Music Hath Charms

Keith Emerson died today. Unless you're of a certain age  that won't mean much but he's the guy who laid down the soundtrack to my late adolescence and early adulthood. He was a keyboard player, classically trained,  who played in a band called The Nice who, in the late 60s, blended rock, jazz and classical music into a very British form of progressive rock music. In 1970 he joined with Greg Lake, vocalist, guitar and bass player from the prog rock band King Crimson, and Carl Palmer, a drummer who had played with Atomic Rooster and The Crazy World of Arthur Brown. Together they formed Emerson Lake and Palmer and rose to global fame almost instantly after their performance at the Isle of Wight festival in 1970.

When recording their first album the group came up a song short to fill out both sides of the LP. Greg Lake recorded a song of his own, Lucky Man,  which he had llying around unused. It was a quite mundane little folksy pop song until Keith Emerson added a layer of sound produced on a Moog synthesiser. Although the song became only a modest  hit  worldwide it changed rock music forever because this was the first time synthesisers had found their way into popular music. Apart from the title music to Dr. Who, no one had ever heard anything like this before and certainly no one else was capable of playing it live.

As time went on the music became more and more complex and more and more experimental.  Carl Palmer's drumkit grew til it was probably the biggest ever used by any rock band and Keith Emerson's truckloads of complicated electronic equipment filled the stage at concerts, as the sound grew increasingly vast and convoluted. The band were known for adapting classical music and mixing it with rock and jazz and, unlike many of their contemporaries,  their influences were all European, not American.

Their early popularity waned after a while and it seemed they were becoming increasingly elitist ,  intellectual and, to some people,  pretentious in their approach to  music. It was bands like ELP that the punk movement in the late 70swas rebelling against but in the early 70s they suited me just fine. I bought the early albums: Emerson Lake and Palmer, Tarkus, Pictures at an Exhibition and Trilogy and wore them out. They gave voice to my search for self, but, when I became a Christian in 1973, I stopped listening.

A decade or so ago I listened to them again for a while, but, as a middle aged man rather than a befuddled adolescent,  found their stuff all a bit overblown and self serving, and not as enduring as my other favourite band from the era, Yes. But now today with Keith Emerson's death I have been listening again, and taking a kinder view. The heavy electronic sound seems clichéd to modern ears, but that is because it began a whole genre of music, and it's easy to forget how innovative and pioneering this stuff was back in the day. They had no precedents. They were making it up as they went along, just like I was, and maybe that's why they were so appealing.

And you know how it is with music. I play an old track, and the memories rush back, filling my head with the sounds and sights of those days in my flat in Westminster Street in Christchurch, and also, disconcertingly, the feelings associated with that time of conflict and uncertainty and self discovery. The trouble with the past is that it's not. So today I have been remembering those things which lie in my history and which have, for better or worse,  made me who and what I am right now. So rest in Peace, Keith Emerson. Thanks for  your help in negotiating the shoals of that ambiguous time. Thanks for giving it depth and meaning. Thanks for providing me with the means of recalling it all, just when I needed to.


James said…
The ELP take on Fanfare for the Common Man is peerless.

But to demonstrate Emerson's talent this is what I'd have to go for.