Emerson, Lake & Palmer — alternately known by the acronym ELP — were an English symphonic-rock trio that released three studio albums and a live classical recording on Island (UK) and Cotillion (US) between 1970 and 1972. In 1973, the band established Manticore Records for original releases and albums by like-minded artists. As one of rock’s first super-groups, the trio consisted of three established talents: keyboardist Keith Emerson (The Nice), vocalist/bassist Greg Lake (King Crimson), and drummer Carl Palmer (Crazy World of Arthur Brown/Atomic Rooster).
Members: Keith Emerson (keyboards), Greg Lake (vocals, bass, guitar), Carl Palmer (drums)
Formation and Background
ELP germinated in December 1969 during a soundcheck jam between Nice keyboardist Keith Emerson and King Crimson bassist/vocalist Greg Lake. Both expressed interest in leaving their respective bands, which crossed paths during a double-bill at San Fransisco’s Fillmore West.
The musical chemistry was instantaneous between the two established performers, whose roots traced back to the mid-’60s R&B/beat boom. Emerson got his start as pianist in the revolving R&B combo The T-Bones alongside singer Gary Farr and future-Nice colleague Lee Jackson. In 1966, Emerson did a brief stint in the proto-Spooky Tooth mod band The VIPs. Lake first recorded in the freakbeat one-off The Shame, which evolved into the Shy Limbs for two 1969 pop-psych singles.
In need of a drummer, Emerson and Palmer first sought ex-Experience skinman Mitch Mitchell, who suggested a four-man jam with Jimi Hendrix that never transpired. The pair then turned to Nice manager Tony Stratton-Smith, who suggested Carl Palmer of The Crazy World of Arthur Brown and its recent spinoff Atomic Rooster.
Palmer first recorded with psych-rockers Craig alongside future members of Galliard. His chops were noticed as early as the 1967 single “I Must Be Mad” where his drumming serves as the song’s focal point. After some persuading, Palmer joined Emerson and Lake.
After mauling over possible names — Triumvirat (later chosen by an ELP-influenced German trio), Seahorse, Triton (another ELP-inspired German trio would call themselves Tritonus) — the trio settled on Emerson Lake & Palmer to place equal emphasis on all three performers.
1970–1971: Debut and Tarkus
For their second concert, ELP played before an audience of 60,000 at the Isle of Wight Festival in August 1970. Their performance was on Saturday the 29th, the fourth day of the festival, between the sets of Ten Years After and The Doors. The trio performed their adaptation of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition and ended the suite by firing off two cannons.
Their debut album, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, was released in November 1970 on Island (UK, Europe), Atlantic (Oceania), and Cotillion (North America). Side one features the 12-minute Lake composition “Take a Pebble,” a sonorous piano ballad with lengthy instrumental mid-sections. The piece is bookended by two Emerson adaptations of classical pieces: “The Barbarian” (Béla Bartók) and “Knife-Edge” (Janáček / Bach), both rendered with high-octane organ arrangements. The second side features two instrumentals: “The Three Fates” and “Tank.” The album closes with Lake’s “Lucky Man,” which transforms from a rustic-acoustic ballad to a Moog showcase in just over four minutes. It’s one of the first charting songs to feature the instrument. The album was recorded during the preceding summer at London’s Advision Studios with Lake handling production duties.
In January 1971, ELP were back in Advision laying tracks for their second album. The resulting Tarkus (UK #1, US #9) was released that July on Island/Atlantic/Cotillion. Side one consists of the seven-part title-suite, which intersperses three Emerson toccatas with three Lake-vocal numbers and concludes with a marching-band movement. Side two contains six shorter songs, including the 3/4 frenzy “Bitches Crystal” and the conjoined “The Only Way (Hymn)” / “Infinite Space (Conclusion).” Like it’s predecessor, Tarkus was produced by Lake and engineered by Eddy Offord, who’s honored in the closing boogie-woogie “Are You Ready, Eddy?” The cover presents the titular character as a hybrid armadillo/tank. It was painted by William Neal, formerly of the design firm CCS (Mr. Fantasy, All of Us).
In November 1971, ELP released a concert recording of their adaptation of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. It was recorded the prior March at Newcastle City Hall. The rendition includes four pieces from the composer’s original 10-part suite, linked with band-developed promenades. The Neal-designed gatefold cover features seven blank picture frames, each for paintings that are revealed on the inner-fold.
In April 1972, ELP played the Mar y Sol Pop Festival in Manatí, Puerto Rico. Their set was on the second night of the three-day event, which also featured performances by Billy Joel, Rod Stewart, Alice Cooper, Allman Brothers Band, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Osibisa, Cactus, and Nitzinger.
