by Rick Krueger
“The word ‘bombastic’ keeps coming up as if it were some trap I keep falling into … when I’m bombastic, I have my reasons. I want to be bombastic. Take it or leave it.” – Dave Brubeck
What were they thinking?
You’re Emerson, Lake & Palmer, coming off a three-year layoff — though admittedly, you were at the top of the charts and your game when you downed tools. To regain your fan base and add to your audience, would you come back with a double album that had one side of material by each band member (with guest players and full orchestras) and only one side of ELP playing together? And then, would you take a 59-piece orchestra and 6-voice choir on the road with you? To most people, that would sound like a recipe for disaster.
That’s how it turned out. No margin of error in the budget, out of control expenses, union rulings limiting travel distance between gigs, disappointing sales of Works Volume 1, the dismissal of the orchestra and nine solid months touring as a trio to get back into the black – one long downhill slide that culminated in the dissolution of ELP. Then, it got worse; Love Beach wasn’t even a gleam in Ahmet Ertegun’s eye at that point …
On the other hand, why not? Keith, Greg and Carl had never played it safe before. Adapt classical pieces by Bartok, Mussorgsky, Copland and Ginastera for a keyboard power trio? Use a barely controllable modular Moog synthesizer live? Ditto with a percussion set-up so monstrous that it actually collapsed some stages? Carry your own proscenium arch on tour, as well as an expensive Persian carpet to insulate the singer from electric shocks? None of this had backfired, and “small is beautiful” was never ELP’s motto. Hence, Works Volume 1 – ambitious, breathtakingly eclectic, coherent only by virtue of its bombastic aesthetic, a blaze of glory ready made for the band to immolate itself. Like Emerson’s hero Dave Brubeck in his prime, they had their reasons.
Not content with rock virtuoso status, Keith Emerson longed for recognition as a “serious” composer. Thus, time for a piano concerto, completed with the help of Indo-Jazz Fusions mainman John Mayer. Hearing the result, Leonard Bernstein said Piano Concerto No. 1 reminded him of Grandma Moses – primitive, even naïve. That’s probably fair – the first two movements are a bit paint-by-numbers (“time for a fast solo lick here”), despite the first movement’s distinctive touches of a twelve-tone main theme and a stride piano cadenza. The third movement is closer to vintage Emerson; inspired by his Sussex country house’s destruction by fire, it evolves organically — angular, aggressive, lyrical and triumphant by turns. The concerto isn’t a masterwork, but it’s a solid effort, and classical players like Jeffrey Biegel (who released a new recording on Naxos Classics last year) have proven it can hold the stage in symphony programs.
Greg Lake knew what he wanted, too – to sing. His voice was at its best: rich, powerful, flexible and completely under his control. Lake’s acoustic ballads had been ELP’s entry point to the mass market ever since “Lucky Man”; it made sense for him to double down, singing compulsively literary lyrics written with Pete Sinfield and tossing in a thick dollop of orchestration. “Lend Me Your Love to Me Tonight,” the Dylanish “Nobody Loves You Like I Do” and the Parisian homage “C’est La Vie” were all over Detroit rock radio in the spring of 1977; “Hallowed Be Thy Name” was a tougher cabaret song, with clustery piano by King Crimson sessioneer Keith Tippett; and “Closer to Believing” was an overblown, string-heavy take on The Meaning of Life. This side probably gave Works Volume 1 its best shot at wide appeal, though the slushy orchestral sounds tended to obscure the simple charms of Lake’s songs.
Carl Palmer – well, he wanted to do everything. Drum along to fully orchestrated Prokofiev on the vicious “The Enemy God Dances with the Black Spirits:” check. (My music history teacher at Alma College loved it a few years later.) Rock and roll with Emerson and Joe Walsh on “LA Nights”: check. On it went: the funk of “New Orleans;” a Bach duet with his mallet percussion teacher James Blades; the Buddy Rich big band sound of “Food for Your Soul” (though I’m not sure Buddy ever climaxed a drum roll by hitting a giant gong); an exciting orchestral take on ELP’s “Tank” with Emerson wailing away on the Moog. In retrospect, Palmer probably had the best chance for a solid solo album; a percussion concerto commissioned from British composer & teacher Joseph Horovitz, more consistent and assured than Emerson’s fledgling effort, remained unreleased until the 2001 anthology Do You Wanna Play, Carl?
Finally, there’s the group side – thankfully, brilliant from start to finish. Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” jammed while warming up in the studio, proved again that ELP’s best approach to the classics was complete irreverence. Lake and Palmer’s tight shuffle groove is an irresistible foundation for Emerson’s brass fusillades and blues harmonica solo, produced on the ground-breaking Yamaha GX-1 synthesizer. And “Pirates” is the masterpiece that Piano Concerto No. 1 couldn’t be; a spiky concerto for rock trio and the Orchestre de l’Opera de Paris, with hints of Stravinsky that presage Emerson’s film scoring career, but utterly unique. Once again, the band chemistry is superb; Emerson’s driving riffs and solos, Lake’s dramatic vocals, and Palmer’s colorful grooves come together to equal the best of their previous work. They never got close to that standard again.
Flawed as this mélange is, I have a soft spot in my heart for Works Volume 1. It was, after all, the first ELP album I bought (at the Civic Music Shop on Detroit’s east side). As disjointed as it sometimes is, there’s plenty of power and glory on offer, and it’s never dull. From there I went backwards to discover Brain Salad Surgery, Trilogy, Tarkus and the rest of the trio’s catalog, a source of joy in my life ever since. And, if I had a TARDIS key, I would definitely set the controls for Cobo Hall on May 31 and June 1, 1977, to hear Emerson, Lake and Palmer — and their orchestra – during that brief moment when it seemed their biggest, riskiest, most bombastic gamble just might pay off.
(Works Volume 1 is now available in its fifth CD reissue – this time from BMG, with a new remastering and new liner notes by Chris Welch. The upgrade from previous reissues is minimal – although the remastered gong overtones on Palmer’s tracks are pretty astonishing.)