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Music / Emerson, Lake & Palmer

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Emerson, Lake and Palmer in the early 1970s. From left to right: Keith Emerson, Carl Palmer and Greg Lake.
"Welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends..."
— "Karn Evil 9: 1st Impression, Pt. 2"

Emerson, Lake & Palmer, or ELP, was a British Progressive Rock supergroup formed in 1970. There were only three members, and the band had a synthesizer-dominated sound with a heavy touch of jazz and classical music.

The band members:

  • Keith Emerson, keyboards, originally from The Nice
  • Greg Lake, vocals, bass, and guitars, originally from King Crimson
  • Carl Palmer, drums, originally from Atomic Rooster
  • (Peter Sinfield, as an unofficial member who co-wrote lyrics with Lake, also from King Crimson)

The band was highly successful for the better part of The '70s until progressive rock fell out of fashion. When ELP disbanded after their original record contract was fulfilled, there were two brief and unofficial incarnations during the 1980s: Emerson, Lake & Powell, with Cozy Powell as the replacement drummer, and "3", with Greg Lake replaced by Robert Berry. ELP reformed in the early 1990s and released two albums which were notably affected by Emerson's and Palmer's health at the time, not to mention Lake's vocal decline. The group disbanded for good in 1998, though they made a comeback appearance at a London festival in July 2010.

ELP's defining traits were complex and difficult songs and ridiculously flashy live performances. The band is not as well known compared to the other big names from the progressive rock era despite its initial success. ELP has been often called pretentious and too cluttered to enjoy partially thanks to the large number of solos and overblown, lengthy songs, and more than one person has been known to declare that they represented the worst excesses of Progressive Rock. As usual, beware of Critical Backlash. Despite their perceived shortcomings (which even many of their fans will admit are not entirely off-base), they still have plenty of fans, and have become somewhat more popular after the tragic events of 2016. The bulk of their reputation rests on their first four studio albums and Pictures at an Exhibition, a live adaptation of Modest Mussorgsky's most famous work which is now probably better known to non-classical listeners than the original work.

On March 11, 2016, Keith Emerson was found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound at his home in Santa Monica. He was 71 years old. Later that year, on December 7, Greg Lake died of cancer at 69.

The discography, counting only the albums with the original members:

  • Emerson, Lake & Palmer 1970
  • Tarkus 1971
  • Pictures at an Exhibition 1972
  • Trilogy 1972
  • Brain Salad Surgery 1973
  • Works Volume I 1977
  • Works Volume II 1977
  • Love Beach 1978, generally thought of as their worst album.
  • Black Moon 1992
  • In the Hot Seat 1994, curiously enough the first letters of the title form the word "SHIT", possibly lampshading the quality of the album acknowledged by the band.

Both the 80s incarnations of the band with Powell and Berry also released albums:

Although their band name is commonly shortened to "ELP", they should not be confused with rapper El-P.

"Welcome back my friends to the list that never ends...":

