Monday, 21 June 2010

EMERSON, LAKE and PALMER: Tarkus



(#93: 26 June 1971, 1 week)

Track listing: Tarkus (Eruption; Stones Of Years; Iconoclast; Mass; Manticore; Battlefield; Aquatarkus)/Jeremy Bender/Bitches Crystal/The Only Way (Hymn)/Infinite Space (Conclusion)/A Time And A Place/Are You Ready Eddy?

We are in the presence of something that might be an armadillo, or a tank, born in an erupting volcano, intent on never stopping its march, flattening anything which steps into its path, utterly ruthless. This continues until something called a manticore – a lion/human/scorpion mongrel whose origins lie in ancient Persian mythology – does battle with the beast/machine and triumphs. It’s the only opponent without a machine component. To paraphrase Bob Edmands in Rock File 3, the Moogs, evidently, will not walk the Earth on their own if Emerson, Lake and Palmer have anything to do with it.

Track subtitles aside, however – it would seem indecent to term the seven separate sections of side one as “movements” – “Tarkus,” the piece of music itself, doesn’t seem to have much to do with the story told by William Neal’s paintings which illustrate the album’s gatefold sleeve; instead we are presented with a series of very vague, albeit passionately delivered, musings about ageing and sin (“Stones Of Years”), the pitfalls of organised religion (“Mass”) and how war is good for absolutely nothing (“Battlefield”). In reality Tarkus could stand for anything – the military/industrial mutual dependency complex, the dreaded advance of Technology, man’s inhumanity to man and small, portable machines, bad commercials on TV, Harold Wilson’s Labour Party – and its creators are meticulous about not pinning down any specifics, or naming any names.

This raises immediate suspicion. Although on listening to Tarkus again it was a delight to hear the “Eruption” theme again after so long an interval, and although this writer’s penchant for complex “jazz chords,” mournful Klezmer harmony progressions and awkward musical structures is well documented and unabashed, the point has to be made that complexity of structure can be used to mask or hide the paucity or lack of core beliefs. Taken on its own, “Tarkus,” in both musical and lyrical content, really isn’t that far away from the jigsaw puzzle Marxisms of Henry Cow, but unlike Fred Frith’s crew, there seems to be no real attempt to grasp or grapple with what, if anything, the piece is implying. It begins with a long, slow monotone Moog fade-in which, via Carl Palmer’s phased hissing cymbal, breaks into a vigorous polytempo Hammond workout with some minor Moog counterpoint and the odd gong (not to be confused with the much lighter, but curiously also deeper, Gong). Impetuous gavel bangs on the organ notwithstanding, we could still be in Klook’s Kleek circa 1966, and not much of side one gives any evidence of this being the seventies.

Eventually a thunderclap introduces a slow-tempo Floydian trough with appositely yearning bass; Greg Lake intones sombre and possibly purposely obscurantist lyrics in the received Justin Hayward style (rhyming “wise” with “realise”), somewhere between To Our Children’s Children’s Children and King Crimson’s “Epitaph”; at his stern “Realise your SINS!” Keith Emerson offers grandiose block chords before launching “Iconoclast,” featuring another Jimmy McGriff-style Hammond solo; this latter gradually thickens in texture, although Emerson’s improvising, as throughout the album in general, is relatively conventional. The tempo momentarily doubles before slackening back down to usher in “Mass”; Lake’s voice is distorted and more animated and the band settle into fast, interlocking bitonal modality, like the Peddlers having just discovered Africa/Brass, although the tune itself is a standard post-Abbey Road rocker (complete with Lake’s offhand “He’s dead,” and “spared…yeah”). There is some pointillistic drums and organ dialogue which begins as hiccups before thickening out and reaching a climax, Lake shrieking “WITHOOOUUUUTTT-a-SOUUUUUUND!!!”

