digested the ELP catalog in college. I really liked about half of the music, specifically on their first three studio efforts. After that, things started to sound a little bloated and, in the Works period, directionless. (I won’t mention the later comebacks.) When I think of classic ELP, I think of Keith Emerson’s awesome work on organ and piano. I don’t think that adjective overstates it; his combination of imagination, swing, aggression, and technique hadn’t been heard in rock keyboards before, and probably hasn’t been heard since. I don’t like his synthesizer work nearly as much though. The actual melodies were fine, but the tones he dialed into the big modular Moog often had a gimmicky goofiness to them. (As opposed to Jan Hammer, who seemed to get more “neutral” yet still unique Minimoog sounds.) Anyway, Keith for me is about the grungy Hammond of “Knife Edge” and “Tarkus”, and the flowing piano of “Take a Pebble” and “Trilogy”.

Greg Lake had a great voice, I must admit. His bass playing was often a shadow of Emerson’s left hand. Carl Palmer deserved some of the hype he received for his technique and creativity, yet better judgment was sometimes overrun by youthful exuberance, as if he didn’t want anyone to forget about his chops and energy. Interestingly enough, Palmer often shadowed Emerson’s right hand, so you can imagine how complex and interlocked their arrangements could be.

Anyway, I dug ELP for a while, but I drifted away from them, mainly because I was also becoming a jazz listener at that point, the aesthetics of which were certainly different than things like “Karn Evil 9” and that ilk. Also, I was totally put off by ELP’s grandiose stage persona, with the spinning piano, rotating drums, cannons, and whatever else they needed to entertain big crowds. The old footage where Keith jerks the organ around in some club and gets all sorts of hellish feedback is pretty cool, but I cannot stomach the “big rock show” stunts that I’d read about or seen in concert clips.

So I hadn’t listened to a single note of ELP in a decade until the 2-disc Essential Emerson Lake and Palmer set came out recently on the Shout Factory label. Seeing that it contained most of my old favorites, and curious if it might ignite a positive memory or two, I checked it out. And what do you know, I did enjoy rehearing it – the early stuff, at least. “Welcome back,” okay. So let’s traipse the Persian rug and see what’s behind the chronological glass…

“The Barbarian”: ELP’s self-titled debut (from 1970) is represented almost in full on this Essential collection, and rightly so, as it sets an adventurous standard without being as bombastic as some of the later records. “The Barbarian” rocks up Bartok’s Allegro Barbaro piano piece, first with fuzz bass and grungy organ, then with fleet piano and Palmer’s precise brushwork. ELP received some backlash for their attempts to “update” classical pieces for a new audience, although with angular, modern composers like Bartok on the menu, I don’t think that was necessarily a regressive idea. In any case, “The Barbarian” exemplifies the visceral fusion Keith Emerson was after in his own compositions.

“Take a Pebble”: Lake’s pretty ballad has a grand scope but doesn’t overdramatize itself, while the instrumental triptych in the middle features Emerson’s marvelous piano skills. The pseudo-jazz episode in the eighth minute isn’t quite Blue Note but is still remarkable for a rock band. Of the prog keyboard wizards, I think Emerson is the most rounded player; not only did he have classical chops and traditional rock funkiness, he could also swing in a way that, say, Rick Wakeman couldn’t. And his left hand ostinatos, dare I say, prefigure some of Keith Jarrett’s solo style.

“Knife Edge”: The track is full of goodies from front to back: menacing bass lines, aggressive drumming, and Emerson’s trademark overdriven Hammond organ, heard in both a cool riff refrain and a classical interlude. And how about Lake’s intense, double-tracked vocals in the final verse? I’ve never ever gotten tired of this cut. Play it loud.

“Tank”: A futuristic instrumental of polyrhythmic clavinets, drums, layered synths, and more. I’ve always liked this one, too. The potential downside is the drum solo in the middle. As you can likely tell, I spend most of my time in the world of DeJohnette, Haynes, Erskine, et al. When you say “drum solo” in the jazz world, you’re often talking about a subtle musical event – and I don’t mean the showboat Krupa-Rich type bashing, I mean the conscious abstractions of a drummer actually playing against a tune structure. When you say “drum solo” in the rock world, it often means a bunch of moby dicking around. Now, I admire Palmer’s overflowing skills – heck, the guy was barely in his twenties! – but his solos often go for obvious dynamics and athletic posturing. The short “Tank” episode isn’t much of an offender, but I’m using this opportunity to comment on Palmer’s infamous live solos, which certainly do go over the top. Then again, subtlety never works in an arena or stadium. Anyway, Palmer redeems himself in the final section of “Tank”, where his off-center kick-snare beat is technically very simple yet creates effective tension under the rest of the instruments.

“Lucky Man”: Well, we all know this one. Too foursquare for me, but the guitar solo and the vocal harmonies add minor interest. The booming Moog at the end is like payday at the end of a ho-hum week.

“Tarkus”: When I got to college, my only experience with ELP was on a radio-friendly basis. Then one night, my dorm mate cued up his old Tarkus LP, and I was riveted. Mainly because of the Hammond sound – I think I’ve been encoded since birth to love overdriven organ, and that screaming, clicky, expectorant sound is all over this piece. “Tarkus” ranks among the better side-long epics of the progressive era, and while some of the sections seem arbitrarily joined, the constituent parts of this suite are quite good. Especially the “Eruption” overture, and even the vocal sections work well.

