Liner Notes from the DVD-A of Brain Salad Surgery - written by Jerry McCulley
"Rock critics and rock musicians think of Emerson, Lake & Palmer as pompous and pretentious," a gleeful Carl Palmer, drummer extraordinaire, explains. "Which we are! We're not a straightforward rock band - we are a saber-rattling band!" So much for regrets.
If you're looking for safe, critic-approved, politically correct pop music enlightenment, boy did you get the wrong catalog number. (1971-77) Emerson, Lake & Palmer - ELP to you - were perennial contenders for Most Critically Reviled Rock Band on the Planet. But in 1973 and '74, only The Rolling Stones, The Who, and Led Zeppelin were bigger concert draws - and none of them were playing Copland, Mussorgsky, Ginastera, or Brubeck. Or anything remotely resembling ELP's own complex, manic - and yes - bombastic, largely Hammond- and Moog-driven compositions, for that matter.
The fourth studio album by the union of keyboard prodigy/The Nice alumnus/world-class showman Keith Emerson, seraphim-voiced King Crimson refugee Greg Lake, and Crazy World of Arthur Brown/Atomic Rooster survivor Carl Palmer, the Buddy Rich of Birmingham (UK), Brain Salad Surgery is arguably the band's finest album, and one of the much misunderstood prog rock era's defining works. The title came courtesy of flamboyant former Atlantic Records promo man cum ELP road manager/Manticore Records president Mario Medious (a black martial arts enthusiast whose Manticore memo pads were inscribed "HNIC" - "Head Nigger in Charge"!) Medious had nicked the title from a slang lyric in Dr. John's 1973 hit "Right Place Wrong Time" to replace the album's quaint working moniker, Whip Some Skull On Yer (if further explanation is required, check your Webster's under "fellatio").
Building on the momentum of their eponymous debut in the UK (September 1970), Tarkus (June 1971), Pictures at an Exhibition (November, 1971, originally UK only), Trilogy (August 1972), and the band's seemingly relentless cycle of rehearsal and touring, BSS represents the most crystalline example of ELP's tensile amalgam of jazz, classical, folk, and rock influences and, notes Greg Lake frankly, perhaps the band's most satisfying period of collaboration. "The days in which Brain Salad Surgery was made were what I would term 'the healthy days' of ELP. As opposed to when everything became fragmented, compartmentalized, and ego-driven."
"A lot of the good stuff on Brain Salad Surgery happened at a point when our creativity was at its very best," concurs Carl Palmer. "We've never really topped that era."
Though barely two years old, ELP was already filling arenas in America and stadiums in the UK and Europe. By the end of 1972, the band's success had enabled Emerson, Lake & Palmer to negotiate their own label imprint, Manticore Records, and turn an abandoned Odeon cinema in Fulham, London, into a multilevel rehearsal and production facility, Manticore Studios. "After Trilogy we toured extensively," notes Lake, "and I think we undertook a search for ideas. Rather than the way that the first albums had been made, which was very much a question of each person sitting in their own room thinking of ideas in solitude, I think Brain Salad Surgery represented creating an album out of a collective inspiration. That was the motivation behind buying this cinema to rehearse in, to try and do something with more of a live, rather than preconceived, feel."
But, admits Keith Emerson, there were practical concerns as well: "We'd been looking for ages for someplace to rehearse. We were playing in little church halls and had the local neighbors complaining that it was too loud. One guy even complained that when he sat in the bath, we were causing the water to produce waves." He sent 'round a local copper and a petition and that was it, we were out of that place. It got impossible; we played in the back of a restaurant where mice were running around chewing the cables."
The converted theatre quickly became the focal point of ELP's writing and rehearsing of the new material, as well as preparing its ever expanding stage show. "I recall that [BSS] was rehearsed upstairs in the foyer, as it were," Carl Palmer remembers. "The downstairs area was used for bands [Led Zeppelin and Jethro Tull among them] to go through production rehearsals; we rented that part of it out. We stored our own equipment downstairs, and then we had our workshop and rehearsal facilities upstairs. In the back of the balcony area, where the concession stand would be, is where we rehearsed."
