Surgical Focus: An Appreciation of Emerson, Lake & Palmer's Masterwork, Brain Salad Surgery
I tend to get angry at people who casually dismiss the work of Emerson, Lake & Palmer as second-rate pretentious prog rock. It's first-rate pretentious prog rock, damn it! But overlook the band at your peril, because there is some truly astonishing and groundbreaking music throughout their repertoire. Yes, grand creative ambition often comes off as pretentious or bombastic in both theory and practice, but at other times its sheer over-the-top audacity can be deliriously thrilling if you'll allow it the proper time and space to grow on you. And there is no greater exhibit in support of this claim than the compositions found on the band's epic 1973 LP, Brain Salad Surgery. The album ranks with my all-time favorites and you don't need to be a subscriber to Prog Magazine to appreciate the many facets of this unique and complex band, one that is often credited with being the first "supergroup" ever. With this in mind, I've broken down my love of the record into an easily digestible list.
10 Things I Love About Emerson, Lake, and Palmer’s Brain Salad Surgery
1 The Album Title
The title of the album was taken from the Dr. John song “Right Place, Wrong Time” from his March, 1973, record In the Right Place. Specifically, the lyric, “Just need a little brain salad surgery / Got to cure this insecurity.” It’s a disturbing yet intriguing album title, to be sure, but as it turns out, it’s just another euphemism for fellatio and not some kind of medieval lobotomy procedure as the album's cover promises, which actually would’ve been much cooler. That said, it is a substantial improvement over the original fellatio-based working title, Whip Some Skull on Ya (which I wish was a joke, but really isn’t).
2 The Album Art
Swiss artist and noted album cover designer H.R. Giger passed away back in 2014 (eerily, just a few days after I snagged a 40th anniversary vinyl reissue for my collection), but he left behind an amazingly provocative, oftentimes controversial body of work. His Brain Salad Surgery cover is nothing short of a masterpiece, which is why it always ranks with the greatest album art in rock history whenever such lists are made. But Giger’s legacy runs much, er, deeper than this one legendary cover, of course. He was also responsible for the highly controversial record sleeve for the Dead Kennedys' already highly controversial Frankenchrist LP (the work—shown here—is titled Penis Landscape), and it is not hard to see why it rankled some conservative cages back in 1985.
Giger was also responsible for the striking album cover for Debbie Harry’s debut solo album, Koo Koo, from 1981 (below). The cover will go down as one of his most iconic and it seems to be heavily inspired by the woman enclosed in the torture device on Brain Salad's cover. The timing doesn't quite work out, but one could almost think Debby's face was the model for the artist's female face in the first place. It's strangely similar and visually unsettling. I highly recommend you bring a copy of Koo Koo into your local piercing salon and tell them "I'd like this, please" and see how they react.
Giger's influence on pop culture went far beyond just album covers, too. He was also the demented mind behind the creation of the phallus-headed being from the legendary 1979 space-horror blockbuster, Alien. (And if you think this image is vaguely sexual—and I seriously hope you do—you should've seen his earlier prototypes!)
When ELP released their interpretation of "Jerusalem," a revered British hymn (originally by Sir Hubert Parry and based on the introduction to Milton, a Poem by William Blake from the early 1800s), it was subsequently, and amusingly, banned from the BBC as cultural “blasphemy.” Apparently, the tight-shorted curators of British culture didn’t appreciate Keith ramping up the bombast level to 11 with the help of a Moog Apollo polyphonic synthesizer—the prudes! The passage of time has been quite kind to ELP’s version, however, and even today it’s hard not to puff your chest out like a character from Game of Thrones when the song's majestic church-organ pumps through a massive set of speakers. And I'm not even British!
Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear, O clouds unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!
It almost makes you want to decapitate someone in order to preserve the monarchy! How many sub-three-minute songs can do that?
