Emerson Lake and Palmer E.L.P

Emerson, Lake and Palmer are quite possibly the world's most reviled band. Now, they were extremely popular in the early 70's among those who 'took themselves seriously' (especially college students), and even today they maintain a sizable cult following, so it would be unfair to say that absolutely nobody likes them. Regardless, however, this is a perfectly legitimate statement on the general level. Fans of punk have always detested them as they would any prog band, but this extended far beyond normal levels of loathing; as an example, one of the staples of late 70's Sex Pistols shows was to burn life-size statues of Keith Emerson in effigy (or so the legend goes, and I really hope it's true because it's a hilarious legend).

Now, this normally wouldn't be such a bad thing, since after all hatred of art-rock and prog-rock was one of the most important principles upon which the punk movement was founded. No, what distinguished ELP was the amount of venom spewed upon them by other "high-brow" artists and their various followers. Fans of classical music absolutely despised them (sometimes) for "butchering" various well-known pieces in their attempts to interpret these standards in a rock idiom. There is a nugget of truth to this, of course (Pictures at an Exhibition is often quite a stretch from the original Mussorgsky piece, to put it mildly), but ... I dunno. I'm sure that a good number of the band's fans became fans of classical music due to their efforts, so that should be worth something. Or maybe the older generation was just mad about all these young whippersnappers infiltrating their societal niche ....

(AUTHOR'S NOTE): There used to be a paragraph here where I made some asinine statements about the borders of what exactly constitutes prog rock. Some comments below reference that paragraph, but I'm so tired of looking at it that I don't even care about making them anachronistic at this point.

The greatest insult of all, of course, is that even among some prog lovers, they're hated like crazy! Among the list of widely acknowledged "classic" prog rock groups (note that "widely acknowledged" ends up excluding a lot of the major players in prog rock, such as Gentle Giant and Van Der Graaf Generator; by widely acknowledged I basically mean bands that somebody who knows older music solely through classic rock radio or games like Rock Band or Guitar Hero might be familiar with) they often tend to be rated near the bottom, even below some bands that I despise (like Styx or Kansas). Now, for many, a sufficient explanation of this is simply, "ELP sucks!". Needless to say, I think that is a grave mistake, but I think I can make a good estimation on the real reasons people despise this band. The first, and the most obvious, was the group's relatively heavy emphasis on classical music in their sound. Yes, progressive rock almost always has at least a tinge of some classical elements, but ELP's music had the greatest concentration of it in their music, BY FAR. Now, it's not as if that was the only type of music they did, not at all, but among their discography you can find covers of Copland, Holst, Bartok, and they even did a full album rendition of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. Their self-penned material would also sometimes have a pure 'orchestral' feel as well, and they even managed to help create a new and totally bizarre genre, the 'rock-symphony.'

The band's classical leanings, however, are not the only significant difference between ELP and the others on the list. A key thing to note about ELP is that, besides King Crimson, most other widely known prog rock groups weren't prog-groups from the get-go. Yes started as a jazzy, psychedelic rock band, and it wasn't until their third LP that they really became Yes as we know them. Rush began as a hard-rock garage band, modeling themselves after Led Zeppelin and Cream. And Genesis, well, Genesis started as a bunch of teenagers trying to sell pop songs to the public and not succeeding one iota (which is a shame, seeing as there are tons of great melodies on their debut). ELP, however, was "pretentious" and progressive from the very beginning, which makes sense. Both Keith Emerson (The Nice) and Greg Lake (King Crimson) were former key members of groups that had pretty much created the genre, and as such one could only expect them to continue what they seemed to have a knack for. Add in Carl Palmer's technically perfect drumming, and you have a group created for pretentiousness and lots of it.

There is one more aspect that sets ELP apart from the other groups, and that deals with the center of the band's sound. Rush focused on the blistering chops of their guitar and bass players. Yes, regardless of Wakeman's presence, rotated around their amazing bassist, Chris Squire. Genesis tried to emphasize Peter Gabriel's vocals and his bizarre fantasies over the chops of the group, which were definitely fine overall but hardly in the super-elite level of the rock world. In the Court of the Crimson King, regardless of all of the mellotrons, was extremely guitar heavy, not to mention the saxophones and other reed instruments. ELP, however, did not revolve around a guitar or bass player like the others. ELP was always centered on the keyboards of Keith Emerson (the songwriting and guitar work of Lake was an essential counterweight to Keith's keyboards, but it was still secondary). Now, it's not that he was a bad player, FAR from it. It's just that, well, he could be a bit too showoffy. Plus the fact that he often employed some extremely bizarre and occasionally annoying synth tones that few others would even touch. And since most people would rather hear guitar wanking than synth wanking, it's only natural that there would be a huge turn-away from this group.

I think I have made it sufficiently clear that ELP is not for everyone. The thing is, for the longest time I refused to give them even the slightest chance, and that's a shame, because they're really quite good! For starters, each of them was a highly talented and extremely professional musician, and even haters of the band have to give them that. Keith Emerson, let's face it, was almost indisputably the greatest keyboardist on earth, hands down (I think he was officially given the title by some renowned magazine twenty five times in a period of thirty years). Hence, he was often able to make large parts of the group's compositions come alive by the sheer force of his talent alone, whereas in the hands of any lesser

player it might have been deadly boring. Meanwhile, just as important for the group was vocalist/guitarist/bassist Greg Lake. With the exception of Justin Hayward and a few others, almost nobody was a better rock singer than him in the 70's. He was always able to add incredible power and powerful emotional content to the highly abstract and bizarre lyrics that always accompanied the group's music. And one should certainly not minimize his guitar and bass playing, not at all. And finally, there was drummer Carl Palmer, as fine a prog drummer as one could find in the world; with an impeccably fluid and solid playing technique, his playing abilities in the prog universe were surpassed only by Bill Bruford himself.

The fact remains, however, that impeccable instrumental technique is not the only requirement for being a good and distinctive progressive rock band. After all, if all I cared about was great playing abilities, I would be sitting here reviewing various jazz recordings rather than talking about rock and its various forms. You see, it's a common misconception that the band was primarily a medium for the grandiose ambitions of Emerson. Now, don't get me wrong, the man could write an excellent and supremely catchy synth passage (Karn Evil 9.1 in particular), but in no way was Keith the sole creative epicenter of the band's music (at least, most of the time, when the band was at its best). No, that honor fell just as much to Lake, who was an extremely talented pop song and ballad writer. I mean, grandiose and overblown as Tarkus is, it's really just three short, very catchy Lake numbers whose various musical themes are expanded upon with the help of Keith's synths and are reprised in just the right amounts. And that's hardly the only example, as great songs like Lucky Man or Still, You Turn Me On will show.

In any case, the point I'm trying to make is that the music of ELP, in general, is nowhere near as intimidating as it is often made out to be. If you're looking for solid pop and rock embellished with a bit of jazz and a healthy amount of classical and symphonic aspirations, you shouldn't be afraid to give them a try. I used to rate them as a two-star band, but surprisingly found that my enjoyment of the band has only increased over time (in particular, the debut REALLY grew on me, as you'll see in a bit), so a three-star rating (out of five) seems appropriate enough. Now go ahead and flame me for liking them as much as, say, Led Zeppelin.


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