Peter Sinfield, a compatriot of Greg Lake from his King Crimson days, was soon brought under Manticore's wing to both complete the solo album he'd started and add his unique articulation to the lyrics for the new album. By early 1973, ELP had worked up the complex arrangements of "Karn Evil 9:1st Impression" and "Toccata" sufficiently enough to try them out before live audiences on the five-week European tour they were preparing to embark on at the end of March. Most of the album was recorded at Advision studios in August and September, produced by Greg Lake, with Geoff Young and Chris Kimsey handling the engineering. "Nothing came quickly," recalls Lake of the album's intensive rehearsals and sessions. "It really was laborious, most of it. It was very much like building a house one brick at a time. And sometimes you'd put up a wall and take the whole bloody thing down again. It was a laborious and complicated process. And it was complicated because we were searching, that's the truth of it."
But, recalls Greg Lake with amusement, the band weren't the only ones doing the searching. "I remember being in that converted cinema one night when the customs and excise people came rushing in and proceeded to tell us that we were under arrest - for drug smuggling! We thought it was one of those strip-o-gram, practical joke kind of things. They said, 'We know there's been drugs smuggled in your equipment,' and we told them, 'You must be out of your minds, we don't even do drugs.' We lied a bit! They said, 'We've got two of your people locked up in prison, and we're here to search the equipment.' We told them to search all they wanted. The bottom line was that a couple of guys who organized the transportation of our gear had actually been drug smugglers! They had built secret compartments into our road boxes and were smuggling cocaine. And there we were in this bloody theatre with all these customs police around us. Frightening!"
No charges were brought against the band, and the incident still remains something of a troubling mystery in Lake's mind: "The authorities never told us the exact outcome of their investigation. I believe one roadie ended up in prison, and the other essentially vanished I'd heard the police believed he'd had plastic surgery and fled to South America. We never really got the whole story."
Brain Salad Surgery opens with ELP's take on "Jerusalem," "which is basically a hymn that everybody sang in school and is played at the end of every Royal Albert Hall Promenade concert in England," notes Keith Emerson. With suitably Anglo-centric, Christian-mythic lyrics by poet William Blake, it had long since become a revered British anthem second only to "God Save The King." ELP's arrangement was both stately and restrained, but such was the institutional reverence for the hoary hymn that "Jerusualem" was nonetheless rejected as a single release - largely, the band claims, due to conservative and hypersensitive grumblings from the BBC.
"I actually first attempted to do a version of 'Jerusalem' with The Nice", recalls Emerson, "but the rhythmic element never came together satisfactorily. Both Greg and I wee very fond of the song." Or at least most of it, opines Greg Lake: "The lyrics are very bland except for one line, 'Bring me my bow of burning gold/Bring me my arrows of desire.' The rest of the song was all waffle. But when it came to that line, it was a moment that you had to sing the song for."
Notably, the track features the debut of the prototype Moog Apollo, the first-ever polyphonic synthesizer. "I don't like putting myself across as 'Yeah, I was the first to do this!'" Keith Emerson insists. "I was just pleased to have a close working relationship with [synthesizer pioneer] Bob Moog, who recognized me as the first musician brave enough to take his beasts on the road."
"Toccata," Keith Emerson's ferocious adaptation of the fourth movement of modern Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera's 1st Piano Concerto, 4th Movement (with a "percussion movement" credited to Carl Palmer) represents on of the band's finest efforts at classical/rock synthesis. "I originally head the Ginastera piece when I was with my former band, The Nice," Emerson recalls. " We were playing in Los Angeles, doing one of these television spectaculars with a big orchestra, and while I was down in the dressing room, I heard these incredible sounds."
"I ran upstairs and a pianist was hammering away at the piano; I grabbed him afterwards and said, "what the hell was that you were playing?! It turned out to be the Ginastera piano concerto. When I heard Ginastera, I understood where some of Leonard Bernstein's music had come from, it evoked all of West Side Story.
"When I got back to England, I bought the music and went through it. It was a part of my music appreciation; I guess it's provided inspiration for other works I've written." Indeed, Emerson had enthused about the concerto and his hopes to record it in interviews as early as 1971. "But I didn't really think seriously about playing it with the band until Carl said that he wanted to have a drum solo which would be a little different than just putting it on to the end of another number. I rang him on the phone and played it for him, and he said, 'That's amazing!' We had a group rehearsal and I played it for both of them on the organ, and that was the start of it."