4 Keith Emerson’s Love of Classical Music
The liner notes accompanying the reissue of Brain Salad Surgery include a very funny story about the hoops ELP jumped through to get approval to cover “Toccata Concertata” (shortened to "Toccata" on BSS), a classical piece by Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera (first hurdle: befriending his perpetually surprised cat). After traveling to South America to play him their version, they interpreted his immediate response as “Terrible!” when, in fact, he had actually exclaimed “Formidable!” One of the benefits of our small world's many language barriers is such comical misunderstandings. Later, an enthused Ginastera personally cleared ELP to release the song. It's easy to see why he was so enthralled, for Keith Emerson's version takes the original's heavy "shark attack" chord progressions and adds enough wild, synth-heavy orchestrations to catapult the whole affair out of the ocean and into outer space. Few rock musicians did more for classical music during their careers than Keith Emerson, that's for sure. In addition to Ginastera, he reinterpreted Aaron Copeland's "Hoedown" and "Fanfare for the Common Man" with great commercial appeal, overhauled Russian composer Modest Mussogorsky's Pictures at an Exhibition on their album of the same name, and tapped the work of numerous others for inspiration along the way. Some purists may not like it, but I know I've gone back to Emerson's source material more than once when I might not have done so otherwise. I would call that a win-win. If some band released anything close to "Toccata" today, hip websites everywhere would be fawning over their newly found discovery! But one word, “formidable,” to this day remains the most accurate, and only valuable, critique of Emerson’s bizarre interpretation of Ginastera’s masterpiece.
5 The Lyrics to “Still…You Turn Me On”
In the mid-70s, I used to earnestly croon along with this love song, either oblivious to Greg Lake’s overly dramatic, semi-preposterous lyrics or perhaps unwilling to admit that they were anything but deeply brilliant and beyond my poetic comprehension. I don't know when I finally realized they were total tripe—witness the classic lyrics, Every day a little sadder, a little madder, someone get me a ladder!—but I’ve willingly chosen to overlook their shortcomings since then. Why? Because even with the understanding that they're indisputably in violation of every bylaw in the poet's handbook, the song still conveys a sense of romantic drama no matter, and in spite of, how overwrought and nonsensical the rhymes may be. Love does that to people. It makes everything seem possible and any genuine form of expression tolerable no matter how insufferable it may be to some. It makes it more tolerable, in some ways, that the band was kind of in on the joke. The subsequent tour after Brain Salad's release was called the Someone Get Me a Ladder Tour. Surely meant to poke fun at the lovestruck Greg Lake, I presume.
6 The Band’s Sense of Humor
With the understanding that they started the album with a traditional 19th century British ballad, moved on to a cover of a 20th century classical masterpiece, and then segued into a wonky, synth-laden love ballad, ELP smartly realized the record was in desperate need of some levity. Enter the barrelhouse barroom romp, “Benny the Bouncer,” which regales us with the exploits of its charming title character: He’d slash your granny’s face up given half a chance / He’d sell you back the pieces / All for less than half a quid. It doesn’t translate as well in print, especially without the hilarious cockney vocals of Greg Lake, but it’s quite an entertaining intermission and perfectly sequenced at that. In the end, Benny meets his demise at the hands of nemesis “Savage Sid” and ends up working as a bouncer at “St. Peter’s Gate.” Another pint of Guinness over here, Pete! Moments after this rowdy pint, ELP ushers us all into the madcap sideshow known as “Karn Evil 9,” home to some of the most bizarre visuals ever to grace a rock & roll song and one of the most celebrated prog-rock tracks of all-time.
7 The Acts Featured at “Karn Evil 9”
The evil carnival concept was orchestrated by Emerson (music) with lyrics by Lake and Lake’s old King Crimson band-mate, Peter Sinfield. Lake and Sinfield created the bizarro world presented over the song’s first two "Impressions." Some of the more disturbing “acts” presented: rows of bishops' heads in jars, a gypsy queen performing on a guillotine (in a glaze of Vaseline, no less), seven virgins and a mule (they airbrushed a cock from the cover, but they were OK with this imagery?), and, perhaps the most appalling act of all, Alexander’s Ragtime Band! Ragtime!? How absolutely repulsive! Children, cover your ears!