Tick tock Palmer ride cymbals take us into a frantic Irish jig before slowing down, with some guitar commentary from Lake and Palmer’s entropy-friendly drums, towards the accusatory “Battlefield.” “They took our freedom!” roars Lake, who actually, and agreeably, sounds pretty close to an angry Lennon here, ranting about “starving CHILDREN!” and howling “Did you STAND beside the spectral TORCH?!” On occasion the delivery and arrangement remind us that Peter Gabriel’s Genesis were approaching their first artistic peak at around this time, offering a not dissimilar message, although next to something like Van der Graaf Generator’s Pawn Hearts it sounds jejune and evasive. Moog-generated air raid sirens remind us that Tarkus is most definitely an Anti-War Statement (although it’s not clear whether Vietnam was in mind here, or simply a buried wish for it to be 1945 again). Lake performs a decent David Gilmour impression on lead guitar before Palmer’s rotating toms signal a multiplication of guitars over sonorous and possibly pompous organs. “Where the victims of your armies lie!” cries Lake as everything reaches polite meltdown; at his numbed “Feel no PAIIINNNNNNNN” the song dissolves into the rims of Palmer’s timpani; some meditative organ (that of St Mark’s Church, no less) turns into a mock-march. Finally Emerson’s Moog takes off into the high distance, and Palmer’s gong bangs a return to thundering Hammond/Moog rock before we reach the inevitable Star Wars fanfare of an ending. What does it all mean? Exactly what you wanted it to mean, and in a year of Troubles, the Angry Brigade and the Industrial Relations Act, I’m not sure that was enough.

The smaller songs of side two fit more snugly into an early seventies musical mindset; if “Tarkus” anticipates Tull’s Thick As A Brick without Ian Anderson’s redeeming sense of his own innate ridiculousness, then here we have the trio stretching out, off the main grind, maybe even having some fun. It should be recalled that ELP was, according to some accounts, almost HELP; Hendrix had expressed an interest in working with the trio, and at the time of his death a jam session had been arranged (although obviously never happened). As it stood, its three members came out of three groups who all made a point about their existence being a Great Statement; King Crimson had Fripp and his already askew theories, the Crazy World of Arthur Brown boasted possibly the most underused and undervalued frontman in British rock history (Brown by 1971 having long fled the World for the more improv-friendly, if also far more heavily metal, climate of Kingdom Come, and the rest of the World, including Palmer, having evolved into Atomic Rooster), the Nice had an organist who basically wanted to be Hendrix (including the bits of humping/steel knives business with the Hammond). By all accounts – and again we have to remember that ELP became big as a live act first and as a recording act second – their shows were ridiculous, bombastic and utterly lovable; in their subsequent work there does appear to be a greater sense of self-deprecation about their adventures. Here, however, there is still a little uncertainty about who and what exactly they want to be. “Jeremy Bender” is the album’s obligatory wacky seventies rock group song about transvetitism; a jaunty affair, complete with Elton John tack piano, cowbells and handclaps which plays like the theme to an especially bad ITV sitcom – the status of Scott Walker’s “Big Louise” remains unchallenged.

“Bitches Crystal” – what a 1971 song title – doesn’t have anything to do with Miles Davis, but rampages along to a degree; Emerson’s Moog raspberry ushers in a bustling 6/8 workout, bass drum and bass guitar locking to the point of shutdown. “Ocean of TEEEEEEAAAAAARRRRS!!” exclaims Lake before Emerson essays a piano solo, coming on like Willie “The Lion” Smith encountering Russ Conway in Barbarella. A Moog/piano unison theme alternates with quiet organ piping before five jackhammer chords give us Lake’s “ritual killings.” There is a synthesised train whistle before Lake’s dread-filled “Ghostly images die” gives way to a Palmer drum stutter, a regretful “Ballad Of Bonnie And Clyde” piano sign-off and a music hall ride cymbal crash.

The linked sequence of “The Only Way” and “Infinite Space” is the side’s central setpiece; back at the St Mark’s Church console, Emerson rattles out some Bach (“Toccata in F”) before progressing to some funereal chords over which Lake, sounding not unlike the Winwood of “Can’t Find My Way Home,” again laments about humanity. Give Lake his due; this is the first album in the tale to mention the Holocaust outright (even though it is the semi-visible elephant in the sitting room of The Sound Of Music): “Can you believe, God makes you breathe?/Why did he lose six million Jews?” asks Lake, plaintively. It’s still something of a shock (if not unprecedented – see Beefheart’s “Dachau Blues” from two years earlier) but I’m not sure whether its opaque outrage is best followed by a spot of Jacques Loussier (Emerson at the piano, doing Bach’s “Prelude VI” with walking bass, and also sounding rather similar to Vince Guaraldi’s music for the Peanuts TV shows, but not as entertaining or inventive). Lake’s morose voice then returns (in multiple) over piano curlicues – “Don’t be afraid! Man is man made!” (well, that’s Stevie Wonder told, for a start). Emerson’s piano develops a cyclical 7/4 riff as Lake urges us to “don’t turn AWAY” and “do it your WAY.” Well, we’ve already had “War Pigs” – why not “War Armadillos”?

