Graded on a Curve: Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Pictures at an Exhibition

Remember The Fly? You know, where Jeff Goldblum (aka Seth Brundle) finds himself turning into a large “Brundlefly” after climbing into his teleporter, without realizing there was a housefly in the pod with him? Well, the same thing happened to Emerson, Lake & Palmer, three rockers who entered the telepod, one of them (I’ve always suspected Keith Emerson) carrying an LP of Béla Bartók’s “Allegro Barbaro.” It was an innocent mistake, but when they emerged they were a despicable mutant hybrid of rock and classical influences dubbed symphonic rock. And it’s bad stuff. Positively evil and poisonous stuff. In the words of Ronnie (aka Geena Davis) in the film: “Be afraid. Be very afraid.”

I’ve always despised ELP—and progressive rock in general—for its basic proposition: namely, that rock is somehow an inferior musical form that needs an infusion of REAL music, as played by REAL musicians (the kind who sit in orchestra pits) to make it respectable. Their emphasis on virtuosity is an insult to The Troggs, and I will not see The Troggs insulted. Most of the best rock has always placed a premium on simplicity, and on the fact that you don’t need to spend a stint in a conservatory to play it. It’s 3-chord people’s music, and ELP has evidently never liked the smell of the people, and prefers to ascend to the heights of Beethoven, Wagner, et al., while still keeping a rock beat.

To return to The Fly, I can’t help but wonder if it any point Keith Emerson awoke thinking, “I’m a rock-classical monster who dreamt he was a rocker and loved it. But now the dream is over… and the rock-classical monster is awake.” Or whether instead he thought, “I’m becoming something that never existed before. I’m becoming… Emermussorgskyson. Don’t you think that’s worth a Grammy or two?”

Formed in 1970, the symphonic rock trio is composed of Keith Emerson on keyboards; Greg Lake on guitar, bass, and vocals; and Carl Palmer on drums. Emerson hailed from The Nice, Lake from King Crimson, and Palmer from Atomic Rooster. During his stint with The Nice, Emerson became known for his live antics, such as stabbing his Hammond organ with a knife (actually to wedge down certain keys), and playing the instrument upside down with him below it. That it never fell on him remains one of rock’s great tragedies. The band got off to an auspicious start; 1970’s historic Isle of Wight festival was only the band’s second gig ever, and its self-titled debut was a surprise success thanks largely to Lake’s “Lucky Man.” As for 1971’s live Pictures at an Exhibition, it was recorded second, but was not released until after Tarkus, whose only real claim to immortality is that it boasts one of the dumbest and ugliest album covers I’ve ever seen.

Not everybody went agog at ELP’s unholy matrimony of rock and classical. Critic Robert Christgau called ELP “the world’s most overweening progressive group,” adding, “these guys are as stupid as their most pretentious fans,” while the late John Peel wrote them off as “a waste of time, talent and electricity.” I would add vinyl. But I’m hardly in a position to talk, as I actually saw them once. The shame has stayed with me, as has the knowledge that it was probably the most painful concert-going experience of my life. Actually, strike that probably. It was the only concert I’ve ever attended where audience members were given airline vomit bags. And I saw them without a single drug in my body, which practically amounts to a suicide attempt. But ELP has never cared what the critics or I thought. Their “pretentious fans” have turned them into one very lucrative exercise in over-the-top pomp’n’roll, and they’ve laughed the whole way to the bank.

As for Pictures at an Exhibition, I hardly know where to start. The brief “Promenade 1” is a pompous organ showcase for Emerson, who must have been told the Queen Elizabeth II was in the building. “The Gnome” is prog at its very proggest, with the organ dueling with the guitar before a melody—dominated by Emerson’s synthesizer—emerges, and bounces from here to there with Emerson throwing in lots of frills. In general it is as exemplary a demonstration of musical prowess as it is a bloody bore. “Promenade 2” is a variation on its predecessor, and features Lake singing like it’s the early Renaissance and he’s attempting to woo the faire Ethelbert, she of the flowery merkin. Meanwhile, the slow “The Sage” opens with some keyboard pyrotechnics before Lake again croons away, while playing some delicate guitar. He then proceeds to show off some on said guitar, and I’d be duly impressed if I were a Hobbit. But I’m not, and what I hear is Middle Earth dinner theater music at its most unbearable.

