Friday, December 23, 2016

Greg Lake and Keith Emerson - Songs of a Lifetime [RIP]

Progressive rock, or “prog” for short.  For the longest time, I thought of it as a pejorative – music without guitars, or just music in something besides 4/4 time.  It’s a bit of a contradiction.  Its serious music played by serious people.  There’s not a hint of rebellion or fun in it, unless you consider its seriousness a rebellion from the rock form.  It can be long-winded, bombastic, pompous, and pretentious.  Only in the world of prog could an eight-minute song like Roundabout be considered a single.  Prog has its place.  If you want to hear long songs played by well-schooled, technical, precise musicians, this is the music for you.  And for me [sometimes], it is.  Sometimes I like the excess that is prog.  Prog became a dirty word for some because of the likes of Yes, Genesis, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and King Crimson.  These bands created songs that would last an entire album side.  The worst example was Yes’ Tales of Topographic Oceans – a four-sided album with four songs.  One needs to have a lot of patience to sit through the whole thing.  I did – once.  That is precisely the number of times I listened to that work from beginning to end in one sitting.  When I was finished, I put it away for 30 years.  But I come not to slag prog as a genre.  Bands like Rush and Dream Theater have given prog a metal [or at least a hard rock] edge, and a much better name.  I can listen to those guys anytime.  Pink Floyd is considered by some to be prog, and I love Pink Floyd.  But I write now because Greg Lake died on December 7th, and Keith Emerson preceded him in death in March.  

I don’t know when it was.  It was a very long time ago.  When I first heard Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s Lucky Man, I knew that the guy who sang it would be one of my all-time favorite singers [this was before I discovered Paul Rodgers and Gregg Allman].  This was my introduction to Greg Lake.  I knew the ballads he sang from hearing them on the radio – Still…You Turn Me On, From the Beginning, and my favorite Christmas song, I Believe in Father Christmas.  Those were just the ballads.  Words fail me [as they often do] to describe Greg Lake’s voice.  But I found this from columnist Richard Stellar which captured it perfectly:  

“Backed by the late Keith Emerson and percussionist Carl Palmer, Lake’s voice would on one song lull the listener into a somnambulistic zone of quiet romanticism — and on the next track disembowel the senses with a battle cry that was a harbinger for the times.”  

Yeah…Greg Lake was that good of a singer.  

In my freshman year of college in Boulder, my dorm neighbor was playing something that I’d never heard before.  It was then he introduced me to Brain Salad Surgery.  Here was the warped genius that was Keith Emerson in all his compositional and performance glory.  That was the hook for all things progressive for me.  Soon followed Yes and King Crimson.  But ELP was different from all the rest.  They were a rock band where the keyboards were the main instrument in an era when the guitar was king [and still is as far as I’m concerned].  Like their contemporaries, they could overindulge on the side-long epics, but they could also do shorter radio-friendly songs, usually written by Greg Lake.  They were different.  Lake’s band before ELP, King Crimson [which he founded with Robert Fripp, a childhood friend from Bournemouth], were equally different.  

King Crimson’s debut, In the Court of the Crimson King has been hailed by many as a great masterpiece.  I’m not one of those who think it’s great, just merely good.  It has only five songs, all of which are over seven minutes.  And of those, I like three of them – 21st Century Schizoid Man, Epitaph, and the title song.  These songs are stone cold classics.  Epitaph and the title song is where you hear Ian McDonald’s Mellotron, the sound that Pete Townshend characterized as “sirens down a canyon.”  Greg Lake sings one of his most beautiful vocals on Epitaph.  It conveys something one rarely hears in prog – emotion.  One rarely listens to prog for its lyrical content, but the chorus from Epitaph is gripping - "Confusion will be my Epitaph/As I crawl, a cracked and broken path/If we make it, we can all, sit down and laugh/but I fear tomorrow I'll be crying..."  The vocals combined with the Mellotron make for a compelling listen.  The woodwinds are a great touch.  Yes, it’s that good.  21st Century Schizoid Man is pure dementia.  It’s hectic, it’s scary.  The combination of the blistering, aggressive guitar work of Robert Fripp, the distortion of Greg Lake’s voice, and the manic saxophone of Ian McDonald are the musical equivalent of shock and awe, long before that phrase became part of the lexicon.  The conclusion is a dissonant train wreck, which just puts an exclamation point on the chaos and disorder.  The title track is simply majestic.  But the less said about I Talk To The Wind and Moonchild, the better.  They’re quiet, and they’re nice, but not very interesting compared to the album’s three standouts.  The original King Crimson broke up two months after the release of their debut, but Fripp convinced Lake to stick around long enough to sing on the second album, In the Wake of Poseidon.  The opener, Pictures Of A City, is almost a carbon copy of 21st Century Schizoid Man [without the distorted vocals].  The title track is similar to Epitaph from the first album.  There is a sense of déjà vu on In the Wake of Poseidon, but that’s not a bad thing.  When Greg Lake was finished with this one, he departed King Crimson to form ELP with Keith Emerson.  

