The world's most reviled proggers (after Rush) get the deluxe retrospective treatment...
Chris Jones 2007
Like the armour-plated tank/armadillo hybrid that graced their album, Tarkus, ELP for a short period bestrode the earth, destroying all in their wake. To young ears it probably now seems impossible that a three mere mortals could have wielded such power, but this was the early 70s.
They were famously branded by John Peel as a ‘waste of talent and electricity’, and to be fair he was in part correct with the comment’s assumption that the trio did have ability in spades; they just had a tendency to not know when to stop. Emerson’s old band, the Nice, and Lake’s King Crimson had already produced ambitious work that successfully attempted to fuse European classical tradition with electricity. It took the addition of a precocious young Palmer (from Atomic Rooster) to set the seal on their plan for world domination. Cue unforeseen stage spectacle and cutting edge (for the time) technology harnessed to propel 20-minute epics into the minds of a hairy fanbase who loved to marvel at the dexterity of this bunch.
From The Beginning’s five-cds-and-a-dvd generosity is the first attempt since their Return Of The Manticore box to attempt to put the entire story in one place. Careful to include a track by each of the band member’s previous outfits it takes us all the way from the first album in 1970 to their reunion in the early 90s. On the way we get outtakes, live versions and even a whole legendary gig recorded in Puerto Rico in 1972.
Emerson’s B3 work was always a thing of wonder; like Jimmy Smith channelled through Jimi Hendrix (who was even tipped to join the trio at one point). Softening the overkill was Lake’s choirboy-pure voice and delicate way with an acoustic ("Lucky Man"). Lacking in material they turned to classical touchstones to flesh out their stage and studio forays. This work has a gritty edge that manages to imbue Bartok ("The Barbarian") and Janacek ("Knife Edge") with enough heaviness to really impress. Mussorgsky was also plundered for their bombastic live take on Pictures At An Exhibition.
By the second album the egos associated with such talent almost scuppered the chances for the band to record the side-long opus, “Tarkus”. Yet in the end it was a triumph, showcasing the wonders of 32-track technology and becoming a staple in the repertoire. This was the golden age: The wonderfully underrated Trilogy - complete with (dare one say it), Keith Jarrett-like piano work from Emerson ("The Endless Enigma") and their earliest wrangle with Aaron Copland ("Hoedown") - was dashed off only to be topped by 1973’s Brain Salad Surgery with its reunion of Lake and ex-Crimson wordsmith Pete Sinfield on “Karn Evil 9”.
And that’s where it all got a bit silly. Giant proscenia, Persian carpet roadies, spinning grand pianos and stainless steel drum kits tended to overshadow the complex, vaultingly ambitious music. By 1977’s Works the band were hardly speaking, super-annuated and creatively drained. Famously, a US tour with full orchestra proved a step too far and a musical world in love with new wave finally showed the band the door.
Luckily we’re spared too much of the wilderness years here, including the abortive Emerson Lake and (Cozy) Powell (Palmer was in the more lucrative Asia at the time). Instead we jump to the sliimmed-down-yet-still-dazzling reunion years. On top we get the (inadvertently) hilarious 1973 promotional documentary which surely had to have been seen by Rob Reiner at some point (especially Carl Palmer’s complaints about his hotel pillows and Emerson clay pigeon shooting).
Lavishly boxed and with splendidly candid interviews by each member, you somehow forgive them the excesses that sacrificed taste for flash. In the end, From The Beginning contains everything that made them great.