Album Reviews

Emerson, Lake & Palmer - Brain Salad Surgery

After the highly successful Counting Out Time series, we thought it was a good idea to pay attention to some more of the greatest albums in prog history now and then. This Milestones series is a continuation of Counting Out Time and a shift from DPRP's focus on new releases.

album cover of Brain Salad Surgery by Emerson, Lake & Palmer

The Zenith of Excess

ELP Logo

Band Members:
Keith Emerson - Organs, Harpsichord, Accordion, custom built Moog Synthesizers and Moog Polyphonic Ensemble
Greg Lake - Vocals, Bass, Zemaitis Electric 6 string and 12 string guitars
Carl Palmer - Percussion and Percussion Synthesizers

Producer: Greg Lake
Engineer: Geoff Young, Chris Kimsey
Lyrical Assistance: Pete Sinfield
Special Thanks: Bob Moog, Dave Luce, Tom Rhea, Ray Updike and others at Moog Music for assistance with Keith Emerson's Synthesizers. Nick Rose for assistance with the percussion synthesizers.

1 Jerusalem (2:44), 2 Toccata (7:22), 3 Still.... You Turn Me On (2:53), 4 Benny The Bouncer (2:21), 5 Karn Evil 9, First Impression Part 1 (8:44), 6 Karn Evil 9, First Impression Part 2 (4:47), Karn Evil 9, Second Impression (7:07), Karn Evil 9, Third Impression (9:03); 29:41 in all


The first couple of years of the 1970's, Emerson, Lake and Palmer's work has established them as one of the top rock acts in the world. Their earlier disks, Emerson Lake and Palmer, Tarkus, Pictures at an Exhibition and Trilogy had made the top 10 of the album charts on both sides of the Atlantic while the band, fueled by a healthy competition between its members, had simultaneously pushed the limits of technology, both in the studio and on stage. Their musical influences were employed to the full, enabling them to create challenging music which took the members beyond the limits within which the members had found themselves restricted by their former groups.

Manticore Record LabelJanuary of 1973, saw the band take the significant step of leaving Island Records and establishing their own label, entitled Manticore Records, announcing in a press release that the initiative "enabled [ELP] to continue relentless pursuance of their uncompromising musical ideas". They now had both the financial and musical freedom to fully indulge their fantasies.

They recruited a number of artists to their label, including the Italian progressive bands PFM (Premiata Forneria Marconi) and Banco del Mutio Soccorso as well as songwriters Keith Christmas and Pete Sinfield. Greg Lake had of course worked with Sinfield during his days with King Crimson and the writer was soon also employed to help Greg Lake with the lyrics for the next album.

Keith EmersonTechnology was important part of the band's vision of pushing musical limits. ELP was a band which eagerly adopted and used the latest technology available and Keith Emerson in particular, had been at the forefront of the use of synthesizers. He had employed one of the earliest devices on the first album, during Lucky Man, but up to this point the instrument remained a monophonic device, limiting its use somewhat. However, during the course of the year, Moog Music developed the first polyphonic module and Keith was the recipient of one of the first examples, putting it to use on the album and later having it and two Moog 960 analogue sequencers added to the huge modular C3 model which he used in the studio and on tour.

The "Get Me A Ladder" tour which took place in the Spring of 1973 saw the band pioneering both the stadium tour and the transporting of a large stage-set and a huge team of roadies to erect it. Though largely successful, the tour gave birth to many legendary stories of excess, which were to weigh down the band and ultimately served to turn the press against them.

Returning from the tour, Carl Palmer took a course in Timpani at the Guildhall School of Music and then expanded his kit to include timpani, gongs and one of the earliest examples of a percussion synthesizer.

The Artwork

ELP at Giger StudioJust as striking as the music was the album's artwork. With other progressive acts becoming as well known for their album cover art as their music, ELP's covers up to this point looked fairly undistinguished in comparison. Having encountered the art of H.R. Giger whilst on tour in Switzerland, Keith Emerson felt that there was a immediate match between his art and their music, later stating that "It was dark and very foreboding, and for me it represented ELP's music".

