The Albums That Changed My Life: #1, Brain Salad Surgery by Emerson Lake and Palmer

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:

IMG_3523I 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

Transatlantic, SMPT:e

UK, UK

Yes, Close to the Edge

 

 

 

 

Rick’s Quick Takes: Lucky Man, the Autobiography by Greg Lake

by Rick Krueger

“ELP were often criticized for running an overblown or overproduced show … The Persian carpets are useful because they cover the crisscross of wires over the stage, reduce slippage, absorb some of the noise so you can hear each other play and — this is the prima donna part — they make you feel more comfortable and at home on stage.” (Emphasis mine.)

This quote, from page 160 of Lucky Man, was when I finally understood Greg Lake. In books like Keith Emerson’s memoir Pictures of an Exhibitionist and David Weigel’s The Show That Never Ends, he usually comes off as pretentious, petulant, demanding and unsatisfied, the irrational antagonist to Emerson’s grand designs.  After Lake’s passing in late 2016, Sid Smith’s lovely obituary in Prog Magazine humanized him for me, and Lucky Man — while not a tell-all book like Emerson’s — completes the process. Underneath the aura of entitled celebrity Lake projected, the man got the cosmic joke.  He realized he was living the dream, he felt he’d worked hard to get there — but also that hard work wasn’t the whole story.  So he figured he might as well live the dream in high style.

Lake draws the veil over a lot — we don’t get the play-by-plays of tour debauchery that Emerson overshared, and the conflicts during the recording of Tarkus and the 1977 Works orchestra tour are stated but soft-pedaled.  What we do get is an outline of the classic rock and roll career — humble beginnings in Bournemouth, a wannabe pop star stint in London, success with King Crimson, and a ten year roller coaster ride to the top of the world and back down with ELP — all before he turned 35.  What do you do for an encore?

Here’s what I take away from Lucky Man: Lake realized lightning like that doesn’t strike twice.  He took opportunities when they came up (a brief 1980s solo career, a one-night stand with Asia to help out Carl Palmer,  the extended 1990s reunion of ELP and their final 2010 show, his Songs of a Lifetime tour), but he never put much faith in another climb to the pinnacle.  Working with and hearing great musicians obviously excited him — his stories of meeting the Shadows’ Hank Martin, seeing Elvis live in Vegas, touring with Ringo Starr and recording with the Who bring out his inner fan.   But in Crimson and ELP, Lake knew his standards and his boundaries, and he stuck to his guns, no matter the friction that resulted.  It was the music that mattered the most to him, and both Emerson and Palmer acknowledged that in retrospect.  With any worldly ambitions fulfilled so early in life, he could simply take pride in his accomplishments and find satisfaction in his family.

Which makes the end of Lucky Man, where Lake reflects on Keith Emerson’s suicide and his own terminal cancer diagnosis, even more poignant.  An Epicurean who enjoyed the high life in so many ways, the man’s final words provide a gracious, fitting coda to this surprisingly Stoic memoir:

“Without your love and encouragement the life I have lived would never have been possible.  I have been a lucky man.” 

Note: Lucky Man has only been published in Great Britain.  It’s available worldwide through Book Depository, which is based in the UK, owned by Amazon but operating independently.  They offer free worldwide shipping.  Here’s the link.

(This post is in loving memory of the late Joel Kimball, master of the Rickenbacker bass and the bagpipes at Alma College from 1980-1984.)

 

 

ELP Forthcoming

This looks pretty great.

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From MVD:

Culled from concerts in Chile, Brazil and Argentina in 1993 and 1997, ELP Live in South America is an essential collection to the catalog of this progressive rock supergroup. Features versions of their hits from their forty five year career including Lucky Man, From The Beginning, Hoedown, Knife Edge and Pictures at an Exhibition. Four CDS of great listening.

CD TRACKLISTING

Disc 1:

Continue reading “ELP Forthcoming”

Progarchy Radio, Episode 14

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Part I, 2010.

Our first show since Halloween!  Lots of great music on this one.  Four thirty-minute sets with only minimal talking on my part.  A restrained DJ am I!  Promise.

Set I

  • The Fierce and the Dead, Parts I-III

Continue reading “Progarchy Radio, Episode 14”

Remembering ELP: Genuine Art and Beauty

Bruce Frohnen has an essay over at TIC about ELP, arguing that they are “the most important musical group of the rock era.” Here’s part of his argument:

“Karn Evil 9” is not overblown, it is genuinely and intentionally music on a grand scale, combining classical techniques with multiple, interlacing rhythms, and polyphony to immerse the listener in a web of sound that for a time creates its own reality.