  • Actually Pretty Funny: When asked about it, Lake thought the old "How do you spell pretentious? ELP." joke was funny.
  • A.I. Is a Crapshoot: "Karn Evil 9: Third Impression" has this as a theme, as it describes a war between mankind and machines. It's not clear who wins, but the song ends with a computer (actually Keith Emerson's voice processed through his synthesizers, although it sounds more than a bit like a Dalek) saying it "let [humanity] live" and boasting, "I am perfect. What are you?".
  • Album Title Drop:
  • All There in the Manual: The concept of the "Tarkus" suite: an armadillo tank taking on multiple mech-chimera enemies, before its eventual defeat and rebirth, is nearly impossible to glean from the lyrics, but is illustrated on the album gatefold.
  • The Band Minus the Face:
    • The band "3" without Greg Lake.
    • Emerson, Lake & Powell replaced Palmer with the late drummer Cozy Powell of Rainbow.
    • For a brief period in 1983-4, Lake and Palmer (but not Emerson) were both members of Asia.
  • Boléro Effect: "Abaddon's Bolero", which starts with a snare and organ and continually keeps adding instrumentation.
  • Bookends: "Tarkus" starts with a riff that plays out in "Eruption" (where Tarkus was hatched from an egg), and the riff repeats at the end of the song after "Aquatarkus" (which is what the protagonist becomes after being blinded in his fight with the Manticore) to give off a "buried, but not dead" vibe.
  • Break-Up Song: "Trilogy" could be interpreted as this or as an "Until We Meet Again" song. The first stanza makes the first interpretation likelier, though.
  • Christmas Songs: Lake's "I Believe in Father Christmas", originally issued as a solo single and subsequently included (in a slightly different form) on Works Volume II. Although some would argue that it might be more properly classified as an Anti-Christmas Song.
    • And "Nutrocker"!
  • Cover Album: Pictures at an Exhibition, which counts as a Live Album as well.
  • Cover Version: The band loved to quote, adapt or outright cover classical music, among others. Their covers/adaptations:
    • "The Barbarian" (an arrangement of a Béla Bartók piano piece),
    • "Knife Edge" (based on the first movement of Janáček's Sinfonietta with an instrumental middle section that includes an extended quotation from the Allemande of J. S. Bach's first French Suite in D minor, BWV 812),
    • "The Only Way (Hymn)" (which quotes once again from Bach),
    • The album Pictures at an Exhibition (originally composed by Modest Mussorgsky),
    • "Nutrocker" (originally by B. Bumble and the Stingers and based off of Tchaikovsky's "March of the Nutcracker"),
    • "Hoedown" (from the ballet "Rodeo" by Aaron Copland),
    • "Toccata" (based on the Fourth Movement of Alberto Ginastera's 1st Piano Concerto, arranged by Emerson),
    • "Jerusalem" (yes, the Blake/Parry hymn),
    • "The Enemy of God Dances with the Black Spirits" (an excerpt of the 2nd movement of "The Scythian Suite" by Sergei Prokofiev),
    • "Fanfare for the Common Man" by Aaron Copland,
    • "Maple Leaf Rag" by Scott Joplin,
    • "Honky Tonk Blues" by Meade Lux Lewis,
    • The folk song "Show Me the Way to Go Home,"
    • "Canario" (from "Fantasia Para un Gentilhombre" by Joaquin Rodrigo),
    • "Romeo and Juliet" (an arrangement of "Dance of the Knights" from the ballet Romeo and Juliet by Sergei Prokofiev).
    • There's also an awesome live version of a cover of the "Peter Gunn Theme." It's on YouTube somewhere (and their 1979 live album In Concert - Works Live, and their appearance on the King Biscuit Flower Hour). Go check it out.
    • Emerson also brought in "Rondo" from The Nice, which is a rearrangement of Dave Brubeck's "Blue Rondo à la Turk" (it stays in 4/4 the whole time as opposed to Brubeck's original, which shifts between 9/8 and 4/4)
    • Not to mention Emerson's extensive quoting during his lengthy concert improvs, ranging from "In the Hall of the Mountain King" to Norwegian Wood!. He even brought in the theme from The Third Man once!
    • "Mars, The Bringer Of War" by Gustav Holst from "Emerson, Lake & Powell".
  • Common Time: They use Uncommon Time so much they practically invert this trope.
  • Crapsack World:
    • "Black Moon" takes place in a world that's barely alive after years and years of chemical pollution.
    • Before that, "Knife-Edge" from their first album: "Will you still know who you are/When they come to who you are?".
    • "Karn Evil 9: First Impression" begins by heralding a dark age where "silent children shivered in the cold... their faces captured in the lenses of the jackals for gold", before segueing into "the show that never ends", which is a satirical view of the 20th century as a kind of evil funfair. The second impression is instrumental, but the third impression depicts mankind at war with machines.
