From the woozy fanfare opening ‘The Barbarian’ to the final swooping moog solo panning between the speakers at the end of ‘Lucky Man’, via the stroked grand piano strings of ‘Take a Pebble’ and the dystopian drama of ‘Knife Edge’, I know the first Emerson Lake and Palmer album very well indeed. But it wasn’t always so. My first experience of the 1970 album that introduced the famous prog rock trio came one sweltering 1973 summer afternoon in Neil Brewer’s back yard when he said, ‘Stick your head between the speakers and listen to this drum solo, it’ll blow your mind.’
Regular pal Rod Amberton and I had ridden our bikes round to Neil’s parent’s house not to listen to records, but to see Neil’s new car. His new van, to be precise. It was the first vehicle anyone in our year at school had owned and we were ready to be impressed. Sure, Neil did not have his licence yet and had only managed a couple of driving lessons with his Dad so far, but it was still a deeply impressive acquisition and one easily justifying a fluid-sapping ride through the shimmering furnace of Melbourne’s south-eastern suburbs. As I rode I remember thinking that this was a change. Bikes to cars. Back yards, up until now the scene for most of our social engagements, were instantly supplanted by visions of beaches, trips, adventures to distant places… maybe even —by some automotive magic— romance. All made accessible by the maturity-badge represented by a motor vehicle. I recall glancing down at the t-bar gear shift on my bike, at the glowing orange frame and GT speedometer/headlight unit on the handlebars and thinking that this was no longer impressive or cool. In fact it wasn’t even in the game any more.
Still, Neil was a mate and we were excited for him. Maybe he’d even take us places beyond the range of pedal-power. Certainly we knew that one reason Neil was busting to get his own transport was so that he could go surfing more often, probably instead of attending school. Knowing this we had canvassed the possibilities of what he might get. A second-hand panel van seemed most likely, the ‘sin bin’ being the favoured vehicle for surfer types. If that was not in reach, probably a 60s station wagon like the trusty Holden EH. They could be picked up pretty cheaply and though nowhere near as cool as a panel van, still had plenty of roof for board racks and a rear section for gear or a kip. Some station wagons even had little curtains added for, er, privacy. I wonder if those were made by the surfers’ mums.
So after Rod got the call and rang me, we pedalled and sweated and ultimately arrived, panting a bit, at the modest white weatherboard with its parched brown lawn. Leaning the bikes against the house-front, we went through to the linoleum floored kitchen and gratefully accepted glasses of cordial from our host. ‘Come on,’ said Neil, ‘It’s in the drive round the back.’
Out the wooden fly-screen door we trooped, across the unadorned concrete patio, to the apron in front of a decrepit cement-sheeting garage where, sparkling in the brilliant southern sun, stood Neil’s new vehicle. ‘Look at that!’ he said.
We did, and tried not to giggle. Something further from the sexy masculinity of a seventies panel van you could not imagine. Looking more like the motorised transport of Inspector Clouseau than the wicked wagon of a randy young surfer, Neil’s new wheels were the cutest little Fiat van you have ever seen. It was a miniature, a Matchbox toy, the baker’s van from a cheeky Italian comedy. It was, in sum, hilarious. Yet we realised almost immediately that although its four wheels did not exceed the combined total of our two bicycles out the front, it nevertheless had one clear winning feature: an internal combustion engine. So we did not snigger. Not then, anyway, with Neil standing happily by, gazing fondly at his ticket to freedom.
Yet our restraint was severely tested when we saw the registration plate, bolted proudly to the shiny chrome bumper-bar. The Fiat’s plate was HEY 007. I kid you not.
‘Let’s go for a drive,’ said Rod, momentarily forgetting that we actually couldn’t because Neil did not have his licence. ‘Nah,’ said Neil, ‘It gets a bit hot.’
Indeed, when I opened the passenger door to check out the AM radio, the blast of super-heated air that burst forth almost knocked me over.
‘It’s OK when you wind down the windows.’
‘What about another cordial,’ Rod suggested.
While our host mixed the drinks, he instructed Rod and I to lug his speakers out onto the patio. They sat on the edge of the concrete slab, wire umbilical cords snaking back inside the house, and dutifully pumped Cosmo’s Factory into the back yard while we sat in the shade of the garage. And I wonder, still I wonder, who’ll stop the rain. It was impossible to even imagine rain that afternoon, though a little breeze arrived to take the edge off the heat as we yarned about this-and-that, as teenagers do. Though I don’t recall cars being a particular focus.
When Neil span the debut Emerson Lake and Palmer album next, I’m not sure I noticed very much. Perhaps I logged the keyboard virtuosity of Keith Emerson, but it was really just background noise that day. Until, that is, Neil got excited about the second last track, ‘Tank’.
‘Have you heard this?’
I heard Emerson’s funky clavinet and liked it; heard Greg Lake’s sinuous bass runs and Carl Palmer’s energetic percussion accompaniment too, but that is not what Neil meant. He jumped up and beckoned me over to the patio. ‘You’ve got to hear this!’
Twisting the speakers towards each other, he issued his instruction. ‘Put your head in there’.
I knelt down as Palmer’s snare rhythm began, wondering what I was supposed to be listening for. The cymbal bit gave way to an insistent pummelling of tom-toms. Splashes of gong punctuated the drums as tension built, not least in my knees. I must have twitched slightly, because Neil said encouragingly, ‘It’s coming!’
As indeed it was, a whooshing phaser blast of space-sound dancing rapidly between left and right speakers, swirling through a head placed conveniently close to both boxes and soaring to a brilliant off-kilter drum-beat coda where Keith’s synth returned for a fine squelchy solo before the fade. In my memory it was a whole lot longer than the ten seconds it actually takes, but today I wasn’t kneeling on concrete in thirty-eight degree heat with my head between two cheap loudspeakers.
I won’t bang on about the ELP album much. It has too much personal resonance for me to hope for any sort of objectivity. Suffice to say the ensemble playing is excellent, the compositions where Emerson borrows bits of other works (Bartok for ‘The Barbarian’ and Janacek for ‘Knife Edge’) are the strongest, Greg Lake’s voice is at its (melo)dramatic peak, all three musicians get to show off in their own individual ways and ‘Lucky Man’ is the song everyone remembers even though it sticks out like a sore thumb as the straight ballad at the end of the prog adventure. But the final, elegiac moog solo is super.
I’ll always have a soft spot for one of the first progressive albums I got to know; early loves can be like that. Sometimes I imagine the music flowing out the back of a panel van parked by the ocean, embracing a chap and his loved one as they drink in the sunset and each other. Now that would be one lucky man.
Just take a pebble and cast it to the sea
Then watch the ripples that unfold into me