Graded on a Curve: Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Works, Volume 1

It’s impossible to interpret that Volume 1 as anything other than a threat. And it was. Shortly after the release of Works, Volume 1, the United Nations received a letter from the law firm of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, threatening to release a Works, Volume 2 unless the band received 100 million dollars in small, unmarked bills. Despite the risk of a humanitarian crisis of unprecedented proportions, the U.N. refused to bend.

Let’s start over.

Way back in 1977, rock’s premiere triumvirate of colossal dildos took their elephantine self-regard to pompous new heights by releasing this prog-rock twofer on which, God save us all, each dildo got his own side. Talk about your hubris. Not even the bloated egos in Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young ever dared to go so far.

You get a Keith Emerson side (he wrote a real live concerto!), a Greg Lake side (mushy acoustic balladry of the squishy candlelit sort), a Carl Palmer side (a so-so hodgepodge but better than the other guys’ sides), and finally a “group” side (on which the trio molests Aaron Copeland and performs theme music for a Deaf Olympics.)

Emerson’s side is the worst by leagues; in fact, I can say without hesitation that it’s the worst side of music in the history of modern music. His three-movement “Piano Concerto No. 1” (another threat!) is a case study in self-puffery and a complete wash; Lord knows your average ELP fan is a masochist prepared to eat any old kind of shit so long as it allows him to feel superior to the kinds of people who are too dumb to know that rock can only be improved by dressing it up in classical finery, but on this one Emerson leaves the rock out of the equation altogether. What you get instead are 18 interminable minutes of second-rate classical wankery, and what I want to know is who’d they hire to clean the bullshit off the piano bench afterwards?

Greg Lake offers up five variations on the theme of schlock, but compared to Emerson’s side Lake’s can actually be listened to. We get two mediocre ditties with the word “Love” in the title, an overly lush and overbaked “C’est la Vie,” and one very portentous (and terrible) faux stomper called “Hallowed Be Thy Name” that begins with the immortal lines, “There may be an om in moment/But there’s very few folk in focus.” And if you think them words is funny, I recommend to you “Nobody Loves You Like I Do,” on which Greg threatens, “If you lose control/They will take away your T-shirt.” You’ve been warned!

Carl Palmer’s side at least offers variety. ELP’s arrangement of Sergei Prokofiev’s “The Enemy God Dances with the Black Spirits” is menacing and overwrought and sounds like something Adolf Hitler might have enjoyed. On “L.A. Nights” we get Joe Walsh on guitar and scat vocals but no El Lay; this is ELP pretending to be Led Zeppelin and failing miserably.

Meanwhile, “New Orleans” is as funky as ELP ever got, which is to say it sounds like second-rate Little Feat and evokes the image of a guy with a wooden leg limping down Bourbon Street. The Bach adaptation that follows is bad Christmas music. The next one sounds like the theme music for a spinoff of Mannix. As for “Tank,” it’s a retooled version of the original on Yelp’s first el pee, and I’ll be damned if I know what it’s doing here.

Which brings us to the collective side, and the less said the better unless you’re a hardcore fan and your idea of a brilliant concept is setting poor Aaron Copeland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” to a rock beat. The only thing that recommends it to me? They bring it in at less than 10 minutes.

As for “Pirates,” it doesn’t evoke buccaneers on the high seas; it evokes a division of Panzer tanks lunging into Poland. ELP always made Mood Music for the Fourth Reich, and on this one they outdo themselves. That said, I get a giggle every time Lake comes Jolly Rogering in on vocals at around the 4-minute mark, sounding for all the world like a guy auditioning for a role in a Broadway revival of The Pirates of Penzance. And here’s a fun fact: evidently the boys wanted Leonard Bernstein to produce “Pirates.” But after he heard it he walked out of the room!

All of which is to say that Works, Volume 1 is an album you never want to buy, much less let lie around where your children might get their hands on it and seriously hurt themselves.

And despite the threat, Works, Volume 2 is better than Volume 1!

GRADED ON A CURVE:
D

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