Emerson, Lake & Palmer's Trilogy

John Covach

Progression Magazine

Fall 1997


Progressive rock is loaded with great keyboard players: Rick Wakeman, Tony Banks, Patrick Moraz, Eddie Jobson are among the many the style has produced.  But of these, Keith Emerson is probably the most influential keyboard player of all, affecting keyboardists both inside and outside of prog and changing forever the image of the man behind the keys.  In the waning moments of psychedelia, Emerson blended virtuosity with a strong sense of showmanship, and very quickly brought keyboard playing out of the shadows and into the spotlight.

Emerson was the rock organists' answer to Jimi Hendrix and his on-stage guitar antics.  Keith rode his Hammond organ, stabbed it with knives, and made the thing howl with feedback.  Together with the lyric quality of Greg Lake's songwriting and vocal delivery, and the ostentatious power of Carl Palmer's drumming, Emerson's flamboyant playing propelled ELP to superstar status in the 1970s, making them one of the top acts in all of show business.  The group's rise was meteoric, their success sustained; and when they disbanded in 1979, they ended a run that Greg Lake has since described as "a ten-year period when every single day saw a major event." 

In many ways the 1973 LP, Brain Salad Surgery, could be considered the high-water mark of the group's achievement.  A powerful adaptation of Hubert Parry's setting of William Blake's "Jerusalem"; a rocked-up arrangement of a movement from Alberto Ginastera's First Piano Concerto ("Toccata"); Lake's acoustic ballad "Still . . . You Turn Me On"; the up-tempo bar-room piano of "Benny the Bouncer"; and the magnificent half-hour of the multi-movement "Karn Evil 9"—all of these bring together tendencies from the band's earlier albums and show ELP at the top of their game.

Despite all that, I have always liked Trilogy of 1972 more than Brain Salad Surgery (though I will admit that my fascination for the latter has increased since the excellent 1996 Rhino re-release, complete with lengthy liner notes and bonus-track interviews with band members).  So invoking my columnist's prerogative to write about what I like most, I will focus this issue's column on Trilogy.  And, as I have done before, I will also reserve the right to return to Brain Salad Surgery in the future.

The Emerson, Lake & Palmer story, as every devoted fan knows, actually starts well before the founding of the group in 1970.  Emerson spent the psychedelic era as a member of the Nice.  Formed as a quartet in 1967, the group became a trio when guitarist David O'List left the band after the first album, The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack (1968).  (Inquiring prog minds will want to know that O'List briefly replaced Mick Abrahams in Jethro Tull, and that Steve Howe was offered O'List's spot in the Nice). With a line-up that featured Emerson, bassist/vocalist Lee Jackson, and drummer Brian Davison, the band released four more LPs.

The Nice were among the first to adapt classical-music pieces for rock band; along with Procol Harum, Vanilla Fudge, and even Big Brother and the Holding Company, the Nice blended hard-driving rock, psychedelic swirl, and the best of the long-hair classics, making this kind of stylistic hybrid their unmistakable mark of distinction.  Before the group broke up in 1970, they had recorded versions of music by Bach, Mozart, Tschaikovsky, Sibelius, and Bernstein, as well as music by Dave Brubeck and Bob Dylan.

Perhaps the most adventurous and forward-looking piece the group ever recorded was their "Five Bridges Suite" from the 1970 LP, Five Bridges.  Emerson worked with conductor Joseph Eger to compose a five-movement suite for rock band and orchestra (with lyrics by Lee Jackson) that runs almost 20 minutes.  The Nice were not the first band to work with a symphony orchestra; the Beatles, the Moody Blues, and others had already done that (and this practice can be traced back to Leiber and Stoller's arrangement of the Drifter's "There Goes My Baby" of 1959).  But what the band did do—along with Jon Lord and Deep Purple, who were involved in their own rock-group-and-orchestra projects at about the same time—is establish a model for an unabashedly serious-minded brand of rock that could aspire to pieces of extended length and increased complexity—a style that attempted to blur the dividing line between rock and classical, or as Emerson put it at the time, "to build bridges to those musical shores which seem determined to remain apart from that which is a whole."  

By the time Five Bridges was released in 1970, however, the Nice were already part of Emerson's past.  In late 1969 Emerson had struck up a friendly relationship with King Crimson bassist/vocalist Greg Lake; during a gig in San Francisco that featured the Nice and King Crimson together on the same bill, the two began making plans for a new group.  When both returned to England, discussions on the new band continued.  Mitch Mitchell was at one point being considered for the drumming duties, and this led to the idea of Hendrix joining the group on guitar.  As it turns out, Hendrix and Emerson were on very good terms, each enjoying the other's playing and having done many gigs on which they appeared on the same show.  (At one point Hendrix even filmed Emerson's on-stage Hammond theatrics with a portable movie camera the guitarist had just bought, amusing his entourage by playing the film in reverse and sped up.)  But the drum throne was eventually awarded to the 20-year-old Carl Palmer, who had played with The Crazy World of Arthur Brown and had to be convinced to leave his current group, Atomic Rooster.

With the Emerson, Lake & Palmer line-up in place, the group released their first album, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, in 1970.  This record provides the first glimpses of where the group was ultimately headed.  Emerson continues his practice of arranging classical-music favorites, here reworking Bartok to get "The Barbarian," and adapting Janacek on "Knife-Edge."  Lake offers up two lyrical ballads: "Take a Pebble" and "Lucky Man," the second of these featuring what is widely claimed to be the first full-fledged Moog solo to appear on a rock single (if one is willing to exempt the theremin that appears on the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations" of 1966).  Palmer's drumming is showcased in "The Tank," a track that is something of a prog take on Led Zep's "Moby Dick" (1969). 

