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Is there rivaly between progressive rock bands or is the genre like an extended happy family?

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By ProgBlog, Mar 13 2016 10:34PM

Already 2016 seems to have been blighted by more high-profile musician deaths than previous years. I was still reading articles about Sir George Martin’s legacy as late as Friday last week when news began to filter through about Keith Emerson. Is the death of a septuagenarian rock musician especially surprising? As I type this the single rumour that his death might have been suicide has gained more credence and though tragic for family and friends who might think they could have done something to prevent such an horrendous outcome, it comes across to this fan in the UK as shocking; the world of prog has lost a genuine pioneer.

After Yes, The Nice was the next band I became familiar with and though this was in late 1972, two years after their demise, it was before I discovered Emerson, Lake and Palmer. The Page family Nice collection was acquired in roughly reverse chronological order, beginning with either Elegy (1971) or Five Bridges (1970.) Tony was responsible for these purchases and it was only when I was a student in London that I bought my own copies. I remember that Nice (1969) was relatively difficult to come by; we called this album ‘red cover’ to distinguish it from the other releases as well as the group itself even though it had an ‘official’ alternative title, Everything as Nice as Mother Makes It. My copy of The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack (1967) was a 1976 reissue on the Charly label with a Magritte-like cover illustration of a grand piano breaking through ice, credited to P Larue (Patrice Larue?)

I’d class most Nice material as proto-prog but the first two albums, Thoughts and Ars Longa Vita Brevis (1968) are psychedelic, with a link to another early British psychedelic act, Pink Floyd, through guitarist Davy O’List who stood in for an incapacitated Syd Barrett. The short songs are largely throw-away, not as original or as good as the early Floyd efforts, but Rondo, War and Peace and Dawn hinted at the greatness to come. Keith Emerson’s ability to blend jazz, rock and blues with classical music was the basis of the success of the Nice and subsequently, ELP. Whereas Pink Floyd developed space rock and dallied with the avant garde, Emerson took another route: rocking the classics. Equal parts virtuoso and showman, Emerson stood out as the first important keyboard player in rock; having ousted guitarist O’List as unreliable he showed that a keyboard trio was equal to any guitar-based band and influencing a number of other fledgling progressive acts. Bassist Lee Jackson and drummer Brian Davison were solid enough and would later show they were more than capable in Refugee with Patrick Moraz but the Nice was really all about Emerson. The Dylan adaptations were barely recognisable as songs by Bob Dylan, who I didn’t like but She Belongs to Me was a bit of an epic in the hands of Emerson, Jackson and Davison; Country Pie on the other hand was only acceptable because of the inclusion of Bach. The classical excerpts morphed into rock interpretations of lengthier pieces, so that the intermezzo from The Karelia Suite by Jean Sibelius, the tune used for the current affairs TV programme This Week became a staple live number and forms the track of main interest on side one of Ars Longa Vita Brevis, acting as a neat prelude to Emerson’s first recorded orchestral piece, the title track taking up the entirety of side two; there’s a naivety about this composition and it’s not really helped by poor production but I really like it.


If the Nice helped Emerson cut his arranging skills they were perfected early on, with more challenging compositions, in ELP. Their eponymous debut album remains high up in my personal prog top 10 and though I do like Take a Pebble and Lucky Man, it’s for the beautiful, flowing piano and the marvellous Moog respectively. Emerson may have dabbled with the modular Moog while still with the Nice and played the instrument from the beginning with his new trio but it’s on Emerson, Lake & Palmer (1970) where it makes its stunning first recorded appearance. Emerson’s ‘sound’ was defined as much by his synthesizer work as his organ or piano and the use of the ribbon controller allowed him to incorporate showmanship into his Moog playing, in the same way that attacking his L100 with knives and wrestling it to the floor or playing it from behind demonstrated his incredible ability on organ or sitting at a piano that revolved around in the air enhanced the live performances. School friend Keith Palmen was converted into a big ELP fan and it was probably at his house that I first heard Pictures at an Exhibition (1971), a brilliant example of both the excitement that the band could generate live and of the interpretative skills of Emerson.