Keith Emerson and Greg Lake met in San Francisco, at the old Fillmore West.  Both The Nice and King Crimson played on the same bill for a three-night stand.  These were the last shows the original King Crimson would play.  Before one of these shows, The Nice were doing a soundcheck.  On the spur of the moment, Greg Lake grabbed a bass and hopped on stage with them.  Emerson and Lake felt an instant musical connection.  Before the Fillmore shows were done, the two agreed to form a new band.  A couple of months before his death, Greg Lake told Newsweek what both he and Keith Emerson were thinking when they decided to form their own band:  

I think the fundamental thing was that Keith Emerson and myself had this shared belief that too much rock ’n’ roll music had been based on the blues, Motown, gospel, country and western—all American-influenced.  I hasten to add: Nothing wrong with that; I love American music. At the time, Keith and I agreed that there needed to be something different taking place. And so we decided, really, to use European influences rather than American influences, in our music.”  

And they did just that from the beginning [no pun intended].  On their eponymous debut, two of the songs are classically-based.  The astounding instrumental opener The Barbarian is based on a piece by Béla Bartók, named Allegro Barbaro, and contains all the elements of a classic ELP song.  It’s very much a duel between Greg Lake’s distorted bass and Keith Emerson’s Hammond, with Carl Palmer holding things together in the middle while demonstrating extraordinary technique.  Carl Palmer is like Ginger Baker in that he approaches drumming from a more jazz side rather than rock like John Bonham or Keith Moon.  He gets his own showcase with TankKnife Edge takes its cues from Leoš Janacek’s Sinfonietta, with a little Bach thrown in.  Keith Emerson’s The Three Fates is an eight-minute suite of three sections [Clotho (organ solo) and Lachesis (piano solo), and Atropos (a piano trio)] that allows him to show off on the grand piano and the Royal Festival Hall’s pipe organ [a great sound!].  Greg Lake’s Take a Pebble is more of a showcase for what Keith Emerson could do on the piano.  It’s where ELP is more thoughtful, when they turn down the volume, and Keith steps back from the aural assaults with the Hammond organ.  This is what a piano sounds like when you hold down a chord and strum the piano strings with a guitar pick.  Take a Pebble would not be out of place on a King Crimson record.  Lucky Man is perhaps the song for which ELP is best known.  Greg Lake’s acoustic guitar songs were the yang to the yin of the instrumental bombast of Keith Emerson and Carl Palmer.   

As well-known as Lucky Man is, its creation was an afterthought only because they were one song short for the record.  When Eddy Offord the engineer told Greg Lake the producer they were one song short, each member asked the other ‘what have you got”?  Lake had something he wrote when he was 12.  The other two had nothing.  Emerson didn’t like it, so he went to the pub while Lake and Palmer made the record.  At first it was just the acoustic guitar and drums.  Even Lake thought it sounded “dreadful”.  But then he added bass, an electric guitar solo, and loads of block harmony vocals.  It became a proper record.  When Emerson returned from the pub he was astonished by what he heard and thought “I better play on this”.  Since there was already a guitar solo the only place for Emerson was at the end.  He had just taken delivery of a Moog synthesizer.  He started to experiment with the sound, not knowing Lake a pushed the “record” button.  When Emerson was done, Lake and Offord looked at each other and agreed that the “experiment” was the keeper.  That’s the take we’ve heard for 46 years.  And it almost never happened…  

Tarkus (1971) upped the ante with a side-long epoch [the title song] about a creature that’s a cross-between an armadillo and a tank that fights an epic battle with a Manticore [whatever that is].  A strange concept, yes – it was the 70s.  It consists of seven parts [Eruption - Stones of Years – Iconoclast – Mass – Manticore – Battlefield - Aquatarkus].  Eruption is truth in advertising -  the playing is volcanic.  Stones of Years is slower, a much-needed breather after Eruption, and Greg Lake’s voice is in fine form.  Mass doesn’t do much for me – neither does Aquatarkus.  But the rest is pure gold.  I saw ELP do Tarkus in 1998 – there’s a lot going on in this piece, and it was hard to believe Emerson could do as much live as he did, but he pulled it off.  He  later did an excellent orchestral version [no vocals] on his Three Fates Project that is worth seeking out.  The album as a whole is uneven.  The two songs on the second side that are memorable, A Time and a Place and Bitches Crystal, sounded much better when they were played live for the first time in 1997-98.  Originally these two songs were at the top of his range.  But as Lake’s voice aged, Emerson tuned them down slightly and they sound fantastic [hear them on Then & Now].  To show they weren’t as seriously as their critics alleged, they threw away two tracks with Jeremy Bender and Are You Ready Eddy, a practice they would repeat on Trilogy [The Sheriff] and Brain Salad Surgery [Benny the Bouncer].  That’s a pity because they left a good song from Greg Lake [Oh, My Father] in the can.  

