Keith Emerson vs. neoclassical music

I’ve been listening to a lot of The Nice and Emerson Lake & Palmer lately, and I am constantly struck by the fact that Keith Emerson spent a decade of his life abusing contemporary neo-Classical (and the occasional Classical) compositions.

It began with this rendition of “America” from West Side Story. Believe it or not, this six-minute organ rock rendition of a showtune dripping with political commentary was a top radio hit in the ’60s. Emerson got himself banned from Royal Albert Hall for 25 years for setting fire to the American flag during a performance of this piece.

Man, I hope this shows up in an episode of Mad Men.

The Nice followed up with a more mellow rock-infused take on Bach’s Branderburg Concerto. This is the most low-key and down-to-earth passage of the album Ars Longa Vita Brevis. The rest is super pretentious.

Keith then moved over to ELP, whose early magnum opus was a 35-minute live rock arrangement of Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition piano concerto. Greg Lake wrote lyrics for it. In the live video version, shown above, Emerson made naughty gestures with a portable keyboard, which “climaxed” by spitting flames. The ’70s, man.

The coda on the original album version was a brisk take on Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite called, tragically, “Nutrocker.”

ELP’s debut album opened with a bastardization of Bela Bartok’s Allegro Barbaro, heavy on the distorted bass and light on proper attribution to the original composer. This landed them in a lot of hot water. They learned their lesson for “Toccato” from Brain Salad Surgery, properly attributing it to composer Alberto Ginastera both on the album and in concert. It features some pretty revolutionary (for 1973) electronic drums and is a pretty dynamic arrangement.

But their most famous corruption is probably their take on “Fanfare for the Common Man” by Aaron Copland, which got a thumbs-up from its original composer and showed up for years as introductory music for all kinds of televised sports programs. (I’ve also heard “Touch & Go” from best-forgotten off-brand album Emerson Lake & Powell on TV sports shows as well, suggesting… well, I’m not really sure what it’s suggesting.) “Fanfare” showed up in truncated form as a radio-friendly single, but the full version is best, with several minutes of Emerson torturing an electric organ in horrifying ways. It’s a catchy piece that descends into almost unlistenable audio chaos before coalescing back into an infectious hook for the finale.

I love this stuff.

For some reason, I wasn’t allowed to pick the music for our wedding.

4 thoughts on “Keith Emerson vs. neoclassical music

  1. I will admit, I’m trying to think of an instance of Emerson performing the work of a neo-classical composer. Bartok might have done a few things that could fall into that genre, but I don’t think the Allegro barbaro is one of them. If anything, Emerson seems to dig romanticism/folk-based music: Mussorgsky, Ginastera, etc.

    Maybe I’ve not dug deep enough into Emerson’s stuff?

    • I was not being literal or accurate with that title, sorry. Bartok et al. are definitely more baroque or pop than true neo-classical.

  2. Emerson Lake and not-Palmer had one saving grace: Mars, the Bringer of War, which I’m told (by you, actually) was the inspiration for the Star Wars soundtrack. Everything else on the album is a pass, though… it’s quite self-congratulatory, and seems satisfied to milk past triumphs for all they’re worth.

    Love Beach was kind of a mess too, but at least that had Canario, a peppy little tune apparently cribbed from Spanish composer Joaquin Rodrigo.

    It’s kind of sad what happened to ELP after Love Beach, isn’t it? It’s like all the inspiration was drained from them. Other prog rock bands adapted with the times and produced quality work in the 1980s and 1990s (uh, not so much after that…), but ELP just sputtered out and could never recapture their former glory.

    • Love Beach was a contractual obligation album, which is why it’s so bad. They were ready to break up by that point.

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