|Tom Hull's Old Rock Critic Writings|
ELP: Up From Fascism
The snidest critique the upwardly mobile are wont to make of yesteryear's aristocrats derides their "betters" for the lack of imagination with which they dispose of their richness. Nevertheless, the arrivistes still take cues from their predecessors, and hew to the proper standards of taste lest they reveal themselves as unworthy. Emerson Lake & Palmer have always aspired to aristocracy, but more than that they have aspired to geniusship, a bit of arrogance that has always been their undoing: not only have they taken extreme liberties with the conventions of Good Taste, but some of what they have produced has even come across as burlesque.
As it turns out, though, ELP never meant any offense; geniuses do tend to be a little eccentric now and again, but if their hearts are in the right place they will eventually be accorded their due. First, ELP chose to wait three years before releasing their new album: a smart move, not only as penance for their innumerable trespasses, setting up a chronological gap between the earlier -- hence somewhat impetuous -- work and the fully mature oeuvre they would next move on to, but also prove their newfound economic independence, their high status in a society which most highly esteem those least engaged in physical work. For even when Good Taste fails to impress, moolah speaks loud and clear. And now Emerson Lake & Palmer are in a position to be more than snide; they may treat the world lavishly to the fruits of their genius. The high prices -- $13.98 for the new double LP, $11.50 for their M.S.G. shows -- are simply tokens of quality.
Their album is called Works, Volume 1; down to its modest black-on-white triple-gate cover it is an opus of architectural splendor and impeccable taste. It is easily ELP's best album, but more significantly, their greatest. The four sides are divvied up one to an artist, with the fourth featuring "ELP as a group." All feature extensive orchestration -- including the London Philharmonic and the Orchestra de l'Opera de Paris among the credits -- and all feature exquisite engineering and "state of the art" sound.
For the opening side, Keith Emerson has recorded his "Piano Concerto No. 1," with Emerson on Steinway and the London Philharmonic all around him. For a first concerto the piece is technically quite polished, though its sentimentalism and florid coloring seem obvious and atavistic to my ears. Though Emerson's pop reputation will likely make his Serious Work a novelty for some time now, I see no reason why afficionados of the neoclassical style should not embrace this work; not to do so would be sheer prejudice, but then prejudice is the stock in trade of neoclassicists and has been sine the rise of Fascism, a not unrelated phenomenon. [More on this later.]
Greg Lake's side consists of five songs, including a couple interesting departure from his customarily staid ballad style. The main problem here is reliance on Pete Sinfield for lyrics; one would be hard put to think of a lyricist more otiose than Sinfield, and nothing he's written for Works makes any sense at all. Still, the most disjointed of these efforts, "Hallowed Be Thy Name," has a fascinating rhythm track and a mock-theatric veneer that overcome the pathetic lyrics. And the production is always sharp and detailed, providing a technolocial fascination of its own.
While Emerson and Lake represent the extremes of the ELP spectrum, on his own side Carl Palmer proves himself to be ELP's most eclectic yet synthesizing force, far more diverse in his selection of materials yet more systematic in his treatment. Which makes for by far the album's best side. The Prokofieff send-up, "The Enemy God Dances With the Black Spirits," and the rewrite on "Tank" are exemplars of the ELP style, only better disciplined and shorn of the sort of excess (maximalism?) that characteristically mars ELP. "Food for Your Soul" is an exercise in symphonic percussion. The Bach invention is minor relief, always welcome. "L.A. Nights," a lean rave-up featuring Joe Walsh's only inspired performance in recording history, suggests a certain topicality -- a breakthrough, perhaps. And "New Orleans" is sorta funny, further relief.
The ELP side, though, is nothing but drudgery. It starts out with a runthrough of Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man," distinguished primarily by the technical curiosities of the mix, and then lunges into "Pirates," an Emerson/Lake/Sinfield opus that is the album's only unmitigated turkey, and 13:20 at that. Whereas each artist's individual work is marked by patient rigor and precise vision, they return to their time-accustomed sloppiness when they regroup -- or perhaps it comes as a sop. On their individual sides EL&P demonstrated a remarkable talent for self-conceptualization. The approopriate self-conceptualization of the group-as-a-whole, though, is sheer spectacle; its sloppiness seems a deliberate effect here, suggesting both a judgment on the process -- that details are totally engulfed in the whole -- and a judgment on their audience -- that awestruck amounts to dumbstruck. Despicable, perhaps, but both judgments seem accurate, at least as far as ELP's own work and their audience's response are concerned.
Works is an album of craft and cunning; the only serious flaw is ELP themselves. Palmer's technical perfectionism denies chance and precludes discovery -- a talent I both marvel at and am appalled by. Lake's balladeer finds his roots in the decay of folkish culture, while his ahistorical stance and social mobility reduce those roots to sentiment, whimsy, and prejudice. And Emerson's pristine neoclassicism is totally retrogressive, a flight into a dignified culture and an evocative art that have no rightful place in the modern world. Combined, their insistence upon the spectacular opens the door to mass deception. The matching of technical perfection with such reactionary leanings is the classic fundament of fascism; in Emerson Lake & Palmer that match has been raised to the level of an aesthetic. Not that anyone would necessarily follow these inferences into fascism, but best album or not, ELP is neither a good band for the times, nor a good band for our people.
This was retyped from an edited manuscript. A couple of the edits are not clear. The piece was published in the Voice sometime in 1977. The Voice didn't like my title, changing it to "ELP Moves on Up." Even so, it was the most controversial thing I published there: the reference to fascism, which I thought rather technical, was a red flag for flack.
For instance, a reader named Tim Page wrote to the Voice, in a letter published as "Hull Hath No Fury":
Mr. Tom Hull's review of the new Emerson, Lake and Palmer album is the most insanely paranoid bit of drivel that I have read in a long time. His topic is a dull, pedantic group that has long been forgotten by all but a handful of fans. Yet, in a very few paragraphs, Hull transcends these humble roots and his article becomes a miniature manifesto, touching social and political bases I am sure ELP never dreamed about when making this album. Hull (a) implies that ELP are the very worst kind of cultural snobs; (b) tells us that any aspersion to "Good Taste" or "Genius" in modern music is not only wrong, but probably generated by Fascistic tendencies; (c) repeats the age old (and oh, so tiresome!) rant about Western Culture being elitist and repressive, blah, blah, etc.; (d) and in an astonishing feat of arrogance, states "Bigotry is the stock in trade of Neo-Classicists and has been since the rise of Fascism, a not unrelated phenomenon."
On the back of my photocopy of this letter, I wrote:
ELP may be dull or pedantic, but they're hardly uninteresting nor are they trivial. In fact, they have sold well over 10 million records in the last eight years, which would seem to be reason enough for a "minute sociological dissection." The Works album is particularly interesting because it is one of the very few cases of a group sacrificing its painfully attained commerciality in order to enhance its own status. It is also interesting for the way its technical success fails its ultimate goals; Page to the contrary, it really is difficult to imagine classical music devotees -- even fans of the unfortunate neoclassical movement -- coming to embrace ELP.