When keyboard legends collide!
In order to pay tribute to the late and very great Keith Emerson, I need to go back 45 years and speak again to my 13 year old self, that strange little girl, who used to spend hours in her bedroom, listening to some pretty heady music.
And it was always the opening track which clinched it back then. There was of course Roundabout from Fragile, but hey, we are talking here about The Barbarian, that extraordinary mini-epic opener from ELP 1 inspired by Bartok’s Allegro Barbaro. From those huge, growling opening notes to Emerson’s almost discordant Hammond runs and that scintillating little section of jazzy piano with Carl Palmer’s swishing drum brushes, it was like War and Peace signed, sealed and delivered in less than four minutes.
That whole album was simply a revelation to those young impressionable ears, remembering now the innate melancholic beauty of Greg Lake’s Take A Pebble, during which Emerson astounds yet again with his crystal clear running piano with jazzy phrasing.
Then the utterly exhilarating Knife Edge takes us back to implied madness and badness, another tour de force based on Leoš Janáček’s Sinfonietta, into which a gentle blast of Johann Sebastian Bach’s French Suite in D Minor is brilliantly dovetailed.
The Three Fates was Emerson’s clarion call to wake up and take notice, because music, never mind the parameters of prog of the time, was never going to be the same again. He described it as a “pseudo suite” but its bombast and magnificence as a three movement composition played in less than eight minutes was his signal that the bar was about to be raised.
That happens immediately afterwards as both Palmer’s drum solo workout Tank and Lake’s folkie classic Lucky Man gave Emerson the chance to show off not just his virtuosity but also the possibilities of what a Moog synthesiser and miniMoog could do in elevating the textural sound and mood on any song.
The Moog and mellotron were the instruments which were to – and still do – define the sound of prog, to the ears of many. However, it was Emerson who was the first to get us into the Moog!!
As debut albums go, this one is right up there among the greats. My 13 year old self was probably unaware of this though. Whereas Yes touched upon and informed the fledgling spiritual being back then, Emerson with Lake and Palmer were altogether a different proposition.
It was the physicality and the masculinity of the music which was probably the biggest appeal. This further manifested itself with this super trio comprising three outrageously handsome as well as supremely talented guys, who took their place among the “pin ups” of the 70s teenage Bible, Jackie. There was one particular solo photograph of him which stayed on the bedroom wall for the best part of two years!
The crazy thing then was I did not get on with Tarkus. Oh that amazing technicolour armadillo tank which has become one of the iconic album covers was exciting enough but back then, the album just completely passed me by. I still don’t know why. Only in the past six or seven years did I revisit it and maybe realised what I could have been missing during the interregnum.
However, what did they do next? They only went and made one of the most sublimely bewitching albums of its time, Trilogy. It had everything – passion, emotion, sexiness and humour as well as virtuoso playing from all three, but especially Emerson, in creating a variety of moods from the mysterious opening of Endless Enigma, the bar room piano of The Sheriff, the wonderful, roistering keyboards on the Aaron Copeland inspired Hoedown, the brooding sensuality on Living Sin to the hypnotic and highly disciplined structure of Abaddon’s Bolero.
The ELP juggernaut was back on the road so far as this teenage fan was concerned. But rather than take their foot off the gas, they simply changed the rules of the road forever.
Hands up how many of you still have the flexidisc which came attached to the front cover of New Musical Express and featured excerpts from Brain Salad Surgery, including the title track which never appeared on the album and with good reason.
My teenage self was probably thinking how is all this going to fit together, with component parts that include their very stately and slightly chilly version of Hubert Parry’s Jerusalem, the pretty ballad Still…..You Turn Me On containing one of the most ridiculous lyrical rhyming couplets of all time, and the faintly irksome Benny The Bouncer.
However, this was nothing compared to the high drama of Toccata, based on Alberto Ginastera’s 1st Piano Concerto, for whom Emerson sought and obtained permission personally from the composer to use this arrangement.
And finally, there was Karn Evil 9, the gift which keeps on giving, especially to the radio DJs of the day, most notably the late and great Alan Freeman.
