Emerson Lake & Palmer - The Ultimate Collection
I'm paraphrasing, being unable to remember his exact words, but with punk came John Peel's back being turned against progressive rock and his dismissal of it as being, "...well, crap really." Most of Peel's ire was reserved for Genesis and Yes, which is understandable having once sat through The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway as well as having its story explained to me but Peel has always kept Emerson, Lake And Palmer close at hand to explain the worst excesses of progressive rock. Persian rugs? Knives being thrown at Keith Emerson's organ? Songs that soundtracked people's births that were still playing during their deaths?
Whilst punk did offer a respite from all of this, it struck out with a maxim that anyone could play guitar. In an age of dreary indie bands like Snow Patrol and Elbow, both of whom look to be thinking of their laundry whilst onstage, a band like ELP would be a godsend, meaning that this two-disc Ultimate Collection lands like Dylan's first chords on his electric guitar in the Manchester Free Trade Hall in May 1966. In fact, personally, it couldn't have come at a better time as my first words on watching the recent BBC4 documentary on prog rock were close to, "Y'know, I wouldn't mind a bit of Emerson, Lake & Palmer" and, as though having heard my words, Work Hard PR delivered. Joy!
ELP were formed in 1970 by ex-Nice keyboard player Keith Emerson, ex-King Crimson bassist Greg Lake and ex-Crazy World Of Arthur Brown drummer Carl Palmer and assuming that they saw the name Cream having already been taken by Bruce, Clapton and Baker, Emerson, Lake and Palmer settled on their surnames. In many ways, it's as egotistical a name as Cream, itself derived from Bruce, Clapton and Baker's take on their own abilities, with ELP assuming that their names would carry them to success. And, as a 1970 performance at the Isle Of Wight festival would prove - only their second gig - ELP didn't underestimate their impact.
As Cream jumbled blues with jazz, ostensibly to show off the skills of the band so ELP favoured the addition of classical music into the mix, a habit Keith Emerson brought with him from The Nice. The opening track on this two-disc best of - brought out the year before the band's thirty-fifth anniversary - is almost a perfect example of the ELP sound, being a version of Aaron Copeland's Fanfare For The Common Man arranged for drums, bass and Keith Emerson's keyboards, which replace the traditional opening trumpet for synthesiser. Over nine minutes, ELP burst headlong into full prog-rock soloing that sits ill-at-ease with the sympathetic opening few minutes. Of course, in concert, the playing of Fanfare For The Common Man would permit Keith Emerson the space to do as he so wished but on record, the repetition of the piece begins to drag after six minutes or so and soaring melody on which it is based is soon lost amongst ELP's playing.
Then again, so it is with many of ELP's recordings, exemplified by their version of Jerusalem. Even as an Irish Catholic, it's difficult not to find the setting of William Blake's poem to Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry music inspiring and despite it being commonplace, particularly during the BBC's annual Proms concerts, hearing Jerusalem performed well is a wonderful experience. Despite the thrill of hearing ELP tear into what is often thought to be a bastion of the establishment - as revolutionary, though they would have sneered at the thought, of the Sex Pistols performing God Save The Queen - it's quite the worst version of Jerusalem on record, fighting hard against, but finally succumbing to, Emerson's assault. Such a treatment is also handed out to versions of Nutrocker and Peter Gunn, which loses the impact of there being a rockabilly guitar strutting over it.
Yet to highlight one aspect of the ELP sound is to do it a disservice as, in addition to their slaughtering of classical pieces, they were also capable of recording some fine pop songs and more adventurous but largely successful longer pieces. For the former, there is the pretty ballad Still...You Turn Me On, which despite saying very little, does so beautifully even with the lyric, "Every day a little sadder, a little madder / Someone get me a ladder," But there's also All I Want Is You, C'Est La Vie and the Christmas standard of I Believe In Father Christmas, most of which reveal Greg Lake's naive lyrics set to gentle folk/rock. Best of all, which may be considered heresy but real fans of the band, is Tiger In The Spotlight, which is quite simply terrific due, no doubt, to it being a steal from Elvis' best song, Guitar Man, complete with a rollicking piano. Against this, however, are three tracks from 1992's Black Moon that sit badly against the music around them. This collection's lowest point comes with the pop/funk of Better Days, which appears to have lifted the sound that had given Genesis some success in the pop charts but is simply ill-suited to ELP's writing.
Of course, what ELP were famous for was not just the pop songs and the adaptations of classical pieces but also the epic pieces of songwriting, which often included multiple instrumental and vocal sections. Were that your bag, then nothing on this collection will come close to the twenty minutes of Tarkus in which a story about the titular creature - a cross between an armadillo and a tank - comes to pass. Or it may not as Lake's lyrics appear to be largely unrelated to what befell the tarkus but in any case, ELP pull seven pieces together into a single suite of music, which, like the best concept pieces, uses the repetition of themes and motifs to fold the song into one whole.
At heart, what I admire about prog rock is the sheer bloody-mindedness of the thing - these musicians could really play and were they ever capable of showing us, the audience, how they could. Whether the four-song, double-LP excess of Tales From Topographic Oceans, the drum solo of Cream's Toad or this album's Tarkus, most of which would lead to the sparkling and brilliant prog-pop of Frankie Goes To Hollywood's Welcome To The Pleasuredome, prog is well-read, awkward, strange and, well, occasionally funny. All of which is something that Radiohead fail to understand despite being hailed as the return of prog rock, something they have denied, which is further evidence of their position at the head of a increasingly dour scene formed by the jazz-loving kids who organised after-school computer classes. And yet, they would be so much less objectionable were they able to find the heart to write something akin to twenty minutes of music about a creature that is half-armadillo/half-tank. Only in prog would such a thing be considered...and that is almost the joy of it. Ridiculous, often patently so, but where else would such a thing be considered and that, if only that, is what we needed ELP, Yes, Van der Graaf Generator, Pink Floyd and Jethro Tull. This two-disc set, therefore, is a genuinely well-considered and worthwhile testament to one of those bands and if only to have something by ELP, this is the album to get.