“Bitches Crystal”: Gotta love the charging 6/8 groove, the transitional chord changes, and Lake’s madman vocal, nevermind the dungeon and dragon lyric.

“Nutrocker”: Ick. I would have preferred almost any other snippet, however edited, from the Pictures at an Exhibition album. Don’t play this for friends.

“From the Beginning”: This stands apart from Lake’s other acoustic ballads in that it has a flexible rhythm (Carl on congas, Greg with a syncopated guitar vamp) that actually swings and breathes. Solid track.

“Hoedown”: I can do without the “vacuum cleaner” Moog bits, but the rest of this kinetic mash (Copland, Oliver Nelson, shortnin’ bread, etc.) is good fun.

“Trilogy”: Beautiful piano in the opening vocal section, and hip grooves in the following two episodes. Another favorite.

“The Endless Enigma”: More harmonic brilliance from Emerson, and some spine-tingling vocal moments from Lake (“Please open their eyes”). I don’t want to insinuate anything, but the major chords in the transitional piano fugue remind me of similar chord motion that would appear in Keith Jarrett’s “Survivors Suite”. One of ELP’s most creative works, from the colorful Trilogy album.

“Jerusalem”: The Brain Salad Surgery album – specifically the centerpiece “Karn Evil 9” suite – dealt with an impending new technological order. Fitting, then, that the album began with this hymnic warning about the “dark satanic mills.” Not that I’m a fan of William Blake, but this is a stirring tune and arrangement. By the way, the selections from BSS on this Essential collection are all alternate mixes.

“Toccata”: I’m no expert on the Ginastera piano concerto from which this music is taken, but ELP’s “Toccata” has never struck me as anything more (or less) than a precisely played string of cells, flourishes, and mini-climaxes, exciting as it might be. The “night music” in the middle reminds me of Bartok, but when the drum-triggered synth whoops take over, I feel violated. (I reckon that’s the point, though, as this mechanistic music answers the pastoral sentiment of “Jerusalem”.)

“Still You Turn Me On”: An okay Lake ballad.

“Karn Evil 9: First Impression”: This is where ELP scaled new heights of pomp and circumstance, and it makes their debut sound downright humble in comparison. Nevertheless, I think the First Impression of “Karn Evil 9” is a great example of Emerson’s composing skills, and the arrangement is exhilarating. The cooking Hammond solo gets right back to Keith’s jazz-blues essence. The Second Impression (not included here, of course) focused more blatantly on Keith’s swinging classical virtuosity, while the Third Impression closed the Brain Salad Surgery album with schizoid music and narrative silliness. (I appreciate the notion of Man versus Technology – certainly a question that has grown more pertinent decades later – but did they really need the dialogue between Lake and the “computer” voice?)

“Jeremy Bender/The Sheriff”: When I say I like Emerson’s piano work, I don’t mean the wobbly Old West tack piano that he favored on the group’s “humorous” side items. This medley comes from the heyday live album Welcome Back My Friends, on which the band played everything way too fast.

“I Believe in Father Christmas”: Funny that swipes at both religion and commercialism didn’t keep this Greg Lake solo single from mucho airplay.

“C’est la Vie”: From Greg’s side of the Works album, where this and four similarly melodramatic songs cemented his reputation as the Bard of Bloat. You can tell how massively important the song is going to be by how strict and evenly spaced the opening guitar arpeggio is.

“Fanfare for the Common Man”: An edited version of the Copland/modal jam from Works. Who knew the Yamaha GX-1 could be made to sound so hideous? I preferred the old greatest-hits edit that entirely omitted the synth cacophony.

“Honky Tonk Train Blues”: Was this supposed to sound like some old monophonic record? I’ve never much enjoyed Emerson’s part-time fascination with stride and boogie-woogie, which he renders with such enthusiasm.

“Canario”: Plugged in Rodrigo. My, but does this track have spunk and corn in equal measures. One of the few salvageable moments from 1978’s shitbox Love Beach. Can you tell that we’re slaloming the down slope of ELP’s artistic vision by now?

“Peter Gunn”: Aged cheese.

“Black Moon”: What am I supposed to say? No comment.

“Paper Blood”: Ditto.

That’s everything. Not a bad primer, although I would adjust Disc 2 to make room for “Pirates” and perhaps the third movement of Emerson’s piano concerto.

To accompany the above collection, I got a book entitled Endless Enigma by Edward Macan, who also authored what I think is the definitive progressive rock book, Rocking the Classics. His ELP musical bio (topping 800 pages, cover to cover) is one of the most in-depth, comprehensive musical studies I’ve ever read, and that includes jazz and classical artists. Macan mostly deals with formal examinations of every album, and he also traces the band’s background (like Emerson’s earlier band The Nice), stylistic traits, influences, and the shifting cultural backdrops that affected the group’s music and how it was received. If you ever wanted to investigate the thematic style and unity of Emerson’s best works, hire Macan as your tour guide. I was also impressed by his rejoinders to the cynical, short-sighted polemics of the rock critical establishment – the Bangs/Christgau/Marsh types who viewed progressive rock as an aberration of rock’s ideal “gutter purity.” I’ve always found it ironic that rock is generally touted as a liberal genre, and yet some of its councilmen preached a conservative position regarding form and complexity. Sure, ELP had their share of missteps, oddities, and excesses, but I most certainly do not agree that rock shouldn’t have gotten musically ambitious in the first place. But don’t get me started on that.

Thank goodness jazz doesn’t have any reductive style police...oh, wait...

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