  • Cry Laughing: From "Karn Evil 9: 1st Impression":
    Right before your eyes
    We'll pull laughter from the skies
    And he laughs until he cries
    Then he dies, then he dies
  • Deadpan Snarker: The verses of the "Mass" section of "Tarkus."
    The preacher said a prayer
    Save every single hair on his head
    He's dead.
  • Disguised in Drag: "Jeremy Bender", in which the title character decides to become a nun one day and dresses up as one.
  • Double Entendre: "Taste of My Love," a song from Love Beach, is basically a collection of these set to music.
  • Downer Ending: Played straight with "Lucky Man", Played for Laughs with "Benny the Bouncer".
  • Epic Rocking: Taken to its extreme. Significant examples include "Take a Pebble," "Tarkus," "The Endless Enigma," "Karn Evil 9," "Pirates," and "Memoirs of an Officer and a Gentleman." The crowner, though, would have to be their version of Pictures at an Exhibition, which, apart from a gap between sides, consists of continuous music for about thirty-four minutes. (Their version of "Nutrocker", included as a bonus, extends the album's length to about thirty-eight minutes.) Live versions of "Karn Evil 9" also tended to be about thirty-four minutes long (see their King Biscuit Flower Hour appearance for an example).
    "I once spent three years at an Emerson, Lake & Palmer concert...and that was just the drum solo.
  • Everything's Better with Sparkles: Emerson's golden glitter coat he wore on tours.
  • Eye Scream: Tarkus' final battle with the Manticore, in which the former gets his eye cut by the latter's hook. This picture is not very pretty either.
  • Fading into the Next Song: "The Endless Enigma, Pt. 1" into "Fugue" into "The Endless Enigma, Pt. 2", "The Only Way (Hymn)" into "Infinite Space (Conclusion)", "The Three Fates" into "Tank", just about all of Pictures at an Exhibition, etc.
  • Filler:
    • Love Beach is a filler album made because of a contract mandate.
    • Their first famous single "Lucky Man" was originally written by Lake when he was 12. The band added it on the last day of recording when they discovered they needed one more song. A possible subversion as they initially didn't think it would be any good, but as they kept adding more overdubs onto it, it started sounding more like an actual song, and they realised they were onto something. It wound up being the biggest hit from the album.
    • "Benny the Bouncer" is also considered to be this to some; in fact, it's possible to remove it from Brain Salad Surgery and not damage the flow of the album at all.
    • Steven Wilson's comments on the sleeve notes to his remix of Tarkus make it clear he feels this way about "Are You Ready, Eddy?" and wonders why Greg Lake's "Oh, My Father" wasn't used in the original version instead.
  • Full-Circle Revolution: According to Lake, this is a theme of "Tarkus": "The words are about revolution that's gone, that has happened. Where has it got anybody? Nowhere."
  • Game-Breaking Injury:
    • Emerson's RSI (repetitive strain injury). He was no longer able to play some of the band's songs properly or at all. Didn't stop him from trying, with mixed results. Emerson's anxiety over his ability to perform for an upcoming tour is believed to have been a factor in his suicide.
    • His equipment didn't escape unscathed either. Even without his RSI, he wouldn't have been able to cover The Nice's "Rondo" as he used to. He played the rapid glissandos in the piece by slapping his open palm across the keyboard. His Hammond L-100s withstood this for quite a time, possibly with running repairs, but eventually, it appeared that he didn't have a single L-100 left where all the higher keys on the lower manual weren't broken off, with repair or replacement no longer being possible.
  • Instrumentals: "Abaddon's Bolero", "Karn Evil 9: 2nd Impression" (mostly; Emerson has some brief, tape-manipulated vocals in it, but they don't count as singing), "Toccata", several movements of "Tarkus", "Hoedown", "Fanfare for the Common Man", a lot of Pictures at an Exhibition, etc.
  • In the Style of:
    • "Are You Ready Eddy?" is an Affectionate Parody of Little Richard, based on "The Girl Can't Help It".
    • The electric guitar on "Still...You Turn Me On" is a bit reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix, who apparently had been planning to jam with Emerson and Lake, but never got the chance due to his death.
  • Ironic Episode Title: Or, Ironic Song Title. "Lucky Man" is the tale of a prominent young man who goes to war expecting fame and glory and gets killed instead.
