- Now that's what I call patchy! (Volume One) -
Aside from the non-sequiter contained in the title (by this stage ELP patently did NOT Work) this has all the tell-tale signs of a patched up reconciliation, with Atlantic Records as mediators in a matrimonial battle to see who ultimately would get custody of the kids. Like most parents who undergo a messy, drawn out and acrimonious divorce, it is their creations that suffer the most, with low grades, truancy, and withdrawal into fantasy worlds very often an inevitable consequence of this trauma.
ELP's offspring, as represented by the tracks on this double album, certainly adopted many of these classic behavioural traits, but eventually came to be once again on speaking terms with their parents.
BUT IT TOOK UNTIL BLOODY SIDE FOUR !!!. (Sorry for yelling)
- Keith Emerson -
'Keith's baby grand gets expelled from Rock School'
'Piano Concerto # 1' - It took me a long, long time and countless plays to get a handle on any of this, but if you stick with it and persevere you will be rewarded by what is undoubtedly one of the most substantial compositions by a rock musician to date. What strikes the listener immediately is how conservative much of the writing is and a casual ear would be hard pressed to identify its creator as being that of Keith Emerson. With this in mind, I conducted a blindfold test on a budget (i.e by hiding the cover) on some house guests recently and they offered Copland, Gershwin, Delius ,Tchaikovsky and, somewhat unhelpfully, Glen Miller (from Stevie), as possible contenders for the composer. However, once the Concerto's author was revealed, all my guests without demur claimed that:
'Yeah ?... but you can tell though really..that it's by a rock muso I mean'
'Glen Miller ain't a rock muso'
'Shut up Stevie'
This reaction is probably one of the main hurdles that Emerson constantly faces in his quest to be taken seriously as a composer and I suspect the conciliatory and traditional aspects of the piece were a deliberate ploy to attract endorsement from within the larger classical community. The jury still appears to be out as to whether this has been successful or not, but there are a few distinguished concert pianists who have included the work in their repertoire, and it does appear from time to time on the playlists of classical music radio stations. Should Emo ever get a foot inside that forbidding door, I hope that he will employ both his ample size twelves to kick said barrier firmly down for the benefit of all who follow. We can but wait.
The first movement, although unequivocally diatonic in character, is actually based on a tone row as employed by the 2nd Viennese school of serialist composers eg Berg, Webern and Schoenberg. By all accounts the latter were not exactly hell raising party animals and their output is marked by a paucity of toe-tappers and a surfeit of very dry, academic and cerebral sterility. Emerson has pulled off quite a coup therefore, by illustrating that memorable and melodic themes can be realized by the use of a compositional technique that is traditionally seen as begetting cold or austere results.
The second movement is an unabashedly nostalgic wink in the direction of the baroque period and as much as Keith imparts his own strong personality into this brief homage, the effect is a rather self-consciously quaint daydream of Gershwin as the guest soloist at a Bach recital. As pleasant and diverting as this is, it reeks of the intermission music during the screening of the main feature.
The third movement is unrelentingly percussive and full of dramatic brio culminating in a very moving and effective main theme that lives long in the memory afterwards. Conductor John Maher bullies a very committed and aggressive performance from the London Philharmonic and Emerson's cadenza exhibits some startling and daring treatments of the motivic ideas used in the work. At times there is enacted an unflinching battle between the massed forces of orchestra and solo pianist with no quarter asked or given in a breathless and exciting 'slug fest' to see who's still standing at the end.
But you are reading this from a jazz music website, so how can we possibly rate the fish when it ain't even on the menu? (More on this later)
- Greg Lake -
'Macca junk food from Dad fails to appease the Lake brood after a 1 out of 5 report card'
'Lend Your Love to Me Tonight' - No Greg, I will not. Unless you provide a written receipt testifying that no more of this sub McCartney Hippy MOR will emanate from your esteemed orifice(s) ever again.
'C'est La Vie' - Apart from that redeeming fragment in the arrangement where the choir and orchestra brilliantly mimic the 'out of tune and out of time' refrain from the vocal, the sugar tanker that jettisoned its cargo into this Lake Inferior, makes immersion a distinctly dubious pleasure (Wet and in incredibly sickly sweet)
'Hallowed Be Thy Name' - Easily the best song on offer here with a clever and caustic lyric:
'The optimist asked for a taste of the pessimist's wine' - (Optimists need to drown their sorrows sometimes too, and a pithy metaphor for nihilism)
The arrangement is outstanding on this clumping piano driven and curmudgeonly snarl of a song that casts the habitual romantic lead in an unaccustomed role of that as the disaffected naysayer looking on at the chaos all around him caused by the stupidity of his fellow men:
'this planet of ours is a mess I bet heaven's the same'
Great use is made here of glissando strings to give the song a suitably neurotic and disquieting atmosphere. Unfailingly brilliant and a real diamond in the mire. Greg, welcome back my friend to the show that never....(Doh!)
'Nobody Loves You Like I Do' - Answers on a postcard to the author please. I must have listened to this song at least 50 times now and cannot for the life of me, recall a single note or phrase from it. Greg Lake's 4.00 answer to John Cage's '4.33'.
