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Emerson, Lake, and Palmer viewed their vocation as creating things of beauty. Such a motivation is a rare gift; to have it shared by three such brilliant musicians was a once in a generation gift for us all…

ELP

The show has ended. In 2016 we lost two-thirds of the most important musical group of the rock era. Keith Emerson, composer of both rock and classical music capable of moving the soul, arguably the most skilled keyboard player of the last century, suffering from depression and facing painful, debilitating nerve degeneration, took his own life. Greg Lake, whose naturally sonorous voice was honed to an unsurpassed level of tonal accuracy and range and whose lyrical compositions could paint pictures of astounding beauty, succumbed to cancer. Thus, two-thirds of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer have left the stage, never to come back again in this world. We are left with Carl Palmer, classically-trained like his bandmates, possessed of the very highest skill and raw talent (again, like his bandmates), and always the most open and approachable of the three, still performing with another great but very different band, Asia, and carrying on with an ELP Legacy group to remind us of what we have lost.

Rock critics never liked ELP, tossing ignorant slights like “bombastic” and “overblown” at them as if composing and performing to one’s highest aspirations were mere “pretension.” But the critics’ sniping was in its way a recognition of the glory of ELP: This band did not aim merely to please an audience—though they did seek to please, including through sometimes circus-like theatrics. Nor did they aim to be “relevant” or to be “authentic” in the vulgar manner so prized by the truly pretentious half-educated who demand validation for their own inclinations and experiences. ELP sought to make art.

For a group of musicians playing mechanical instruments to set such high expectations seems ridiculous to many. The genre of music ELP helped create (“progressive” rock—a label they rejected) can be merely self-indulgent in its fascination with electronic tones and futurist ideology. But ELP, whatever its excesses and whatever the political views of its members, was about music, not ideology. ELP worked to live their vocation as composers and musicians. Whether in the organic, rocking, drum-centric “Tank” from the first album or in overtly cerebral fantasies like “Pirates” from Works Volume I and “Karn Evil 9” from Brain Salad Surgery, Emerson, Lake, and Palmer were “all in.” They got joy from extending themselves as musicians and from layering rhythms and melodies in a fashion Bach would have approved. At their best, Mr. Lake’s lyrics (often with the cooperation of Peter Sinfield) evoked other worlds, drawing pictures with words and tones and imprinting them on the ears and minds of the listeners. This is most obviously in the superficially self-explanatory “Pirates.” But it is just as true, for example, “Karn Evil 9, First Impression” (especially the less-known Part I) in which words and music combine to make the listener identify with a hero whose virtue and pride lead him into a fantastic, nightmare world in which spectacle and ambition destroy humanity—spiritually by the end of the First Impression, then literally by the end of the work. “Karn Evil 9” is not overblown, it is genuinely and intentionally music on a grand scale, combining classical techniques with multiple, interlacing rhythms, and polyphony to immerse the listener in a web of sound that for a time creates its own reality.

“Counterpoint” is a concept (not to say a reality) little understood among most rock musicians; but it was crucial to ELP’s ability to produce sounds that made sense at a level frankly higher than can be achieved in most blues-based music, with its emphasis on a single, simple melody underscored by rhythms deeply rooted in a single beat. At their usual best, Emerson, Lake, and Palmer performed according to a vision of rock music as rooted in the classical past. They produced both direct classical adaptations (“Fanfare for the Common Man” being the most famous) and original compositions that likewise combined modern rhythm and technique with melodic sophistication to create genuine art—pieces of beauty capable of affecting the souls of listeners.

As with all of show business, one could pick apart personalities and motivations, and second-guess various decisions that, for ELP, meant lost opportunities to make great music, as well as some music that simply was not up to par. Yet even misconceived albums like Love Beach include gems (“Canario” is one of ELP’s best classical adaptations) and ELP seldom failed when they were true to their vision.

The saga of these three men after the band’s original breakup in 1978 is long and tortured. It includes several near-reunions, including a different ELP album—Emerson, Lake, and Powell. With all due respect to Cozzy Powell, this might have been one of their very best had it included Mr. Palmer’s talent for arrangements and his ability to play the drums as a lead instrument. And there were attempts to break into the pop realm. But, where groups like Genesis had managed the transition, ELP, 3 (a brief grouping of Emerson, Palmer, and Robert Berry), and solo efforts did not. The reason was simple: these men thought too big. Mr. Palmer could divert his talents into the percussionist pyrotechnics of Asia. But pursuit of popular relevance, once the spell of stadium concerts backed by orchestras wore off, required a more fundamental rethinking for Emerson and Lake, whose classical training and frame of mind became insipid when compressed. Emerson in particular (and much to his credit) could think neither univocally nor in terms of the commonplace. ELP’s music was larger than life, conceived in terms of alternate realities. To make it anything else was to make it a bad imitation of something less real than itself.

