- Tarka the metallic otter (sent for an early bath) 0 - A very badly drawn mythical beast 1 -
'Tarkus' - The title 'suite' has now quite rightly entered into history as a hitherto unprecedented measure of how we now appraise those occupied in the creation of progressive rock music of any conceivable style, and is perhaps this records greatest and enduring legacy. It served almost as a 'blueprint' for much of the Italian symphonic prog movement and has been a source of inspiration for musicians and composers ever since.
I do think it significant that Emerson's compositional style has been an acknowledged influence on other instrumentalists apart from just keyboard players, in contrast to Rick Wakeman, Patrick Moraz, Tony Banks, Dave Greenslade & Rod Argent etc.
There are palpable traces of Bartok, Ginastera and perhaps Zappa throughout Emerson's creation and he chose wisely in allowing for the danger of the whole 20 minutes alienating his audience, to contrast the 'Eruption - Iconoclast - Manticore - Aquatarkus' instrumental sections with some more conventional song based material utilising Greg Lake's vocals. This technique served ELP well throughout their career and the overwhelming success achieved by 'Tarkus' simply endorsed its repeated use on subsequent albums.
The material that comprises the remainder of the album is often either overlooked or dismissed as inferior to the 'Tarkus' composition, but I feel that this is unduly harsh and think it long overdue for reappraisal.
'Jeremy Bender' - Where Floyd Cramer meets a defrocked cross dresser and after a boisterous night on the turps, duet on this whimsical number at 3am before being led away to the cells in preparation for the trial. Often dismissed as ' filler' but good fun and Emerson's piano is always worth some of your time.
'Bitches Crystal' - The waltz rhythm's stubborn refusal to 'kick ass' has been a constant source of frustration to many a rock muso, and it took Palmer and his two buddies to teach them how to make this normally 'effete' pulse decimate hindquarters. All manner of stylistic bases are covered from jazz piano, blues rock, classical and even that tinkling 'ice cream van' music alluded to in the title. I also love the way ELP achieve a satisfying blend of the acoustic instruments and the Moog. Judging by some of their contemporaries efforts at around the same time, this is not as easy as they make it sound here.
'The Only Way' - The lengthy Bach quote is used I suspect, not for any musical purpose but to set up the right 'pious' atmosphere for Greg Lake to subvert with his attack on religious hypocrisy and self serving belief systems. It's not very often that ELP ever strayed anywhere near political, religious or social controversy as they do here, and whether they got their fingers burned or not, I do wish they had been as forthright with their views as they are on this very moving atheist rallying call. Compared to Greg's usual preoccupation with mythical beasts, love affairs that dwarf entire solar systems and fantasy literature, this is 'gritty realism' by comparison.
'Infinite Space' - A criminally ignored track in their repertoire, probably because of its pungent Bartok harmonies and incessant bludgeoning 7/4 meter. I love this unreservedly for its sheer immovable force and the way Emerson harnesses some startling (Hungarian?) modes and scales in the creation of what seems at the outset, an extremely unlikely melodic denouement.
'A Time and a Place' - Starts off rather unpromisingly as a simple syncopated hard rocker but improves significantly once we reach the solo and the glorious ending. The former contains what must be the most visceral and 'bowel emptying' organ sound since records began while the latter is a classically hued feast of Moog synth that you just wish would never end. Stunning. The cake ain't too hot but Emerson's icing makes up for it.
'Are You Ready Eddy? - If only the answer had been 'No'...... we would at least have been spared this sub Pythonesque 'dicking about' that has become the ultimate ELP stocking filler. File under 'hammy' AND 'cheesy'
If memory serves me correctly, I think this was the unholy trinity's sole Number One album in the UK, and on the evidence of what is presented here, seems slightly ironic that such widespread endorsement was granted to what is perhaps the weakest of ELP's first five. That it not to say it was undeserving of such sales figures, but of all their early 70's records this is the one that has aged the least gracefully.
I would guess that the reasons are mainly down to the use of some rather dated studio techniques and effects which although de rigeur for the time, stamp '1971' indelibly onto the production to its detriment. Lake's multi-tracked harmony vocals and Palmer's phased drum kit rolls are two such instances, together with some rather kitsch and self-parodying 'freakout' rock guitar. From what little documented evidence I can gather, there was apparently considerable pressure brought to bear on the band by their record company to get the album out and into the shops as quickly as possible to appease fan demand, so this may have engendered some production 'short cuts' being used.
However, what has always been abundantly clear, is that we are not going to pull down the Taj Mahal just because it does not conform with our idea of modern architecture.
PS 'Tarkus' really IS named after Tarka the Otter (check Emo's autobiography if you don't believe me)