Keith Emerson RIP – why it is time for Emerson Lake & Palmer and prog rock to lose their stigma

(L-R) Emerson, Lake and Palmer

(L-R) Emerson, Lake and Palmer

As ELP’s virtuoso dies in a reported suicide, Getintothis’ Shaun Ponsonby urges our readers to re-listen to his discography without prejudice. 

The death of Keith Emerson feels different to most of the recent rock losses that have hit us as of late – and not just because of the tragic circumstances. The man who quite literally put the Emerson in Emerson Lake and Palmer probably isn’t as beloved as David Bowie, or Lemmy, or George Martin, and he certainly didn’t make music that brought people from all walks of life together or have an enduring badass rock & roll image.

It is easy to deride prog rock. Maybe a little too easy. The divide between the detractors and those who love it can probably be summed up with a quote from Rick Wakeman on the BBC’s Rock Family Trees series; “I went to do an interview once, and they said; ‘We think all the stuff you do is pompous, it’s overblown…’ And I went ‘Yeah, I know. It’s good, isn’t it?’”

Perhaps it did go a little too up itself, and you could say Emerson Lake and Palmer were amongst the worst offenders. Many did. John Peel called them; “a waste of time, talent and electricity” (though this didn’t stop him narrating a BBC documentary on them). Robert Christgau – known as the Dean of American Rock Critics – said that they were “as stupid as their most pretentious fans” and John Kelman of the All About Jazz website noted that an “overbearing sense of self-importance turned ELP from one of the 1970s’ most exciting new groups into the definition of masturbatory excess and self-aggrandizement in only a few short years”. Ouch.

But most of these cries came after prog rock’s implosion, when punk brought everything back to basics and everyone pretended they didn’t own Gentle Giant records. ELP were easy whipping boys. Just look at how they responded to punk:


An album called Love Beach in which they decided imitate The Bee Gees on the cover. Yeah! That’ll show ‘em!

By this point, slagging off prog was just what you did, whether you had actually listened to it or not. But they were in on the joke. Drummer Carl Palmer even went as far as to say “If you look up the word ‘pretentious’ in the dictionary, you will probably see a picture of Emerson Lake and Palmer”.

It feels like the band has often been written out of rock history books – or ridiculed within them – for that very reason, and yet it is impossible to tell the story of rock without them. As Stuart Maconie once said; “ELP are the quintessential prog rock act because they just didn’t give a damn. They were the richest men in the world making this music that was bonkers and great.”

Just go back and listen to some of these records without that stigma. Forget the jeers from people who say they’re pretentious, or the fact that Jim Davidson is a fan, or that Greg Lake went on stage with a with a £2,000 Persian carpet. They were hugely inventive, mind-blowingly creative and driving a stake through the heart of the rock & roll rule book. And though they were all astonishing musicians in their own right, it was Keith who remained the band’s focal point. It was he who masterminded their sound and pushed for them to musical break boundaries. This wasn’t rock & roll, this was using rock & roll instruments for classical music with a touch of jazz.

ELP was very much Keith’s brainchild. In the late 60’s he was the keyboard player in The Nice. Surprisingly, The Nice began as the backing band for soul singer (and former Ikette, the backing singers with Ike & Tina Turner) P.P. Arnold who at the time was riding high with The First Cut Is The Deepest. Andrew Oldham convinced them to go solo.

It was here that Emerson developed his stage act. Frustrated by the need to be stationary behind his Hammond organ, he took to thrashing it around the stage, sticking it full of knives (some of which were vintage WWII artefacts given to him by Lemmy, who was The Nice’s roadie at the time), usually during performances of Rondo.

Unexpectedly, The Nice scored a hit with an instrumental take on West Side Story’s America. Anyone who thinks that prog rock bands are amongst the least badass of the rock and rollers, check this out; they once performed the track at the Royal Albert Hall in front of the American Ambassador, and proceeded to set fire to an American flag on stage.

