Emerson, Lake & Palmer viewed their vocation as creating things of beauty. Such a motivation is a rare gift; to have it shared by three such brilliant musicians was a once in a generation gift for us all.
The show has ended. In 2016 we lost two-thirds of the most important musical group of the rock era. Keith Emerson, composer of both rock and classical music capable of moving the soul, arguably the most skilled keyboard player of the last century, suffering from depression and facing painful, debilitating nerve degeneration, took his own life. Greg Lake, whose naturally sonorous voice was honed to an unsurpassed level of tonal accuracy and range and whose lyrical compositions could paint pictures of astounding beauty, succumbed to cancer. Thus, two-thirds of Emerson, Lake & Palmer have left the stage, never to come back again in this world. We are left with Carl Palmer, classically-trained like his bandmates, possessed of the very highest skill and raw talent (again, like his bandmates), and always the most open and approachable of the three, still performing with another great but very different band, Asia, and carrying on with an ELP Legacy group to remind us of what we have lost.
Rock critics never liked ELP, tossing ignorant slights like “bombastic” and “overblown” at them as if composing and performing to one’s highest aspirations were mere “pretension.” But the critics’ sniping was in its way a recognition of the glory of ELP: This band did not aim merely to please an audience—though they did seek to please, including through sometimes circus-like theatrics. Nor did they aim to be “relevant” or to be “authentic” in the vulgar manner so prized by the truly pretentious half-educated who demand validation for their own inclinations and experiences. ELP sought to make art.
For a group of musicians playing mechanical instruments to set such high expectations seems ridiculous to many. The genre of music ELP helped create (“progressive” rock—a label they rejected) can be merely self-indulgent in its fascination with electronic tones and futurist ideology. But ELP, whatever its excesses and whatever the political views of its members, was about music, not ideology. ELP worked to live their vocation as composers and musicians. Whether in the organic, rocking, drum-centric “Tank” from the first album or in overtly cerebral fantasies like “Pirates” from Works Volume I and “Karn Evil 9” from Brain Salad Surgery, Emerson, Lake & Palmer were “all in.” They got joy from extending themselves as musicians and from layering rhythms and melodies in a fashion Bach would have approved. At their best, Mr. Lake’s lyrics (often with the cooperation of Peter Sinfield) evoked other worlds, drawing pictures with words and tones and imprinting them on the ears and minds of the listeners. This is most obviously in the superficially self-explanatory “Pirates.” But it is just as true, for example, “Karn Evil 9, First Impression” (especially the less-known Part I) in which words and music combine to make the listener identify with a hero whose virtue and pride lead him into a fantastic, nightmare world in which spectacle and ambition destroy humanity—spiritually by the end of the First Impression, then literally by the end of the work. “Karn Evil 9” is not overblown, it is genuinely and intentionally music on a grand scale, combining classical techniques with multiple, interlacing rhythms, and polyphony to immerse the listener in a web of sound that for a time creates its own reality.
“Counterpoint” is a concept (not to say a reality) little understood among most rock musicians; but it was crucial to ELP’s ability to produce sounds that made sense at a level frankly higher than can be achieved in most blues-based music, with its emphasis on a single, simple melody underscored by rhythms deeply rooted in a single beat. At their usual best, Emerson, Lake & Palmer performed according to a vision of rock music as rooted in the classical past. They produced both direct classical adaptations (“Fanfare for the Common Man” being the most famous) and original compositions that likewise combined modern rhythm and technique with melodic sophistication to create genuine art—pieces of beauty capable of affecting the souls of listeners.
As with all of show business, one could pick apart personalities and motivations, and second-guess various decisions that, for ELP, meant lost opportunities to make great music, as well as some music that simply was not up to par. Yet even misconceived albums like Love Beach include gems (“Canario” is one of ELP’s best classical adaptations) and ELP seldom failed when they were true to their vision.
The saga of these three men after the band’s original breakup in 1978 is long and tortured. It includes several near-reunions, including a different ELP album—Emerson, Lake, and Powell. With all due respect to Cozzy Powell, this might have been one of their very best had it included Mr. Palmer’s talent for arrangements and his ability to play the drums as a lead instrument. And there were attempts to break into the pop realm. But, where groups like Genesis had managed the transition, ELP, 3 (a brief grouping of Emerson, Palmer, and Robert Berry), and solo efforts did not. The reason was simple: these men thought too big. Mr. Palmer could divert his talents into the percussionist pyrotechnics of Asia. But pursuit of popular relevance, once the spell of stadium concerts backed by orchestras wore off, required a more fundamental rethinking for Emerson and Lake, whose classical training and frame of mind became insipid when compressed. Emerson in particular (and much to his credit) could think neither univocally nor in terms of the commonplace. ELP’s music was larger than life, conceived in terms of alternate realities. To make it anything else was to make it a bad imitation of something less real than itself.
This is not to say that ELP was strictly an “art” band. The underrated Works Volume II is filled with jazz influences and some of their best music. But what made ELP different from other rock groups was not that it was “progressive”—whatever that term might mean. Rather, it was that the members viewed their vocation as creating things of beauty. Such a motivation is a rare gift; to have it shared by three such brilliant musicians was a once in a generation gift for us all.
ELP has left us more than half a dozen masterworks in the form of albums—not mere songs, but entire albums with beginnings, middles, and ends that take the listener on an aural journey. Not all of ELP’s albums are masterworks, though even the least of them include important pieces. But the original Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Tarkus, Pictures at an Exhibition, Trilogy, Brain Salad Surgery, Works Volume I, Works Volume II, and, if I may, Emerson, Lake & Powell and even Black Moon, constitute a body of work valuable for itself. They provide experiences enriching to the soul and show just how much can be accomplished with mechanical instruments and the human voice when the goal is something more than “keeping it real.”
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The featured image, uploaded by Jean-Luc, is a photograph of Emerson, Lake & Palmer at Records on wheels, Toronto, taken Feb. 2 or 3, 1978. The file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.