Emerson, Lake and Palmer pine for the days of vinyl and art-led music



By Steve Newton

MONTREAL—The only band I liked in the ’70s that didn’t have a rockin’ electric guitarist was Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Over the years, I’ve wondered what it was that attracted me to the British progressive band’s unique keyboards/bass/drums format and made me happy to slide its Brain Salad Surgery album onto the shelf beside riff-riddled LPs by Blue Oyster Cult, Aerosmith, and Montrose.

I’ve never been able to pinpoint the reason, so when the opportunity came to interview singer/bassist Greg Lake, I asked him what he felt it was that endeared his band to folks weaned on ’70s rock.

“Music,” was Lake’s simple answer. “Original music. You know, in the ’70s, the music was art-led, now it’s market-led. You used to have rock heroes, now you’ve got rock product. And music has lost its identity and its personality with all the crap and pap that’s dished up today.

“But ELP was—and still is—an unusual band. It’s a keyboard-based three-piece band, which is almost unheard of. But when you think about it, why not? Why aren’t there lots of them? It’s a strange thing. And the other thing that’s different about us, of course, is that our music is European-influenced, as opposed to being blues- or black-music-influenced, like most rock music.”

Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s taste for things European would also extend to their album artwork. With its open-from-the-middle layout and bizarre mummy/skeleton artwork by Swiss sci-fi great H.R. Giger, Brain Salad Surgery had to be one of the coolest 12-inch chunks of cardboard these eyes had ever seen. It was worthy of an honoured place atop my dresser, right next to the triple-fold-out copy of Yessongs. Lake himself pines for the days when at the same time as you were buying music, you were also nabbing something to look at.

“I’ve really lost interest in album artwork since CDs have come out,” says the burly, tattooed singer. “You know, that [pointing to my vinyl copy of Brain Salad Surgery] means something, that [the band’s new Black Moon CD] doesn’t. You know, you get the bloody CD and then you open it and it falls apart; then after you get the paper out, you have to be a rocket scientist to put it back together again. So CDs are just a pain to me. I think it’s sad that albums are no longer like that.”

Four years after 1973’s Brain Salad Surgery cover first raised eyebrows, ELP ascended to its peak of popularity, marking that time with a sold-out concert at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium. That performance in front of 80,000 people meant so much to the band, they were determined to make the venue the location for the official launch of their comeback album. According to Lake, Black Moon is the band’s most mature release to date—and that’s not just because they’ve gotten older and wiser.

“The actual material itself is richer musically, lyrically, and, certainly, sonically,” says Lake, “I mean, the album simply sounds better than anything we’ve done before. And we used a producer this time, as well, which enabled me not to have to be creative and judicial at the same time. So we had the benefit of an independent eye. And [Black Moon producer] Mark Mancini really understood the group; he understood the principles of ELP and the way the music worked.”

One of Black Moon’s most intriguing cuts is the Lake-penned “Paper Blood”, which was inspired by a strange combination of sights he witnessed while driving in London one day.

“I was drivin’ along in the car and this limousine pulls up and it’s got a dog in the front—which is bizarre enough, right, but I turn my head and there’s this guy picking food out of a bin. The dog don’t need to be chauffeur-driven, you know, it’s just money, but this guy needs food—it’s like blood. It was just an interesting concept that money is paper blood, you know.”

The image for Black Moon’s title track came to Lake when he was  watching the tube during the Gulf War and saw a report on all the oil  fields being set alight.

“The last thing on earth you could possibly think about burning is a desert, right, and yet there it was, this smoke coverin’ the sun and this black dot in the middle. And it just struck me as one of the absurdities of the world we live in; there’s just something chilling about it.

“And I thought it’s worth writing about, because here you have a  chance to have an international platform. And you can either write  about meaningless trivia—‘you and me tonight, babes, behind the bicycle  shed’—or you can try and write something meaningful. And even if I  write a love song, I try to write it to convey the feeling of love, and not just to be a wander through a romantic hook.”

When ELP brings its tour to the Orpheum Theatre on  September 6, fans of ’70s prog-rock will be in their glory, guitars or no guitars. But they needn’t bother getting all hyped about the prospect of seeing that nifty prop keyboardist Keith Emerson used to demonstrate in the band’s heyday.

“I don’t think we’re gonna do the flyin’ piano,” says Lake. “Everything we do in terms of visual production is always linked to  the music. So you will not be seeing things like Vari-lites, none of that. It’ll be a very dark show, very theatrical—it might be more related to a ballet or an opera. Very musical, very dramatic, and intense. One of the things that ELP is, is intense.”

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