This is not to say that ELP was strictly an “art” band. The underrated Works Volume II is filled with jazz influences and some of their best music. But what made ELP different from other rock groups was not that it was “progressive”—whatever that term might mean. Rather, it was that the members viewed their vocation as creating things of beauty. Such a motivation is a rare gift; to have it shared by three such brilliant musicians was a once in a generation gift for us all.

ELP has left us more than half a dozen masterworks in the form of albums—not mere songs, but entire albums with beginnings, middles, and ends that take the listener on an aural journey. Not all of ELP’s albums are masterworks, though even the least of them include important pieces. But the original Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Tarkus, Pictures at an Exhibition, Trilogy, Brain Salad Surgery, Works Volume I, Works Volume II, and, if I may, Emerson, Lake and Powell and even Black Moon, constitute a body of work valuable for itself. They provide experiences enriching to the soul and show just how much can be accomplished with mechanical instruments and the human voice when the goal is something more than “keeping it real.”

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11 replies to this post
  1. ELP did indeed produce some gorgeous music, as did Yes and Asia (which shared some members). It’s all too easy to dismiss all popular music as inferior, but that simply is not the case. As you point out, there’s a great deal of fine music still being composed and played based on timeless Western musical traditions. We just have to listen for it and pay attention when it’s played.

  2. As another band of the genre, Rush, once sang, “All this machinery making modern music/can still be open-hearted./Not so coldly charted, it’s realy just a question/of your honesty.” Back in the ’70s musicians, not record-company CEOs, had primary control of their art. Can one imagine a band like ELP trying to score a contract with a major label today? Their looks alone would get them a slammed door before they could play a single note. On the bright side, technology has reduced musicians’ dependence on big business, so the ones who care about integrity can gain a loyal audience and still make a few dollars along the way.

  3. I love the seriousness with which The Imaginative Conservative treats rock music as a valuable cultural enterprise, in both this and other articles. It is not what I have generally come to expect of self-consciously “conservative” publications, which is unfortunate, but it is a subject that invites rich and potentially edifying engagement. That said… I certainly understand having a favorite band, but Frohnen’s hagiography is a bit over the top, here. There’s also no small irony in his derisive sniping at “half-educated” and “pretentious” music critics being immediately followed by an essay that deploys musical terminology with a precision that I would never accept from my undergraduate students.

    Right from the top, identifying ELP as “the most important musical group of the rock era” strains credibility. They were influential to a degree, certainly, and admirable in their adventurous efforts to consciously infuse their rock format with some of the structural elements of classical music, but there were and are bands of equal or greater historical, cultural, and musicological significance (off the top of my head, Magma, Rush, Genesis, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Radiohead, The Who, Tool, Yes, Meshuggah, The Mars Volta, and Sonic Youth all at the very least challenge ELP for “most important” status in terms of influence, structural/stylistic innovation, or both).

    In my opinion, and granted a comparatively limited knowledge of ELP’s catalog, most efforts at rock/classical fusion have not been terrifically successful, aesthetically; like Yes’s more self-conscious efforts along the same lines, they tend to come across as ill-advised and half baked, either “rock played on classical instruments” or “classical music played by a rock band” (very much like Gunther Schuller’s jazz/classical “Third Stream” work). Generally speaking, I would ascribe this to enthrallment by the shibboleth of “classical music” as conceived in terms of stylistic markers of the 17th-19th centuries of Western European music. Those bands who have instead sought to hone their musical work in terms of principles of music that can be found throughout the music of other cultures and centuries (texture, counterpoint, harmony, change vs. stasis, large-scale structure, and timbre being a few of the more significant bits) have been more successful and are in my opinion more important in terms of stylistic development and historical significance. Of the few bands I named above, Magma and Radiohead most clearly show the possibilities of engaging with the musical past not in terms of “the shoulders of giants,” but rather as a whetstone for sharpening one’s critical appraisal of one’s own compositional efforts.

