I confess to hovering over this one a while, ahead of taking a bullet for the team. Don’t get me wrong, I am a huge fan of Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Or rather, I was, and therein lies the problem.
It was nigh half a century ago that I made my first purchase of an LP record; that was none other than Pictures at an Exhibition, and boy oh boy, was I keen on the energetic bombast. It wasn’t then long before four of my first ten vinyl records were by ELP — I snapped up the eponymous debut and, then, on their release, Tarkus and Trilogy. I lapped up every inky page I could about them, relishing in my membership of an elite. Those Yes acolytes could take a jump, Emmo was king and that was that. And Lake, well, he was in the band, so, clearly, he was the tops too. How could 100,000 spotty boys be wrong? As for John Peel, custodian of the nation’s counter culture tastes: “a waste of electricity”, huh, what did he know? I even went to see them, cramming into the dismal aircraft hangar of Earls Court in London with innumerable facsimiles of myself, enduring the dire acoustics and excessive volume, telling myself, and anyone else in earshot, just how good was this.
Of course, it wasn’t, it was a shocking din of a show, and whilst not enough to put me off the early work, when Brain Salad Surgery came out my Damascene moment had come and they were near dead to me. Yes, the odd song or tune got a begrudging nod from me, and it was good to see the big hit single “Fanfare for the Common Man” do so well, but I had moved on. Country(-rock) and folk(-rock) seemed now far more interesting. But if you play me side 1 of Tarkus, or much of Pictures at an Exhibition, you will still see a smile spark up my face. Part reminisce, part recognition, but pure joy nonetheless.
Billy Sherwood seems a man possessed. It seems he is the current bass player for ELP apotheosis Yes, or the version of the band that still goes by that name, if containing no members the teenaged me would recognize, bar Steve Howe, courtesy a combination of “musical differences” and death. An interesting fact is that his second name is Wyman, purely for the confusion were he to have used that as his performing name, not least given his main current instrument of choice. This is, as seems compulsory for members of this prog-rock leviathan, his second turn in the band, having been a lead guitarist and keyboard player in his first time round. But Howe came back, having left at least twice before, and then Chris Squire died, and Sherwood slipped back in, filling his huge shoes. He fills his spare time in several other groups, not least, confusingly, with Asia, a group where other ex-members of Yes have also cropped up from time to time. He has made at least 10 solo albums, as well as popping up as a guest on innumerable records made by others of the progressive and metal fraternities. He is also a perennial on an exhausting array of tribute albums, usually entitled All Star Tributes to anything between Dark Side of the Moon to Supertramp, with any band toting long hair and a Les Paul in between. You may occasionally see them in your Amazon suggestions, all with uniformly awful cover art, and always seeming to feature awkward mixes and matches of participants. Keith Emerson seemed also a frequent participant, as did Dweezil Zappa. I don’t know who buys them or listens to them. Here, Sherwood has been carefully through his no-doubt-bursting address book, rounding up artists as diverse as Todd Rundgren, Thijs Van Leer, and both Keith Emerson’s son and grandson. No sign of Carl Palmer, but he now has his own full time tribute, Carl Palmer’s ELP Legacy. Without, oddly enough, keyboards.
I quite like the opener, a cheeky bid for Greg Lake’s dominance over his erstwhile bandmate, in that it is King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man,” with a slightly smoother opening riff than the shock of the original. Todd Rundgren attempts the same rage of treated vocals as did Lake, coming off a poor second. Rather than to then play the song as constructed, it then veers off into Bernstein’s “America,” as realized by the Nice, with Brian Auger (remember him?) playing some nifty keys, probably without the knives. Then, just as you expect a reprise of the juggernaut riff, it ends.
“A Time and a Place” should be one of the highlights for me, it being the vocal high point of Tarkus, side one. Unfortunately the drummer just ain’t any shake for Carl Palmer’s frantic sticks, and the vocals sound, again, a poor copy. (I later discover they are from American Idol class of 2007, Leslie Hunt.) A few nice keyboard touches, mind, from Dream Theater’s Derek Sherinian.