  • Large Ham: ELP were pretty much this trope as applied to music. Of the three of them, though, Emerson was probably the hammiest, though Lake's vocals can be particularly hammy as well (see "Living Sin" for a great example).
  • Lead Bassist: Greg Lake provided the lead vocals, though he also alternated between bass and various 6-and-12-string guitars.
  • Lead Singer Plays Lead Guitar: In addition to playing bass and singing, Greg Lake also played lead guitar, as he was the band's sole guitarist.
  • Letting the Air out of the Band: Done with tape manipulation at the end of "Knife Edge". When Steven Wilson remixed the album in 2012 he couldn't recreate the effect digitally, so it's only on the original mix (the remix lets the session run on until the band just stop).
  • Lighter and Softer: Greg Lake's compositions, notably "Lucky Man", "Still...You Turn Me On" and "C'est la vie".
  • Limited Lyrics Song: If there are lyrics and a song stretches out past the six-minute mark, expect over half of the song to be instrumental. "Trilogy" is, again, a good example; it's around nine minutes long and probably only around two and a half has singing (and even there, there are large instrumental gaps in some of the vocal portions, particularly the ones at the end).
  • Longest Song Goes First: The title track of Tarkus leads off the album and runs for 21 minutes or so, naturally making it by far the longest track on the album. The second longest track, "Bitches Crystal", is just under four minutes long.
  • Longest Song Goes Last: Meanwhile, "Karn Evil 9" is by an even larger margin the longest track on Brain Salad Surgery, running for 29:23 in its original configuration. (The next-longest track, "Toccata", runs for 7:23.) Even if we count it as four tracks due to its being split into three "impressions" with its first impression further split to accommodate the LP side division, "3rd Impression" is still the longest track at approximately nine minutes long.
  • Long-Haired Pretty Boy: All of them in the 70s, but especially Carl Palmer.
  • Me's a Crowd: The inner gatefold for the Hipgnosis-designed cover for Trilogy has multiple Emersons, Lakes, and Palmers posing in a forest.
  • Metal Scream: Lake has a pretty great screaming voice, though he mostly uses a type 4. "Living Sin" has some good examples.
  • Mix-and-Match Critters: According to the gatefold, Tarkus resembles an armadillo-tank creature, fighting off weird enemy creatures like the "Iconoclast" (a pterodactyl crossed with a war airplane) and "Mass" (a cricket-lizard crossed with a lobster and a rocket launcher), before ending with the Manticore itself.
  • Naughty Nun: "Jeremy Bender", in which the title character decides to become a nun and dresses up as one, yet all the other nuns are getting suspicious about his... odd behavior. At the end, one of the nuns discovers who the "nun" really is, and that is Jeremy:
    Digging a sister, "she" was a "mister".
    Shouldn't have kissed her, but he couldn't say no.
    Wanted to leave her, couldn't believe her;
    So he packed up his suitcase and decided to go.
  • Non-Appearing Title: Many of their songs, including "Karn Evil 9", "Tarkus", "Trilogy", "The Endless Enigma", "The Great Gates of Kiev", and many others.
  • Noodle Implements: The second half of "Karn Evil 9: 1st Impression" features vague descriptions of the strange acts in "the show that never ends", including "supersonic fighting cocks", a display of "bishops' heads in jars", a "gypsy queen" performing "on the guillotine" while covered in Vaseline, a performance of Irving Berlin's "Alexander's Ragtime Band", and an act involving "seven virgins and a mule".
  • Painting the Medium: The First Impression of "Karn Evil 9" pauses partway through due to the limitations of the LP format. It is thus appropriate that the second part of the First Impression, which begins Side 2 of the album it appeared on, begins with the lyrics "Welcome back, my friends..."
  • The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything: Greg Lake often referred to life on the road as being akin to being adventuring pirates. This finally manifested as the song "Pirates".
  • Premature Encapsulation: the song "Brain Salad Surgery" was not released in the album of the same name. Rather, its album release was in Works Volume 2 in 1977.
  • Protest Song: Some of their lyrics have elements of this, such as "Tarkus" and "Lucky Man". From "Tarkus":
    Clear the battlefield and let me see
    All the profit from our victory.
    You talk of freedom; starving children fall.
    Are you deaf when you hear the season's call?

