Come and See the Show: The Best of Emerson, Lake and Palmer (Razor & Tie)
By Mike Finkelstein
Emerson, Lake and Palmer didn’t begin as a super-group, but in retrospect the band’s pedigree indicated all along that they would sound special. The band consisted of keyboard virtuoso Keith Emerson, fresh out of the classically leaning pop group The Nice, and Greg Lake who bowed out of a prominent role in King Crimson’s legendary sound on their first album (he is the voice on “In the Court of the Crimson King”). Carl Palmer, a hugely talented drummer and a former member of The Crazy World of Arthur Brown was recruited to drive the band. It turns out he was not the band’s first choice on drums — it was actually Mitch Mitchell. In fact, the band began its career amidst a swirl of rumors that Jimi Hendrix was to be part of the band. While one can only imagine what, on mere mortal earth, this would have sounded like, the rumors only existed because Emerson and Lake were courting Mitchell to be in the band in the wake of the Experience breaking up. Mitchell had suggested having Jimi play on the upcoming audition jams, but Hendrix died before anything could materialize and the jam never took place.
It has been more than 40 years since ELP were burning it up as a trailblazing band at the forefront of the progressive rock movement in England that also gave us bands like Yes, King Crimson, Procol Harum, Genesis, Gentle Giant, and the Soft Machine, to name a very few. All of these bands were outstanding in terms of playing and writing in their own styles, creating a whole esthetic theme for each album and carrying this esthetic into live performances. ELP were second to none and certainly one of the very first to be a successful prog band.
Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s forte was fusing classical music, jazz improvisation, folk music and hard rock together. It was an ambitious and often fruitful several years in the mid- to early 70’s for ELP. The result was a gigantic but remarkably nuanced sound. Perhaps because they were only three pieces, there was always enough room in the arrangements to hear the subtlety meshed with the enormity. You could always follow every part clearly.
Now, their albums are going to be re-released as expanded packages by Razor and Tie Records. In anticipation, the company has issued a tidy teaser/sampler greatest hits package, Come and See the Show: The Best of Emerson, Lake and Palmer and it does represent the band’s parameters well. Looking at the program and then listening to it reminds us of just how big, yet detailed a sound ELP honed. No one has sounded like them before or after.
Oddly, however, there is one song included (“Nutrocker”) to represent ELP’s iconic original-release interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s famous work on a live album, Pictures at an Exhibition, that was otherwise largely devoted to Mussorgsky’s composition of the same name. And there is nothing from the Tarkus album, an ambitious but underrated concept album about the developing problems of over-militarization in the world. It will be very interesting to see what Razor and Tie will add to the packaging of these two albums when they are released, because they were true milestones as the band established its own musical identity.
The songs on Come and See the Show are not in chronological order, but they do showcase the band’s diverse and prodigious talent. Their fondness for interpreting classical pieces in their own modern style is represented with enduring renditions of Aaron Copeland’s Hoedown, and Fanfare for the Common Man.
A large part of the band’s commercial appeal was based in Greg Lake’s songwriting, arranging, and singing. On this album we hear the evolution of his style beginning with the folky tale of a fallen warrior in “Lucky Man,” (one of the first songs he wrote) with one of the better Moog/synth solos we may ever hear closing the tune. Lake’s voice is rich and polished and blends perfectly with his open tuned acoustic guitar. After this,his style became jazzier, with more open chords, but always with a bevy of pop hooks to make the song appealing. It’s a desirable musical landscape that he created for the group.
“From the Beginning” endures as a song people will stop to listen to should it surface on the radio. It’s a gorgeous set of chords and another sterling vocal performance from Lake. And Emerson’s restraint in playing only catchy, concise, and beautiful lines in the solo spots is notable. ELP really did make great singles and this is a prime example.
In a similar vein, we get “Still…You Turn Me On,” same format and same tasty results. Lake refined his image as a balladeer when he recorded “I Believe in Father Christmas” for the Works album. It’s an elegantly arranged piece of music that is perhaps a little too over the top to be listened to at any other time than Christmas.
Brain Salad Surgery was ELP’s breakout album in 1974. From it we get “Karn Evil #9,” which yielded the popular phrase “Welcome back my friends, to the show that never ends.” “Jerusalem,” and “Toccata,” from the same album, are also impressive ELP cuts that represent their ongoing growth in the direction of grand productions.
In their time and in the image of the grandiose fusing of heavy rock and classical music, ELP took their presentation to perhaps silly extremes: playing an organ spinning, suspended from a forklift; stabbing the organ with a knife; a bank of synthesizers sprouting wings. But through it all, the band pumped out a succession of musically impressive albums. Their keyboards/bass/drums format was unique and the songwriting blossomed and peaked commercially in the mid 70’s with Brain Salad Surgery.
But at that time, the quality of life changed less for the better in England and in the world in general. ELP’s grandiose approach to things wore thin and the songwriting waned. People could not relate to the pretense. Sooner rather than later, the band’s fortunes faded.
Still, as Come and See the Show reveals, ELP’s best music continues to speak for itself…magnificently.
To read more reviews by Mike Finkelstein click HERE.