Where to start: an ELP New Listener’s Guide
1 Don’t start here
Let’s begin with where not to start. Don’t start with Works 1 or Works 2. There’s some good stuff there but it’s slim pickings.
Forget Love Beach; it’s as awful as its cover suggests. They were forced to record it by the record company at the end of a tour. They had nothing, and they were exhausted.
You could listen to Black Moon some time, because it’s got three good tracks on it. But it’s far from essential.
It really doesn’t sound like ELP, and nothing I’ve said about why they’re good applies to it. It’s pop music because their record company needed a hit. They dutifully released two singles, neither of which were hits. For addicts only.
Their final studio album, In the Hot Seat, competes with Love Beach for worst ELP abomination. (Though the Dylan cover version, “The Man in the Long, Black Coat”, is a cracker.)
2 Songs to start with, to see if you like the taste
i “Lucky Man”, from the Emerson, Lake & Palmer album. Famous for including the first rock Moog solo, courtesy of Emerson, on record. (Tagged on at the end because Emerson was in the pub while Lake turned a simple ballad he’d written as a kid into something with real studio heft.) It’s still their most popular song.
ii “From the Beginning”, from Trilogy. Another pretty Greg Lake song, this time about fucking up relationships. This time, Emerson’s participation is more integrated into the song.
iii Toccata, from Brain Salad Surgery. Now we’re jumping into the deep end. This is Emerson’s arrangement of the fourth movement of Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera’s Piano Concerto No 1. It aint that pretty at all.
After ELP had recorded their version, they went, nervous as hell, to Ginastera’s place in France and played it to him. Like Aaron Copeland, who loved ELP’s arrangement of Hoe-Down and Fanfare for the Common Man, he…
Well, Ginastera listened to their version, then threw his arms up and said it was “terrible”. Emerson was crest-fallen. Then Ginastera explained he meant “terrible” in French, as in “amazing, fantastic, formidable”, and so on. It is, indeed, terrific.
If unusual time signatures are your thing, this is orgasm central. It switches times at the turn of a dime and the drop of a hat. Even if the word “time signatures” means nothing to you, it’s exciting as hell. Fuck, it’s fast.
iv The Barbarian, from Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Basically an arrangement of Bartok’s Allegro Barbare, this is much simpler than Toccata. But it keeps the Bartok spikiness, the European folksong origin, and then it just charges forward. I believe the Foo Fighters drummer once said he spend much of his adolescence listening to this, over and over. It always cheers me up, every time.
v The Endless Enigma, from Trilogy. Yeah, it’s prog, so its nearly 11 minutes long, divided into two parts, with a middle section called Fugue. But it’s seriously good instrumental work between the three of them, and a strong vocal from Lake. It has lyrics that sound ok, line by line, and don’t make any sense at all. But at that stage Lake’s voice could sell anything. Anyway, it’s the music that counts.
vi Take a Pebble, from Emerson, Lake and Palmer. This would have been a higher recommendation, but it’s in a similar mood to the first two numbers. It’s Lake’s composition, but the long piano solo by Emerson, and his in-fills, are amazing. So are the opening notes, which Emerson got by taking the back off a piano and plucking the strings like a harp. I also recommend the expanded version on Welcome Back.
vii Tarkus, from Tarkus. Actually, I think this is their best piece, and maybe the most high-energy twenty-odd minutes of music by anyone. It’s just not where I’d start someone. Again, the version on Welcome Back is also highly recommended.
viii Jerusalem, from Brain Salad Surgery. It’s that song. They play it, Lake sings it. The BBC banned it, for some reason. It’s pomp rock at its finest. It’s brilliant.
ix Karn Evil 9, Parts 1, 2 and 3. I have a copy of Brain Salad Surgery on vinyl. Karn Evil 9 starts on side 1. You have to turn the record over halfway through Part 1, and the rest of it takes up the whole of side 2.
Contains the “Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends…” line.
I’m also fond of:
“Not content with that, With our hands behind our back, We pull Jesus from a hat: Get into that! Get into that!” They dropped those lines from most performances after they got Big in America.
The music of Part 1 is pretty much straight-ahead rock, only faster. But it’s great. Come inside! Part 2 is instrumental, with high-speed silly noises from Emerson (that’s praise), and synthesised percussion from Carl Palmer. Part 3 is science fiction: a battle between two space fleets is won when one side destroys the other, and is in turn destroyed by their unimpressed ship’s computers. Lots of synthesiser and Moog, some great guitar and singing from Lake. And silly lyrics.
x The Great Gates of Kiev.
That’s the last section of their version of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. It’s fast, it’s big and it’s grand. Death is not life, by the way, As Any Fule Kno. But when Lake sings the opposite, you can find yourself momentarily convinced.
If I were going to own just one ELP album, it would be that live triple, Welcome Back My Friends. It’s only a double in CD form, or a few hundred megabytes in digital form. It has storming live versions of most of the above.
Its full title, by the way, is Welcome Back My Friends to the Show that Never Ends; Ladies and Gentlemen, Emerson, Lake and Palmer. I believe it’s still the longest record title ever. They did it as a typesetter’s joke. They knew it’d get into the Top 10, and they also knew that there was no way of fitting that title into the little grids that the music press used to list the charting albums.
After that I’d buy Tarkus, then the first album (called Emerson, Lake & Palmer), then Brain Salad Surgery, then Trilogy, then Pictures at an Exhibition.
Amazing sex fun fact!
I lost my virginity to Pictures at an Exhibition. I doubt if there’s many people can say that, since ELP’s music, for all its merits, was notoriously not sexy. I was giving it a listen when a girl who’d been teaching me how to kiss dropped by. I made her a cup of tea; she brought out some hash.
I started taking her clothes off. She didn’t stop me. “Oh,” I thought. “Oh, oh, I see.”
“Promenade”, indeed. Though you can really go at it during the “Blues Variation” interlude. I could make a “Great Gates of Kiev” joke, but that’d be ungentlemanly, also completely untrue.
I’d have put something else on if I’d known she was coming. But once she’d arrived I was distracted.
Anyway, you know who you are. I still think you’re wonderful. Also, thank you!