When he was 14, and living in Brooklyn, Rob McDonnell nearly missed the ear-punishing spectacle of 1973. He’d seen Led Zep on the Houses of the Holy tour. He’d seen the Who’s Roger Daltry inflict minor larynx trauma with the scream from “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” Seen, obsessed over, etched the names of the bands on his skateboard. Then Emerson Lake & Palmer announced two nights at Madison Square Garden, right before Christmas. They sold out straightaway.
McDonnell grieved, then got lucky. “I worked for a man who had a friend on the inside at MSG,” he explains, keeping some of the mystery almost 40 years later. “He got us tickets for an extra $2per”—a total of $9.50 for a ticket, still a steal. Any right-thinking American teen would pay that for an ELP ticket. (Math lesson that will come in handy throughout: One 1973 dollar is worth around $5 in 2012.)
The band was born to be mammoth. Its origins dated to February 1970, when keyboardist Keith Emerson was treading water in the Nice and guitarist Greg Lake was falling out of King Crimson. Lake called Emerson, around 3 a.m., and said “I want to play with you, man.” Some time later, Lake made a late night call to Atomic Rooster’s drummer Carl Palmer. “He said that if I didn’t join the band,” Palmer remembered, “I’d not only be damaging myself, I’d be damaging him, and he said that was heavy.” The hyperbole got earned. Within two years ELP was one of the planet’s biggest bands, inventing stadium rock on the fly.
With more gigs came more pomp. Ian Dove, one of the New York Times’ rock writers, approached ELP’s December 1973 Garden shows the way a reporter might write about a fully loaded nuclear submarine. The gear—tell us about this gear. ELP had arrived in Manhattan, Dove wrote, with “over 200 separate items of equipment, valued by customs at just over $100,000.”
- “Thirteen keyboard units” for Keith Emerson, including a “brand new prototype Moog synthesizer.”
- A $5,000 Persian rug, “for bass player Greg Lake to stand on while playing.”
- A drum kit as complex as a painting by H.R. Giger—he’d designed the nightmare cover to ELP’s most recent album, Brain Salad Surgery—crafted in stainless steel, topped off by an “old church bell from the Stepney district of London,” surrounded by Chinese gongs. If a stage was equipped right, the kit could rotate 360 degrees while Carl Palmer pounded out the solos in “Tarkus.” Cost: $25,000.
Band members got a little tired of talking about all this. Lake showed up for a Rolling Stone interview in cheap jeans and pronounced touring “incredibly tiring.” The excess was the sacrifice the band made for you, the fan. “It is very hard to get something across to 10,000 people with just a piano, a bass, and a set of drums,” Emerson told the Times. “It works fine in smaller places and the recording studio. I always compose on the piano. But in the large arenas where we have to play, everything gets lost.”
Where we have to play—a magnificent early example of the humblebrag. ELP’s 1973-1974 North American tour was their fifth on the continent, their 13th overall. Their first New York City shows, in 1971, had taken place at Bill Graham’s Fillmore East (capacity 3,600) and Carnegie Hall (capacity 2,800). Later that year, when they’d first played the Garden (capacity 18,200), they’d shared a bill with the J. Geils Band.
But they’d gigged hundreds of times since then. “We’d go anywhere,” remembers manager Stewart Young. “We’d pull up to places in Texas or Louisiana that the band didn’t know existed.” They had sold more than 20 million LPs. Among them were Trilogy, with its cover painting of the three artists gazing shirtlessly into the horizon and its cover of Aaron Copland’s “Hoedown,” and Pictures at an Exhibition, a long and experimental cover of the Modest Mussorgsky suite in 10 movements. Both had cracked the Billboard Top 10, back when bands actually had to shift hundreds of thousands of units for the privilege. The December 1973 shows at the Garden would open with Stray Dog, a band from their own vanity record label, Manticore, which had been named after the heroic creature that defeats the Tarkus. (For future reference, this is the basic plot of “Tarkus”: A half-machine, half-armadillo creature terrorizes civilization, swats aside some other cybernetic threats, and is defeated by an all-organic mythological creature.)
Rob McDonnell’s rock mags had warned him about the all-encompassing quad sound. An ordinary mega-band on an ordinary mega-tour—let’s go with the Jackson Five—would bring its own speaker stacks and place them in the front and back of stadiums. In the good seats, you were closest to the music. Sit in the nosebleeds and you heard a crummier show.