8 “Welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends, we're so glad you could attend. Come inside! Come inside!”
If you’ve only owned the CD version of Brain Salad Surgery, you’re missing out on one of the great pleasures of vinyl. Two distinct sides, often crafted specifically for maximum impact, with the unique opportunity to open and close each side with clear artistic intent. The most famous segment of the album, and the one most heard on AOR radio, is “Karn Evil 9, 1st Impression, Part 2," better known by its iconic, “Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends” carnival barker intro. After side one, could there be a more perfect way to re-engage the listener for the wild ride that is to come on side two? It’s a demented, prog-fueled version of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” if you’re an open-minded sort. Sheer mad genius!
9 The Under-Appreciated, and Eerily Prescient, “Third Impression”
The "3rd Impression" of "Karn Evil 9" is the least-known, and therefore least-understood, segment of the entire thirty-minute song suite. In it, Keith Emerson absolutely goes out of his mind with synth wizardry for the better part of its nine minutes. If you thought that apparatus mounted on top of his Goff organ (pictured above) was a 1950's telephone switchboard, you were sadly mistaken. This is where Keith shows what it can do for any curiosity seekers in the crowd. (It's hard to tell, but at top-right, there's even a built-in television screen and top-left, an homage to the cover of Brain Salad Surgery.) Oh, and if that wasn't enough all by itself, you also get some Radiohead-worthy lyrics (albeit almost a quarter-century earlier than OK Computer) that seem to warn of a computer-dominated dystopia to come:
Let the bridge computer speak
Load your program
I AM YOURSELF!
Danger, Will Robinson! This is some heavy, 2001: A Space Odyssey shit! But thankfully, as society spirals down the drain, its decadent pleasures along for the ride, a hand reaches up and grabs the edge of the black abyss and somehow manages to crawl back out:
No computer stands in my way
Glory is ours!
I am all there is!
I’m perfect! Are you?”
And some wonder why they're dismissed as pretentious wankers. Yes, it may all be a little (okay, a lot) indulgent, but that’s half the fun! Has Thom Yorke convinced us all that we need to take ourselves seriously all the time? My suggestion is to lighten up and enjoy the carnival. There's a guy in the tent over there who does amazing things with his organ.
10 Carl Palmer
Before I depart, a loud shout-out to my boyhood idol, Carl Palmer, who I miraculously haven't mentioned specifically yet. Palmer, sadly, is the last surviving member of ELP (after Greg Lake and Keith Emerson both died prematurely in 2016) making a needed reunion tour an impossibility. Simply, Carl Palmer was Neil Peart before there was a Neil Peart (as a drummer, that is—Palmer wasn’t much of a songwriter). Peart himself often name-checked Palmer as a major influence and the similarities are many. Check out Palmer’s drum kit above and tell me where Peart got the inspiration for his approach. Brain Salad Surgery was to Palmer as 2112 was to Peart—a tour de force, worth listening to for the drums only. The only question that remains is why Peart didn't go with the awe-inspiring double-gong setup! A spectacular visual fitting with the band's larger-than-life stage production.
It’s sadly yet undeservedly true: Emerson, Lake, and Palmer has been turned into an easy punching bag by lazy writers over the years—dismissed as one of the worst bands of all-time by Spin Magazine decades ago and ranked only behind the Insane Clown Posse (but before Michael Bolton!) by Blender Magazine years ago—but I think ELP is getting the last laugh now. Not only did they long outlast both failed publications, but how many "acclaimed" bands reviewed by either magazine during their heyday will get a deluxe, 180g, anniversary vinyl reissue of one of their albums four decades from now? Some will, of course, but the vast majority will not be welcomed back, my friends.
Well friends, at the risk of making this the blog that never ends, I'll wrap it up here. Don't believe the haters.