Lake & Palmer's Trilogy
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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"
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.
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.)
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.
in January 1972, Trilogy was released in July of the same year.
The album opens with the three-movement piece, "The Endless
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
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.
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.
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.)
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.