“Counterpoint” is a concept (not to say a reality) little understood among most rock musicians; but it was crucial to ELP’s ability to produce sounds that made sense at a level frankly higher than can be achieved in most blues-based music, with its emphasis on a single, simple melody underscored by rhythms deeply rooted in a single beat. At their usual best, Emerson, Lake, and Palmer performed according to a vision of rock music as rooted in the classical past. They produced both direct classical adaptations (“Fanfare for the Common Man” being the most famous) and original compositions that likewise combined modern rhythm and technique with melodic sophistication to create genuine art—pieces of beauty capable of affecting the souls of listeners.

Negativity and Keith Emerson

Two things that confuse, perplex, and worry me in this world: depression and suicide.  In no way would I ever consider myself above such things or not harassed by such demons.  But, obviously, I’ve never allowed (the right word?) either to plague me enough so that I’m not typing this at the moment.

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Rest in Peace, Keith.

Ray Bradbury—who probably felt almost nothing but highs most of his life—once claimed that the worst thing an artist can do after experiencing a strong emotion is express it verbally.  Instead, the artist should allow it to become the inspiration for whatever art he/she is at the moment creating.

Continue reading “Negativity and Keith Emerson”

The Sage: Keith Emerson, 1944-2016

You’ll excuse me if I’m mixing prog metaphors, but right now I feel like Fish (of Marillion keith-emerson-1fame) in the first line of Script for a Jester’s Tear: “So here I am once more … in the playground of the broken hearts.” It wasn’t that long ago I was here, writing about the tragic and untimely loss of Riverside’s Piotr Grudzinski. And now, here I am again, for one of the giants of the first wave of prog, Keith Emerson.

I really, really don’t want to get good at writing these things.

In the heyday of the 1970’s prog scene, the relative merits of Emerson and his Yes counterpart Rick Wakeman were the subject of numerous debates among prog fans. But Wakeman was the only one ever mentioned in the same breath with Emerson, as the duo stood head and shoulders above other keyboardists of the day (no disrespect to Tony Banks, Patrick Moraz, Eddie Jobson, et al.). And make no mistake about it, Emerson was a giant among keyboardists, one to be admired and emulated by all those who followed. His work, first with The Nice, and later with Emerson, Lake, and Palmer (or ELP as they are more affectionately known) made an indelible mark on the music world. He made being a keyboardist every bit as cool as being a guitarist.

Earlier today I saw where someone described Emerson as “the Hendrix of keyboardists.” And of the many suitable descriptions, this one certainly fits. Emerson did things with keyboards that nobody else had done. He almost single-handedly made the synthesizes of Robert Moog an indispensable instrument for any band that includes keyboards, prog and non-prog alike. He brought a multitude of keyboard styles into rock, from the jazzy piano interludes in ELP’s Take a Pebble, jazz organ, honky tonk, and, most notably, classical.

Nobody prior to Emerson, first with The Nice and late with ELP, did more for fusion of rock and classical music. Emerson took it even further, with ELP, taking classical pieces and making them into rock – first with Modest Mussorgsky’s Picture’s at an Exhibition. Later, ELP did their own versions of Aaron Copland’s Hoedown and Fanfare for the Common Man. And in one of ELP’s most unusual and spectacular interpretations, they did their own version of Alberto Ginestera’s Toccata on the Brain Salad Surgery album.

I’ve said before that symphonic prog was a gateway drug to classical music. If so, Emerson was the lead pusher. The reason I have Aaron Copland disks in my CD collection can be narrowed down to two words: Keith Emerson. The first time I heard so much as a note of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story was when I heard the version of America performed by The Nice – with Emerson’s keyboards playing the staring role.

Recently, on YouTube, I stumbled across a video of an orchestra doing a version of Tarkus (link here). I love the symmetry of that – an orchestra taking Emerson’s progressive rock, and making it into a full-blown classical piece. Beautiful … just beautiful.

The mind boggles at the band being assembled in Heaven right now … Emerson on keyboards … Chris Squire on bass … Piotr Grudzinski guitar … and perhaps, Emerson’s one-time band mate, Cozy Powell on drums. But to the, ahem, management up there putting this thing together, can we maybe keep this as an instrumental band for a while? Please?

Rest in Peace, Keith.

