Showing posts with label Emerson Lake and Palmer. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Emerson Lake and Palmer. Show all posts

Friday, January 30, 2009


In my last blog I argued that bands such as Emerson, Lake & Palmer (ELP) represented, within a rock context, the fundamental values of modernism: complexity, individuality (as exemplified by the naming of the band eponymously), virtuosity, and mastery. I think I’m correct in that observation, and I think the point is true of all bands one might consider exemplary of so-called “progressive rock.” Indeed, I think all the supposed masterpieces of progressive rock have been judged under the evaluative terms characteristic of modernism. Having continued to think about the issue over the past few days, I think the special value of ELP is that their career conveniently serves to trace the rise and fall of “progressive rock.” Using the band’s popularity curve as an example, it becomes clear that the so-called “heyday,” or widespread popularity, of progressive rock in fact lasted a brief time, peaking in 1974, thereafter subsumed by other movements, including “glam rock,” disco, and, of course, punk. Progressive rock was, by 1978, an anachronism, meaning that the sort of modernist values represented by the movement were no longer endorsed by the rock ‘n’ roll avant-garde, progressive rock being perceived, by then, as elitist. British bands such as Yes and King Crimson were irrelevant by 1978—in fact, by that date, King Crimson had been long disbanded (the first time). Simon Reynolds writes, “Punks were supposed to purge their collections of King Crimson and Mahavishnu Orchestra albums, or at least hide them in the cupboard” (Rip It Up and Start Again, p. 20). As I mentioned last time, the pejorative British term for bands such as ELP, Yes, and King Crimson was muso. Musos were musicians who were considered overly preoccupied with technical virtuosity at the expense of authentic expression. Stated somewhat differently, by the late 1970s, progressive rock was considered inauthentic, while the sort of music that supplanted it—reggae, ska, and punk, for example—in contrast, was considered “authentic.”

Using, arbitrarily, the release date of King Crimson’s IN THE COURT OF THE CRIMSON KING as the starting point for so-called progressive rock (October 1969), then the period of progressive rock’s greatest popularity lasted about five years, peaking about mid-1973, the bookend at the other end being ELP’s WELCOME BACK MY FRIENDS TO THE SHOW THAT NEVER ENDS… LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, EMERSON, LAKE & PALMER (August 1974). Although not released on CD until 1997, ELP’s EMERSON, LAKE & PALMER LIVE AT THE ISLE OF WIGHT FESTIVAL 1970, recorded during the band’s first formal appearance at the Isle of Wight Festival on August 29, 1970, should be considered that group’s first album. Including that album, a few selective examples of prog rock’s development can be seen here (all release dates UK):

King Crimson – In the Wake of Poseidon 5/70
Emerson, Lake & Palmer (ELP) - Live at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970
Yes – The Yes Album [“Classic” Yes line-up; recorded 10-11/70]
ELP – Emerson, Lake & Palmer 11/70
King Crimson – Lizard 12/70
ELP – Tarkus 6/71
Yes – Fragile 11/71
King Crimson – Islands 12/71
ELP – Trilogy 7/72
Yes – Yessongs 5/73
ELP – Brain Salad Surgery 11/73
Yes – Tales From Topographic Oceans 12/73
King Crimson – Starless and Bible Black 3/74
ELP – Welcome Back My Friends... 8/74
King Crimson – Red 11/74

By 1974, however, as is well known, the movement began to fragment. Rick Wakeman left Yes, Robert Fripp disbanded King Crimson on 24 September 1974 (about six weeks or so before the release of RED, by which time King Crimson was a power trio), and in August ELP released the live album WELCOME BACK MY FRIENDS…, subsequently taking a lengthy sabbatical. Shortly thereafter, in December 1974, Yes released RELAYER, and then it, too, took virtually a three-year hiatus.

In retrospect, the disbanding of King Crimson and the contemporaneous withdrawal of both Yes and ELP, was historically significant, but not for the standard reasons. The Sex Pistols emerged as a significant musical force in 1976, and in January 1977, The Clash was signed to CBS Records for a significant sum. What this musical shift represents is not so much a reaction against what came before (what rock historiography typically claims), but a paradigm shift. It is true that punk marked a new phase in rock music’s youthful insolence, as opposed to prog rock’s insolent iconoclasm in the form of “rocking the classics“ (but which actually represented the reproduction of ideology). In effect, progressive rock was to rock ‘n’ roll what bebop was to swing: the triumph of the muso. Punk rock was rock’s putative reclaiming of amateurism in the form of rhythm and sound, but it also effected an ideological transformation in music as well: when the famed progressive rock bands made their “comebacks,“ they had been transformed as well.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Thoughts On A Long Ago Exhibition

