Fifty Year Friday: June 1971
Emerson, Lake and Palmer: Tarkus
After being so successful on taking a chance on King Crimson’s first album, based solely on the album cover, I became more adventurous and shortly after Tarkus was released around June 14, 1971, it showed up at our local K-Mart, the same K-Mart where I had purchased the King Crimson album. And purchasing on primarily album cover cosmetics, I bought my first ELP album, Tarkus, along with Black Sabbath’s Paranoid. My dad had recently purchased a quality pair of headphones, and that evening I pulled up a chair in front of the amplifier and listened to both albums, mesmerized by the distinct sound of each, and pleasantly surprised that the “Lake” in “Emerson, Lake and Palmer” was the Greg Lake from the first King Crimson album.
I vividly recall the opening of the first track, “Eruption” with its dramatic opening crescendo and the unusual meter (3/8+2/8) established by the drums and bass with Emerson’s angular organ line, the short shift in meter (3/4), returning to the original organ line and then another shift (4/4) with the majestic horn-like moog synthesizer fanfare section. At that time I had no idea of the many meter shifts I was hearing (5/8, 3/4, 5/8, 4/4, 5/8, 7/8, 9/16, 2/4, etc.) but underneath those headphones, it was clear I was in the middle the musical equivalent of a volcanic eruption as depicted in the inner sleeve (see modern CD insert below.)
The entire first side absorbed my entire attention. This was music distinctly different from anything and created its own world — as fantastical as any imagined battle between the mythical creatures of the inner surface of the opened album — and then some. I had limited experience with listening to Dave Brubeck, Stan Kenton, Ravel, Debussy and Stravinsky — and none yet with Bartok and Ginastera — but clearly this was at the same level — a modern masterpiece of music.
Side two was more a collection of songs, bookended by two somewhat weaker tracks, with substantial material in the middle. It was side one that kept me coming back to this album, and displaced my prior favorite group, KIng Crimson, with this new band. Of course, I bought the previously ELP album, then all the Nice albums I could find, with Emerson, the keyboard player, now being my favorite living musician.
The album is far from perfect — but that is true with all of ELP’s output; what matters here is that the quality of side one has few rivals in either rock music or progressive rock music. The lyrics are a bit hit and miss and can simply be viewed as falling far short of supporting the music or, if one uses their imaginative skills, leveraging the Tarkus storyline depicted in the inside cover as some allegory for the more common battles of life. Either way, Greg Lake’s contributions here are not primarily the lyrics but his musical contributions including the battlefield melody, similar to Lake’s Epitaph melody for King Crimson. Lake seems to furnish the more traditional elements of rock music and melody to provide a balance and contrast which serves as an appropriate offset for the more aggressive and idiosyncratic instrumental passages. This is the magic of group efforts, whether progressive rock bands, traditional rock bands, jazz ensembles, and so on — one can get a level of diversity rarely provided by a single composer or musician. The lone composer has made many invaluable contributions to music, but our age also includes many stellar collaborative efforts — including side one of Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s Tarkus — a timeless classic of music.
Todd Rundgren: Runt. The Ballad of Todd Rundgren
Released on June 24, 1971, Todd Rundgren’s solo second album is pretty much Todd going it alone, writing all the music, being very attentive to every aspect of the arrangements, and playing all instruments that he could, allowing additional personnel on bass and percussion with himself on everything else. Though no track quite matches “We Got to Get You a Woman” from the prior album, the quality is consistently high, with “A Long Time, a Long Way to Go”, “Boat on the Charles”, “Be Nice to Me” being particularly memorable.
Joni Mitchell: Blue
This album sounds as vital today as fifty years. The music is great, the performance intimate, the sound quality excellent, even by today’s standards and the lyrics are personal, heartfelt, of high merit, and flawlessly fit with the music. This should be in every music lover’s collection.
Blood, Sweat & Tears: Blood, Sweat & Tears 4
It’s quite something that after fifty years, most commercial planes don’t fly any faster, personal car travel across country is pretty much the same, at the same speed with no improvement in dining or scenary, and the sound quality of recorded music is on balance, not significantly better — at least nothing close to the progress made in the first six decades of the twentieth century. By 1971, the sound quality of rock, jazz and classical albums were generally quite good with a diverse use of stereophonic capabilities, judicious layering of multiple tracks and the presentation of a sound stage, whether realistic or not, that was engaging and provided the foundation for meaningful musical entertainment. The sound on the three previous albums and this one may be far from perfect but they deliver a presence that fully engages one with the musical product – and provides a level of presence not much different than modern releases — and sometimes better.
This fourth BS&T album is musically as good as their previous three (an opinion at odds with general consensus, of course), with strong instrumental contributions from regulars Steve Katz, Dick Halligan, Fred Lipsius, Lew Soloff and Chuck Winfield and the addition of trombonist Dave Bargeron who also impressively handles tuba and baritone horn responsibilities. The joy here is in the beauty and magnificence of the brass arrangements and performances and the strong production that effectively brings out the qualities of those arrangements.