NO WAVE GUIDE TO E.L.P.
those unaware, Tim Ellison is the publisher/editor/sole
staff member of Modern Rock Magazine. He has proven himself
time and time again to be one of the most analytically crazed
minds to write about sounds in our time of breathing. This
essay originally appeared in the fifth issue of Modern Rock
(When it was stilled titled 'Rock Mag') in 1996. Although
it may not be the freshest piece in Tim's canon, it brings
some interesting points to the foreground and might give
SOME insight into one of the most lambasted bands in Rock
'N' Roll history. But most of all, it'll most likely piss
off and confuse people to no end. Which is fine by me. Maybe
not Tim, but certainly me.
Progressive Rock Editor
it be said that I don't think progressive rock is necessary.
Except when it is, but that is not all the time so as a
general context for life: Why put yourself in a box?
The main things you've got
to wonder about with this stuff are matters such as: Just
how much fun did Emerson, Lake and Palmer ultimately have?
Were they smart enough or lucky enough to have lived enchanted
lives? I'd guess to a certain extent so, and it is with
this premise that I have taken to create this guide to the
five albums they released in a period of three to four years,
which you may wish to use in lieu of chalk. (The reference
here is to Frank Zappa, who as a teenager marked up his
Edgar Varese records with chalk to outline the exciting
Their main style of
music is primarily a futuristic tank rock sound, a programme
music of machines. Just about five minutes into the first
album, though after the first such robotic theme, 'musical'
nonsense begins: 'Dramatic' piano music. This is No Wave
Music. (As are their arbitrary robot sounds.) They have
no real concept apart from attacking the piano. And then
there's no music either. Just dynamics.
Next up a restrained
theme: Make it more intense by exaggerating it. ('The Barbarian',
an ELP classic.) Carl Palmer's drums at the end COMPLETELY
FILL UP THE SPACE. (Robotic music is repetitious or texturally
constant.) It's a stretch, but Greg Lake's ballad-songs
can be appreciable as post-King Crimson (Post-post-British
Psychedelia) light music fantasy (And still Rock Music).
Something arbitrarily other, refusing the time period's
own stylistic claims to what was beautiful (Banal humanist
singer/songwriters...see the writings of Lester Bangs for
This is early 70s Futuristic
Classicism: Pretty cool. It may sound close to REO Sppedwagon
territory, but it's different. 'Take A Pebble' has a nice
structure of: The song exposition followed by a little sonata
interlude, a big acoustic guitar buildup, a long filigree
Keith Emerson solo with the band coming in with funky fusionoid
sounds that proceed to get art-rock-ish, THEN return to
the song. Clocks in at 12:32.
Then 'Knife Edge',
a very silly monster of a song. (Note Carl Palmers' great
tom beat over Keith Emerson's solo: Very No Wave. (Tom beats
deconstruct the drumset.)
Side Two finds Keith
Emerson at The Royal Hall Festival Organ skronking away
with 'fanfares' and 'filigree,' then next on piano with
some Debussian sounds which spiel out not only into filigree-nonsense,
but then into dissonant thematic developments out of the
nonsense: Pretty avant-garde territory. A masterful theme
then follows, followed by complex nonsense. Some more big
dissonant honks out of the organ and then here comes the
band with a No Wave segement in 7/4 time. (No Wave: Repititious
and dissonant with extra added noises.) Plus, it's 'circus
music' which fits in with the post-post-psychedelia angle.
'Tank' sounds exactly like The Mothers of Invention circa
'Uncle Meat'. They make it real long too, with a drum solo
that maintains the hyper active vibe longer than The Mothers
ever did (To the point where it starts to seem arbitrary
and thus quite weird) Then the band comes in with a dissonant
bouncy theme that makes no sense at all.
Greg Lake's 'Lucky Man'
could've been a Davy Jones Monkees song. (Has that fantasy
sociology element.) Great! (And yes, it's a no wave move
to throw it all alone at the end of this album side.) (Even
the synthesizer tone at the end reminds one of The Monkees'
use of the Moog circa 'Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn and Jones
Next album is Tarkus.
Great name, and Side One is 'Tarkus', a suite which begins
with the thematic 'Eruption.' (This time it's 5/4 time.)