Not hardly good enough for super-mega-band ELP. Their sound designer, Bill Hough, assembled a 28,000-watt surround sound system, controlled by a three-tiered mixing desk. (The three mixing boards, by themselves, weighed 285 pounds.) If you could put up with a little echo, a little delay, you were getting the same concussive sound waves in any part of the venue. You just had to live near a stadium that could handle it. “In a lot of venues we played it was kind of impractical,” Emerson remembers, “because we were blocking fire exits.”
When McDonnell walked into Madison Square Garden with his friends, the first thing he saw on the arena floor was the enormous circular projection screen, 156 feet in diameter. During the show it would display disturbing skull/erotica imagery from Giger. The friends boggled at the two 60-foot proscenium arches framing the stage, holding 100 spotlights, assembled before the show by ELP’s crew as part of a load-in that took five hours. (Load-out took just as long.) On the stage, from McDonnell’s vantage point: A carousel of keyboards, a towering Moog, Palmer’s drum set, and that spotlighted carpet for Greg Lake.
Very few acts had ever held concerts at this scale. From February 1973 to August 1974, ELP played 145 of them. Three of these concerts were recorded for live albums; two later appeared on band-approved bootlegs. This was music for the masses, not for a niche. The tours, most of them to support of ELP’s album Brain Salad Surgery, were tell-your-grandkids kind of spectacle, witnessed by at least 2 million people.
The spectacle of the pop concert, the evolution that has given us Radiohead’s wall of shimmering lights and Kanye West’s spaceship and Lady Gaga’s human-sized eggs—we’ve got prog to thank (or to blame) for that. They snatched the baton from psychedelic musicians and space rockers. The jazz-fusion-prog of the Mahavishnu Orchestra was enhanced by the real live London Symphony Orchestra. Pink Floyd brought laser shows, then multistacking video screens, into their performances. Peter Gabriel’s Genesis would play as he acted out the entire story of Rael, the fever-dreaming Puerto Rican protagonist of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway.
Excess onstage was necessary; otherwise, you’d be leaving out something that appeared on the record. “There was so much money flowing into the industry it couldn’t be spent fast enough,” wrote Yes and King Crimson drummer Bill Bruford in his memoirs. “If the Beatles had been to India and used a sitar, you could too. They write their own songs? Cool! You can too, and drive a ton more money your way. In the ‘70s, all manner of stray musicians were turning up in studios. Now we can produce ourselves, let’s get an orchestra!”
Some of the best stagecraft was completely earnest. The more virtuosic bands, like King Crimson, temporarily designated their venues as cathedrals. “The audience do not laugh,” wrote an NME reporter at a 1973 Crims show. “On the contrary, they watch and listen with evident concentration—albeit applauding upon the conclusion of the performance with equally evident feeling.” In September 1972, when Genesis was touring the Foxtrot album, singer Peter Gabriel took a powder during the second (of two) solos in “The Musical Box.” He returned wearing a red dress and fox head, approximating the anthropomorphic beast on the band’s album cover, singing out the mantra that ends the song: “Why don't you touch me, touch me, now, now, now, now!” From then, until Gabriel left the band, it wasn’t a Genesis show unless the singer put on a mask.
Rob McDonnell was born for this stuff. “I was the youngest of seven children living in an oppressive matriarchy,” he says. “I had a strict Catholic upbringing and attended a parochial grammar school. I had begun sampling mind-altering substances. I was being exposed to all kinds of new music.” ELP “provided the anthems” for his escape.
Prog’s American audience was built on three pillars: FM radio, cheap music, and accessible drugs. Someone like Rob McDonnell could tune into New York’s WNEW-FM and hear long stretches of futurist music, barely interrupted, no concessions made to the market. The DJs would point him to the records and concerts, which he could buy for nearly nothing, pocket money from his odd jobs.
Oh, and the drugs. The music was made for them, for blissing out while wearing headphones or getting your mind blown in a stadium. The medication-enhanced prog stage show was pioneered by a band called Hawkwind, who never broke as big as ELP or Yes or Pink Floyd. Epilepsy-calibrated lights pulsated and swirled in time with the music. A 6-foot tall woman, stage name “Miss Stacia,” got nude and physically interpreted the music. When Hawkwind became too popular to get away with that, Miss Stacia slipped into costumes. This was music by and for people who appreciated pharmaceuticals.