Emerson continues his own classical-meets-rock-and-jazz hybrid compositional style in "The Three Fates."  Beginning on the organ at London's Festival Hall ("Clotho"), Emerson switches to grand piano for the second movement ("Lachesis"), with the rest of the band joining in for the final movement ("Atropos").  "Lachesis" features what is perhaps Emerson's most impressive piano playing on the album (though passages from "Take a Pebble" at times challenge for this distinction as well).  From the eclectic virtuosity present on "The Three Fates," the listener can almost extrapolate forward to pieces like "Karn Evil 9, Second Impression" or the First Piano Concerto.

The next two ELP albums were originally planned as a double album.  Tarkus was the group's next studio LP, while Pictures at an Exhibition was a March 1971 live recording of the mother of all classical adaptations—a reworking of Mussorgsky's famous set of piano pieces.  As it turned out, the band released the albums separately in 1971, Tarkus in June and Pictures . . . in November.  Pictures . . . is certainly the most extended instance of Emerson's trademark rock versions of classical masterpieces, taking up most of both sides of the LP.  (Side 2 ends with the group's version of "Nutrocker," an adaptation of a Tschaikovsky march from The Nutcracker that was originally a British hit for the American group B. Bumble and the Stingers in 1962.)

 Of all the interesting music to be found on Tarkus, the title track is by far the most important piece on the record: the seven movements of "Tarkus" alternate instrumental movements with vocal ones, and define the sound that has come to be most often associated with ELP.  From the driving repeated bass line in 9/8 time of "Eruption" (played on the percussion-heavy Hammond organ doubled by bass and counted 4 + 3 + 2) to the gentler character of Lake's vocals on "Stones of Years" and "Battlefield," "Tarkus" is perhaps the archetypal ELP track—a 20-minute work that highlights both the group's aggressive virtuosity and its compelling lyricism. 

Recorded in January 1972, Trilogy was released in July of the same year.  The album opens with the three-movement piece, "The Endless Enigma."  Beginning with a mysterious Moog melody alternating with menacing piano and bongos, the track eventually builds up steam with a more hard-driving passage played by the entire group that leads to an almost hymn-like Lake vocal melody at 3:12 and forward.  The dynamic alternation between quiet, almost whispered vocals and the louder and majestic singing and accompaniment that occurs throughout "The Endless Enigma, Part 1" is especially effective.  The middle movement of the track features Emerson at the grand piano; called "Fugue," the piece does indeed contain a composed fugue by Emerson.  The third movement of the track briefly recapitulates the vocal sections of the first movement.  

Trilogy contains two other extended pieces; the first of these is Emerson's "Abaddon's Bolero."  Clocking in at over eight minutes, the piece is clearly modeled on Maurice Ravel's Bolero of 1928.  Ravel's piece is often thought of as a lesson in orchestration, so varied, imaginative, and colorful is his deployment of instruments in that work.  Starting out quietly, Ravel's piece ultimately builds to a large crashing climax, a fact not missed by the producers of the 1970s movie 10, in which it becomes the incidental music to a carnal meeting between Dudley Moore and Bo Derek.  But Emerson's piece misses the mark somewhat: rather than conjuring up the steamy Iberian dance rhythms of the bolero, the track seems to have more in common with 1960s television cop-show theme music to shows like Dragnet or Adam 12.  Perhaps it's the markedly martial character of the repeated snare-drum figure, or even the melodic contour of the theme itself.  In any case, the orchestral version released in 1995 on Emerson's Changing States CD is far more effective overall.

Whatever the failings of "Abaddon's Bolero" may be, the third extended track on the album, "Trilogy," more than makes up for them.  I will admit that this is my favorite ELP track.  From the opening faux-strings melody and the cascading piano chords that follow it, to Greg Lake's expert delivery of the first two verses set against Emerson's masterful grand-piano accompaniment, I find myself totally drawn in by this piece.  Emerson's piano interlude from about 1:41 to the riff that begins the heavier section at 2:58 is his best writing up to that time, and his assimilation of the American neo-tonal style of composers like Aaron Copland and Walter Piston is evident (remember that Copland's "Hoedown" appears on this album as well).  The synthesizer-dominated lead line in the section that comes after 2:58, set over a repeated bass line, develops the vocal melody before moving into improvised material.  This section culminates in crashing chords at 4:50, and an instrumental interlude begins at 5:02 that leads into the vocal bridge of the track (the vocal enters at 5:33).  An instrumental interlude from 6:05-7:51brings the music back to vocal bridge material from the middle of the track, which closes the piece (though not without a rhythm-and-blues flourish at the end).  The overall trajectory of the piece is from the tender and acoustic verses that begin the piece to the more up-tempo and electronic bridge that follows, a plan that is realized to perfection. 

Other tracks on the LP are the version of Copland's "Hoedown" mentioned above, a tongue-in-cheek number called "The Sheriff" (a showcase for Emerson's bar-room piano stylings), "Living Sin," and "From the Beginning."  Of these, Lake's "From the Beginning" is worth noting since it was the only single ELP ever had in the Billboard Top 40, rising as high as number 39 in 1972.  (This is, of course, totally in keeping with the album-oriented focus of 1970s prog; by comparison, ELP had eight albums in the Top 40 during the 1970s including Trilogy, which rose as high as number 5.) 

Trilogy was ELP's entry in the Great Prog Sweepstakes of 1972.  Other albums released that year were Yes' Close to the Edge, Genesis' Foxtrot, and Jethro Tull's Thick as a Brick.  In such distinguished company, Trilogy compares favorably.  But perhaps more importantly, after some 25 years and taken on its own terms, this ELP album holds up quite well.