Emerson, Lake & Palmer released Tarkus on this day in 1971.
While their debut album had given them a chance to record together for the first time, ELP were still working to get a definitive sound and style. To this end, both Carl Palmer and Greg Lake have independently claimed they were the ones who suggested the idea of using an overarching concept for their second outing. While the entire album is not a concept album per se, this would be the first album to feature the band including a concept piece which took up a significant portion of their overall work, a formula which would be repeated clearly on Trilogy, Brain Salad Surgery, and even arguably Works, Volume 1 which closes on such a long-form piece.
The central riff for this piece, “Tarkus”, had already begun appearing by this point in the band’s work onstage buried within the piano improvisations Keith Emerson included after Greg Lake’s acoustic section which came in the middle of “Take A Pebble”. Carl Palmer has also claimed that he was the originator of the atypical rhythm which made the music famous, giving Keith Emerson the idea in the first place. Emerson’s recollection simply was that the rhythm went well with an ostinato pattern he’d already been working on. Either way, this music was clearly on the band’s mind by the time they prepared to enter the studio the second time in January of 1971.
According to Keith Emerson, the first attempts at playing the riff for the third member of the band went disastrously. Greg Lake was quite uncomfortable with it, going so far as to suggest Emerson release it on a solo album. A manager managed to convince him to give it a try, however, and he eventually came around to it.
Lake’s own recollections around the thorny subject written many years later were that he was concerned that the riff would just sound like “musical showboating” and didn’t have much that a full band could work with. Given the group was apparently in debt at the time, his obstinance may have been his way of trying to preserve the band as he saw it in the same way Emerson bringing in a manager to convince Lake to give the piece a try was. Either way, the group got to work on the music together, with Lake eventually coming around to it. In fact, he even contributed a full movement, “Battlefield”, to the seven-movement suite. The completed piece became the album’s title track, and took the entire first side of the LP.
The second half of the album consists of six shorter works with less thematic cohesion. According to a throwaway mention by Edward Macan, these were recorded in April of 1971 rather than in Jaunary of 1971, the first time I’ve seen such a claim. As usual, the band included a song with a basis in the classical canon, this time Bach’s “Prelude and Fugue No. 6” from The Well-Tempered Clavier.
The closing number was a song dedicated to their sound engineer, Eddy Offord. According to him, this was done in a single take as a surprise for him after the difficult process of recording the album. The song seems to also be a tribute to Little Richard, specifically his song “The Girl Can’t Help It”.
Interestingly, while the phrase “Tarkus” brings up the image of the armadillo tank which graces the album’s cover immediately, the tankadillo and its adventures through a postapocalyptic wasteland were actually added later. Artist William Neal, who had been contracted to create the cover art for the album, created a little doodle of the armadillo tank while showing the band the rest of his proposed designs; ironically, the little doodle was the band’s favorite. Neal also created the inner artwork depicting Tarkus’ journey, creating the story of the song along the way.
As usual, ELP were savaged by many critics with this release. David Lebin’s Rolling Stone Magazine review of the work was quite critical, though ironically he claimed the second half was much better than the first; this judgement puts his take on the album at odds with practically every ELP fan’s that I’ve ever seen! Not all responses were poor, however, as a pre-release review from Melody Maker shows.
Retrospectives have been much kinder, putting this song as one of the classics of the progressive genre.
Despite some concern about the success of the album among band members and critical backlash, it proved to do quite well among the record-buying public. It reached #12 on the Canadian music charts, #9 on the US Billboard Chart, #4 on the German charts (the album charted for seven weeks total there), and #1 on the UK charts. In Germany and the UK, these were the respective highest positions an ELP album ever reached.
The band also undertook a long and successful tour to promote it, beginning prior to its release and ending in December 1971. This included their first-ever concerts in the United States. Songs from Tarkus remained common parts of ELP’s setlist throughout their history; I share some of the album’s performance history here.
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- Emerson, Keith. Pictures of an Exhibitionist
- Lake, Greg. Lucky Man. p 94-95,
- Macan, Edward. Rocking the classics : English progressive rock and the counterculture. p 87
- Macan, Edward. Endless Enigma. p 144
- https://www.offiziellecharts.de/ (obtained via search)
- Edit on 2021-01-22: Added information on German chart performance. Optimized for new site.
- Edit on 2021-01-23: Added information on comparative chart performance. Added information on tour specifics.