“Friends used to hold me down and stick drugs in my mouth,” remembers Hawkwind saxophonist Nik Turner, and he was not traumatized:
I was actually subjected to loads of drugs and had a very enjoyable time on them. I did a gig where the audience all turned into skeletons. You just think, My God, I’ll look the other way. And it goes away, and all the wires turn into snakes. And you just know that it’s a hallucination. So it’s not something you take seriously. You just carry on playing. And it all sort of works out in the end. You see people with vampire teeth and blood dripping down their face, turning green. But you know they are hallucinations, and you just ignore them, really.
(Not every band was under the influence, of course. Yes, whose classic line-up included four vegetarians, just said no. Roger Dean, the artist who painted their album covers and eventually designed their sets, swore off drugs and cleared his mind with kendo.)
Why was it that Rob McDonnell could afford to attend these shows? The concerts were generally pretty cheap. The vinyl side of the business was absurdly profitable; music was, after all, hard to steal. The progressives, along with the Stones and the Jacksons and more outwardly pop acts, were inventing the idea of the arena show from scratch, and no one yet had any idea how much money there was to be made off these spectacles.
When ELP hired Stewart Young to manage them, he was 25, with no idea how the business worked. “I sat down Ahmet Ertegun when I got to New York,” he says. (Ertegun’s Atlantic Records distributed a lot of popular prog.) “I remember telling him, I didn’t know anything about the business, but I was ELP’s new manager.”
“Are you sure you’re English?” Ertegun asked. “We have a lot of English managers here who think they know everything about the business and they know nothing, and now you’re coming and telling me you know nothing.” After that, Young recalls, Ertegun added: “The truth is that I don’t know much either.”
How did prog end up on the FM dial? “In the late 1960s,” says Donna Halper, a former Boston DJ who eventually popularized the band Rush, many Top 40 AM stations, despite attempts at broadened playlists, had problems with “the ‘psychedelic’ sound, and allusions to drugs in the lyrics.” FM, on the other hand, played those songs. After all, as Jack Diamond of WURN put it in a 1971 Boston Globe story about new decency regulations, rock songs glorifying drugs were no different than “country music glorifying alcohol.”
And the playlists were diverse. The most famous proof came with a quasi-prog song, “Stairway to Heaven,” eight minutes and three seconds long with drums that don’t come in until 4:17. There was no radio or TV promotion other than occasional spots on Don Kirscher’s Rock Concert and the King Biscuit Flower Hour. In Britain and in the States, a strange, experimental band could get on equal promotional footing with an actual pop act. “It wasn’t like you see it now,” says Derek Sutton, formerly the road manager for Procol Harum and Jethro Tull, “where a few conglomerates corner the market and the programming is decided up top.”
Thus: The mega-stardom of ELP. They were not merely one of the world’s most successful bands. The scope of their shows, and the scale of their songs, gave them a sort of Olympian pretention. The band often encouraged this view, or at least did little to disavow it. In 1973, Greg Lake gave NME a long interview in his mansion in southeast England. “One is struck by the sombre mood of the place set off by dark leather, antiques, and thick carpeting,” reported James Johnson. “The circular bath large enough for about four people unaccountably contains a starfish and two lobsters.” Take in the drama, appreciate the art.
“I know people think we’re pretentious, but it’s really a product of sophistication,” explained Lake. “To judge pretentiousness, I think you must look at the people behind it and their motives. As a band we’re into trying to advance our instruments—sometimes to a bizarre degree—which obviously puts some people off.”
People close to the band were highly entertained by this. Peter Sinfield, who was hired to write lyrics for ELP from 1973 to 1978, learned to endure a creative process that methodically crushed his ego. Lake would rate his lyrics on a 1-10 scale, deciding with apparent randomness whether a line was senseless or brilliant. “Small people with big ideas,” shrugs Sinfield. He starts to tell me about the time Lake threw a Rolex in a fit of anger, but he cuts himself off. Derek Sutton, former road manager for Jethro Tull in the States, puts it cleaner. “If you watch This Is Spinal Tap,” he says, “you understand what progressive rock was like.” We can trust him. Sutton consulted on This Is Spinal Tap.