“The Old Castle” produces massive applause as it starts, and Emerson plays some freaky, squiggly shit on his synth that is actually bearable. Then Palmer, who has been mostly silent thus far, kicks in on the drums in a big way, and while I can’t say I truly like the tune it doesn’t literally revolt me either. As for Lake, he throbs away on bass, showing off while Emerson spins mad circles on the synthesizer. The song segues straight into “Blues Variation,” on which Lake really goes to town, while the band plays the blues the way Schubert might have played them, namely with lots of class and no soul. I have to hand it to Palmer, though. He’s a great drummer, and might have made a real rock’n’roll band proud. The song builds to a climax, Emerson as usual dominating the sound—you find yourself wishing he’d cheese it and take a fookin’ break—until the song ends with some more spastic keyboard pyrotechnics.

Yet another variation on “Promenade” follows, this one with Palmer throwing in, and if it doesn’t make you homesick for England’s green and pleasant land, your mental health is in good order. “The Hut of Baba Yaga 1” is the LP’s first real rocker, although the trio throw a fair amount of jazz into the mix as they roar along. Unfortunately it’s only about a minute long, and is followed by jazz-rock hybrid “The Curse of Baba Yaga,” on which Emerson farts about on the keys until Lake and Palmer come in. At least it’s loud (that’s something) and Emerson zips along on the organ until Lake sings a few lines, and the song recommences it racehorse gait. Emerson’s synthesizer antics are almost cool in places, and Lake undoubtedly knows his way around a bass guitar, and as for Palmer he’s firing on all cylinders until the song abruptly ends. “The Hut of Baba Yaga 2” keeps the fast tempo and is mostly Emerson, who plays and plays until the band breaks into a sudden crescendo, with Lake singing majestically and even letting out a shout before the song segues into “The Great Gates of Kiev,” on which Lake continues to croon until the tempo slows and Emerson plays a quiet melody that builds and builds thanks to Palmer’s drumming, then dissolves into some decent atonal keyboard. Then Palmer’s drums come pounding in again, Lake does more singing, and so on. I suppose if I had to pick a fave on this album it would be this one, what with Lake singing, “Death is life” like he’s Charles Manson or somebody.

The LP ends on a horrifying instrumental note with “The Nutrocker,” the band’s irksome, jazzy, and up-tempo take on “The Nutcracker.” This one’s an abomination, pure and simple, with Palmer taking a turn on drums and Emerson playing what sounds like a tinny music hall piano. Lake lets out a few shouts, you wonder why in God’s name why, and then the thing ends, with the audience roaring and clapping in cadence. Where did ELP find such a collection of idiots?

About the only good thing to be said of ELP is that they haven’t spawned a slew of imitators, or if they have, I’m fortunately too ignorant to know about them. They are sui generis, by definition a monster just like the Brundlefly. Believe me, if there was any way I could board a time capsule back to 1970 and prevent them from climbing into that telepod, I would do it. They have caused too many ears anguish with their symphonic rock antics, and suckered too many innocents into their nefarious orbit. Even I stand guilty. I confess to having owned a copy of 1977’s double LP Works Volume 1, which I must have purchased (my recollection is hazy) in a fit of insanity. Because it’s probably their most reprehensible LP, consisting as it does of a Keith Emerson side, a Greg Lake side, a Carl Palmer side, and a side featuring the whole band. Madness! Like the Brundlefly, they grew more dangerous as they went on. As Keith Emerson once told an interviewer, “The teleporter insists on inner pure. We were not pure. And it has… infected our playing. You have to leave here, and never come back here. There was an old lady who swallowed a fly. Perhaps she’ll die.” Take his advice. And avoid at all costs.


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