Sunday, 13 March 2016

On the passing of Keith Emerson...

The first time I heard Brain Salad Surgery was in Great Bookham in Surrey. I was 17 years old and sitting in the living room of my friend Neil Palmer's bungalow on Blackthorne Road. I remember being immediately taken by it (the album, not the bungalow) because it was unusual and far from the norm of music at the time – although I didn't really know a great deal about so-called 'prog rock' at that time. Had I been more clued up I would have realised that Emerson Lake & Palmer were behemoths of the genre.

Brain Salad Surgery is one of two 'ELP' albums I bought and 'internalised'. By that I mean I played it so much that I could recite it note by note in my head whenever I fancied it. I would later brag that I didn't need a Walkman as I had all the music I needed going on in my head. Another album I had already stored on my own internal hard drive was Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells.

The cover art remains intriguing to this day...
What I found slightly odd – in a good way – about Brain Salad Surgery was its contrasting musical styles. It kicks off with a version of Jerusalem, Hubert Parry's amazing hymn, and then moves on to an intense and 'busy' version of Alberto Ginastera's Toccata before reaching the album's 'signature dish', Karn Evil 9 impressions one, two and three – a strange apocalyptic, science fiction tale put to music and ending with some amazing Moog work by Keith Emerson that, if I recall correctly, moves increasingly faster between speakers. This was the time when it was cool to have 'quadrophonic' sound in the house and with that last minute or so of Karn Evil 9 impression three, the Moog work spun around the room and then suddenly stopped – time to take the record off the turntable.

When I mentioned 'contrasting musical styles' I was refering to the other tracks on the album, namely Benny the Bouncer and Still You Turn Me On. I don't know, but these two tracks were mildly annoying as they detracted from the mood and theme of the rest of the album; they were, in my opinion, superfluous in the same way that My Wife, written by John Entwistle, was out of place on Who's Next.

It was a similar story with their second album, Tarkus, the other ELP album I owned (and loved). Tarkus was half World War One tank and half armadillo and while there were officially seven tracks taking up an entire side (of the vinyl LP) they all merged into one solid chunk of music with a similarly apocalyptic theme every bit as complex, if not more so, than Brain Salad Surgery's Karn Evil 9.

Part of Tarkus – I think it was Iconoclast – was so syncopated that a mate of mine and myself would be transformed into jumping beans whenever we encountered it. In fact we loved it so much we always stopped what we were doing whenever we knew it was approaching and enjoy it to the full. But it was all good: Eruption, Stones of Years, Iconoclast, Mass, Manticore, Battlefield and Aquatarkus.

But again there were the 'novelty tracks' on side two: Jeremy Bender and Are You Ready Eddie? The other tracks – Bitches Crystal, The Only Way, Infinite Space and A Time and a Place were all brilliant. On The Only Way, Emerson opens with some amazing keyboard work on St Mark's Church Organ in a haunting song that includes the line, "why did he lose, six million jews?" Stuff like this sticks with you and it stuck with me and always will.

Iconoclast turned my pal Andy and I into jumping beans...
I kind of stopped listening to ELP after those two albums. When they lurched towards The Works and stuff like Fanfare for the Common Man they became more populist and I left them behind for punk rock, although I remember briefly borrowing, from the late Paul Hooper, a live triple album that opened out into three sections, spelling out E.L.P. From that I remember Hoedown for some reason.

Soon, for me and my aforementioned pal Andy, ELP (as they were known) gained cult status. Tarkus became our preferred composition, especially the highly syncopated bit on Iconoclast that turned us into wincing jumping beans.

And then I heard that Keith Emerson had died and that it might have been suicide and another 'era' came to an abrupt end. Yesterday on a drive from South Croydon to Sutton to see my mum, I decided to bring Brain Salad Surgery with me. I skipped the novelty tracks and found myself repeating (at least half a dozen times) the opening track, Jerusalem – powerful stuff – and then Karn Evil 9.

I can't say I wasn't disappointed when Jim Davidson chose Brain Salad Surgery's Karn Evil 9 – or bits of it – for the theme to his Generation Game. That's when you know you're old: when the music you love becomes a Saturday night television staple and no longer that edgy sound you once thought it was.

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