The year is 1974. I am 14, and have the hots for a girl who is into Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, so I, in an attempt to get her to notice me, try getting into Emerson, Lake, and Palmer as well–because it seems easier than actually speaking to her. As a ploy to get a date, the whole thing worked about as well as you might expect, and I didn’t get into the music either.
A couple of years later, after I have moved on from the girl, I start listening to ELP again and this time, I become a fan. The first concert I ever go to by myself (as opposed to being chaperoned by my parents) is an ELP date on the Works tour in 1977–the one with the full orchestra, although said orchestra keeps shedding members as the tour runs lower and lower on money. (Ticket price: $8.50.) A year later, ELP comes around again, this time just the three of them, and they play a magnificent show of prog-rock excess that runs over three hours. I do not actually buy any ELP records, however–not at first. I have 8-tracks. Homemade 8-tracks, taped from albums, although I would eventually buy the albums themselves.
Just as the 8-track is the quintesssential symbol of fossilized high tech, I think maybe Emerson, Lake, and Palmer are the quintessential fossilized 70s musical act. The other day, I listened to an ELP compilation cassette I whipped up a few years back, and it occurs to me that there are few other groups with a major reputation back in the day whose music seems so ridiculously over-the-top today. Those titles! “Karn Evil 9”; “Tarkus”; “The Three Fates: Clotho, Lachesis, Atropos”; and the unintentionally funny “The Endless Enigma (Parts 1 and 2).” Those science-fiction song cycles that take up the whole side of an album! (“Karn Evil 9” and “Tarkus” again.) Those classical adaptations! Those flatulent synthesizers! (“Lucky Man” and, yet again, “Tarkus.”) Those drum solos! It’s as if a mad scientist brewed up the very thing likely to attract a teenager of literary bent whose favorite TV show is The Twilight Zone and who wishes he had stuck with his piano lessons. Every once in a while, what they were doing resulted in music you wouldn’t mind hearing again years later: “From the Beginning,” “Hoedown,” their Aaron Copland adaptation that’s done at a tempo approaching the speed of light, and their version of the Peter Gunn theme, which remains the greatest concert-opening number I’ve ever heard anyone perform. More often than not, however, their audible striving to create not just music but Great Art caused Emerson, Lake, and Palmer’s reach to exceed their grasp. There were lots of us who didn’t mind, though. ELP sold records in staggering amounts, and toured the world for a full year on Brain Salad Surgery–a tour chronicled on the three-disc live album Welcome Back My Friends to the Show That Never Ends.
Their arty pretensions eventually cost them their perch in the pantheon. Feeling constrained by the group structure, but realizing solo albums probably wouldn’t sell like a group effort, ELP spent the better part of two years making their very own White Album, the two-disc 1977 release Works Volume 1, in which each member got a side. Emerson’s was a straight classical piano concerto; Lake’s consisted of four overblown love songs and a King Crimson outtake, all with full orchestra backing; Palmer’s was almost entirely pointless. The fourth side was the only one that worked, and just barely–“Fanfare for the Common Man” became a staple of their live shows, and “Pirates” fit the familiar epic mode. And no synthesizer pyrotechnics anywhere.
After that, the bus ride to obscurity took only about a year: In early 1978, Works Volume 2 had its moments–marking the first American appearance of “I Believe in Father Christmas” and including a relatively straight version of the jazz number “Show Me the Way to Go Home,” which my friends and I used to close the postgame DJ shows we did during our senior year of high school. In late 1978 came Love Beach, which had the form of an ELP album–classical adaptation, sidelong suite, and various interesting electronic noises–but also included a heaping helping of we-don’t-care, which was clearly audible. After that came the breakup, the reformulated lineup (Emerson, Lake, and Powell), the endless repackaging of the library, and finally, the reunion. I have to confess that when, in the mid 1990s, the original lineup appeared in the town where I was living, I thought about going, but didn’t.
Lesson: Some things you were into in high school will always seem cool. Some things will not.