Review – Keith Emerson – Variations – by John Wenlock-Smith

This review is not an easy one for in it I have to evaluate the career of one of the greatest keyboard players of the progressive era, namely Keith Emerson of The Nice, Emerson, Lake and Palmer and not to mention his own extensive solo works.

Keith Noel Emerson was born on the 2nd of November  1944 in Todmorden, West Yorkshire, as the family had been evacuated during the Second World War. After the war ended the family moved south to Goring-by-Sea. His Father Noel was an amateur pianist and taught Keith basic piano and, when he was 8 years old, they arranged formal tuition for him. This meant he was entered into competitions at the Worthing Music Festival and it was suggested he continue his studies in London. However, Emerson says he was bored of classical music by then, preferring to express his music in a jazz style.

After leaving school Emerson worked at Lloyd’s Bank Registrars and played piano in the pubs and local clubs at night. He played in a 20 piece swing band run by Worthing Council, covering Count Basie and Duke Ellington tunes and this led to The Keith Emerson Trio’s formation. He was later fired from the bank which allowed him to concentrate more fully on music.

Emerson then played in John Brown’s Bodies John Brown’s Bodies where members of the T-Bones, the backing band of blues singer Gary Farr, offered him a place in their group. After a UK and European tour, the band split, Emerson then joined the V.I.P’s,  who were a purist blues band, his great flamboyance was noticed at this point. Emerson then formed The Nice with fellow ex T-Bones member Lee Jackson, they replaced Ian Hague with Brian Davidson and started being noticed because of their blending and rearrangements of classical themes as symphonic rock, and also Emerson’s showmanship on his keyboards, mainly the Hammond Organ, which he mis-treated and abused by whipping it, riding it like a horse and tipping it over to create feedback and other sounds, he also used knives between the keys to create sustain.

Emerson first heard the moog synthesiser when a record shop owner played him Switched On Bach by Wendy Carlos. He got in touch with Mike Vickers of Manfred Mann who bought a moog over from America, with a view to Emerson using it for a concert with The Nice and The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, which saw Emerson perform Also Sprach  Zarathustra by Richard Strauss. The Nice were no strangers to controversy either, especially when they burned a US flag at a charity event at the Albert Hall whilst playing America/2nd Amendment.

When The Nice broke up in the band actually tried to recruit a new guitarist with Steve Howe trying out at audition but he ultimately decided not to join with band so they continued as a three piece. They recorded further albums ‘Five Bridges Suite’ and ‘Elegy’ before Emerson decided to end the band to pursue other projects. which included working with Rod Stewart and the Faces and sessions with Roy Harper. In 1970 Emerson formed what was his most famous group, Emerson, Lake and Palmer ,who had immediate success with their performance at the Isle Of Wight Festival in August 1970.,

Anyway enough historical background as most will know the ELP years, instead this review will concentrate on the more obscure, unreleased and rare elements of Emerson’s musical career. These include a piece written for former record company owner, and friend, Tony Stratton Smith for who a lament was recorded that appeared on the ‘Hammer and Tongs’ retrospective but which makes a welcome appearance on the disc ‘The Early Years / The Bands’, which includes The Nice and ELP. Indeed, throughout this twenty CD set there are some real obscurities sprinkled from the frankly odd gospel version of Jesus Loves Me from ‘Honky’ and A Whiter Shade Of Pale from the Boys Club project, with Glenn Hughes on vocals, in an early foretaste of what would become The Keith Emerson Band, who are represented here with ‘The Keith Emerson Band’ and the excellent ‘Live in Moscow’ albums.

Also found in this comprehensive set are the ‘Emerson Plays Emerson’ and ‘Off the Shelf’ albums, along with the soundtrack albums for ‘Best Revenge’, ‘Harmaeddon / Godzilla’, ‘Inferno’, ‘Iron Man’, ‘Murderock’ and ‘Nighthawks’. There are also the hitherto unavailable ‘Live at BB Kings’ double CD, recorded in 2004, which also includes seven tracks by The Keith Emerson Trio which date from 1963 when Keith was just 19 and hadn’t turned professional yet. These tracks are far more straight jazz in sound, however these are really good and show a seldom heard side of Keith’s style.

We are also treated to the long deleted ‘Live from Manticore Hall’ CD with Greg Lake, which features several ELP revisitations and a great track called Moog Solo / Lucky Man in which both Greg and Keith talk about that moog solo and how Keith improvised on it. It is all rather glorious sounding overall and both Emerson and Lake introduce the tracks making it very interesting and informative and adds new textures to pieces you may already know and love. Through the intimacy of the show it is clear that both men thoroughly enjoy being together again in this rather unique setting. Thank heavens it was recorded for posterity.

This is a big set of albums and you need time, lots of it, to get the most out of this lovingly curated collection of music. But, if you dig deep, you will find some real gems that will captivate and entertain you. To be honest though, some of the soundtracks are a little underwhelming and aren’t really that good and, also, I find it strange that there is nothing from the Emerson Lake and Powell album, and I’m sure there are live recordings from that era. Nor is there anything from the ELP reunion years but these are minor quibbles in the overall picture of Keith Emerson’s life and times.

The booklet is good with good informative sleeve notes, credits and previously unseen photos from Keith’s own archives. This is presented in a 48 page hardback book. This is a great set, true nirvana for ELP or Emerson aficionados like me.

I was extremely sad when I heard of Keith’s death by suicide, brought on by his depression and alcoholism over fears of losing his abilities as a player, which, on the recorded evidence here, was mostly unfounded. The world lost a real innovator and classy musician whilst his family lost their father, partner, grandfather and far more, we lost his music whilst they lost the man.

There was a fantastic tribute concert a few years ago with many of the world’s famous keyboard players taking part to honour his memory. I actually interviewed Keith around the time of his ‘Three Fates’ album, which was remarkable for a fan boy such as I. Sadly that recording has been lost, although it was an honour for me to talk to the man whose music had been a soundtrack for many of my early years. I miss him still eight years on. This set seeks to showcase his amazing musical variety and skills in every part of his life so settle down for the long haul, you may be a while.

Released 13th October, 2023.

Order from Cherry Red here:

Keith Emerson: Variations, 20CD Box Set – Cherry Red Records

Check out a re-working of the Emerson, Lake & Palmer song Lucky Man, performed by Aaron Emerson and friends:

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