“The Sheriff,” from Trilogy, might seem an odd choice, but couldn’t hold my attention, mainly as I couldn’t wait to hear what David Sancious would do with the saloon bar piano coda. And yes, he does it completely differently, delightfully differently even, actually making me feel he could have made a whole song of it, rather than just the last 30 seconds.
Works Volume 1 was undoubtedly peak pretension for the band, a double featuring a side for each of the band members working separately, coming together for the fourth, clearly not having learnt anything from Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma, subject a similar conceit. “C’est la Vie” is from Jake’s side, and had him descending into anodyne sentimentality. Current Yes vocalist Jon Davison neither adds to nor detracts from that.
Focus were certainly near equal contemporaries of ELP, and I had hopes for “From the Beginning.” It starts off in near carbon copy of the Trilogy original, with wispy flute wafting over and above the melody line, care of the song’s vocalist Thijs Van Leer, also the flautist and keyboards player in said band. Lake’s electric guitar solo was a masterclass in echo, but I found the solo here, possibly by Sherwood, a pleasant contrast, fitting well into the song as it fades into a sound not dissimilar to King Crimson’s “I Talk to the Wind.”
Patric Moraz was another contemporary, broadly taking over Keith Emerson’s seat in the Nice, joining his jilted ex-bandmates as their organist in Refugee, ahead of stints in the Moody Blues and, inevitably, Yes. You might wonder what he could possibly add to “Hoedown,” the earlier crack at Aaron Copland, from Trilogy. Very little, as it happens, but it burbles along pleasantly enough, with a slightly less abrasive tone than Emerson.
Sonja Kristina’s take on “Still… You Turn Me On” is the most original revision on the record, and the first keeper so far. The anticipated audience for this disc will undoubtedly remember her as Curved Air’s Sonja Kristina, with confusing adolescent emotions possibly revived by hearing her voice. Or even just seeing her name. She deconstructs the song, putting it back in an entirely different state, if still irrevocably harking back to the 1970s.
Now comes “Lucky Man,” arguably the best known ELP song into this century. Probably unique also in being a song of appeal outside the narrow range of their usual demographic. (To girls!) Martin Turner was one of the singers and dual lead guitarists in British melodic rockers Wishbone Ash, and he fronts one of the two versions of the band still gigging. This, like the track before, is a delightful rendition, with rather more guitar soloing around and about the vocal. A word here for the bass, presumably Sherwood, a trebly style that features quite high in the mix throughout, generally playing unobtrusive countermelodies, breaking here more overtly to the fore, almost demanding an immediate repeat play for the whole record, as to concentrate more to his playing. Almost. What about the iconic moog solo at the end? Well, it’s sort of there, if blending in to the overall, ex-Buggle and current Yesman Geoff Downes, I think, unless he has left again, arguably told to rein it in for the sake of the ensemble.
So to the “other” Copeland, the ubiquitous “Fanfare For the Common Man,” the aforementioned big hit single. To be fair, more a vanity decision, I suspect, for the Emerson scions, Aaron, son, and Ethan, grandson, and fair enough. So, yes, keyboards are played, bass is thunged and tubs are thumped.
Last up, is the grand old man of English eccentric, the God of Hellfire himself, Arthur Brown. He gets the Brain Salad Surgery side 2 track 1 opener, “Karn Evil 9, Part 2” — you know, the “Welcome back my friends, to the show that never ends” song. I am sure he looked terrific, writhing and wraithing around like the dervishes he aspires to, but, alone in audio he sounds merely not particularly well. Enthusiastic backing. Which sort of sums up the whole enterprise.
I gather that purchases of this on CD get a bonus freebie of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra playing a substantive excerpt from an orchestral Tarkus. I just didn’t have the energy.