“Tarkus” can’t really be described as my favourite ELP album, but its certainly the one I know the most intimately.
Side One features the 7-part concept Tarkus suite, mostly composed by Keith Emerson, that is supposed to tell the tale of the peculiar half-armadillo/half-tank represented on the cover.
Emerson has apparently stated in his autobiography “Pictures of an Exhibitionist” (something I might read one day, for old times sake) that he pretty much presented the ambitious Tarkus suite in its entirety to the other two band members, L & P, as a ‘done deal’. Greg Lake is reported to have initially said he was unhappy with it… before happily adding lyrics to the composition which were, apparently, about “the military-industrial complex” and “the futility of war”
All lost on a 15-year-old it has to be said. It just sounded bloomin’ good to me!
The album sleeve opened up to show the weird artwork above, something I would not fully appreciate until I (presumably) upgraded my little cassette copy for the vinyl album with all its gatefold glory. It too, allegedly, tells the story. *cough*
Whilst Side 1 is perhaps testament to everything that was appealing to me about ELP, Side Two is much more of a curates egg containing more than its fair share of fillers.
I can’t help thinking that with “Jeremy Bender“, the band were taking the proverbial wee-wee. Jeremy Bender was (according to the lyrics) “a man of leisure” who “took his pleasure in the evening sun“. Furthermore he “laid him down in a bed of roses, finally decided to become a nun“. The story continues with the titular Mr Bender apparently having an affair with a trans-gender convent sister before leaving with his suitcase.
As I have often stated, maybe these things would sound better if the listener could ingest the same kinds of drugs the musicians were on when they recorded them?
“Bitches Crystal” brings us back to the bombastic offerings of Side 1, and has always remained been one of my favourite ELP cuts. I love how the drums and bass come in after the weird tinkly keyboard intro. Here’s a YouTube offering of it from some ‘reunion’ show the trio did in 1997…
It’s almost free form jazz. (Maybe why it has remained one of my faves?)
“The Only Way” is another dreary Emerson tribute to Bach (yawn), whilst “Infinite Space” courts crappy-synth territory a little too closely for its own good. “A Time and a Place” is leaden and ploddy, suggesting Keith had been on the wine the night before.
The final cut is fun, but serves less as a classic ELP cut and more as a tribute to or in-joke about their (doubtless beleaguered) studio engineer Eddie Offord. “Are You Ready Eddie?” is rampant with pub-style piano and throwaway lyrics ending with “we only got ‘am or cheese” in reference to the limited sandwich choices at the studio canteen!
Rumour has it that “Tarkus” was originally going to be released as an E.P. featuring just the cuts from side one. It will always be easy in retrospect to say that it might have served the band better. However, ELP’s pretentious excesses both on and off the road were already becoming well known so why not stretch an idea too far?
Talking of pretentious excesses, people bemoan and criticise the current ‘diva syndrome’ of artists like Mariah Carey or Celine Dion and their outrageous changing room requests, etc. Let it be known that this kind of thing has been going on for decades. Back in the seventies, Greg Lake – ELP’s coiffeured bassist and vocalist – refused to do any live shows unless he could perform standing on an antique Persian rug worth thousands of dollars.
This recent photo would seem to suggest that – even though his star has very much faded – he is still in the habit of using the rug. I wonder if he now does it as “an ironic statement”?