Rick’s Retroarchy: Love Beach by Emerson, Lake and Palmer

by Rick Krueger.  (Third in a series; you can also check out reviews of Works Volume 1 and Works Volume 2.)

My first reaction to Love Beach (purchased at the Grosse Pointe location of Harmony House, after hearing “The Gambler” on Detroit rock radio in November 1978) wasn’t about the music.  It was about the merchandising insert included with the first pressing.  I think my actual thoughts were something along the lines of, “They’re selling satin Love Beach jogging shorts?!?”

Yes, they were.  Along with Love Beach t-shirts and custom made Love Beach satin jackets.   Something was obviously wrong.  Though I was in my last year of high school, I was still too naive to understand what it signified — a last attempt to squeeze income out of a wounded band and a tarnished brand.  Then I heard the album.

Before the Internet, I couldn’t know that, dispirited after their grueling Works tour, Keith Emerson, Greg Lake & Carl Palmer wanted to pursue the solo careers they’d half-heartedly attempted after Brain Salad Surgery.  That Atlantic Records president Ahmet Ertegun had held them to their contract for another trio album, sending them to the Bahamas to get on with it.  That Emerson’s resistance to a Side One of short radio-friendly songs had been matched by Lake’s indifference toward a proposed concept piece on Side Two. That everybody got the job done as fast as possible and bailed out, leaving Atlantic to market a new image of ELP as hedonistic beach boys, complete with Bee Gees-style open shirts and well-oiled chest hair.

Having bought the group’s entire catalog since my Works Volume 1 epiphany a year before, what I did know was that Love Beach was half-baked stuff, a mixture of good and bad ideas executed with some panache but little conviction.  Due to both the completed product and the realities of the market, it didn’t stand a chance of generating serious sales or radio play; it vanished from the charts faster than any previous ELP album, scuttling plans for a farewell tour and any enthusiasm from Atlantic toward potential solo contracts.

Lake’s four songs (all co-written with Peter Sinfield) ranged from pedestrian (“All I Want Is You” and the title song) to grotesque (“Taste of My Love,” “For You”), with the delicacy and subtlety of previous ballads completely forgotten in the quest for a hit single. “Taste of My Love” exemplifies everything wrong with the album: the lyrics are hilariously overwrought, comparing the hero’s lovemaking in quick succession to a stallion, dynamite and a rocket; Lake’s ludicrously dramatic vocals completely oversell the steaming pile-up of mixed metaphors; Emerson and Palmer load on an excess of synthesized hunting horns, quasi-Oriental bamboo flutes, tympani and vibraslap.  The material is so untypical, unambitious and slight that even the overkill isn’t enjoyable.

Closer to the group’s wheelhouse, the modified blues of Emerson, Lake & Sinfield’s “The Gambler” generates excitement with fresh tone colors (electric guitar and harmonica, both contributed by Lake), a slippery synth solo, and a call-and-response gospel bridge.  “Canario,” taken from Joaquin Rodrigo’s guitar concerto Fantasia para un gentilhombre, is an upbeat classical adaptation in the mode of the ELP/Copland “Hoedown”; for once, it sounds like the trio is having fun, with Lake contributing more solid electric guitar to complement Emerson and Palmer’s typical frenetic groove.

Side two held the grand finale, Emerson’s “Memoirs of an Officer and a Gentlemen,” with lyrics by Sinfield (who took the job on the condition he wouldn’t have to co-write it with Lake).  A  melodramatic tale of a English soldier who comes of age during World War II by loving and losing, the concept had potential.  Musically, there are some glorious moments: the pensive “Prelude,” the acoustic-based, lyrical “Love at First Sight” (kicked off with a Chopin quote) and the pleasantly atypical “Letters from the Front,” anchored by Emerson’s only recorded work on Fender Rhodes piano.  Again, Lake’s vocals let the side down by trying too hard, leaning into overcooked emotion at the expense of intimacy.  And after the narrative’s melancholy close, the suite just … peters out, fading away in a mist of synthesized orchestration, deprived of a climax that would suit the latent power of the material.

In 1978, Love Beach failed in every possible way: with ELP’s fan base (“shocked and dismayed” is probably understating the reaction), with the broader market, with the corporate bosses, and with the band itself.  At a distance, and given that it wasn’t the ultimate end of Keith, Greg & Carl’s adventures, the album’s latest re-release feels more like an oddly amusing curio.  Nicely remastered to bring out the saturated musical colors, complemented by alternative mixes that bring out the possibilities in weaker tracks and rehearsal tapes that showed the trio still able to shred in the studio, it stands as the puzzling footnote to the band’s period of peak popularity and influence.   Another upside: this time around, nary a sign of satin jogging shorts.

 

 

6 thoughts on “Rick’s Retroarchy: Love Beach by Emerson, Lake and Palmer

  1. Michał

    Great articles about ELP!

    I am not a fan of theirs, never have been, but I admit there is something fascinating about them.

    I listened to “Love Beach” for the first time sometime this year and it turned out much better than I expected! If it weren’t for the often horrible lyrics (and the cover), I would consider it an ok, unremarkable album. I still think it’s better than the next two (the darkening of Lake’s voice is probably to blame to some degree).

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    1. kruekutt

      Thanks a lot — that’s an interesting, worthwhile point of view! I’ve heard that remasters of Black Moon and In The Hot Seat are coming out at the end of July; I’m sure I’ll give them a spin and share the results here. ELP (and more specifically Keith Emerson) were my first serious musical idols, so I don’t pretend to be objective. What’s struck me in reviewing these albums is how the cultural moment had passed the band by, and the varying ways they reacted as they figured that out.

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      1. Michał

        I will be very much interested on your take on these two albums! “Live at the Royal Albert Hall” from 1992 – I wonder what your opinion is as well.

        I agree with you that ELP vs. the cultural moment is a very interesting issue. I mean, probably every band of the 70’s had to adapt themselves to the changes, but ELP did it (or did not do it) in their usual way – over the top, with all the break-ups, a tour with an orchestra, Bee Gees covers, tensions, confusion, etc. (It’s worth noting that those times were different than the present moment, when you can just ignore changing trends, go retro, or create fanciful stuff and share it on the net. In those days you needed major backup to reach any audience, so adapting to trends could have been a question of survival. But I am too young to know and might be just wrong.)

        A a footnote, for me “Works 1 & 2” stand on par with ELP’s previous output. Probably because I am not a huge fan of their sound in the first place, I don’t miss what made those earlier albums what they are. I don’t really like the Moog, I feel they needed to expand their palette – as they did on “Works”.

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  2. kruekutt

    As I understand it, the Albert Hall show will be the bonus disc for Black Moon, so that’ll be part of any review. (For In the Hot Seat, bonuses will be the 1997-98 live tracks from Then & Now.)

    Again, it’s good to get a take from someone who isn’t a stone fan of ELP like me. Different fans definitely have different ideas about the band’s high point: it was Brain Salad Surgery for me, but I’ve seen others opine that Tarkus & Pictures at an Exhibition were their peak. Emerson was definitely looking to expand his tonal palette with Works, as well as wanting to prove himself on the piano with his concerto. Still, for me his most unique overall contributions were on the Hammond organ & the Moog. (I seem to remember that was ultimately Lake’s take as well.)

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  3. One of the most fair-minded reviews of Love Beach I’ve read. Though the time clearly lavished on the post might well have been better spent elsewhere. Like sitting in the lobby waiting for the limo. Still, congrats on getting a prog fan to read about what is, after all, a stinker. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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