Emerson, Lake & Palmer are one of those favorite bands from my youth that, like The Beatles or Queen, I can pretty much talk about forever. For all the overblown pomp and ceremony that defined 1970s Progressive Rock, few bands dished it out bigger or better than the “super group” trio known as ELP. Keith Emerson (formerly of The Nice) broke all kinds of ground with the use of keyboards – organ in particular – in rock music, being responsible for greater innovation than any other musician of his ilk save for perhaps Rick Wakeman. Greg Lake, bassist and vocalist, had previously lent his impressive and wildly fluid voice to the first two King Crimson albums. On the drums, ELP had a percussive force of nature in Carl Palmer. One of the first rock drummers to tackle a massive kit, Palmer surely influenced the showmanship of renowned players from Terry Bozzio to Tommy Lee and Mike Portnoy. While they haven’t necessarily maintained household name status, for a sizable chunk of the seventies ELP enjoyed global popularity – and deservedly so.
In the context of what’s going on musically today, ELP’s often-bombastic musical scenarios are undeniably identifiable with seventies Arena Rock excess, while their roots in classical composition allow them to remain oddly timeless, and therefore totally accessible. Quite a feat, if you ask me. I never get tired of listening to their music, which is why it was such a nice surprise to recently find an ELP collection in my mailbox. Originally released in 2008, the 14-song, single disc retrospective, Come and See the Show: The Best of Emerson, Lake & Palmer was just re-released by Razor & Tie as part of a catalog licensing deal that will see the label re-issue expanded and remastered versions of the group’s first six albums over the next year. Bring it on!
The disc kicks off with the song whose lyrics give the CD its title, “Karn Evil 9: 1st Impression – Part 2.” Arguably ELP’s best-known song – or the song they are best-known for – “Karn Evil 9” takes its own little journey, as Greg Lake’s post-apocalyptic carnival barker hawks the greatest sideshow “In Heaven, Hell or Earth” – promising “sights to make you drool” including Jesus conjured magically from a hat and “Rows of Bishop’s Heads in Jars.” I’m there! Of course, when Lake declares, “You gotta see the show / It’s Rock ‘n’ Roll!” he reminds his audience that ELP are basically singing about themselves. Come and See the Show, indeed.
If ever a band could be said to have written the soundtrack to The Church of Rock & Roll, ELP’s music is (for some at least) akin to a religious experience: from the bone chilling organ fugue of “Knife-Edge” to the trio’s epic re-working of the traditional English hymn “Jerusalem.” They were also the first band to successfully meld two seemingly disparate musical genres. As an interpreter of the classical tradition, Emerson’s pop hook-laden keyboard arrangements made modern day classical compositions such as Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” and “Hoedown,” and Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera’s “Toccata” accessible to a rock audience.
But for all its musical sturm und drang, ELP weren’t just about “blowing your head apart.” The group also recorded many of the most gorgeous ballads of the prog rock era, and a few of their best are on this disc. The baroque, arabesque flourishes of the transcendent, aching lament “C’est La Vie” and the lush acoustic guitar / hand percussion arrangements of the ridiculously romantic “From The Beginning” are a gazillion miles away thematically from the chaotic aural battle ground of a piece like “Toccata.” It’s almost hard to believe the same band recorded these two songs.
While it would have been fun to have “Love Beach” – the title song from the band’s most misunderstood album – included, the only really perplexing omission is the absence of “Karn Evil 9: First Impression, Pt. 1,” which firmly sets that suite’s end-of-days tone before segueing seamlessly into part two’s signature mix of exhilaration and foreboding. As essential to a completist seventies rock collection as any Queen or Alice Cooper album, Come & See The Show is a nearly-flawless introduction to ELP’s particularly dynamic and versatile brand of progressive rock, and something cool to throw on the iPod if you already own the band’s catalog.
1. “Karn Evil 9: 1st Impression – Part 2”
2. “Lucky Man”
3. “From the Beginning”
5. “Hoedown (Taken From Aaron Copland’s Ballet, Rodeo)”
7. “C’est La Vie”
8. “Still…You Turn Me On”
10. “Fanfare For the Common Man”
12. “Peter Gunn”
14. “I Believe In Father Christmas”
Left to Right: Emerson, Palmer and Lake