Who They Are: One of the earlier “supergroups” of the modern rock era, ELP were formed after Keith Emerson (The Nice), Greg Lake (King Crimson), and Carl Palmer (Atomic Rooster) left their commercially and critically successful bands to create an unusual ensemble which frequently adapted classical and experimental works for their own artistic purposes. The critics mostly hated them from the git-go, but audiences were more discerning, and their “classic” era four studio and two live albums were all sales chart hits on both sides of the Atlantic. The trio’s initial run wound down after a disappointing and dispiriting final album, Love Beach, in 1978. Drummer Carl Palmer had the most commercially successful post-ELP career as a founding and long-time member of Asia, but Lake and Emerson kept busy, too, with some creatively, if not necessarily financially, successful solo albums in the decades that followed. The trio reformed in part or in full at various times over the ensuing years for studio and live work, but it tracked largely about nostalgia by that point, not vital new canonical music. Keith Emerson tragically took his own life in 2016, and Greg Lake succumbed to cancer later that year, leaving Palmer as the surviving heir to their legacy. He’s an amazing player with a lovely, thoughtful online presence, and I appreciate the ways that he’s continued to respect, honor and advance the work of the group that (partially) bears his name.
When I First Heard Them: I’m sure their American radio hits “Lucky Man” and “From the Beginning” had permeated my ear-holes soon after their releases, but my most memorable and strong initial experience of ELP’s music came when I nabbed a copy of their Tarkus (1971) album from the Nassau Community College listening library sometime in the mid-1970s. I will freely admit that I picked it up and spun it first and foremost because of its epic cool cover art (war armadillo FTW!), but the music it offered immediately and deeply moved me, and I obsessed about all things ELP for a good portion of the late ’70s, even though there weren’t a lot of stellar new releases during that time, alas. True confession time: that album that I nabbed from the library kinda sorta accidentally never got returned to Nassau Community College, lingering on the “Oh, I should do something about this” pile for the latter part of the ’70s, then moving with me to Rhode Island in 1980 when my dad was re-assigned there by the Marine Corps. That copy of Tarkus was in my record bins right up until the time that I sold all of my vinyl in the 1990s, with a little guilt-inducing “NCC” stamp on its front cover to remind me of my original library sin. Oops. Sorry. My bad.
Why I Love Them: In 2005, I wrote a 30,000+ word essay called “March of the Mellotrons: The Best Classic Progressive Rock Album Ever.” Spoiler alert: Tarkus was my winning album, and there are thousands of words at that article explaining why that was the case, if you want the deep story on my subjective and objective appreciation of their work. In summary, for here, right now: ELP offered insane technical proficiency, and created music that incorporated classical, folk, jazz and rock idioms, building something truly unique in the process, aided and abetted by an under-appreciated ability to craft infectious pop melodies, and to move audiences in a live setting. I think I learned more, early in my own music-making career, about nontraditional time-signatures from them than I did from anybody else. Unlike a lot of their nominal “prog” peers, ELP also actively demonstrated that they had senses of humor about their work, and seemed to have fun making and presenting their music. As “serious” as many of their best songs are, they sit comfortably side-by-side with things that are often a wee bit silly, in the good sense of that word, e.g. “Benny the Bouncer,” “The Sheriff,” “Are You Ready, Eddy?” and “Nutrocker.” That contextual leavening, while perhaps not appreciated in its time, actually makes their albums more lastingly listenable today than many other po’-faced releases of the era. I also appreciate the fact that ELP persevered with their unique creative vision in the face of active, rabid critical hostility throughout much of their classic-era run. They were never hard rock, nor punk, not much of anything else that would have qualified for “hot fad of the right now,” ever, but that’s okay, since not everybody had to be, even then. ELP also introduced me to a variety of classical composers whose work still features regularly in my life’s soundtrack, and there’s something to be said for rock groups who shared their influences openly, creating something fresh by reinterpreting music that might have otherwise been seen and heard as stale or irrelevant in its time. Smart stuff, at bottom line. Made me feel smart myself as a young fan, open to having my horizons broadened.
#10. “Knife-Edge” from Emerson, Lake & Palmer (1970)
#9. “Brain Salad Surgery (Instrumental),” out-take bonus track from Works Vol. 2 (1977) and Brain Salad Surgery (1973) reissue packages
#8. “Trilogy” from Trilogy (1972)
#7. “Bitches Crystal” from Tarkus (1971)
#6. “From the Beginning” from Trilogy (1972)
#5. “The Enemy God Dances With the Black Spirits” from Works Vol. 1 (1977)
#4. “The Endless Enigma (Parts 1, 2 and Fugue)” from Trilogy (1972)
#3. “Karn Evil 9” from Brain Salad Surgery (1973)
#2. “Tank (Orchestral Version)” from Works Vol. 1 (1977)
#1. “Tarkus” from Tarkus (1971)