I’ve been having a hard time expressing my disappointment with Emerson Lake and Palmer’s 1971 prog-rock-opera Tarkus. Because, honestly, what did I expect? I’ve never been a fan of the band, never listened to them voluntarily (with the exception of “Lucky Man” and maybe “Karn Evil 9,” but then again those are played on FM radio every five minutes so I guess they don’t count). I’ve just always heard that they were the pinnacle of 70’s rock excess – musical virtuosos who performed an adaptation of “Pictures At An Exhibition”, released triple-live albums, and appeared on TV with a real tiger onstage because one of their songs had the word “tiger” in the title. Their goofy bombast is so notorious that it is impossible to watch ANY punk rock documentary nowadays without seeing a clip of Keith Emerson noodlin’ on his keyboard – to show what punk was “up against.”
So, naturally, I have a tendency to poke fun at them from time to time. Because it’s easy.
Of course, blogfriend Adam Spektor – a longtime ELP fan – was having none of this. So he challenged me to put my money where my mouth is and actually sit through a full-length ELP record, which I had never done. Tarkus was the album he chose, and even now I haven’t the slightest clue as to why. Did he think I would be “charmed” by the twenty minute opening title track about an armadillo with tank treads? Or did he just think it would be funny? (I’m guessing the latter.)
My first, honest reaction to the aforementioned title track: anger. Pure, all-encompassing rage. I had no idea what I was listening to! Twenty minutes of directionless, non-rocking, un-catchy prog rock masturbation, featuring Keith Emerson bangin’ on his keyboard a whole goddamn lot. I don’t even – I’m not even sure if he’s enjoying himself. It’s more like some kid on the playground told him he “couldn’t play piano good”, and this is his way of saying “nuh-uh!” “Tarkus” is filled with so many long and winding passages of Emerson playing his keyboard really really fast and in such crazy complicated time signatures that it entirely loses focus. Often it is hard to tell where one part begins and another ends, because Keith just keeps on playing. It is a song you can get lost in, and I don’t mean that in the good way. I mean that in the literal sense. It is the musical equivalent of those woods in The Blair Witch Project, only without the luxury of dying at the end. (Weak burn, but you get the idea.)
Now, I will be fair. That was my first listen. I’ve heard “Tarkus” a few more times since then, and I will admit it becomes easier to wade through once you’ve gotten used to it. The obvious highlight of whole ordeal would be Greg Lake’s parts, mostly because they sound like actual honest-to-goodness songs. With, you know, melodies and structure and all that. And, I will admit, Greg Lake’s songs can be pretty cool, especially “Tarkus”-parts “Stones Of Years” and “Mass.” They are goofy and embarrassing lyrically, yes, but they have a lot more personality than Emerson’s endless, boring solos. I don’t think I’ll ever like “Tarkus,” but I can at least bear it now.
Oh, and like I said, it’s apparently about an armadillo with tank treads. The one on the cover. I don’t know anything about that and I don’t care.
Tarkus‘s second side is markedly better than the first, and it’s not hard to see why – it’s six separate songs, each one a collaborative group effort. That is, not primarily written by Keith “I Can Just Noodle On My Hammond Organ Really Fast For Ten Minutes And Slap A Cool Song Title On It!” Emerson. And they aren’t even all stereotypical prog! Side opener “Jeremy Bender” is a silly piano goodtime song that stands in stark contrast to the overly serious “epic” that preceded it, and “Are You Ready Eddy” is an intentionally jokey 50’s rock spit-take. And the songs that are stereotypical prog rock aren’t bad! “Bitches Crystal” is essentially a more likable take on the musical themes “Tarkus” wore thin; the organ heavy dirge “The Only Way” is oddly appealing, despite its ridiculous welcome-to-1971 lyrics (“Can you believe / God makes you breathe? / Why did He lose / Six million Jews??”); “Infinite Space” is an appealing instrumental, and “A Time And A Place” features a dramatic and engrossing Greg Lake vocal. So I mean – these guys clearly could have made the first half of this record a lot better than it is. But Emerson just had to have his way, I guess.
Listen. Don’t get the impression that I have a bias against 20-minute songs and that is why I am getting all upset about this. Not true! I mean, I don’t love them, but it really depends on the band. Look at Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here or Animals for example – both contain multiple songs reaching past the ten-minute mark, and in Animals‘ case they even cover the same “War Is Bad” themes as Tarkus. The difference is, of course, that Pink Floyd understood how to gradually build mood, atmosphere, and dramatic tension – not to mention they were much better songwriters than anybody in ELP. Say what you will about the Floyd, but man, they knew what they were doing in their prime. I don’t think you can truly appreciate a band like Pink Floyd until you’ve given Tarkus a listen.
So here is my final word on Tarkus – not as awful as I thought it was, but not an album I will ever find myself listening to again. And like I said, it’s hard to say I was actually disappointed with this result, but honestly? I was hoping for a surprise. After all these years making fun of ELP without actually listening to them, I was hoping that all my preconceptions of the band would be entirely falsified and that I would be – beyond all logic – blown away. I did not expect this album to be, well, exactly what I expected it to be. If that makes any sense.
What I will say is this – nobody outside of the year 1971 could record an album like Tarkus. Absolutely nobody.
…except maybe the Mars Volta.
P.S.: If the previous review was a lil’ too long for you, a more succinct overview of my feelings toward this record can be found here.
P.P.S.: Did you hear? Alex Chilton died. Man, that’s fucking horrible. A retrospective post will come soon, I am sure.