Keith Emerson leaves a legacy of music behind with his passing, but not all fans will remember that he and ELP band mates Greg Lake and Carl Palmer were also pioneers of high res audio and surround sound. The band issued a version of “Pictures at an Exhibition” in (pre-digital) Dolby Pro Logic Surround in the late 1990s, and in 2000, released “Brain Salad Surgery” in the failed, but eventually-to-return high-resolution DVD-A format. In tribute to this rock legend, we re-post his track-by-track commentary on that prog rock classic.
When Emerson, Lake & Palmer released their fifth album, Brain Salad Surgery, on November 19, 1973, the band’s extravagantly audacious blend of outer-limits progressive rock, fantastical re-imaginings of classics and lush, pastoral pop balladry reached both a creative and commercial peak. ELP’s previous efforts reached sizable but somewhat disparate audiences – art rockers flocked to Tarkus and Trilogy while curious classical adventure seekers embraced Pictures At An Exhibition – but with Brain Salad Surgery, the trio put the mainstream directly in their crosshairs without sacrificing their prodigious instrumental chops.
“We were still ascending when we made Brain Salad Surgery,” Keith Emerson says. “We were enjoying a sensational amount of success, and I suppose we felt as if we could do anything – and we certainly tried. Musically, lyrically and visually, we really went for it.”
The album would be the inaugural release by the band’s newly formed Manticore label and would differ from the extensively overdubbed Trilogy in that the group plotted out the music as a largely live creation. At the start of 1973, Emerson, Greg Lake and Carl Palmer purchased an abandoned cinema in Fulham, London, and converted it into a rehearsal and production facility, using an upstairs foyer to assemble and run through new compositions.
“That was the general idea, to play the album live,” Emerson recalls. “I pretty much had the whole concept in mind. We had taken a bit of a break to be with our families, so that gave me a fair enough time to put down enough hand-written ideas for the Karn Evil 9. I then approached Greg and Carl with a sheaf of manuscript papers, and we set about rehearsing, going over the material and being sort of repetitive about it.”
Once the epic Karn Evil 9 was worked out – the 30-minute sci-fi tale of man vs machine would spill over from side one and encompass the whole of side two – ELP loosened up with the deliciously lighthearted honky-tonk saloon spoof Benny The Bouncer. “We liked to get the serious stuff out of the way and then do something fun,” Emerson says. “We had done Are You Ready Eddy? and The Sheriff before. It was always a nice little breather to soften the mood, both in the studio and on record.”
To complete the lyrics to both Karn Evil 9 and Benny The Bouncer, Lake recruited his old pal and former King Crimson bandmate Peter Sinfield. “Greg had always been a prolific songwriter and lyricist,” Emerson notes, “but at this particular time he needed the influence of somebody he had confidence in. Pete brought a lot of fantastic ideas and lines to the songs.”
Recording took place between June and September of 1973 at London’s Advision and Olympic Studios, with Lake, as he had done on the group’s previous albums, serving as producer. “It was a pretty straightforward time in the studio,” Emerson says, “even with some of the new pieces of equipment we were using, like the Moog Apollo. Because we were so rehearsed, there wasn’t a lot of mucking about. We didn’t have Pro Tools and all the things that exist now. If a person made a mistake, you didn’t say, ‘Oh, we’ll fix that later.’ We really had to get it right as we played together.”
Originally, the album was to be called Whip Some Skull On Ya – a slang expression for fellatio. The eventual title of Brain Salad Surgery, nicked from a lyric in Dr. John’s hit Right Place, Wrong Time, dismayed artist H.R. Giger, who had been commissioned by Emerson to create the jarring and groundbreaking cover art. When Emerson explained that Brain Salad Surgery carried the same connotation as Whip Some Skull On Ya, Giger was greatly relieved.