The loss of Bowie, Lemmy and George Martin was in each case the departure of a giant of the musical scene, and it seemed for a few weeks that 2016 was going to keep delivering these hammer blows as a whole generation of 70s musicians seemed to reach the end of their allotted span within weeks of each other.
Though I shared the popular outpourings of grief for all of them (less so for Lemmy, for whom my fondness was, to be fair, despite his music rather than because of it) none of them meant as much to me as the giant who has just crashed to ground, tragically, it seems, by his own hand; possibly and ironically, it seems, because of his own hands. Keith Emerson won’t be celebrated by seventeen minutes of the BBC News, like Bowie. Apart from a brief obituary, I doubt the papers on Monday will even mention him. In the popular consciousness, his band is remembered only for comedy value, and for precisely two records, neither of them typical of his oeuvre, and which owe their survival to their brevity, a quality not shared by much of his output.
In the world of rock music, Keith Emerson was to the keyboard what Jimmy Hendrix had been to the guitar: not just a virtuoso (classically trained in Keith’s case), but an exuberant performer, stacking up the keyboards around himself on stage, his trademark Moog a vast peg board above him. He would have sadomasochistic fights with a Hammond organ, sticking knives and screwdrivers into it and making it howl as if in pain. He even performed on a concert grand piano that lifted into the air and twirled upside down.
These stunts apart, his music was progressive rock of an extraordinary kind. Starting with the band The Nice, in the sixties, Emerson was quite content to rip-off classical music to his own ends, and often without credit. His answer to Hendrix’s Star Spangled Banner was America, which shoved the Dvorak New World Symphony hard up against Bernstein’s ironic immigrants’ song from West Side Story. Brandenburger showed anyone who hadn’t already noticed why J. S. Bach was rock and roll.
But it was when the sixties ended, and he teamed up with singer-bassist Greg Lake from King Crimson, and drummer Carl Palmer from Atomic Rooster, to form what became known as a ‘supergroup’, named without much imagination as Emerson, Lake and Palmer, that the music went into uncharted waters. There were still the rip-offs of existing classical works: the first, eponymous album had shamelessly uncredited rip offs of Bartok’s Allegro Barbaro, and Janacek’s Sinfonietta, with a huge chunk of Bach’s French Suite chucked in. But in addition, Emerson developed keyboard sounds and rhythms that could be Bach one moment, Oscar Peterson the next, and then just plain extraordinary Keith Emerson. Listen to the first few bars of Tarkus (a 20 minute marathon from their second album, also called Tarkus) an apocalyptic 10/8 riff for Hammond and drum kit and wonder where you have heard anything like before or since. Or the opening of Karn Evil 9 (First impression) with its counterpoint and jazz chromaticism, kicking suddenly into out-and-out rock music.
I use the word ‘apocalyptic’ because such scenarios were staples of ELP albums, as they had been for King Crimson before, and were indeed for many bands of the time. Small wonder, though people have forgotten the long shadow that the threat of intercontinental thermonuclear war cast over three full decades of rock music. To find yourself in the scene of an ELP set is invariably to be in rags crying ‘Why?’ while mechanised or fantastical creatures fight pointless wars to the destruction of all. The gatefold of Tarkus tells the story of a bizarre creature half tank, half malevolent armadillo (I know, what were they taking?) which destroys a succession of adversaries before a manticore (a monkey-lion-scorpion, of course) stings it in the eye, and it floats off down the river. Karn Evil 9 (Third Impression) tells of some Pyrrhic interstellar war where a gloating general is apparently forced into a moral quandary by an intelligent psychopathic computer.
