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Friday, April 15, 2016

Emerson, Lake, and Palmer

I have always been a fan of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, a staple of classic rock radio, but when Keith Emerson died last month I realized I had never purchased any of their music. I remedied that with a two-disc collection and have been listening to it this week.

ELP, as they were also known, occupied a unique niche in rock history. They were a progressive rock band, and could be counted in the same category as Yes, Genesis, and Pink Floyd, but they were also more closely tied to classical music than any other rock group, and a lot of that was due to Emerson. He was the keyboardist, and many of the notable music he was involved with were "covers" of classic masterpieces.

Two of them were by Aaron Copland--"Fanfare for the Common Man," and "Hoedown," which was adapted from Copland's "Rodeo." Both are instantly recognizable (I recall that "Rodeo" was used in a commercial touting the wonderfulness of beef several years ago), and Emerson's dazzling work makes "Hoedown" irresistible. He also plays on a variation of Tchaikovsky with "Nutrocker"--you can guess what that comes from. They based a whole album on Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition," and borrow his "The Great Gates of Kiev."

Greg Lake was the guitarist and bassist, and his songs had their own particular stamp. He seems to be quite the romantic, and his voice, one of my favorites in the classic rock era, was to swoon to. Songs like "Still...You Turn Me On," "From the Beginning," and the crushingly gorgeous "C'est La Vie," are beautiful without being too syrupy. Perhaps the most recognizable ELP song is "Lucky Man," which Lake wrote when he was 12, and has the simple but universally true message that no amount of wealth can save you when you're in a war. He also, with the help of Sergei Prokofiev, wrote "I Believe in Father Christmas," usually hauled out by radio stations at Christmas, but which has very thoughtful words about the season:

"They sold me a dream of Christmas
They sold me a Silent Night
And they told me a fairy story
'Till I believed in the Israelite
And I believed in Father Christmas
And I looked to the sky with excited eyes
'Till I woke with a yawn in the first light of dawn
And I saw him and through his disguise"

The band was given to do things in a big way. Many of their songs are very long, and broken into several parts, with exotic titles. "Karn Evil 9" is another signature song of theirs, with the lyric: "Welcome back my friends, to the show that never ends." They have an almost twenty-minute long song with "Tarkus," and another with "Pirates." This kind of grandiosity has gathered critics. Some have called them pretentious, but I think rock is a pretty big tent and there is room for rockers who also dabble in classical motifs.

The band was short-lived. Their first album was in 1970, and they wrapped things up in 1978 (but did release two albums in the '90s, which completely went under my radar). Drummer Carl Palmer is considered one of the best rock drummers to ever pound the skins, and after listening for a week I can agree.

Emerson died by his own hand, apparently depressed that nerve damage to his hand would prohibit him at playing at his best. If that's true, that's a shame, because certainly he had more to offer than just playing keyboards. But sometimes the greatest of talents are also the most single-minded.

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