Back in the '70s heyday of progressive-rock, everyone heard the joke:
Q: How do you spell pretentious?
Everyone, that is, except Keith Emerson, Greg Lake and Carl Palmer--the E , L and P of the punch line.
When the joke was related to them recently, Emerson, Lake and Palmer reacted first with blank stares, then burst out laughing.
"Very good!" said bassist-singer Lake, 45, sitting in a Hollywood recording studio where the three English musicians were putting the final touches on "Black Moon," their first album in 14 years. "I hadn't heard that before."
"How do you spell pretentious? Is that right?" said drummer Palmer, 42. "That's nice now. I don't mind that. That doesn't offend me at all."
Continued Lake, "I suppose what we do could be interpreted as pretentious. We like to play European-based music, a large part of which is classically orientated. I mean, a lot of it comes from the fact that we're not blues orientated, which tends to have the tag of street credibility. . . . I mean, we're just not like that."
Street credibility is the last thing ELP ever had. The group's agenda was clear from its very first concert at the 1971 Isle of Wight Festival. Keyboardist Emerson (coming from the similarly constructed trio the Nice), Lake (ex-King Crimson) and Palmer (who had worked with the Crazy World of Arthur Brown and Atomic Rooster) debuted with their rock interpretation of Russian impressionist Modest Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition."
For the next few years, ELP was at the forefront of a movement to expand rock's horizons and raise its intellectual quotient. But by the time the punks came along later in the decade, ELP seemed stodgy and irrelevant, the most lumbering of the dinosaurs that Johnny Rotten et al. swore they'd make extinct.
Now, though, ELP is having its own--if not the last--laugh.
"The interesting thing is if you look back to (the early '70s), if you played a record from that time, within the first four bars you'd know it was the Stones or Zeppelin or the Moody Blues or ELP or Yes," said Lake, who will front the band at its shows tonight at the Open Air Theatre in San Diego, Friday at the Universal Amphitheatre and Saturday at UC Irvine's Bren Events Center.
"The character of the music was easily identifiable," he continued. "These days a record starts and you're halfway through it and it could be any one of 20 bands. Progressive-rock was very good because it brought out originality and individuality."
But there was little place for ELP in the world of Sid Vicious, and the trio split in 1978. Emerson concentrated largely on film scoring, Lake made two solo albums and Palmer co-founded Asia, though several times ELP nearly reunited.
Emerson and Lake were joined by another drummer (the conveniently initialed Cozy Powell) for a 1986 ELP album and tour, and then in 1988 Emerson and Lake teamed with American singer-guitarist Robert Berry as Three. Lake even briefly joined Palmer in Asia, to complete the pairing possibilities.
The intervening years have had little effect on the ELP formula. "Black Moon" offers the same mix of Emerson's prodigious, classical-rooted keyboard playing, original compositions and interpretations of classical pieces and Lake's blend of existential philosophy and love ballads found as in the old days. (Highlights are on the new two-CD compilation, "The Atlantic Years.") Emerson even still favors his old favorite Hammond organ and trumpet-like synthesizer sounds.
Ironically, ELP cites the use, or over-use, of the very technology it once championed--Emerson was one of the first rock keyboardists to make full-time use of synthesizers--as the reason they felt the time was right for a comeback.
"People were worried when we came out that synthesizers would eventually take over, and in fact it has actually happened," said the quiet Emerson, 47. "Now there's a reliance on sequencing and everything in music, and sadly there's a loss of real players."