In 1973 or ’74, when I started to become interested in ELP, I became aware how ELP divided opinion, such that my original vinyl collection included second-hand copies of Tarkus (1971), Pictures, Brain Salad Surgery (1973) and Works Volume 1 (1977) as disgruntled friends decided they’d outgrown the bombast and turned to either punk or smooth jazz. It could not be disputed that the 1974 tour promoting Brain Salad was something of a monster because it was turned into a road documentary and a triple live album. The version of Aquatarkus on Welcome Back My Friends to the Show That Never Ends (1974) remains one of my favourite ELP tracks; the solid rhythm of Palmer and Lake allows Emerson to really shine on organ and Moog, reminiscent of the backing provided by Jackson and Davison in the Nice.

The subsequent studio hiatus signalled the beginning of the end for ELP; while they toured and rested punk was hoiking over music fans. ELP came back strongly with a pretty good effort but the decision to allow one side of the double LP Works Volume 1 to each of the members and only one side of real group collaboration may, on reflection, have been the wrong approach. Emerson’s Piano Concerto No.1 is very enjoyable, building on his previous orchestrated pieces with the Nice and reflecting his admiration for Aaron Copeland but the ELP side has an updated sound, coming from the Yamaha GX1. Emerson is reported to have been quite smitten with this keyboard, eschewing Moog and organ on side 4 in favour of the new piece of technology. I find the sound thin, like so many late 70s and early 80s synthesizers, and would have preferred it if he’d stuck to his analogue instruments.

Having been unaware of the Royal Albert Hall gig in October 1992 that resulted in the excellent Live at the Royal Albert Hall (1993) I thought that I’d never get to see them play live. I’d managed to get to see the reformed Nice during a period of ELP disbandment in 2003 at Croydon’s Fairfield Halls, the venue for the recording of much of Five Bridges where the band were augmented by guitarist Dave Kilminster. Though at times the sound was quite poor and there were problems with Emerson’s Moog, it was a fantastic occasion, with the performance divided into a Nice portion and an ELP portion where Jackson and Davison stepping back to allow two other musicians to take over on bass and drums.

I finally got to see ELP at the High Voltage festival in 2010, the 40th anniversary of the debut album and though I’d have preferred a more intimate venue than London’s Victoria Park, it was an occasion not to be missed. The music was incredible and the atmosphere was rather special at this huge event. This would be the last time that the three would play together.



Jim and I went to see the Keith Emerson Band with the BBC Concert Orchestra at the Barbican last year, the highlight of which was an orchestrated Tarkus, but it was good to see Emerson taking the conductor’s baton for the encore Glorieta Pass. I believe this was Emerson’s last ever concert performance and though he seemed to relish his raconteur role as much as his musical contribution, he did appear somewhat unsteady. If it’s true that there were no more live concert appearances, I feel quite privileged that I attended two significant events, even though I missed out on classic ELP back in 1974 and only discovered the Nice two years after they’d broken up.



Emerson was an inspiration to keyboard players. He will be sadly missed.


Keith Emerson b. 2nd November 1944 d. 10th March 2016



By ProgBlog, Feb 15 2015 10:58PM

1975 might seem like the middle of the golden age of progressive rock but there weren’t too many releases by the major players. Music inspired by the Snow Goose was about to put Camel firmly on the prog map but they had come fairly late to the party. Wish You Were Here was a key release marking a high point in the Floyd canon, coming after what seemed like a prolonged hiatus and the last overtly progressive album they would do for a very long time. Though brilliant, Hatfield and the North’s The Rotters’ Club was an album that fell outside of mainstream prog but that for me was the best of the Canterbury offerings. Steve Hillage released the good but not essential Fish Rising, helped by fellow Gong members and Hatfield’s Dave Stewart, a friend and former early band mate and Caravan released what could really be described as the last decent album of their golden years, Cunning Stunts.

Gentle Giant switched record label to Chrysalis and put out the accessible and rocky Free Hand. I heard the title track on Alan Freeman’s Saturday radio show around the time of its release and it remains one of my favourite Gentle Giant tracks; a reformed Van der Graaf Generator emerged with the excellent Godbluff and covered familiar foreboding VdGG territory in a more measured, controlled way; Jethro Tull regaled us with the under-rated Minstrel in the Gallery; Rick Wakeman followed up the massive success of Journey to the Centre of the Earth with The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table; and Steve Hackett filled the vacuum in Genesis output following the departure of Peter Gabriel by embarking on his first solo album, Voyage of the Acolyte, which covered much of the ground that had been inhabited by Genesis.

