Perhaps no single group more fully embodied all that was both loved and hated about progressive rock than Emerson, Lake and Palmer (ELP), prog rock's first official 'supergroup'. Formed from the wreckage of The Nice and the original King Crimson, ELP exploded onto the music scene in 1970 with an unforgettable performance at Great Britain's answer to the US's Woodstock - the Isle of Wight Festival. With an amazing 25-minute reworking of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, progressive rock was unleashed upon the masses, complete with thundering cannons to punctuate its arrival.
The story goes that Greg Lake and Keith Emerson met when King Crimson played on the same bill as The Nice at the Fillmore West in late 1969. Crimson were in the midst of their first major period of internal disarray (there would be several to come) and Lake was uncertain about the band's future. Emerson, encouraged somewhat by the success of King Crimson and already weary from personality conflicts within The Nice, was looking to form a new band and infused Lake with some of his enthusiasm. The two appeared to click musically right away. As Emerson recalls, 'Greg was moving a bass line and I played the piano in back and zap! It was there.'
Lake contemplated the idea throughout the Christmas holiday, finally electing to remain with King Crimson. Robert Fripp, King Crimson's leader, evidently sensed that Lake was yearning to seek out greener pastures with Emerson and in his words 'put him [Lake] in a position where he was forced to leave', by stating that he [Fripp] wanted to have the final say on all Crimson's music.
While Fripp describes this incident as an altruistic ruse to push a fellow musician in the direction he wished to go, it is quite likely that Fripp indeed wanted to exert more control of Crimson's music and with Lake (the most dominant personality in the band aside from Fripp) out of the picture, he could do just that. Indeed, just two years later, the music on King Crimson's Islands album would be wholly written and arranged by Fripp alone. Lake did continue his association with King Crimson long enough to contribute vocals to several tracks from Crimson's second album In the Wake of Poseidon before leaving to concentrate solely on the new band-to-be with Emerson.
Thus, the first incarnation of King Crimson, along with The Nice, burned out and the original progressive 'supergroup' arose from the ashes. Along with quickly securing a recording contract with Island Records, the band managed to generate quite a bit of anticipation among the British music press, based on the strength of their pedigrees. The NME's headline on 4 April, 1970 read 'Keith Emerson and Greg Lake to form new group' and the press would keep a keen eye on the band up until their debut.
Forming the Band
It is generally believed that the idea Emerson had at this time was for a trio with the keyboard as its centrepiece, doing away with a guitarist altogether. Robert Fripp even claims to have expressed interest in working with them in some capacity, only to be told that Emerson was 'not keen to work with a guitar player.'
The facts belie this notion, however. In fact, Emerson had been trying for some time to enlist the services of none other than Jimi Hendrix. Fans throughout the years have enjoyed speculating what might have happened if ELP had actually been HELP (Hendrix, Emerson, Lake and Palmer). In actuality, Emerson and Lake - before settling on Palmer as drummer - had discussed a collaboration with Hendrix and his drummer Mitch Mitchell.
The prospects of this becoming a reality were squashed when, upon meeting Mitchell, Lake decided that he was far too 'wigged out' to work with. The drummer and guitarist were apparently a package deal at the time; without Mitchell, there would be no Hendrix and the project fell apart. Later, Hendrix did express interest in working with the band even after a drummer had been decided upon, but unfortunately died of a drug overdose before this could happen.
Instead, Emerson and Lake decided to forego a guitarist completely and after considering such drummers as Cream's Ginger Baker and Coliseum's John Hiseman, happened upon 19-year-old Carl Palmer, formerly of The Crazy World of Arthur Brown (whose single Fire remains a radio staple to this day), who was then playing with Atomic Rooster. Palmer auditioned for the band, but was reluctant to join at first:
'I went down for an audition and we hit it off really well, but I didn't join right away. I told them I wanted to come back the next day and see if the magic would be there again. It was, and that was it. I was on board from that day forward.'
With the elements now in place, ELP began rehearsals at London's Island studios for the album that eventually would become 1970's Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Among the early rehearsal pieces were Crimson's 21st Century Schizoid Man and The Nice's Rondo, along with several classical pieces by Janacek and Bartok that Emerson was adapting for the trio. Emerson has since stated that he and Lake have 'always had, almost from the beginning, what you'd call a 'working relationship'. You know, we're not friends in the classical sense.' Nevertheless, the three seemed to click very well during rehearsals and by summer had a full set of presentable material to take before a live crowd.
Taking the World by Storm
Their first live performance was on 23 August, 1970 at the 3,000-seat Plymouth Guildhall, where they tested out the material they were to perform at the Isle of Wight Festival six days later. Little is known about this first concert, as most ELP biographies list the Isle of Wight show as the band's first performance (the show is apparently available on an extremely rare bootleg called Debut). The band reportedly made $500 from the gig. Six days later, they loaded up their organs and headed for the Isle of Wight.
The Isle of Wight Festival was three days of peace, love and music for 600,000 British youths who couldn't make it to Woodstock. Sharing the bill with ELP were The Moody Blues, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, Joni Mitchell, Jethro Tull and The Who, amongst many others. The entire spectrum of British youth subculture had taken boats and ferries to the island, jumped gates and skirted the £3 admission for what was later called 'the last great music festival'.
The mood in the air was indeed festive amongst audience and performers alike, as reflected by Greg Lake's recollection of an incident involving the Who's legendary drummer, Keith Moon. On his way to the festival, Lake's car passed Moon in his pink Rolls Royce and Lake spied what appeared to be a pair of stocking-clad female legs dangling of out the passenger-side window. 'He'd got one of these blow-up dollies and put nylons and suspenders [on it] and then put then window up, trapped the legs in the window and was driving down toward the Isle of Wight with these things.' So much for pretention.
