When I attended North Bay Cambrian College (now renamed Canadore College) my roommate Serge Valliers tormented me by playing his collection of Led Zeppelin, Creedence Clearwater and
Grand Funk Railroad records. I in turn, would duct tape him to a chair, stick a pair of headphones on him and crank up albums by Emerson Lake and Palmer.
The experience may have been akin to waterboarding torture or zapping 5,000 volts through his testicles but to me, the prog rock offerings of bands like Emerson Lake And Palmer and Yes were what I was listening to at the time. Yes I still loved The Who, still played my Beatle records and had recently discovered The Moody Blues but there was something magnetic about that self-titled 1970 debut Emerson Lake and Palmer record.
With the passing of keyboardist wiz Keith Emerson March 10th at his Santa Clara California home at the age of 71 who reportedly committed suicide after suffering from a degenerative nerve issue in one hand which was curtailing his ability to play, , I look back at the career of ELP with both sadness and a positive reflection. I can still remember the reaction when I heard “Lucky Man” for the first time with that awesome Moog Synthesizer instrumental tagged on to the end.
The reality is that in concert, ELP could only perform Lucky Man as a ballad as the studio recording of that track was a one-off performance. Many years later, engineer Eddie Offord explained to me that when Emerson was playing that instrumental piece, the massive Moog Synthesizer was such an unyielding piece of equipment that it kept going out of tune as he recorded the session. “If you listen to the recording, you can hear the Moog making all sorts of strange burbs, farts, whistles and noises, the instrument was totally out of control,” explained Offord. “Keith was going to quit playing it but I urged him to continue and we recorded all the strange noises that were being emitted. The end result was really strange but fascinating and we knew Keith could never play that solo the way he had recorded it ever again.”
ELP’s ability to combine progressive rock with classical music created a whole new following of music fans who learned at appreciate classic music. This was set up in particular by the band’s third album, Pictures at an Exhibition in 1971 which featured a 37-minute interpretation of a piece recorded originally by Mussorgsky. Emerson, who had originally earned recognition with his previous band, The Nice, had formed a unique relationship with bassist/vocalist Greg Lake, formerly lead vocalist of Robert Fripp’s King Crimson and Carl Palmer, who had previously played drums for The Crazy World of Arthur Brown and Atomic Rooster. Emerson’s performances of performing on a revolving piano while holding down the keys with knives entertained the masses while horrifying musical purists
This innovative collaboration produced 5 top selling albums (ELP, Tarkus, Pictures at an Exhibition, Trilogy and Brain Salad Surgery in a space of three years between 1970 and 1973, but the novelty wore off as the punk invasion kicked in and ELP’s Works 1 and Works 2 now seemed pretentious with the current musical climate. They signed off with Love Beach, an album they recorded to get out of their Atlantic contract, Palmer went on to play drums for Asia, Emerson and Lake eventually joined with Cozy Powell and although ELP reunited for two more comeback albums in the early Nineties they performed their last gig together during a 40th Reunion gig at the High Voltage festival in London.
“Keith was a gentle soul whose love of music and passion for his performance as a keyboard player will remain unmatched for years to come,” said Palmer in releasing a statement on Emerson’s death “He was a pioneer and an innovator whose musical genius touched all of us in the world of rock, classical and jazz.”