The first album on this list which I owned when it was still relatively recent, and the first on this list which I loved unreservedly from the moment I first heard it. I have had something of an on-off relationship with it over the years, but it has never lost its power over me, even in the years when I though it drastically uncool, because I put more store in what others thought than I did in my own ears. I think I’m over that now; let’s find out.
I know that I first heard ELP in a first-year music lesson in late 1974 or early 1975. Way back in the age of enlightenment, spotty first-years had weekly lessons which alternated between trying to get us to figure out if we could get a tune out of anything at all and trying to get us to appreciate music in all of its forms. Well, not all of them; music lessons were supposed to cover everything up until the likes of Stravinsky started frightening the horses. We’d be exposed to some basic theory, told that our teachers liked modern music as well, honest (and have to sit through some traditional folk or modern classical featuring car horns and anvils, or something, to prove it). Sadly, unlike in other parts of the school, the teaching was more well-meaning than enthusiastic, and even the likes of me, who were keen to learn anything about music, were left a little baffled by it all.
Until the day when Mr. McPherson (I’m pretty sure that was his name, but I’m happy to be corrected) put on three records in a row for us to compare. First, Mussorgsky’s original piano version of Pictures at an Exhibition, then Ravel’s orchestrated version, then – “some of you might like this one” – ELP’s version.
I can effortlessly conjure up the feeling which jolted through me on hearing this third one – I can picture the room; even smell it. I was riveted by what I was hearing, utterly spellbound. I’m sure other things happened to me that day, but I don’t remember any of them. All I remember is the clear sensation that I had found my music; whatever the hell Messrs. Emerson, Lake and Palmer had been doing to Mussorgsky, that was the stuff for me. Enough of this pop music nonsense – I could take or leave that, I needed to know more; I needed to own this music.
It took a while – I was eleven and pocket money didn’t stretch to buying albums, even cut-price ones, which it turned out Pictures was. It wasn’t even the first album I bought (we’re coming to that), but it was second or third, and if I look to my right, I can pick out the spine of it in the stack over there – when I returned to the particular pleasure of buying vinyl some years back, it was the first thing I bought for myself.
And Trilogy was the second. While my love for Pictures has never dimmed, it was only my favourite ELP album until I heard this one. All (almost all) the ELP albums have their charms; a couple of them are more widely regarded as classics of their kind than Trilogy, yet I genuinely feel that this is the only unequivocally successful one; the only one where every track works on its own terms, and the only one where all three of them seem to be pulling in the same direction all the way from beginning to end.
Emerson, Lake and Palmer were a supergroup – one of the first – and unlike, say, Cream, where there seemed to be a common purpose, they spent their entire career trying to go in at least two directions at once, and not always managing to reconcile those directions. Trilogy is, I think, the only album where you can’t see the joins between Greg Lake’s earnest love songs and Keith Emerson’s classical adaptations; the only one where the inevitable ‘novelty’ song doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb. Throughout Trilogy, from the open spaces of the beginning of The Endless Enigma to the demented drum patterns of Abbadon’s Bolero, all elements are performing a function in service to the whole.
Side 1 opens with the three parts of The Endless Enigma, setting what might seem a weary, despairing rant at the world as a mini-concerto. Emerson’s spare keyboards in the opening always struck me as ideal mood music for a gritty late night TV show; they seem to conjure up late night neon-splashed cityscapes just after the rain has stopped. From the Beginning, probably the best-known song from this album, is a straightforward ‘love and regret’ song raised to something with proper emotional punch by the development of the music from Lake’s acoustic opening to Emerson’s full keyboard onslaught at the climax. Then there’s The Sherriff, which verges on parody, but works in conjunction with fan favourite Hoedown, an adaptation of Copland’s much-loved original.
The second side features two longer pieces – the title track featuring one of Lake’s most successful lyrics, and Abbadon’s Bolero, with Emerson writing his own riposte to Ravel, sandwiching the startling Living Sin, in which Greg Lake’s remarkable voice drops into his boots and conjures a real air of menace befitting the subject matter.
Look, I know they’re not fashionable, and probably never were, although they were staggeringly popular for a while. Maybe I was at an impressionable age; maybe you can think of a thousand other excuses for why this album lives so vividly in my head fifty years on. Me, I’m just going to go on enjoying it in all its complexity and virtuosity. It’s of its time, to be sure, but what a time it was.
Any other albums by this artist to consider?
None as complete as this in execution, although Brain Salad Surgery and Tarkus both nearly hit the same level. The self-titled debut is pretty good, too, although a lot of the ideas are not yet fully-formed. Later albums, even Works, Vol. 1 which I loved in the teeth of gales of derision at the time, have not survived nearly as well, and a couple of the later ones just didn’t really work at all. When ELP’s moment passed, it really passed.
Compilations to consider?
There’s an imaginatively entitled Best of Emerson, Lake and Palmer of which the second edition is rather more complete than the first. There are others which I’ve never heard – mainly because I’ve heard all the albums, so why would I need to? Not for the last time, I’m going to point out that this is an albums band, and compilations don’t do them justice.
All together, take a deep breath: Welcome Back, my Friends, to the Show That Never Ends. Ladies and Gentlemen… is the essential ELP live album – all the others cower before it. Don’t forget to pick up a copy of Pictures at an Exhibition, though – you’re allowed to skip Nutrocker at the end if you like; it doesn’t quite fit with the rest of it.
There’s a tremendously psychedelic live video of the Pictures show which is worth your time if you liked the album – it’s striking how different it is from the recorded version; ELP shows were somewhat improvisational affairs, and the music evolved as it was played. I’ve seen (I have a copy somewhere) the 2010 High Voltage reunion show, and while it has its moments, Keith Emerson’s playing is not what it was – the issues with his hands which contributed to his suicide are evident, and the show never really takes off, fun though it is to see the three of them together on a stage one last time. There are some books, although I’ve never read Emerson’s autobiography, and I’m still saving up for the forthcoming ELP Book, although the higher-end editions will likely remain outside my budget. What would a book about ELP be, however, without some deluxe-level excess? And there’s something else about Trilogy, too. In recent years, I have heard several of its songs reimagined and reinterpreted – faithfully reproduced by an International Collaboration featuring the remarkable Rachel Flowers, for example (Flowers has covered some of these songs solo as well, and she understands them as well as it’s possible to, I think). However, my favourite cover of these (and one of my favourite cover versions of all) really shouldn’t work at all – the Jad & Den Quintet’s reworking of Trilogy as a late-night jazz standard is truly extraordinary, and ultimately demonstrates what I knew all along – strip away the perceived excess and these are timeless songs.