‘Welcome back my friends, to the show that never ends’
How’s that for a killer opening line? Read it again. It’s brilliant. It’s irresistable, pulling you in, promising a life-affirming musical experience and ramps up the anticipation for what can only be one of the greatest rock albums of all time.
Except that it doesn’t open Brain Salad Surgery. It’s not even the start of the song it features in. It’s actually the opening line of the second part of “Karn Evil 9”, a progressive rock statement so over-wrought that it couldn’t be contained on just one side of vinyl, so it has to start three quarters of the way through the first side, leaving that amazing lyrical opener to herald the start of the second side of Brain Salad Surgery. It’s a daft compromise that just doesn’t make sense to me – surely such a killer opening line deserved to open the album, rather than take the consolation prize of the second side. It’s one of the most frustrating lost opportunities in rock music and in a way it embodies the way that Emerson, Lake and Palmer have frustrated me over the years.
ELP are a band I should enjoy a lot more than I do, however Bill Bailey was spot on when he referred to them as the Zippy, Bungle and Geoffrey of Prog. Their musicianship was unarguable and each of the three of them already had an enviable pedigree before the band was even formed, with Keith Emerson having made his name terrorising his side-board sized organ in proto-proggers The Nice, Greg Lake having been the bass player and vocalist on King Crimson’s game-changing debut and Carl Palmer having been the highly-skilled tub-thumper for the Crazy World of Arthur Brown and Atomic Rooster. The trouble is, that for all their talent, they had a complete and total inability to keep their pretentiousness in check, and instead of writing the series of unarguable rock classics that they were evidently more than capable of, they instead decided to try and weld rock and roll with symphonic music.
It’s reputation would suggest that Brain Salad Surgery was ELP’s magnum opus and one of the definitive statements of progressive rock, and it’s certainly goes out of its way to make an arresting statement, with it’s beautiful / sinister HR Giger illustrated artwork and boasting the aforementioned epic “Karn Evil 9”. To me though, it represents everything I find frustrating about ELP.
It opens with a clumsy rendition of “Jerusalem”, which was banned by the BBC, but is a suitably pompous way to open an ELP album. The track exposes Lake’s vocal limitations, as he always seemed more comfortable singing his own acoustic compositions. On “Jerusalem”, his vocals lack any sort of impact, though much of it could be down to the production on the album, whihc ironically was done by none other than Lake himself.
If “Jerusalem” is pompous, then ELP’s pretentions are amplified ten-fold on “Toccatta”, which found Keith Emerson re-arranging Alberto Ginastera’s 1st Piano Concerto, as seemingly little more than an excuse for him to show off his moog and it’s telephone-exchange sized array of wires and plugs. As outrageously talented as Emerson is, it’s hard not to think ‘Alright mate, give it a rest’ after the first couple of minutes, however it manages to drag it’s feet for an agonising further five minutes.
While “Toccatta” is Keith Emerson’s show off piece, then “Still… You Turn Me On”, is Lake’s opportunity to take centre stage. It’s arguably Brain Salad Surgery’s most commercial moment apart from “Karn Evil 9: 1st Impression, Pt. 2” (see, even the titles are overblown!), and it’s not a bad little tune, and is so much better for clocking in at under three minutes.
Brevity wasn’t a guarantee of quality though, because, despite its two minute and eighteen second run time, “Benny the Bouncer” is one of those tunes that will result in you violently smashing your head against the table until it stops. I suppose in some ways, “Benny the Bouncer” could be seen as an unlikely signpost to Sham 69’s more yobbish moments, but no matter which way you slice it, it’s pretty much the nadir of ELP’s career and certainly the low point of Brain Salad Surgery.
While Progressive Rock is littered with examples of side long musical suites, but few swing from the sublime to the ridculous quite as violently as “Karn Evil 9”. “Karn Evil 9: 1st Impression, Pt. 1” is an okay way to start the whole thing and closes what was the 1st side on the original vinyl, but it lacks the impact of “Karn Evil 9: 1st Impression, Pt. 2”, which is effectively ELP’s finest five minutes, but also a frustrating reminder of what they could achieve if they put aside the ambitious pretentions and just concentrated on writing accessible rock tunes. “Karn Evil 9: 2nd Impression” and “Karn Evil 9: 3rd Impression” are yet further examples of the trio’s inability to step back and exercise some quality control. Ultimately, “Karn Evil 9” is an unnecessarily ponderous song that would be far better if they’d just been a bit more ruthless with the editing and consdensed down the whole damn thing to under ten minutes.
Ultimately, even without being considerably more ruthless with the quality control, just by re-jigging the running order, ELP could have improved Brain Salad Surgery. However, if you step back, there’s enough really good moments scattered throughout the album to make a fantastic EP, however this being Emerson, Lake and Palmer, they always had to go several hundred yards too far.
An exercise in musical virtuosity at the expense of actual songs.