For me as a boy obsessed with the fantastical and the science fiction, Tarkus was the sound of the future, and it led ineluctably on to Mike Oldfield, Jean-Michel Jarre, Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream, although it has to be said that all of those owe their rich textures to studio multi-tracking or to computer sequencing (Oldfield played all the instruments on Tubular Bells, leading to significant manpower issues when touring it) It was a matter of pride for Emerson that the band could play any of their albums live. His talent was so instinctive a part of him that though his keyboards were ranged around him, leaning over to add an insanely complex fill on a quarter beat was just something he did. For me as a 14 year old who like so many others had been trying for years to learn the piano without practising and who was just running out of interest, the Old Grey Whistle Test showing him performing in Montreal Olympic stadium was like a firecracker of motivation, and I practised with a zeal that changed my entire attitude.
But the band over-reached itself in many ways; it could be argued it had done so from the start. As the 70s wore on, innovation and technical virtuosity gave way to self-indulgence and pomposity. After Brain Salad Surgery, something of a masterpiece, the first new work produced was a double album called ‘Works: Volume 1’ with a side devoted to each of the increasingly individual and estranged members of the band. Drummer Palmer played a Bach invention on the xylophone. Lake, who always seemed like he wanted to be a pretty boy love ballad singer and took a wrong turn too early, and then lost his looks, posed in an open neck shirt, and sang lots of songs with queasy sexual overtones, while Emerson wrote and played a god-damn Piano Concerto, for God’s sake, and not only hired a 70 piece orchestra to record it, but ruinously took it out on the road, a move thought by many to be the final straw for the other two members. The only pieces of any interest are on the fourth side. One of those singles I mentioned above was one of them, Fanfare for the Common Man, an Aaron Copland ‘cover’, but in a 9 minute version too long for the radio, or for the TV trails the song was inevitably used to fill. The other was Pirates!, a long orchestral romp full of filmic music with lyrics on a pretty tired Pirates of the Caribbean theme.
An aside on lyrics. I am convinced that ELP would have greater respect, and would not have become the punching bag it did for the punk rock movement, had they written lyrics which were a little more thoughtful, had a little more depth and resonance, in short weren’t so flagrantly risible as the ones that they settled for. It may have been that they thought that with Emerson ‘playin’ on with ease’ (as one of the songs from Works Volume 2 has it) no one was going to be paying any attention to the words, and they might have been right, up to a point. But the fact remains that none of the words of any of their songs bears listening to without making one cup one’s face in one’s hands. It isn’t a later piece of laziness. They’re ghastly from the beginning[i], a relentless parade of lazy rhymes and sloppily mixed metaphors. You just can’t forgive ‘Fear that rattles in men’s ears/and rears/its hideous head/dread!/death in the wind,’ or ‘Have you walked on the stones of years/When you speak is it you that hears?’ About the only time it works is when the rhyming gets so lazy that it acquires a surreal playfulness that is sorely missing elsewhere, in Karn Evil 9 First Impression: ‘Soon the gypsy queen/in a glaze of Vaseline/ will perform on guillotine/what a scene, what a scene’ ‘Not content with that/with our hand behind our backs/we’ll pull Jesus from a hat/Get into that, get into that.’
Even if you could forgive the words, you couldn’t let the banality go. Trilogy is a musically thrilling song, one I love, but its lyrics are those of a man dumping his girlfriend and telling her she’ll be fine. The Sheriff is just about as trite an account of cowboy life as you could imagine, and as for Benny the Bouncer – oh please.
Emerson got into writing film music, notably for Dario Argento’s Inferno, but continued to tour with his back catalogue in one form or another for the rest of his career. I wouldn’t want to be accused of making a lazy journalistic connection, but Greg Lake has suggested that Emerson was suffering from a weakness making it impossible for him to play the keyboards as he once did. At the age of 71, for whatever reason, and devastatingly for those who loved him, he killed himself with a gun on 10 March 2016. His legacy for the role of the keyboard in pop and rock is undoubted. I’d love to think that a new generation will be introduced to his extraordinary music anew, but they’re sure going to have to stop their ears to the words.
Perhaps they should release an album of just the instrumental pieces.
[i] ‘There might have been things I missed/But don’t be unkind/It don’t mean I’m blind’ (From the Beginning)