Sunday, 10 June 2012

Welcome Back My Friends - A History Part 6

O.K. so where was I? Ah yes, a gibbering mass of hormones in search of a purpose, banging his head to Status Quo. As I mentioned, in a prehistoric version of file-sharing, my peers and I were in the habit of lending and borrowing L.P.s, often just for the one night needed to make a cassette recording. By the end of the decade the record industry was spending plenty of money advertising the slogan "Home taping is killing live music", but it wasn't. In fact, had it not been for home taping, we wouldn't have heard half the records we did at the time, and so would not have been so keen to go and see the artists responsible in concert. And any guilt I may have felt at the time (can't recall much, to be honest) has since been assuaged by the purchase of any of those recordings that were worth the bother, on at least one legitimate format, sometimes two or three.                          

Of course, not every record I heard made a positive impression and more than once I would be put off a band I later came to like by an unrepresentative sample. Being introduced to Yes by the sprawling and incomprehensible pretension of their Tales From Topographic Oceans double album made pretty sure that I avoided them like the plague and consequently missed out on their spectacular mid-seventies live shows, Roger Dean sets and all. This was remedied at the N.E.C. in 2004, but I was converted more than twenty-five years earlier by the Yesterdays collection which features more digestible early songs and a stonking cover of Paul Simon's America. Since then I've grown to enjoy much of their back catalogue, even segments of Topographic Oceans, but I'd have to plead guilty to a mistaken first impression. Likewise Genesis. I heard a snippet from The Return Of The Giant Hogweed, not their best effort, and spurned them until a Radio One broadcast of an edited Lamb Lies Down On Broadway show, one of the last with Peter Gabriel. Thus I never did see a "proper" Genesis gig, although I saw Genesis Lite with Phil Collins singing a couple of times.

Almost inexplicably, the next step in my musical obsession came with Emerson Lake and Palmer. O.K., you can stop laughing now. Hindsight has not been kind to ELP. While they pop up to milk the cash-cow of former glory now and again, to all intents and purposes their career as a band was already facing death when I first took an interest in them. This must have been just after the release of Brain Salad Surgery, their fifth album, blessed with an H.R.Giger (he of "Alien" fame) cover and an opening track in the hymn Jerusalem that barely qualifies as rock, pop, or anything modern. Again my initial impression was less than favourable, having been lent their live version of Mussorgsky's Pictures At An Exhibition. It wasn't all bad, but it did feature an interlude in which Keith Emerson's melodramatic performance might have made for visual entertainment, but in purely aural terms resulted in simple cacophony. He was given to throwing his Hammond organ around and making sqealing noises on a Moog synthesizer with a gadget called a ribbon controller (as heard on the Osmonds' Crazy Horses). All quite amusing to watch but on a record...nope.

Anyway, my misgivings were largely dispelled when I heard Tarkus, partially a concept album about an amphibious mechanical armadillo with canon that encounters other mythical beasts. These included the Manticore, a fusion of lion and scorpion, that was to become the trademark of ELP's own record label. Re-reading that description, I do have to wonder what they were on to come up with the idea, what the record company were on to let them record it, and what I and plenty of others were on to give it a second glance. Well, I wasn't on anything in 1973 when I first heard it, but it was, in its way, intriguing. Leaving the silly story aside, the music was a lot more complex than anything I had heard at that point. Greg Lake's voice, which the press would like or, more often, loathe for its choral purity, did sound like what I had been brought up (taught, in the case of the church choir) to think of as proper singing, and you couldn't argue that they were less than very  accomplished musicians. In retrospect they were pompous, pretentious and even ridiculous, but I managed to find plenty of reasons to like them, some of which I might still defend.

I do theorise that to a degree I liked them because I thought there was a chance of my father approving more of them, with their pseudo-classical flourishes, than he ever had the Beatles let alone the Quo. This was sophisticated music played by a college trained keyboard player with his technically outstanding drummer (percussionist if that sounds better) and refined vocalist. My father, old before his time, would have no truck with them, though, nor any other contemporary music style, although he did grudgingly acknowledge that Carl Palmer could play the drums. This was handy, as I was beginning to aspire to a spot of drumming myself, and that wasn't something that was going to come cheap.

For my 14th birthday (May 1974) I received Trilogy, ELP's 4th album released in 1972 and as a special treat was allowed to listen to it (once) on the "stereogram" in the living room rather than on the "Black Box" (an ancient wood-encased dansette-style turntable) that I shared with my sister. As mentioned in an earlier entry, the stereogram had its two speakers fixed so close together that no real stereo effect was achievable, but I remember the excitement of hearing what  was to me a new recording. It ends with Abaddon's Bolero, an eight minute instrumental  that builds from virtual silence to a screaming racket of synthesized noise which ensured the disc was removed promptly and not allowed near the living room again!

