Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Keith Emerson (1944–2016)

I listened to ELP's debut album the weekend before Keith Emerson passed away. It crackles with energy while still being suitably indulgent and show-offy. The schmaltz factor is minimal, all in all. I think it's their best LP. It'd been years since I put it on and damn it if I didn't know that music down to the last paradiddle.

I'm sure "Lucky Man" was the first ELP song I heard on the radio. It's a simple folk song—legend has it that it was the first song Greg Lake ever wrote—crowned (or marred, if you've an affinity for the Rolling Stone Record Guide) by Emerson's Moog solo exploding out of nowhere. A humble tune is suddenly fired into an unearthly realm. That's how the album ends. Zoom, whoosh! What a sound!

My Dave Smith Instruments Mopho comes with a preset called "Fortunate Guy" that replicates that square wave magic. Let's hear a sample:

You don't need a spare room and 50 grand to make that sound, but back then you did. A lot of people were offended by that. The same people were also offended by Emerson's rocking the classics, which started when he was with The Nice. Bernstein, Copeland, Mussorgsky, Holst, and Ginistera all got the Emerson treatment. I'd like to think that he performed that music not because he intended to improve or update it, but because it rocked, plain and simple. Pictures at an Exhibition is at least as doom-laden as any Sabbath album. Why not try it with a rock band?

Everything—the instruments, the technology, the notion of "art rock"—was new when ELP were coming up; it was all a big experiment. Amazingly, stadiums full of people were feeling rather experimental too. Hammonds were stabbed, pianos flew, tympani and gongs were bashed, fancy carpets got rolled out. Critics yawned… I'm not going to argue that all of it was in good taste, but the thing about good taste is, it stops you from enjoying a lot of excellent things. Thanks for taking the music where you did, Keith.

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