You've got to have a lot of themes to fill up a lot of 'musical'
space in this show which never ends, so, Emerson, Lake and
Palmer have one, and it leads into the great downer 'Stones
of Years,' a strangely meaningless poem and King Crimson-type
Back to the theme,
and Keith Emerson's solo sounds like Miles Davis's organ
playing on 'Get Up With It' except on the wrong speed (and
with no swing beats--ELP are a tank, remember). What they
do next is real good too: Extrapolate the theme pointlessly
for awhile and then just cut it off! It could've gone on
forever--Why come up with a 'musical' ending when you can
hyper actively just go into the next song instead? (Note:
This particular cut 'Iconoclast' is 1:16. Pretty ambitious
to fill up a show that never ends with such tiny elements
(in this case linking materials).
After another annoying
song they're back to yet MORE incredibly hyper-active stuff.
'Mass' is a more tolerable
song with some nice developments, plenty of Carl Palmer
hyper activity, and then they ride out the rest of the side
with a bouncy surreal march. (Why not?) And, oh yeah, the
theme is repeated pretty much note for note except with
a real dramatic ridiculous ending. 'Tarkus': Pretty Good!
What you need after
such a dramatic conclusion to keep 'the show' going is some
variety. So, the kitschy 'Jeremy Bender.' It may sound like
Jethro Tull (whom Joe Carducci likes) but at least Keith
Emerson is kind of spazzing out on the piano. (Also: The
tune is a sort of 'show' tune, more of which we'll see later.)
Show off Keith some
more on the piano throughout the great 'Bitches Crystal.'
(This time the meter's in six--Are they going to run out
of ideas soon?)
Alright, it's down
to St. Mark's Church to record Keith on the organ next.
Great variety on this LP. Tolerate Greg Lake's singing for
a brief time and it's on into some great skronking Emerson
piano riffage in 7/4. Weird and new (and arbitrary) vibe
for them; kind of quiet and they slow down to end it rather
than spaz out or proving they will utilize all bad 'musical'
tricks that sound good.
Total archetypal ELP
greatness in 'A Time and A Place' and again just a short
song where they cram so much stuff in it's amazing. (No
one else came close to this.) A song about their engineer
(Eddy) follows (another element of 'show music'--silly songs
about performers or stage hands) and that's Tarkus!
O.K. why not tackle
a whole Romantic Era song cycle! Better yet, adapt it so
you can arbitrarily work on it all the more! And so their
next release was a live recording of their adaptation of
Mussorgskys' 'Pictures of an Exhibition'.
Pretty archetypal stuff
from these guys, it turns out. Real nice organ chords (the
Mussorgsky theme is so pretty!) and then the band enters
with dramatic skronking, athletic sparseness (this is new
Rock and Roll!), and a slow and sinister, dissonant exposition
(real archetypal ELP stuff and great).
Greg Lake's corny vocal
on the theme threatens to ruin it, but again: think of it
as like early King Crimson. Works, huh? Same goes for his
composition 'The Old Castle' which in addition is so quiet
that you can easily not pay much attention to it except
as background O.K.-period-piece-post-post-psychedelia. (And
if you are paying attention to it, a lot of the necessary
elements of psych are lost in the non-concise-ness of the
rambling psuedo-Classicism, but dig the rambling!)
fills up a lot of time and space with Keith Emerson soloing
for a long time. (And hey, 4/4 time: good use here of an
obvious idea when you start to run out of ideas and realize
you'd been using all the complicated or obscure or difficult
ones.) Variations on the 'Promenade' theme are quite nice:
good arbitrary time to go back to the real meaty materials--Dive
done anything real extremely hyper active with this piece
yet so: do that next. Brief complex themes and then a frantic
run with Keith Emerson wailing on the organ and then the
synth and Greg Lake yelling out--sounds like Rob Tyner at
one point actually, and hey this is as gnarly as the MC5
(not to mention sillier, more arbitrarily weird, a kind
of No Wave music, if you will) OK?
More Greg Lake
singing of something, a little music, then a really nice
feedback section. More of the singing (with variations on
the music, of course). The song cycle's then over, except
they come back for an encore: A real spazzed out, arbitrary
version of Kim Fowley' 'Nutrocker' adaptation of The Nutcracker.
Nice how it's music, they're eclectic and make no attempts
to make it particualarly ELP-like in their standard ways,
yet it's spazzy and related to 'Classical' also so it works.
This isn't really their most developed album, though.
Greg Lake's singing
on 'The Endless Enigma' which starts off the Trilogy
album, moves back and forth from the sometimes-nice post-early
King Crimson style to awful gestures predating Styx. Perhaps
'It's all (partially) his fault' but Styx wouldn't have
followed it with a fugue. ELP do. And it's weird to hear
this long solo piano junk, definitely (moves from pseudo-Baroque
to pseudo-Romantic to the Anywhere beyond) coming at you
off of a Rock (No Wave Rock) record.
