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In the middle of the 70s, I nearly wore out a copy of Emerson Lake & Palmer’s Welcome Back My Friends to the Show That Never Ends, and was forever borrowing my brother’s copy of Brain Salad Surgery. In 1977, when ELP released their first new album in four years, Works Volume 1, I snapped that sucker up but quick.
In a decade full of them, Works was one of the great displays of rock ‘n’ roll hubris. The album first: a sprawling, self-indulgent double-disc set with a black cover bearing only the band’s name and logo and the title, and one side per band member. Keith Emerson provided a straight piano concerto that underwhelmed classical music aficionados as much as it underwhelmed me. Greg Lake provided a half-dozen vocals, some pretty solid, but most nearly swamped by orchestra arrangements. Carl Palmer was all over the place, from a Bach adaptation to a rock number with Joe Walsh on guitar. The fourth side was closest to standard ELP: an overlong “Fanfare for the Common Man” and “Pirates,” which is about pirates.
Hubris part 2: the Works tour. When it began in May 1977, the traveling entourage was made up of 130 people, including 75 musicians and singers—and it ran into trouble almost immediately. The union members among the musicians couldn’t be required to travel more than 250 miles per day or play more than three shows a week. The band was paying $150,000 a week in payroll on top of what it cost to travel, and the cost soon became prohibitive. It wasn’t long before orchestra members started getting pink-slipped, a few at a time. I don’t remember how many were in the orchestra by the time the tour hit Madison on June 9. It was the first rock concert I’d ever attended, and I would have been impressed by a half-dozen. As it turned out, the Madison show was one of the last with any orchestra at all. After an orchestra show in the Twin Cities on the 11th, shows in
Des Moines and Terre Haute, Indiana, went on without the orchestra; a gig on the 18th in Evansville, Indiana, was the last orchestra show, apart from a three-night stand at Madison Square Garden in New York about three weeks later, and a late-August show in Montreal that was recorded for the Works Live album and a concert film.
(Morning-after update: In my library, I found a bootleg of the Des Moines show, and the orchestra is on it. My bad.)
If you lived in the Upper Midwest, there was no missing ELP that summer and fall. In June, they’d played both Chicago and Milwaukee (topping all-day outdoor festivals) the weekend before they played Madison, and they played Milwaukee as a trio in August. Thirty-six years ago this week, on November 8, 1977, they returned to the Dane County Coliseum in Madison, and I was there again. Tickets were a dollar more expensive this time—$8.50 instead of $7.50—and they had an opening act, singer/songwriter Shawn Phillips. But ELP themselves played for well over three hours, if I’m recalling correctly, and my friends and I were pretty happy with the experience.
Our generation does not necessarily put away childish things, but I put away Emerson Lake and Palmer when I got to college. It was sometime in the 90s before I dragged out those old albums and listened to them again. What I found was that the stuff I liked the best when I was 17—serious prog-rock like “Tarkus” and “Karn Evil 9”—had not worn well at all. But several shorter songs held up nicely for me—and remarkably, two of them are from Works. “Lend Your Love to Me Tonight” is either utterly ridiculous (“you will become my meteor / divine and universal whore”) or utterly fantastic. Either way, it’s the sort of thing only Greg Lake could pull off, and only with a big whompin’ orchestra behind him. Conversely, I’d like to hear “Closer to Believing” with a simpler arrangement (along the lines of “Watching Over You,” which appears on Works Volume 2, a collection of scraps, albeit very good scraps, released the same week they played Madison the second time), but the song is good enough to survive any attempt to drown it in orchestral pomp. It might be the single best thing ever under the ELP brand, even if Emerson and Palmer aren’t on it. It’s a song I can listen to several times in a row without wanting to hear something else, and there are precious few of those.
When the Works tour reached its end in early 1978, Emerson Lake and Palmer were close to theirs. At the end of the year, they released the contractual obligation album Love Beach, did not tour behind it, and split up—at least until their inevitable reformation in 1992.