1975 was the year of the Yes sabbatical with band members concentrating on solo album material. Steve Howe’s Beginnings and Chris Squire’s Fish out of Water were released within a couple of weeks of each other in the autumn and Olias of Sunhillow, Story of I and Ramshackled followed in 1976. The extended break between group albums mimicked the lay-off between Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here; WYWH and Animals; and Brain Salad Surgery and Works Volume 1 and could be regarded as a period to recharge creative batteries. The closest the solo material came to resemble Yes music, certainly from a structural point of view, was probably Fish out of Water though Anderson’s Olias was possibly more spiritually in tune with Yes music and my personal favourite of the bunch. I wasn’t sure about the recreation of Roger Dean’s Fragile spaceship by Dave Roe despite recognising his artwork from Anne McCaffrey Dragonflight books which were essential reading for a 15 year-old but, in general the gatefold album sleeve worked and felt very satisfactory as a book with Anderson’s planetary eco-disaster storytelling. Many Yes fans were disappointed with the mixed bag from Alan White because it wasn’t prog and I regard Beginnings as an album for purists because, although it is thoroughly Steve Howe, it’s again too much of a varied stylistic blend.

Patrick Moraz’s Story of I was written during 1975 then recorded (at Jean Ristori’s Aquarius studio in Geneva) and released in 1976. Ristori was a former band mate of Moraz in Mainhorse, who played a largely blues-inflected proto prog and released one self-titled album in 1971. Mainhorse features a hefty dose of psychedelia and it's relatively heavy, with a lot of Hendrix- or Cream-like guitar. The songs are well-crafted but uncomplicated and the lyrics relatively throwaway and meaningless, though Peter Lockett sings quite well. The instrumental breaks remind me of Pete Banks-era Yes and there are some sections that remind me of Dutch band Supersister. There are jazzy breaks, Lockett plays some violin and Jean Ristori plays some cello but it's the organ work of Moraz that pushes the album in a prog direction, peppered with baroque references. There's even a great swinging electric piano extemporisation around a Bach theme on More Tea Vicar. Moraz’s writing style had matured by the time of Refugee and though their only studio album Refugee (1974) is primarily a vehicle for Moraz, the playing of Lee Jackson and Brian Davison brilliantly complements Moraz’s compositions which are top-notch symphonic prog, miles away from Mainhorse. Story of I references Refugee and Relayer; the pitch-bended fast moog runs are classic Moraz and the dense, complex sound has been taken from his time with Yes but I don’t know how much I like the album. I never owned the album on vinyl and didn’t get a copy until February 2012. Alan Freeman played Like a Child in Disguise when the record first came out and I was bitterly disappointed. I’d not heard of Mainhorse at that time and didn’t realise that Moraz had been asked to join Lee Jackson’s pre-Refugee band Jackson Heights, I’d only heard Refugee and Relayer and Freeman’s featured track was nowhere near as good as either of those. The lyrics (by John McBurnie, a multi-instrumentalist and songwriter from Jackson Heights) seemed a bit trite and though I’d been versed in the concept of the album, it was difficult to trace the story through either the music or the lyrics. The concept was rather adventurous bearing in mind that science fiction was only just becoming mainstream in 1976; the jungle setting and the architecture of the ‘hotel’ call to mind JG Ballard and there’s even a dystopian aspect to the setting because the trials of the guests are prime-time TV viewing for the rest of the world. This voyeurism may have been inspired by the 1975 film Death Race 2000 and, like Death Race, there’s a positive ending. The ascent/escape of the two main protagonists (Symphony in the Space) is the only part of the story that fits in with the music and it appears to have been influenced by Moraz’s time with Yes. Much of the music could actually be classed as ‘world music’, such is the strength and feel of the Latin rhythms; perhaps that’s what makes me unsure about the album. The playing is exceptional and the range of styles, from classical to jazz to rock to Latin, is part of the make-up of progressive music but, in fitting with the concept, the Brazilian rhythms are overwhelming. Without other creative input or just someone suggesting that some of the ideas don’t quite work, Story of I comes across as a single-minded tour de force and coupled with the rather humdrum nature of the lyrics (when Moraz worked so well with Lee Jackson), this isn’t exactly my cup of tea; it’s not strictly prog.



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