"We'd pushed it to the limit," Keith says of the band's adventurous musical stance in early 1973, "and I thought the fourth [studio] album was the time to try and approach this piece of music. It was very testing for all of us. Greg didn't read music, and Carl read it to a certain extent, but he wasn't able to apply piano music to paying drums. So it was really like going through the whole thing bar by bar. It was music by mathematics for them. Carl learned it really by counting, and if you watch any videos of ELP playing 'Toccata', you'll see his lips move as he's counting: '1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8!'" Though "Toccata" had received onstage workout on the European tour, it didn't receive Carl Palmer's crowning flourish until being recorded at Advision in September.
"'Toccata' was the first recording where we used electronic drums," Carl Palmer recalls. "Drum synthesizers didn't exist then, so we hired a guy named Nick Rose from the University of Electronics in London. He came up with an idea that would enable me to trigger electronic sounds from a normal drum by placing another microphone inside the drum, apart from the mike which picked up the acoustic signal. In doing that it would trigger a small synthesizer the size of a cigar box. There were eight little 'cigar box' synthesizers which were preprogrammed; you couldn't really change the sound of them, except with an octave divider switch which I had on the floor. I could punch it in to change the sound.
"In the middle of 'Toccata' there's a section with all these 'atmospheric' sounds. Everybody would automatically think it was the keyboard, and even to this day a lot of people aren't aware it was drums. But it was totally unreliable, you couldn't really move it from one end of the room to the other without it going wrong, so it was really hell to tour with."
Greg Lake recalls "Toccata" as a good example of the dilemma he often faced in his dual role as both band member and ELP's producer: "It was a piece of music conceived to be performed by an orchestra. When you reduce it down to three people, you've got a problem. You can imagine: you've got a percussive element, a melodic element, and a harmonic element. Who carries what to the best advantage? That's the real issue. I know from producing all the early ELP records that that is the essence of any interpretation by a small number of people of a piece written for a larger number of people. Then comes the question of overdubs: you can track and track until you've got a hundred-piece orchestra, but then you come to the question: 'How do we do it live?' So you think, if we're going to make this record, maybe we'd better make it so that we can record it live. You come down to trying to work out an arrangement in which three people can perform a symphony, or a classical piece of music, live. That's the arrangement you end up with."
But "Toccata" was fraught with more than mere musical complexity. "It suddenly came to our consideration," says Emerson, "do we have the rights to put this music on our new album? I called up Ginastera's publishers, and their initial reaction was 'Sorry, Ginastera will not allow any adaptation of his music. If you care to call him, here's his number.' I phoned him in Geneva and his wife, Aurora, said, 'You must come to Geneva - tomorrow,' so I rang up my manager and said, 'We're off to Geneva tomorrow!' We flew to Geneva, then drove up to his apartment block. The maid let us in, and we walked through a lavish hall setting and into the living room. There, standing at attention and dressed in a suit, almost like a bank manager, was Alberto Ginastera, ready to receive us. I was very nervous meeting the guy. Here's an international composer, very well respected and her is, in his eye, a rock 'n' roll band playing his music.
"We desperately needed to get 'Toccata' on Brain Salad Surgery If we didn't the release date would have had to have been pushed back, and we'd have had to come up with another idea. It really all hung on the permission of Ginastera and his publishers.
"I discussed with him what I'd done, then held my breath and let him listen to it. He played it on a tape recorder, and after the first five or six bars, he switched the tape recorder off and looked across at his wife in sort of disbelief and said, 'Diabolic!' I thought he meant it was diabolical - that it was bad! Because he'd been playing the tape recorder in mono, and we had a stereo tape, I jumped up and switched the deck to stereo. But he wasn't concentrating on that, he was completely bewildered by the music. He wound it back to the beginning and played it again. At the end, he said, "That's incredible! You've captured the essence of my music, and nobody's ever done that before.' I didn't know what to say; I could've fallen through the floor. At that moment nothing else mattered to me. The other criticisms of the band meant absolutely nothing."
But Ginastera's permission to release "Toccata" wasn't the only fortuitous element Brain Salad Surgery gleaned from Switzerland that year. Prior to recording the album, ELP had played Zurich in mid-April, and a Swiss business associate of the band eagerly introduced Keith Emerson to a popular local artist, H.R. Giger.
