“Bort Brain Salad Surgery – not very good but alright”
Doubtless buoyed by “christmas money” I went out and bought Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s new opus – released a mere month earlier – only to get it home and immediately deem it “not very good, but alright”
Do I sense dissatisfaction setting in with progressive rock gods Keith, Greg & Carl? (I use their first names here to deliberately suggest certain levels of abundant familiarity). “Not very good, but alright“? Wow, talk about fence-sitting.
Let’s take a look at the evidence shall we?….
There’s no doubting “Brain Salad Surgery” was ELP’s most ambitious and flamboyant project to date.
It started with the unsettling album cover, an admittedly fantastic piece of airbrushed work by surreal artist H.R.Giger. It is said that Giger was so flattered Keith Emerson had asked him to design a cover for the band, he painted the piece in just two days – in actual 12″ x 12″ size – including all the incredible detail as well as coming up with the now-distinctive ELP logo.
There was much talk in 1973 of phallic imagery at play with the cover, which, to be honest I never saw then, nor do I see now. Instead all I see is some kind of artistic pre-cursor to a massive selection of sci-fi movies where a human being is taken over by robots, or at least some kind of mechanical device. (Indeed, Giger’s notion was that of a “mechanical woman”)
With excess being the mandatory name of the game for most Prog acts in the 70’s, the sleeve was not a straightforward one. It expensively and expansively folded out, over and over, to present the buyer with a selection of images, the most frightening of which were actually those of the band themselves. Greg Lake apparently trying to pass himself off as some kind of pre-pubescent Donny Osmond.
“Brain Salad Surgery” remains one of my favourite album covers of all time. Not because of all the die-cut nonsense – which, as I found out to my horror, was easy to rip or tear – but for H.R. Giger’s stunning artwork. Indeed, it took me on a multi-decade journey of appreciation for Giger’s output, including (but far from limited to) the set and creature design he did for the “Alien” movie franchise.
As for the music itself, I’ve since come to realise how my initial reticence came about. This album contains both some of ELP’s finest moments… and some of their very worst.
It opens with some of their very worst. Never a good idea.
Track 1 is an adaptation of William Blake ‘s timeless hymn “Jerusalem“. (So bad there’s not even a recording of it to link to on You Tube!) In their infinite lack of wisdom, Manticore Records decided to release this track as the single, only to find it banned by the BBC, who rightly argued it was in ‘poor taste’. I could wax lyrically about just how bad this adaptation is, but probably not without copious levels of family-unfriendly swearing.
Side 1 Track 2 “Toccata” makes up for the weak opener. It is an almost-psychedelic take on Argentinian composer Ginastera ‘s 1st Piano Concerto, with Emerson’s sound effects and Palmer’s electronic drums to the fore throughout. It would prove to be a live favourite, essentially because it automatically lends itself so well to visual excesses on stage.
“Still You Turn Me On” is one of Greg Lake’s trademark sugary-sweet love ballads. However, I’ll admit to having a soft spot for this one, despite the distraction of lyrics such as
Every day a little sadder
A little madder
Someone get me a ladder
“Benny the Bouncer” is another throwaway piece of nonsense that the band habitually littered their albums with. (Think “Jeremy Bender” on Tarkus or “Hoedown” on Trilogy). Once again, no link to an original recording of the song, but there IS this marching band version from 1983! (My wife will like this clip having been in the flag corps for such events)
The rest of the album is filled up with one grand ELP ‘epic’. Or, rather, isn’t. “Karn Evil 9” is a ‘suite’ of three ‘impressions’, the first impression split into two parts, resulting in…. yep, four tracks.. um, all of which appear to have very little to do with one another.
Despite this – and despite the band drafting in maddeningly-dodgy lyricist Pete Sinfield (he of the PFM & King Crimson connection) – this thirty-minute musical montage contains (in my humble opinion) 26 minutes of some of the band’s finest work.
“Karn Evil 9 – 1st Impression, Part I” closes side 1 of the album., but it’s “Karn Evil 9 – 1st Impression, Part II” at the start of Side 2 which most people will recognise. Why?…
The opening lyric, “Welcome Back my Friends to the Show that never Ends….” has become an iconic statement ever since, even reaching the hallowed portals of the White House! (OK, OK…. so Martin Sheen’s President Bartlett character actually muttered it in an episode of TV’s The West Wing). Plus, the ensuing music – perhaps, if you will, the ‘riff’ – has been used over and over again in TV shows, documentaries, commercials and more.
“Karn Evil 9 – 2nd Impression“ is a meandering go-nowhere instrumental featuring drums, bass and piano with Emerson briefly interpolating an old number by influential jazz musician Sonny Rollins. For me it is the thorn in Karn Evil 9‘s side
“Karn Evil 9 – 3rd Impression” finds the band returning to a war theme, something they had done so well on Tarkus a few years previous. With a somewhat hokey “man vs machine” concept (to tie in with the cover art) this cut is over-the-top ELP at their most extravagantly bombastic. The battle runs for over 9 minutes with Emerson’s electronics, Lake’s loud vocals and Palmer’s computerised drums all fighting one another for centre stage, the latter even finding time to include a 70’s/Prog-rock staple; the extended drum solo.
As with most other ‘concept’ albums/pieces I mostly managed to ignore the storyline running rampant through “Karn Evil 9”, preferring to just concentrate on grooving along with the rhythms and soundscapes on offer.
There’s no doubting that this album was the last ELP studio album I had/have any real fondness for. Even in retrospect I can see why my review was mixed. 50% of this album is great, the rest is utter pants.
I suspect too that my musical tastes were already subtly diversifying and – let’s face it boys and girls – there’s only so much ELP one person can take isn’t there? There were, however, still a couple more ELP releases to come that I wouldn’t shun. One was an earwormy single, the other an utterly ludicrous triple live album… both of which, I am sure, will be highlighted in future EFA70sTRO posts.