The Ledges of Extremes

(Edit and extra info added below.)

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.

10 thoughts on “The Ledges of Extremes

  1. Yah Shure

    I’m definitely in the “less-is-more” camp when it comes to ELP, and kept a copy of the ‘Works 1’ “specially edited, mixed and mastered for airplay” single disc promo LP primarily for “C’est La Vie,” before it was issued as an even-shorter single. They just might have been able to pass that one off as the new Shawn Phillips record, were it not for the telltale bombast of the last verse. Are you sure Lake didn’t mime to Shawn’s off-stage vocal during the tour?

    Elsewhere on the promo LP, “Fanfare” was shortened by more than four minutes, and “Pirates” was whittled down to 4:34. The “Fanfare” 45 took a further markdown to 2:54.

  2. “their inevitable reformation” which required finding another drummer whose name began with P, as Carl left – enter Cozy Powell, for Emerson, Lake, and Powell.

    That is one of my favorite band-member anecdotes.

    1. jb

      Emerson Lake & Powell got together sometime around 1986. Carl Palmer rejoined for an extensive tour in ’92 and ’93. In a related note, Greg Lake is apparently working on a memoir, which will be must reading for prog-rock geeks.

  3. porky

    I remember the Creem review: Emerson, Lake and Palmer “Works”-But Only as a Frisbee.

    I had the Brain Salad Surgery LP in junior high and pretty much loved it in all its excess. Keith Emerson’s keyboard chops were (are?) phenomenal. I remember reading that he did the music for Thunder Cats or some such 80’s cartoon when his prog days were over.

  4. Steve E.

    I didn’t have any of ELP’s albums, but oddly enough, the single “From the Beginning” remains one of my favorite songs from 1972. I first heard it when it sneaked into the Top 40 on Billboard, so Casey played it a couple of weeks on “AT40,” and I got hooked. I love the spare arrangement, the guitars, the vocal and the synth in the last part. And I still enjoy “Lucky Man,” even though it goes on too long.

  5. Sometime in the spring or summer of 1977, I was the nightly winner of the trivia contest on WJON here in St. Cloud, and I was supposed to get a copy of “Works.” I was told I’d get a card in the mail to bring in to the station to get my LP. I never got the card, but perhaps I should be glad for them. I will second Steve E. on “From the Beginning,” and I still can whoop with the synth solo when “Lucky Man” comes on the car radio. (Long ago, I once amazed a hippie band when we jammed in the hayloft of the barn by finding my way through the synth solo on an electric piano despite never having played the song.)

    1. Yah Shure

      No “Hoedown” in the hayloft?? Now *that* should’ve been the follow-up to “From The Beginning” (not that the “Lucky Man” re-release was a bad idea, either: more songwriting royalties stayed in-house, I suppose.)

      Sorry you never got the ‘Works.’ By the time I started at WJON, I think we just told the winners to pick up their prizes at the station, since we knew all of the usual Radio 12 Trivia suspects by then, anyway. To make up for the oversight, that extra copy of Barry Manilow’s Greatest Hits left over from the station’s canceled picture disc weekend now has your name on it. Think of the countless hours of entertainment ahead as your cats become mesmerized at the sight of Barry’s head spinning around on your turntable. Let’s see ELP top that.

  6. In the summer of 1974, I’d just graduated college, my band was in splinters, and I’d gotten/lost two jobs. I was living with a buddy of mine in this godawful place outside our little home town. He went to work every morning 5 days a week at 6 AM as a janitor at the local hospital – I’d roll out about 10, make a cup of coffee, and put on TARKUS. It was for some reason the perfect music for that moment in my life. I had never been more than a casual fan of prog rock, but TARKUS, that bionic armadillo, captured my imagination – somehow I think it got me ready to face the “real world” of life after college.

    Hadn’t thought about that album in decades, I don’t think. Now I have to go buy the danged thing.

    Great piece….

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