Over the top? Pompous? Blatantly Full of themselves? Perhaps eventually but in 1970 they were hardcore Prog and damn good at it! I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with ELP because on one end you have the calm ballads of Greg Lake then the other hand is the firey madness of Keith Emerson’s keyboards and in between is Carl Palmer’s insane drumming and jazz inflections to try and balance the light and darkness combined. Having been introduced to ELP because I was so gung-ho over King Crimson someone had said you know that Greg Lake went on to sing for ELP right? Ummmmm….nooooo…… ok let’s check this out then. Then of course everyone’s armchair psychology on which album you should listen to first became the topic of bombardment to which I dismissed all of it and started at their first record and went forth from there. What did I know at 14 right?! Still getting my feet wet and cutting my teeth on newly discovered diamonds on my turntable!
There is a such thing as overkill and I discovered it here with this band. Taking classical music and incorporating it in to Prog rock is a main staple of the genre but when you eventually go to the point of mass hysteria on your albums you kind of have had enough and long for a song that doesn’t involve nine hundred things going at once. I love complex music but with ELP it seemed to not be enough for them as the years lingered on and by ’78…. well let’s just say egos were as big as their wallets and I had left that train long before keeping their music to myself where I truly enjoyed them.
In 1970 ELP was a combination of Greg Lake (King Crimson), Keith Emerson (The Nice) and Carl Palmer (Atomic Rooster) that formed a power trio (remember reading about those?!) and became a driving force in the Prog genre and coming FROM big time Prog bands prior so it was a fitting sense of the word they culminated their talents to become, Emerson, Lake & Palmer.
Now before we really get in to this album, a myth must be dispelled here. It is rumoured that Jimi Hendrix was supposed to get together with them after the Isle of Wight Festival and jam with them and join forces to become H.E.L.P (just adding Hendrix’s name to the moniker), never happened. Keith Emerson squashed any existing rumours or newly appointed ones about this in an issue of Prog magazine a couple of issues back and that no such meeting ever took place nor did they even consider it. So anyone who tells you such fireside stories is talking out of their amplifier at 11!
The Isle of Wight Festival, England’s answer to America’s Woodstock and other festivals that followed in and around the UK and Europe but all others seemed to have been pale in comparison to these two if you discount Altamont as the big door closer to the 60’s of course but that wasn’t as many bands and ended slightly more poorly than WS and IOW.
This festival presented the likes of many great bands who either did or did not appear at Woodstock and their performances here were either very tired or very energetic. It was a great display of British bands as well as a few American bands as well including, The Doors who in the midst of Jim’s Miami trial managed to sneak over and perform here to a rather well receptive audience and the show is well worth seeking out. But this show we’re looking at is a prime example of how the energy of nervousness, excitement, guts and massive crowds of people can turn your performance in to a stellar exhibition of sound and that’s what happened this night for ELP. A 5 song burst of might and they open up with a real hammer of a tune, “The Barbarian” without wasting a second and rolling through the notes like a steamroller over the audience in an onslaught of distorted bass notes, furious keyboards and scattered drums like roaches in the light. The mid-section jazz piano fill is short as the band wanted to just get on with it and continue pummelling the audience with this new massive sound of theirs that was miscalled in the beginning as their debut performance, it was actually their second gig but we won’t say will we ; ) The Plymouth Guildhall was actually their first ever performance on August 23rd 1970 but to a smaller audience due to possible lack of knowledge to the public about the show.
The Barbarian is a great opener as it gets the audience’s attention and has that battle force feel to it as a song albeit instrumental speaks volumes to what the band is capable of doing and the damage it leaves behind as they plow on to the next song, the ever so gentler, “Take a Pebble” also from their first album. This song has varying lengths live and have often incorporated several other songs in the middle of it to further enhance the Prog spectrum and add to the Prog recipe by altering the ingredients of just the song to now include added flavours to it. The ringing out of the piano strings that sound awfully out of tune for some reason compared to other performances segue way the bass notes in as they slink their entrance as the cymbal rolls lightly form as Greg Lake‘s voice takes over. The soothing ballad tone of his voice has you captivated as the song gently walks through the first two and a half minutes before Keith Emerson takes the reigns and gives a solid piano solo to a shuffling Palmer drum chant and the bass adds the inflections of root notes. The middle section is toss between an Emerson piano hymn then the intro almost sounds like it’s going to begin again then we hear the refrain of an acoustic guitar by Lake as he plucks and knuckles at the strings until he is swept aside by Emerson again to have another row at the piano. Often it would have been Lake performing “Lucky Man” and snippets of King Crimson’s “Epitaph” in the middle section of T.A.P. but this being the genesis of the song’s live career it seemed that the band was still a little unsure of what to do and where to go with it so they turned back in to a jazz ensemble for a few bars before they churned back in to the song at hand. A very Prog thing to do but a little trampled underfoot here but in time they got it down right.
