In 1970, Keith Emerson was looking for his next group as The Nice was beginning to come apart. Greg Lake was likewise looking for something new after his involvement with King Crimson. The two of them joined up with drummer Carl Palmer who had been with The Crazy World of Arthur Brown and more recently with Atomic Rooster. They first performed together in August of that year at the Guildhall in Plymouth, England but it was their show at the Isle of Wight Festival the following week that put them on the map.
Besides the three groups that brought the artists together, each was heavily influenced by eclectic sources. Emerson was strongly influenced by both classical and jazz music, having a fondness for neoclassical modernists and Dave Brubeck, among others. Lake, while principally known as the bassist for ELP, was an outstanding acoustic and electric guitarist as well and he was always heavily influenced by folk and classical acoustic guitar styles. Palmer was largely influenced by jazz drummers like Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich, but his ability to provide classical style percussion was a key factor in his mention among the greatest drummers of all time. Palmer is one of the most technically proficient musicians in rock.
Main Creative Force
Identifying a primary creative force is difficult as many of the band's hits were Lake's folk-inspired compositions. But Keith Emerson really defines what ELP was. He was the most famous of the trio when they formed and he was often the show-stealer not only for his keyboard proficiency but for some of the more spectacular stage stunts he performed. He was a showmen who delighted in the spectacular both musically and visually. He was also a pioneer of making the synthesizer a mainstream stage instrument.
Most Likely To Be A Mainstream Rocker
Both Lake and Palmer were more mainstream musicians while Lake tended to gravitate towards acoustic folk and ballads. Palmer's later appearance as the drummer for Asia made him clearly the most mainstream of the trio.
First Hint of Prog Brilliance
They were whole-hog prog from day 1. Their first eponymous LP featured an arrangement of a piece by Bartok and a piano suite by Emerson. It also featured two brilliant acoustic ballads by Lake: "Take a Pebble" and "Lucky Man" which was one of their first hits. It only got prog-er from there with the second album, Tarkus, turning into a massive concept piece with science fiction themes. The third album was not only a classical piece, it was a live performance of a classical piece with original classical elements thrown in. "Pictures at an Exhibition" demonstrated incredible technical expertise, outrageous showmanship, and amazing creative power all framed in a piano piece by Modest Mussourgsky. Their fourth, Trilogy, included the same type of massively complex concept pieces but also added an arrangement of Aaron Copeland's "Hoedown" that was heavily produced with synthesizer.
The band's fifth album is generally considered the studio pinnacle. 'Brain Salad Surgery' was the title but did not contain the song by that name. It opened with the patriotic Parry and Blake hymn, "Jerusalem" and moved into an arrangement of an Alberto Ginasatera piece called "Toccata." The album concluded with a half-hour three-movement science fiction themed piece called "Karn Evel 9" which became a staple of live shows and included the well-used phrase, "Welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends ..."
Influenced By Them
It's safe to say that many bands that blend classical arrangements with rock have imitated ELP. Some can argue that any band that has made heavy use of synthesizer as a rock stage instrument owes a debt to ELP who was one of the very first artists to tour with synthesizers. In fact, the Moog mainframe used by Emerson in the 70s was never actually intended to be moved at all. The instrument weighed over 500 pounds and was enormously difficult to maintain. It took a dedicated roadie and careful control of electronics and ambient temperature just to keep it in tune. ELP's use of the instrument was a landmark for live performance sound.
Mainstream rock critics viewed Emerson, Lake, and Palmer as everything that was wrong with prog rock. They were considered the height of pretension with their arrangements of classical music and overly complex arrangements. At one point, their touring equipment filled five semi-trailer trucks which, for a three-man band, is rather impressive. Lake used custom built Zemaitas acoustic guitars. Palmer once commissioned a drum set from British Steel with quarter-inch thick walls, custom engraved sides, and magnetic pickups built into the drum heads so that their sounds could be synthetically altered on stage. The drum set weighed over 2.5 tons and actually collapsed the stage in New Haven, Connecticut. Emerson toured with a grand piano that could be raised into the air and flipped end over end with him playing it. The band broke up in 1978 though they have reunited several times for another album or concert series.
My Personal Take
Was ELP pretentious? God, yes! Their sense of self-importance and spectacle was only surpassed by their incredible talent. But the fact remains that in the world of rock and roll, it is very difficult to find more than two or three performers better at their specific instrument than these three. The exception is Lake who might not be the finest bassist or guitarist or vocalist in the world, but who still fulfilled his role within the group better than any other man probably could. I loved, and continue to love, those first five albums as landmarks of virtuosity and the true blend of classical and rock. For good or bad, the band defines progressive rock.