Album Review: Emerson, Lake & Palmer (1970)

This week has featured a ton of significant dates for Emerson, Lake & Palmer fans. Thus, I decided to revisit a review/ramble I originally wrote in 2017 about what the debut album accomplishes. Originally, the album was released on November 20, 1970, with its US release coming just around two months later in January 1971. So today, I will be giving you some of my impressions of the debut album of ELP, creatively named “Emerson, Lake & Palmer”.

Retrieved from here.

This is going to be a look at the album as a whole. As such, I won’t simply repeat the lyrics here, as a google search will reveal most of them relatively accurately. Neither will I analyze exact harmonic structures and how each chord affects our emotions, as that is way above my pay grade. Instead, I would just like to put forth what I believe this album set out to accomplish. Where were the musicians in their lives when this was written? What was influencing them? While this album doesn’t have a concept as central as other progressive albums, is there still a uniting theme?

This album was recorded in the summer of 1970 and the concepts of each song were not much older. According to Greg Lake in his autobiography, many of these songs had been on their minds in previous bands; these thus represented their own ideas more than a collective unit. They were still very much Keith Emerson, Greg Lake, and Carl Palmer, rather than the blended unit of ELP that they would become.

ELP circa 1970. From here.

However, that is in no way a criticism. If anything, it is a unique positive of this album. All three musicians were still relatively new to one another. If they believed that they had a public to win over, then perhaps there was an even deeper ulterior motive: they had to impress one another. Keith Emerson had already made waves in the Nice for a few years. Of the three, he was in many ways the most well-established as a musician. However, he was still far from the composing powerhouse that he became.

Greg Lake, meanwhile, had opened for the Rolling Stones along with King Crimson. After that feather in their cap, Crim went on to a successful tour of North America. Perhaps, then, he had the best mainstream appeal. However, he had been the youngest member of King Crimson (just twenty-one when he started), and was relatively inexperienced as a lyricist and a bassist alike. Carl Palmer, while the youngest of the band, had toured the U.S. with Arthur Brown at the age of eighteen. Emerson and Lake recruited him to ELP straight from what could have been a legendary band in its own right, Atomic Rooster. The pressure on each to prove they had a place in this new band alongside such high-caliber musicians was doubtless a bit intimidating in its own right.

This album had, then, to be a show-piece. As Keith Emerson said before the band’s debut concert at Plymouth Guildhall, “This is what we sound like”. Each song had to prefigure what they would be. And boy, does it deliver.

The Barbarian:

From the opening notes, this piece establishes the core of what ELP became known for: adaptations of classical pieces (this one a piano concerto by Bartok) with a unique, rock-n-roll flavor. It establishes this fact best of any song on this album, making its position even better. The switch between Hammond Organ to piano midway, with Greg Lake following by turning off the heavy-distortion bass which greeted the audience at the beginning, and Carl Palmer switching to the lighter style emblematic of his playing. This one had it all, and was a concert staple in the earliest years for this reason.

My only wish is that Emerson, Lake & Powell could have had a crack at this one. That would certainly be a show.

Take A Pebble

“Lucky Man” has captured our collective attention as the Greg Lake song. However, I would argue that in many ways this gentle number is a better indication of his sensibilities in this era, and a better showpiece for his work within the band. While “Lucky Man” is without a doubt an incredible song, it was written by a young boy with less musical experience. “Take a Pebble”, meanwhile, was written more contemporaneous with the actual recording of the album.

There is nothing dissonant about this number, and perhaps while there is nothing particularly musically daring either, it was on Lake to remind his bandmates that sometimes there was nothing wrong with simplicity. As the years went on and all three became more daring, I would say it was Lake who helped keep the sound grounded, and avoided the pitfall of doing something innovative just for the sake of making a statement. This made their more daring side all the more impressive; when they were going to be unusual, it was for good reason. Even that daring experimentalism is present in this song with Keith Emerson’s strumming of the piano strings like a harp for an unusual effect. Even without electronics, he could come up with sounds one doesn’t hear every day!

Knife-Edge

This is based on a theme by Leos Janacek, and takes the mood back to fierce. The Barbarian may have set the stage, but this song is the one which first shows the evidence of the darker side of ELP. Some of the work most often taken to represent them, namely off Tarkus, Brain Salad Surgery, and even Black Moon stand in the shadow of this one, with driving Hammond and post-apocalyptic imagery.

Oh, and that bass riff? There are few things cooler in their entire catalogue.

From a 1971 Brussels concert, as seen here.

The Three Fates

Side two prefigures Works: Volume 1 in its chance to let ELP shine as E, L and P separately. First up is Emerson with “The Three Fates”, further broken down into three movements: “Clotho”, “Lachesis”, and “Atropos”. “The Three Fates” never made it to the stage, so listeners often overlook it. However, that Emerson revisited the title with his last-ever album (The Three Fates Project) speaks to its legacy.

There is something in this as well that must be remembered. ELP are considered one of the foremost progressive bands. In these early days of the genre, elements which would later become staples were still being baked in. Admit it: there is nothing that says “this is a prog album” like Keith Emerson thundering away in irregular meters on a pipe organ on a nearly eight-minute instrumental about three Greek goddesses. And that is a glorious thing.

No room for a pipe organ onstage, Mr. Emerson? Retrieved from here (caution: obituary link).

Tank

Carl Palmer is never one to cut solos short. His solo spot on “Tank”, where he uses many of the same tricks he puts to good use onstage, is emblematic of this. If there was any wonder why he was chosen over notables such as Mitch Mitchell or Ginger Baker, this song served as an opportunity for him to lay those questions to rest.

Palmer revisited this piece with an orchestra seven years later on his side of Works, Volume 1. Frankly, I don’t think that version adds anything. The interplay between Emerson and Palmer in the middle of the song is a remarkable example of their ability to go back and forth.

Lucky Man

What is there to say about this one? Everything about the simple majesty, the introduction to the Moog Synthesizer by way of the closing solo, and the haunting lyrics have already been said a hundred times. All I can think of to top this off is a reminder that Greg Lake was just twelve years old upon writing this song. If that does not speak to his own musical prowess, I don’t know what will.

In short, this album lays the groundwork for all to come. While ELP was never a band to stick to a formula, practically every high point of their career has its genesis in this album.

ELP early in their career. Retrieved from Pinterest.

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Post Sources

  • Lake, Greg. Lucky Man.
  • Note: this post originally appeared on another blog. It has been modified from its original state.
  • Edit on 2020-01-02: added extra information.
  • Edit on 2020-09-03: updated formatting. Optimized for new site.

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