by Rick Krueger
I’ve been seriously collecting recorded music (on vinyl, cassette, compact disc, DVD and Blu-Ray) for just over 40 years. As you do, I’ve organized my collection in various ways. For about the last 15 years, I’ve separated my favorites, regardless of genre, out into their own storage unit. It looks like this as of today:
I used to refer to what’s on the top shelf — my very favorite recordings — as “the music I would save if the house caught on fire.” Never mind that: 1) people matter more than stuff, and; 2) there’s no way that, if the house caught fire, I could actually pull it off.
Ultimately, it occurred to me that a better name for that top shelf’s contents is “the music that changed my life.” In retrospect, every one of the albums perched there set me off in fresh musical directions and shaped what I listen to most, what I choose to collect, and even my vocation as a professional church organist and volunteer singer. Sounds like a blog series in the making …
I plan to focus on one album in each post, starting with what I heard earliest and working forward. I hope to distill what I love about the album, and reflect on how it’s influenced my listening (and my playing) over the years. I’ll also list my other favorite albums from the same artist, along with selected faves in the same vein from other musicians.
Given how much I’ve written about Emerson Lake & Palmer here, it’s probably no surprise that, while Works Volume 1 was the first ELP album I bought, Brain Salad Surgery was my real gateway drug into progressive rock. For starters, I’d already heard “Karn Evil 9, First Impression, Part Two,” “Jerusalem” and “Still … You Turn Me On” over the Detroit airwaves. What was this stuff? Utterly bizarre titles, a giddily deployed spectrum of musical colors colliding with each other, seemingly at random (harpsichord, accordion and wah-wah guitar in the same ballad?) and more keyboards in five minutes than in some bands’ entire recorded output — after assimilating the bombast of the Works 1 material, I had to check it out!
I was flabbergasted. Brain Salad Surgery defined eclecticism for me, sweeping up an astonishingly broad range of styles. On the first four tracks, ELP attacked a hymn (“Jerusalem”), a contemporary classical concerto movement interrupted by an extended tympani cadenza (Alberto Ginastera’s “Toccata”), a lyrical ballad with oddball instrumental touches (“Still …”) and a 12-bar boogie with music hall lyrics and an utterly wild piano solo (“Benny the Bouncer”). And that was just the warm-up for the epic “Karn Evil 9.” Over the course of three impressions, split into four tracks by the side change, the band garnished their core sound with rare solo electric guitar from Lake, manic piano trio jazz, Emerson’s steel drum synthesizer (quoting sax giant Sonny Rollins’ “St. Thomas,” as I later discovered), gonzo military marches powered by Palmer, and a loose anti-war narrative that castigated modern politics and religion, only to succumb to absolute rule by sentient supercomputer. Mind. Blown.
I later came to understand why Brain Salad Surgery was where some longtime ELP fans got off the bandwagon. Compared to more direct albums like their debut and Pictures at an Exhibition, this one goes over the top without looking back. The dizzying musical whiplash, the often-obscure lyrics, knockabout and messianic by turns (Lake’s first collaborations with original King Crimson wordsmith Peter Sinfield), the aggressive high-velocity playing — it could all seem like Keith, Greg and Carl had taken the hype too seriously, and were about to vanish up their own backsides in their pursuit of world domination. Given the arc of their career after the massive Welcome Back My Friends world tour, you could even argue that’s what happened.
But for me, the reckless abandon of Brain Salad Surgery is the secret of its appeal. ELP’s music here is a mite undisciplined and overstuffed, sure — but it’s also virtuosic, tightly structured, fearless, and exhilarating. Those qualities, held together in suspension by the trio’s undeniable musical chemistry, have made this album compelling listening for me for the last 40 years. Not only do I play it again and again, I’ve grabbed almost every CD re-release over the years (including Jakko Jakszyk’s oddly askew 2014 remix). Plus, instead of settling into the status of beloved novelty, Brain Salad Surgery whetted my appetite for more music like it — not just prog, but jazz, jazz-rock, modern classical music — even folk ballads! And every once in a while, when I need a particularly powerful organ prelude or postlude for Sunday morning, it’s still a blast to pull out all the stops and dive into “Jerusalem.”
Listen to the latest re-release of Brain Salad Surgery here:
More Faves by ELP: Tarkus, Trilogy, and Works Volume 1. Plus Encores, Legends and Paradox, a Magna Carta tribute album from the 1990s; this features Robert Berry, John Wetton, Glenn Hughes and James Labrie on vocals, with members of Dream Theater, Yes, King Crimson, Magellan and Emerson’s buddy Marc Bonilla laying down backing tracks.
Still There’ll Be More: I have 100+ prog and prog-related discs on my favorites shelf, from proto-proggers like The Nice and Procol Harum to 21st-century giants such as Neal Morse, Steven Wilson and Big Big Train. Here are the ten albums that are probably the closest to my heart, and that opened the doors widest for future exploration:
Bruford, One of A Kind
Robert Fripp, Exposure (combined with RF’s 1979 in-store Frippertronics concert at Peaches Records in Fraser, Michigan)
Genesis, Foxtrot and Wind & Wuthering
King Crimson, In the Court of the Crimson King and Red
Porcupine Tree, Deadwing
Yes, Close to the Edge