'Closer to Believing' - This suffers from the same malaise as Lake's orchestral version of 'I Believe in Father Christmas' in that what is a very fine song with eloquent and thought provoking lyrics, is suffocated under a huge fleecy pillow of an arrangement. Once more alas, Greg lapses into that irritating habit he is prone to of 'speaking' the tagline in some of his songs (eg 'we want....US') This latest example being capable of emptying a rhino's tummy back out through the in door.
- Carl Palmer -
'Absent fathers never get the chance to deliver six of the best to their offspring'
'The Enemy God Dances with the Black Spirits' - A very boisterous romp through Prokofiev's piece with Palmer's kit and Orchestra in perfect empathy with neither overpowering the other. Stirring.
'LA Nights' - The sort of west coast 'rawk' thumper that could perhaps have been put to better use in the advertising of sportscars. Very solid performances by all concerned with Joe Walsh wrapping his lips round some 'voicebox' guitar and his hands round some sterling 'Jack Daniels' bottleneck lead. They even drag Keith along on this 'cruise down Hollywood Boulevard in an open top Maserati' number where the latter thumps out some authentic 'rawk' piano.
'New Orleans' - Rather spartan and rudimentary funk tinged blues rock which seems to hang in the air like an unfinished chore.
'Two Part Invention in D Minor' - Carl's pedigree as a fully qualified orchestral percussionist has never been in doubt, but this smacks of an indecent haste in sourcing any old vehicle to illustrate his advanced driving skills.
'Food For Your Soul' - More than a nod (in fact a bow) in the direction of Palmer's drum heroes Krupa, Rich, Cobham et al in this exhilarating big band workout that is considerably more accomplished a composition than being merely a platform from which Carl can deliver a stunning and economically constructed solo. Almost visceral in its intensity. I'm full up.
'Tank' - ELP's rusting old warhorse is saved from the scrapyard with a jazzy lick of paint and some completely new bodywork from expert panel beater Carl on a skilfully arranged adaptation of this tune for Jazz Orchestra. Emerson revisits his famous Moog solo towards the end, and in this setting is revealed 'Tank's' jazz roots and vocabulary which certainly caused me to reappraise Keith's original creation in a whole new light.
- Emerson, Lake and Palmer -
'Atlantic Records get custody of the twins' (but they get to stay up really late)
'Fanfare for the Common Man' - Copland has already endorsed the band's version of his famous short piece and it is really not hard to see why. Apart from the sheer inflated scale of their interpretation, the trio remain pretty faithful to the composer's original intentions by ensuring that the lengthy improvisation at it's centre is framed by reproductions of the indelible main theme at either end. Emerson's new 'toy' at around this time was the triple manual Yamaha GX1 keyboard (an analogue synthesizer with elephantitis) and its very distinctive character was fundamental to the realization of this piece. Rather punningly, Keith employs that technology's replication of a very humble harmonica sound with which to embark on his brilliant improvisation. Greg and Carl have never sounded this 'tight' and buttress the track with one of the slinkiest of all wicked shuffle grooves in rock. The tonal palette becomes more and more sulphurous as the piece develops and at its peak there is an 'underpant filling' blare of resonating synthetic brass from Emerson that still startles 30 years later. (But that might just be me)
'Pirates' - If ELP had stayed together then this track may be indicative of where their future direction may have led. The fusion of rock instrumentation and orchestral resources was a long term project for Keith and he has voiced dissatisfaction with the results obtained previously on 'Ars Longa Vita Brevis' and 'Five Bridges' with the Nice.
There has always been a tendency for an electric band to overpower the orchestral players but the remedy of simply amplifying the latter has invariably led to a diminishing or loss of the rich and unique palette of tonal colours available from this source. In the controlled environment of the recording studio however, this elusive balance may be somewhat less hazardous to accomplish and on 'Pirates' ELP can be heard happily supping from the 'holy grail' that this piece embodies.
The lyrics first of all, which are something of a blindspot in prog's rear-view mirror, are superb and both Lake and the much maligned Sinfield deserve great praise for constructing what is no less than a fully plotted narrative poem which conjures up perfectly the appropriate atmosphere and accurate historical detail befitting Emerson's magnificent music. In addition, Greg does does not just 'sing' the notes with his habitual aplomb but interprets the lyrical content as though he were an actor in this most theatrical of creations ever attempted by ELP. This must be very close to the finest vocal performance of his life.
The allegorical aspects of a Pirate story are very apt. It's all here. The looting and pillaging, the riches beyond your wildest dreams, a license to act with impunity, debauchery without the consequences and roaming the world like an outlaw above and beyond the reach of the law. It's only rock'n'roll.
Therein lies the problem with this sprawling, schizophrenic and bloated train wreck of a record. For the vast legions of the band's followers, 'Works Volume 1'was simply a 'step too far' and expecting a fanbase drawn from a predominantly white rock demographic to embrace willingly some avant garde classical music was doomed to failure from the outset. We are even denied the opportunity to evaluate this document as a bona fide ELP album, as it is after all tantamount to three mini solo albums with a big wet group hug at the end.