ELP, William Blake, and Jerusalem – The Divine Conection

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Back in the year 1973, Keith Emerson, Greg Lake, and Carl Palmer made an interesting decision regarding their album, Brain Salad Surgery. They decided to record their own version of the hymn, “Jerusalem,” and make it the first song on the new album. ELP had made a name for themselves in the world of progressive ROCK. These boys were not touring the Anglican Church circuit playing selections from the hymn book “whilst” citing the English Common Book of Prayer. Far From it. So why include a nearly 200 year old poem by William Blake, which was made a hymn by Hubert Parry in the early 1900s, in their new album? It seems like a strange choice, right? Well, maybe not.

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon Englands mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green & pleasant Land

And every British reader shouted, “AMEN!”

William Blake wrote “Jerusalem,” also known as “And Did Those Feet,” as a preface to a book of poems in the early 1800s. It is known for its heavy nationalism, which is why it is such a beloved hymn in Britain. Undergirding the poem is the legend of Christ’s supposed journey to England with Joseph of Arimathea. In the poem, Blake clearly questions the validity of the legend. The first two stanzas question the legend, and it is as if you can hear Blake answering his own questions. “And did those feet in ancient time / Walk upon England’s mountains green?” No! “And was the holy Lamb of God, / On England’s pleasant pastures seen!” Again, no! But, Blake wants to believe that Jerusalem was indeed “builded here / Among these dark Satanic Mills.”

I am reminded of what the early Christian apologist, Tertullian, once said: “What does Jerusalem have to do with Athens?” I ask, what does Jerusalem have to do with… London? Blake desperately wants Jerusalem to be built in “England’s green and pleasant Land” when he states that he is willing to fight without ceasing until the New Jerusalem is built in England.

This poem is simply dripping with religious imagery. From the Biblical image of chariots of fire taking Elijah into Heaven (II Kings 2:11) to God sending chariots of fire to protect Elisha (II Kings 6:17) to the prophet Ezekiel’s vision of chariots of fire in Heaven, it is clear that Blake wants a Heavenly army to fulfill his desire of the New Jerusalem established in England. Blake looks at the legend of Christ’s journey to England with skepticism, yet he looks forward to Jesus’ return with anticipation.

No wonder “Jerusalem” is so beloved in England. The hymn supports the belief that England and the West hold a superior sense of culture, society, truth… etc. What Englishman wouldn’t want to see the New Jerusalem established in England? But, there is a problem… those damned Satanic Mills. What are we going to do about those? And just what the heck are they anyways?

I’ll give you my thoughts on what they are, for what that is worth (not much, I assure you). From my reading of the poem, along with a quick glimpse of English history at the time, I believe the Mills are referring to factories and engines of war. Many argue that they refer to the rising problems of the garment factories and cotton mills in England, but I think that this poem was written far too early for that to be Blake’s main concern. The main British concern at the time was rising hostility with the French, not all that long after the American Revolution. As a rather pacifistic Romantic, Blake would have hated war. Yet, nevertheless, we see him calling for weapons of war in the next stanza. I believe he is doing so because, with this very poem, he wants to usher in the New Jerusalem “in England’s green and pleasant land.” However, before that event can take place, the factories and engines of war must be destroyed. There must be strife before Jerusalem can be established.

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So, what does all of this have to do with ELP? Where is the connection?

First, why not place a favorite nationalistic hymn at the beginning of your new album? American musicians record their own versions of the “Star Spangled Banner” or “God Bless America” all the time, so it really would not be all that strange to place a patriotic song in a rock album.

Then again, knowing the rather a-religious (to put it nicely) tone to Greg Lake’s lyrics, maybe they meant to use it in a way not unlike William Blake. It is just barely possible that they were trying to refute the legend of Christ’s visit to England. However, I doubt that ELP was looking forward to the triumphal return of Christ and the establishment of the New Jerusalem in England. Rather, ELP wants to see Jerusalem built in England, but God has no part in it. How, you ask, did I arrive at this, well, random conclusion? Maybe “Karn Evil 9 1st Impression Part 1” can shed some light upon that:

And not content with that,
With our hands behind our backs,
We pull Jesus from a hat,
Get into that! Get into that!

We pull Jesus from a hat…. Think about that for a second. What does a magician do? Most magicians are masters of optical illusion, so, for ELP, is Jesus just an illusion? Perhaps the Grand Illusion… hehe. Is there nothing more to this song than a refutation of the original legend and a declaration that, since Jesus never came, then we must build the New Jerusalem ourselves?

