RockSpite: Tarkus by Emerson Lake and Palmer

Today I noticed that long-time friend of GameSpite Rev. Ragu (formerly of Zany Video Game Quotes, Ecchi Attack!, and Andore Jr.) has changed his Twitter icon to a horrifying melange of Touhou fan art and the cover to Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s Tarkus. “Why would anyone possibly care about such a meaningless trivium?” And you’re right to wonder! It’s just one of those coincidental things; I saw it a few minutes after walking past a music shop in SOMA and hearing some dude wailing on a drum kit in time to ELP’s “Karn Evil 9.” I guess it’s just an ELP kind of day.

So please spend the next 20 minutes listening to “Tarkus”! Not the whole album; most of it’s kind of crummy. But the title song is amazing: 20 of the most intense minutes of music you’ll ever hear.

In another weird coincidence, I wrote briefly about the song almost two years ago to the day. But let me write about it in a little more depth.

“Tarkus” is a really fascinating song, and not simply because it’s about a giant armadillo tank that fights the Catholic church. It’s not a loud song, or a fast song, or a hard song. But it’s a very metal song; back in college, I used to work nights keeping watch over the art department’s computer lab, and one night I played “Tarkus” — not loudly! — on my computer’s speakers. At the end of the song, one of my classmates broke the verbal silence to say, “Can we listen to something else? I can’t take this. It’s just so… oppressive.” “Yeah, I feel like I can’t breathe,” someone else chimed in.

Wimps. But they have a point. There’s something about “Tarkus” that feels incredibly intense. It’s just three dudes playing a fairly low-tempo rock track, but it eschews the typical standards of rock music. There’s little to no electric guitar, and the lead instrument is primarily a Hammond organ. The whole song feels almost menacing. It’s kind of incredible, really.

For my money, the best available version of the song might be the one on the album Live at Nassau Coliseum ’78. It’s energetic and up-tempo, and Greg Lake’s temporary fascination with nylon bass strings lightens the atmosphere by scooping away the bottom end of the sound profile and replacing the dense bass line with a sharp elastic sound. Also, because it’s 1978, the instrumental jam includes a few riffs from contemporary sci-fi films, including a sly wink to Star Wars.

“Tarkus” is more than 40 years old now, which kind of blows my mind. But dated as it sounds, I absolutely love the song. The world needs more extended tracks where three dudes manage to use sound to suffocate the happiness from your life, one bar at a time.

8 thoughts on “RockSpite: Tarkus by Emerson Lake and Palmer

  1. Ha, I remember the first time you talked about this. Two years ago? Wow.

    Maybe the reason why your friend couldn’t breathe is because the song doesn’t have a super repetitive beat; it’s just NOISE NOISE NOISE if you’re not invested in it. There’s no comfortable rhythm for your brain to attach to. I got similar complaints from my friend, but more along the lines of “would you turn that **** off, I can’t think.”

    That’s ELP, though. I think all of their music is like a slow descent into madness. In a good way, mostly.

  2. Greg Lake always seemed out of place in both ELP and King Crimson. Lake struck me as a guy who would have fit writing and performing nice, simple little pop-rock songs, but instead was in the dark and intricate King Crimson, and then the bombastic, overindulgent ELP. I mean, you’ve got Keith Emerson showing off his skills and fascination with creating a variety of tones on the organ, and Carl Palmer’s challenging, Buddy Rich influenced drumming. Then you have Greg Lake, plucking away at his guitar or bass, and singing in his somber balladeer fashion.

    • I dunno, he pretty much screamed his lungs out while he was in King Crimson. And every power trio needs its Alex Lifeson.

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