In addition, the album The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack is far from perfect, but tracks like the title cut, Tantalising Maggie and the quite simply wonderful The Cry of Eugene are worth a listen for anybody interested in 60s psych or the origins prog.

Emerson had begun to get a little fed up with The Nice by this point, and looked to pastures new. As he said himself; “I realised the three piece – keyboard, bass and drums – was working very well, and I wanted to get the best Goddamned three piece in the world.

Whether Emerson Lake and Palmer were “the best Goddamned three piece in the world” is up to you, but it can’t be denied that the band had the right musical chops to lay the claim on a technical level. Emerson recruited Greg Lake from King Crimson on bass and lead vocals, who had recently helped practically invent prog rock with the classic In The Court of the Crimson King. Joining them on drums was Carl Palmer of Atomic Rooster and The Crazy World of Arthur Brown.

From the off, ELP were a bizarre band. They made their live debut in front of 600,000 people at the Isle of Wight Festival, sharing a bill with The Who, The Doors, Sly & The Family Stone, Miles Davis, Tiny Tim, Ten Years After, John Sebastian of The Lovin’ Spoonful and Joni Mitchell. Yes, that single day of live music actually happened once. And what did they play amongst all this rock & roll royalty? Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition and Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, and ended their performance by setting canons off on stage. Say what you want – that takes guts.

Their first album wasn’t much easier to gauge. Amongst the songs were Knife Edge, based on Czech composer Leoš Janáček’s Sinfonietta and Bach’s French Suite in D Minor, the avant-garde jazz influence of Take a Pebble, the drum solo Tank and Greg Lake’s simple, folk rock song Lucky Man.

Emerson, a little dismayed by the success of the latter on the US charts, was keen to push the instrumental side of ELP. Enter Tarkus. Their second album’s title track was a tale of apocalyptic warfare, and at 20 minutes in length took up the entire first side of the record. Masterminded by Emerson and initially balked at by Lake (who supposedly told him; “If you want to play that sort of stuff, I suggest you play it on your solo album”, and was close to quitting because of it), the epic and complex piece arguably signalled that the era of progressive rock had truly arrived and is really the reason the album topped the UK charts – a feat that would be impossible for such an experimental band today.

Though follow-up Trilogy maintained the success generated by Tarkus, even going Top 5 in America, you could probably argue that Brain Salad Surgery is their masterwork. There’s one simple reason for that; Karn Evil 9.

Clocking in at half an hour in length, Karn Evil 9 began at the end of side 1 and the rest of it took up the entirety of side 2. Though, due to its use as the theme from the Generation Game, you’re probably more likely to have visions of cuddly toys and elderly people trying to Riverdance, rather than the intended imagery of “seven virgins and a mule” (though that may not be a bad thing!).

Brain Salad Surgery – and particularly Karn Evil 9 – was considered ELP’s creative peak (despite Greg Lake’s bizarre lyric in Still…You Turn Me On; “Everyday a little sadder, a little madder, someone get me a ladder”, that he somehow managed to sing on stage every night without bursting into fits of laughter), and was a huge commercial success. As a result, they headlined the 1974 California Jam in front of a quarter of a million people, topping the bill ahead of Deep Purple, Earth Wind & Fire, Black Sabbath, and the Eagles. Notably, the show also featured one of Keith’s greatest stage stunts; the incredible, spinning piano.

All things considered, it is no wonder that it started to unravel not long after.

Following an extended two-year break, they re-grouped in 1976 to record Works Volume 1. Showing that egos had gotten the better of them, it was a decidedly mixed bag of a double record with three sides dedicated to solo projects from each band member, with the threesome coming together for two epic pieces on side four. Again, Emerson stole the show, not only for his tremendous 18-minute piano concerto, but for his work on what is undoubtedly ELP’s most-remembered track, the surprising #2 UK hit Fanfare For The Common Man.