Again, I ask, what does Jerusalem have to do with London? Well, for the Jews, Jerusalem was arguably the center of the universe. It was where God made his home on earth, in the Temple. It was where man could come to find the presence of God. However, the presence of God left the temple at the shredding of the curtain with the death of Christ. Man no longer needed a mediator to get to God. Man’s heart became the temple of the Lord. Therefore, Jerusalem lost its importance to humanity. For the nationalist who wants to believe that the legend of Christ’s visit to England was real, London is the new city where God’s presence should and will be. Furthermore, there was once a day when the sun never sat on the British Empire (one could argue that it still doesn’t). It would seem that Britain enjoyed the favor of God and would therefore be a logical place for the Heavenly Jerusalem.

For ELP, before London can become the New Jerusalem, the Satanic Mills must be destroyed. If they were weapons of war for Blake, what are they for ELP? In my opinion, there is no reason they can’t still be weapons of war. In 1973, the US was deeply entrenched in the Vietnam War, and with that war came all kinds of new technology designed to kill other people. The world was also firmly rooted in the Cold War, and there was an ever present reality that everything could be destroyed without a moment’s notice. Before ELP can make London their New Jerusalem, war must cease, and England must triumph.

But, then again, maybe not. Let’s look at “Karn Evil 9 Impression 1 Part 2” :

Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends
We’re so glad you could attend, come inside, come inside
There behind a glass stands a real blade of grass
Be careful as you pass, move along, move along

Come inside, the show’s about to start
Guaranteed to blow your head apart
Rest assured you’ll get your money’s worth
Greatest show in Heaven, Hell or Earth
You’ve got to see the show, it’s a dynamo
You’ve got to see the show, it’s rock and roll

Maybe, for ELP, it was always just a show. It’s just a dynamo, it’s just rock and roll. Maybe the whole discussion brought on by their use of “Jerusalem” is part of the show that they have created. Maybe this little article can sit next to the seven virgins and a mule. That would be nice. Maybe Greg Lake will pull Jesus from a hat; I don’t know.

It seems that the connection between William Blake and ELP isn’t really all that Divine after all. ELP starts, like Blake does, by refuting the legend, but their motives for ushering in the New Jerusalem are completely different than Blake’s. William Blake, I believe, honestly desired to see Britain become the “promised land.” For ELP, in the end, it was all just a show.

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Other Progarchy posts on “Jerusalem” :

Dave Smith: https://progarchy.com/2014/06/11/jerusalem-a-view-from-a-brit/

Pete Blum: https://progarchy.com/2012/10/25/dark-satanic-mills/

Jerusalem A View From A Brit

I was fourteen when Brain Salad Surgery was released. I had first discovered ELP through the Trilogy album. That was one of two albums to be seen with under your arm at school. The other was Physical Graffiti. Consequently, this would be the first ELP album I had bought on the day of release. And boy was I excited. The sleeve looked magnificent and opened differently to other albums, and the album label ( God how I miss labels ) was a wonder to behold.  I had heard that the first track was going to be their version of Jerusalem and was interested as to how it would sound. The needle hit the plastic and out came the bombastic sound. Mr Emerson’s synth sound had changed as he was now playing poly moogs and the drum sound was really tight and crystal clear. Then Greg’s dynamic tenor voice sang those words. A repeat of the opening salvo in the middle, another verse and then the really over the top ending. As far as I was concerned, no other band around could have pulled that off.

Britain was a different place in 1973. Radio One was our one and only national pop radio station. If you wanted your record to chart you needed it played on radio one. ELP released Jerusalem as a single. Radio One banned it. It never got played. They banned it on the grounds that it was irreverent. A Rock and Roll band had the audacity to take a beloved hymn of the British people and turn it into a rock/pop song just didn’t sit well the BBC hierarchy.

I was a choirboy in the early 70’s so I knew the song well and thought it had a good tune. It was different to sing compared to some of the other hymns we sang. So I connected with it and even today enjoy singing along with it. There was a time when our country had a mild discussion as to whether God Save The Queen should be replaced. Suggestions included Land of Hope and Glory and Jerusalem.

For the past two seasons now our national cricket team has come out onto the ground at the start of play each day to the strains of Jerusalem. ( for our cousins across the pond…yes.. a game can last 5 days and end in an exciting draw ) It is usually sung by an operatic singing star of the day and is supposed to strike up pride in our country and send our boys into cricket battle with determination.  It is also sung at the Promenade concerts performed at the Royal Albert Hall each year. If you were to ask the general public in Britain to name their favourite hymn or even just to name any hymn, Jerusalem would be in the top three every time. Some people would be hard pushed to name any other hymn but maybe that is a reflection on a dwindling church going population.

Going back to Brain Salad Surgery……. if Jerusalem was not on the album or in a different spot on the album, then it would have been a poorer album because of it.  Till we have built Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land.

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Now bring on Toccata.