    The point about a vocational self-concept in terms of creating beautiful things is, I think, the strongest point in this essay. This is a vocation that cuts across musical genres and stylistic divisions, and is what really sets any given musician apart as meriting critical engagement (“beautiful” being a negotiable term, of course). The division between “classical” and “popular” in music is largely a false dichotomy. I tend to think music exists on a spectrum of intent, from primarily functional to primarily philosophical (or from concrete to conceptual, perhaps), and very few creators of sonic art fall hard on one end or the other. The relative level of artistry of anything along that spectrum is determined by how well it does what it is intended to do, not by its comparative aesthetic (or where it falls on the spectrum). But as a culture we have never quite managed to divest ourselves from an ultimately Romantic vision of art as spiritual and pure, versus entertainment as banal (and thus the “artist” as a kind of priest).

    There was never a time in my youth playing in rock bands when I thought of what I was doing as “entertainment;” rather, I was trying to write music that embodied the drive and aggression and complexity that I enjoyed in the music I listened to… to create music that was true to my limited experience of what was true and beautiful, although I wouldn’t have known how to put it in those terms at the time. When eventually I got turned on to classical music, it was primarily by way of Stravinsky, who had all of those things in spades, but I never stopped valuing what I loved in rock music, and only for a relatively short (and in my view, immature) period did I think that music in the classical tradition was more valuable or pure. Genuine artistic enterprise (“forms symbolic of human feeling,” per Susanne Langer, in what I think is a somewhat incomplete but useful definition) can be embodied perfectly well in either, with the most prevalent distinction being that each “genre” tends to prioritize some kinds of feeling over others. Where I [object] is where people claim that one (generally that in the classical tradition) is then higher/better/purer/more “artistic” than the other, claim for it greater cultural currency, and in doing so also place greater importance on the composers of that kind of music, drawing a hard distinction between “artists” on the one side and “entertainers” on the other. In my field, this almost invariably takes the form of identifying everything outside of the genre of classical music (if there is any such monolithic genre) with the coded, semi-derogatory term “popular” — jazz usually gets a pass, as long as it’s in the nicely sanitized university-approvable classical jazz school. Part and parcel with this comes the expectation that classical musicians are practicing their art for purer philosophical/spiritual/etc purposes, and others for mainly impure commercial/practical purposes. And of course this can cut in both directions: “classical” artists are suspect of selling out if they make money a significant concern in their activities (or even if they just plain make a decent amount of money at all), and “popular” artists are haughty and elitist if they make the philosophical/spiritual/etc end of things a significant concern in theirs… a problem of which all of us prog-lovers are well aware!

  4. One of the better articles on ELP I have seen. ELP is probably my fave of this canon of rock music. I feel that Keith Emerson was a musical genius whose compositions translate to a symphony orchestra as if they were written for it.

  5. Great article. Most critics overlook the fact that in the mid 70’s ELP was only second to Led Zeppelin in terms of mass appeal and touring revenue. How times have changed.

  6. This is a wonderful article. The author did his research through and through, and treats ELP with a reverence and seriousness that they deserve. Thank you for this.

  7. Congratulations on the text! No musical band knew how to combine the erudite genre and the popular one with as much mastery as the ELP. A band that can be classified as a “complete entity” creating Progressive Rock, Hard Rock, Jazz, Folk, Ballads, etc. Keith Emerson is a genius! Many of his compositions are already playing around with great orchestras and will soon be in conservatories competing with Mozart, Chopin, Tchaikovsky, etc.

  8. Living Sin, Trilogy (the song), Jerusalem, Benny the Bouncer, one of my old favorites the Sheriff, The coolest songI ever heard off of a debut…the Barbarian. I wouldn’t even be commenting here had I not read Mr. Bruce Frohnens unforgettable homage to my favorite band ever. Splendidly done Mr. Frohnen

  9. ELP was a major introduction to great classical music for me as a young teen. ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’ remains one of my favourite all-time pieces. They also introduced me to Copeland who I still love. One thing leads to another, and with many British bands of the time playing (ie: being able to play!) classical inspired music (the band ‘Yes’, ‘The Nice’, and others come to mind), rock became a springborad to the entire wonderful world of classical music. That eventually led me to become a classical guitarist. Could any modern music do this for young people? There seems to be such a dearth of creativity. I attribute this partially the soul-deadening impact of technology: iphones, modern methods of sound processing, earbuds, and the like.
    Jyst as a note, Keith Emerson was not always so pretty: With “The Nice” he would jam knives into his keyboards, set fire to various objects on-stage (including, at least once, at Royal Albert Hall, the American flag, creating a potential diplomatic incident for the government), and simulate sex with his instrument — by 1968 he was known as the Jimi Hendrix of the keyboard.

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