Wednesday, December 14, 2016

In the Wake of Greatness: Emerson, Lake, and Powell

Undoubtedly, music aficionados have suffered some incredible losses this year. From David Bowie’s artfully framed struggle with cancer to the startling passing of Prince, it seems like a whole generation of musicians are beginning to reveal their mortality. Every single one of these musicians deserve mention, but earlier this year, I thought that it would be a shame if the particularly tragic passing of Keith Emerson was eclipsed by more visible artists. I began a commemorative post that I procrastinated finishing and, like an embarrassingly large percentage of my writing, I abandoned it past its relevance.

Then I recently woke to find that his former bandmate and prog-rock icon Greg Lake had also passed. It seemed more pertinent than ever to revise and complete the post, particularly since the underrated entry in ELP’s legacy that I have the most connection with sadly has no surviving members.

Don’t panic, Carl Palmer is still going strong, at least at the time of this writing (fingers crossed).

My introduction to ELP did not come through their classic work, although I came to appreciate it.  I was a member of the MTV generation, so I came to know 70s progressive rock giants like Yes and Genesis through the lens of their 80s reinventions.  Emerson also sought to bring ELP back into the spotlight during this time, but to make a long story short, Asia's success with Heat of the Moment kept drummer Carl Palmer engaged. Cozy Powell (who passed away in 1998 due to a car accident) found his way into the throne, creating an alternative lineup that created one album, simply titled Emerson, Lake, and Powell.

ELPo was cautiously welcomed into this cadre of reinvented prog-rockers, and I still have memories of the brief time Keith Emerson took his turn telling me that he “wanted his MTV,” usually followed by the album’s powerful single Touch and Go. Although Touch and Go did not garner the same attention as, say, Yes' Owner of a Lonely Heart, I purchased the album back then on tape, and it slid effortlessly into rotation on the heels of Rush's Power Windows.

Throughout the next decade and a half, I collected a good portion of ELP’s back catalog and mostly enjoyed it. There is a lot of devastatingly beautiful music to be found there. There are also a few eyeball-rolling moments, particularly in their efforts to arrange orchestral repertoire. Emerson, Lake, and Powell, however, closed with a version of Holst’s Mars, the Bringer of War that I would argue is the most successful transcription that ELP ever did (no matter which P you are referring to). It harnesses its energy and bombast of the original in a convincing rock setting without selling out the original piece.

No one who listens carefully can argue Emerson’s amazing prowess as a pianist and keyboard innovator. In recent years, however, his technique had begun to deteriorate due to an ongoing battle with carpal tunnel and nerve damage. Rumors also suggest that he suffered from depression, and was tragically unable to fully appreciate the inspiration that he brought to so many. He found it difficult to carry on, especially in the face on online criticism, making his suicide possibly the most heartbreaking loss this year.

Perhaps less heartbreaking, but no less tragic, was the recent news that Greg Lake had also passed after privately fighting cancer. In a very general sense, Lake’s role in ELP was to provide a folky, bardic counterbalance to Emerson’s bombast. The ballad Lay Down Your Guns is a tip of the hat to Lake's traditional role in the group, and although the song is not without merit, it probably isn't strong enough to represent the huge role that his distinctive musicianship has played in the history of progressive rock music.

While time may have revealed some low energy points on the album, I would argue that the stronger material on Emerson, Lake, and Powell represents some of the best prog-rock that the 80s had to offer.  It is unfortunate that, due to the technological limitations of the day, their brief existence remains relatively undocumented, short of a few low fidelity clips captured by a couple of fans brave and crafty enough to somehow sneak a bulky camcorder into the arena.

I wish I could have seen that.  I came close - I had a ticket for ELPo's show at the Erwin Center in 1986.  They unfortunately had to cancel due to a double-booking with ZZ Top, who was selling out arenas on their Afterburner tour.  The refunded money for the ticket did not come close to replacing the experience, which, in retrospect, would have been the only opportunity I would have had to see either Emerson or Lake.  They reformed, recorded, and performed with Carl Palmer on a limited basis in the decades to follow, but to my knowledge they never came back to Texas.

And, to be honest, I probably would not have traveled to see them.  I have a huge amount of respect for ELP and the innovative work that they did, but in the long run I ended up being a bigger fan of Wakeman than Emerson.  Still, when Emerson, Lake, and Powell was released it had an impact, and the music that came to the surface in its wake, like the rest of ELP's catalog, King Crimson's early work with Lake, and into Gustav Holst's orchestral masterpiece The Planets, was hugely influential in building the kind of musician I became.  I owe them quite a bit, and am sorry to see them go.

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