“Pictures at an Exhibition” a half hour long rendition and interpretation of Mussorgsky’s masterpiece is up next and when you listen to the two there’s a lot of differences! Just saying! BUT! Here is Prog done to a needle point of rigid sharpness and tight formation playing that even the best air forces in the world couldn’t hold formation THIS tight! The whole Prog recipe is superbly executed here without flaws; start/stops, tempo/timbre changes, lots of Moog synthesizer usage (which was relatively new and revolutionary at the time), various passages between synth and acoustic guitar making this a Prog dreamer’s delight of a piece to listen to. The band did release an album of this piece titled the same from 26 March 1971, at Newcastle City Hall, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK, a MUST have for your Prog Collective! But at the IOW Festival the band nailed it and it and they ventured in to the sound effects reminiscent of a Dr. Who episode to a full onslaught of Prog mastery and grooving musicianship making it a stellar performance. The piece is broken(labelled) up in to several sections as you can read on the back of the inlay card but i rather prefer to look at it as a single composition as opposed to degrees of various segments because you can hear when one stops and the next starts but who’s counting right? There’s no blistering solos here but rather a display of masterful talent and precision with a few flubs in a couple of songs but their performance of Pictures is merely 2nd to the album version from 1971 but this live version is really close to the Newcastle performance and just as awesome!
This is a heavy Prog composition that pulls out all the ingredients from the cupboards and just mashes them all together in to the bowl and turns on the blender to high and let’s loose with it. Truly Igor Mussorgsky was either rolling in his grave or saying “hey that’s all right, I dig it!” The M.O. with ELP was to take classical pieces by odd and not so odd composers and turn their works in to Prog spectacles of sound and alter them to fit a then “modern age” of sound and extension of the Prog genre and to really do what no one has ever done with music at that time making unique as well as original with a slight hint of being a “cover tune”. “Rondo” rises form the ashes of what’s left from the Pictures presentation and is another onslaught of Moog freak out sounds and a “drum solo” in spots from Carl Palmer to which I have to say wasn’t his best here and rather sloppy and shoddy at best for him when you listen to him play later on in their career and in his own band after that, this wasn’t his brightest moment in drumming that’s for sure yet when playing with the rest of the band he’s spot on, how odd is that eh? “Nutrocker” completes their set which is a play on the Nut Cracker Suite and was often a encore during their earlier shows to somewhat calm the audience down and relax them from the massive wall of sound they had just tumbled over on to the ears of the people watching and listening.
There are lots of bootlegs from every period of their career and having seen ELP with Deep Purple in ’98 in Toronto I was content to hear the “hits” so to speak and see them perform while they still had “some” of it left in them. As mentioned in the beginning it’s a love/hate relationship I have with them and the songs I like, I really like, a lot of their other material I just couldn’t wrap my head around at all and even Carl Palmer has been noted as saying in several different interviews over the years that they really only made a couple of really good albums and the rest were all shite. But I’m sure like many other bands that went to gobshite eventually or were leaning towards that angle members stuck it out because of contracts, guilt or it was a really good paycheque at the end of the day that said to stick around cuz otherwise you’ll go broke.
The Isle of Wight Festival I enjoyed much more than Woodstock and other festivals that happened all around 1969/1970 as this one displayed more Prog bands than the others and had some more substance to it rather than bands being on substances. The P.A. system was also donated for the festival by my all time favourite band, The Pink Floyd and David Gilmour has been noted as mixing Jimi Hendrix’s set and possibly a few others at the show. ELP is a band that you either really love everything they do or like me you are on the fence a lot on their music because with Prog as with any genre there is a such thing as “Too Much” and “Overkill” and I find that they took it beyond the edge of the envelope at times and by the time that “Brain Salad Surgery” came out I was long done with them as I just couldn’t cope with that much happening in one song and then the rest of the record was more filler and tunes that really had to bearing on the theme of the album. If I would have to suggest three records to you to listen to with ELP…. Their first self titled of course, “Pictures at an Exhibition” and “Tarkus” then you’re on your own after that! Enjoy