But for this writer it’s the closing track Pirates that remains not only the album’s best number, but maybe the greatest Emerson Lake and Palmer composition. With full orchestra, the piece is ridiculous in the best possible way; swashbuckling and almost Herculean in its cinematic scope. It wouldn’t be out of place in an opera.

Emerson being Emerson, the use of the 70-piece orchestra inspired him to take them on tour in America’s stadiums. Which they did for a number of shows, until it bankrupted them and they had to continue touring as a three-piece for longer than they wished just to pay off the debts.

In many ways, that was the final straw. Emerson and Lake were clearly on different pages – Lake’s songs continued in the folky Lucky Man vain, whereas Emerson was looking to push into more ambitious areas. They owed the label one more record, so literally knocked off the aforementioned Love Beach. Punk was in full effect by this point anyway, and ELP were top of the kids’ shit list. Sadly, unlike their contemporaries Genesis and Yes, they were unable to keep it together and make the 80s work for them.

They re-grouped occasionally. Whilst drummer Carl Palmer was enjoying success with Asia, Cozy Powell joined to make Emerson Lake and Powell for a record and tour. A fully fledged ELP reunion came about for 1992’s Black Moon, continuing for 1994’s In The Hot Seat. None of these albums are any good.

The problem being that in the 1970’s you can genuinely say that ELP were progressive. By this point they were definitely not. To call it “going through the motions” is perhaps a little unfair, but the ambition to push to greater planes and uncharted territory was no longer there.

Furthermore, Emerson had bigger problems.

He was involved in a motorcycle accident which led to what he claimed neurologists’ told him was an unnecessary operation in the 90s. “It destroyed a few nerve endings,” he once said. “I’ve had a long battle to overcome it, and for a time thought I was going to end up like João Carlos Martins, who had to give up playing with his right hand…I’m getting better because I’ve learned to drop my wrists and relax my thumbs, and the good news is, I think my composition has actually improved…I’ll always find some way to get the fucking music out!

Although he continued to play, the difficulties with his hands made this a struggle. As a young teen, this writer saw him reunite with The Nice at an almost sold out performance at Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall back in 2003. I was lucky enough to see him again, this time with the real thing – a full one-off Emerson, Lake and Palmer reunion show in London, which has proved to be the group’s final ever performance. In both instances Emerson‘s playing was incredible, but his effected hand would occasionally slip out of time.

Initially, this reunion was due to be much longer, with a full tour in the works. In a message on his website, Emerson stated; “It is with much regret that I have to announce that due to past right hand injuries the resulting nerve damage and dystonic factor has made it unable for me to play the keyboards to the high standard I have always set myself and have to cancel…the proposed Emerson Lake and Palmer tour which we were going to do at the end of this year…This is absolutely devastating to me as music will always be my main key to communicating with a world-wide audience.”

This final line might actually explain the supposed circumstances surrounding Emerson’s death. Though the cause was not initially announced, Santa Monica Police eventually confirmed his death as suicide by self-inflicted gunshot wound.

It would not be appropriate for us to speculate on this. What is appropriate is that we urge you to listen back to Emerson’s pioneering work in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s and don’t give a damn what Johnny Rotten has to say about it. This is music to listen to through the headphones and fully immerse yourself in. It takes the most bizarre twists and turns, the most out-there time signatures and the most virtuoso playing you could expect on any rock & roll record. Emerson Lake and Palmer may have been responsible for a fair amount of cringe-worthy pretension, but people writing them off entirely are missing out on some truly incredible, out-there music.

It is with great sadness that a true re-appraisal couldn’t happen within his lifetime, and even sadder that we’ll never hear him play those distinctive Hammond organs and Moog synthesisers ever again. It’s rare that you get an artist as audacious as Keith. His boldness was inspiring, and he was perhaps the most accomplished pianist in rock history.

If you have bought into the “prog always sucks” bullshit, we implore you, take a listen to the Keith Emerson playlist below.


Emerson on stage in the 1970s