EL&P? Are you kidding?
No, I am not. Emerson, Lake & Palmer, progressive rock’s first ‘supergroup’ and a leading influence in the classical-based popular music movement of the 1970s, wrote some of the world’s most technically perfect pieces while also presenting classical music to a young generation in a new, if not bombastic way. The trio, comprised of keyboardist Keith Emerson (formerly of The Nice), bassist, guitarist and vocalist Greg Lake (of King Crimson fame) and percussionist Carl Palmer (from Atomic Rooster and The Crazy World of Authur Brown) brought together the styles of classicist, romantic and cro-magnon to form a band noted for taking the high road both lyrically and musically, while satisfying the need for outrageous synthesizer riffs and orchestral flourish. Here are EL&P’s top ten songs in the opinion of a long time fan who still enjoys their albums to this day.
1.Toccata (Brain Salad Surgery, Welcome Back My Friends)
This piece was originally written by Argentina’s famed pianist Alberto Ginastera, and when Emerson played a tape of the band’s rendition of the work for the artist, Ginastera exclaimed, “Diabolic! No one has been able to capture my music like that before! It’s exactly the way I hear it myself!” Indeed, this is a most demonic-sounding piece on the piano – when you hear how EL&P interpreted it, it will simply blow you away. This is an action-filled, energetic and dynamic song played with the fervor and accuracy such musical works demand.
2.Karn Evil 9, 1st, 2nd and 3rd Impressions (Brain Salad Surgery, Welcome Back My Friends)
There were few bands, even in the time when progressive rock was at it’s height, that attempted to create such large and sweeping single works as this. The first movement, commonly condensed to a four or five minute segment heard on classic rock stations as ‘Welcome Back My Friends’, is a wandering medley of styles culminating in a furious keyboard show-offery by Emerson. The second movement is reminiscent of a Latino influence, yet removed from the traditional though expert phrasing and a heavy rhythm not found south of the border. The third movement brings the work to a pinnacle, a futuristic and flourishing number so typical of the band’s style.
3.Lucky Man (Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Welcome Back My Friends)
A very simple song, first written by Greg Lake when he was quite young and featured on the band’s first album. It’s simplicity, uncharacteristic for the group’s main sound, made the tune a pop hit both in the US and Europe, and it’s still the song that gets the most airplay on American airwaves today. Because it was such an easy-to-play song, many high-school bands also adopted it as part of their repertoire – mostly because few high-school musicians had the technical skill to play EL&P’s more musically involved numbers.
4.Pirates (Works vol. 1)
Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s first voyage into using an actual orchestra with their performances was inspired by this swashbuckling piece, a wonderfully musical jaunt that will immediately take you back in time to the high seas of the Bahamas. I’ve always felt that this was a piece meant for move soundtrack fame, and even today it rivals the musical scores for movies like Pirates of the Caribbean, with sea-shanty rhythms and lyrical imagery keeping true to the theme of the song. The first time I heard this, I almost checked to see if this really was on an EL&P album – the transition from the heavily synthesized, iconoclastic sound that was their trademark was seamless yet surprising.
An entire album side dedicated to a single song, or many songs joined by fugues and a continuous story was the hallmark of progressive rock – the ‘concept’ album. There were, however, very few bands with the musical talent to pull this sort of thing off successfully. Emerson, Lake and Palmer were masters at it. What makes this particular piece so interesting is that, on an individual basis, the songs comprising Tarkus have little or nothing to do with each other (save for a revisited theme in the first and last pieces), yet together they follow a theme born out in an painter’s rendition of the work on the album’s inside cover. While many concept pieces are entertaining, even inspired, this is a rare example of genius in the musical form.
6.The Great Gates of Kiev (Pictures at An Exhibition)
EL&P’s rendition of Mussorgsky’s great work was released in 1972, and introduced to many the concept of classical rock – taking a series of pieces meant for orchestra, or in this case the piano, and presenting them to an audience via a rock band. While most attempts at this fell into the realms of the trite and trivial, Emerson, Lake & Palmer kept faithful to the theme and flavor of the original work while delivering rock-n-roll punch and a few diversions of their own along the way. This finale to Mussorgsky’s achievement is both magnificent and cumulative of the group’s dedication to translating another artist’s efforts into a grander scale.
EL&P had a definite tongue-in-cheek view of themselves; while acknowledging they were legends in the making, they never took themselves so seriously that they were afraid of doing something even vaguely silly on some of their albums. This title track to their third album features all the musical excellence one would expect from EL&P, but in the form of a sappy set of love lyrics, campy melody lines and a herky-jerky beat that should make you snicker while you’re tapping your foot to it. Of course, a ragtime-ish ending provides the final elbow jab in fine humorous flavor.
8.Take A Pebble (Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Welcome Back My Friends)
There are rock groups who perform ballads, and there are rock groups who perform mellow, artistic pieces of depth and subtlety. While the live version featured on Welcome Back My Friends is much more rewarding, even the original studio version is one of the best pieces to throw on a self-burned CD of romantic music to play for you and your mate. On the studio version, Keith’s tender piano, Greg’s resonant voice and Carl’s percussive yet tasteful accompaniment create a dreamscape of sound you’ll wish to savor over and over again. The live version features the group venturing for a short while into the realms of jazz and ragtime before returning to end the piece.
9.Black Moon (Black Moon)
EL&P finally started to realize they weren’t just a progressive rock band, but, well, a rock band. The title cut to this album features the drive and power associated with the group’s earliest sound, yet is more approachable for mainstream audiences with a pulsing rhythm and hard rock stance. A really great tune to demonstrate that EL&P could get simple and just rock, minus the theatrics and overeducated feel of previous releases.
10.Watching Over You (Works, Vol. 2)
If you were to listen to all the songs in this article in the order given, this would be a wonderful piece to end the session with. Acoustic and mellow, emotional and feeling, a romantic and wistful melody rounding out the tour of Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s varied and capable range of musical styles and tastes. It’s the sort of song that brings you back to your roots, perhaps to listen to all of these great songs once again just for the contrast between them.
Today the trio tours separately with their own groups, still creating and releasing new music. On rare occasions the three have reformed to play a few select dates in the US or the UK, and rumor has it they will do so again. If so, get your tickets early – EL&P shows have a habit of selling out very quickly. You’ll not want to miss a chance to see one of the most influential and talented trios in rock history.