by Rick Krueger
Interviewer: “Would you characterize the new album … as a reunion? A comeback? Or something else?”
Derek St. Hubbins: “It’s both, really. We reuned and we came back.”
— interview with Spinal Tap, Guitar World magazine, April 1992
When Emerson, Lake & Palmer reformed in 1992, it wasn’t really a surprise.
Since the debacle of Love Beach, Carl Palmer had recruited Greg Lake to pinch hit as Asia’s bassist and vocalist for a MTV broadcast from Japan. Then Keith Emerson had reconnected with Lake, drafting Cozy Powell as drummer for a well-received album that both evoked and modernized the classic ELP sound. Then a post-Asia Palmer and singer/songwriter Robert Berry had partnered with Emerson in the more commercial (though less successful) AOR band 3. All the possible pairings had played out: the only other option, as Spinal Tap put it, was to reune. And at least attempt a comeback.
Enter Phil Carson, an Atlantic Records executive during ELP’s glory days, now running a new company, Victory. Accounts vary as to how the trio were enticed to get together (the cover story of a potential Emerson film score has always seemed flimsy), but the resulting Black Moon was a solid effort, ably showcasing their trademark sound and chemistry. While the music was less ambitious than Keith, Greg and Carl had created in their formative days — the title track was the longest, clocking in at only seven minutes — there was still plenty of slashing organ, trumpeting synthesizer work, gnarly bass, and precise, pummeling percussion on offer. And there was an attractive new maturity on display, probably necessitated by Lake’s lower, grainier voice. “Black Moon” and the Prokofiev adaptation “Romeo and Juliet” were brooding slow burns that built to strong climaxes; “Paper Blood” was surprisingly bluesy, built on the “Fanfare for the Common Man” shuffle and calling back to previous Hammond B-3 workouts; “Farewell to Arms,” a Gulf War-era plea for peace, was capped with an paint-peeling Emerson solo in “Lucky Man” mode; and the instrumental “Changing States” caught the crew in full flight, soaring like they hadn’t since the group side of Works Volume 1. Giving ground to Emerson and Palmer, Lake yielded the producer’s chair to Mark Mancina, whose studio simpatico was such that ELP wound up recording his song “Burning Bridges” — and it fit right in.
Though sales weren’t anywhere near ELP’s heyday, the new album got them back out on the road to play in amphitheaters and halls, which let diehard fans get closer. It was an absolute thrill when I finally heard Keith, Greg and Carl live in February 1993 at Grand Rapids’ DeVos Hall from the center of the tenth row. Black Moon‘s bonus disc, Live at the Albert Hall, nicely captures the vibe of the comeback tour, mixing the new music with energetic versions of a cut-down “Tarkus,” “Pirates,” and a full-band take on “Lucky Man” where the synth solo made concert halls (and my chest) vibrate. The stage seemed set for, if not a return to past glories, a promising second phase of the band’s career.
But looking back, there were disquieting omens. The video of the Royal Albert Hall concert caught Emerson massaging his right hand before diving into “Tarkus.” And by the time ELP got to Grand Rapids, the usual Hammond-wrestling encore had vanished, replaced by Keith squatting atop the grand piano to play Bach upside down on a synth.
In the fall of 1993, along with their first set of catalog reissues, ELP unveiled the by-now-obligatory box set, The Return of the Manticore. Instead of new tracks stuck at the end, the box kicked off with re-recordings of songs from the trio’s initial bands (King Crimson, The Nice, and The Crazy World of Arthur Brown) plus reworks of ELPowell’s “Touch and Go,” “I Believe in Father Christmas” and “Pictures at an Exhibition.” The problem was that all these new versions, recorded with Pat Benatar/Fleetwood Mac producer Keith Olsen, were poky, even plodding. And sometimes downright strained, both instrumentally and vocally. Then the band went on (of all possible promotional outlets), the Regis and Kathy Lee talk show, performing an embarrassingly half-baked “From the Beginning.” Something was seriously wrong.
Years of playing keyboards like — well, like a rock and roll keyboard player — had taken their toll on the nerves in Keith Emerson’s right arm; surgery followed. Later, it turned out that Carl Palmer was simultaneously dealing with carpal tunnel syndrome. To top it all off, Victory Music’s second main act, David Bowie’s Tin Machine, had tanked critically and commercially. The label desperately needed a hit to stay afloat — and with new signing Yes still reshuffling its personnel after the Union project, a wounded version of ELP seemed like the only chance.
If you’ve read my review of Love Beach, you can probably figure out where things went from there. The decree came down: the new album had to ooze commercial potential. Classical adaptations were ruled out — the master tape of a rocked-up take on Sibelius never made it to proposed guest guitarist Trevor Rabin. Emerson’s idea for an extended epic based on Bob Dylan’s “Man in the Long Black Coat” was rejected, its sections chopped up into multiple songs. With Emerson and Lake feuding again, Keith Olsen commissioned unexceptional pop tunes from outside writers, co-wrote four tracks himself, and slathered on boilerplate guitar, string synths and female backing vocals. (At least one effort, “Gone Too Soon,” was a Lake solo track recorded with a session keyboardist and a drum machine.) Faced with a hard deadline, Emerson wound up either sequencing his parts or recording them with his left hand. Then the release date came and went a couple of times, and a projected tour of Japan and the USA evaporated.
The surprise is that the outcome, In the Hot Seat, wasn’t a complete disaster. The first two-thirds of the album has occasional flashes of the old vigor — the dramatic opener “Hand of Truth,” the unmistakable ELP sound breaking through the overdub soup of “One By One,””Thin Line” and “Change,” the menacing, truncated “Man in the Long Black Coat” (with Lake channeling Johnny Cash for his vocal). Even the Lake ballads “Daddy” and “Heart On Ice” had the usual oddly endearing, overwrought mixed metaphors. Still, In the Hot Seat was mediocre at best, and it deservedly bombed with the public and the fanbase. Think about it: this is the only ELP album that has never been reissued until now. That’s one definition of a dispiriting end to a recording career.
Ultimately, once Emerson and Palmer had recovered from their surgeries, the trio had enough grit left to tour for a few more years (with Jethro Tull, Deep Purple and Dream Theater in the US, as headliners in eastern Europe) before breaking up in a conflict over production credits on a projected new album … hmmm, that sounds familiar. Anyway, In the Hot Seat’s bonus disc provides a generous helping of committed live tracks from the 1998 release Then and Now. Putting the Victory material to one side, ELP’s setlist mostly reverted to the 1970s repertoire, adding a surprising amount of jazz improv on tracks like “Honky Tonk Train Blues” and “Take A Pebble.” If not as technically dazzling as in their prime, the band still took the stage with energy, ambition, and fire, giving their audiences the best they could. Given all that Keith, Greg and Carl had been through in the 1990s, perhaps surviving with those qualities intact was enough.