In the very early ‘70s, my key to the musical world around me was a pint sized transistor radio. From a technical standpoint, the sound it produced was, not surprisingly, tiny and tinny. But the sounds it brought to me, from the pop mainstream to the rock underground, were beyond nourishing. The discoveries I made, from local rogue stations playing album tracks in lieu of hit singles to late night reception of out of town stations like WCFL in Chicago, were many.
I remember one occasion well that involved the latter. It was early 1971 and WCFL was flowing in and out through waves of static during a thunderstorm. But it settled long enough for me to lock onto a voice singing a forlorn chorus followed by the low moan of an electric instrument I had never heard. The combination was dark but immediately arresting.
“Ooh, what a lucky man he was,” the song went. That was the chorus fading in from “Lucky Man” and my introduction to the singing of Greg Lake. The instrumental coda came from what I later found out was a Moog synthesizer, an altogether unknown beast at the time. That was my introduction to the music of Keith Emerson.
The first five albums Emerson and Lake recorded as trio with drummer Carl Palmer were a collective soundtrack for my adolescence. Their sound was unapologetically huge – arty and classical at times, but mostly just massive in way that was purely rock ‘n’ roll, only with keyboards subbing for guitars and the robustly clear singing of Lake, who died yesterday at the age of 69, as its prime point of commercial appeal.
ELP was a band that was either revered or reviled. There was no middle ground. Those that championed it were fiercely loyal to its representation of a prog sound that had somehow managed to gain commercial acceptance. Those that hated it seriously hated it – so much so that bands like ELP sat at the center everything the punk revolution sought to destroy when prog’s moment in the sun faded in the late ‘70s.
I didn’t discover Lake’s epic pre-ELP prog work – specifically, the 1969 debut album by King Crimson (“In the Court of the Crimson King”) until a few years after that faint reception of “Lucky Man” popped through on WCFL. In retrospect, the Crimson record is easily a stronger and more enduring work. But those early ELP albums were essentially companions of my youth, especially 1971’s “Emerson, Lake & Palmer,” 1972’s “Trilogy” and 1973’s “Brain Salad Surgery.” So, yes, nostalgia rules.
Laugh all you want, but the ELP records turned me on to Aaron Copland, to the structure of the bolero and to early advancements in electronic keyboards and percussion. Unfashionable? Of course. But part of one’s admiration of any art comes from knowing when something speaks to you even when critical evidence and popular acclaim suggest you’re in the wrong gallery.
Emerson died in March. Now Lake is gone, too. It’s a sad time of year to lose anything, especially a sound that befriended you in your teens and stay true during the stumbles of the “awkward years.” But to have had Lake and ELP in my corner then – and now, for that matter – creates a comfort that far outweighs loss.
To that end, I’m appreciative of what a lucky man I was.