the end of 1969 Greg Lake was ready to move on from King Crimson. He knew Robert Fripp since their teenage days in Dorset, were they took lessons from the same guitar teacher. There was a musical and personal chemistry between the two, a unique bond that Lake talked about in an interview for New Musical Express in February 1971: “With Bob and I, it’s like I have something he needs, and he has something I need. He has will power and stay power which I lack and I have a sort of spontaneous energy which he lacks. I lived with Fripp when I was with Crimso and I don’t think anybody else in the world could live with Fripp, or me for that matter.”
The band as he knew it was no more when Michael Giles and Ian McDonald decided to quit after the US tour that took the band across the pond in October and December of 1969 and culminated in several shows at the Fillmore West in San Francisco. Fripp wanted to continue with a rotating crew of musicians, Lake wanted a long lasting band. In a serendipitous alignment of the stars Lake met Keith Emerson at that Fillmore West show, headlined by the Chambers Brothers with King Crimson and The Nice acting as supporting bands. Keith Emerson also reached an impasse with his band The Nice and the two saw a future together. Emerson wanted to continue the trio format that worked so well for The Nice and the picture was completed with Carl Palmer, who came through a recommendation from manager-supreme Robert Stigwood.
In August of 1970 the band performed their first live gig at a small venue in Plymuth. They were not yet known as a unit but rather as three individuals who previously played in other bands. But only six days later, their second gig proved to be a whole other experience. On August 29, they took the stage in front of 600,000 people at the Isle of Wight Festival between sets by Ten Years After and The Doors. After an energetic concert that included a 34 minutes rendition of their take on Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, they never looked back. Lake said of the event: “It was the biggest show any of us had ever done. The next day, we were world-famous.”
ELP’s first album was released three months after that performance, and for most of the band’s fans it is not usually considered their top achievement. That rank is reserved to Brain Salad Surgery, Tarkus or Pictures at an Exhibition. However I have a soft spot for it, maybe because it is such an amazing debut by three excellent musicians who never played together before and still manage to sound cohesive while playing complex music. The album did well after the band got its exposure at the Isle of Wight festival and reached the top 4 on the UK album chart and the top 20 on the Billboard LP chart.
I always liked the lyrical side of ELP, even though with all the bombastic music they made it became difficult to find these moments. That side of their music usually came from Greg Lake’s contributions. Lake already demonstrated his skill for melody in King Crimson’s debut, writing the melody lines for Epitaph and In The Court Of The Crimson King, plus the riff for 21st Century Schizoid Man. Some of ELP’s most enduring moments are the songs Lake wrote including Lucky Man, Sage, From the Beginning and Still…. You Turn Me On. Take A Pebble is a great showcase of Lake’s songwriting, singing and guitar playing. In a November 1970 article in Melody Maker he said this about the song: “I wrote this after Christmas with Keith when there were just the two of us and Carl hadn’t joined us. It started out as a folk guitar thing, then Keith added piano and I used a bass. The solos weren’t there to start with but Keith wrote a solo and I decided to put in a guitar solo as well. It was a solo I had written about five years ago and never had a chance to use before.” Lake used to play a Gibson Jumbo guitar in the early days, then adding Martin guitars to his arsenal. His acoustic guitar work and sound always provided a great segue from Emerson’s Hammond, church organ or Moog solos into a calm, serene place.
Many keyboard players have contributed great compositions, arrangements and solos to the canon of progressive rock over the years, but no one symbolized the virtuosic side of that genre as Keith Emerson did. A trailblazer in the use of synthesizers in rock music and a one-man lab for Robert Moog, he experimented with those machines when they still had a physical element to them and had to be patched with cords and tinkered with while performing live on stage.
I decided not to pick one of his synth solos (Lucky Man would have been an obvious choice from the debut album), instead a song that features him on piano. Emerson is famous for his abilities on amplified keyboards, but his piano playing is no less interesting and virtuosic. His recordings with the Nice and on Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s early recordings featured him often with a trio playing acoustic instruments, proving that progressive rock is not about guitar and keyboard gizmos, but about the musicianship. The unique sound at the opening of the song is created by plucking the piano strings with a guitar pick.
Chris Welch of Melody Maker visited ELP in in the studio in 1970 during rehearsals for their debut album. When he asked them to play something, Greg responded: “Well, there’s not a lot to choose from”. In Welch’s words: “They played a beautiful number called Pebbles which sounded like a rock-MJQ (Modern Jazz Quartet), with Carl on the brushes, Keith on piano and Greg singing in a rich, warm style”. Comparing that number to the Modern Jazz Quartet is actually not a bad comparison. Before the knives, stage gymnastics and revolving pianos ensued, here is Take a Pebble from ELP’s first record, released in 1970.
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Just take a pebble and cast it to the sea,
Then watch the ripples that unfold into me
My face spills so gently into your eyes
Disturbing the waters of our lives
Shreds of our memories are lying on your grass
Wounded words of laughter are graveyards of the past
Photographs are grey and torn, scattered in your fields
Letters of your memories are not real
Wear sadness on your shoulders like a worn-out overcoat
In pockets creased and tattered hang the rags of your hopes
The daybreak is your midnight, the colours have all died
Disturbing the waters of our lives,
Of our lives, of our lives, lives, lives, lives
Of our lives