"He was an extraordinary, fascinating person." Keith Emerson says of meeting the airbrush surrealist and master of the macabre. "But he lived his life on another level. He was obsessed with surgical procedures, skin diseases, unborn fetuses. I went back to the hotel and said to Greg and Carl, 'You've got to come meet this guy, he's weird!' They were a little reluctant to do so, as anything apart from music, such as art direction, they wanted to have some control over. Amazingly, they came."
"As I recall," a still bemused Carl Palmer recalls, "Giger had an electric chair in the hall and a couple of arms hanging on the wall which were joined together at the elbow with a syringe coming out of it. You have to understand that Giger really wasn't known then, Alien wasn't out. He was known in Zurich and the depths of the art world, but he wasn't a household name outside of Switzerland. He wasn't very talkative, but he was keen on the group's music. The meeting was very brief, we were in and out in an hour and a half. And the first thing he produced is what you see on the cover."
"Giger's wife was the model for the inside cover," Keith Emerson says of the woman who committed suicide not long after. "Her lips keep reappearing in his artwork, even after her death."
"The mid-'70s were full of attempts to shock the public," Emerson says of the band's choice of artist. "You'd do it on the stage, in artwork, and do it in your music; try to push the limits. We chose this artwork because it pushed album cover art to its extreme." But the band soon found they'd gotten more extremity than they'd bargained for; Giger's original ghostly woman cover image featured one of the artist's recurring motifs situated just beneath her chin - an erect penis.
"We presented the whole 'Full Monty' to our record company in England," a chuckling Keith Emerson recalls, "and they came back and said we can't print that because its pornographic. We had to get back to Giger and say, 'Thank you for agreeing to supply us the art work, but we're going to have to get rid of that penis!' The conversation was quite funny" 'I'm not going to get rid of the penis! The penis is part of the picture!' He finally relented and we had a very adept artist turn the penis into a shaft of glowing light!"
On ELP's tour that spring, Greg Lake had been trying out a pair of new acoustic ballads, "You Can Sing My Song" and "Still You Turn Me On." The latter was recorded at Advision in September, becoming the latest example of ELP's successful formula for relieving the otherwise manic dynamics of its albums ("Lucky Man" on their debut, "From The Beginning" on Trilogy). Lake says almost dismissively, "It used to be a thing where as a balance to the record I would write an acoustic song." Ironically, Lake's ballads, the least typical aspect of ELP's music, often garnered the band their greatest airplay and widest public exposure.
"We've had success through Greg's ballads," notes Carl Palmer. "Without those we probably wouldn't have sold the amount of records that we have. The problem was when we had something which was a commercial hit, it wasn't dark. We had love songs that were hits, so it was a rather diverse situation; people were always waiting for the next 'C'est La Vie', 'Lucky Man' "Still Your Turn Me On," or "From the Beginning.'"
"Still You Turn Me On" was an obvious single choice, but the band nixed its release, both because Palmer didn't play on the track and because the band felt it didn't fairly represent the album or the band's general direction. Manticore nonetheless pressed up single copies of "Still " for radio stations to distribute free of charge to fans.
"Benny The Bouncer" a good-natured honky-tonker also featuring the new Moog Apollo, represented yet another aspect of ELP's album formula. "You know what happens," says Lake, "you make your first album, and you look at the tracks from your first album that were a success, and you say maybe we should adhere to a formula that was successful. There's no disgrace in repeating the formula, providing the quality and artistry of it are sound. 'Benny The Bouncer' was done in the tradition of [Trilogy's] 'The Sheriff' or 'Are You Ready Eddy!' [from Tarkus] - an amusement."
"'Benny the Bouncer' is like a vaudeville song," notes lyricist Peter Sinfield. "Those kinds of songs were almost an apology for the rest of the bombast, the huge we-will-play-bigger-and-faster-and-better-than-everyone-else sentiment. That, with Greg's folk songs, somehow balanced it out."
"Pete was always in the background ever since the demise of King Crimson," Keith Emerson says of Sinfield's relationship with ELP. "He'd actually started off doing the lights for King Crimson and gradually got drawn in to contribute to the lyrics. He was always part of Greg's past."