Trilogy [1972] – After the concept of Tarkus, ELP went back to songs.  Except for the aforementioned The Sheriff, I like this album all the way through.  Trilogy is probably the most complete album ELP ever made.  Greg Lake provided the hit single, From the Beginning.  Keith Emerson did his first cover of Aaron Copland with Hoedown, from Copland’s Rodeo ballet.  The Endless Enigma sounds mysterious, spooky, and churchy all at once.  Trilogy [the song] is as it implies – three songs in one.  It starts with “strings” and a piano with Lake singing.  It sounds like it’s going to be a romantic number, but at the three-minute mark Emerson begins playing the Trilogy riff, then synthesizer hell breaks loose [this is a good thing].  Abaddon‘s Bolero is another nod to classical music.  Like Ravel’s Bolero, it starts quietly and gets louder as each instrument is added [they did lots of overdubbing on this album].  

Brain Salad Surgery [1973] – this one is the classic.  In retrospect, this was ELP’s peak.  Karn Evil 9 was the 29-minute centerpiece.  This is one of the few times that I thought I could do without Greg Lake’s singing [but his electric lead guitar work is stellar], and I wanted to hear an instrumental-only version of the whole piece.  My wish was partially granted in 2007 when Shout Factory re-released Brain Salad Surgery in 2007.  It contained the instrumental track for all of the first movement.  It works very well without the vocals.   In 2014 BSS was released again, and it had the backing track of the Third Movement of Karn Evil 9 without the vocals.  Like the First Movement, it works without the vocals.  And since the Second Movement was a piano solo, I have the whole thing as an instrumental.  Toccata is based on the Fourth Movement of Alberto Ginastera’s 1st Piano Concerto.  Emerson played it for the man himself in order to get his approval to release.  Ginastera loved it.  Emerson told the story of his meeting with Ginastera:  

"I was dubious about taking my arrangement to such a famous man. We had a delicious dinner and afterwards I showed him the arrangement, and began to talk about it. He didn't speak much English and his wife had to translate everything. Finally, Ginastera said, '...Please! Just play the tape!’ After he had listened to them all the way through, he turned to his wife in amazement. 'Diabolic!!' he exclaimed. I was terrified. I thought he hated it or thought I was the devil or something. But then, he smiled. He turned to me and said, "No one has been able to capture my music like that before! It's exactly the way I hear it myself!' "  

Jerusalem and Still…You Turn Me On are the songs that got loads of airplay along with Karn Evil 9, 1st Movement, Part 2 [“Welcome back my friends to the show that never end, we’re so glad you could attend, come inside, come inside…”].  Jerusalem was actually banned by the BBC because they thought ELP’s arrangement was somehow sacrilegious.  Still…You Turn Me On was a good acoustic number which got better with age when Lake played it live.  He stripped away all the instruments a left it as just him and acoustic guitar [hear it on Live at the Royal Albert Hall, 1993].  

I Believe in Father Christmas [Single, 1975] – Greg Lake released this as a single under his own name in 1975 [but Keith Emerson makes his presence known on the instrumental break].  It went to #2 on the British charts [#1 was Bohemian Rhapsody – he was ok with that].  This is my favorite Christmas song – period.  

Brain Salad Surgery, and the triple album that documented the ensuing tour [Welcome Back, My Friends, to the Show That Never Ends ~ Ladies and Gentlemen…] culminated five years of constant recording and touring.  They took a three-year break to do their own things, which came together on Works, Volume [1977].  Some of it was good. Some of it not so much.  This double album devoted a side each to solo work, and one side to group work.  Keith Emerson did his Piano Concerto No. 1.  Greg Lake did what was expected of him [acoustic love songs, a couple of them a bit too syrupy].  C’Est La Vie is noteworthy with its French quality [Keith Emerson playing the accordion].  His song Hallowed Be Thy Name [not to be confused with Iron Maiden] was a bit strange, but it is interesting [good enough for me].  Carl Palmer did a couple of classical short pieces [Two Part Invention in D Minor from J.S. Bach and The Enemy God Dances with the Black Spirits from Sergei Prokofiev], and he re-did Tank with an orchestra.  The group side has Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man [which I like] and Pirates [which I don’t like].  In total, there were 14 songs, six of which I liked.  When they were done, they hit the road with a 70-piece orchestra.  This extravagance nearly ruined them financially [they ditched the orchestra after three weeks], and affirmed what the punks were saying about them being “dinosaurs.”  Works, Volume 2 is an “odds and sods” collection.  Love Beach is another way to spell “contractual obligation”.  It has no redeeming value, and showed ELP were out of ideas and out of gas.  They quietly disbanded in 1979.  

