Graded on a Curve: Emerson Lake & Palmer, Love Beach

Sometimes you just have to gird your loins and confront the horror. I know, it’s daunting; some experiences are so traumatizing, brutalizing, and utterly beyond the pale that you never come back from them at all. Or not as the same person you were before you left. And such was the case when this critic decided to actually listen to a band he’d been mocking and vilifying for decades, namely progressive rock “supergroup” Emerson Lake & Palmer.

England’s “triumvirate” of Keith Emerson (keyboards), Greg Lake (vocals, guitar, bass), and Carl “I’ve Got a Really Big Shlong, I Mean Gong” Palmer (drums, percussion) are best known for such overblown grandiosities as 1971’s Tarkus, 1972’s Pictures at an Exhibition, and 1973’s Brain Salad Surgery. It was ELP’s bright idea to pull a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup on rock’n’roll by mixing it with highfalutin’ works of classical music, because to their way of thinking Mussorgsky, Copeland, and Tchaikovsky were edifying and could only improve what was basically a terribly low-brow musical form.

The results were pompous and pretentious, what with Emerson showing off his chops on the Hammond organ and moog synthesizer by playing seven million notes per minute while Palmer bashed away at his drum kit that with its 9,228 cymbals was then larger than anything in existence besides Lou Reed’s ego and Lake droned on like William Blake about building a new Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land while the audience zonked on ludes and pot drooled and felt better about themselves for having such elevated tastes. Not that I’m knocking ludes; I wish I’d had a handful the time I saw ELP—why did I go? I still don’t know—instead of the solitary pathetic bong hit I did before entering their 3-hour prog nausoleum, which isn’t even a word but is the only way I can think to describe the experience of seeing them live.

But perhaps they were right to stick to their prog/classical shtick after all, because in 1978 they decided to put out something more pop-oriented, which is how we came to have the remarkable LP that is Love Beach. Its cover of the “trilogy” standing open-shirted in front of a palm tree looking like the Brothers Glib is a million miles away from the psychedelic “tankadillo” of Tarkus, and with the exception of the 20-minute “Memoirs of an Officer and a Gentleman” and the short but definitely prog “Canario” so are its songs, which are short and Mussorgsky-free. Not a bad idea, to try something completely new, but something went terribly wrong, and the results ranged from the instantly forgettable title track to the inadvertently Spinal Tap-esque “Taste of My Love.”

From William Blake to Spinal Tap in a flash; you have to hand it to ELP, they proved perfectly capable of lowering themselves. They just didn’t know when to stop. Reviews of Love Beach were mostly scathing; Rolling Stone’s Michael Bloom said it “makes washing the dishes seem a more creative act by comparison,” while Robert Christgau, who once said “these guys are as stupid as their most pretentious fans,” wrote, well, nothing about Love Beach actually. But suffice it to say that Love Beach’s desultory sales helped make it the last ELP album until 1992, when the band rose like a phoenix from its own ass and started shitting prog nuggets on our defenseless noggins all over again.

Anyway, Love Beach opens with the wilting “All I Want Is You,” a so-so love song that includes a plane flight but unfortunately does not involve a plane crash. It opens on the slowish side with a few strums of Lake’s electric guitar and echo-laden vocals, lots of understated flute-like Moog riffage by Emerson, and some Palmer drum crash, then picks up speed. Lake actually puts some passion into the lines, “So roll away your loneliness/You have sent your last S.O.S.!/Turn you heart on put your mind at rest/’Cause all I want/All I want/All I want is you.” But it doesn’t help much, as this isn’t so much a song as a wounded animal that needs shooting. It doesn’t matter how frenetically Palmer brushes at his 9,228 cymbals and Emerson moogs away as the song reaches its climax, because pop pablum is pop pablum regardless of how virtuosic its players, and the not-so-catchy melody limps along until Lake starts repeating, “All I want is you” as the slow fadeout begins and one very forgettable song ends.

Title track “Love Beach” sounds a little like bad Rush (a redundancy if I’ve ever heard one) and a little like “Owner of a Lonely Heart”-era Yes, especially in Lake’s opening descending guitar riff and Emerson’s very bright synthesizer sound. Meanwhile Lake sounds like somebody else as he sings, “You know I said I’d always take you to Love Beach/Out of reach of the eagle’s eyes tonight/We can make it to Love Beach.” As for Palmer’s drums they’re half-buried in the mix, as is everything for that matter but Lake’s vocals and Emerson’s synthesizer, which provides the song’s lame, prog-lite melody. I don’t know how to describe “Love Beach” except as a useless puddle of sound that if you stepped in it you’d say, “Ick! My shoe sounds wrong!” although things do perk up at the very end, when Lake does a little call and response with himself, singing, “Gonna make love to you,” then responding, “On Love Beach,” and so on.

If Love Beach’s first two tracks are nonentities, “Taste of My Love” is nothing of the sort. I used to think “We Built This City On Rock’n’Roll” was the worst song ever recorded. Not any more. Because “Taste of My Love” is so terrible that I can hardly find words to describe it. Its lyrics are pure Spinal Tap, only they’re not a joke. My favorite lines are, “Ohhh, you look so hungry woman/How come you strayed in here with your eyes so bright on this long hot night/Could it be for a taste of my love/Down on your knees with your face to the wall/Saying please please please.” Then there’s this howler of a couplet: “Call up room service, order peaches and cream/I like my dessert first—if you know what I mean.” You can practically see the leer in Lake’s voice as he sings, “Go down gently with your face to the east/The sun may be rising but we haven’t finished the beast.” As for the tune itself it opens with a nursery rhyme-like riff, then Palmer’s drums and a weird whistling moog by Emerson come in, then… oh, who cares. Because “Taste of My Love” lives and dies on Lake’s lascivious singing—it’s like he slathered his vocal chords with sex lube beforehand—and lyrics like, “Climb on my rocket and we’ll fly.”