The gainsay shuffle of “A Time And A Place” is powered most pleasantly by Emerson’s arching, barking organ but Lake is still in distress – “Drag me from the burning SAND!” he shrieks (that’ll teach you to use Ambre Solaire). Emerson takes off on yet another Hammond solo over a dense rhythmic hustle; a voice/Moog interlude heralds a thundering return; drums roar, the Moog screams, the end. It’s akin to Ian Carr’s Nucleus tackling “Ball Of Confusion” as rewritten by Peter Noone and it’s by far the most successful track on the album, with the possible exception of the closer; “Are You Ready Eddy?” is a homage to Eddie Offord, their studio engineer, and a throwaway “Girl Can’t Help It” derivĂ© which endeavours to prove that despite all the pomp and artifice, and despite their undoubted chops, these guys can still do the basic rock ‘n’ roll whenever they damn well please, even if there’s a touch of contempt for the past in Emerson’s piano solo, which begins with a “Bugle Call Rag” figure before driving straight into bitonality, elbows zipping up and down the keyboard, etc., prior to returning to boogie. Lake’s vocal here is his best Lennon pastiche on the record; one is almost back in Beatle 1963, with the emphasis on the “almost.” Palmer concludes the track and the album with a whine about the limited choice of sandwiches available in Advision Studios (“They’ve only got ‘am or cheese!”), and the combination of ham and cheese just about sums up ELP nicely.

I have been hard on ELP here, not just because, even as they got heavier, they simultaneously became lighter, more interesting and more fun as a group with their subsequent work – sadly, Tarkus is the only chance this tale gets to visit them; it is a particular shame that I don’t get to tackle Brain Salad Surgery (#2 at the beginning of 1974) where Pete Sinfield provides lyrics and the move towards Crimson cheekiness (and the natural counterpart of Larks Tongues In Aspic, etc.) is complete (“The people gasped as he bled – the end of a Ted?”), and even the grumpy, contract-fulfilling AoR of 1978’s Love Beach points a clear way towards Palmer’s, and eventually Lake’s, subsequent exploits in the group Asia – but because I feel that the allegory/analogy of Tarkus, whatever or whoever it was supposed to represent, is a way of hiding from anything resembling “the truth” in 1971 rather than confronting it, and that technical virtuosity is being used as a suit of armour to conceal its creators from the real implications of what they think they are saying about war and death and greed. To put it another way, something like “Brown Sugar,” or the generally defiant lightness of Ram (the chant of “Ohhh, we believe that we can’t be wrong” which climaxes “Back Seat Of My Car,” and the album as a whole, is a subtle barb in the general direction of things such as Tarkus) strikes me as more of a fight back against the forces of 1971 oppression; what if you look at yourself, as a wise Canadian observed that same year, in the mirror, razorblades ready for the wrist, and realise that you’re not up for any of this (“Dress Rehearsal Rag”)? Gazing through the muddied porthole at the obscured world, or smashing the glass and breathing in some oxygen and light? There’s no choice, really, even with the earnest student mathematicians, geologists and engineers who I suspect lapped up ELP’s plate more eagerly than anyone; those foredoomed to think of the world in terms of measurable complexities.

1 comment:

david said...

S'funny, but, while I owned and loved this album aged 14, even the detailed descriptions here fail to call any of it to mind. I do remember one side was much better than the other, and that the show I saw at Liverpool's Top Rank in 72, with Emerson stabbing his organ, was tremendously exciting, but the only bit of ELP that has stuck in my memory is that intro: 'welcome back my friends to the show that never ends', from Brain Salad Surgery. Aged 16, immersed in singer/songwriters, my parents paid for tickets so I could take my 13 year old brother to see the Brain Salad Surgery tour at Liverpool Empire. Spectacular set, as I recall, and 'never ends' was right. Very long show, from a band I by now hated. I went for a drink during the drum solo and when I got back, 20 minutes later, CP was still in full flow.