A few days ago, in a blog entry on the relationship between psychedelic and progressive rock, I discussed The Nice, the British band from which emerged Keith Emerson, later of Emerson, Lake & Palmer (ELP). It has happened since the writing of that blog—primarily because I’ve been preoccupied by certain theoretical issues that emerged as a consequence of writing it—that I have made an effort to re-familiarize myself with the music of ELP, trying to get a better handle on what so-called progressive rock was (is) all about, at least in its ELP incarnation. It has been years since I listened seriously to ELP’s music, having given up on them long ago after the release of the appropriately titled 3-LP set, WELCOME BACK MY FRIENDS TO THE SHOW THAT NEVER ENDS… LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, EMERSON, LAKE & PALMER (1974)—and they weren’t kidding. I can’t recall ever playing sides 5 and 6 of that ponderous set of records—still haven’t—although I’ve had the album now almost 35 years, frayed corners, ring wear, bulk and all. Like an old high school classmate, it’s an artifact of a time long gone, one with whom you have instant familiarity, but little communication. But having done some reading of critical assessments as well as a bit of checking on fan sites during the past several days, I’ve learned that the general consensus is that BRAIN SALAD SURGERY (1973), with its famous H. R. Giger cover, is the band’s finest album. I do not agree: after having given a focused listen to every album up until (but not including) WELCOME BACK MY FRIENDS… the past couple of days, I doubt seriously I’ll ever return to blarney such as “Karn Evil 9,” a huge chunk of BRAIN SALAD SURGERY. However, having re-familiarized myself with the band’s first few albums, I think the best album is TRILOGY (1972), which has the best song written by Emerson and Lake, “From the Beginning.” But that’s neither here nor there.

I found myself returning to the band’s third album, PICTURES AT AN EXHIBITION (1971 UK; 1972 USA), since it seems to me to epitomize everything the band was about—the objective correlative of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, as it were. I picked up a copy of the remastered CD (Shout! Factory, 2007) of the album in order to put it on my iPod, and while I was at the store I also found and purchased a used (“previously owned”) DVD by ELP that I didn’t know about but also happened to be titled PICTURES AT AN EXHIBITION (Classic Pictures Entertainment, 2002). Mistakenly, I assumed the live performance on the DVD was the same performance as on the CD—not so. The performance on the CD (38:07) was recorded at Newcastle City Hall on March 26, 1971, while the one on the DVD (41m 50s—not the complete concert) took place a few months earlier, recorded at the Lyceum Theatre (London), on December 9, 1970. The DVD reveals why Keith Emerson, busily tickling the ivories (and fondling the knobs of his then avant-garde modular synthesizer) in his tight fitting, glittery pants and vest, must be considered the Liberace of rock. I was pleasantly astonished, however, by the sheer youthful exuberance of drummer Carl Palmer: at the time the concert was recorded, he was a mere twenty-one years old, but he looks about fifteen or sixteen years old in the film. Little did he know about what lay ahead, in the form of rock stardom.

Having watched the DVD of PICTURES AT AN EXHIBITION twice now, and having walked many, many miles the past few days listening to the album on my iPod, I’ve concluded that Emerson, Lake & Palmer (and progressive bands like them, such as King Crimson, from which Greg Lake emerged) represent, in a rock context, the fundamental values of modernism: complexity, individuality (as exemplified by the naming of the band eponymously), virtuosity, and mastery. It is no accident that ELP, like all popular musicians in the modernist tradition since Louis Armstrong (the jazz trumpeter who enabled the transformation of the popular musician into artist) released albums with titles arguing for their status as artists: WORKS: VOLUME 1 (1977) and WORKS: VOLUME 2 (1977).

The consummate professionalism of progressive bands such as ELP is nowadays disparaged, of course, by the term (primarily British) muso, meaning a musician who is overly preoccupied with sheer technical virtuosity at the expense of authentic expression. It is no wonder that ELP’s last album (prior to re-forming as a tour band in the 1990s), LOVE BEACH (1978), flopped. (I remember the record hitting the cut-out bins faster than any album I’d ever seen.) While LOVE BEACH is not a good record by any standards (which the band, in interviews, has readily admitted), that’s not my point. By 1978, the sort of modernist values they represented were no longer endorsed by rock ‘n’ roll: Emerson, Lake & Palmer were, by the late 70s, pejoratively considered musos. Rock critic Simon Reynolds (author of BLISSED OUT and THE SEX REVOLTS) observed: “[Muso has] always been a derogatory term, criticizing the likes of Santana or big prog-rock bands obsessed with developing skills—chops. In the punk context, it had a lot to do with the idea that there was more to great rock ‘n’ roll than actual music.” For a critic such as Simon Reynolds, the ultimate muso is Robert Fripp. And if that term has any meaning whatsoever, he is right. But Emerson, Lake, and Palmer (considered as individuals, not as a band) were also musos, and perhaps that term designates a narrow but nonetheless deep rift in rock culture, between musos, on one side, and those who believe they represent the values of “authentic” (or “traditional”) rock ‘n’ roll on the other (the spirit of amateurism). The rift I speak of has been identified by Mick Jones, former leader of Big Audio Dynamite and former guitarist with the Clash, who wrote in the song, “I Turned Out a Punk”:

Better learn how to play guitar with a plink and a plunk
I didn’t like jazz I didn’t like funk
I turned out a punk
I turned out a punk

Meaning, if you didn’t become a muso, well, you became something else.

Emerson, Lake & Palmer still perform, of course (although not necessarily together as a band), but I think the band now invokes a set of values—modernist values—that have long since been replaced by the values of post-modernism. But post-modern values shall become the subject of a subsequent blog.