Brain Salad Surgery Inner CoverA visit to Giger's home was sufficient to convince the other members of the band and the artist himself was delighted when told that the album's title (as well as the rejected title Whip Some Skull on Ya) were euphemisms for fellatio. The band chose two existing works for the outer and inner cover, but the phallic object below the mouth of the female face on the inner cover required modification before it was approved for use, finally taking the form of a shaft of light.

I been running trying to get hung up in my mind
Got to give myself a little talking to this time
Just need a little brain salad surgery
Got to cure this insecurity

Right Place, Wrong Time (Dr. John) 1973

The sleeve designer also insisted on a non-standard construction and rather than being a normal 'gatefold' sleeve, the front cover opened from the centre. It was necessary to fold one of the flaps back fully, in order to be able to extract the vinyl contents within and though it was also probably rather more difficult and expensive to produce, it marked the band out from the rest of the field.

The Recording Process

While a couple of the pieces of music which eventually appeared on the album (Toccatta and Karn Evil 9: 1st Impression) had been premiered during the "Get Me A Ladder" tour, the remainder of the material took some time to complete. The entire recording process, with Greg lake at the producers desk, lasted until the autumn of 1973, with the release date of the album being pushed back on a number of occasions.

With an impatient audience keen to hear the fruits of their labours, the band released a 'flexi' 7-inch single of new material in conjunction with the New Musical Express, interestingly enough, the paper which led the critical backlash against the band in the years which followed. The disk contained extracts of the album on one side and a track entitled 'Brain Salad Surgery' on the other. Recorded during left over studio time, it was a not very representative of what was to emerge on the album itself.

Carl Palmer on DrumsHowever, the long wait proved worthwhile. In the words of Carl Palmer "All I know is we spent more time and put more effort into this record than any other we have made". Emerson agreed, stating "We felt we needed a bit of time to consider things and not let everything go to our heads. I think it was worth the wait, because a lot of people think that Brain Salad Surgery is just about the best thing we ever did. I think that 'Karn Evil 9' proves that. Again, the most important thing was the way we were playing together as a band.". Indeed the unity of purpose is quite striking when one compares this disk to their subsequent output.

The Album

The disk opens with William Blake and Parry’s Jerusalem, a classic Hymn which most English people are very familiar with from their school days.

Though considered rather vulgar by the BBC, who refused to play this interpretation when it was issued as a single in early 1974, the arrangement is actually very classic and it suits Greg Lake's voice perfectly. The author's notes on arrangement calls for the first two verses to be sung by solo voice and the remaining two by unison voice. Of course ELP cannot resist adding their own touch, so the piano part is replaced by Keith's organ which soars and expands evoking memories of choir service. The 2nd verse sees Carl Palmer using bells and a wonderful drum roll to bring home the "Dark Satanic Mills", while during the following verse, Keith introduces a keyboard line, which is almost horn-like in its trumpeting of Greg's commands "Bring me my bow of burning gold ...".

The following track is an adaptation by Emerson of the fourth movement of Alberto Ginestera's First Piano concerto. It was a piece which Emerson had obtained when in the USA during 1969. Having presented his vision to Greg and Carl, he then found himself without permission from the music publishers to use the music. Keith decided to go straight to the composer himself and flew to Switzerland, where after dinner, he played a recording of the piece. Ginestera is reported to have exclaimed "Diabolique! No one has been able to capture my music like that before! It's exactly the way I hear it myself!' ".

Brain Salad Surgery Outer CoverIndeed the piece can't be considered simply a piano piece, as the percussion contributions from Carl Palmer are equally important and Greg plays some guitar too. Keith plays organ and piano as well as contributing a whole range of synth effects but it is the injections of timpani and other percussion from Carl which turn it into something truly unique. Diabolic indeed!

After that, the listener's ears are greeted with the much gentler Still.... You Turn Me On which sees Greg on acoustic guitar, accompanied by Keith with a little light harpsichord. While it does not break new ground, the song proved a big radio hit in the States,

Then, very much like they did on Tarkus with Jeremy Bender, the band inject a change of mood and a bit of humour in the form of Benny The Bouncer. While Greg sings away with a mock East-End of London accent, Keith indulges in a bit of honky-tonk piano. It is hardly their most challenging piece of music, but it indicates some of their influences and demonstrates that they are not frightened to attempt something a little out of the ordinary.