1972–1973: Trilogy and Brain Salad Surgery
ELP released their third studio album, Trilogy, in July 1972 on Island/Atlantic/Cotillion. Each side opens with a lengthy epic. “The Endless Enigma” (10:30) features two parts, divided by a fugue. “Trilogy” (8:53) changes from an ivory-laden Lake ballad to an Emerson Moog toccata in 5/4. Both sides close with instrumentals: the frenetic Aaron Copeland adaptation “Hoedown” and the marching-band buildup “Abaddon’s Bolero.” Lake’s harmonic, echoey “From the Beginning” was issued as a single (US #39), backed with the dark, lurid “Living Sin.”
That same month, ELP played the Concert 10 Music Festival in Pocono, Penn. Their performance was at 4:00 am on the morning of the 9th. Other acts that played this two-day event include Mother Night, Claire Hamill, Groundhogs, Ramatam, Bull Angus, Faces, and Humble Pie. Amid these activities, Lake produced the self-titled debut album by the progressive hard-rock trio Spontaneous Combustion.
In 1973, ELP established Manticore Records as an outlet for their own recordings and those of like-minded artists. It was named after the fifth movement in their Tarkus suite. In addition to the two following ELP albums, the label issued titles by Stray Dog, PFM, Keith Christmas, Hanson, and Thee Image. The records were distributed by Atlantic.
That summer, ELP laid tracks for their fifth album at Advision and Olympic Studios, London. The resulting Brain Salad Surgery was released in November 1973 on Manticore. The album begins with two adaptations: the 1916 Hubert Parry composition “Jerusalem” (written for the 1804 William Blake poem); and Emerson’s arrangement of “Toccata,” the 4th movement from Alberto Ginastera’s 1961 Piano Concerto No. 1. Lake’s lucid, self-performed “Still… You Turn Me On” claims just under three minutes of side one. The bulk of the album is consumed by the four-part suite Karn Evil 9, divided into three impressions. The album features two co-writes by former King Crimson lyricist Peter Sinfield.
Also in 1973, Lake produced the eponymous debut album by American Manticore signing Stray Dog. He also wrote and added guitar and vocal tracks to the album Still by Peter Sinfield. Meanwhile, Emerson programmed Moog synthesizer on the album Bump ‘N’ Grind by Jackson Heights, the band led by his former Nice colleague Lee Jackson.
The following April 6, ELP played California Jam 1974. During their set, Emerson played a grand piano as it spun 50 feet above ground. Along with Deep Purple, ELP headlined the event over Black Sabbath, Earth, Wind & Fire, and four other acts.
1974–1976: Live Album, Hiatus, Solo Singles
With four albums of studio material under their belt, ELP released the mammoth live set Welcome Back My Friends to the Show That Never Ends – Ladies and Gentlemen in August 1974. It was their second live album but the first comprised primarily of group originals. The recordings are taken from shows that February at the Anaheim Convention Centre in Anaheim, Calif. The original vinyl release contains three LPs with a total running time of 109:41. It features performances of the Tarkus and Karn Evil 9 suites, plus “Jerusalem,” “Hoedown,” “Toccata,” and a medley of the 1971/72 ditties “Jeremy Bender” and “The Sheriff.” “Take a Pebble” is presented in an elongated, two-part rendition with insertions of “Still…You Turn Me On,” “Lucky Man,” and a lengthy piano improvisation that quotes Friedrich Gulda’s “Fugue” and Joe Sullivan’s “Little Rock Getaway.”
In late 1974, ELP went on hiatus for two years. Lake filled this time with the 1975 single “I Believe In Father Christmas,” a holiday ballad that has since become a Yuletide standard. Meanwhile, Emerson flexed his love for classic boogie-woogie on the 1976 single “Honky Tonk Train Blues” (b/w “Barrelhouse Shake-Down”). The a-side was originally recorded in 1927 by American pianist Meade Lux Lewis. Palmer produced the 1976 album Activate by jazz-rockers Back Door. Manitcore folded around this time after changing hands from Atlantic to Motown.
1977–1978: Works 1 and II, Love Beach
In March 1977, ELP returned with the double-album Works Volume 1, released worldwide on Atlantic. It was recorded during the prior winter at De Lane Lea Studios (London), Mountain Studios (Montreux), and Pathé-Marconi EMI Studios (Paris). The first three sides are devoted to the individual band members.
Side one consists of Emerson’s “Piano Concerto No. 1,” an 18-minute three-part suite recorded with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. The second side features five Lake/Sinfield ballads, including the echoey “C’est la Vie,” the lucid “Closer to Believing,” and the burlesque-tinted “Hallowed Be Thy Name.”
Side three contains two Palmer adaptations and three jazz-funk originals, including the talk-box headed “New Orleans” and the brass cooker “L.A. Nights,” which features Joe Walsh on slide guitar. The side ends with a rearrangement of the 1970 chestnut “Tank.” Side four features a nine-minute adaptation of Copeland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.” (A truncated 7″ version of the piece reached #2 on the UK chart that May.) The album closes with the 13-minute group effort “Pirates,” recorded with the Orchestra of the National Opera of Paris.
