(From Record Collector, Oct. 2001)

The Original Bootleg Series From

The Manticore Vaults Vol. One

SRG CMXBX 309 (7-CD box set)

(51:16) (3 1:52) (49:0 1) (50:39) (4 1:01) (50:55) (76:13)

The Original Bootleg Series From

The Manticore Vaults Vol. Two

SRG CMXBX 330 (8-CD box set)

(52:55) (47:29) (62:46) (54:54) (68:17) (58:49) (44:19) (44:28)

"Nothing exceeds like excess" - so might have run the motto of the 70s progressive rock movement. And no prog-rock band was more excessive than ELP. They toured with 35 tons of equipment - including a revolving drum kit and an elevating grand piano - took a 90-piece orchestra on the road, recorded their own piano concerto, fired cannons on stage . . . in a genre defined by extremes, you might as well be its epitome.

Of course, everything got bigger in the 70s - corporations, skyscrapers, jumbo jets, shirt collars. Prog was in tune with the times (even if it wasn’t a tune you could whistle, unless you could trill in 7/8 time). Big hair, big flares, big sound-rigs, big songs (often lasting the entire side of an LP), this is what it meant to compete for the title of ‘biggest band in the world’. And ELP were up there with the biggest - they were mammoth, a giganotosaurus of a band.

They were clearly ripe for dispatch by the small, furry weasel-like critter that was punk. Why, ELP were accused of being rock dinosaurs even before punk rock came along!

The live double-album was a symbol of heavy and prog rock’s excesses. But ELP went one better in 1974 with Welcome Back My Friends To The Show That Never Ends - amplifiers set to 11 and a triple live album, or Excessively Long Player! In its context, that album provides a riveting insight into the music of the period, capturing something of the sheer, wondrous spectacle of ELP in all their pomp.

Yet. it now seems that Welcome Back was a mere blinking of the eye. For the trio’s taste for the grandiose remains undiminished - meet the 15-CD live album! Yes, count them - over the course of two Sanctuary box sets, ELP’s performances are stretched across a staggering 15 discs. It really is the show that never ends - and you have to admire the logic. You certainly can’t complain about getting your money's worth, even if it does pose the question as to just how many ELP stalwarts will buy these wares?

Of the eight concerts across the two collections seven of them date from the period 1971-74. ELP only recorded four albums’ worth of studio material in this time, plus their live interpretation of Mussorgsky's Pictures At An Exhibition. That’s five into 13 - in other words; plenty of scope for repetition. So we get ‘Hoedown’, ‘Take A Pebble’ and - Tarkus’ (originally an entire side of an LP) a staggering eight times, ‘Lucky Man’ and ‘Pictures At An Exhibition’ (a whole album’s worth) five times . . . - How many versions do you need?

Still, ELP were at their most engaging on extended conceptual pieces like ‘Tarkus’ and ‘Karn Evil 9. and these are the tracks that come out best here. Then there are the plentiful improvisations around jazz and classical themes, in which snatches of popular songs are thrown in to the delight of the audience - you either dig these or you don’t. But then there’s the horror of the ‘comedy’ - numbers, on which ELP inadvertently invented Chas and Dave. Fortunately, we only get ‘Benny - The Bouncer’ and Jeremy Bender’ once and we’re spared ‘Are You Ready, Eddy?’

There’s no doubting their musical accomplishments, however: E, L and P are all superbly gifted musicians. Where the rock guitarist had his Les Paul and Stratocaster, Keith Emerson had his Hammond organ and Moog synthesiser, and he knew what he was doing with them, even if he ignored the idea that, occasionally, ‘less is more’. Greg Lake contributed his chorister’s vocals and busy bass playing, and half-way through ‘Karn Evil 9’, he switches to lead guitar and shows us how proficient he is at that as well. We also get to find out just how stupendous Carl Palmer is across innumerable, massive drum solos.

Sanctuary weren’t joking when they called the CDs The Original Bootleg Series, as the recording quality is distinctly dodgy. And as ELP’s complex arrangements depended upon slick studio production, here they frequently get lost in the soup. At one point, Lake informs us - that Emerson is tuning his Moog - and he doesn’t pull it off! Elsewhere, on ‘Still You Turn Me On’, the audience’s conversation is louder than the music.

As for the boxes themselves, they’re sturdy but uninteresting affairs, featuring the logo from ELP’s Manticore imprint, while each concert is packaged in its own sleeve and given the bizarre title taken from the original bootlegs that were appropriated by the group as their own - hence, ‘The Irridescent Concubine’ and ‘Waiting For The Corduroy Purpose’.

The bootleg theme is continued with the sleeves, which have monochrome graphics and text in an amateurish-looking font, along with a foldout poster with track listings and a brief description of each show. Perhaps it’s assumed that if you’ve bought these products then you know everything about ELP already. Or that, if your wont is to purchase 15 live CDs, you’ll probably be aware of the original bootlegs and want them in all their glory.

Volume Two takes us to 1977. One wonders how much more material there might be in those vaults? The truth is, these collections are only for the true ELP completist, of whom there are quite a few. Welcome back, my friends. . .

Paul Sutton Reeves

Just what Jim Davidson wanted for Christmas (other than a Danish blonde): a wad of ELP.