Greg Lake & Keith Emerson: Their Best Work Together

John Kelman By

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While it should come as no surprise that musical heroes from across all genres are beginning to die off, some of the highest profile losses are, in particular, in the rock/pop world, where many of its biggest stars are now in their mid-to-late sixties...or older. Few would disagree that one of the years biggest losses happened just ten days into 2016, when David Bowie passed away at 69 just two days after the release of Black Star (Sony)—an album that presaged his pending (but, to the public, unknown) passing in a most artful fashion. Only one of the year's other major musical losses, Leonard Cohen—who passed away on November 7 at the age of 82—matched Bowie's death with a similar chain of events. Passing just 17 days after the release of his similarly career-defining You Want It Darker (Sony), like Blackstar it met, amongst other things, the subject of Cohen's also-pending (and, like Bowie, publicly unknown) passing, but with the singer/songwriter's characteristic combination of dark humor and emotional profundity.

There were simply too many more losses this year, including soul/R&B megastar Prince, who passed away April 21 at the too-young age of just 57, and masterful archivist Leon Russell, lost to us on November 13 at age 74—a musician better known for his collaborations with bigger names including Joe Cocker (who passed on 2014 at age 70) and Elton John (thankfully, still with us)...but who remained a musician's musician until the very end.

For fans of progressive rock it's also been a particularly rough year, most notably with the loss of two-thirds of one of the its earliest seminal, genre-defining (and defying) groups, Emerson, Lake & Palmer.

The first blow came on March 11, when the trio's virtuosic keyboardist, Keith Emerson, died at his own hand. Ever a perfectionist who refused to give his fans anything less than his absolute best, a combination of alcohol-induced depression and nerve damage that, beginning in the early '90s and ultimately hampering his ability to play at his usual level of extreme virtuosity, rendered the keyboardist—who'd also survived what was described as a "dangerous polyp" in his lower intestine that was discovered and surgically removed in the fall of 2010—"depressed, nervous and anxious," according to his girlfriend...and, so sadly, worried that he would disappoint his fans at a series of upcoming performances.

Now, just shy of nine months later and as the year draws to a close, ELP's singer/bassist/guitarist/producer Greg Lake has succumbed to cancer, age 69, on December 7. That ELP's most artistically creative and commercially successful years were between 1970 and 1974, with the release of its first four studio albums and two live sets, didn't seem to matter to fans old enough to have seen the group in its heyday, as well as to those who came to the group after that banner five-year run. Every member of the group continued to be well-loved by progressive fans, even if they rarely performed as a trio after the end of the '70s, barring a single 2010 performance at the High Voltage Festival that followed a series of occasional tours between 1992 and 1998 on the heels of Black Moon (Victory Music, 1992), the band's first studio album in 14 years, and In the Hot Seat (Victory, 1994).

A 2010 duo tour by Emerson and Lake was met with open arms. The duo claimed to be performing a collection largely culled from ELP's more introspective side, but the single live document from the tour, Live from Manticore Hall (Manticore, 2014), was a healthy mix of Lake's more accessible songs ("Lucky Man," "From the Beginning," "C'est la Vie") and ELP's more complex, epic music (much of it written by Emerson), including the 20-minute title track from its second studio album, Tarkus (Island, 1971), and "Pirates," from Works Volume 1 (Manticore, 1977). The shows were already intimate and personal, but became all the more so with the duo's Q&A session with its fans, halfway through each show. How many artists of Emerson and Lake's stature have been prepared to meet questions from their fans head-on and in public?

With Lake and Emerson now gone, drummer Carl Palmer continues to tour the music of ELP and more with his own band, albeit in reworked versions for a trio that, rather than featuring another keyboardist, employs guitarist Paul Bielatowicz, who manages to transfer Emerson's music from keys to six strings with remarkable verisimilitude.

Is it a coincidence that Lake produced all of ELP's "glory days" albums—from studio albums beginning with 1970's Emerson, Lake & Palmer (Island)) and Tarkus, through Trilogy (Island, 1972) and the group's career high water mark, Brain Salad Surgery (Island, 1973), in addition to the live Pictures at an Exhibition (Island/Manticore, 1971) and triple-LP Welcome Back My Friends to the Show That Never Ends...Ladies and Gentlemen... (Manticore, 1974)—but that all subsequent ELP releases were either collaboratively produced with the group, by Emerson or, later, by outside producers?

The answer is, of course, more complex than such a reductionist suggestion. Still, with Lake's recent passing, it seems like a good time to look back at what must be considered both his and Emerson's best period, from the mid-to-late '60s through to 1974 when, following the tour that resulted in Welcome Back My Friends..., the trio took a three-year hiatus after which, while ELP's three members returned to no shortage of success for another couple years, they never fully recaptured either the creative spark that defined so much of their early work together or the commercial success that found the collective sales of those early recordings literally in the tens of millions. Sadly, ego and excess got in the way of the music—not that prog wasn't, too some extent, defined by excess; but there was always a breaking point, after which it became, well, excessively excessive—leading to the group's first dissolution in 1979, following the release of what is largely considered the group's nadir, alongside In the Hot Seat: the Emerson-produced Love Beach (Atlantic, 1979).

