Emerson, Lake and Palmer
Out of This World: Live (1970-1997)
Out on 29th Oct 2021
New five-concert live box set reviewed by Paul Stevens
Probably the most derided band of the most derided genre of pop music, Emerson, Lake and Palmer were famously dismissed by John Peel as “a complete waste of time, talent and electricity”. In reality, they represented rock music at it’s most wide-reaching and ambitious. They were a firey blend of angular, discordant rage tempered by an abstract romanticism that found a huge audience among the freaks and seekers of the early ’70s.
ELP seemed to emerge fully formed at the point of the first disc of this new collection of seminal gigs by the trio. This is their second-ever concert, following a warm-up gig in Plymouth a week before. Pulled in from the orbit of nascent prog bands The Nice, King Crimson and Atomic Rooster respectively, they already sound like a seasoned unit, dashing out of the traps with The Barbarian in an explosion of overdriven bass and screaming organ.
They manage to sound both raw and vast for a show that shows an incredible amount of work in a short time, with chunks of their first two albums here in completed form. The version of Pictures At An Exhibition beats the “official” version from Newcastle a year later into a cocked hat, the early synthesizer sounding like a swarm of electric wasps crawling through the inner ear and out through the third eye.
That they are quite badly out of tune with one another actually manages to add a further plateau to the sound in a way that wasn’t fashionable for another few years. The set is a truncated performance previously available on video, and this brief and wild showcase at the Isle of Wight Festival lays down a fearsome statement of intent that they managed to follow through on, for the first few years at least.
The second disc comes four years and five albums later as the band had become huge and further gelled as an intimidating live unit, having fine-tuned their collective power while allowing the characters of the individual musicians to shine through a collective whole in a way that few bands have managed to replicate.
By this point their confidence in their ability to entertain vast crowds gave them the ability to push the envelope in terms of what an audience could appreciate, and this recording (actually not the full set, the first two tracks were not recorded) starts with Toccata, an abstract percussion piece composed by Carl Palmer using pieces of metal and pioneering electronic drums.
The California Jam finds them at the end of the Brain Salad Surgery tour on a bill with Deep Purple and Black Sabbath in front of an audience there for simpler fayre, happily making no compromises at all, and famously featuring Keith Emerson playing a grand piano spinning in a gyroscope 50 feet above the crowd.
The central piece is a performance of their masterpiece Karn Evil 9, looser and funkier than you’d think, grafting a speeded-up Sly Stone vibe onto a disturbing lyric about a futuristic funfair, before, via an extended drum solo, culminating in an anthemic musical battle between man and machine in the epic space opera of the third movement. It’s worth tracking down the YouTube video of this just to see this acted out on stage with keyboard wizard Keith Emerson in a mad scientist tunic facing off against a Dr Who prop. Unusually for a lead singer, Greg Lake was always the most low-key of the three.
Musically, this second disc represents Emerson, Lake and Palmer at their absolute pinnacle, although Welcome Back My Friends To The Show That Never Ends, recorded earlier in the tour, gives a broader and more rounded overview of this period. My favourite piece of ELP trivia is that “Mr Nice” Howard Marks used this tour as a vehicle to smuggle tons of marijuana around the USA. Apparently, the huge speaker stacks depicted on the back cover of Welcome Back were stuffed full of it.
Following California Jam, ELP took an extended three-year break to work on solo projects with varying degrees of success. In reality, this ruined them as a cohesive and groundbreaking unit. When they came back, it was as three individuals, not as a proper band. Their 1977 comeback album Works Vol 1 was a double, featuring a solo side each and one “group” side that yielded the execrable hit Fanfare For The Common Man.
It’s the Works tour that’s captured on the third disc. Previously available as Works Live and before that, in shorter form as In Concert, the tour was seen as a huge folly, both artistically and especially financially; the band took a whole symphony orchestra around the US and Canada with them, losing so much money that they were let go after a handful of concerts and the band had to extend their tour into the following year to pay off the debts incurred by the orchestra.
The setlist represents as much of the solo efforts of the trio as it does any true collaborative spirit, but the orchestrations do lend themselves to the gorgeous, if very un-ELP-like ballads of Greg Lake, such as C’est La Vie, Watching Over You and Closer To Believing, as well as being an integral part of Emerson’s impossibly self-indulgent Piano Concerto no 1.
The extra instrumentation adds nothing at all to most of the adaptations of the early repertoire which appear defanged and declawed, the manticore sedated like a reservation lion for a less discerning audience. The playing sounds feeble compared to their earlier performances, and there is none of the willingness to take risks that marked out their former sound.
