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Emerson, Lake & Palmer (ELP, 1970) 1 May 2007

Posted by Basilios in Emerson Lake & Palmer.


Emerson, Lake and Palmer are one of the most reviled groups in rock music. They were incredibly popular in the early Seventies, especially with college students (or so I read), and then had a huge backlash against them in the later Seventies, when Punk was born. Punk musicians indeed targeted them quite often, with keyboardist Keith Emerson burnt in effigy to show contempt for what they felt was dinosaur music compared with theirs. And they were bloody wrong about this, what with Punk music being a conservative restoration of rock and a return to its roots, the three-chord fast song. But I digress.

What we have here is the debut record of the trio, released in 1970. The three musicians were coming from different experiences; Keith Emerson from recently defunct trio The Nice, Greg Lake (guitars and production) from imploding King Crimson and Carl Palmer (drums) from then successful Atomic Rooster (never heard anything of those guys – send me your impressions). These names might not mean much to us, but at the time they were quite a pedigree, so everyone in the know was expecting great things from these chaps. And great things they did, starting right here with this record.

First things first; do you consider guitar something rock music can’t do without? Do you hate keyboards? Then ELP is not for you. This record is dominated by Keith’s keyboards, with the other two chaps sticking mainly to rhythm. But it you really set this aside, it would be your loss, there’s plenty of good music and quite a bit of great stuff.

Opening we have an instrumental, The Barbarian, which kicks off with rough, edgy bass that makes you think of hard rock for, say, 30 seconds, because right after that Keith kicks in with the Hammond organ and takes over the piece. It’s an interesting song, and very well written; and it was in fact nicked from Béla Bartók. The notes in modern presses of the album give the credit as “Béla Bartók, arr. Emerson, Lake & Palmer”, but in the original one Mr Bartók was not credited. His estate sued the group, and they settled out of court. This rearranging of classical pieces was going to become a recurring feature for ELP, but after this first experiment they always were quite careful to ask for permission before going ahead when the copyright was still in force. When it wasn’t, it was quotations galore! But I digress.

The second song is Take A Pebble. This is the longest one on this record, and feels like a pretty song with a series of very long jams in the middle. I like it but it feels disjointed. With some patience you’ll appreciate it but it can be tiring for those with a shorter attention span and those that want songs to be coincise, to make their point and go away. Not in this case.

The third song is Knife Edge. This is a much more compact piece, with a gruff edge and lots of entertaining bass work (I was going to say ‘great’ but I realized I don’t know shit about bass playing; any volunteers to teach me?). This is most definitely not a keyboard wankfest. The lyrics talk of a post-apocalyptic scenario, in a world ruled by violence, where the skills and the talents that we acquire during peace time are just a useless weight. The lyrics are just vague enough to conjure strange images, and the odd writing style is not out of place here. I like it, but I have to notice once again that the melody was nicked, ahem, rearranged from yet another piece of classical music, this time the first movement of Leoš Janáček‘s Sinfonietta, and a lot of Bach got thrown in as well.

Next follows Keith Emerson’s private seven minutes of fun, The Three Fates. This is really, really keyboard heavy. But I have to say this; it’s not all Hammond organ. It’s an unusual church organ in the first part, a really good piano solo in the second part and a catchy and entertaining piano trio in the third. It was recorded using overdubs, of course, but I wonder how they played it live. Anyway, here I have to take a stand and say that this is a great piece of music, despite the fact that this is basically classic music, and therefore out of place in a rock record. Or so people would think; I personally feel it’s great to have so varied an album and like the mix.

Right after that we have another interesting piece, Tank. I read many reviews saying that this piece is boring and horrible, and I disagree with them. This piece should be a showcase for Carl Palmer’s drumming skills, but it ends up once again being mostly Keith Emerson showing off. I like it, but less than The Three Fates. It starts with an interesting part played with what I reckon is some sort of synthetized harpsicord; then there is a drum solo that, well, doesn’t bring much to the party, but then there is a finale with the other band members starting off one by one and finally playing together!

And then there is the last song, arguably ELP’s most popular one: Lucky Man. It was also the only single taken from the album, and it had a good success. It is basically a ballad by Greg Lake about the unfortunate life of an unnamed lucky man, born in a noble family, rich and admired, who then died in a war just like any of his poorer fellow soldiers, hit by a bullet and bleeding to death. It is a moving song in its way, especially for the weird appropriateness of the moody closing Moog solo by Keith.

There you go. As I mentioned, plenty of good music, oodles of great music and lots of talent, but here we have a keyboard heavy record that entertains as long as Keith Emerson’s piano and organ skills entertain you. I like it, but I notice how the best pieces for me are the ones that either are classical music (The Three Fates) or rearrrangements of it (The Barbarian, Knife Edge). Mind you, all songs here are very worthy of attention, and there is something for everyone; but even Lucky Man, the song that is most likely to attract the attention of more traditional rock lovers, is unique mainly because of Keith’s keys. What is your position?

Final Grade: 27/30



1. BalladMusician - 22 June 2007

It’s really surprising, this is my friend favorite stories about Emerson, Lake and Palmer. According to them they created a very unpredictable rock music that many peoples like. I think your question about the members are not that important. We all know that all of members the guitarist, keyboardist and even the vocalist are all important. I like also rock but ballad is my focus.

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