The sequel to that album, Works Volume 2, appeared in November 1977. This volume is a single album mostly comprised of leftover tracks from sessions for the prior two studio albums. Three songs stem from the 1973 sessions for Brain Salad Surgery, including what would have been that album’s title track. Palmer contributed two songs: the brassy/big band “Close But Not Touching” and the avant-jazz “Bullfrog,” the latter stemming from his involvement with Back Door. The album spawned two singles: the honky-tonk “Tiger In the Spotlight” (backed with the theatrical “So Far to Fall”) and the Lake/Sinfield lullaby “Watching Over You.” Also included is a non-orchestral version of “I Believe in Father Christmas” and both sides of Emerson’s 1976 single.
ELP released the final album of their original formation, Love Beach, in November 1978 on Atlantic. It was recorded somewhat painstakingly the prior summer at Compass Point Studios in Nassau, Bahamas. Side one features five pop-rock Lake originals (including “For You” and “The Gambler”) and an adaptation of “Canario” from the Joaquín Rodrigo concerto Fantasía para un Gentilhombre. Side two consists of Emerson’s 20-minute, four-part suite Memoirs of an Officer and a Gentleman. Sinfield penned all the lyrics for both sides. Emerson, who served as the de facto producer for these sessions, completed the album himself after Lake and Palmer finished their parts and left the island.
In 1979, ELP disbanded. Atlantic rounded out this period of the group’s existence with Emerson, Lake & Palmer in Concert, taken mostly from their show before 78,000 attendees at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium on August 26, 1977.
1980–1984: Solo and Spinoff Projects
During the early 1980s, Emerson recorded a string of soundtracks: Inferno (1980), Nighthawks (1981), Best Revenge (1982), Harmagedon (1983), and Murder Rock (1984). His only proper solo album from this period was the 1981 release Honky on Ariola/Bubble.
In 1981, Lake emerged as a solo artist with the album Greg Lake on Chrysalis. It was recorded with LA studio players and a few select musicians who comprised his backing band. One of them, guitarist Gary Moore, features prominently on Lake’s second solo release Manoeuvres (1983).
Palmer teamed with keyboardist Todd Cochran (aka Bayete: Automatic Man) and guitarist John Nitzinger in the New Wave band PM, which released the album 1:PM on Ariola in 1980. In 1981, Palmer teamed with bassist John Wetton (King Crimson, UK), guitarist Steve Howe (Yes), and keyboardist Geoff Downes (Buggles, Yes) in the supergroup Asia. Their self-titled debut album became one of the biggest sellers of 1982, topping the Billboard chart for nine weeks and spawning two FM radio evergreens: “Heat of the Moment” and “Only Time Will Tell.” After two albums, Wetton left the band in late 1983. That December, his role was deputized by Lake for the MTV-telecast “Asia in Asia” concert at Tokyo’s Budakon.
1986–1988: Emerson, Lake & Powell; 3
In 1985, Emerson and Lake resurrected ELP with drummer Cozy Powell (Jeff Beck Group, Rainbow) in lieu of Palmer, who was still tied to Asia. This grouping yielded one album, Emerson, Lake & Powell, released in mid-1986 on Polydor. Side one features two epic tracks, “The Score” (9:10) and “The Miracle,” bisected by the shorter “Learning to Fly.” Side two contains five songs, including the loungey “Step Aside” and an adaptation of Gustav Holst’s “Mars, the Bringer of War.” The songs “Touch and Go” and “Lay Down Your Guns” were issued as singles. Songwriting was split between Lake (lyrics) and Emerson (music).
In 1988, Emerson assembled another trio configuration, this time with Palmer and American guitarist/singer Robert Berry. Dubbing themselves 3, they released the album To the Power of Three on Geffen that March. It features four songs per side, including Emerson’s three-part “Desde la Vida” and the high-tech Berry rockers “Talkin’ Bout” and “Runaway.”
1991–2010: Reunions, Final Show
Emerson, Lake and Palmer regrouped in 1991 to mark their 20th anniversary. Over the next two years, they staged two world tours and issued the albums Black Moon (1992) and In the Hot Seat (1994) on Victory Music. In July 2010, they regrouped a final time for a 40th anniversary performance at the High Voltage Festival in Victoria Park, London.
Emerson committed suicide in March 2016 at age 71. That December, Lake passed away from cancer at age 69. To honor their memory, Palmer staged the “2017 Emerson, Lake & Palmer Lives On! World Tour” with an assortment of musicians dubbed Carl Palmer’s ELP Legacy.
- Emerson, Lake & Palmer (1970)
- Tarkus (1971)
- Pictures at an Exhibition (1971)
- Trilogy (1972)
- Brain Salad Surgery (1973)
- Welcome Back My Friends To The Show That Never Ends – Ladies And Gentlemen (3LP live, 1974)
- Works Volume 1 (2LP, 1977)
- Works Volume 2 (1977)
- Love Beach (1978)
- Emerson, Lake and Powell (1986 — with drummer Cozy Powell in lieu of Carl Palmer)
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