It’s probably Carl Palmer’s Enemy God and his showcase on Tank that survive the orchestral embellishment the best of any. The rest is rococo puffery where once were sharp edges and emotive discordance. They had taken a wrong turn and become less than the sum of their parts, and it was only a short journey to Love Beach, derision and dissolution.
The ’80s saw the members of Emerson, Lake and Palmer work with varying degrees of success individually, with Carl Palmer joining stadium behemoths Asia and Emerson scoring films for Dario Argento. They worked together in pairs from time to time in bands such as Emerson, Lake and Powell and Three (E and P) and even a brief lineup of Asia featuring Lake and Palmer, every possible combination.
By 1991 the original trio had reunited for Black Moon and embarked on their first UK tour since the early ’70s. Deliciously introduced by their legendary champion Alan “Fluff” Freeman, disc 4 sees their triumphant concert at the Royal Albert Hall as broadcast live on Radio 1.
Older, a little rougher, Palmer’s jazzy flourishes tempered by his time holding down a simpler beat, with Asia and Emerson’s virtuoso pyrotechnics sadly compromised by the onset of carpel tunnel syndrome – in later years he only had the use of 3 digits on his right hand, that makes the continued intricacy of his playing even more remarkable – this is still a powerful roll through their back catalogue.
This is a great record of an unlikely comeback and captures a fair amount of the energy and edginess of their early ’70s performances, although it does replace the sound of near electrocution of the Hammond and analogue synth units built like telephone exchanges with the far cleaner ’90s digital sound. Some of this works superbly; Knife Edge especially living up to its sinister potential even better than earlier versions. Romeo and Juliet and Pirates both sound huge and anthemic illuminated in the glow of the new technology, although Carl Palmer, once a pioneer of electronic percussion, does sometimes appear to have become its willing servant at times.
Emerson, Lake and Palmer soldiered on through the ’90s, and various medical and personal issues which held their comeback from being the success that it could have been. Fans were puzzled by In The Hot Seat which appeared to be a Greg Lake solo album for the most part, although the re-recorded Pictures recorded a few years before and grafted onto the end was surprisingly successful. Concert audiences diminished, and the last couple of tours saw them as support for Jethro Tull and Deep Purple, bands who they outsold in their heyday.
But this is what makes the last disc the most surprising of the five, catching them on blazing form at a 1997 show in Phoenix, once again finding that trade mark Emerson, Lake and Palmer sound of epic extemporisation, where the envelope is being pushed in several directions at once.
The opening Hoedown is surprisingly spiky and spritely. Even partially crippled, Keith Emerson remained second only to Nina Simone in managing to throw classical motifs seamlessly into jazz and rock. Creole Dance (mooted for a forthcoming ELP album that never happened) and Bitches Crystal show his piano playing in rude, if unsubtle, health.
There was, for the first time, the potential for a new direction taking shape for ELP here, something less electronic and more visceral, which was showing itself through the interpretations of their back catalogue at this point, which makes their subsequent demise even more frustrating in the light of what could have been. They were once again gelling as a unit, rather than three individuals playing at the same time, but exploring a different kind of musical landscape than they’d discovered the first time around.
They go out here with a lovely little reminder of their birth; a medley of King Crimson’s 21st Century Schizoid Man and The Nice’s proto-punk take on Bernstein’s America. Shortly after this was recorded though, “The Show That Never Ends” ended again, seemingly over a petty row about production credits of a planned album the following year.
It’s post-punk revisionism and snobbery that have dictated Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s reputation since the late ’70s rather than any objective appraisal of their music. Their subsequent reputation is a sad indictment of the essential conservatism of the punk “year zero” rock world and people who write about it. Far from being a waste of electricity, at their peak, they were electricity itself, lightening channelled through rudimentary electronics blasted through monumental loudspeakers full of Mr Nice’s finest wares.
They were the place where virtuosity and dissonance blasted Peter Sinfield’s Blakeian visions into the cosmos, where the Tarkus battled the manticore, and every possible variety of music was marshalled to break down the boundaries of what rock music could and should be. It wasn’t ego that stopped them going as far as they could have done, it was insecurity, the hostility of a much-reduced musical landscape that caused them to withdraw onto relatively safe ground when they came back in 1977.
If they wasted anything, it was potential, and they can’t be entirely blamed for that. It makes the long silence before the untimely deaths of Keith Emerson and Greg Lake seem all the sadder. This collection serves as a great tribute to a wonderful band and a timely reminder of what rock music can be when it dares to, especially the first couple of volumes, and most surprisingly, the final one.
All words by Paul Stevens, you can find his archive here
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