The third act on the bill, ELP took to the stage, performing Rondo and America from the repertoire of The Nice before launching into their now-famous rendition of Mussorgsky's Pictures. The remarkably confident trio, who had yet to release their first album, roared through the set with abandon; Emerson at turns playing piano, organ and his custom Moog, riding and demolishing the Hammond in the now-customary manner that earned him the nickname 'Hendrix of the keyboards'. The last notes of the piece were punctuated by cannons filled with flashpowder on either side of the stage, set off by Lake and sending the crowd into a frenzy. The festival crowd had just been presented with an hour of loud, incredibly fast, bombastic, extremely unfamiliar music and they loved every minute of it. The band's status as the public ambassadors of progressive rock was now cemented.
ELP's self titled first album was released on 20 November, 1970 (US audiences had to wait until the US release on Atlantic subsidiary Cotillion on 13 January, 1971). The album contained six tracks, starting off with an aggressive adaptation of Bartok's Allegro Barbaro, entitled The Barbarian. From the first, lurching notes that seem designed to blast the listener straight out of his chair (much like the roaring opening to King Crimson's 21st Century Schizoid Man; the 'first time the world had been slammed over the head by progressive rock'), this was thunderous, forceful and impeccably-played music that already showed the signs of a distinct style that ELP were to call their own.
Their next full-length studio album Tarkus was even more ambitious, featuring the eponymous, side-long composition, an atonal maelstrom of Moog-dominated fury. Trilogy followed in 1972 and showcased Lake's skills as a balladeer with the successful single 'From the Beginning'.
A live album (and film) of their performance of Pictures at an Exhibition was also released in quick succession to capitalise on the band's popularity, but it was 1973's Brain Salad Surgery that would become their definitive work. With conceptual influences ranging from William Blake to Philip K Dick, Brain Salad Surgery (a euphemism for fellatio, according to Lake) was one of the most successful albums of the 1970s; its centrepiece, the Bradbury-esque science fiction epic Karn Evil 9, is very probably being played on a radio station somewhere as you read this.
The music, while always contributed to more or less equally, was by all accounts difficult to compose from the very beginning, with the three strong-willed players unwilling to surrender individual space to the ideas of the others. In the words of Emerson, 'There was never an ELP style as much there was an Emerson style, a Lake style and so on. [Greg and I] very rarely wrote together.'
Nowhere is this more evident than on their 'comeback' album, released after a four-year absence from the studio. 1977's Works Vol. I contains only two collaborative band compositions among its fourteen tracks, the rest being given over to a side each of solo work from each member.
Fanfare for the Common Band
Despite mixed reviews (as always), Works Vol. I sold in its millions and reached the top ten in the US. With delusions well beyond grandeur fuelled by healthy album sales, the band undertook its most ambitious project to date; a grand-scale world tour, with nothing less than a 52-piece orchestra in tow (conducted by Godfrey Salmon, after Leonard Bernstein allegedly had a fit during auditions). While an artistic and (surprisingly) critical success, including a memorable gig at Montreal's Olympic Stadium, the enormous costs of keeping the behemoth operation on the road made the tour into a financial disaster for the band and the orchestra was dropped from the rest of the tour schedule after only a few weeks.
As the band continued to tour, Works Vol. II was released in December 1977. Consisting mainly of out-takes from the first sessions and some hastily polished demos, it was lukewarmly received at best and did not sell well; its general unevenness reflecting the discontent of the band members at that period in time.
The musical climate had changed suddenly and drastically since ELP and the progressive movement were part of the aristocracy of rock. The broad swathe of punk had recently cut through the public zeitgeist and the record companies' expectations had unfairly turned bands like ELP into dinosaurs before their time; forever to be remembered as pompous upstarts without a danceable tune between them.
God Save the Kings...
To ride out the wave, or at least run screaming from it, ELP released the regrettable Love Beach in 1978. At this point, the band were a band in name only, since they had all but ceased to work together and the album was released only for contractual reasons. Mainly a collection of soppy Lake ballads, given what flavour is possible by Emerson's melodic colourings, the album did at least include the obligatory side-long epic (Memoirs of an Officer and a Gentlemen), although this time the subject matter was about as far from cyberpunk as one could get. Even the album cover - usually one of the most consistently 'cool' features of ELP albums - was a sad indicator of what things had come to. The trio stand at sunset on a tropical island, Hawaiian shirts open to the navel and looking for all the world like they're being chased by a giant Barry Gibb.
After a posthumous live album, ELP quietly broke up in 1978, as is almost inevitably the case when musicians of such calibre work together for any period of time; personality and creative conflicts began to take their toll within the band. Various combinations of the three formed side-projects over the years, but the full band did not reunite until 1992, to record their would-be comeback album Black Moon.
Welcome Back, My Friends...
Black Moon, while a more solid effort than Love Beach had been 14 years earlier, unfortunately produced no new ELP classics. It did, however, rekindle enough interest in the band to encourage them to begin touring again quite successfully on a regular basis. The reinvigorated ELP continued to record and perform until 1999, when Greg Lake officially left the band, again over 'creative differences' (this time regarding the production credits on a forthcoming album).
ELP's albums have sold in their tens of millions of copies worldwide and are consistently listed on Billboard's catalogue charts to this day. They have several tribute bands and tribute albums in honour of them and the boundaries they broke within the confines of rock will continue to influence generations of young musicians for years to come.