"Actually, I started off as Ian McDonald's songwriter partner," corrects Peter Sinfield. "After he joined Giles, Giles & Fripp with Greg Lake (to form King Crimson), I hang around during rehearsals writing words - before, after, and along with all the music. In between I did the sound, built the lights, fetched, carried, and did a spot of coproduction; anything to be part of that extraordinary ensemble. Greg was there and we did the fairly infamous first album The Court Of The Crimson King. It's very peculiar going from lyric-writing-roadie to jack-of-all-trades co-owner of a band, which is what I did!"
"I was halfway through making a solo album when I got a call from Gregory, who flattered and seduced me," Sinfield remembers, "So I said I'd finish my solo album with him." But there was a catch: "Greg said, 'You have to help me with this thing I've started", which in the end turned out to be "Karn Evil 9."
"'Karn Evil 9' was a logical extension of 'Tarkus', the first ELP 'epic,'" Keith Emerson says of the three-part suite that comprises nearly two-thirds of the album. "But whereas 'Tarkus' was my dabbling in fourths and fifths, 'Karn Evil 9' dealt with counterpoint, which has always been a fascinating vehicle for me to try and write in. The beginning of "Karn Evil 9' is counterpoint - but then I gave up!
"The moment I got together with Greg and Carl, they said, 'That's very clever - now let's get on with the song!' So you'd be promptly shoved forward. I'd go into the studio and kind of take my lead from Duke Ellington, another one of my heroes, he'd get into the studio and dish out the parts, and if a certain musician is coming through with a certain idea, he'd change right away - 'you play that, that's good!' Even though I went into the rehearsals with a set idea, if something happened in the studio I'd say, 'Great! Let's use that."
Not surprisingly, the three-part musical centerpiece of Brain Salad Surgery was also the subject of the album's initial recording sessions ("1st Impression" at Olympic Studios, London, in June; "2nd Impression" and "3rd Impression" at Advision in August). But, notes Keith Emerson, the thematic concerns of "Karn Evil 9" had undergone nearly as much evolution as its music: "The actual title was probably Pete Sinfield's. I had this idea about a planet that I wanted to call 'Ganton 9.' And Pete said you can't call it that, 'cause there's a Ganton Street in Soho, just down the road! Pete listened to the music I'd written and said it sounds like a carnival - it's all happy! So we went carnival, hmm, Karn Evil. Bang! That's it - end of story!"
Emerson's initial concept concerned a planet to which all manner of evil and decadence had been banished. "Yes", chuckles Sinfield when reminded of Keith's original notion. "it's called 'Earth!'" Sinfield, who has since teamed with Andy Hill to become a successful - if unlikely - writer of pop songs and ballads for the like of Cher ("Heart of Stone"), Diana Ross, and Celine Dion (Think Twice", a #1 hit in eight countries), claims an unlikely source of inspiration for the lyrics to "Karn Evil 9" - musical satirist/Harvard professor Tom Lehrer. "Lehrer is a big hero of mine, and I can hear little bits of Lehrer and pieces of Vonnegut and other things that I've absorbed along the way. The best bit in it is "Welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends ' which ELP of course used for years."
And if one doubts the prophetic power of Lake's and Sinfield's lyrics, ponder "Where the seeds have withered, silent children shiver in the cold/Now their faces captured in the lenses of the jackals for gold" during the next media foray into Bosnia or the South Bronx. Or consider "Performing on a stool, we've a sight to make you drool, seven virgins and a mule" when sampling the exploitative TV wares of Jerry, Jenny, Montel et al.
Carl Palmer remembers that the band's converted cinema played a crucial role in the development of "1st Impression": "When we played it, it happened to be a very big-time, explosive arrangement. The reason was 'Karn Evil9' was one of the things we rehearsed downstairs on the main stage, because nobody was renting it. We'd been playing it upstairs in the smaller room for about a week or so; out of the blue we decided to take the gear downstairs and try playing this particular piece down there. On the big stage it just took off!"
After the piano and percussion interlude in "2nd Impression", "Karn Evil 9" took what turned out to be another prophetic turn. "I had this idea of a computer theme which was not there originally," Sinfield recalls of "3rd Impression." Keith wrote the rest of the music around that idea, that's my recollection. He had bits and pieces of music, and that's where I cam up with this idea of man and what he'd invented and how it ironically takes him over.
Rather like [chess master] Gary Kasparov and the computer - which [unlike the protagonist of "3rd Impression"] Kasparov beat by the way!"