“The Gambler” is an upbeat song about “a member of the gambling breed” and an actual rocker, albeit a tame and nondescript one. “Hey mister give me back them dice” sings Lake to the accompaniment of his own wailing harmonica and Palmer’s drum punctuation, then the song smoothes out into a relatively lightweight boogie, which might have been improved by the addition of some guitar by Lake. As it is, Lake sings, “You’ll get heaven or you’ll get hell/There’s no way for you to tell” at which point Palmer performs some “around the world” drum rolls and Emerson plays a very high-pitched and snaky synthesizer solo. Lake then performs some call and response with a gaggle of female backup singers while Emerson plays some Garth Hudson-like carnival riffs. At which point the song stops on a dime, which is how much the band’s credibility is worth by this point.

“For You” is a minor-league progger, opening with a prologue consisting of some ornate Lake guitar, Emerson keyboard plinking, and Palmer crash and roll before morphing into a slow love song, with Emerson noodling away and Lake singing portentously, “We loved so hard/We shook the stars above,” and other such dreck. Meanwhile Lake plays an interesting guitar figure, Palmer goes heavy on the cymbals, and Lake sings, “Step on my heart/She’s been broken.” “For You” isn’t very good but it’s far from terrible, unlike the two pop nonentities that open the album, and I like the way Lake really hams it up, passionately repeating, “For you/For you, For you,” ad infinitum, as the song speeds up as it nears its close.

A thankfully short (approx. 4 minutes) and fast-paced adaptation of “Fantasia para un Gentilhombre” by 20th Century Spanish composer Joaquín Rodrigo, “Canario” is a prog-romp just like ELP’s bad old days. (An interesting fact about Rodrigo I just made up; he invented sani-flush for RVs.) It starts slowly with some keyboards and hissing cymbals, then takes off, with Emerson playing lots of perky and complicated shit like he thinks he’s Alfred Cortot while Lake occasionally joins him on guitar, and Palmer tosses in lots of big cymbal crashes. There’s one kinda rock’n’roll sequence around the 3-minute mark, then things slow down and Emerson and Lake play a very regal theme before flying back into overdrive, nimbly away at their instruments at such velocity I’m sure they were on Nazi-produced amphetamines before the song finally stops. I find I actually have a soft spot in my heart for “Canario;” it may be so much show-offish classical gas, but at least it has some spark and life in it, which is more than can be said for its tepid predecessors on Love Beach.

“Memoirs of an Officer and a Gentleman” is the album’s centerpiece, a 20-minute song composed of four sections about a soldier who loses his beloved to a Nazi bombing raid in World War II. I really love the opening section (“Prologue”); its melody is beautiful, and features Lake singing along to some quiet and elegantly simple Emerson piano. It actually moves me at places, especially when Palmer’s drums come in and Lake plays some synthesized trumpet, then Lake sings, “I was taught how to win/And to lose with that “get you next time” smile/Learned Latin verbs in fear of a beating/And for years thought central heating/Was just for old people’s homes.” Then Palmer plays a synthesized trumpet solo and some cool keyboard riffs, while Lake sings with passion, “And when I finally marched from Sandhurst/I learned to put my fellow man first.”

Unfortunately I dislike the second section (“Love at First Sight”), in which Emerson plays a melody I don’t care much for on some over-ornate lounge piano while Lake sings about meeting his true love. I can’t listen to it without feeling I’m trapped in some upscale hotel lounge, failing to get drunk and shoving wadded cocktail napkins into my ears to drown out the piano, and it doesn’t help when Lake joins in on Spanish guitar.

Nor do I care for the melody of section three (“Letters From the Front”), which is a species of Herbie Hancock jazz/rock with lots of chord changes and synthesized flute and Palmer’s drumming while Lake sings about the air raids getting worse and going off to war. I’m slightly moved when things stop and Lake sings, “The telegram… dropped from my hand/She was all I had… I just don’t understand,” but it’s followed by some nauseating flute-like synthesizer as Lake sings, “But in the end, all that is left/Is the regiment and what it means/To be an officer and a gentleman.”

As for the fourth and final section—“Honorable Company (A March),” it’s an instrumental and begins on a pastoral note, with Emerson making like Pan on his synthesized flute. Then the song turns into a regal march thanks to Palmer’s drums and as the song increases in volume all I can think is boy, do these three know how to slather it on. But that said “Honorable Company (A March)” is kinda catchy in a progressive rock way, and almost makes me want to march off to war myself, although I’d be certain to desert come the first farmer’s daughter, the way my first ancestor in America, a Hessian soldier who figured there must be better things to do with his life than get his dick shot off, did.

Love Beach is a truly execrable piece of work and richly warrants an F, but seeing as how I’m a nice guy with a soft spot in my heart for pretentious people (I’m one myself) I upped the LP a half-grade for the comedy classic that is “Taste of My Love” and another half-grade for the nice and even moving “Prologue” to “Memoirs of an Officer and a Gentleman.” Still, you’ll never want to listen to this album, and I’ve been brainstorming as to what possible use it might have other than as something to listen to.

But the best I could come up with is frisbeeing it at the heads of zombies, the way the heroes do the shitty LPs in their record collection in Shaun of the Dead. Then it occurred to me that the damn thing’s so godawful that playing it might actually kill zombies, so I plan to keep my copy to put on should any undead find their way into my apartment. Besides, it’s good to have around for seduction purposes. If “Taste of My Love” isn’t the right mood setter for love, what is? Metal Machine Music? The soundtrack to Suspiria? The Fugs’ “Swinburne Stomp?”

GRADED ON A CURVE:
D

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