When the bong smoke cleared, and rock fans soberly looked back at the 1970s, many scratched their heads and wondered (to paraphrase the classic Deadhead joke), “what the F was I listening to!”
Time has not been kind to many of the era’s mega-sellers, and lives music draws labeled “progressive.” The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has virtually snubbed progressive rock. Genesis, the only inductee from this era, was more inducted for their latest radio-friendly hits than for their pioneering musicianship and early concept albums.
Say what you will about the genre, but To Our Children’s Children, In the Court of the Crimson King, Close to the Edge, Thick as a Brick, Trick of the Tail, and most recently, Moving Pictures are all classics of the genre that have undeniably impacted many future musicians and songwriters. They are profound and well-executed pieces of rock and roll music.
Part of this lack of respect for the genre may stem from the band who was arguably at the epicenter of the whole movement, Emerson, Lake, and Palmer (ELP to fans). These guys are, after all, guilty of almost everything negative associated with the genre. Pretentiousness, egomania, and self-indulgence are just some of the words critics would describe ELP with. After all, ELP played classical music pieces with a Hammond organ and a rotating drum set afire! ELP released concept albums with performed endless solos, many without shirts!
Indeed, it is hard to separate ELPs from the hubris surrounding them. Take this example from “Dean of rock music critics” Robert Christgau, who said of ELP reviewing From the Beginning, “The pomposities of Tarkus and the horrors of their Moussoursky homage clinch it, these guys are as stupid as their fans. Anybody who buys a record that divides a composition called “The Endless Enigma” into two discrete parts deserves it!” Wow, what can I say? I liked From the Beginning.
This two-sided arrogance from critics – disdain toward the band and their fans – was later put in check as critics took a second look at Pink Floyd and other more acceptable purveyors of prog rock. Pink Floyd and Genesis escaped the label and made it into the RRHOF. ELP has not and will be indelibly linked to everything wrong with it.
Let us not forget that ELP headlined the CAL JAM Music Festival in 1974, attracting over 400 thousand attendees! That concert, held at Ontario Motor Speedway outside Los Angeles, was then the most significant festival ever. ELP was the main draw!
In retrospect, it’s hard to understand what all the fuss was about with ELP. While “Lucky Man” and “From the Beginning” remain classic rock staples (thanks mainly to Greg Lake’s lovely baritone). Most of their other more adventurous pieces remain, I dare say, a bit tedious. The net of all this discussion is trashing ELP is an acceptable practice, mostly unquestioned and maybe even sanctioned. But do they deserve it? Two new videos from Eagle Vision ask us to reconsider this assessment.
First is the live recording of the aforementioned classical music piece Pictures at an Exhibition in 1970. This DVD has a beautiful sound, and the video recording captures the band up close in what became their third album (not this particular performance).
Say what you want about the ridiculousness of a power trio having a go at this classic piano piece, but let there be no doubt of two things. First, for many, this would be the first and only classical music many young rock fans would ever hear. Indeed ELP deserves some credit for this. Secondly, these guys could certainly play. Keith Emerson, in particular, may be one of the finest keyboardists in rock and roll history. His classical training, use of the Hammond, and pioneering work with the Moog synthesizer deserve special recognition. All of this can be seen in this DVD of Pictures. Too bad his Moog was a bit out of tune. This is a satisfactory performance and should interest any fan of the genre.
ELP Live in Montreux captures the band in reunion mode in 1997 in stunning blu-ray. The sound and picture are terrific. At first, I thought, “oh no,” but was thoroughly entertained by their performance. The cliches they invented that Spinal Tap made fun of are all on display here. The epic drum solo, the acoustic bit, the battle with the keyboards – it’s all here and quite fun in a nostalgic and corny way. If you are a music video fan, you may be charmed by this video.
While the fire for ELP to be inducted into the rock and roll hall of fame may not be sparked by these two videos, they offer data for a more balanced assessment that shows they had something unique going on. Plus, where were Laserium be without ELP and “Welcome Back My Friends to the Show that Never Ends!”
Not sure that was a better world until the bong haze cleared.