"I spent six years in computers before I became a songwriter," Sinfield says, explaining part of the inspiration for the final movement of "Karn Evil 9". "I think they were IBM 360s, massive things like you see in the old '50s films with the tape going 'round. It had 64K of memory, which is not a lot really. We used to be able to fuck up the program by putting it into a loop so we could continue our poker game I've always been fascinated with artificial intelligence versus natural intelligence because one is born of the other, and it goes around in an odd circle."
Keith Emerson's brief career in banking also involved computers - and his own rationale for cyber-sabotage. "I used to put nicks in the punch cards, and while they were sorting that out I'd go chat up the typists in the next room. But it was reading Melody Maker on the job that got me fired!"
"The whole premise of 'Karn Evil 9' was the influence that computers would have upon civilization," claims Greg Lake. "Now that sounds extremely passe; everybody's got a laptop now. But at that time no one had computers. There were lines like 'Load your program/I am yourself' that were extremely prophetic, because now of course you do have programs that are yourself, that are customized to you. But at that time computers were used almost exclusively in banks or institutions. The concept of a personal computer was barely dreamt of."
"It was the start of computer technology, and already we were being accused of using computer technology in our instrumentation to the point that some people actually believed that when we played onstage it wasn't us!" notes Keith Emerson. "That's why I programmed the Moog to get into a sequence a the end of 'Karn Evil 9'. When we did it live I had the moog turn around, face the audience, and blow up [courtesy of pyrotechnic charges] while we left the stage. It was like saying, "This is computer technology and it's taking over.' You've got to understand that when that was coming out Johnny Rotten was looking at it and saying, "This is something we don't want to be part of!'"
"ELP was so bloody dark and aggressive," Greg Lake says with relish. "When the whole punk rock thing came out we used to laugh at them. Because if you're taking about aggression - real aggression - that's ELP. This was a truly aggressive band; aggressive to each other, aggressive in the music, aggressive in performance, aggressive in stage production. It makes Johnny Rotten look like a fucking walk in the part!" Emerson expresses unusual fondness for thelate-'70s punks who delighted in savaging his own music, but is still bemused by the type the spiked hair and safety-pin set got for their antics: "Particularly so when we'd all done it ourselves, all the throwing up in airports and that sort of stuff. We were far worse than the Sex Pistols. Far worse!"
By the time Brain Salad Surgery was released in America on November 19, 1973, ELP were already back on the road in America, hauling with them what was then the largest and most elaborate stage, sound, and lighting system to date in rock - all 36 tons of it! Carried in the band's semi-trailers was the first discrete quadraphonic PA system, driven by a 30-channel board, a massive four-laddered lighting proscenium, and some of the most spectacular musical equipment yet produced.
For some of the larger gigs, Keith Emerson piloted a 'flying piano' rig that levitated the instrument, then spun it in 360-degree loops! "It was the decadent '70's," says Carl Palmer of his contribution of the band's cartage. "I got approached by British Steel, who asked if I wanted some help making drum cylinders, which they did. Because they were steel, they could've been an eighth of an inch thick, that would have been plenty. When they turned up they were half an inch thick! It took two people to lift the bass drum. Then we started dealing with reinforced stages to take the weight of it, because none of us ever thought of the transportation problems. It weighed a ton and a half, I think. But that was including the rostrum (which revolved), two large gongs, and a 16-inch diameter church bell." The steel megaset currently resides in a small building on Ringo Starr's English estate.
Brain Salad Surgery and its accompanying 1973-74 world tour turned out to be the high-water mark of ELP's career. Engineers from Wally Heider Recording Studios capture the band's February 1974 dates at the Anaheim (California) Convention Center for their three-LP Welcome Back, My Friends, To The Show That Never Ends - Ladies and Gentlemen, and the band concluded their American tour by headlining the California Jam before some 200,000 people.
"In terms of personal, emotional intensity I doubt those shows will ever be surpassed," Greg Lake says proudly. "I've been onstage when there were moments when the intensity was 100 percent, and you can't communicate with an audience any more than that. It's balls to the wall. That was the majesty and impressiveness of ELP. It was a strange band because it had the capacity to deliver this sort of impact. But it also had the flaws and weaknesses that allowed light to shine through."