However, the final piece of music, the Karn Evil 9 suite, almost 30 minutes long, forms the main body of the disk and is without doubt the finest piece of music that the group ever composed. Originally split across two sides of vinyl, due to its length and the restrictions of the medium, it is an astonishingly varied piece into which the band throw a kitchen-sink full of effects and instruments creating a masterpiece of Technical Rock and which more than any other piece of music, defines them as a band.

Instrumentally it opens with Keith's organ, before the full band briefly state the main theme of the piece. The early verses are interspersed with some excellent soloing from Keith on organ and synth and lay in front of the listener, a vision of a people who have been exploited, betrayed and left leaderless by a cruel, uncaring world. Later a blistering solo from Keith over Greg's pounding bass introduce us to an even more shocking vision. It's a world in which "Thrills and Shocks" are the main entertainment, each one even greater than the last, which Greg as ringmaster delights in introducing to us. The "Thrills and Shocks" are backed up with more instrumental pyrotechnics - a drum roll from Carl, organ runs from Keith and a great electric solo which bursts forth and takes one by surprise.

Greg Lake"Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends" introduces the final segment of the First Impression, originally the start of the 2nd side of the vinyl album. The closing 4 verses are divided by yet another organ solo from Keith and a second crisp solo from Greg ending with the call to "see the show...".

The Emerson composed Second Impression is in parts more "Carnival" than "Karn Evil" dealing with "time and travel" and the sense of disorientation that it produces. It commences with a long segment in which Emerson reproduces a steel drum sound with his synthesizer, then quotes briefly the theme of a calypso before moving to the piano for the calmer, but moodier central part. Here he is aided by Greg Lake, who with some deft bass touches, builds a sense of foreboding before in the final segment, Emerson's jazzier playing, superbly backed by the others, gradually raises the pace before bringing the movement suddenly to a surprise halt.

For the lyrics of the final movement, the 9 minute long Third Impression, Lake received some assistance from Pete Sinfield and together they build a grim image of the future. A future in which man loses contact with the creation and effectively finds himself back in the Stone Age, supplanted by the computer. It's epic theme is matched by the music which builds gradually up to the climax in which a despairing man argues ineffectively with the computer he created. The end is left open, but the message of the piece is clear.


Brain Salad Concert With the album in the can, the band went straight back out on the road again in the USA and then in Europe, further cementing their position at the top of the premiere league of acts in the USA. They did this using "the most ambitious spectacular ever mobilised for a group", comprising 35 tons of equipment, a quadraphonic sound system, a huge convoy of trucks and Greg Lake's Persian rug - now immortalised in rock history.

The band were at the top of the tree. It was to be several more years before the next studio album. UK press opinion and government fiscal policies made the UK less attractive and the USA offered the band the opportunity of playing to bigger, more lucrative crowds. The intense touring probably took its toll, but equally, the creativity displayed on the disk left them with very few avenues left to explore as a unit. In fact, rather like the subject of Karn Evil 9, the press considered that the band had lost touch with their roots and certainly their UK audience as they became caught up in the 'Arena-Rock' circus, with which they became synonymous.

When they did reconvene for the Works, 3 out of 4 sides of the double LP were devoted to the individual band member's material and the trios' combined efforts on the fourth side indicated that something was missing. Whereas the trio had been formed from a common belief and desire to push musical boundaries, by the time that Works appeared, the unity of vision was no longer there and the band could never recapture the energy and creativity of 1973 and its encapsulation in vinyl which took the form of Brain Salad Surgery. A creative high-point for the artists and one of the masterpieces of Progressive Rock.

Written by Charlie Farrell

Sources for text and images:
Emerson, Lake & Palmer - The Show That Never Ends, by George Forrester et al (Helter Skelter)
Vintage Synthesizers (2nd Edition), by Mark Vail (Backbeat UK)
The official Emerson Lake and Palmer Website
The official ELP Digest Website
The Impressions Magazine Website
The official H. R. Giger Website

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