ELP emerged, in 1970, from three groups with varying degrees of commercial success in the nascent years of progressive rock. Emerson first achieved a name for himself as "the Jimi Hendrix of the organ" with The Nice, for both his staggering virtuosity (also on piano) and his inimitable showmanship: tossing his Hammond organ around the stage as if it were a tinker toy; playing it upside down as he lay beneath the front of the instrument, tilted low to the ground; twirling at around his Leslie and Marshall amplifiers to achieve Hendrix-like feedback; and creating sustaining notes by driving knives right into the keys. A series of albums explored everything from psychedelic original material to progressive rock-infused interpretations of music by Bob Dylan, Tim Hardin, Leonard Bernstein, Dave Brubeck and Jean Sibelius, amongst others.

But, as good as The Nice was, there was little denying that Emerson far surpassed guitarist Davy O'List (who left the group in acrimony during the summer of '68), bassist/vocalist Lee Jackson and drummer Brian Davison. Jackson's voice was always a challenge while, instrumentally, the band supported Emerson's burgeoning and ascending instrumental master in a way that was competent but never particularly special.

And so, while the group toured into the early months of 1970, Emerson had already informed Jackson and Davison that he'd be leaving, after meeting Lake while touring the United States in 1969 on a double bill with the singer/guitarist-turned-bassist's breakout group, King Crimson, which released a debut that truly shook the music world, In the Court of the Crimson King (Island, 1969). Playing together during a soundcheck, there was an instant connection, and so the pair decided to form a band that would combine Lake's love of lyrical, songwriting with Emerson's cross-genre and more complex, long-form interests, which blended elements of classical, jazz, blues, ragtime and more with the energy of rock...as well as the keyboardist's emerging interest in Robert Moog's physically and operationally unwieldy but sonically innovative monophonic synthesizer.

Other keyboardists, like Yes' Rick Wakeman and Mahavishnu Orchestra's Jan Hammer, would subsequently adopt the later, smaller, easier to use (and less expensive) MiniMoog, but Emerson would largely continue his allegiance to the larger model (though he would bring the MiniMoog, amongst other synths, into his arsenal), its panel of patch chords looking more like a phone switching system but allowing the keyboardist to introduce sonics never before heard in rock music...especially in concert.

Lake contributed, as a guest, to all but one of the vocal tunes on Crimson's second album, In the Wake of Poseidon (Island, 1970)—truly, by that time, group in name only as sole original member, guitarist Robert Fripp, began a two-year search to find a tour-capable (and willing) group with the release of Islands (Island, 1971). With Emerson completely freed from The Nice and Crimson all but disbanded, the pair was ready to move forward with their new project by the summer of 1970. Lake would be the group's bassist but, freed from the restrictions of King Crimson, would also bring both acoustic and electric guitars back into his arsenal.

But first, the pair needed a drummer. The final piece of the puzzle came with Carl Palmer, the youngest member of the band who had already garnered a strong reputation, first as the drummer for psychedelic madman Arthur Brown and then, along with keyboardist Vincent Crane after leaving the singer's employ, forming Atomic Rooster, which garnered some commercial and critical success but was relegated—perhaps unfairly—to a second-tier position beneath groups like King Crimson, The Moody Blues, Procol Harum and Yes. Offered the chance to work with the more masterful Emerson and Lake—and with major label interest also in the offing—the precocious drummer (he was just 19 when he joined Arthur Brown in the middle of a 1969 US tour, replacing original drummer Drachen Theaker) was the perfect—albeit second—choice.

Palmer was, in fact, approached after Emerson and Lake first entered into discussions with Jimi Hendrix Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell; discussions which ultimately led to naught but, after a planned jam session that never materialized, also caused rumours to emerge—and that were only definitively debunked by Lake in 2012—that a supergroup with Hendrix, Emerson, Lake and Palmer (HELP) was in the works.

Oh, but what might have been...but back to reality.

As instrumentally masterful as his partners, Palmer brought more than just a rhythm section approach to his kit; instead, he became a more orchestral counterpart that truly made Emerson, Lake & Palmer a condensed symphony orchestra, as its glory days found the trio tackling, in addition to its own music, pieces adapted from classical composers including Modest Mussorgsky, Béla Bartók, Aaron Copland, Leoš Janáček and Alberto Ginastera.

Emerson's staggering virtuosity and stylistic multiplicity contributed a previously unheard approach to both keyboards and writing...and arranging, with the band's early performances consisting—in addition to an early version of "The Barbarian," a Bartók adaptation which would ultimately open ELP's debut album; "Rondo," a rework of Dave Brubeck's "Blue Rondo à la Turk"; and an arrangement of "Nut Rocker" (originally a 1962 hit by America's B. Bumble and the Stingers, adapted from "March of the Toy Soldiers," from Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite)—largely of an adaptation of Modest Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, with a March 1971 performance subsequently issued as a live album following the release of Tarkus.
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