Emerson Lake & Palmer - Senior Scholastic, October 30, 1972
With Emerson, Lake and Palmer's fourth album, Trilogy, nearing hallowed status as a golden million seller, and an extremely successful tour of Japan just completed, it seems it's about time to take a look at the ELP's "classical-rock" phenomenon.
ELP has been about the only group with the right combination of technique, musical training, sensitivity, and showmanship to successfully incorporate some of the themes and structures of classical music into a contemporary rock format. Only two other groups even came close to fulfilling this in the past: King Crimson and the Nice. Interestingly enough, two of the focal points in both of those bands were Greg Lake and Keith Emerson, individuals who traveled strange roads to end up balancing the classical rock fulcrum as ELP does.
Contrary to what most people have come to believe, Keith Emerson is not an escapee from the London Conservatory. The solid foundation that sustains his inventive and flashy keyboard style came from years of practice on the family piano. Keith's father was a musician (on the local level) who always encouraged Keith's musical endeavors. There was a little friction when Keith decided to terminate a budding career as a bank clerk and devote himself exclusively to music, but his early successes made the break with convention a little less painful.
Public notoriety was first achieved with a band called Gary Farr & The T-Bones, a muscular R&B unit who became house band at the Crawdaddy Club following the departure of the Yardbirds. But the T-Bones never really broke through, and Keith soon found himself at the head of one of the first really "avant-garde" bands in England, the Nice.
A lot of precedents were established with the Nice. Actual classical pieces (Sibelius, Tschaikovsky) were synthesized into contemporary rock through the talents of Mr. Emerson. Onstage theatrics reached an initial peak when Keith stabbed his organ to death and burned the American flag during their renditions of "America" (from West Side Story) at an historic Albert Hall performance, causing the Nice to be banned from ever playing there again.
The Nice went on to record a series of experimental albums for a variety of labels, but internal hassles over musical direction caused the group to dissolve on the verge of major success in America.
In a bitter-sweet moment of reflection, Robert Fripp, guiding genius of the contemporary rock ensemble known as King Crimson, once mentioned in a voice laden with sarcasm that he "discovered Greg Lake washing out the public lavatories at Victoria Station in London". Although this is undoubtedly a rather obvious distortion of the truth, pushed on by a healthy resentment of ELP's current world-wide success, it does underline the intense hostility that led to the death of King Crimson (the first time).
In fact, Greg was studying architecture and doing his apprenticeship in a factory. He would spend his days "climbing around banging on copper pipes," a task that left a good deal to be desired. At night he would play bass and guitar with a variety of groups, none of which were challenging enough to lure him away from the security trip. Until he hooked up with Fripp, Peter Sinfield, and McDonald & Giles - the original King Crimson.
Crimson's music was daring, eccentric, and radically different in an era of blues-inspired material. It was atonal, jarring, and ominous - supplemented by a mellotron and a variety of peculiar instruments. The only consistently graceful element came from Greg Lake's sensitive vocals. But the brilliance that shone through much of King Crimson's music was achieved at the high price of terminal battles within the group. Luckily, Greg was to meet Keith during Crimson's last American tour, activating the initial chemistry of the future ELP.
With the exception of their live recording of Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition, an imagistic piece recounting the author's impressions of a particular art exhibit (which ELP adapted and changed to fit their particular conceptual framework) Emerson Lake & Palmer don't really make literal use of classical music the way the Nice did. Classical themes continue to surface occasionally, as on their latest al um with Aaron Copland's "Hoedown," but Keith makes use of established melodies only because he finds it challenging to integrate them into an exciting and vital modern mode. A typical example is his version of the Brandenburg Concerto granted on to Dylan's Country Pie which sounds like a bad joke until your hear the supremely successful result.
The thing that makes ELP so successful where stylistic predecessors have failed is that Keith Greg, and Carl have learned to work within a very flexible musical horizon; they have continual room for creative expansion while at the same time commanding a following that channels it through a well-defined and very commercial outlet. Their music is complicated and accessible at the same time -- and even Tschaikovsky never quite achieved that.