That summer I bought the Welcome Back My Friends To The Show That Never Ends: Ladies And Gentlemen - Emerson, Lake and Palmer triple live album on the day of release (August 19th according to Wikipedia). It contains live versions of virtually all of Brain Salad Surgey and Tarkus and a few other tracks, and released at a budget price (£4.99 was the cheapest I could find), it was a tidy way of getting a large chunk of the back catalogue for myself on a shoestring. The main drawback was the sleeve. The previous year Yes released the Yessongs package, another live triple but adorned with Roger Dean artwork which I was already accumulating on my bedroom wall. You didn't have to like the record to like the sleeve. All summer, since "Ladies and Gentlemen" was announced, I had imagined an equally lavish production, hopefully with lots of (preferably colour) photographs of the band AND THEIR EQUIPMENT. I had seen glimpses of Carl Palmer's custom built two-ton drum kit in magazines but wanted more detail. The stainless steel drums had been extensively engraved with artwork while the reverse of the two gongs that hung behind him (!) had  a dragon painted across them. I knew this because he'd described in an interview how the whole thing revolved during his drum solo and strobe lighting focussed on the dragon. This I had to see! Well, if you've ever seen the package on CD or even in its original vinyl, you'll know I was disappointed. Cheap and particularly nasty. Naff typeface, cheesy die-cut interior and just one dark, blurry photograph of the whole stage set up as seen from the back of an arena. No poster (even Status Quo gave away a poster with "Hello") or booklet. Shoddy crap, in fact. It remains my nomination for worst album cover of all time, and every time I see it I'm reminded of how let down I felt. Of course I played the records to death, especially the extended Aquatarkus on Side Three and Carl Palmer's drum solo on Karn Evil 9 but there was a lesson there.

Clearly the band, comprising three egotists who were as likely to compete with each other as with any force outside their association, had very little interest in the packaging of their product or the punters who might invest in it. As I said, as a band they were already on their way out, their next project being a collection of solo material with a small garnish of band tracks. "Works" as it was titled with typical immodesty had some good stuff on it, but in truth would have been better released as solo albums, and the tour-with-orchestra that followed it went down as one of the great follies of the late seventies. It did include a couple of earlier solo singles - a straightforward piano boogie cover, Honky Tonk Train Blues from Emerson and the Christmas single I Believe In Father Christmas by Greg Lake, which remains one of my favourite seasonal efforts.

While Ladies and Gentlemen didn't make me give up on ELP (that accolade goes to their dreadful Love Beach record, released in 1978 in a misguided last ditch stab at mainstream success, which even the group members slagged off as a contractual obligation) it did leave a bad taste. Music fans are spared the obligation to lifelong allegiance with which most sports fans consider themselves saddled. Eventually I got hold of a pretty cool (I thought) picture of The Drum-Kit from their record company, but in the year (!) it took them to reply, I had largely lost interest and moved on.

I would still defend ELP as musicians who, despite the faults of pretension and maybe over-ambition, produced some exciting innovative work. Much of that work sounds dated, but back in the day Emerson was one of the first keyboard players to push the use of synthesisers as far as he could, while Palmer's synthesized percussion on Brain Salad Surgery was surely ground-breaking.
I suppose that they were a progression for me, as the "Progressive rock" genre was for rock music, in that they weaned me off "straightforward" pop songs onto the possibility of more complicated constructs. Of course, I was a bit slow to spot the deceit in the notion that complication automatically implies quality. Given the choice of saving Tarkus or Never Mind The Bollocks for posterity, it would have to be the latter. Yet before I encountered ELP, I had heard very little jazz (almost none of it modern) and pretty much assumed that popular music genres, pop, rock, folk or whatever were duty bound to conform to the verse-chorus-4/4 time convention. Focus had suggested otherwise but they were too easily dismissed as an aberration or novelty act rather than indicators of evolution.

 Age has withered the tone of Lake's voice and having stumbled accidentally on a broadcast of a show recorded a couple of years ago, I harbour no residual desire to see them collectively, although I would still pay to see Carl Palmer show off. According to Wikipedia, both he and Emerson have suffered physical problems related to their music (back pain and repetitive strain respectively) so perhaps even there, I would be better leaving it an unfulfilled aspiration. I would have to acknowledge the many hours I spent listening to them with pleasure before I realised that it should be guilty pleasure. Ironically, some time before the punks were to decry the folly of prog rock, I was ready for my own reaction, which was to go In Search of Space...

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