Keith Emerson went on to work on movie soundtracks.  Carl Palmer formed Asia with John Wetton, Steve Howe, and Geoff Downes.  Greg Lake made two solo albums [Greg Lake and Manoeuvres].  What surprised me was the direction of those albums.  Having been associated with keyboard-based music since 1969, he opted to create acoustic guitar ballads when given the chance.  Once away from ELP, he chose to do neither keyboard-based music nor acoustic ballads.  He hired guitarist Gary Moore [yes, that Gary Moore] and went in a hard-rock direction.  Most noteworthy was Gary Moore’s song Nuclear Attack.  This was harder than anything he did with King Crimson and ELP.  But it worked.  But it wasn’t to last, as he still liked to write about women.  After Manoeuvres he took another break from music.  Then Keith Emerson called in 1985… 

Keith had new music.  Record executives heard the music and thought “wouldn’t it be nice if Greg Lake sang on them?”  Once again Emerson and Lake created new material.  The problem was they needed a drummer.  Carl Palmer already had a job with Asia, which made him unavailable.  They found a drummer whose initials just happened to match Carl Palmer’s – Cozy Powell.  They did one album [Emerson, Lake & Powell].  The prog purists may not have liked it but I did.  This was an album like Trilogy – no side-long epics, just songs [some long, some short].  They did an especially effective adaptation of Mars, The Bringer of War by Gustav Holst.  I also liked Touch & Go, Learning To Fly, and The Miracle.  They trio toured behind the album, but there was no interest in making a second album.  Then in 1992 Emerson, Lake and Carl Palmer got an offer to make music for a movie.  The movie never happened but they did record an album together called Black Moon.  The format was like the Emerson, Lake & Powell album – some short songs, some long songs, but no epics.  Between 1985 and 1992, Greg Lake’s voice got “darker”.  I think cigarette smoking was the culprit, but Lake still had the powerful pipes, albeit a little lower. I liked Black Moon, Paper Blood, Affairs of the Heart, Changing States, and Footprints in the Snow.  Things were not well with Keith Emerson, however.  He suffered from repetitive motion injuries in his right arm.  Playing became difficult for him.  He had corrective surgery but it barely helped.  They did another album in 1994 called In the Hot Seat.  It’s notable for having a studio version of Pictures At an Exhibition.  Apart from that, there are maybe three good songs on it [Hand of Truth, Daddy, The Man in the Long Black Coat].  

ELP toured in 1997 and 1998.  I got to see them open for Deep Purple in Denver in 1998.  Theirs was a good set, just not great.  But they did play Tarkus – the whole thing.  That part of the set was amazing.  Emerson & Lake toured as a duo in 2010, and the trio played one last show that same year.  After that show, Carl Palmer told the other two he didn’t want to do it anymore.  Keith Emerson formed his own Keith Emerson Band with Marc Bonilla.  They did one studio album and one orchestral album [Three Fates Project].  The studio album was pretty good/.  There were lots of little instrumental pieces, with some songs with vocals.  I prefer the instrumentals, which were very good.  The vocals?  Well, Greg Lake had nothing to worry    .  The orchestral album [which had no vocals] was very good.  It had a version of Tarkus [yes!].

After In the Hot Seat, Greg Lake never made another studio record under his own name or with ELP.  He did play bass on The Who’s song Real Good Looking Boy, and he continued to tour.  Keith continued to have problems with his right hand.  For him it got to the point that he was extremely underwhelmed by his own performances.  He was afraid his sub-par performances would let down his fans.  He was due to tour Japan this past spring, but his anxieties [and alcohol] got the best of him.  He took his own life on March 11, 2016.  Many musicians from the generation that created the music I like [Lemmy, David Bowie, Glenn Frey, Merle Haggard, etc] have died within the past year.  Keith Emerson’s passing just added to the Grim Reaper’s tally.  As December 8th [the date of John Lennon’s death] approached, I saw a post on Facebook from a British record producer whom I count as a friend.  It said simply “RIP Greg Lake”.  I thought “Shit!  Another one?”  Yes, and now not only is Keith Emerson gone, but so is Greg Lake.  Cancer took him away.  2016 has been brutal.

Rest in Peace, gents.