Well, if you are going to launch your own record label, in this case ELP’s Manticore label, just do it in a blaze of glory and make sure it also comes in another breath-taking gatefold cover, this time by H R Giger, the kind of sleeve you are proud to be seen carrying under your arm en route to the sixth form common room.
I remember this was the album which caused the biggest stir back in the school days and I do not think it has yet lost its ability to stimulate hours of discussion and debate. It was the audacity and scale of the music which still has the power to both shock and amuse.
The subsequent Works I and II changed the ground rules yet again and Fanfare For The Common Man brought their music to an even wider global market, being probably the most perfect instrumental sporting arena anthem ever recorded.
But, for me, their lustre now was on the descendent and perhaps hit a nadir when, despite their prevailing handsome hunkiness, being gussied up to look like the Bee Gees was not a good idea and Love Beach is an album cover I shall never be able to unsee. It was a low note on which to end the alliance of the three.
My biggest regret was never having seen them live during my formative years. If I had been born two or three years earlier, then there may have been a chance but there was no way my parents were going to allow their precocious, highly independent 13 year old daughter to start going to rock concerts.
So my abiding memory of seeing them “live” back then was going to the ABC Cinema in Above Bar, Southampton to watch their film, Pictures At An Exhibition. I could only read the reviews in the music Press of the day or hear from several fortunate schoolmates about the exploits of the band live and the way in which Emerson had pushed the boundaries of prog showmanship as much has he had pushed his trusty Hammond organ across the stage for dramatic effect.
So it really was the last hurrah when it was announced they would be headlining on the Classic Rock stage the Sunday night of the inaugural High Voltage festival in London’s Victoria Park in 2010, precipitating an unfortunate clash with Marillion who would be strutting their stuff at the same time as headliners on the Prog Stage.
However, it was the ELP ticket which sold us and with the tragic events of the past few days, this was a wise decision with hindsight. It was quite an occasion, especially when Joe Elliott’s Down ‘N Outz including a very disgruntled Ian Hunter overran their time and fisticuffs all but broke out between the musicians and ELP’s ‘people’.
The area in front of the stage was jammed with folk from home and abroad who were there to see history being made. They did not disappoint either. It was as though the years had melted away with Emerson’s Moog set-up resembling an historic telephone exchange rather than the ground-breaking instrument which he pioneered and then sold to a waiting world. It was truly a night to remember.
Fast forward to the Prog Awards in 2014 to which we were unexpectedly invited and was literally a night of a thousand stars when some of the greatest names in prog were present and happily mingled with fan girls and boys like us.
After the ceremony had started, a slight figure arrived late and took his seat at the table next to ours. I could not believe it: it was Keith Emerson and if proof were further needed, Rick Wakeman came over and started talking to him.
And on this note, if anyone ever thought this town was never big enough for the likes of two keyboard giants, then think again. Rick’s highly amusing Saturday morning show on Planet Rock was once graced by Emerson’s presence. The show played on their perceived “rivalry” and produced one of the funniest moments, the immortal line uttered by Wakeman to Emerson “Get off your Hammond and drink your milk.” You had to be there.
We are so blessed that prog, together with other great keyboard pioneers such as Jon Lord and Tony Banks, gave us these two legends whose approaches have been so different, Emerson not having the classical training that Wakeman enjoyed, yet Wakeman being the genial extrovert while Emerson slipped off his shy retiring persona to become the onstage high octane, fast revving entertainer.
To see them together having a chat and a joke at the awards was life-affirming and then to revisit my teenage fan girl self by introducing myself to the great man, muttering a few lines about being a huge fan and then having my photograph taken with him. My 13-year=old self would never have believed me.
There will be others who will be able to far better articulate his huge legacy of music but to my mind, we will not see the likes of Emerson again. He galvanised a whole generation of music wannabes by showing that music could be exciting and created without having any perceived boundaries. It was simply your imagination, or lack of it, which got in the way.
Emerson was dashing, daring, devil-may-care and distinguished in everything he did to make the world a better place.
That he thought himself incapable of living in it any longer is the real tragedy.
But now it is his turn to take his place in the prog pantheon and for us left behind to remember, to salute and to thank him for providing some of the most astonishing parts of the soundtracks to our lives.
At High Voltage
Thank you Keith. You will be so greatly missed.