    Were you there to watch the earth be scorched?
    Did you stand beside the spectral torch?
    Know the leaves of sorrow turned their face,
    Scattered on the ashes of disgrace.
  • Rearrange the Song: The instrumental "Tank" (Which originally had a more electronic style) from their first album was given a jazz makeover by Carl Palmer on Works Volume 1.
  • Religion Rant Song: "The Only Way (Hymn)", which, in particular, questions why God would have allowed the Holocaust to happen and concludes that "man is man-made". Set to music inspired by the devoutly religious Johann Sebastian Bach for maximum irony.
  • Rhyming with Itself: "Trilogy" rhymes "lie" with "lie."
  • Rock Me, Amadeus!: Trope Codifiers. Arguably around half their material consists of direct adaptations from the classical repertoire.
  • Rock Trio
  • Shout-Out:
    • "Are You Ready Eddy?" is about Advision Studios engineer Eddy Offord, who worked with both them and Yes.
    • "Karn Evil 9", for some reason, references the Irving Berlin song "Alexander's Ragtime Band". The computer voice at the end (actually Emerson's voice processed through his synthesizers) sounds more than a bit like Doctor Who's Daleks.
  • Snowy Sleigh Bells: Greg Lake's solo hit, the seasonal I Believed In Father Christmas.
  • Uncommon Time: They're prog. Inevitably, this appears throughout their music.
  • Unplugged Version:
    • "Lucky Man" was inevitably performed at concerts as a stripped-down, guitar-and-voice ballad. Emerson once mentioned his disappointment that they could never reproduce the studio performance in concert:
      It is a shame that we really can't perform it the same way it is on the album. There's a lot of double-tracked vocals. Greg's playing electric, bass and acoustic guitar on it. If we had really thought about it, and we ourselves, had wanted to release it as a single, then we would have considered these points, and possibly re-arranged it so we could have done it some way on stage. Now we come out and people want to hear it. Greg performs it as an acoustic piece and I guess it's rather disappointing to some people because they want to hear the recorded version. There we were, in the position of it having been released and us not knowing that people want to hear it, and the way it was done on the album being impossible for us to do on stage.
    • "Still...You Turn Me On" received this treatment as well.
  • Vocal Evolution: Lake's voice in his later years was noticeably lacking in the higher range he had in The '70s.
  • War Is Glorious: At least two of their songs ("Lucky Man", "Tarkus") subvert this, with protagonists who start out believing this but learning the hard way that War Is Hell.
  • Word Salad Lyrics: Their most infamous example appears in the song "Still...You Turn Me On."
    Every day a little sadder, a little madder
    Someone get me a ladder...
According to Emerson in his autobiography, it came from an exchange between him and Carl on stage. Greg liked the phrase and borrowed it. Contrary to some claims, The song is a romanticised vision of the relationship between the fans and the performer. On one hand, the audience looks up, and sees a star, an icon, from something ordinary; on the other hand, the performer, in spite of the stress and hardships of touring, is motivated and elated by the energy and response from the audience.