But that was a mockumentary about an overreaching and overcoiffed band that was staging disastrous shows. ELP’s concerts actually came off. On the night of December 14, Rob McDonnell found Section 107, Row C, Seat 11, sat down, and immediately started tripping. Keith Emerson’s Moog was the first sound of the set, playing deafening notes, pitches that rose fast and fell faster. This, knew McDonnell and everybody else, was the opening of the Aaron Copland cover “Hoedown.” It was ELP’s first song for practical reasons. “When you turned on the Moog, it wasn’t calibrated, and you had to tweak it to get the right sounds,” says Emerson. “So that became part of the song.”
After America and its heartland had been fully, faithfully honored, ELP launched into its unironic tribute to Britain—a cover of sorts of the William Blake poem-cum-hymn “Jerusalem.” Brain Salad Surgery opened with that song, which couldn’t have had less to do with Greg Lake’s own religious beliefs, which previous songs like “Hymn” had revealed to be determinedly anti-Judeo-Christian. So why “Jerusalem”? “It’s just a fantastic lyric,” says Lake. “Bring me my bow of burning gold/Bring me my arrows of desire. It’s worth playing the whole song to get that lyric.”
ELP followed that with “Toccata” (based on Alberto Ginaestera’s Piano Concerto No. 1); the band was three songs in before playing an original composition. And that was “Tarkus,” the aforementioned side-long epic suite about a battle against a half-armadillo, half-tank monstrosity. (The album art includes a painting of the battle. No lyrics. Figure the scenes out for yourself.)
“That was when you could really hear the quad sound,” says McDonnell. Emerson played the song’s four-note theme, blaring out of the left speakers; he played it again, and it screamed out of the right-hand speakers. “Nowaways you go to a theater for a movie, and you’ve got good surround sound, but this was new. It’s too bad. Nobody’s got a bootleg or anything that captures the sound.” Plus, McDonnell and friends had taken some THC in pill form, and snuck wine into the arena inside leather-lined pouches. That helped.
McDonnell and a few thousand other people, nicely toasted, listened for how ELP would diverge from the vinyl. Emerson sat for a series of piano improvisations—extraordinarily busy, none lasting more than 50 seconds. “Emerson was doing his solo and the piano rose off the stage and started spinning around,” remembers McDonnell. ELP closed their set with the entire “Karn Evil 9” suite, a series of apocalyptic melodies about—well, about a lot of things, but eventually about a killer computer that’s defeated and becomes existential. The famous, hookiest part of the song was not really about that.
Soon, the Gypsy Queen, in a glaze of Vaseline
Will perform on guillotine, what a scene, what a scene
Next upon the stand will you please extend a hand
To Alexander's Ragtime Band, Dixieland, Dixieland
Performing on a stool we've a sight to make you drool
Seven virgins and a mule, keep it cool, keep it cool
We would like it to be known the exhibits that were shown
Were exclusively our own, all our own, all our own
The music dropped to showcase Carl Palmer’s drum solo. He attacked the kit for almost two minutes and the $25,000 kit rotated 360 degrees. L.A. metal bands would rip that off, yeah, but not for a decade. And their songs did not end with the sounds of the Karn Evil computer in defeat, death-rattling. “It was supposed to sound like a computer exploding,” says McDonnell. “That sound was circling around the stage. Between that, the weed in the air, and all the drugs we were consuming, it was pretty incredible.”
That was the set. ELP waited a few minutes offstage, then returned for the encore to play the Mussorgsky piece that they’d debuted at their first shows— “Pictures at an Exhibition.” Obscure classical music that rock fans had heard endlessly on FM. The fourth multipart musical suite of the night. As it ended, as the Moog ripped a classical melody into a series of short, rising glissandos, the choir from New York’s High School of Music and Art slipped into the dark corners of the stage. The lights came up. The choir and Lake started to sing.
Silent night, holy night
All is well, all is bright
As the more sentimental members of the audience chimed in, artificial snow fell from the ceiling and onto the main section of the stadium. And the concert was over, almost exactly two hours after its start. “It was a glorious liberation from my childhood,” McDonnell says now. “I think the combination of the music, the spectacle, the drugs and the hopeful frame of mind I was in just made it an extraordinary night for me.” He would never become a professional musician, or composer, or anything like that. He was just a fan.
Bob McDonnell shook off the sodium polyacralate, took the A train to Grant Avenue, and walked to his parents’ house in Cypress Hills. The next morning, mostly sobered, he starting writing the letters E, L, and P on everything he owned.
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