After a very
beautiful fanfare, Part Two of 'The Endless Enigma' firmly
resolves things in the King Crimson (as opposed to Styx)
category, so rest assured. And the hit 'From The Beginning'
follows in this mode as well. It's pretty nice--and not
'The Show.' It's
show business, right? So how about some old timey theme
music? ('The Sheriff.') Not only that, but incorporate it
into skronky ELP deconstructed complex music: no mean feat.
They follow this
up appropriately (thematic development: a big factor in
keeping 'the show' moving) with, dig it, another hoedown!
And more appropriately still, a hoedown that's adapted from
Aaron Copeland. How silly/arbitrary/neat! Very complex too,
needless to say.
Greg Lake singing
which starts 'Trilogy' on Side Two also falls in the Crimson-ish
category (a pretty good run at this!) though more extreme,
expansive, and rambling. (A true essence of ELP.) After
some cool filigree, the band does a variation on this theme
in 5/4 time, quickened up and with Keith wailing on the
The next section
has ELP wailing away as a robotic machine and what an archetype
it is. A definite sense here that their music is progressing
further, and where they choose to go is toward even more
complex archetypes of their athletic circus robot stuff!
They really keep
it up with the excellent 'Living Sin,' exploiting 'sinister'
chromatic riffs. If they'd have filled up their show with
more intense three-minute tune/interludes such as this,
it would have been an even more intensely grating eternal
they're certainly eclectic enough, as evidenced indeed by
the very next track 'Abbadon's Bolero'. a harmonically-shifting
art-rock 'bolero'/march which goes on and on and on very
nicely, and showcasing here a very important element: that
in the show that never ends you sometimes get to fill up
a lot of space with minimal ideas, and can thus be free
to groove on riding out long (potentially eternal, depending
on the interest factor-degree of the osomotic tongue pressure,
or...) passages. In this realm, the show is thus potentially
both macro-cosmically AND micro-cosmically eternal.
Next year, ELP unleashed
the crowning achievement of their four years of non-stop
athletic no wave show music. Brain Salad Surgery
is an entire album shaped as one long 'grand finale' starting
off with an exposition 'Jerusalem' (non-cloying, Greg Lake
singing William Blake verses), then subtly building intense
drama ("Toccata,' an adaptation of Ginasteris' 1st
Piano Concerto). A grand finale means greater tricks than
ever before, so the drama rolls on ahead forcefully, and
into Carl Palmer's intense solo. Halfway into the solo here
comes: electronic drums! (Very intense grand finale surprises.)
The band returns and builds more and more and the grand
finale has only begun...
Got to have one
last Greg Lake ballad to wrap things up comprehensively.
The old distinctions regarding these songs outlined throughout
this guide still apply here.
One more old-timey
western-ish show tune is necessary too, so they have one.
(And it's spazzy and arbitrary--good.) One more thing to
do: a final huge suite-piece to top 'em all. So big this
time they've got to start it at the end of Side One.
a spazzy exposition; long, rambling connective materials;
the theme returns sped up then tails off into a couple crashes,
but before you can relax the great ELP tank or steamroller
sound shoots off forever (it can fly) into the cosmos!
midst of this elation, the final glory, Greg Lake steps
forward and spells it out: the show! The show that never
ends! The true grand finale (grand finale of the grand finale:
more micro/macro-cosmic implications) thus begins.
The '2nd Impression' of 'Karn Evil 9': 1st Keith Emerson
at the piano; frantic steel drum sounds over the bands'
robot machine, a final expansive mellow segment. (Suspenseful,
this time, and to reinfornce the continuity of the grand
The machine sound
of the band, again, building slowly this time, then incrementally
climbing...Drop it off and roll forward with 'fanfares'
('3rd Impression'). (This time Greg Lakes' song-stuff is
integrated into the fanfare function of the grand finale,
and no distinction between early King Crimson and Styx need
be made: This is ELPs' own territory (and its cool).)
turn into a surrealistic happy march (off into the cosmos
once again--talk about heaven rock) then soar out to the
Anywhere Beyond (which includes Why Not? of course) room
for some spazzed out blues jamming.
building again. More marching, more soaring. Another fanfare,
but it ain't over yet. The soaring turns to spinning. Then
zoom! Off harder and further still! Suddenly, it stops.
Greg Lake delivers a eulogy. It's over.
ON THE TOWN
with Sir Reggie Queequeg